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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Rape of Bengal: Humanity's Darkest Hour

Photo: Potrait of Ahmed Makhdoon, a staunch Sindiyat nationalist, written on his mind, inscribed in his heart and injected into his soul


ساٸين سسداٸين ڪرين مٿي سنڌ سڪار؍ دوست مٺا دلدار؍ عالم سڀ آباد ڪزين شاھ

ON 16TH December 1971 one of the most horrifying and horrendous, shameful and scandalous, disgraceful and dishonourable, ignominious and infamous act of cowardice and inhumanity came to an end after nine month long saga of chaos, genocide, arson and rape. It is on this day that the barbaric, savage and brutal Pakistan army - about 96,000 animals in uniform - surrendered in Dhaka to the Indian army. The preceding nine months of horror, tyranny and terror will go down in the history of mankind, without any doubt as its darkest hour.

And, I saw with my sinful eyes the rape of the daughters of Bengal and the massacre of the millions of innocent sons of Bengal take place right in my own front yard. And, I lived to tell the world what I saw!

Saturday, 7th November 2009, I was in London, where I attended a gathering – organised by Liberation Group at Irish Cultural Centre - gathering of the tortured, troubled, truncated, tormented and terrorised nations of the world–being brutally bludgeoned by the tyrants of the day. As a humble son of Jeejal Sindhrree, I was there, together with my evergreen warrior sister, Suraiya, and a young, proud dedicated Sindhi with a Sindhi cap, Saaeen Aachar Bozdar.

There were Palestinians, Iraqis, Kurds from Iraq and Turkey, Polisario from Morocco and Bengalees from Bangladesh. We were thoroughly entertained by a remarkable group of Turkish Kurds – with their traditional music and songs. There were speeches too by various nations screaming, sacrificing, striving, struggling g for freedom and human rights.

I, too, had an opportunity to present the case of my brutalised motherland, and fatherland, Sindh, savaged by the vultures, wolves and werewolves of the erstwhile, godless, gutless, senseless country known as Pakistan.

Although not much of a singer, I was so much impressed and inspired by an Irish gentleman and a young Kurdish girl and the lilting melodies of Turkish music band, that I had to come on the floor and dance and sing too in my course voice – I sang a song of Sindh, in sweet language of my motherland, "Peirein pawandee saan, chawandee saan, rahee vancju raat Bhambhore mein."

پيرين پوندي سان؍ چوندي سان؍ رھي وڃ رات ڀنڀور ۾؍

This prompted a middle-aged handsome Bengalee brother to come forward and embrace and hug me. He told me about Bangladesh and asked me where I was at the time Bengalees got their independence. Here is what I told him......

1964 – I joined Juldia Maritime Academy, Chittagong, on a two-year Maritime Studies Course. We were three Sindhis at that time – from 2nd and 3rd Batches of the Academy: Saaeen Altaf Shaikh, who later became a Chief Engineer and a well-known Sindhi travelogue writer, Saaeen Bashir Vistro, my ggothaaee ڳوٺاٸي (from nearby village in Sindh, where I spent my childhood), who later on became a Master Mariner and a senior officer in the Shipping Company in Karachi, and myself.

We had Bengali friends who used to regularly take us to their homes in Dacca, Chittagong, and elsewhere in the then East Pakistan and introduce us to their folks. We had a special relationship with these cultured, artistic-minded, literate, highly sober, astute and loveable Bengalis. In return, we Sindhis were adored, respected and pampered with love and gifts and treated as members of their families.

One of my best friend was a Bengali from Dacca, Nurul Amin. They were seven brothers and had a little sister whom they used to call “Champa,” a sweet, cherubic, angel-faced girl of twelve, with pony tails and a flower in her hair. What a talented little angel she was! She used to play piano – a must item in almost every Bengali’s home - and used to sing with such a sweet and graceful voice that we used to sit transfixed and mesmerised as we heard her play the rhythmic tones of piano and sing.

There was one particular song that I loved to listen over and over again, and she used to always oblige me and my constant demands (farmaaish) and requests. The song was:

“Shaat bhaaee champa, jago rei jago rei; ghuum ghuum thaakei na ghuumei ree ghorei.....”
شات ڀاٸي چمپا جاگو ري؍ جاگو ري؍ گھوم گھوم ٿاڪي نا گھومي ري ھوري؍

This song was about seven brothers and their little sister (just like her own family). Till this day I have not forgotten that cherubic pony-tailed face, and that golden voice and the sweet melodies of her song, “Shaat bahee champa....”

1971 - I was a young Navigating Officer on board a ship and we were in Chittagong, the premier port of the then East Pakistan, loading Jute for Rotterdam and Antwerp.

Suddenly, we heard the guns screaming all over the ship. My wonderful friend, a Bengali, Second Officer, and the Bengali crew were massacred by the brutal, cowards and animals in uniform of the Pakistani Punjabi Army. I survived as I hid myself for four days – without any food, without any water – in the Fore Peak store of the ship.

