Regrets to Bangladesh

By Dr Aftab Ahmed, Dawn, Friday 3 August 2002, 13 Jamadi-us-Saani 1423

During his official visit to Dhaka, The President of Pakistan Gen. Pervez Musharraf expressed regrets over the events of 1971, which were no other than the excesses committed by the army on the civilian population of what was then a part of Pakistan.

These excesses had been highlighted and commented upon in the report of the Hamoodur Rahman Commission, which was released by the Musharraf government sometime ago. Having made this authentic record public Gen. Musharraf apparently thought it proper to express regrets over what had happened.

While standing as an honoured guest on the site of the memorial for those who perished in what the Bangladeshis call their war of liberation it was an appropriate occasion for him to respond to a long-standing demand of Bangladesh for an apology from Pakistan—a demand which had acquired a sharper edge after the publication of the Hamoodur Rahman Commission report.

The Bangladesh government has welcomed the expression of regrets by Gen. Musharraf and is quite satisfied with it. The Awami League and some other opposition groups are of course unhappy: they think it is not enough because it falls short of an apology. Let us see the difference between ‘apology and regret’. According to the Oxford Dictionary an apology means “regretful acknowledgement of an offence or failure”, and regret means, “a feeling of sorrow or repentance or remorse”.

So the expression of regrets may imply an apologetic attitude but it is not an apology per se. Leaving aside the question of semantics what is important is that Gen. Musharraf is the first Pakistani ruler who made a commendable gesture to allay a grievance by making a public statement of regrets and what is even more important is that it has been made by a ruler of Pakistan who also happens to be the chief of the army, an institution which was held responsible for the 1971 excesses.

The statement in question as formulated bespeaks the caution and reserve observed in consideration of any possible reaction because the general public opinion in Pakistan, based as it is on certain false perception and illusions were nurtured by our media on the emergence of Bangladesh and have persisted ever since in one form or the other. One of them is that it was the miscreants of the Awami League who terrorized and intimidated people of East Pakistan to vote for the Awami League secessionist programme of six Points in the 1970 elections, otherwise they were all for one Pakistan. Coupled with it is the perception that the political discontent in East Pakistan was due to the intrigue of the Hindu teachers.

But as Kunwar Idris has rightly pointed out in his article ‘Lessons from the Past’ (Dawn August 4, 2002). “The time and events have proved wrong all these views and assumptions. Bangladesh has not fallen under Indian hegemony nor is any remorse felt there on breaking away from Pakistan.”

In any case, the protagonists of the theory of the intrigue of the Hindu teachers have no answer to the question as to why the said intrigue did not work in 1945-46 elections in which Pakistan was the main issue and the Muslim League captured all the seats of the Central Assembly and 113 out of a total of 119 seats of the provincial assembly in Bengal. That was the time when Hindu teachers were there in much larger numbers and in full force of their anti-Pakistan activities. Even so, the Muslim Bengal gave a clear vote for Pakistan.

Why don’t we admit that something had gone wrong in the intervening period of 25 years, which turned the tide in East Pakistan and it gave an almost unanimous vote for secession in 1970 polls, in spite of desperate efforts by Yahya Khan's martial law administration to split the vote through Al-Shams and Al-Badar who were heavily financed and supported in every possible way?

Kunwar Idris goes on to add: “Now almost 32 years after the creation of Bangladesh, even the blustering patriots of that time concede that had the power been transferred through the parliament to the winning party, Pakistan would have stayed together, or at least the bloodshed that accompanied the separation could have been avoided.”

Yes, the bloodshed accompanying the separation could have been avoided if the army was not in control. It is again an illusion that Yahya Khan could transfer power to Mujib. There is also the question: was Mujib prepared to accept it?

Safdar Mahmood has listed some of Mujib's statements in his book: “Pakistan Divided” (Pages 72-72) which provide an answer. On one occasion Mujib is reported to have said that the six Points “charted a path where Bengalis had to break the bondage of Pakistan”. Mujib also confessed in a TV interview with David Frost that he had been “working for Bangladesh since 1948”. Mr. Sultan M. Khan, a former foreign secretary of Pakistan, has disclosed in an article that during an RCD meeting in Dhaka soon after the 1970 elections, foreign ministers of Turkey and Iran called on Mujib, with our government's approval, and he told them that he would “rather be the Founding Father of Bangladesh than the Prime Minister of Pakistan”.

