Obliteration of memory
Even before the immense tragedy of the APS massacre last year, the date ‘December 16’ symbolised a great national rupture for it was the day when in 1971 East Pakistan formally ceased to be a part of Pakistan and became the independent state of Bangladesh. However, while the date is understandably celebrated in Bangladesh, in the remaining Pakistan there has been a deliberate strategy of consigning the break-up of the country 44 years ago to the dustbin of history. As a consequence, successive generations have grown up with only a perfunctory knowledge about the significance of this national loss and, more importantly, have next to no idea about the processes and governmental failures that made the conditions for the 1971 war and breakup inevitable. The makeup of Pakistan at the time of independence was a distinctly peculiar one and to have a cohesive government and a unified national spirit despite having two wings separated by the landmass of India was always going to be a difficult challenge to surmount. But the centralising tendency of Pakistan’s overdeveloped state made up of the nexus between the twin colonial institutions of the bureaucracy and the military based in West Pakistan — the establishment, in other words — made such an eventuality impossible. For the entirety of the time Bangladesh was ‘East Pakistan’, it was subjected to the same internal colonial conditions as before despite nominally being part of a free country. From 1948 to 1971, the history of Pakistani politics is littered with instances where the administration based in West Pakistan made a series of ‘innovations’ with the state set-up in order to undermine the principle of ‘one man one vote’ just to ensure that the numerically superior East Pakistanis did not capture power based on their majority and threaten the entrenched monopoly on power of the aforementioned state institutions. It is important for the public to be aware of this shameful history, to be aware that the uprising in East Pakistan was not a spontaneous event borne out of nefarious conspiracies but an outpouring of grievances years in the making.
Alas, when Pakistan does address the dark days of 1971, it does so through the filter of denial. Credible, neutral scholars have proved beyond doubt that there was a genuine massacre and a systematic ethnically motivated rape of women in East Pakistan during the war at the hands of the army and private militias in a failed attempt to suppress the people of then East Pakistan. But rather than ever issuing a formal apology, spokesmen of the state absurdly and infuriatingly contest the reported figures of casualties or argue that war crimes were committed by both sides. It is necessary to remind ourselves of these painful facts from the past because if the our generations do not acquaint themselves of this dark chapter of oppression and unacceptable brutality, we will be condemned to repeat history. We can still learn the follies of denying the people of the federating units their rights and mandate and avoid any repetition of the 1971 tragedy. But courage is desperately needed to challenge and interrogate the official narrative of denial.
A declaration by Saudi Arabia of the formation of a 34-state military alliance to combat the growing threat of terrorism in the Middle East on its own shows the authoritarian mentality of the Saudi rulers. According to an official statement issued by Saudi Arabia, the military coalition will operate against terrorist elements in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan. The alliance comprises a long list of Arab and other Muslim countries with a joint operations centre based in Riyadh to coordinate and support military operations. Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival Iran was not included in the list, nor was the Shia-dominated government of Iraq or the embattled regime of Syria. This exclusion is part of the anti-Shia policies of Saudi Arabia that has given a sectarian tinge to this coalition while safeguarding its own narrow Wahabi agenda for the region.
The alliance has been announced it seems without proper consultation and in an impulsive way without doing any homework. Who will lead and who will follow the alliance is the toughest nut to crack. It is more like a sectarian alliance and there is a lot of scepticism regarding its actual practicability. The Saudis have become so arrogant that they consider all Muslim countries and their rulers as their subordinates. They thus do not find it necessary to even discuss or obtain prior consent. A cause for concern is that the Saudis have talked about militancy in general and did not make a direct reference to the growing dominance of Islamic State (IS). Rather it has turned a blind eye to the activities of IS in Syria and Iraq, in the former because of its obsession with removing Bashar al-Assad, the latter since the Shia regime is anathema to Riyadh. The second major issue is that the alliance mainly comprises Sunni states while excluding Shia-dominated countries. It seems that the Kingdom has announced the alliance without consulting all or major countries. Pakistan was the first country to lodge a complaint with the Kingdom. It has sought a clarification from Saudi Arabia for including its name without consulting it. There are also speculations that Saudi Arabia has announced this coalition following months of pressure from the US to do more to tackle terrorism in the Middle East.
No one can deny the importance of a united stand by all countries against the scourge of terrorism. However, it should be based on equality and straightforward policies without any sectarian or self-centred bias. Saudi Arabia should have consulted all concerned states and taken them into confidence before announcing the coalition. Terrorism is a common challenge and all states should cooperate and jointly work to eliminate this threat.
On Wednesday, the entire civil and military leadership, including Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the Chief of Army Staff and the four provincial chief ministers came together with the students of APS and parents of the martyrs who lost their lives during the tragic massacre on December 16, 2014 to pay tribute to their memory and proceeded to name it as the day of ‘Qaumi’ Azm-e-Taleem’ (National Resolve to Promote Education). To commemorate in honour and remembrance is fitting, for the tragedy that jolted the entire nation also proved to be a major turning point in the recent history of Pakistan. However, we must bear in mind that there is still a long way to go and this labyrinthine path is fraught with many dangers, some of which lie on the surface waiting to be discovered, and others much deeper. The parents through their mourning have fought to have their grievances heard. They should not need to continue in this vein. It is essential that all their reservations and grievances be met to the extent humanly possible. The government has made an effort, as revealed in the ceremony. Grants have been given for each affected family and for the education of their children, foreign trips and umra have been arranged, the martyrs and two injured have been conferred with honours, schools across the country have been named after the martyrs and the construction of the APS Shuhada University has been announced.
While a lot has been said and done to attempt to alleviate the physical pain, the invisible scars of the surviving students and the families of the martyred still remain buried within them unhealed as they struggle to steady themselves against the tragedy that has wreaked havoc over their lives, changing everything they once knew to be true.
How is such a pain to be remedied? Setting up a psychological rehabilitation unit is a start but not enough. We need to begin by anchoring ourselves against the rapid developments that have taken place since the past year if we are to give those in grief any semblance of consolation, and focus on learning lessons from the tragedy. The government needs to make sure that even as the prime minister claims that military action has ‘broken the back of terrorist outfits’, it has not lured itself into a false sense of security believing that our counterterrorism and counterinsurgency has destroyed them, we have won, and no such incident can ever happen again. Making such statements not only inclines one towards complacency but is always fraught with risks, since the nature of the enemy is such that it is elusive, hidden, and capable of lying low and biding its time, only to return with a vengeance. The threat is far from abated as far as insurgency and counterterrorism are concerned. Militant holdouts in FATA still remain, and as for the counterterrorism campaign that covers the entire country, there are still many questions that remain unanswered with reference to the National Action Plan, and also about how on top of the terrorist network our intelligence and security agencies are.
Hence while we remember the most unforeseeable horrific tragedy, there is a need to reiterate that what seems impossible can happen and has happened, and unless we learn and adopt tremendous vigilance in filling the gaps to prevent all possibilities of recurrence, we cannot truly put the tragedy behind us. There was another reason why December 16 was a turning point in our history. The cruelty that the incident served to lay bare coalesced the entire nation into one, as differences in ideology, with the open and hidden sympathisers of extremism and the outright opponents all united to condemn the act. This closing of divisions and fractures within the polity was a monumental moment, and this is what has enabled Pakistan to make the leap against terrorism that it has. Consequently, collectively the government, security and intelligence agencies, need to scrutinize their mechanisms and the nation itself needs to reanalyse how far it has come in obliterating the mindsets that can lead to such misfortune and how far it still has to go.