By Khaled Ahmed
Dec 26 2013
Military voices now challenge the established narrative of the Bangladesh war.
Every year, December 16 is observed in Pakistan as a moment of morose stocktaking, in which India is held responsible for the break-up of Pakistan in 1971. However, over the years, the Pakistani media has taken to mixing the message. It now balances the short-term culpability of India with the long-term culpability of Pakistan.
This year, the familiar pattern was disturbed by the hanging of a Jamaat-e-Islami (Bangladesh) leader, Abdul Quader Mollah, for “war crimes” including the rape and slaughter of women, while he opposed the “war of liberation” for the new state of Bangladesh.
As the NGOs protest at the way Mollah was punished, the world has accepted the hanging. The Islamabad foreign office pointed to the violation of human rights in the “war crimes” tribunal, but called it an internal matter for Bangladesh. The Pakistani parliament, though, decided to condemn the hanging through a non-unanimous but bitterly-worded resolution that has not been taken kindly by Dhaka.
The Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan — having recently won back Taliban and al-Qaeda protection — flexed its street muscle by protesting against the hanging of a man it feels affiliated to. It rightly expected the parliament to bend in deference to this new “empowerment”. But the media in Pakistan has mixed the message more than usual this time. The “secret” Hamoodur Rehman Commission report on the atrocities committed by the Pakistan army in East Pakistan in 1971 has been taken out of the state’s closet of collective conscience and quoted to great effect.
Unread books by honest military officers are now being quoted to the embarrassment of the Jamaat, which had thought the battle for its new leg-up had been won after the Mollah hanging. What Pakistan is still forgetting is the fundamental critique of its conduct towards East Pakistan contained in a book by senior bureaucrat, Hasan Zaheer — The Separation of East Pakistan (1994). In this, linguistic nationalism was more properly understood as the element which alienated the Bengali Muslim from the West Pakistani Muslim.
The idea of imposing Urdu on East Pakistan was born in the mind of a non-Bengali education secretary of East Pakistan, F.A. Karim, who was able to convince a dimwit Bengali central education minister in Karachi, Fazl ur Rehman, to adopt it. It also caught the imagination of the governor of East Pakistan, Malik Feroz Khan Noon, not the brightest son of Punjab. He started the scheme of writing Bengali in the Arabic script. By 1952, there were 21 centres doing this in East Pakistan, funded by the central education ministry. The East Pakistan chief minister didn’t even know that this was happening outside the primary school stream.
Zaheer writes: “Such was the insensitivity of the ruling party to popular issues that the East Pakistan Muslim League Council also recommended Arabic as the state language. This was not acceptable even to the West Pakistan intelligentsia.” What happened to the Muslim League in East Pakistan in the years that followed is history.
Major General Hakeem Arshad Qureshi, who wrote The 1971 Indo-Pak War: A Soldier’s Narrative (2002), was commander of the SSG Commandos and an infantry battalion in East Pakistan in 1970-71. He was a PoW in India after the war and went on to command the Pakistan Rangers as director-general, before retiring in 1990. His thesis was: “Despite the deliberate strategic conclusion that the defence of East Pakistan lay in West Pakistan, no effort was made to augment the defence of East Pakistan to gain time before the counter-offensive against the enemy could begin from West Pakistan. It was not taken into account that the Bengali component of the army in East Pakistan was not loyal, given long years of dissent in the Eastern Wing and protest against inequality of treatment.”
Qureshi held that although Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was not to be trusted, his demand that he be allowed to rule Pakistan was negotiable. His six-point programme was actually the “last possible solution to preserve the unity of Pakistan”, as a Dhaka newspaper put it.
More significantly, the book called into question the “victories” against India in 1948 and 1965. The first war failed to achieve its objective because “we caved in without consolidating initial success”. The second war was first opposed by General Musa and General Ayub, but after they agreed to it, no authentic information was obtained about the “sympathetic” Kashmiri insurgency, and wrong assumptions were made about India’s capabilities of launching a major offensive across the international border.
The author points to the “manufacturing defect” of the Pakistani state: “We enter a contest mostly on the rebound, with overly ambitious aims and without due thought and preparation and have usually given up the effort at the half-way mark for want of resources. We have also failed to understand the international interests and reactions in the event of an armed conflict on the subcontinent or to appreciate correctly the enemy’s reaction to a major ingress. The blunder of 1965 was repeated in 1971.”
The late Major General Khadim Hussain Raja’s book, A Stranger in My Own Country: East Pakistan, 1969-1971 (2012), exposes the less dignified side of the military leadership in East Pakistan, under a heavy-drinking, constantly priapic head of the state, General Yahya Khan.
Here is the climax of the book: “[Enter] Commander, East Pakistan, General Niazi, wearing a pistol holster on his web belt. Niazi became abusive and started raving. Breaking into Urdu, he said: ‘Main Iss Haramzadi Qaum Ki Nasal Badal Doon Ga (I will change the race of this bastard nation).’”
Raja adds: “He threatened that he would let his soldiers loose on their womenfolk. There was pin-drop silence at these remarks. The next morning, we were given the sad news. A Bengali officer, Major Mushtaq, went into a bathroom at the command headquarters and shot himself in the head.”
Interested in “genetic engineering”, Niazi also asked Raja for the phone numbers of his Bengali girlfriends: “Abhi Tau Mujhey Bengali Girl Friends Kay Phone Number Day Do.”
Irony of ironies, Niazi surrendered to a Jewish-born Indian general, J.F.R. Jacob, in 1971. “Tiger” Niazi handed over his personal pistol at the famous Race Course ceremony. Jacob examined the weapon: the lanyard was greasy and frayed, and the pistol was full of muck as if it hadn’t been cleaned in a long while. (From Surrender at Dacca: Birth of a Nation, by Lt General J.F.R. Jacob, 1997)
This year, there was another reference to the maltreatment of Biharis in Bangladesh as a palliative to the indictment of the Pakistani state, as if it were a sincere champion of this most tragic stateless people.
The ex-foreign minister of Bangladesh, Kamal Hossain, in Bangladesh: Quest for freedom and Justice (2013), reports a conversation with Pakistan’s former foreign minister, Aziz Ahmed: “When pressed to suggest what should be done to those (Biharis) who were clearly eligible and entitled to go to Pakistan, but whom Pakistan was not willing to accept, Aziz Ahmed turned round and said, ‘Why don’t you push them into India?’ When told that this was hardly feasible, he retorted, ‘Then push them into the Bay of Bengal’.”
Khaled Ahmed is a consulting editor with ‘Newsweek Pakistan’