IN less than four weeks Pakistan will be marking the 50th anniversary of one of its deepest self-inflicted wounds. But anyone hoping that any lesson would have been learnt from Dec 16, 1971, would be a fool.
Nothing much has changed; we are still to accept the primacy of democratic institutions; of those elected in (relatively) free and fair elections to govern without having to constantly look over their shoulder, to second-guess those who consider themselves the real arbiters of power.
Five and half years after the 1971 tragedy rooted in the denial of a popular mandate, an elected civilian prime minister was forcibly removed from office and later executed after a trial that some of the judges, who heard the case at the appeals level, themselves described as a travesty.
The dark decade that came on its heels cast the longest and one of the most evil shadows on our beloved yet blighted land and was only brought to an end by an ‘act of God’. But then God had nothing to do with what happened over the next 11 years.
Before the military operation was launched in March 1971, the headlines were cautious to say the least.
There were four elections whose only object seemed to be to block the elected governments from functioning or taking decisions, as there were wiser heads elsewhere and they had to call the shots. This is not to say the politicians did not contribute to their own downfall.
When there is no level playing field even the mightiest, most seasoned players fall and these were mere novices in the arena with the dice heavily loaded against them. The ‘we know best, what is good for us’ machinations continued.
Then, of course, another ‘bold and the beautiful’ interlude followed and concluded when it was tenable no more. The endless wisdom, the deal-making with the merchants of terror created a ticking bomb that exploded. Even then the wise wouldn’t give the elected government much elbow room, unless they were forced to.
It took 80,000 lives and our brave soldiers on the front line and civilian leaders in tandem to contain it somewhat. Then of course a prime minister, chastened by his follies of the 1990s and running a tight, clean ship, committed the cardinal sin.
He had the cheek to remind the wise and the bold that it was his constitutional, legal and moral right to make key policy decisions. How dare he? What he wanted done in 2016 was recognised as the right decision five years later under immense international pressure.
But not before he had been made to pay a heavy price for his audacity. In fact, the country is still paying the price for his audacious demand of following the Constitution and rule of law. The rest, as they say, is history.
Apart from him, the people and the media too were a major casualty. Most of the media was co-opted to parrot the bold narrative and did so with great relish; with those with pretensions of being independent beaten black and blue and left to bleed by the wayside, the wise dragging the whole country down the path to perdition.
Those with any cred remaining in the media are more or less irrelevant, hanging on for dear life by their fingernails; the others are thriving and unashamedly, un-embarrassingly acting as weathercocks.
You only look at them to ascertain which way the wind is blowing. Not in terms of the ground reality surely but in terms of reflecting the thinking of the holier-than-thou. While nothing’s changed in substance, who our weathercocks saw as heroes yesterday, they label zero today.
To them ineptitude, the incompetence, the vindictiveness, the foot-in-mouth disease, were all signs of a virtuous being till just days before the delayed notification. Today, these are such major follies that slaying the one who betrays these is kosher.
Let me show you what a small sample of headlines in this very newspaper said in March 1971 onwards when Mr Jamil Ansari was the editor. Before the military operation was launched on March 25/26 the headlines were cautious to say the least in the most charitable of ways.
“Mujib and Yahya’s advisers meet again” is the lede and on the same page prominently displayed is another headline: “We are making some progress, says Bhutto”. The next day’s main headline says: “Mujib regrets delay in political solution”. A single column proclaims: “Gen strike tomorrow in East Wing on Mujib’s call” while another news item says: “Bhutto questions autonomy demand [;] Says powers sought resemble sovereignty”.
But then, of course, the saddest announcement came via a banner headline: “Political activity banned: Awami League is outlawed”; then there are other news items on the front page announcing the imposition of censorship etc and other Martial Law regulations.
From then on, the headlines echo the same message: “Army in full control in East Pakistan [:] Return to normality” and then several news items that day and beyond daily informing the reader of the arrest of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and his associates. Common words: ‘calm prevails’; all eastern wing major towns, countryside ‘normal’.
The few hints of what was happening on the ground came in rebuttals and denials in April that year such as: “Vilification by news media in India, UK, US [;] deep rooted conspiracy against Pakistan” and one tell-tale rebuttal headline: “No execution of AL men or students”.
There were days the paper carried officially sanctioned and sanitised news items even on the editorial pages and there were no leaders. This news headline pattern repeats itself till that final day when the surrender and loss of the majority power is described as a ceasefire agreed by local commanders.
In today’s 24X7 news media’s multiple-channel world one would have expected far more introspection of a professional and balanced depiction of reality, of warning against serious perils and pitfalls that threaten our very existence. Instead, what we have is a lot of window dressing.
Whatever happened to integrity if there was any in the first place? There are no exceptions. You and I, our leaders, the wise arbiters of our destiny. All of us have collectively created the mess we find ourselves in today.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, November 21st, 2021