Bangladesh was born as I came out of my sanctuary. My Bengalee brethren helped me, fed me, took care of me and showered love, affections and kindness over me. They paid for my Air Passage to Singapore, where I was to start a new life, a new beginning, a new chapter in the not-so-long history of my life, far, far away from my motherland, my fatherland, Sindh.

Singapore became my homeland for over forty years since then – and my friends the Bengalees constructed a beautiful home, cottages, palaces in my heart, mind and soul, which I would cherish for as long as I live.

Back to 1971 - what I saw in Chittagong had left deep wounds on my heart and soul - wounds inflicted by the rapists, murderers, barbarian Pakistani soldiers, as I saw streets reddened by the blood of innocent Bengalees, young girls raped and brutally cut into pieces, infants snatched from the arms of their mothers and banged viciously in cold blood against the walls and tree trunks till only the tiny feet were left in the pitiless, merciless. Filthy hands of the barbarians and savages in uniform. The young mothers were than brutally gang-raped and subsequently dismembered, tortured and bludgeoned to death. What I saw was much, much and much more - even the animals will not do the same to their pray - I do not have any words to describe the way children, men and women were lynched by these barbarous, sadistic savages as they shouted, "Allah-o-Akbar."

I went to Dacca to meet my dear friend, Nurul Amin, and his family and especially to hear the song of Shaat Bhaaee Champa. What I heard and saw made me to scream at my Creator, “Why, Oh Lord, Why?” My dear friend was savagely murdered by the coward Pakistan Army and my sweet dear little twelve-year Champa was gang-raped by these animals, and was grabbed by these barbarians from her tiny legs and continuously hit on the walls of the house, till there were nothing but pieces of her flash and bones and blood all over.

Bengalees were now free – freedom that came at a great expense and tremendous sacrifices - free to take destiny in their own hands. JOEI BANGLA – amee tomakei bhalo bhashee.
جوٸي بنگلا؍ امي توماڪي ڀالو ڀاشي؍

I love you my brave, valiant brothers and sisters, sons and daughters in Bangladesh!. We Sindhis had loved you and will always love you, my dear Bengalees. Long Live Bangladesh! Long Live Sindh!

And, Murshid Saaeen Bhittai says:
جي مون گھر اچين سپرين٫ ھوڏَ ڇڏي ھيڏي٫ ڳالھيون ڳجھ اندر جيون٫ تنِ گھريون تو ڏي٫ جي وھين گڏ گوڏي٫ تَ دونر سڻاياٸن دل جا .........(سر بروو ۱؍۱۸)

Jei muun ghari acheen supreen, hodda chhaddei heiddei, Ggaalhiyuun ggujha andara jyuun, tani ghuriyuun to ddei, Jei wiheen gaddu goddei, ta donra sunnaayaeen dil jaa. (Barwo:1/18) Supposing, Beloved! Thou cometh hither, Leaving Thy Vanity far, far away yonder; Fabulous anecdotes aplenty hidden within, Lifting the veil surely with Thee whisper; Supposing, Beloved! Thou knelth together, Carols within heart, chant for Thine pleasure.
......... Translated by Ahmed Makhdoom

First published in Ahmed Makhdoom's Facebook, December 17, 2009

Dr. Ahmed Makhdoom, Professor, Oceanographic Sciences and Maritime Studies, Singapore, Malaysia

Friday, December 25, 2009

Same enemies; same blunders?


DECEMBER 16, 1971 and the fall of Dhaka should remind us in Pakistan of the follies of our leaders and the repercussions of unfettered military action against one's own people. It should also be a time to ponder over the role of our neighbour, India, in the dismemberment of our country and the complicity of the major powers, in giving legitimacy to this first break-up of a post-colonial nation since the end of the Second World War. The war in what was then East Pakistan was not the first civil war that had happened, although once India stepped-in it ceased to be a mere civil war, but it was the first war that split up a sovereign member of the UN and this was recognised by the UN. The Biafra case was also there but no one was prepared to grant recognition to this breakaway entity.

Our rulers' many sins of omission and commission must be highlighted for our future generations to ensure we do not make the same mistakes again - especially in terms of unacceptable "collective punishment" which only creates more enemies amongst one's own people, but what is equally important to understand is the role of India - first covertly then overtly. After all, the surrender of Dhaka was to India not to Bangladesh. At the time the US feigned support by trying to "send in" the Sixth Fleet - but in reality that never happened and the UNSC was not allowed to call for a ceasefire till the Soviet Union, the US and its allies were sure of the loss of East Pakistan. If we are unable to understand the Indian mindset and its approach to Pakistan, as well as US duplicity towards Pakistan, we will once again find ourselves in a similarly disastrous situation. Luckily for Pakistan, the Two Nation Theory proved its strength and so an independent Muslim nation of Bangladesh was created instead of East Pakistan being swallowed into Indian West Bengal! Again, Bhutto's masterpiece diplomacy through the OIC allowed Pakistan to recognise this new Muslim state and leave India out in the cold.

