Historical illiteracy

Published : Dec 28, 2012 00:00 IST

A worms-eye view of the historical inevitability of the birth of Bangladesh.

MAJOR GENERAL (Retd) Khadim Hussain Rajas A Stranger in My Own Country: East Pakistan, 1969-71 is a cry of despair from a distant time and even a distant land. For the Pakistan in which he found himself a stranger no longer exists. Its pretensions were ended on December 16, 1971, when Governor A.A.K. Niazi signed the surrender documents proclaiming a new country, Bangladesh, out of the debris of the ill-conceived Pakistan artificially created a quarter century earlier, to quote Gen. Raja in his final peroration, as a homeland for the Muslims of the subcontinent, which it never was and could never have become.

Gen. Raja was witness to the last days of the Quaid-e-Azams (Mohammad Ali Jinnah) raj, a witness who had intimations of the coming catastrophe but was swept along to be part of the disaster by his duties as Deputy Martial Law Administrator in East Pakistan and commanding officer of the division occupying Dhaka. His account, by no means in the league of Herb Feldmans The End and the Beginning or even Rajas contemporary, Brig. Abdur Rahman Siddiqis Pakistan: The End Game, An Onlookers Journal, 1969-71, is valuable as a worms-eye view of how Islamabads self-inflicted wounds turned gangrenous, leaving the limb with no alternative but to be cut off.

Gen. Raja arrived in Khulna (in Bangladesh) towards the last quarter of 1969 to find himself in an environment so strikingly unfriendly that I felt like a stranger in my own country, and totally unwelcome as a West Pakistani. A more intelligent worm would have understood that this was because of the fundamental flaws in the conception of a nation, which was to be the homeland for the Muslims of the subcontinent, but that never crops up anywhere in this account. Instead, the blame attaches to the 20 per cent Hindu minority on Pakistani territory providing ideal conditions for infiltration, subversion and sabotage and exposing the big labour force in Khulna to bribes and subversion by a potent Hindu minority. As for the massive crowds attending Sheikh Mujibur Rahmans meetings, they all, says Gen. Raja, fell prey to his propaganda, hook, line and sinker.

It is this kind of misreading of the causes of seething discontent, even more than the evident complacency of Governor Abdul Monem Khan, that left the (West) Pakistani establishment stranded in the quicksands of Bangladeshs assertion of its separate identity, an identity of language, culture, history and secularism far truer to the origins of the end of the beginning, and far more deep-rooted, than the bogus, unidimensional sectarian assertion of Pakistan as the homeland of the Muslims of the subcontinent on which Jinnah had founded his political ambitions. Indeed, it is instructive that Gen. Raja mentions only in passing the Quaids folly in declaring Urdu as the sole national language of a country in which no more than 4 per cent of the people spoke Urdu as their mother tongue (see Farzana Shaikhs Making Sense of Pakistan), a declaration made moreover in Dhaka, with supreme lack of sensitivity or understanding, within months of Pakistan coming into being. That, much more than the follies of President Yahya Khan, was what led to the historical inevitability of the birth of Bangladesh.

Instead, Gen. Raja recalls the delinquencies of the comical and cruel cast of characters assembled by Gen. Yahya Khan to deal with the crisis in Dhaka: Governor Niazi, who asks Gen. Raja for the phone numbers of his Bengali girlfriends after having earlier proposed, apparently in all seriousness, the mass rape of Bengali women as the way to teach the Bongs a lesson; the venality of Gen. Tikka Khan, military chief of the Pakistani forces in East Pakistan; and Yahya Khan himself, cavorting in the Governors palace while keeping his principal aides in Dhaka at bay from arrival to departure. I had not realised until I read this slim memoir the extent to which West Pakistani Army officers regarded Dhaka as the Hira Mandi of the East.

