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July 9, 2019

In Dhaka with Prof Mir


July 9, 2019

We go back to the political turmoil of 1971 as we remember Waris Mir, a noted scholar and a professor of journalism at Punjab University. Waris Mir was student affairs adviser when I was president of the Punjab University Students Union. A charming man with a disarming smile and an extremely sharp mind, Prof Mir understood our youthful shenanigans but pretended he didn’t. He chose to ignore them.

Prof Mir’s office was in the Student Teacher Center (STC) of New Campus, which also housed the Student Union’s office. We interacted regularly. He was an intense person, never held back his feelings. But had a heart of gold. I think his expression of intensity was in his writings. His capacity to manage human relationships could be seen in the way he handled relations between the vice-president of the students union, Rashid Butt, a diehard PPP supporter, and the general secretary Javed Hashmi of the IJT. Prof Mir got along equally well with both, because he was always fair and honest.

We were the first elected leaders of the students union after a considerably long ban on student activities was lifted. The union functioned smoothly despite the diversity among the key office-bearers. The university authorities had earned a feather in their cap. So the university syndicate decided to reward us with a foreign tour. Prof Waris Mir was to head the tour and I would lead the student delegation. Turkey or European destination were proposed and opinions varies. I sought time to deliberate and discussed the matter with Prof Mir. He was, and continued to be till the end of his days, an idealist. I was a young buck charged with patriotism.

We were aware of the operation in East Pakistan and the festering rebellion by Mukti Bahni. We agreed on a bold plan – to visit East Pakistan in an effort to bridge the widening gap between the people of the two wings. The university administration’s attitude was lukewarm but the strength of our arguments prevailed and preparations started for that dangerous adventure. In addition to Prof Waris Mir and myself the delegation included Rashid Butt, Javed Hashmi, Murtaza Rahim, Moin Ul Islam and one more. Our host was Dr Mahmood Hussain, vice chancellor of Dhaka University. India had banned overhead flights so we went to Karachi and boarded a PIA plane to Dhaka via Colombo. We were well received in Dhaka. En route to the international hostel in Dhaka University I observed that the air was quiet and creepy. A ghost-ridden calm. Something irked me. Everyone was distant, smiles were forced; no one looked you in the eye.

On the first night, we were invited for dinner by the Dhaka University VC. We were fed well and introduced to the team that would take us around. There was some press too. At the end of the dinner, the VC took Prof Mir and me aside. He politely stated that we were welcome, but the advice that followed the welcome rang alarm bells. We should get out of Dhaka as soon as we could, for his and our sakes.

The next day our visit was widely reported. I was contacted by some army friends serving there. I invited them over. We talked about their experiences in the situation involving Mukti Bahni, atrocities, actions and reactions. On impulse I borrowed a pistol from an army friend. Across from our residence was a university hostel which had become a hotbed of resistance. It had been destroyed in the army action. It was a disturbing reminder of how bad things were. Slowly, the enormity of the situation started to dawn. Tensions were intense and security was a serious issue. My mind was working overtime; why were two parts of one body pulling in opposite directions?

Prof Waris Mir was an early sleeper. He and I were in adjoining rooms. That night he was woken by a knock on his window. He snuck over to my room where Rashid Butt and I were sitting together. He was pale as if he had seen a ghost and told us of the knock. Before I could react, Rashid grabbed my pistol and a torch and, in a commando crouch, went around the building. It turned out to be a huge grasshopper tapping. The combination of relief and fear showed our state of mind.

The next day we were invited to an interactive session with students at the radio station. By the time we arrived the participating students had been seated. We had just started when the security suddenly arrived and ordered our immediate departure. We complied. On our way back the intelligence escort said that a female student had tried to enter at the last minute, wearing enough explosives to blow up the entire building. That was my first exposure to terrorism; they viewed us as occupiers not compatriots. It was heartbreaking.

The rest of the stay in Dhaka consisted in a few polite lunches, no dinners. A visit was organized to the training camps of Al Badr and Al Shams, which were supporting the state. They did a march past. My distinct memory is that of youngsters holding guns taller than their heights. Their spirits were high; it hurt deeply as I knew they were sheep headed for slaughter.

Our next stop was Chittagong. On the way from the airport one could see the commissioner’s residence beautifully nestled on a mountain surrounded by forest. This was a reminder of the arrogant style of the bureaucracy, mostly West Pakistanis. Two decades of misgovernance by inept, wayward rulers had taken us to the brink. Prolonged neglect and a strong sense of deprivation had led to intense alienation.

Our visit to Chittagong was an eye-opener. There was devastation all around. I felt heartbroken. A trip to a cell run by Mukti Bahni was organized. We were told they would tie the victims upside down, slit their veins and let them bleed out. It was traumatic. On our flight back, everyone was subdued. I saw that Prof Waris Mir was visibly depressed. This found expression in a series of articles by Prof Waris Mir upon his return to Pakistan. Self-appointed guardians amongst the rightist intelligentsia were quick to brand it as a betrayal of Pakistan. During multiple American wars, many writers and journalists exercised the right to express various and differing views. But they were not branded traitors, for that right was embedded in their constitution.

Our trip came to be viewed differently in Bangladesh. Thanks to an old PU alumni, Mohyuddin, our efforts were seen as a positive attempt to help undivided Pakistan. Prof Waris Mir and some other famous Pakistanis like Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Habib Jalib were honoured with ‘Friends of Bangladesh Awards’ in 2013. What an irony!

The truth is we mentally tortured a sensitive, patriotic, caring, qalandar of a man to a tragic early departure at a very young age. Waris Mir started his journalistic career during the military rule of Field Marshal General Ayub Khan; it came to an abrupt end with his untimely demise on July 9, 1987 during the martial law regime of General Ziaul Haq. All his life Prof Waris Mir fought for truth, justice, democratic principles, freedom of expression and liberty of thought.

The writer is a founder member of the PTI and former president of the Punjab University Students Union.

Email: [email protected]

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