However, we should especially recall this traumatic event in our national life so that in times of crisis we know who our enemies are and where we may be committing the same blunders again in terms of military operations and political hardlines. Pakistan's biggest threat today comes from two main sources. First, the total disconnect that exists at all levels of national policy - which is allowing our enemies, be they the non-state actors comprising militants of multiple brands, or India and increasingly the US to do as they please within Pakistan's territory - and a government that is either unable or unwilling to correct this dangerous drift. Second, the unholy Indo-US partnership that is giving aid and succour to Pakistani militants and separatists.

The disconnect is reflected in the leadership's lack of clarity not only over policy but also over facts. Worse still, every time more than one leader speaks on an issue, they contradict each other. Take the case of evidence of Indian involvement in our terrorism and militancy issues - and that evidence is now more overt and substantial: we have had the interior minister stating that there was enough evidence to prove Indian involvement in FATA and Balochistan; but the foreign minister continued to insist that insufficient evidence existed. This mantra of his continued even after the prime minister himself had reiterated the growing proof of Indian involvement in Pakistan's terrorism problem. After sending out damaging contradictory statements, finally the foreign minister, probably having recovered from his constant jetlag, condescended to declare that there was enough proof to nail India. This is simply one example of unthinking statements made that do great damage to this country especially when the substance is missing in terms of action also. Why keep making statements on India's role in arming militancy in Pakistan without actually going to the next level and taking up the issue with India itself as well as on other international forums? Why not take it up strongly with India's strategic partner in this region, the US? As for the leadership's assertion that they will take up the issue with India "at an appropriate time", what exactly is meant by that, given the severity of the situation right now? No action and confused statements coming from the leaders bodes ill for the country.

It is no wonder that there is hardly any credibility when the government denies its culpability in conceding unprecedented ground to the US, including in terms of drone attacks. Now the COAS himself has publicly demanded from the US that they stop the drone attacks. This demand has come at a time when the US is threatening to widen the scope of the drone attacks to urban centres like Quetta. Moreover, Obama himself has declared that if there is "actionable intelligence" - and we have seen the American version of this in Iraq's WMD case - the US will strike inside Pakistan. Given that the US is already doing that through its drone attacks, presumably it is now also looking at boots on the ground in Pakistan. So, the question is, what will the Pakistan military do if the US does not heed the COAS's demand of halting drone attacks? We certainly have the technical capability to down a drone so should the PAF not do exactly that in order to make the demand credible. Otherwise, like the statements emanating from the political leadership, the military leadership's credibility will suffer a major dent - especially since the US continues to claim that its drone attacks are done with full support from the political and military leadership of Pakistan.

As for the Indo-US partnership, it is responsible for the free flow of arms from Afghanistan into Balochistan and FATA. Inside Pakistan, we also have US covert operatives defying all laws of the land with the Pakistan government unwilling to take any action. They keep testing our security network, supply arms to non-state actors and seek out our sensitive installations - all with impunity.

In this hostile environment, we are confronting expanding terrorism while the army conducts military operations in FATA in an operational environment devoid of any overarching political strategy. Yet, how long will we rely on the military-centric approach and how far will we use this in the rest of the country where terrorism is now striking? Can we really use drones and military action in settled and urban areas? And what is the US-India role in these acts of terror across Punjab and Peshawar? Who were the five US citizens caught in Sargodha? Spys trying to infiltrate the Taliban or US operatives targeting sensitive locations? Either way, this US game is threatening for Pakistan and should not be allowed.

If we stop to think of December 16, 1971, we will realise why we need to redirect our steps today away from the policies we are pursuing right now. Two immediate steps need to be taken. Distancing from the US and sending US covert operatives out of the country. Redirecting our military operations in FATA to more discriminatory actions against specific groups of militants and criminals - the divide and rule principle - and ensuring a politico-economic strategy as the guiding force. In Balochistan, immediate implementation of the political steps highlighted by the PM in Parliament. Mere words need to be replaced by deeds. Let us, for once, learn the correct lessons from perhaps the most traumatic moment in our history as a nation. We face the same enemies in a different garb; let us not make the same mistakes again. #

First published in The Nation, Pakistan, December 16, 2009

Shireen M. Mazari is a Pakistani academic, defence analyst, journalist and politician. She is currently working as the editor of the conservative daily The Nation newspaper

Monday, December 21, 2009

Joy Bangla?

Photo: Time magazine cover story on bloody birth of Bangladesh - a guerrilla chants "Joy Bangla" on victory of independence


16 December. ‘Joy Bangla’ resonates from tannoys and loud speakers all around Dhaka. Flags flutter on rickshaws cycling along pot-holed roads as thousands march to lay wreaths at Jatiyo Smriti Shoudho (National Mausoleum for Martyrs) in memory of those who died in the name of independence. Bangladesh was born under the auspices of socialism, secularism, nationalism, and democracy, but does independence necessarily mean the same as liberty?

‘LIBERATION DOESN’T mean a thing to me,’ says 52-year-old Maqsoodul Haque, a Dhaka-based musician and satirical poet. ‘A flag and a map is really all we’ve got; merely geographical parameters of freedom, but ‘real liberation’ continues to elude us to this day.’