No wonder then that Gen. Raja recalls a meeting soon after his arrival, chaired by the military commander, the urbane and sophisticated Gen. Sahabzada Yaqub Khan (later Foreign Minister of Pakistan), at which the former Chief Minister of East Pakistan, Ataur Rahman, gently enquires when the West Pakistan Army of Occupation will quit the East Wing. There was pin-drop silence in the hall; the statement elicited not a single response. Gen. Raja says, Ataur Rahmans statement came as a great shock and still rings in my ears. I will never forget the scene as long as I live. It clearly indicated the polarisation that had taken place by then.

Gen. Raja, of course, is a soldier and can clearly not be held responsible for neither digging deeper nor having any alternative political course to offer. The problem is that he is no less a non-comprehending fauji than those who were then running his country. One would, however, have expected Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to devise a more intelligent response. Instead, Gen. Raja describes Yahya Khan flying out of Dhaka on January 12, 1971, after the Awami League had swept the board on a tidal wave of public opinion in the December 1970 elections, direct to Larkana to confer with the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) chairman who had done almost the same in West Pakistan. They were joined by Pakistans Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), Gen. Abdul Hamid Khan. The trio agreed on a military crackdown code-named Operation Blitz. (The sheer unsuitability of using Hitlers precedent for their Hitlerian plans, it appears, did not strike either Yahya Khan or his COAS, or even the less illiterate Bhutto.)

On March 1, at Bhuttos instance, Yahya Khan postponed the inaugural meeting in Dhaka of the National Assembly (Parliament) scheduled for March 3. Bhutto had earlier ordered his elected members not to go to Dhaka. (The only one to defy him was Ahmed Raza Kasuri. For his defiance, Kasuris father was shot dead after Bhutto became Big Boss in West Pakistan. And for that murder, Bhutto paid with his life to Zia-ul-Haq. Politics is so much easier in India!)

Yahya Khan followed this up with a provocative broadcast on March 6, in which he placed all the blame on Mujibur Rahman and none on Bhutto. Mujibur Rahman, therefore, came under intense pressure from within his movement to use the opportunity provided by his public meeting on March 7 to unilaterally declare independence. Gen. Raja claims that twice on March 6, first in the early evening and later in the middle of the night, emissaries of Mujibur Rahman (whose names he cannot remember nor have recorded) turned up at his home clandestinely seeking the Generals intervention to arrest Mujibur Rahman and bring him to the safety of the cantonment to protect him from the wrath of his own followers.

Model of restraint

In point of fact, Mujibur Rahmans oration on March 7 was a model of restraint in the face of severe provocation. Indeed, he categorically asserted that Pakistan must remain united and that he was not seeking separation. Gen. Raja claims the credit for this restraint, saying he told Mujibur Rahmans unnamed emissaries that he, Gen. Raja, was convinced that Mujib was a patriot, and that his role as a student leader in Calcutta during the movement and agitation for Pakistan was well-known to me but that I would have the armyarmed with guns and tanksstanding by in the cantonment, ready to move immediately if he declared independence, adding I would have the army march in immediately with orders to wreck the meeting and, if necessary, raze Dhaka to the ground. If he had meant it, frankly I can see no difference between Gen. Raja and Gen. Tikka Khan whom he so excoriates.

In all fairness, Gen. Raja includes in the appendix an alternative version of the events of March 6-7 by the Bangladeshi intellectual and patriot and a close adviser to Mujibur Rahman, Rahman Sobhan, who says: Subsequent suggestions that he [Mujibur Rahman] lost control to extremist elements in his party bear no relation to facts, and overlook the point that the crucial issue [relating to whether or not unilateral declaration of independence should be made at the public meeting] had been resolved before March 7, after which Mujibur Rahmans authority on all substantive issues was unchallenged within the party.

Notwithstanding Mujibur Rahmans restraint, Gen. Tikka Khan replaced the moderate Gen. Yaqub Khan the following day. A week later, Yahya Khan arrived and was bluntly told by the Air Force commander, Air Commodore Masood, that military action was not the solution. For his pains, Masood was promptly relieved of his command and replaced by the more accommodating Air Commodore Inam-ul-Haque. Vice Admiral S.M. Ahsan had quit in disgust a few days earlier. A completely new team, raw, uninformed about the East Wing, led by Gen. Tikka Khan, whose knowledge of the province was superficial and who obviously had a negative approach to those of us who were at the helm of affairs, took over and was readied for the military crackdown.

