Hamoodur Rahman Commission report surfaces again

Columnist MB NAQVI talks about the famous Report.

Every now and then something about this report crops up in the press and a lot of brouhaha is made by those who want it to be published pronto and those who want to keep it a dead secret. Parts of the report have been published several times in foreign press. But the full report has not been published verbatim and there is no certainty that some doctoring has not been done by either those who leaked it or by others who might have been instrumental in some way in the act of its publishing. The liberal opinion within the country is unanimous that the report should at least now see the light of the day after 30 years of the events it investigated. There are elements in the armed forces and some parts of the government that think that its publication would harm the national interests. Which national interests would they be, after 30 years of the 1971 war?

It is said that the image of the army would be adversely affected —-where is not quite clear. Insofar as the rest of the world is concerned, their opinion on Pakistan’s armed forces would be based on their national experts’ assessments of their conduct during the 53 years of Pakistan’s history. Presumably the worry is about the opinion within the country. Insofar as the principles of good governance are concerned, there is absolutely no case to keep the report unpublished. There have been reports that most copies of the report were destroyed in 1977, if not earlier. But that seems to be rather unlikely. The government and the armed forces would certainly have in their secret archives several copies of the full report. Doubtless, Pakistan has had an unenviable record of governance and in any case it is a truly underdeveloped country. Even so it would be passing strange if the state is being run in a fashion in which such an important document dealing with truly sensitive matters at that time could have been really destroyed. That would presuppose that Pakistanis were living in the days before the nation state was invented. No, it seems unlikely that this could have happened even in Pakistan. However, the question of image of the armed forces needs to be looked into.

The hard fact is that there was an East Pakistan Crisis. There were disturbances from about end of February to early March in 1971 as a result of which Sahibzada Yaqub Khan resigned his command having developed differences with the GHQ over the hawkish approach favoured by the latter. Later Governor Admiral S.M. Ahsan also resigned as the Governor for exactly the same reason. It is a fact that GHQ was dominated by hawks vis-a-vis East Pakistan and their response to the speeches of Shaikh Mujibur Rahman on March 7 and 15, 1971 as also the orientation of his leadership was displayed in the military crackdown late on March 25 with indiscriminate shooting from guns, large and small. It is also a fact that the targets were Bengalis in general and those who were shooting were soldiers of Pakistan’s armed forces, West Pakistanis, mostly Punjabis. The political consequences of that action included a virtual rebellion by Bengalis within the armed forces (inside East Pakistan) and there was the general air of ‘us’ and ‘they’.

At length a lot of young Bengalis went underground and organised Mukti Bahini with the support of India. India encouraged them and armed them. Later the Indians took the matters in their own hands and invaded East Pakistan. The Pakistan armed forces could fight barely for two weeks and surrendered. The ignominy of this resistance was shown by the fact that while the garrison that surrendered in Dhaka comprised 25 thousand troops. The Indian column that occupied Dhaka had only 5 thousand troops on December 16.

There is no doubt about the fact —- and it has been admitted by Governor Gen. Tikka Khan that the reported figures are gross exaggeration —- that there were random killings, rapes and other atrocities by the West Pakistani troops, not excluding senior officers. The effects of the surrender is now history as also the conduct of the armed forces during those critical nine months. The whole world regarded and called Pakistanis as ‘yahoos’. The Indians and the western press had gone to town on Pakistan; in world media the name of Pakistan was mud. That whole world believed that Pakistani troops have committed all those atrocities that were freely reported, though mostly on the basis of exaggerated refugees’ tales. The news management by the military in East Pakistan ensured that the worst was believed abroad; all supporters of Bengalis were given a bonanza by preventing accurate reporting from East Pakistan. Insofar as the rest of the world is concerned, the maximum damage to image of Pakistan’s armed forces did take place and its effects have not entirely been wiped out by subsequent conduct of the armed forces in Pakistan politics.

The fact is that only West Pakistani people were denied any access to accurate information of what was going on in East Pakistan remains to be assessed. Maybe that if the nature of the conduct by troops and officers in East Pakistan had been more or less correctly reflected in the press and media of West Pakistan, it is possible that the image of the forces might have been tarnished. But this would only be a minority opinion. No one can say that West Pakistanis did not hear, from the word of mouth and through the radio broadcast, by all India Radio, BBC, Voice of America, German radio and many others. The fact of the matter is that most of the West Pakistani people, certainly the majority of the people of Punjab, approved or appeared to approve —- they certainly showed no clear distaste or disapproval —- of whatever Pakistan armed forces were doing in East Pakistan.

