East Pakistan debacle

To ‘bury’ or not to ‘bury’

Cdr (Retd) Muhammad Azam Khan comments on the 1971 debacle in former EAST PAKISTAN.

Grand Slam” in the issue of Sept 2000 made a tearful reading. It was a sad commentary not only on the “lost opportunities” but poor sagacity from which our military leadership has perennially suffered. Kargil being the latest manifestation of that “strategic shortsightedness”. But beyond that, General Akhtar Malik was undoubtedly a real son of the soil who, by any measure, deserved much better treatment in the annals of our history. As is often said, “history is a lie that historians lie to suit themselves”. There is no gainsaying that historians, through distortion and manipulation of facts, can turn heroes into renegades or vice versa. Having said that, I feel constrained to mention the appalling remarks of the editor on the issue of HCR suggesting to ‘bury’ the past. I say appalling since one expected much more discreet and pragmatic comments from an enlightened journalist like Mr Ikram Sehgal given the fine analytical prowess with which he has been blessed or is it to please the military hierarchy? Are we, eternally, destined to remain blind to our follies? Does posterity deserve to be kept in dark about the darkest chapter in our history? Do the real authors and main characters of that vile tragedy deserve to enjoy immunity for their misdemeanor; for the pain and agony caused to the nation? Do those who lost their near and dear ones in the conflict deserve to suffer the perpetual anguish in having lost them for no worthy cause? Should the countless acts of valour, determination, resolution and sacrifices of our sons remain unrecognized since few chose to mortgage and dishonour the nation? Should we continue to plummet down the moral abyss as we have done so ever since those painful and traumatic days of our history? Undoubtedly, these questions await answers. The sorrowful memories of 1971 shall remain a bleeding wound and will come back to haunt us every now and then, only since we have done too little to rebuild and reassess ourselves. We have not done enough to bring to justice those responsible for the ignominy leaving, in the process, everything to nature and divine justice.

Military mistakes in any conflict are understandable, as also lack of strategic apprehension by a military commander but how and under what circumstances men in uniform may “cross” the barriers of morality, even in a state of civil war, defeats common imagination and is difficult to swallow. While professional lapses, during that tragic period, were glaringly evident in all three services the collapse of moral standards remains a burden on the conscience of commoners. It is this aspect that needs to be probed and should, under no circumstances be ‘buried as an aberration of the murky shadows of war’. A fine moral code of conduct is perhaps the strongest weapon a soldier is armed with; a weapon which he is expected to possess and display at all times. And this, off course, is so forcefully ingrained in all uniformed personnel right from the outset; when they are just fledglings. The sanctity of uniform that places added responsibility and the trust reposed in us by the nation in safeguarding the territorial integrity as much as life and honour of its subjects cannot be overemphasized. By insisting to ‘bury’ the past we are not only abetting the crime but also proliferating its spread which, by any stretch of imagination, amounts to betrayal of a sacred trust. We have, obdurately, denied the truth to surface for far too long at a tremendous cost to the nation and its institutions without much realization. By not taking punitive action against those responsible, especially those involved in moral crimes, we have only led the nation to a deeper malaise and moral degradation leading to collapse of its institutions.

As I sat before my PC, it was only intended to be a comment on the remarks of the editor pertaining to HCR but within a short span of day or two I came across a plethora of statements appearing in the media from heads of various political parties as well as some of the ‘principal players’ in the drama, that made me convert this letter into an article. A commander, as alleged, deserted his troops for his personal safety and, having remained silent for good 30 years comes back to question the veracity of a commission’s report. If the other side committed excesses how does that justify deserting comrades in arms. ‘Hamood Commission’ did not have enough understanding of strategic matters, says another key figure. Agreed; but how does that justify presenting guard of honour to an Indian general, agreeing to lay down arms in public or for that matter, as is widely alleged, raising cheap slogans like “oay score ki hoya aye” before subordinates on their return to the barracks each night.

Regardless of the sinister motives behind publication of the report, instances of alleged acts of professional failure as much as moral lapses on our part abound during that catastrophic period. And no shadows of war can ever justify acts of individual immorality. As is said “it is the moment of crisis and its aftermath that glorify individuals to the height of moral excellence or may condemn them to the depths of ignominy”. Beyond HCR there are other authentic bizarre stories on the conduct of our men during their captivity in India that speaks volume of our moral standards. A close relative, who ended up as a prisoner of war, had some horrific tales to narrate and a traumatic experience of suffering in the confines of the prison camp, all at the hands of his own and not the captors.