Gen. Yaqub Khan had on March 4 decided he had had enough and, in the face of Yahya Khan not confirming that he would soon arrive in Dhaka to defuse the situation, sent in his resignation. Gen. Raja claims that he and his fellow-No.2, Gen. Rao Farman Ali, had also sought Yaqub Khans permission to put in their papers but had been advised against doing so.

On March 17, secret orders were issued to Gen. Raja and Rao Farman Ali, orally to keep matters even more secret, to be ready for military action and to prepare a plan accordingly. Next day, Gen. Raja arranged for his wife to keep our Bengali ADC busy and away from the office so that they could get on with their planning, a plan that was approved on March 18 without any discussion. Bhutto then arrived on March 21 in an atmosphere where he could have been lynched.

At this point, Gen. Rajas reservations over his complicity in what he believed was the wrong strategy appear to have peaked. He says a person he does not want to name suggested that he and his colleagues take the military and political leadership, then assembled in Dhaka [that is, Yahya Khan and Bhutto, Niazi and Gen. Tikka Khan], into custody and assume control of the country. Gen. Raja apparently pondered over it, and then decided against doing so as I would continue with my work in the line of duty. (Gen. Raja does not seem to realise that he sounds exactly like Hitlers generals.)

Operation Searchlight, as Gen. Raja code-named his plan, began by hoodwinking Brig. M.R. Mozumdar, the highest-ranking Bengali officer in the province, then commanding the East Bengal Regimental Centre in Chittagong, into accompanying Gen. Raja to Dhaka where he was taken into protective custody and later moved to West Pakistan where he remained until repatriation. Such chicanery towards a fellow-officer is described by Gen. Raja as a little ruse.

Yahya Khan fled East Pakistan secretly on the night of March 25. Bhutto fled the same evening after watching with quiet satisfaction Dhaka University burn from the roof of the Intercontinental. On March 26, Mujibur Rahman was arrested by a colonel and lodged in a girls school.

Meanwhile, in Chittagong, young Major Zia-ur-Rahman (later to be instrumental in the overthrow of Mujibur Rahman and the wanton massacre of his family) had killed his Commanding Officer and two other West Pakistani colleagues (and) took up a defensive position and isolated the town from the cantonment.

Making full use of the transmitter located on Kaptai Road, Zia-ur-Rahman then incited the Bengalis to rise in revolt but Gen. Raja succeeded in striking the station from the air and putting it out of action. Chittagong was retaken on March 29. The Bangladesh flag [that Zia-ur-Rahman had hoisted] was pulled down and presented to me as a war trophy which I cherish to this day. That, however, did not help Gen. Raja. Niazi, Tikka Khan and Yahya Khan decided two days later to post Gen. Raja back to a sinecure in West Pakistan as their way of scorning his warnings and apprehensions. He, therefore, escaped defeat, dishonour and imprisonment. What happened later is a matter of history.

Yes, indeed, a matter of history. But reflecting on the events now four decades old, Gen Raja allows himself a final chapter, Last Words, given over to asking what happened and why. He wisely sets the Pakistan nation the task of analys(ing) the tragedy in detail, recogniz(ing) the mistakes made; and resolv(ing) not to repeat them. Yet, his own effort to do so remains superficial and episodic, impregnated with blatant bias and perverted racial prejudice. The people of Bangladesh are dismissed as starved and famished, indolent or unemployed, and very volatile and easily excitable. He added: Like most illiterate people, they were also very gullible. If you sneezed loudly enough, you could collect a crowd of several thousands in a few minutes. And this is the same commentator who deplores the haughty, colonial attitude of West Pakistan civil servants allegedly serving in East Pakistan. Talk of the kettle calling the pot black.