Haque adds that present-day Bangladesh is still ‘trapped in a vicious identity crisis with ‘nationalism’ bordering on fascism when deciding who you are and which side of the fence you sit on.’ For him, the experience of Bangladesh’s socio-political landscape depends on whether you are a ‘Bengali’ or a ‘Bangladeshi,’ pro-India or pro-Pakistan, a supporter of the Awami League or the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

‘Bengali’ nationalism stemmed from the Bangla Language Movement of 1952 and culminated with the Awami League election victory in Pakistan in 1970 and the resulting forced liberation of 1971. ‘Bangladeshi’ nationalism is a relatively new concept brought in by the BNP. It rejected Bengali nationalism and introduced Islamic values into the constitution in place of secular principles, leaving in its wake social confusion, political polarity, and an unnecessarily divided nation.

Part of the confusion regarding the real meaning of liberation lies in Bangladesh’s education system which has systematically been abused by rival political parties bent on etching their founders’ names into the history books. With a change in government, there is a corresponding change of school textbooks, bank notes, national holidays, and even airports. Just this week the current administration announced that Zia International Airport will now be called Shahjalal Airport and another airport will be built in the name of Mujibur Rahman! With all this tampering of history, how can anyone really believe anything they are told? Without the guidance of accurate historical records and objective interpretation, information about Bangladesh’s independence and history is passed down, from father to son, laden with emotion, and distorted from generation to generation.

‘Liberation is the right to say and do what you want, but at the same time understanding that with those rights come responsibilities,’ says Akku Chowdhury, founder-director of the Liberation War Museum and a former freedom fighter. ‘My generation fought the Liberation War, but it’s up to the new generation to fight another war of liberation against poverty and illiteracy,’ adds Chowdhury, in light of the depressing statistics: According to the CIA World Factbook, 45 per cent of Bangladeshis live below the poverty line and only 48 per cent receive education after 15 years of age. The UNDP Human Development Index Report 2009 ranks Bangladesh as 146 out of 182 countries, five below Pakistan. With independence, then, come the shackles of accountability, the founding principle of democracy.

Of course, since 1971, Bangladesh has struggled with upholding the principles of democracy. Many argue that the country is not truly democratic for it allowed a convicted corrupt dictator who ravished the country for nigh on a decade to stand for parliament. Spiralling extrajudicial killings around the country and the lack of freedom of movement and speech in the Chittagong Hill Tracts also undermine Bangladesh’s democratic credentials. For these reasons, many Bangladeshis believe that they are independent, but not truly liberated.

Liberation can be defined in many ways, so after looking outwards and evaluating whether or not we have achieved what we set out to do in 1971 with regards to those four guiding principles, we then have to turn inwards to tackle a more delicate question. Do we have it in us to forgive Pakistan and move on?

‘I was born free,’ says Tanim Ahmed of the Dhaka-based New Age newspaper, who believes this generation of Bangladeshis is ready to move on from the past. ‘I did not have to fear speaking the same language I dreamt in. Freedom was never an aspiration, it was a given. So my views about Bangladesh and Bengali are going to be different from my parents.’

Similarly, Chowdhury suggests it is time for acrimony between Bangladesh and Pakistan to subside: ‘I have nothing against the younger generations of Pakistanis’, he says. ‘Why should they carry the baggage for what their forefathers did in Bangladesh in 1971?’

However, scratching deeper reveals that there still remains an underlying bitterness towards Pakistanis made evident by the public rejection of the BNP and Jamaat-i-Islami alliance (said to be aligned with Pakistan) and the domestic boycotting of Pakistani products.

‘I hate them,’ says 32-year-old Joy Hossain. ‘And even though I realise that we should appear to be reconciled for the sake of trade and commerce, I don’t think there is any room for forgiveness.’

In response to such sentiments, Chowdhury suggests that the ‘key for a better relationship is closure,’ and recommends that war criminals be freely and fairly tried in Pakistan or in the international court system. That, however, is considered unlikely to happen owing to the United States’ role in the Liberation War.

For now, then, there is a need for non-political communication through music, sport, and other cultural platforms. Watching the Bangladeshi support for the Pakistan cricket team is testament to the power of culture to break down barriers. ‘I want to see a whole lot of people-to-people cultural exchanges’, says musician Haque. ‘Dramas, theatre, cinema, art, and painting shows. I am dying to see serious Pakistani rock bands like Noori and the fusion Mekaal Hasan Band play live in Dhaka.’

Perhaps after these first tentative steps are taken towards reconciliation and a renewing of vows to uphold our initial independence values, we will witness the ‘real liberation’ of Bangladesh. #

First published in The DAWN Blog, December 16, 2009

Misha Hussain is a British journalist based in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Killing squads

Photo: Intellectuals were kidnapped, blindfolded and murdered by dreaded Al-Badr recruited from Islamist radical Jamaat-e-Islami party youth & student group


In 1971, a number of Bengalis allied with the Pakistani Army to form what was then known as the ‘killing squad,’ massacring civilians indiscriminately.

