LAST week’s first-ever visit to Pakistan by a delegation of former Bangladesh ambassadors and the opportunity it provided to renew contacts with erstwhile colleagues was a moment to savour.
While catching up on news about family and friends, it was inevitable that interaction with Bengali colleagues should also become an occasion for introspection and reflection over the event that has seared the souls of people in both countries — the break-up of Pakistan and the birth of Bangladesh.
Trained over a life time to be cautious, both sides avoided comments that could hurt the feelings of their interlocutors. Nevertheless, the discussions inevitably led us all on a journey down memory lane, with many of us recalling that the creation of Pakistan had been viewed by its adherents as a miracle, reflective of divine intervention, even if its critics claimed that it was the result of a conspiracy of the imperial powers.
Though conflicting interpretations resulted in considerable confusion as to the purpose and objective of the newly created state, there was no denying the pivotal role that the Bengali Muslims had played in nurturing and sustaining the dream of a homeland for the Muslims of the subcontinent.
How tragic then that the Bengalis, who constituted a majority in the newly established state should have been short-changed, both in terms of their political rights and economic benefits. In reality, power in the new state had been hijacked by a coalition of forces that had neither contributed to its establishment nor believed in its ideals. The civil bureaucracy teamed up with the feudal class (and later with religious elements) to deny the people any say in the affairs of the state. And a decade later, when the army seized power, the dreams of the founding fathers had been shattered.
In such a situation, it was inevitable that the Bengalis, with their negligible presence in the civil and military bureaucracy and ignorant of the machinations of the feudal class, should come to view the centre’s politics as one aimed at the exploitation of their natural resources. Their disappointment and frustration intensified when every expression of popular will was crushed and attempts to obtain their rightful share in the affairs of the state, rejected with contempt.
Resultantly, they came to view themselves as a colony of the West and this so affected their psyches that it gave rise to seething anger with the rulers who were viewed increasingly as distant and disinterested masters. Soon, these sentiments had intensified into alienation from both the concept and faith in Pakistan. It was in this highly explosive atmosphere that the seeds of separation began to germinate.
It was therefore no surprise that the bloody and violent break-up of Pakistan should lead to recriminations, mutual accusations and even worse, a bitter legacy that continues to haunt us to this day. While the Bengalis were able to offer a rationale to justify the separation, Pakistan failed miserably to even acknowledge its responsibility in the entire catastrophe. After dismissing Bengali nationalism as the product of the Hindu minority’s conspiracy, we went into a sulk, belittling the Bengali achievement and instead crediting our neighbour with having successfully engineered the establishment of the new state.
What explains this? For one, the break-up amounted to a massive humiliation of Pakistan’s most powerful institution — the armed forces — that had failed in their promised mission to ensure the country’s safety and sovereignty. Even more traumatic was the fact that the army had to fight the very people it had been deployed to defend! The political leadership too, had been found wanting, appearing to be driven by personal ambitions, rather than state interests.
But most importantly, the break-up appeared to strike at the very raison d’etre of the country. How could we explain that the majority had decided to opt out of the federation? Though there were instances of disgruntled minorities wanting to break away from the mother country, this was a new phenomenon — a majority wanting to repudiate its own self and look for a new identity.
Consequently, the nation-state of Pakistan died in December 1971, giving birth to two new ones. Conveniently but tragically, we persisted in self-denial, entering into a Freudian repression syndrome to reject reality. We also refused to admit guilt or seek forgiveness, thereby losing the opportunity of cleansing our souls — essential for redemption. This also meant a refusal to either acknowledge our grave errors or the grievous harm it had caused to our body politics.
Only in the past few years, a few Pakistanis have summoned the moral courage to acknowledge our share of the guilt. But as yet the ruling class in Pakistan has continued to repudiate the fact that the root cause of the malaise that has afflicted Pakistan has been the absence of a genuinely representative democratic government. With power having been hijacked by vested interests, whose only objective has been self aggrandisement, the common man has had no sense of participation and therefore no stake in the state.
Sadly, our rulers failed to draw the right lessons from the break-up of Pakistan. Barring short intervals of democratic rule — and that too crippled by design — this nation has had to endure decade long nights of political strangulation and religious obscurantism. The results are there before our eyes. Large sections of the population, especially those in the minority provinces, have become increasingly disillusioned.
While on the domestic front, we have had to endure the bitter harvest of the ‘trickle down economy’, in which all resources were made to cater to the insatiable appetites of the privileged classes, in the field of foreign affairs, we have virtually turned ourselves into a rentier state, smug in the satisfaction that we are being generously rewarded for our services. But in the process of selling ourselves to the highest bidder, the nation has lost its soul.
Daily Dawn, 3/7/2008