In this regard, I may perhaps record a personal memory also. I was joint secretary of the central ministry of information in Dhaka, I met Sh. Mujibur Rahman for the first time, at one of the British deputy high commissioner's parties soon after the martial law of 1969. I was introduced to him by Mr S.G.M. Budruddin, the then editor of the Morning News, Dhaka. During the course of conversation Mr. Budruddin said to Mujib that as a disciple of Mr Suhrawardy he had to rise to the occasion and play his role, Folding his hands in an apologetic manner, Mujib replied: “Budruddin Bhai, Suhrawardy Sahib was a great man. He was an all-India leader of the Muslims, and later an All-Pakistan leader. I am a very small man, I can only be a Bangladesh leader”.

After the Awami League had swept the polls in 1970, Mujib is reported to have said to many people, including Mr Budruddin: “Do you think I can run this country on the basis of the numerical strength of my party in the National Assembly with the Punjabi army and Punjabi bureaucracy still around”?

And now something about the history of Pakistan with particular reference to East-West relations in order to bring into focus the rise of the secessionist movement in the eastern wing.

Pakistan was created as a single sovereign state with two zones; the eastern and the western, but at no stage of its history as a single country did the Bengali Muslim leaders fail to invoke the Lahore Resolution which had visualized independent states in the north-western and eastern zones of India. In the first provincial elections in 1954 Moulvi Fazlul Haq and Mr H.S. Suhrawardy set up a United Front and campaigned on the basis of a 21-point programme which declared, inter alia, that “East Bengal will get complete autonomy according to the Lahore Resolution.”

Again, during the framing of the 1956 constitution of which Suhrawardy was one of the architects, most of the leaders of his party, the Awami League, did invoke the Lahore Resolution, talked about a confederal system and did lay a claim to maximum provincial autonomy for East Pakistan inside the Constituent Assembly and outside.

Suhrawardy himself went along with the then Prime Minister Choudhry Muhammad Ali, M.A. Gurmani and other Punjabi leaders to turn all of West Pakistan into One Unit, in spite of the opposition from the small provinces of Sindh, NWFP and Balochistan, and also agreed on the principle of parity between East and West Pakistan in spite of East Pakistan majority on the basis of population. Finally, the first point in Shaikh Mujib-ur-Rehman's Six Points, which became Awami League's “battle cry” during the 1970 elections emphasized that the future constitution of Pakistan should provide for a “federation of Pakistan in the true sense on the basis of the Lahore Resolution.”

The Awami League won all the seats in East Pakistan except one from where Nurul Amin was elected. But the Six-Point programme was not acceptable to political and military leaders of West Pakistan.

The Awami League and its militant wing mounted a movement. The Bengali civil servants and even the personnel of the army joined the anti-government demonstrations. There were protracted negotiations between Yahya Khan and Mujibur Rahman as also between West Pakistani leaders Bhutto and others and Mujibur Rahman. But there was no agreement and the Awami League, particularly its militant wing, went on a course of rebellion. Eventually in March 1971 when General Yahya Khan resorted to army action, the Bengali Muslims fought what they call their “war of liberation.”

The Indian army intervened, Pakistan was dismembered and Bangladesh emerged as a new and independent state—a free Muslim national homeland in the eastern zone of India. Now, was it not in a way the fulfilment of what had been envisaged in the Lahore Resolution of 1940? Does it not basically conform to the formula devised in 1940, by our founding fathers, the leadership of All-India Muslim League?

We in Pakistan, sometime, refer to the civil war in East Pakistan without going into its background and conveniently attribute the emergence of Bangladesh to the Indian armed support. Let us, however, pause and think. Was it the Indian armed support alone which was responsible for Bangladesh's coming into being? Granted that it was one of the decisive factors in the last phase of the civil war but the civil war itself was the culmination of a long history of bitter prejudices, and grievances of East Pakistanis against West Pakistan's power elite based on feelings of deprivation and of non-participation in running the affairs of the country in political, economic and administrative fields. They felt that they were treated like a colony whereas they were numerically the majority part of the country.