In this gory drama, the involvement of other players like Bhutto described in the recently published collection of papers from American archives (compiled by one Roedad Khan) as an unprincipled, undemocratic and power-hungry demagogue, cannot be denied. The real story for end to a united Pakistan may also have been carved in Larkana and Bhutto may have been purposely absent from the United Nations General Assembly session when a Polish resolution, asking for immediate ceasefire, was moved much before the surrender. We may not have deliberately accepted the Russian resolution of Dec 4, asking for a political settlement, with an evil intent. But in the same breath, what, however, cannot be denied is the fact that a military regime was in the saddle at the time of the debacle. Notwithstanding the arguments and counter-arguments, why a military leader, otherwise highly rated, became an easy pawn in the hands of vicious politician(s) or a group of self-serving individuals. The nation deserves an answer. Subsequent vulgarization of politics, despotism, arbitrary rule and massacre of institutions that set in while ZAB was holding the reins only served as a trend setter and has tragically remained the hallmark of all regimes till this day. Can we talk of democracy today? If BB and Nawaz Sharif were given two chances each by this beleaguered nation, the Armed Forces have come in for the fourth time. How and where the country stood each time we relinquished the corridors of power in Islamabad can be safely left to the wisdom of common man.

In any civilized polity, outside the formal institutions, freedom to know about the official acts of government functionaries is the single most important check and means available to an informed citizen of holding officials accountable for their actions. It also ensures transparency in the conduct of state business and work of the government besides acting as a shield against corruption. In other countries the classified state record is declassified and opened for public perusal and research within a period of say, 20 to 30 years. Not in Pakistan; a nation of morons and ignorant that has suffered fools gladly all along. This also being a major reason why the research in our country is so abysmally poor in the fields of military as well as other national activities. British museum in London houses some of the most classified documents pertaining not only to the two World Wars but the Falklands War as well and may soon have many documents on the conduct of ‘Operation Desert Storm’. Our experience shows, on the other hand, that far too many persons in authority have committed lots of wrongs and have covered up their ‘misdeeds’ in the name of “state secrets” and (or) ‘national interest’.

If we are bent upon ‘burying’ our unsavoury past then the heads of the two mainstream political parties must also be excused. Moreso since they are involved in cases of relatively lesser significance than losing part of the Jinnah’s Pakistan. We should understand that it is the strength of the state institutions that ensures not only the prosperity of a country but also serves to provide an impregnable security to the nation and its subjects. Weak institutions are an invitation to arbitrary rule as well as external aggression. By not weeding out or taking appropriate action against “amoral” we are only weakening the institution. Those who failed the nation or its institution(s), therefore, must pay. The events that have shaped the destiny of the country since 1971 including plundering of national wealth by the elite, the all pervasive corruption, destruction and politicization of state institutions, the intellectual dishonesty and white-collared crimes, the deep seated parochial, ethnic divide and above all erosion of national image in the comity of nations, is a natural course of action; a sequel to our inability in making appropriate amends to our moral depravity and bankruptcy, both in individual as well as collective capacity. We, therefore, need not go far to find why so many serving and retired officers of the Armed Forces are, today, alleged to be involved in the hefty kickbacks in defence deals as also those endeavouring tirelessly to save the hides of their ‘confidant’ ‘trustees’ and ‘blue eyed’.

While some ill-famed remain in hiding abroad, others through their powerful contacts continue to enjoy the luxury of their palatial houses within Pakistan. Not only that, many with suspect track records are occupying lucrative posts. (Incidentally, this appeared in the press as well). But they all need our sympathy and must be condoned since someone along the path in their career progression was ‘too kind’, ‘too compassionate’ to ‘bury’ the individual(s) moral weaknesses till they reached the rung of the ladder where political expediency gave way to their character frailty and hence further advancement(s). I firmly believe that our declining standards of personal, human and above all moral values is deeply rooted in the fact that we have always ‘buried’ what should never have been. By hiding the evil for our personal gains, we have knowingly sown the seeds of our own destruction. Ayub, Yahya, Niazi and their likes all had an impeccable service record yet they besmirched our history as military and national leaders.

