Pakistan’s December dilemma

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By Haris Wahab

COME December, and each year, Pakistan slides into search for its moment of truth. There is much inward, intense gaze for identity, ethos and that ideal form of democracy that has remained was founded seven decades back.

Of course, Pakistan’s birth was in August of 1947, but it is the middle of December that evokes outrage, at least among its thinking and liberal classes and sections of its media. That is because on December 16, 1971, the country was dismembered and its armed forces surrendered to the joint command of India and the newly-independent Bangladesh. And four years ago, on the same day, Islamist militants stormed the Army Public School in Peshawar, killing in cold blood 150 innocent people, including 137 children. So, it is double-defeat as a nation and as a people and time to introspect.

Mercifully, this year at least, India, the permanent enemy, was not brought in as the convenient whipping boy, save a few angry whispers, for facilitating the birth of Bangladesh. Forty-seven years since that tumultuous event, India is being given a go-bye. Is it because the demons at home are too dangerous and daunting?

Perhaps, yes. Now, questions are being asked why the people of Pakistan continue to be told self-serving accounts of why they lost their east-wing. There is a renewed demand that the Justice Hamoodur Rahman report on the causes behind the 1971 events be made public – albeit with a cynical assertion that this is unlikely to happen as long as the army, that was primarily indicted, retains predominant control, even during the phases of civilian rule.

RAWALPINDI: The most devastating victim of ‘December dilemma’ is former prime minister Ms. Benazir Bhutto. This is last terrific moments of her life and soon after she succumbed to injuries in horrific blast on 27th December 2007.

Questions are also being asked whether the children who fell victims to the militants’ bullets are safe four years since that pogrom and whether future generations can hope to be safer. This is because successive governments have played footsie with the militants, even creating many as “assets” to be unleashed on India and Afghanistan, or for export in other parts of the world as “freedom fighters.”

Prime Minister Imran Khan, stated to have sympathy for the militants, comments have come forth, is hardly the person to rein in the militants. His target is more the political opposition than the militants, they say.    

There are pleas that the democratic ‘experiment’, now into its tenth year (the cut-off line being end of the Musharraf regime), be allowed to continue, howsoever flawed.      

“Behind the veneer of democracy, what we are witnessing today is a steady erosion of the values that define a system based on the will of the people, Dawn newspaper has said in an editorial citing Twitter’s biannual report.

According to the document, between January and June 2018, the government reported 3,004 profiles to the social networking site for allegedly “inciting violence” and “spreading hate material”, and sent requests seeking the removal of 243 accounts. By contrast, during the six months immediately preceding, it reported only 674 accounts to Twitter and made 75 removal requests.

“The unprecedented volume of such actions so far this year means Pakistan ranks third highest globally in the number of accounts which were either reported or were the subject of requests for removal in 2018,” the newspaper has said.

PESHWAR: Another ‘December dilemma’ is demolishing blast at Army Public School in Peshawar on 16th December 2014 killing about 146 students injuring several.

“There has been for some time a relentless campaign to muzzle diversity of political opinion in Pakistan, specifically opinion that strays across red lines and from the approved narrative. Individuals and organisations deemed not compliant enough are vilified as being ‘anti-state’, a catchphrase beloved of sundry despotic regimes.

“Thousands of people, even bloggers, have been disappeared; some remain missing years later. The media has a stark choice: comply or be prepared to see its revenue streams dry up. Recalcitrant journalists are subjected to physical violence, arrests on flimsy pretexts, etc. The war on information and independent thought has now apparently expanded to include Twitter users as well.

The editorial complains that “The PTI government has not even attempted to distance itself from such autocratic measures; indeed, it has embraced them with gusto.”

To return to the twin theme that is the cause of Pakistan’s “December dilemma”, there is painful realization that after all the outrage triggered by the Peshawar school killings and the all-party National Action Plan (NAP) when Nawaz Sharif was the Prime Minister and his namesake, Raheel Sharif was the Army Chief, and after all the tall claims of the militancy being eliminated, area by area, district by district, Pakistan is back to square one judging by the votes by the militant bodies that floated a party and won a significant number of votes in the July elections. Not just that, militant bodies have taken to the streets, demanding death to the chief justice and even the army chief.