AN UNNERVING thing happened the other day. I was invited to a friend’s house for a cup of tea. There I met two people: one, who currently works at the US embassy, had fought with the Al Badrs, a religious killing squad that allied with Pakistan during the Liberation War in 1971. The other is the head of English in one of Dhaka’s universities, and his brother narrowly escaped being executed by the very man who now sat across the table from him.

The men did not recognise each other at first, not until they both introduced themselves to me. I was the penny, and when it dropped, the atmosphere became, for lack of a better word, ‘unfriendly.’ The ex-Al Badr made a dash for the door. The professor, blood curdled, partly with shock but mostly with rage, summoned up the courage to explain why.

During the Liberation, the professor’s brother had been working as an artist, a trade which the Al-Badrs considered to be anti-Islam and hence anti-Pakistan. In the dying stages of the war, just days before liberation, the professor’s brother found himself at the mercy of the ‘killing squad.’ Many others around the country – including intellectuals, Hindus, artists – considered to be progressive and pro-liberation had already been hunted down and executed by these pro-Pakistan squads. However, after independence, only a handful of these killers were caught and most escaped, never to face trial.

‘There has been no closure for the many millions that lost loved ones and their unharnessed feelings of hostility and bitterness are not the right ingredients for a harmonious Bangladesh.’

I suspected that the professor’s story must be commonplace in Bangladesh and it must contribute in some way to explaining why the country has found it so difficult to unite post-independence. What affected the people most were not only the savage acts of 1971 that remained so fresh in their minds, but also the unforgivable inaction of the government (even with overwhelming evidence) for not bringing these men to justice.

Over the last four decades, Bangladeshi human rights activist Shariar Kabir and others, both nationally and internationally, have been campaigning for those Bangladeshis who participated in 1971 violence to be brought to justice. Still, there has been no closure for the many millions that lost loved ones at the time, and their unharnessed feelings of hostility and bitterness cannot be the right ingredients for a harmonious Bangladesh.

‘Revenge is obviously not the answer, but then what are the alternatives?’

It disturbs me a great deal listening to these stories of atrocities and I can empathise with the desire for revenge. It’s obviously not the answer, but then, what are the alternatives? And what would they achieve?

‘Even after everything, they’re still Bengalis, and it’s always difficult for a mother to renounce her own son.’

Some say the Bangladeshi killers should be labelled, and locals should be told who they are and what they did. But this could lead to lynching. Others argue that they should be prevented from getting jobs within national institutions, but then we run the risk of sacrificing democracy. As a last resort, the men could simply be booted out of the country. But even after everything, they are still Bengalis, and it’s difficult for a mother to renounce her own son.

‘Largely it will have to come down to time, and yes, eventually we will forget.’

I fear that such a sensationalist title may have detracted from the impact of this story, but there’s no other way of presenting such an uncompromising truth. These criminals committed horrific atrocities, but bringing them to justice and punishing them, despite the ongoing work of rights groups, doesn’t seem to be a likely outcome if the present strength of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-Jamaat alliance and the Saudi-influenced, right-wing military is anything to go by.

At the same time, it would be difficult to find a Bengali that could forgive them for the rape and pillage of the country. So largely it will have to come down to time, and yes, eventually we will forget. Just like America has forgotten its War of Independence and Europe has all but forgotten World War II, we too will forget. #

First published in The DAWN Blog, Karachi, Pakistan, December 16, 2009

Misha Hussain is a British journalist based in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Lest we forget

Photo: Joint Command of Bangladesh Liberation Forces and Indian Army sign instrument of surrender by Pakistan Eastern War Theatre Commander Lt. Gen. A. A. K Niazi


AS THE anniversary of the fall of Dhaka approaches, I find myself becoming emotional again. It’s the same every year: an overwhelming sense of loss and bewilderment mixed with anger that the tragedy which befell us on December 16, 1971, has been pushed into the periphery of the nation’s collective memory.

At times, I become so overwhelmed by my own feelings that tears come to my eyes. The mistakes, the injustices, the terrible suffering, and the barbaric treatment, both of a people and an ideal. The very foundation of Pakistan was shaken violently in that bitter winter of 1971.

It is perhaps strange that I should feel so strongly about an event, or rather chain of events, which took place a few years before I was even born. I also admit to having no direct familial, ethnic, or any other connection to the land that was once known as East Pakistan.

I cannot remember the exact moment when it first struck me, the fact that Bangladesh was once a part of Pakistan. But I do remember that India was the consummate villain; Indian influence created rebellion in the eastern wing and Indian military intervention caused it to finally break away. At least that’s what the history textbooks in school told us.

Then there came a time when a couple of us were no longer willing to toe the party line. A rare heated discussion ensued during a Pakistan Studies class when, drawing on what had been heard at home or in a discussion on television, we insisted that the Pakistan Army and West Pakistani politicians were to blame for the debacle. The teacher was mildly interested; everyone else in the classroom carried on with their doodling and daydreaming.