An interesting and pertinent case of two naval officers (one with a first-class record) may be worth mentioning here. These officers while attending naval staff course, sometimes back, were found to be involved in activities incompatible with their status. A board of inquiry, having found incontrovertible evidence against them, recommended withdrawal of the officers from the course. The “competent authority” duly approved the recommendation only to rescind its decision soon afterwards buckling under pressure from an “outsider” who exercised profound hold on the “competent authority”. What kind of moral influence these two officers may have on their subordinates’ years from now is anybody’s guess. In yet another case a naval officer of middle order seniority, with an exceptionally good service record, was selected as the crew member of the newly inducted Agosta 90-B Submarine (a platform, purchase of which has generated more controversy than any other defence deal in the country’s history). The officer was alleged to have kept the public money (foreign exchange) in his personal account with impious intentions. The story, as it goes, was revealed only once the subject officer for certain reason fell apart with one of his subordinates who disclosed the real intentions of his superior. The officer, subsequently, redeposited the money in the Government treasury stating the same to be an omission only. Despite having concrete evidence of foul intentions, the officer, for reasons of expediency, was let off with minor punishment and continues to hold his post. In other instances, personal dossiers of some naval officers were “tampered” with documents “apportioning blame” removed to purge them and benefit the officers. A collision between two destroyers at Sea sometimes back, virtually sealed the career of two bright officers while the senior officer present onboard who could, under no circumstances, be absolved of his primary responsibility of ensuring appropriate measures to avoid accident, was awarded with the next senior rank. Many officers and men regularly visit abroad on assignments/visits where they are treated as state guests. Once back home, hardly anyone returns the overdrawn money to the state coffers. These and many other intellectual dishonesties only embolden an individual to indulge into other capacious moral and (or) material illegalities at the state expense that eventually cost the nation dearly”.

The question remains, are we always fated to walk along the same road? It would not be wrong to say that we are a country that has been ravished by its own. As rightly said by someone: “No nation comes to an end unless it is destroyed from within”.

“iss ghar ko aag lag gaye ghar key chiragh sey”

To ‘bury’ lapses of ‘moral turpitude’ is an aberration, nay, an ‘intellectual dishonesty’ of an extreme nature that may have far reaching consequences; a sure recipe for disaster not only for an institute but nation as well. Thus even if one recommendation of the HCR, say institutionalized improvement of character building in the Armed Forces, had been undertaken in a profound manner, we might have witnessed, today, a much healthy percentage of men like Akhtar Maliks in the ranks rather than the hypo-critical parasites who flourish in our midst. But little do we care. One only wonders how many more Gibraltars, Grand Slams, 1971 debacles and Kargils we might need to ‘bury’ in future as well. If we are not willing to learn from our past why study Khalid-bin-Walid, Napoleon, Montgomery, Manstien, World Wars or 1965 that form integral part of the curriculum of studies in institutes right from PMA till NDC? Is it only the academic tactical and (or) strategic lessons we wish to draw from these battles without paying any heed to the moral conclusions; without much consideration to the “individual strength of character” that so prominently figure out in these campaigns. But study we must even if it has to be the machinations and deceit of Mir Jaffer or the valour of Siraj-ud-dula and Tipu Sultan, provided we draw correct conclusions and are willing to make amends, both in individual and collective capacity. A soldier must know, in a subtle manner, the limits of his professional duties and when he may cross those ‘moral barriers’. And if he doesn’t he is no more than a hired mercenary working in an organized assemblage.

Today, we need to ask ourselves is the net of accountability only limited to chasing a select few (in partisan or selective manner) who pillaged the national coffers or is it beyond that. Does “intellectual dishonesty” constitute a more grave crime than “material dishonesty” since the former may lead to the latter? The ongoing furore created as a result of the unofficial publication of HCR was summed up so aptly by BBC in following words:

“The UN resolution on Kashmir are 50 years old. Simla agreement has completed 29 years. Many Pakistani leaders got billions of rupees loans from banks and transferred the money to foreign countries, plundered national institutions and evaded taxes. These are all things of the past but they are being held accountable”

We may rethink to ‘bury’ all these issues and forget about accountability. Our mayhem is perhaps already on the anvil.