Tuesday April 24, 2018 12:16 AM

Better late than never, Mr Sharif

  • Published at 06:23 PM January 11, 2018
  • Last updated at 12:46 PM January 12, 2018
Better late than never, Mr Sharif
Is he sorry about 1971?REUTERS

It would do well for Pakistan to issue a public apology

Pakistan’s ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, at a gathering of lawyers in Islamabad’s Punjab House on Tuesday, commented on Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, saying “Bengalis were mistreated, and Bangladesh’s founding father was not a born rebel,” which has already become a widely circulated news story.

Pakistan’s former leader added: “Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was not a rebel, but was made into one,” due to the fact that “the Bengalis had a central role in the effort to create Pakistan, but we did not treat them well, and separated them from us.”

I do not agree with his first comment on Bangabandhu, but of course, looking back at history, I couldn’t agree more that Bengalis were not only mistreated, but were looked down upon as an inferior race compared to the Punjabis, who held power in Pakistan. That included many of the army generals who waged a civil war in erstwhile East Pakistan in 1971.

But saying Bangabandhu was not a rebel is untrue.

The basics of freedom

Bangabandhu loved his country and its people. Since his younger days, he understood how the Punjabis treated Bengalis and wanted to change the way of life for erstwhile East Pakistan — and in doing so, his dream to liberate Bengalis from the Pakistani hegemony evolved, and then, gradually, materialised.

Our Father of the Nation slowly emerged as a leader to reckon with, surpassing the popularity of politicians like Husseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy and Moulana Abdul Khan Bhashani, who were quite well-known in Pakistan. Bangabandhu emerged as the symbol of courage and strength to army officers like my father, who had fought the Punjabi hegemony back in the day too.

Bangabandhu’s plans for a country free of Punjabi hegemony had been made clear in his famous Six-Point Movement to end the anti-government action in the then East Pakistan. Just recalling two of the six demands makes it clear that a people-loving leader, fondly named Bangabandhu, had planned for an eventual independent Bangladesh.

My martyred father repeatedly talked of a free country under Bangabandhu. He became surer of his plans after secretly meeting Bangabandhu in 1968. My father believed that there will be such a country which the Bengali leader talked about, making Bengali officers and soldiers in the Pakistani armed forces ready to fight in the event of an attack from the Pakistani forces — unless the demands he made were accepted.

This is a good opportunity for Nawaz Sharif to admit and acknowledge that the Pakistani army did commit genocide in Bangladesh and make a public apology for such a heinous act

The most important two points were a separate currency and armed forces for East Pakistan.

I mention Punjabis as they have started to pay the price in the Pathan area of Balochistan, where a military operation has been silencing a revolt for freedom in the mountainous region. Gilgit has been a complete scene of violence and ruthlessness of Punjabis, according to some of my friends in London.

“Maybe, if we were located at a distance like your country from Pakistan, we might have by now achieved our freedom,” one Baloch said, alleging that tanks were used to put down rebellion in his Balochistan.  This was echoed by a Baloch taxi driver in Islamabad during my visit to Pakistan several years ago, when I went to shoot “Road to Dhaka,” an NTV program for the Saarc summit in Dhaka.

Will he admit it was genocide?

Himself in thick soup now, Sharif has finally come out with the facts that his country had refused to acknowledge for the past 47 years — which is, indeed, heartening. But the question remains, will he now also agree that there was a genocide in Bangladesh in 1971?

Then comes the question of who is responsible for the genocide — which could have been easily avoided.

A genocide, indeed, could have been avoided if they had paid heed not only to the people’s verdict for making Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman the prime minister of East Pakistan, but also changed their ways of looking down on Bengalis as an inferior race compared to the Punjabis.

The Bengali army officers dissolved the illusion of Pakistanis that they were “non-fighters” and inferior, by defending Pakistan in the 1965 war with India — by undertaking suicide missions as the Indian army tried to move into Lahore in Pakistan.

Small stepping stones

I would like to mention two incidents about my martyred colonel father. He had slapped a Punjabi officer very hard for calling him: “You Bangali” as a derogatory remark.

He was court martialled, but the court with British officers still in the just-partitioned sub-continent gave a verdict in my father’s favour — agreeing that it was an insult to address someone in derogatory terms and manner.

The other one was that Punjabis forced the Bengali soldiers to take roti for their meals. In 1966, the Bengali soldiers pleaded to my father to have rice once a day as roti was not their staple food.

Despite warnings of being court-martialled, he wrote explaining that once a day, a rice meal must be allowed for his Bengali soldiers.

It resulted in an agreement from the army headquarters in Rawalpindi signed by the General Yayha Khan, who later earned the infamous name “Butcher of Bengal.”

To that end, this is a good opportunity for Nawaz Sharif to admit and acknowledge that the Pakistani army did commit genocide in Bangladesh, and make a public apology for such a heinous act.

Nadeem Qadir is a UN Dag Hammarskjold Fellow in journalism.

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