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Most Pakistanis would rather forget the tragic day of 16 Dec, 1971, than learn from it

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The East Pakistan Tragedy shows the pitfalls that Pakistan must avoid in civil-military relations, military decision-making in the politics, and ideas of superiority that can only divide the nation.

Most nations remember their moments of disaster more than their hours of glory. It helps in learning lessons and avoiding future catastrophes.

As national calamities go, Pakistan’s failed misadventure in erstwhile East Pakistan features among the greatest tragedies to befall any country in recent times. With the surrender of its army’s Eastern Command to the joint forces of India and Bangladesh on 16 December, 1971, Pakistan lost more than half its population, a third of its territory, and much of its prestige.

But most Pakistanis would rather forget that tragic day than remember or learn from it.

Soon after the debacle, which surprised Pakistanis because every aspect of it had been hidden from them, a Commission was set up to inquire into the circumstances that led to the creation of Bangladesh. Headed by Supreme Court Chief Justice, Hamoodur Rahman, the Commission prepared a comprehensive report, which has not been officially released to this day. The Commission’s findings were leaked three decades later, only to be cursorily discussed in Pakistan’s media, before being ignored once again.

The Hamood Commission Report exposed Pakistan’s politicians at the time as selfish individuals willing to risk the country’s future for personal gains. But it was the army that got exposed the most. The president and Chief Martial Law Administrator at that time, General Yahya Khan, and his closest aides were described as depraved hedonists. The military leadership was painted as a victim of delusions about its strength and the state of Pakistan’s international relations. Men trained well in the art of military science were shown to have formulated a ‘defective strategy.’

It is to protect the military’s charisma as Pakistan’s institution of last resort that the Hamoodur Rehman Commission Report was never officially put in the public domain. The East Pakistan fiasco, culminating in the surrender of an entire army Corps, raises questions about the army’s institutional role in Pakistan’s history. Most members of Pakistan’s elite prefer to avoid these tough questions, lest they offend the powerful military. But shouldn’t the military itself be most interested in figuring out what went wrong, so that the errors are never repeated again?

Like all of Pakistan’s military rulers, General Yahya Khan had assumed power at a time of national crisis, with considerable support from the people. He had attempted to reform the country’s polity and lay the foundations of democracy guided by him and his uniformed associates.

Personal weaknesses relating to wine and women notwithstanding, he was reputed to be an able soldier and a financially honest man. His intentions were probably as good as those of other military rulers that have assumed power in Pakistan. But his inability to understand and deal with the political issues led to a military defeat, and the division of Pakistan.

Instead of accepting the sentiment of Bengalis, respecting their identity, and granting greater autonomy, Yahya insisted on imposing his narrow vision of what it meant to be Pakistani by force. Similar attitudes can be found at work in various regions of Pakistan today.

Yahya believed that he had been assigned a mission by the Almighty to save Pakistan from politicians, who he believed to be corrupt and unsuited to lead the nation. He did not waver for one minute from the ‘strategy’ that he and his fellow generals evolved, ignoring public opinion and the voices of the intelligentsia. The ‘strategy’ turned out to be a recipe for national disaster.

The lesson, if there is one, is to acknowledge that the complex problems of a nation such as Pakistan cannot be solved by the simple though straightforward approach of a soldier with a sense of God-given mission. Soldiers are trained to be courageous and to ignore suggestions that interfere with their brave prescriptions. A ruler, on the other hand, needs to take into account many factors that may not fit the do-or-die paradigm.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower, a military hero, was elected President as the nominee of the Republican Party in 1952, succeeding President Harry Truman, the quintessential politician. On the day of Eisenhower’s inauguration, Truman, reportedly remarked to his staff: “Poor Ike. All his life he has told soldiers ‘Do this, do that’ and his orders have been carried out. Now he’ll do the same from the Oval office and discover that his commands are not always fulfilled.” Although Eisenhower won the re-election four years later, his tenure as President was far from successful or brilliant.

Since General Ayub Khan took over as the first indigenous commander of the Pakistan army, replacing British generals who lingered for a few years after Independence, officers of the Pakistan army have looked down upon the country’s civilians. Politicians, in particular, have been an object of contempt and the military men have always taken it upon themselves to save the country from its own civilian leaders. There are reasonable grounds for criticism of the country’s traditional political class. But after every military intervention, overt or covert, Pakistan’s leadership crisis has only deepened.

The East Pakistan Tragedy shows the pitfalls that Pakistan must avoid in civil-military relations, military decision-making in the political arena, and ideas of religious or racial superiority that can only divide the nation. But the debacle is seen only as an affront to the honour of Pakistan and its army that resulted from India’s machinations. It is bad enough that Pakistan underwent the loss of great magnitude; it is worse that the Pakistani elite refuses to draw lessons from that great loss.

Husain Haqqani, director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute in Washington D.C., was Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States from 2008-11. His forthcoming book is ‘Reimagining Pakistan.’

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  1. As evidenced by their oft spues on blogs that Bangladesh’s split-off from Pornistan was India’s fault — despite of it having been royally-debunked in 2012 by the posthumous publication of THE first commander of “Operation Searchlight”, Khadim Hussein Raja!

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