Turning Moments in the History of Pakistan

Columnist Col (Retd) MASOOD ANWAR focusses on critical periods of our history.

Somewhere between peace and war lie moments that unmistakably become turning moments in the history of nations. The Partition of British India into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan was a turning moment in the history of the sub-continent. Events that led to Partition in 1947, were neither the times of peace nor belonged to the times of war, yet the proceedings and the role played by key persons during the proceedings indeed, became more relevant than the business of Partition itself.

Subsequently Pakistan had its share of anguish which has gone down in history as the turning moments. March 1969 when Field Martial Ayub Khan resigned and asked Gen. Yahya Khan to assume power, to Dec 71 when Pakistan was dismembered, the events are of known significance. As I see it, the period is significant for two extraordinary reasons;

a.         firstly, the beginning of panoramic decline of State institutions started and has continued without recovery. 1971 catastrophe, no doubt, had its reasons in the weakness of state institutions.

b.         secondly, questionable political culture high-lighted in deceit, falsehood, treachery, sycophancy, egoism etc started showing its influence. For reasons of political expediency, personalities adopted conspicuously demonstrative protective attitude for self and for institutions they represented against open criticism for the follies and misadventures. Sadly to say, truth has suffered hugely ever since.

Another phase of turning moments in the history of Pakistan started when Gen. Zia-ul-Haq assumed power in a military coup in 1977. The phase has not ended. Matters are still in a turbulent state. National outlook experienced a significant shift during the period. Priorities changed from moderately rational policy approach to conservatively focused ideological settings. Revivalism of fundamental Islam and proactive initiatives in the ratification of the Two Nation theory became important policy matters. Importantly, the emphasis was in the right places in the need to stay the course on Islamic fundamentalism and proactivism in regional politics. Military leadership since the military entered the corridors of power in 1958 had been debating in this regard on a choice more consequential. Should the military hold a permanent position in governance and hence play a role in the politics of the State, though it maintained behind the scene influence all along. Following Oct 1999 take over, the military, finally has decided to allot itself a constitutional status in governance and likewise a role in the politics of the State.

The observations noted above are no misconceptions. These have been carefully examined and I have tried to present them as precise as possible. Knowing fully well that individuals always influence policies and other matters of national concern in societies where institutions are not mature nor are fully accountable hence not as efficient, I decided on bold initiative to express deliberate views on important personalities who played key role in the turning moments of Pakistan (Mar 1969 to Dec 1971).

I happened to be in East Pakistan during 1971 war with India. Although my stay 19 Nov - Dec 16 was short, yet the experience was of life time. I arrived in Dacca on last but one flight and at 1330 hrs on Dec 16, I managed to fly my helicopter from Dacca to Akyab, Burma. A month later, I was repatriated to Pakistan along with others. Whatever was my position, I can well enough count myself among those whom history will remember as those who laid down their arms not their lives in protecting the integrity and the honour of their country. It is no good feeling about what happened, we must learn lessons, which is only possible if thorough analysis of national policies is carried out and the role played by the key persons is deeply examined.

The change of command from FM Ayub Khan to Gen. Yahya Khan in March 1969 to the making of Bangladesh in 1971 can easily be counted as the most turbulent period in the history of Pakistan. Having read various accounts on 1965 and 1971 wars with India, written by senior officers of the Pakistan Army, my assessment is that five persons played the key role in leading the country towards 1971 war, which subsequently led to the dismemberment of the country. The persons are:-

*          Sheikh Mujib Rahman
*          Zulfikar Ali Bhutto
*          Gen. Yahya Khan
*          Gen. Tikka Khan
*          Lt. Gen. Yaqub Khan

Before I begin putting down my views, based on study, discussions, listening to people, on the role played by these individuals, I want to say that, I have profound regards and respect for the gentlemen mentioned above for whatever their ideals and whatever their understanding of the situation at point in time. Nonetheless each played his role in his individual capacity. Since the end result is not carried in good memories, hence arises the need for examination. Indeed lessons cannot be drawn without cross relating decisions, compulsions and situations. The idea is to learn from the experience and not at the cost of these distinguished persons.