It took a history course at a university in a far away country for me to pick up Brigadier Siddiq Salik’s 1978 book Witness to Surrender (Urdu version: Mainey Dhaka Doobtay Dekha), which is based on his recollections of the events leading up to the war of 1971 and the consequent loss of the eastern wing.

Posted in Dhaka as the army’s public relations officer at the time, Salik has recounted the particularly poignant moment in March 1971 when a despondent-looking Lt. Gen. Shahibzada Yaqub Khan, the commander of the Eastern Command, exited the room after failing to convince GHQ to desist from using force to quell the unrest. Resting his hand on Salik’s shoulder, Yaqub Khan quoted this verse by Daagh Dehlavi, an outstanding Urdu poet who was also the step-grandson of the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar:

Nahi khel ay Daagh yaroon sey khe do
Ke ati hai Urdu zabaan atay atay

(Tell your friends, O Daagh, it is not child’s play

A difficult skill can only be learnt with time and experience)

A true hero, Yaqub Khan preferred to resign his post rather than aim a gun at his own countrymen, even though that determination meant he was at risk of being court-martialled and destroying his glorious military career.

Three years later, in 1974, Faiz Ahmed Faiz visited the new state of Bangladesh and was inspired to write one of his most memorable poems, Dhaka Say Wapsi Pur (On Return from Dhaka), which has been translated into English by Agha Shahid Ali in his book The Rebel’s Silhouette:

Hum ke thairey ajnabi itni madaraatoon ke baad
Phir banain gain aashnaa kitni mulaqatoon ke baad
Kab nazar main aaey ge bai-dagh sabzey ki bahar
Khoon ke dhabbey dhulain gain kitni barsaatoon ke baad…

(After those many encounters, that easy intimacy, we are strangers now

After how many meetings will we be that close again?

I am well aware of the irony in quoting Urdu verses to lament the loss of East Pakistan when the imposition of Urdu as the sole national language in 1948 was one of the fundamental grievances of its Bangla-speaking majority.

So it is a good thing that when Pakistani writer/translator Asif Farrukhi and Bangladeshi professor of English Niaz Zaman collaborated to compile an anthology titled Fault Lines: Stories of 1971 they chose to render various Urdu, Sindhi, Punjabi, and Bangla writings into English.

A review of the book, along with excerpts from it, appeared in Books and Authors on May 11, 2008, the same day that Farrukhi sahib and Professor Zaman joined Intizar Hussain, Asad Mohammed Khan, and myself at The Second Floor (T2F) cafe in Karachi for a special discussion and reading from the book. The book proved to be an important yet difficult milestone in coming to terms with the painful past.

Just how difficult became apparent as the discussion progressed and the packed audience, which included a significant number of young people from the post-1971 generation, grew agitated over the issue of the role played by the silent majority in West Pakistan – ‘silent’ being the operative word.

Ms. Zaman rightly asks in her introduction to the book: ‘Having known the silence of West Pakistan during 1971, I was surprised by the number of stories that Asif kept sending me. Where had these writers been when I was forced to be silent?’

Now is a good time to start the search for an answer to her question. #

First published in The DAWN Blog, December 16, 2009

Saima Shakil Hussain is the editor of Dawn’s ‘Books & Authors’ magazine

Friday, December 11, 2009

Bangladesh Failure to Solve Past Journalist Murders Hinders Press Freedom Development

Photo: Slain journalists Shamsur Rahman Kebol (Dainik Janakantha, Jessore - killed July 16, 2000) and Manik Chandra Shah (Dainik Sangbad, Khulna - killed January 15, 2004)

With 16 unsolved killings since 1998, Impunity overshadows any progress in free media development


DURING A 1-6 December 2009 press freedom mission to Bangladesh*, the International Press Institute (IPI) found that there had been no discernible efforts to bring to justice the killers of the 16 journalists murdered since 1998, political influence over the media remained significant and the legal framework within which the media operates was in need of reform.

IPI last visited Bangladesh from 27 November to 2 December, 2008, shortly before general elections which brought back the Awami League party, headed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, to power.

IPI’s latest mission offered an opportunity to undertake a first assessment of the sitting, elected government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, as opposed to the interim government that preceded it.

Over the last year there has been some progress on the media freedom front.

A state of emergency in force for two years was lifted in December 2008, ahead of the general election. In July, a right to Information Act was enacted and under Article 15(1) of the Act a three-member Information Commission was created. Government officials have manifested a willingness to engage with IPI on matters related to press freedom.

However, distinct areas of concern remain.

Although President Zillur Rahman told IPI: “We must do justice, must punish the killers,” and in every meeting with IPI, government representatives as well as officials from the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) expressed support for press freedom, this mission believes that such an apparent commitment can only be substantiated if the government translates its words into concrete actions.

Politicians must resist the temptation to politicise the media. Rather than allowing the issue of press freedom to become tinged with political posturing, the ruling Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party must express a uniform, joint willingness to transcend political fault lines, examine the nation’s past and, for the good of the future, solve the cases of murdered journalists.

