Imran Khan’s question: ‘What happened in 1971?’

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Syed Badrul Ahsan

One may love him. One may hate him with a passion. Imran Khan has certainly been tactless in his recent activities. He could have been more circumspect in his handling of the situation arising out of his campaign for a return to high office. He is now paying the price. The powerful Pakistan army is now on the warpath against him, determined to dismantle his politics through breaking up his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf organization.

But what impresses many observers of Khan’s politics, especially here in Bangladesh, is that the former Pakistani prime minister is the very first political leader of his country to openly inform his fellow citizens of the reasons and the manner in which Pakistan came to grief in December, 1971.

There have been many who have, before Khan, governed Pakistan. But not one of them called forth the courage or the sincerity to let Pakistanis know that it was their military which exercised repression on the Bengalis before presiding over the break-up of the country.

A few days ago, in a video address (considering that the Pakistani media does not give him air time these days), Imran Khan asked the question: “What happened in 1971?” He went on to answer it in plain, clear language: “In 1971, the leader of the party which had won the election was not allowed to become prime minister of Pakistan.”

And then he added, for good measure: “A conspiracy by a politician and the army prevented the majority party from taking power. Pakistan got broken.” In that last bit, the politician he was referring to was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

The world outside Pakistan has always been cognizant of what the Pakistan military did in Bangladesh in 1971 as also of the refusal of successive governments in Islamabad to acknowledge the truth as it shaped up in that year. Students in Pakistani educational institutions have deliberately been kept away from the facts emerging out of the crisis in erstwhile East Pakistan.

The liberation of Bangladesh has regularly been painted in Pakistan as an Indian conspiracy aided by a section of Bengali politicians. Concealed has been the truth, which is that the army, led by General Yahya Khan, in cahoots with Z A Bhutto, repudiated the results of the December 1970 election and went into committing full-scale atrocities on the Bengalis.

There have certainly been sections of Pakistani intellectuals who have acknowledged the tragedy of 1971. Overall, however, Pakistanis and their governments have remained silent, have looked away from the reality. Imran Khan has broken that taboo. Whether or not he is punished for articulating the truth remains to be seen. The army is today after him.

It is the same army which once raised him to power and then dumped him. And let us not forget either that in an earlier era it was the army which brought Bhutto into the limelight, went along with his intrigues before making him president of a rump Pakistan in December, 1971. And then the army brought him down, marched him to the gallows.

One is not quite sure, at this point, of what the soldiers mean to do to or about Imran Khan. The PTI leader’s pronouncements in these past few months have been a rude awakening for them, for no politician in Pakistan has ever had the gall to publicly condemn the army’s political role. The only political leader before Khan to challenge the army — and that was before the birth of Bangladesh — was Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

The Bengali leader, the soldiers reasoned, therefore needed to be punished. Yahya Khan proscribed the Awami League and had Bangabandhu flown to distant (West) Pakistan to face trial in a military court. Things could not be more outrageous: here was the elected leader of the majority party being tried for the sin of winning an election and that before a military tribunal headed by a brigadier.

The wheels of history were to move in favour of the Bengalis. One is not quite sure if they will favour Imran Khan 52 years after General AAK Niazi signed the document of surrender on behalf of Pakistan in Dhaka. Khan is not waging a liberation war. The military plans to try his followers, who went on a rampage on May 9 after his arrest, under the laws of the army and those relating to terrorism.

It could well be that Khan too will be produced before a military tribunal. The army, now clearly running the show in Pakistan, will likely go ahead with the myopic plan of banning the PTI. Trying Khan and his followers under the army act will be an outrage, for that will only have citizens defy the soldiers even more.

Imran Khan certainly has his flaws. His refusal to accept the circumstances of his removal from office did not earn him any accolades, except those from his fans. His decision to have PTI members of the national assembly resign was unwise in that these members could have kept the coalition government which replaced Khan’s administration on its toes through raising all the issues that have of late been fought out in the courts and on the streets.

Khan’s charge that the United States was behind his ouster was not reflective of sophisticated politics. And now that he has reached out to an American Congresswoman for support to claw back to power over the maneouverings of the army is being seen as hypocrisy on his part.

Imran Khan has made it known that he will not leave Pakistan, which again is a hint of what the military might be planning for him. In the late 1970s, many in Pakistan hoped that Bhutto would be sent off into exile, preferably to Saudi Arabia, with a ban clamped on his politics. General Ziaul Haq did not agree and instead silenced Bhutto for good. That fate might not be Imran Khan’s, but who knows?

In a country where the military has been a regular arbiter of politicians’ destiny, one can never be sure what the next stage in Khan’s politics will be. Perhaps he will go to jail after a trial on charges of treason. Perhaps he will be condemned to prolonged home confinement in the way Iran’s Mohammad Mossadegh was in the 1950s. Perhaps, like Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, he will be in jail for long periods. Perhaps the army will ensure that he does not ever come back to politics.

But Imran Khan has given Pakistanis rich new food for thought by pointing the finger at the army for all the havoc caused in their country’s history. It was boldness on his part. It has made his fellow citizens properly reflect on the consequences of military dabbling in politics. Khan has broken barriers.

His views on the Bangladesh situation in 1971 has now had droves of Pakistanis, young and middle-aged, come forth on social media with expressions of apology to Bengalis over what the soldiers did in that long-ago war. No holds barred, Imran Khan has given his people the unadulterated truth behind the Bengali movement against a militaristic Pakistan more than a half century ago.

At the hearing of a case in the High Court challenging his detention by the regime of Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan in January 1969, a rising Zulfikar Ali Bhutto proclaimed in grandiloquence: “The wheel of time will turn; and in the revolution of that turn a better tomorrow will dawn.”

In a moment of supreme irony, it was Bhutto who with Yahya Khan prevented the wheel of time from following a natural course in 1971. The wheel got stuck in the mud.

One will now wait to see if Imran Khan’s crusade against the army will lead to a better dawn for Pakistan.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is Consultant Editor, Dhaka Tribune.

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