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Sunday, December 20, 2009

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

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