“If the Bangladeshi media environment is to improve, both the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the ruling Awami League must acknowledge the media’s right to report on behalf of the Bangladeshi public and halt all attempts to politicise the media,” said IPI Director David Dadge. “In doing so, a clear distinction should be made between narrow political interests and national ones.”

The Home Minister, Ms. Shahara Khatum, informed IPI that she is monitoring investigations into the murders of journalists, and that she regularly meets with officers from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). This process must be open and transparent if progress in the investigations is to be made.

The mission expressed strong concerns about the conduct of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), an elite military force formed in 2004.

In October 2009, journalist F.M. Masum, a staff correspondent with the daily New Age in Bangladesh, was taken from his residence by RAB members and was then held incommunicado, and tortured, for over ten hours, before being released.

Although the government subsequently issued an apology, and action was taken against the responsible officer, IPI remains concerned that RAB at times appears to be operating outside the control of the civilian authorities, and lacks awareness and sensitivity in dealing with the media.

In April 2007, General-Secretary of the Sylhet Press Club Ahmed Noor, was allegedly tortured by RAB forces after being arrested on alleged extortion charges in two cases. In one case, he has been acquitted. The second case is still pending.

While the government is to be praised for passing the Right to Information Act and for its professed commitment to the Act’s complete implementation, it is crucial that it take the lead and create an atmosphere of transparency. This means setting aside a longstanding culture of secrecy and making information readily available without forcing journalists and civil society to apply for information under the Right to Information Act.

Further, there are concerns that infrastructure and funding challenges in Bangladesh will hinder full implementation of the Act.

In the domain of broadcasting, it is vital that the draft Broadcasting Act of 2003 be enacted; however IPI received no commitments on a time frame. Under the draft Broadcasting Act, non-profit entities would be allowed to form radio and television stations – which would help promote the free flow of information in rural areas. It is the considered view of this mission that the Act should be enacted as soon as possible once due discussions have been undertaken with key decision-makers, including the media.

According to IPI sources, a number of the 16 journalists killed since 1998 were covering corruption. This underscores the need for the Government to take immediate, serious steps to combat corruption and bribery.

The government must not forget that journalists play a fundamental role in exposing corruption, and has an obligation to ensure that they are free to do so without fear of harassment and intimidation.

The mission would encourage all journalists in Bangladesh to uphold the reporting values of balance, fairness and accuracy, and to abide by a voluntary code of best practice, which reinforces the credibility of the media.

In asking for these commitments from both the government and the media, IPI will itself also remain engaged in Bangladesh and do everything it can to assist the media profession and to continue to advocate for full and proper investigations into the cases of murdered journalists.

The mission delegation included IPI Director David Dadge, IPI Press Freedom Manager Anthony Mills, and media consultant Trine Ostlyngen representing IPI’s Norway National Committee. It was locally coordinated by IPI Board Member and National Committee Chairperson Monjurul Ahsan Bulbul, Head of News and Current Affairs at ATN Bangla.

The mission was carried out with support from the Guardian Foundation.

- Political parties must unite on the need to investigate the murders of journalists, and bring the murderers to justice.
- Remove the cases of murdered journalists from any review committees and appoint a special individual to investigate the cases. Such an individual should provide regular, open and transparent reports to parliament. The individual should have the authority to empower local authorities to investigate thoroughly.
- The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) should be provided with awareness and sensitivity training in terms of the media’s role in a democratic society, with commanding officers making it clear that the media have a right to report freely.
- Greater oversight by the civilian government of RAB activities.
- The government must take every possible step to rid Bangladesh of bribery and corruption.
- The international community should assist the Bangladesh government with support and resources so that it can fully implement all the elements of the Right to Information Act.
- The Information Commission formed under the Right to Information Act must create suitable structures and procedures, including the ability to take independent legal advice, that will enable it to stand at arm’s length from the government and therefore avoid any attempt at influence.
- Creation of voluntary media accountability systems that enhance the media’s credibility and reinforce its right to report independently, as well as suitable training for all levels of the media profession.
- The government must conduct a review of all laws to ensure that they are in conformance with international standards

The IFEX Mission Report is published on December 08, 2009

Author Anthony Mills is IPI Press Freedom Manager, Vienna, Austria

* IPI Advocacy Mission to Bangladesh: The IPI Delegation met with leading representatives of the media, government and civil society The mission objective was to follow up on some of the issues discussed in the December 2008 IPI press freedom mission and assess the current media and press freedom environment in the country. IPI Director David Dadge.will join the mission to Bangladesh together with IPI member Trine Ostlyngen, Former President of the Institute of Journalism in Oslo, Norway, and IPI Press and Communications Manager Anthony Mills. The mission is locally coordinated by IPI Board Member and National Committee Chairperson Monjurul Ahsan Bulbul, Head of News and Current Affairs at ATN Bangla. The mission to Bangladesh is being undertaken with assistance from the Guardian Foundation

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Pakistan: The darkest December

Photo: Yahya Khan with President Nixon in the White House


IN THIS In his landmark poem, The Wasteland, T. S. Eliot calls April the cruellest month. But to most people, December is the cruelest month, with its short days and long nights. To Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, the darkest December is the one that came in 1971. What happened then is well known. Why it happened is less well known.

