The State of Pakistan wants the 16th of December to pass silently and quickly every year. The execution of Abdul Quader Molla made this extraordinarily difficult this time around. Enough has been said on the execution and its implications, and saying any further will be surplus to requirements. However, not nearly enough has ever been said about 1971. There is some talk every year, lament mostly, meticulously avoiding the specifics. The attempt sometimes it seems is to make the fall of Dhaka look like a natural catastrophe, beyond the locus of human and state control. Let bygones be bygones, Bangladesh is a sovereign nation and the vile Yahya Khan lives in eternal infamy, where he belongs. By all means, however, let’s trace our steps a little and briefly revisit the statements made by the architect of the “decade of prosperity” (according to our textbooks), Field Marshal Ayub Khan.
Ayub’s ghost-written, and unironically titled book, Friends, not Masters, says about the Bengalis as “ … (having) all the inhibitions of downtrodden races and have not yet found it possible to adjust psychologically to the requirement of the new born freedom”. In his diary, he further writes that the East Pakistanis have the desire “to isolate themselves from West Pakistan and revert to Hindu language and culture”. He felt that it was because of the reason that the Bengalis had “no culture and language of their own”. Aside, from the obvious point of the gallant Field Marshal being ignorant, bigoted and a racist, there is something else. The Sandhurst-trained Field Marshal sought to emulate the “Masters” in taking upon himself the mantle to pass condescending, conclusive statements about the natives. Lord Macaulay’s observation on the matter was that the Bengalis were “feeble” people … trampled upon by men of bolder and hardy breeds” and whose “mind is weak … for the purposes of manly resistance”. Repulsive thoughts by two racists, are they not? Yet, we wonder, what went wrong in East Pakistan?
What went wrong was that the State of (West) Pakistan was bred on racism and bigotry, and treated its compatriots with contempt. The violence, murder, rape and pillage that took place was always shocking, however, was it truly surprising given the training and indoctrination?
Ayub’s comment on the absence of a Bengali culture remains relevant today. The elite of West Pakistan felt that they had a culture ‘superior’ to East Pakistan. Bear the fact in mind that it was One Unit at that time and hence all of what is Pakistan was one province. The Bengalis, it may seem, had somehow betrayed the cause by insisting on also being Bengalis and not only becoming Pakistani. That sentiment lives and thrives in today’s Pakistan. The celebration of individual culture and heritage is seen to be suspect and drawing ‘divisions’ and we should all just say that we are Pakistanis only, etc. That is perfect nonsense, of course. We are Punjabis, Baloch, Sindhis, Seraiki, Pashtun, Hazara, etc. and that is an integral to us being Pakistanis.
That is why the Sindh cultural festival is a breath of fresh air and one hopes that the recently announced Punjab Youth Festival will have a cultural dimension as well. There is no reason why this should not happen in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. As someone who, for the most part, resides in the centre of Punjab, Lahore sensibilities are offended every day, multiple times by watching the “Al-Bakistan” licence plate, making one feel alien, at home. The incredible Arabisation of Pakistan, particularly Punjab, is visible on the streets of Lahore. Although the scale is certainly going up now, however, there was always some of that. Many of us grew watching Pakistan Television news, and some may remember the daily Arabic news in the evening (not sure if they are still aired or not). As a child, my explanation for the state forcing us to hear them was that we had two angels, one on each shoulder and the bulletin was necessary to keep them up to date with the happenings of the day, as no one else around spoke Arabic as a language of communication. The flip side (although there is no comparison in scale) is the mostly young people one sees on the society pages of magazines, who look like they are living in an episode of Beverley Hills 90210.
December 16 is also particularly relevant in the context of these cultural identity crises. The charge against innocent Bengalis was led by the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), the party of Molla, Maulana Maudoodi and Syed Munawar Hasan. The JI in general and Maulana Maudoodi, particularly, were the patron saints of the ideology of Pakistan in many ways. It is disturbing to realise how much of an impact the JI has had on society and state, even though it has been consistently rejected in the democratic process. The ideology was and still is one which makes no distinction between culture and religion or perhaps acknowledges no culture outside of religion. Hence, basically not only saying that we are Muslims (not a completely true claim), but going further and saying we are all Arabs, patently absurd. One of the best statements made at the opening ceremony of the Sindh festival was that of a distinction to be made between Islam and pre-Islamic Arabian custom.
Detailed discussions of primary and secondary identities are not suited to opinion pieces. The narrative today is that the Baloch are historically repressed by Baloch sardars and hence, somehow lack reasoning capacity, not far off from what Field Marshal Ayub thought of the Bengalis. As Bacha Khan, Wali Khan and Ghani Khan are being ‘purged’ out of Pashtun history and culture, then of course Malala will be an agent. As palm trees, Al Bakistan automobiles and Metro Bus are becoming Lahore, Punjabi language is being kicked out of our curriculums.
We need to go back to 1971 and then some more; we need neither ‘imported’ culture nor rank it in ridiculous superior and inferior categories. If there is going to be a ‘Pakistani’ identity, it will have to be a sum of proud and clear ethnic identities. The JI and the bleeding green model failed in December 1971 and it is the right time to reflect on this. We need the Sindh festival and festivals for all provinces before we begin planning for a Pakistan festival.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 22nd, 2013.