Covertly alleging the support these elements get from even the army brass, another editorial in Dawn laments: “When a bunch of religious zealots enjoying the express and clear support of permanent state institutions are given such free reign and when senior officials are all too willing to bow down before an extremist agenda — what hope does Pakistan then have when it comes to winning the fight that must be earnestly fought?”

On the loss of the east-wing, “Revisiting 1971” has become the stock headline in media amidst a lot of breast-beating. Nothing has changed in Pakistan since the armed forces, shamed and forced to lie low for a couple of years, regained their predominant position with a vengeance by deposing and then hanging Z A Bhutto, their own protégé and the Pied Piper who led them into the war then.

But there is an inevitable switch to the present that Pakistan has suffered greatly in more recent times: the Taliban insurgency was the greatest existential threat to state and society since the secession of Bangladesh; and a fifth Balochistan insurgency may be low level in intensity, but is still the longest running in history.

Daily Times newspaper notes that even so, “… the events leading up to it were a cataclysm of incomparable proportions for undivided Pakistan.”

“Unquestionably, East Pakistan was unfairly treated by West Pakistan for much of the quarter century that the two wings were part of the same country. The reluctance of the political and military leadership in present-day Pakistan to abide by the results of the 1970 general election also helped accelerate the crisis. And while arguably Mujibur Rahman and his supporters could have done more to seek a non-violent political settlement after the general election, the stubbornness of West Pakistan’s leaders more than matched that in the eastern wing.”

Drawing parallels between Bangladesh separation and the continuing conflict in Balochistan, it laments that there has been “a continuing effort to shield the public from the unvarnished, authenticated truths of the war of secession and a willful failure to apply the lessons of that devastating conflict to Balochistan and the erstwhile tribal districts that have witnessed terrible violence in the first two decades of the 21st century.”

As for making the Hamoodur Rahman Commission report declassified by the state, the newspaper points to PM Khan’s repeated stress on the need for greater transparency and the people’s right to information. “Mr Khan could make a signal contribution to national history by fully declassifying the Hamoodur Rahman Commission report and also making public more recent reports such as that of the Abbottabad Commission.” The last reference is clearly to how Al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden came to hide himself in that garrison city for long years till the United States special force located and eliminated him.

Writing a two-part series in The Friday Times, Haris Ahmed points out that “while Pakistan may successfully have removed trace of the 1971 war, Bangladesh has understandably kept memories of their war of independence alive, and is often part of public discourse there, even if it is not in Pakistan.”

He avers: “The war is destined to be a part of Bangladesh’s collective memory till eternity: the red in the Bangladeshi flag represents the sun that rose on the new state after the blood sacrificed by the East Pakistanis to gain independence. Bangladeshis are reminded of the war every time they look at their flag.”

By contrast, he says: “Pakistan’s distancing itself from its history, and hence, from the follies of its past is responsible for many of the ills it faces today. An insurgency in the restive Balochistan, long denied its right to regulate its affairs, or its fair share in its resources, is entering its thirteenth year. Military excesses in the province to solve what is essentially a political problem are proof that the country has learned nothing from its past.”

Similarly, he points out that “State policies of nursing terrorist sanctuaries in ex-FATA have sparked outrage in those regions, leading to a peaceful rights movement that has demanded redressal of their concerns, and that has, in keeping with past traditions, been labeled as a secessionist, foreign-sponsored movement by the state.”

Haris Ahmed’s list of complaints is long. “The maltreatment of various ethnic groups, as well as ethnic and sectarian violence that set the country ablaze in the past three decades is also a manifestation of the state’s ill-founded policies which it has continued to pursue willy-nilly for years, and which now tear at the already strained fabric of the state.”

He raises an alarm on the well-being of democracy. “There are murmurs that attempts will soon be made, with a docile Parliament now in place, to roll-back the autonomy granted to the provinces in their affairs by the 18th Amendment to the 1973 Constitution of the country.”

Obviously, there are many people in Pakistan who think that successive governments, controlled by the establishment, have many skeletons to hide. There is now a renewed clamour that lessons from the past ought to be learned if the conflicts of the present are to be durably resolved.

(The author is geopolitical analyst. The contents of the article are his views and not necessarily be agreed by the newspaper’s policy.)