1971 debacle: recalling history


By Afrasiab Khattak
Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif while commenting on the current political impasse in the country in a recent speech mentioned the crises of 1971 in the then East Pakistan ( now Bangladesh) when disrespect for the aspirations of people expressed through vote had led to the disintegration of Pakistan. His detractors labeled this analogy to be farfetched one and a mere flight of imagination. But any serious and rational consideration of the dangerous internal and external challenges faced by Pakistan today would prove the gravity of situation beyond any shadow of doubt. I remember a small public gathering in Lahore in 1971 organised by students to oppose military action against the elected representatives in the then East Bengal. Apart from poet of the people Habib Jalib and prominent leftist leader Begum Tahira Mazhar Ali Khan, some student leaders also addressed the gathering. I was one of them. We didn’t get any media coverage and police started raids for our arrest. JI and other “patriotic parties” started holding big rallies in support of military operation. The rest is history.

From history book: Three political characters – Fazl-e-Elahi Choudhry, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

Fast forward to the present situation post 2013 and to the story of denying the mandate of the majority Punjabi voters by the Punjabi dominated security establishment. As far as the population wise smaller provinces like Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and Sindh are concerned their mandates have been violated a number of times with impunity. Not only that. Their protest against violation of their fundamental rights has always met with severe state repression which also included military operations. But after 1971 it’s for the first time that the security establishment has refused to put up with a ruling party which is elected by majority voters of the Punjab. The real rulers are out to demolish the popular political leader of Punjab by using every trick of political engineering and coercion in the bag of intelligence agencies controlled by the army. What is most extraordinary is the fact that Nawaz Sharif, so far the most popular Punjabi leader, has refused to bow out in the face of all kinds of pressures. Major portions of print and electronic media are churning out establishment’s narratives against the civilian dispensation but thanks mainly to social media some people can see through these one sided campaign. It goes without saying that the strategy of “shooting our way through “used by army generals in the then East Bengal or in the smaller provinces is not an option in the Punjab because bulk of the security forces and bureaucratic elite belong to the same province. But the dichotomy is bound to hurt the country.
The second glaring similarity in two situations is the international isolation. In 1971 the despotic military dictatorship of General Yahya Khan had totally isolated itself in the world by launching a brutal military operation against the people of the then East Bengal for electing and supporting a political party that wasn’t in the good books of ruling military junta. Even an intelligent and bright foreign minister like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had failed to break that isolation. Today’s Pakistan is dangerously isolated due the large scale presence of religious extremism and terrorism in the country. The scariest thing is that the more the civil government is losing control over the state system the greater and the more prominent is the footprint of extremists and militants in the country. The so called Defense of Pakistan Council ( DPC) which is the biggest conglomerate of religious extremists and jihadists, and which also includes proscribed organisations held its conference in the Chief Minister House in Peshawar last Sunday. Pervez Khattak, Chief Minister Khyber Pakhtunkhwa publicity declared to support the aims and objectives of DPC. Most prominent one of their objectives is to support “Jihad” in Afghanistan and impose Sharia in the country. Symbolically handing over to Jihadist elements a province adjacent to Afghanistan amounts to owning Taliban’s war in Afghanistan. This policy is suicidal to say the least. Who has framed this policy and who will be responsible for its consequences? Pakistan is caught in an eyeball to eyeball confrontation with US on Afghanistan. News about drone strikes and drone flights on Kurram Agency are being blacked out in the so called mainstream media. But even for the best friends of Pakistan, policies of soft corner towards terrorism are frustrating. If the BRICS Summit Declaration 2017 is anything to go by even closest friends like China find it impossible to defend such adventurist policies. Heating up of western front at a time when military conflict is escalating on Line of Control with India in Kashmir on the eastern front is yet another indicator of the gravity of situation.
Political engineering in Balochistan just a few months before general election is another case in point of courting disaster. Balochistan which is facing the longest nationalist insurgency and the longest military operation of its history is also coming under threat from the escalation of conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran in West Asia. Saudis are pouring in money for expanding the footprint of Wahabi and Salfi elements in Balochistan. JuD (former LeT) is building many new centres in Makran division not far from Iran’s border. It’s pretty clear that Iran will also not sit idle. Iran has an impressive track record when it comes to being “pragmatic “in supporting the enemies of its enemies. It didn’t hesitate from supporting the hard core Sunni Alqaida and Taliban, once regarded as dangerous enemies, in their fight against US in Afghanistan. What would stop Iran from supporting Baloch nationalists for countering Saudi activities? This is obviously the time when Balochistan needs stability. But lo and behold the provincial government of Balochistan was chosen for the vote of no confidence for unravelling PML (n) government in the federation. Dissolution of provincial assemblies of Balochistan, Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh within January, along with agitation in Punjab and resignations by the opposition members of Parliament is the path towards premature packing up of the current dispensation. Suppressing dissent by abducting critics can’t solve any problem. Putting our house in order by letting democratic process continue and by implementing NAP to eliminate extremism and terrorism from the country is the only way out. We all know that those who don’t learn from history are condemned to relive it.
(The author Afrasiab Khattak is a retired Senator and an analyst of regional affairs.)