Ambassador Arshad Sami Khan provided his take on the events in his memoir, Three Presidents and an aide. A fighter pilot who earned the Sitara-i-Jurat during the 1965 war, Sami was ADC to presidents Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Historians have pinned the blame for the secession of East Pakistan on Gen Yahya. Without absolving Yahya of his weaknesses, Sami says that a good part of the crisis predated the general’s arrival on the political scene.

At partition, Pakistan was split into two wings that were 1,000 miles apart. Many, including Lord Mountbatten, had questioned whether the glue of religion would be strong enough to hold them together. Since the two wings did not share a common language, it made no sense to impose a single language on them. Imposing Urdu, a minority language spoken in the west, made even less sense. But that was precisely what was done in 1952. Deadly language riots ensued in the east.

In the years to come, the west continued to rule the east. The Bengalis felt like they had traded one colonial master for another. The general elections of Dec 7, 1970 provided an opportunity to redress the grievances of East Pakistan and promote national integration. But the divided demographics delivered a politically explosive result.

The Awami League (AL) emerged with an absolute majority but all its seats were located in the east, where 55 per cent of Pakistanis resided. Sheikh Mujib, its leader, was called the future prime minister by Gen Yahya. Sami says this was just a façade. Yahya had never intended to hand over power to the civilians, least of all to the Bengalis. He had hoped that a fractured coalition would emerge, allowing him to continue as the all-powerful president.

He began to pressure Mujib into accepting a strong presidency with several ministries under the direct control of the president. When that failed, he tried to hatch a power-sharing arrangement between the AL and the PPP headed by Bhutto. That also failed. By now, the AL had sensed a trap and began a campaign of public agitation. Yahya accused the party of wanting to secede and playing into India’s hands. Sensing an opportunity, says Sami, Bhutto gave Yahya a strong hint that he would support a military solution. Yahya’s commander in the east, Lt-Gen Sahibzada Yaqub Ali Khan, opposed military action. His counsel was ignored and he was replaced by a man who would be reviled in history as the ‘Butcher of Bengal’.

Gen Tikka Khan launched a ruthless operation to crush the AL on March 25, dashing all hopes of making a democratic transition. Ironically, on that day the National Assembly was to have been convened in Dhaka. By June, the regime claimed that the insurgency was over. In reality, it had simply gone underground. Millions of refugees fled to Indian Bengal to escape the violence.

As autumn approached, Yahya realised that India was not going to sit idle. Bhutto was sent as the head of a military mission to Beijing with Lt-Gen Gul Hasan and Air Marshal Rahim. According to Sami, when these people returned home, they lied to Yahya and told him that if hostilities with India broke out, crack Chinese troops would cross the Himalayas to relieve pressure on the Pakistani garrison in the East.

Sami’s insightful recounting of history is pregnant with lessons. First, even with its two far-flung wings, Pakistan was not destined to break apart. No one had forced East Bengalis to join Pakistan. To preserve the union, the leaders in the west should have shared power with those in the east.

Second, during the 1965 war, East Pakistan felt abandoned with little military presence. West Pakistan proceeded to rub salt into the wounded psyche of the east by imposing upon it the humiliation of the Agartala conspiracy trials. These diverted attention from the post-war problems in the west and were designed to project the image of India as a perpetual enemy. The mass movement that unseated Ayub Khan later was conveniently blamed on India.

Third, even at this point, Pakistan’s unity could have been preserved. Mujib was willing to compromise on several of the Six Points. Instead, the regime blundered by not honouring the electoral outcome. A campaign to malign the winning party was launched. The AL’s unprecedented victory was blamed on the Indian intelligence agencies as if they could have duped the entire populace of East Pakistan into voting against their will.

Fourth, when the AL leadership refused to buckle, another blunder was committed by resorting to armed force on the presumption that the rebellion was confined to a few ‘miscreants’. The regime seriously over-estimated its ability to subdue a province of 75 million with a military force of 45,000.

Fifth, when war with India appeared imminent, Yahya knew the game was over. He could have sought ways to avoid war with India and let the east secede peacefully. The suffering of millions could have been avoided.

Instead, the regime conjured up dreams of Chinese and American intervention. The Indo-Soviet Treaty had neutralised China’s ability to mount any military operation against India. And the Vietnam War had sapped the ability of the US to get involved in a second Asian war. The salience of both developments was lost on Yahya and his advisers. They had naively expected their allies to bail them out.

And sixth, for three decades all governments that came after Yahya suppressed the Hamoodur Rehman Commission report into the war. It only saw the light of day when an India publisher posted it on the web.

Unless the bitter lessons of what befell Pakistan 38 years ago are shared widely with the people, the nation will continue to wallow in conspiracy theories. It is much easier to blame others than to blame oneself. But, as the Greek historian Polybius put it, ‘There are only two sources from which benefit can be derived: our misfortunes and those that befell other men.’ #

First published in The Dawn, Karachi, Pakistan, Monday, 07 December, 2009
Ahmad Faruqui could be reached at