Economics of exploitation

Without really understanding the economics of exploitation that charactersied the relationship between the two wings, Gen. Raja touches on the small landholdings in the East contrasted with the vast holdings of the latifundia who ruled (and still rule) the roost in rural West Pakistan. He mentions the lack of industrialisation in the East in comparison with the explosive growth in the West, but does not appear to comprehend the need to reconcile growth with regional equality and social justice, focussing instead on the East Wings comparative lack of natural resources. Of course, he does not even begin to explain why if Bangladesh were such a basket case, it is now doing far better than rump Pakistan in overall economic performance. If Gen. Rajas economics is deficient, his history is worse. He describes Muslims as being reduced to serfs and menials after the Battle of Plassey in 1757 with no sense of the Mughals having reigned for 101 years furtheror of the Muslim serfs and menials who made up the bulk of the Muslim population even in the Mughal heyday (and suffered the opprobrium of not being Ashrafi, which is how the high-born and largely foreign-descended Muslim aristocracy described itself).

Historical illiteracy is taken to further heights by his description of the British as having created a class of Hindu rajas and landlords in Bengal who dominated and exploited the Muslim peasantry. No mention of the biggest raja of them all, Khawaja Nazimuddin, the Nawab of Dhaka and the second Governor-General of Pakistan, whose oppression and exploitation of Muslim peasantry far exceeded that of any Hindu rajaor of the Muslim rajas and landlords who held sway all over north and central India from the foothills of the Himalayas to the Deccan, or, indeed, of the millions of Muslim haari, who to this day are in pawn of Muslim landlords in the Punjab and Sind provinces of Pakistan. It is this kind of vulgar communalism that lies at the heart of, and damagingly distorts, whatever insights Gen. Raja may have about why his country split into two. At one point, he seems to recognise that while Islam was a common bond it could not make up for the shortcomings caused by physical separation. Then he slips into the key factor of differences in language and culture but immediately loses track by blaming it all on the large Hindu minorityabout 17 per cent in East Pakistan(who) took advantage of these differences and did all they could to emphasise and accentuate them. This is followed by the worst line in a bad book, The Bengali Hindus became one with the Bengali Muslims, through the medium of the Bengali language and the so-called (sic!) Bengali culture.

That 40 years after the event and 65 years after the creation of Pakistan, there should still be such blindness as to not recognise the typically South Asian diversity of Bangladesh and India, and, of course, Pakistan itself, tells us more about the fundamental flaws in the very conception of Pakistan than all of Gen. Rajas railing against the fripperies and the fopperies of the politicians and military leadership of the Pakistan of that time. Which is why the best thing about this book is the inner flap on the dust jacket which tells us that Gen. Raja was born in 1922, which means he was a fully-grown adult of 25 at the time of Partition; 43 when Pakistan went to war with India in 1965, thereby starkly showing the East Pakistanis how vulnerable they were; 47 when he arrived in Dhaka and 49 when he left that city. He belonged to the generation that is now being phased out of Pakistanis who were Indians before they became Pakistanis.

From what I know of Pakistanis born immediately before Partition (as I was) or well after Pakistan came into being, they are Pakistanis because they are Pakistanis and have no need to define themselves in negative terms as being Pakistani only because they are emphatically not Indians. Few of them would harbour the kind of communal prejudice that permeates Gen. Rajas thinking; indeed, a former Foreign Minister, Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri, born in the same year as I was, pointed out to me the other day that nearly 90 per cent of Pakistanis have never met a Hindu in their lives and, indeed, that I was the first Hindu he had ever met when we arrived together at the same Cambridge college in the same year (1961).

Even in the Pakistan armed forces, let alone vast swathes of Pakistani public opinion, Gen. Rajas view that the enemy has not given up. He is now trying to break up the remnants of Pakistan would sound Jurassic Park. We have to thrust the Khadim Rajas and the generals of his time into the dustbin of history to move towards a sane and sensible relationship between our two great nations. Our biggest mistake would be to think, as most Indians do, that the Raja syndrome is the typical Pakistan syndrome of the 21st century.

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