The crackdown on Dhaka was hailed by Mr. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto with the telltale remark: “Pakistan has been saved”. Everybody knew that West Pakistani opinion was being reflected by Mr. Bhutto and his party that had not put up one single candidate in East Pakistan in the first ever December 1970 polls. No doubt that there were dissenting opinions in West Pakistan. But such voices were few and far between and carried little weight with the powers that be; the National Awami Party led by Wali Khan in West Pakistan, GM Syed and various other Pukhtoon nationalist groups were unanimous in favour of convening the Constituent Assembly as it had emerged on December 8, 1970 and to hand over Pakistan’s administration to the Leader of the House who might be elected in it. Not so, the leader of the PPP that commanded 88 seats in a house of 313 but who aspirated the opinions mainly of the Punjabi voters which, importantly, reflected also the view of the ruling establishment. PPP was certainly opposed to most ideas of Awami League and Shaikh Mujibur Rahman. No one can doubt the full support of PPP for the military action of Gen. Yahya Khan on that March 25 and in subsequent months. That Bhutto developed his own complaints against Yahya Khan is a separate and a later story. Yahya Khan for all his dictatorial status, his actions were commonly accepted and supported in West Pakistan. The regime did not encounter much resistance right down to the period leading up to the war. It was only after the disastrous results of the war were known that some people protested. For the rest, West Pakistan, by and large, supported Yahya Khan and his military action.

The question of the image of armed forces within West Pakistan is a question on which no easy or firm statement can be made. A great deal of West Pakistani opinion would probably still have approved of whatever the armed forces were doing even if all the fact had been fully reported. Somehow the opinion makers in West Pakistan, chiefly represented by Urdu newspapers, were clearly hostile to all the Bengali aspirations. They pooh poohed the Bengali grievances. What however remains true is that the influence of the people who were actually opposed to the whole East Pakistan policy of Gen. Yahya Khan and his Junta was negligible. It is questionable whether there would have been a great uproar or great revulsion against the armed forces if the reports of what they were doing were published in full. If the foregoing assessments of the 1971 situation is correct, a clear light is thrown on the question.

Well, East Pakistan Crisis was not the only incident in Pakistan’s history for which the armed forces might be on the defensive. Various inquiries have been conducted in this country and the reports have stayed secret. The process began with Liaquat Ali Khan’s assassination in 1951. No authoritative enquiry report has been published, not even by foreign experts. Indeed, there was a curious Pak Air crash in which some of the original investigators, and supposedly with all the files, perished. There were various other inquiries about mutinies, Ojhri camp fire, that have never seen the light of the day. Not even the Narayanganj riots report has been published. There has been a pervasive culture of secrecy in this country. The governments somehow wish to hide the truth. Preference for secrecy is only one side of the coin, the other side is the distrust of the people. It is a moot point whether an image of the armed forces that requires so much secrecy and running away from facts can really be helpful to the armed forces. On the contrary, it would appear that the armed forces are being badly advised to go on insisting on total secrecy over facts that are known throughout the world. There is the general dictum that all civilisations have believed in: truth and the whole truth cannot really hurt. If an image can be hurt by truth, then it is surely not worth preserving. In any case, it is not likely to survive.

The Armed Forces and the rest of those who politically support them will be judged by the people as well as history on the basis of their conduct. Hiding uncomfortable reports do not change the course of history. On a longer view of things, the armed forces are being hurt more by secrecy than if all the facts had been known. What really is the image of the armed forces in the country today? This has to be sharply distinguished from the image of any particular set of senior officers in the eyes of their own troops is a wholly different kettle of fish. One is not concerned with the latter, though many army leaders might be. In the overall context of the country, this can easily be ignored; it is relevant only inside the army, not even in the other services. Today, whether or not Pakistanis know all the fact or what is shown as wrong in the Hamoodur Rahman Commission report or other reports, there are now two clear schools of opinion with reference to 1971 events: a lot of people, it may still be a majority, approved the armed forces actions in general (while deprecating individuals’ conduct), while the other holds them culpable. This is a fact of life and should be faced by all.

Moreover the image of the armed forces can only be based on what the people see and note about them in peace and their conduct in war. Pakistan’s armed forces have been a decisive part of Pakistan’s politics. There have been four clear military takeovers. Nearly half the life of Pakistan has been spent under military rules. There were three occasions when armed forces were used to quell what were thought to be disturbances: in 1953 in Punjab, in 1964 and 1977 in Balochistan. Here the Operation Closed Door in East Pakistan of 1950s can be ignored, though it was a fairly big operation. Then there have been reports of conspiracies within the army beginning in 1950-51, twice in early 1970s and once in 1990s. It is the overall picture in the mind of the common Pakistanis that goes into making of all an overall image. Here again, as in the case of 1971 events, the majority opinion still is strongly pro-armed forces. But it is only the majority. The nation should not run away from facts under imaginary fears of a minority.

There has been a lot of nonsense uttered in this country about the imagmanship. Far too many people with media background have made their careers on the plea that they understand the intricacies of image making. One has no desire to hurt the chances of slick people trying to improve their own fortunes by advising on the question of improving the image of this, that and other thing, including governments. The armed forces have of course their own department to look after their image. They should not need outside advisors who themselves would be well advised to leave the armed forces alone. They can manage their own image better. Finally, a simple statement can be made: Is it or is it not a fact that the image must have some relationship with facts. Can anyone keep an image burnished, if facts do not support it?