1971: the forgotten silence

Published in The NEWS

This week marks the 37th anniversary of the tragic events of 1971 that led to the dismemberment of Pakistan and creation of Bangladesh. This time the sixteenth day of that deadly December invited little attention in the mainstream media as the new Pakistan struggles to manage the multiple crises of statehood, governance and cohesion.

Whether we like it or not, history and its bitter truths have to be confronted. When the united Punjab was being ruled by the Unionists and the Congress and the NWFP had a chief minister from the congress-Khudai Khidmatgar alliance, and almost all the custodians of South Asian puritanical Islam were opposed to Pakistan, the peasantry and the intelligentsia of East Bengal were spearheading a movement for Pakistan. There were indeed economic reasons, but there was an unchallengeable mass support for and belief in Pakistan. What happened after 1947 is well known; and within two decades or so, those who wanted Pakistan in the first place were subjected to state excesses and brutal treatment by the groups and elites that had actually little commitment to Pakistan or its idea. Nothing could be more ironical.

It is of little significance to remember the exact chronology of events or to indulge in a blame-game. The truth is that we as a state and society lost our majority province after pushing its people into a situation where independence through a War of Liberation was the only choice. India, of course, played a huge role in transacting this deal, but the West Pakistani elites had prepared the ground, sown the seeds of mistrust to a great degree. Thus the Pakistan created by its founding members was no more in 1971, further subdividing the Muslims of the subcontinent. A bitter lesson of history was in the making. If only, we were capable of paying heed to it.

What followed after 1971 was even stranger. After the ritualistic mourning and let’s say a dozen memoirs of former soldiers and bureaucrats, a meaningful silence echoed in the remainder of Pakistan, save a few, sporadic voices from the beleaguered intelligentsia. It was not until three decades later, and that too under a military dictator, that Pakistan made a feeble effort towards an apology of sorts. The same military ruler, Gen Musharraf, was bold enough to publish sections of the Hamoodur Rahman Commission report. Perhaps, it was too late. Many a younger generation had no clue, given that the Pakistani textbooks had little to say; and whatever was recorded was purely from a narrow, jingoist Indo-Pak rivalry perspective where all evil was to be located in the misdoings of the Hindu teachers in East Pakistan. A footnote, at best.

This is why we have hobbled from one crisis to another. We, simply, are reluctant to learn from the fiasco of 1971. That the principles of federalism are important for diverse societies to flourish, and that civil-military imbalances cannot result in healthy states are lessons ignored, at best sidelined in the unimplemented clauses of the Constitution or red-taped files of national commissions and committees. Above all, admitting that we had wronged our citizens by invading them, howsoever misled they may have been. Or, political questions cannot be resolved without political processes and consultative systems of governance. Alienation of the citizen from the state therefore reigns supreme, especially in the neglected parts of Punjab and in various corners of the smaller provinces.

This distance from the state among the ruled is now coming to haunt us. So we have a young man from a small hamlet in Punjab who has neither education nor economic opportunity, except being recruited by questionable organisations, and who ends up in Mumbai and puts us all to shame. In southern Punjab, Balochistan and parts of the tribal belt, the examples are countless where citizenship is a non-existent concept. There is simply a void of services, of obligations outlined in the principles of policy of the Constitution and rights trumpeted as “fundamental.” The issues of import are as to which of the chief justices was right in favouring his progeny or if the appointments made by an acting governor are kosher or not. No introspection, no looking back or searching within the troubled folds of the body-politic?

The greatest legacy of 1971 and our collective, shameless silence is this utter lack of soul searching. The unprecedented existentialist crises of Pakistan are yet again being reduced to “foreign intervention.” If it is not the US, it is India and/or Israel. A country of 170 million cannot be hostage to an array of foreign intelligence agencies only. The rot in the state of Denmark needs to be looked at and accepted before correction. I am not arguing that foreign hands are not there or the geo-strategic imperatives of global and regional power-players are altogether absent. It is only when the fissures and cracks within a society move beyond the normal limits that foreign hands find it easy to exploit them for their self-interest. Nothing proves it better than the tragedy of 1971 – it was a collective, shared tragedy that has been underreported and under-played by the forces that perpetrated it in the first place.

The basic unresolved question of 1971–i.e., fair sharing of power between various centres of political influence–is alive in Jinnah’s Pakistan of 2008. True, that we have started the process of reclaiming civilian control of institutions but the process is fractured and fraught with the endless possibilities of reversal. Impatience with democracy and civilian institutions, now fuelled by an unregulated electronic media and the rendition of the entire country into a proxy war-zone, has put us back into the uncertain times.

Amazing, that despite the lapse of so many decades the rightwing is churning out the same diagnoses and solutions. The groups that were hankering for Bengali blood and crush-Hindu recipes are uttering similar diatribes. The information industry that was silent under censorship is reproducing the familiar tunes of jihad even when ostensibly free. Refusal to learn from history is surely our peculiar forte.

December, above all, reminds us that socio-political injustice cannot continue in perpetuity–it leads to grave consequences. It also faces us to restate that military might cannot be the only guarantor of our sovereignty and definition of nationhood. And, without a functional federal system, we cannot create a sense of belonging and move above ethnicity, tribe, sect, caste and biradari. Redistribution of power and fulfilling the mandates of a responsible state cannot be overlooked, nuclear prowess notwithstanding.

All is not lost. We have, at the end of the year 2008, a growing middle class, urbanised pockets of civic action, and fortunately a democracy of sorts. No foreign power has prevented us from reopening the issue of land reform, taxing the super-rich, investing in education and healing the festering wounds of Balochistan?

We ought to apologise to our Bangladeshi friends, and begin a new era of honesty. After all these years, what stops us from making Pakistan and Bangladesh visa-free countries for students and visitors and trade partners? Let us begin to tackle history, for a change.

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