December 16 : one date, two tragedies

28 Dec 2017

16 December is the blackest day in the history of Pakistan. It was on this date that two heart-wrenchingly tragic incidents took place. On 16 December, 1971Pakistan disintegrated and East Pakistan, now known as Bangladesh, became a separate nation. On 16 December, 2014 terrorists staged a gruesome attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar. These two misfortunes have many commonalities; including political blunders, incompetence and callousness on the parts of both the ruling elite and state institutions.

In a TV programme, Mirza Aslam Baig, a former army chief held General Yahya Khan to be solely responsible for the secession of East Pakistan. However, it is not correct to pin the entirety of the blame for this tragedy on one man. General Yahya Khan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Mujeebur Rehman were all cogs in the same political wheel. In order to better understand the causes of the separation of East Pakistan, we need to reflect, in hindsight, on events that occurred even before Pakistan’s inception.

Hassan Zaheer mentions one of those incidents in his book The Separation of East Pakistan. He writes that leaders from Bengal had protested against the 1937 All India Muslim League Conference in Lucknow being conducted entirely in Urdu. Soon after the country came into existence, Urdu was declared the national language of Pakistan. This declaration sparked violent demonstrations in cities across East Pakistan. Bengali leaders objected to the declaration of Urdu as the national language. Finally, the government capitulated and both Urdu and Bengali were declared national languages in the 1956 Constitution. Siddique Salik has also written about the blunders of the rulers of that time in his book Witness to Surrender. According to Salik, East Pakistan was completely ignored in the first six-year economic developmental plan of 1951-57 and then again in the five-year plans of 1955-60 and1960-65. During this time, East Pakistan contributed 60 percent of the total revenue of Pakistan while receiving only 25 percent of the resources and developmental funds of the country as a whole. The population of East Pakistan accounted for 52 percent of the total populace but only 15 percent of the army comprised of Bengalis. Similarly, the majority of people in the civil service and other governmental jobs were from West Pakistan.

Ayub Khan’s martial law deepened the fault lines in the country by depriving Bengalis of adequate representation

Ayub Khan’s martial law deepened the fault lines in the country by depriving Bengalis of their fundamental human rights. The leaders of East Pakistan were implicated in different criminal cases and put in prison during the dictatorship. There was a general perception in East Pakistan that West Pakistan, and Punjab in particular was being given more than its due share of resources. The leader of the Awami Muslim League, Sheikh Mujeebur Rehman once came to Islamabad and when he saw the magnificent infrastructure and wide well-constructed roads he said, “I smell the jute fields of Chittagong here.” Jute was a major product of East Pakistan.

In the 1970 general elections, the Awami Muslim League won 167 seats out of 313, while the Pakistan People’s Party nabbed81 seats. The politicians of West Pakistan enjoyed the support of the military establishment, and the democratic right of East Pakistan to form a majority government was denied. On March 1971, ‘Operation Searchlight’ was launched. The Pakistani army was deployed to various areas of East Pakistan. The army used an iron hand to deal with their Bengali brethren.

Senior politician Javed Hashmi writes in his book Haan Main Baghi Hoon (Yes! I’m a Rebel) that he paid a visit to East Pakistan during those days. He noticed the extremely mocking attitude of state institutions towards Bengalis. Hashmi said he was a witness to it all and felt agony for the mistreatment meted out to the Bengalis by the armed forces. Over 300 thousand people were killed during Operation Searchlight. As the situation deteriorated further, India took advantage of the opportunity and sent its army into East Pakistan. Within a short period of time, East Pakistan separated from Pakistan. 93,000 Pakistani soldiers became prisoners of war incarcerated in Indian prisons. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto struck the Simla Accord to bring those soldiers back home.

Looking at the actual situation of the time, the biased treatment and undemocratic attitude of Pakistan towards its own citizens were the real reasons behind the East Pakistan fiasco. Dictatorship provided a base and a conducive environment for breeding and promoting the unjust and discriminatory attitude towards Bengalis.

43 years later, the heinous terror attack on APS left 132 children, nine teachers and three soldiers martyred. This brutal incident sent shockwaves throughout Pakistani society. This tragic incident was the result of a particular mind-set which was nurtured by several factors.

The black law of the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) played a fundamental role in helping such a virulent mind-set flourish. Analysing the factors that led to this incident from a historical context makes it clear that the people of FATA have been brutally oppressed for decades. This black law was first introduced in 1867, during the British era. Under Article 247 of the Constitution of Pakistan, the FCR is a law under which provincial governments, federal governments and the judiciary are not given any authority in FATA.

Under this law, the citizens of FATA are deprived of their basic human rights: they cannot have a lawyer plead their case, argue or file an appeal against their arrest or conviction. Due to this injustice, the region has become a safe haven for criminals and miscreants.

The literacy rate is very low and any sort of media or journalism is absent. The ever-growing resentment against the state is exploited by foreign forces to further their own interests in the region. The smuggling of illegal weapons and other goods is a common practice in the area. The FCR fills the pockets of high ranking officials — who turn a blind eye to the smuggling and other illegal activities — in return for large sums of money on a quid pro quo basis.

Maulana Fazl-ur-Rahman could easily lose his political base if the FCR is abolished and modern education becomes prevalent in FATA. This would mean the loss of his political clout and all of the perks associated with it

Then there is case of the Madaris. The people of FATA had no facilities for acquiring modern education. All they have is the Madaris. Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman runs some of these educational centres and the students at these centres comprise his political base. He could easily lose this political base if the FCR is abolished and modern education becomes prevalent in tribal areas. This would mean the loss of Fazal-ur-Rehman’s political clout and all of the perks associated with it. It is therefore not surprising that Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman vehemently opposes the mainstreaming of FATA.

The people of East Pakistan and the people FATA have been treated with similar injustice by the state. A lack of political representation begets resentment and feeds hatred. Had the people of East Pakistan not been exploited, today, they would still be part of a united Pakistan. Likewise, if the people of FATA — as Pakistani citizens — had all rights they deserve as citizens, such as education and legal aid, terrorists would not have found the opportunity to be nurtured in these areas. Thus, the tragedy of Peshawar would have been avoided.

Members of Parliament amend the Constitution in a blink of an eye to allow disqualified people to become head of a political party. But the legislation to help the people of FATA has taken years of perpetual injustice. It is regrettable that the leaders and rulers the state have not learned any lessons from the mistakes of the past. If they are not careful, another tragedy might be just around the corner.

Published in Daily Times, December 28th 2017

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