Sheikh Mujib had but one goal to achieve that, was to become the Founding Father of Bangladesh like Muhammad Ali Jinnah became the Founding Father of Pakistan. Mujib was looking for a big name in history. Nothing could stop him from meeting this objective. He had built for him such political compulsion that consumed all forms and manifestations of his intellectual capacity.

Z A Bhutto wanted to go down as the mover of history. He wanted the new Pakistan to bear his name. He wanted to quietly fold the pages of history of the partition and the making of Pakistan (East and West) in 1947.

Gen Yahya Khan did not display sufficient political vision. He continued to rely on his Generalship for which he was remembered in good words. He bargained with Mujib and Bhutto till a point of no return was reached. Gen. Yahya wanted to remain as the President of Pakistan. But as weeks and months passed, his decision to remain as the President of Pakistan, initially, which was a desire, the General became helplessly involved in retaining that position. Many of the other decisions, thereafter, were made in support of that decision.

Gen. Tikka Khan was handicapped from the very start as Commander Eastern Command. He had replaced Lt. Gen. Yaqub who resigned his position at a critical time. He had to tackle the psychological impact of Gen. Yaqub’s resignation on the Army and forces in East Pakistan. “The reason given was conscience. He said, he could not do what he had been ordered to kill his brother Pakistanis” (The Betrayal of East Pakistan by Lt. Gen. A.A. K Niazi) The contents of the statement were significant. Gen. Tikka Khan, therefore, discarded political and diplomatic manoeuvring and decided on strict military measures. The action proved disastrous under the prevailing conditions.

Gen. Yaqub kept weighing his military strategic vision against his intellectual foresight. Sometimes overstretching of foresight proves disastrous as well. The Gen. should have chosen a more appropriate moment to tender his resignation.

In the end, we all know whatever happened and how it happened. Would East Pakistan have become Bangladesh even if the situation had been brought under control in March 1971. This is a delicate matter because intellectual susceptibilities and emotional delicacies of two sets of people, who now belong to two sovereign countries are involved. Therefore, enquiry will have to lay emphasis both on how personalities shaped history and how history shaped personalities in taking decisions. Although, the principle of precaution teaches us that biosphere is perishable, humans are perishable, yet history always returns in the form of personalities. The articulation of otherwise indivisible human destiny nevertheless lies in the hands of selected individuals.

The anguish did not come to end for Pakistan. After the fall of Mr. Z A Bhutto began another turmoil, which continues to this date, Mr. Bhutto floundered. He could not control the flow of events. He fell never to rise again. Gen. Zia embarked on a mission impossible. Pakistan started drifting away from moderation toward what is commonly called fundamentalism. Gen. Zia allotted himself the task of Islamization even beyond the frontier of Pakistan. Islam, instead, became an issue rather than it proving a solution to socio-economic problems. See how unintelligently Islam was projected. Gen. Zia left Pakistan institutionally weak. Governments that followed exercised little or no control over policies. The military never trusted the civil governments nor remained in their effective control.

After Oct 99, Pakistan is back to a position where another version of Pakistan is in the making. Democracy is taking a new look, fundamentalism is being clamped down. We have turned about towards modernization, westernization will follow along. The focus is, once again, on the fabric of the society. People are more lonesome and isolated personalities are once again grappling with history. Is this a drift toward sectionalization? Will we face social and political fallouts in the coming years? Does the present situation have any similarity with the situation Pakistan was in during late sixties? Can we draw parallels? This is an age of new forms of associations and the birth of new types of solidarities. Geopolitical balances are shaking. Boundaries protecting values and value systems are breaking down. The absolute meaning of faith, truth, good, beauty is under suspicions. Can we, in these conditions of multiplicity, maintain our aim?