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June 20, 2020

On being called a traitor

June 20, 2020

In an ironic turn of events, the Sindh Assembly paid a historic tribute to the late Prof Waris Mir on June 15. The resolution condemned the remarks of Punjab’s Information Minister Fayyaz Chohan who had recently called Mir a ‘traitor’ for criticizing the 1971 military operation in Bangladesh. Earlier, members of the Punjab Assembly had also called for the restoration of the Waris Mir Underpass through a resolution on June 9; the underpass had mysteriously been renamed last year by the Punjab government at a time when his son, Hamid Mir, became increasingly critical of the current government.

By highlighting Prof Mir’s unwavering struggle for democracy, human rights and freedom of press, the resolution itself erases all misconceptions regarding his patriotism. Yet, I can’t help but wonder why a man’s loyalty is up to a test even 33 years after his death. Is it simply for speaking the truth, or is it because even in a supposedly ‘free’ democracy, one still has to pay a heavy price for political dissent?

Anyone who has sought knowledge of history beyond the Pak Studies textbooks knows that the events leading to the 1971 war and creation of Bangladesh are quite controversial. Interestingly enough, Lt General Sahabzada Yaqoob Ali Khan, who had resigned his command, was later appointed by General Zia’s dictatorship as the foreign minister of Pakistan. Ironically, the same Gen Zia who overlooked his fellow general’s difference of opinion, did not tolerate Waris Mir’s criticism of the 1971 operation.

The recent debacle moved me to dig out some of my grandfather’s work to see for myself what the dilemma over his patriotism was all about. He passed away long before I ever got to meet him, but fortunately left behind a legacy in the form of his writings. As far as our past with Bangladesh is concerned, here is what I found:

When Mir was a professor of journalism and the student affairs advisor in 1971 at Punjab University, Lahore, the administration rewarded the student union with a hefty sum of Rs9000 for a foreign tour. Mir proposed a visit to what was then East Pakistan as an effort to bridge the widening gap between the East and West Pakistanis. Many of their well-wishers warned that they were endangering their lives, but Mir was confident that they could diffuse the ongoing tensions through student mobilization.

Although they were met with an enthusiastic welcome at first, matters in Dhaka had deteriorated far beyond their imagination. The Indian and Pakistani army, along with rebels from Mukhti Bahini and Jamaat-e-Islami (Al-Shams, Al-Badr) were already caught up in skirmishes; much to Mir and his delegation’s regret, East Pakistan was on the brink of civil war by the time they arrived. Admittedly, their mission was not successful; instead of organizing talks and conferences, their East Pakistani hosts spent most of their time worrying about the safety of their guests.

Mir returned to Pakistan in a state of depression over the political differences and misunderstandings, which he felt were deliberately planted and propagated. According to Javed Hashmi, another student leader who accompanied Prof Mir to Dhaka, they held a press conference upon their return in hopes of awakening West Pakistanis to the terror and tumult that gripped the East. However their appeal was not published. Eventually, Prof Mir penned down his memories of the trip 14 years later, in 1985, when he felt his conscience no longer allowed him to stay quiet about how he saw Pakistan split in to two right before him. Soon after, he died a mysterious and untimely death.

His memoirs published in the book ‘Waris Mir Kahani’ reflect a state of resentment; he was disappointed in himself for being helpless in the face of the vicious narratives propagated in West Pakistan. In the final analysis, it is clear that all Mir really opposed was the dismemberment of Pakistan.

Among various vivid details of his experience in Dhaka, what stands out the most are his interactions with ordinary East Pakistanis. He writes: “I came across people of every caste and creed, most of whom were rightly enraged at their ill treatment at the hands of West Pakistani politicians and civil servants. Many West Pakistani bureaucrats had entitled themselves as the 'rulers' of East Pakistan, sometimes going to the extent of calling them “ghatya, neech, zaleel” to their faces. Evidently, it came as no surprise that the same Bengali Muslims who had once led the Pakistan Movement came to grow resentful of their fellow West Pakistanis; naturally, when a few freedom fighters chanted the slogan of “Bangladesh”, the Bengalis found an outlet for their deep-rooted grievances and called for liberation.”

In 2012, in an effort to improve relations with Pakistan, the Bangladeshi government sought out all those personalities who had made an effort to mend ties with Banglis in the past. Among them was Waris Mir and his simple effort to salvage an undivided Pakistan through a peaceful dialogue. When this came to the Bangladeshi government’s attention, they decided to honour him with a ‘Friends of Bangladesh Award’, along with Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Habib Jalib, Ghaus Bakhsh Bizinju, Malik Ghulam Jilani and others who had fearlessly raised their voices for East Pakistanis. Ever since, some people in Pakistan often use this award to defame Waris Mir whenever his son dares to raise his voice for issues such as missing persons etc.

Today, the fact that the members of the Sindh Assembly have quickly condemned Chohan’s malicious attempt to defame Mir is a laudable step in the right direction. But the circumstances that have made such resolutions necessary leaves little difference between today’s supposedly democratic Pakistan and the military dictatorship that Mir resisted. Whereas back then, the state explicitly censored voices of dissent, today one has to practice self-censorship to avoid trouble. In light of the sweeping sense of intimidation that haunts press freedom in Pakistan today, one hopes that the resolution passed as a tribute to Waris Mir is not in vain, and that our ruling parties uphold the ideals that he laid his life for.

The writer is a freelance contributor.