Let's Not Alienate Kashmiris
12 November 2005
Lahore: 12th November marks the 35th anniversary of that terrible day when 250,000 Pakistanis died. Ayub Khan was gone after 11 years of dictatorship. Yahya was the new military ruler, already at loggerheads with East Pakistan's charismatic leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman. Agartala conspiracy case was alive, as was the 6-point agenda of the Awami League. Elections were soon to polarise the nation, with Bhutto's slogan of 'Udhar Tum-Idhar Hum' electrifying the public. The seeds of political rebellion in East Pakistan against military rule - more specifically, Punjabi rule - had been sown on 12th November. Ayesha Jalal in 'The State of Martial Rule' got it almost right when she stated: 'Undeniably, the Awami League's six-point programme for maximum provincial autonomy held out many attractions for Bengali middle-class professionals, students, small-and medium-scale businessmen, and industrial labour. But, without the support of the rural areas, these urban groups alone could not have brought about a landslide victory for the Awami League. Here the Awami League's extremely effective psychological propaganda against the centre's delayed response to the human suffering caused by the cyclone in the fall of 1970 proved to be decisive'. Lest one forget the biggest natural disaster in Pakistan's history was not the recent earthquake but the cyclone which hit East Pakistan on 12th November 1970 which killed 250,000. The response of the military government was very poor. The bitterness it evoked in East Pakistan was one of the critical factors which led to the break-up of the country. The groundswell of public resentment quickly turned into a tidal wave of opposition against the government. Before the cyclone, conservative projections gave 1-3rd of the National Assembly seats of East Pakistan to the Awami League, 1-3rd to pro-government parties and a third to independents. A similar split was expected in West Pakistan. No single party would have anywhere near a majority. Yahya and his cronies would have no difficulty manipulating a pliable parliament. But within a month of the disastrous cyclone the mood of East Pakistanis changed. Their resentment turned to a vote against dictatorship. In the elections of December 1970 the Awami League won 160 of 162 National Assembly seats from East Pakistan, for a clear majority in the full House of 300 seats (Mr Bhutto won only 81). But the General refused to hand over power to the winners, clamping down hard in March 1971 through a military operation against them. The reaction was an armed rebellion against dictatorship; then the 1971 war; and finally independence of Bangladesh. It is often forgotten that Bangladesh became independent not because they had demanded independence but because they refused to continue to live under a dictatorship which had already lasted 13 years. Mujeeb became the leader of the Pakistani majority who renamed themsleves Bangladesh. Bhutto took over the remaining minority Pakistan. (After a few years both the elected leaders were overthrown by their armies. Mujeeb and his family were all assassinated and Bhutto was hanged - but that is another story). After the recent earthquake relief work in Kashmir and NWFP also took off to a slow start. While civil society worked wonders, government was heavily criticised. A General was appointed Relief Commissioner. After a few days a military net was spread over Kashmir and NWFP comprising of three more Generals, half a dozen Brigadiers, a host of Colonels and tens of thousands of soldiers. That improved the relief work tremendously. But Kashmiris were conspicuous by their absence, with neither bureaucrats, nor politicians nor other functionaries of Azad Kashmir being associated in any way with relief operations. Next, another General was appointed to lead the multi-billion dollar, multi-year reconstruction programme, to be based in Islamabad, not Muzaffarabad, again with no involvement of Kashmiris. Despite the magnitude of the disaster international support for the reconstruction programme (estimated conservatively by the Pakistan government at over $5 billion) is pathetic. Analysts speculate that the international community has difficulty in supporting a country whose own priorities are askew. They cannot comprehend why $3 billion are being spent on 75 F-16 aircraft, or a billion dollars on 4 Chinese frigates, or another billion dollars on moving a very sophisticated and fully functional GHQ to a new location 10 miles away. Next came another bombshell from Sweden when a week after the earthquake a deal was signed for acquiring 6 AWAC aircraft for another billion dollars. Kashmiris, already smarting from the poor start of relief work, are incensed at why we need to spend billions on defense, (primarily to support them) when what they need now is to rebuild their shattered lives. The President's latest announcement that the $3 billion F-16 deal has been postponed will be greatly welcomed by the donors gathering in Islamabad on the 19th. It will also help alleviate the misgivings of Kashmiris. But a lot more needs to be done. GHQ's move can easily be put off for a decade or so as could the Swedish Saab deal. Not forgetting Karachi port's 22 crore 'Biggest Fountain in the World'. All it will do is pump the sewage of Karachi harbor 500 feet into the air, where the sewage will become little droplets. The seaward breeze will carry the droplets back on-shore where they will fall right back on Clifton, Defense, Chundrigarh Road, Governors House and Bilawal House for the notables of the city to breathe them back in again. Surely this activity, totally irrelevant to running a port, and others such can be put on hold and funds diverted to Kashmir. Kashmiris cannot understand why a Kashmiri was not named to head the reconstruction. If the head had to be a General they already had an eminent one in Muzaffarabad. President Anwar is both a Kashmiri and a General. As President of Azad Kashmir for the last 4 years, he should know a great deal more about Kashmir, Kashmiris, their problems and their aspiration than anyone else. Why not him, or any other Kashmiri for that matter. What is his actual position anyway? And what is the position of Kashmiris themselves? They are not Pakistanis. The word 'Kashmir' does not appear in Pakistan's Constitution. Kashmir has a President and a Prime Minister. But no one in the world recognises them as such. While being called 'Azad' Kashmir everyone knows they are anything but free. Total control lies in Islamabad. It is even stranger for the Northern Areas. Not that the existing arrangements have been at all bad for them. Most necessities of life are subsidised, including foodstuff, electricity, gas etc. But now perhaps while planning the physical reconstruction of Kashmir, it may be timely to plan, through Parliament, its political reconstruction as well. Obviously the formula worked out for governing Kashmir almost 60 years back is totally inadequate for the 21st century. Tragedies such as the cyclone of 1970 often act as a catalyst, with consequences which can be good or, just as easily, disastrous. The Kashmiris are a proud people. We must not insult their dignity. They are gentle, unlike our more volatile Pathan and Bengali brethren. But once provoked, their resilience and grit are equally prominent, as clearly shown in the 10-year militant movement which claimed 75,000 lives. The earthquake has created a golden opportunity to turn a calamity into a triumph. It is time to learn lessons from our past.