The writer has taught international relations and diplomacy at Boston University and at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and was the vice chancellor of LUMS.
December 16 is the anniversary of what we in Pakistan now call ‘the Fall of Dhaka’ and what Bangladesh celebrates as its ‘Victory Day.’
First, let us extend our hand of friendship, greeting, and good wishes to our Bangladeshi friends. Next, let us raise our hands in prayer: may the memories we build together for our future be very different – much more pleasant – than the scars we carry from our past.
December 16 is a day of too many unstitched wounds, of too much unshared agony, of too many unspoken words, of too much unrepented hurt. The unstitched, the unshared, the unspoken and the unrepented continues to fester today as it had when Faiz Ahmed Faiz wrote his poignant 1974 poem, On Return from Dhaka:
Dil tou cha’ha, par shakst-i-dil ney muhlet he na di
kuch gilley shikvey bhi ker laitey, munajaatouN ke baad
Unn se jou kehney ga’aye th’ay ‘Faiz’ jaaN sadqa ke’iye
ann-kahi he reh ga’ee voh baat sab baatouN ke baad
[And so crushed was the heart that though it wished, it found no chance/after the entreaties, after the despair – for us to quarrel once again as old friends.
Faiz, what you’d gone to say, ready to offer everything, Even your life/Those healing words remained unspoken after all else had been said
Translation: Agha Shahid Ali, The Rebel’s Silhouette]
As painful, and as dangerous, as the words that remain unspoken are, the lessons that remain unlearnt are even more so. The disfigurement we have inflicted on history has made our arguments of how we came upon December 16 turn putrid. There is little point, now, in mechanically rechurning the discredited dialectics of distrust. As Nelson Mandela has so passionately demonstrated to us, an honest attempt at justice for the past can emerge only when a shared desire for reconciliation in the future has already set in. The truth is that it has not set in yet.
Here, then, is what we know. After a quarter century of pained togetherness, the sense of alienation and disconnect in what was then East Pakistan had become so deep that the first ever national elections (held on December 7, 1970) threw up a result so stark that it was confounding in its clarity. Unadulterated by analysis, the unvarnished numbers speak for themselves.
In a National Assembly of 300, the Awami League, led by Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman, won 160 seats and 39.2 percent of the votes cast (12,937,162 out of 33,004,065 votes). The Pakistan People’s Party, led by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, won 81 seats with 18.6 percent of the votes (6,148,923). In East Pakistan, the Awami League won all but two of the province’s 162 seats (the remaining two were won by independents). In West Pakistan, the PPP won 81 seats out of the 138 allotted to the western half of the country (with no other party getting into two digits). The Awami League won no seat at all in West Pakistan and the PPP none in the East.
Scarcely ever in electoral politics do you get results as clear as this. Yet, what followed was chaos and confusion, a civil war, and ultimately the unnecessarily bloody dismemberment of what had always been an uneasy and untenable union.
However, it would be a historical folly to seek an explanation for December 16, 1971, in the election results of December 7, 1970. Rather, the election results were a reflection of the neglect and negligence of the two decades that preceded them. If a single date is to be found to personify the disaffection that had set in East Pakistan, that date may be November 12, 1970. The day Bhola landed in East Pakistan.
Bhola, of course, was Cyclone Bhola.
It wiped out villages. Destroyed crops. The lives of over 3.6 million people were devastated. Nearly 85 percent of the area it hit was decimated. It brought winds of an unbelievable 185 km/hr and a 10 meter (33 ft) high storm surge in the Ganges Delta. It left in its wake half a million Pakistanis dead. A New York Times headline described it as possibly ‘The Worst Catastrophe of the Century,’ meteorologists remember it as one of the most deadly natural disasters in history. Most Pakistanis today remember it not at all.
The one reference to this calamity that a few contemporary Pakistanis may be familiar with is in that heart warming national song (written by Asad Mohammad Khan and sung by Shahnaz Begum) Mauj barhey ya aandhi aa’ye, diya jala’ey rakhna hai/ghar ki khatir sau dukh jhaleiN, ghar tou aakhir apna hai. Bhola was the mauj (storm surge). Bhola was the aandhi (storm). East Pakistan was the ghar (home) that we were all implored to hold dear. How high were our ideals; how unmet our hopes!
The fact that we in today’s Pakistan have forgotten an event so cataclysmic in our own history is trivia. The real tragedy is that those who lived in the then West Pakistan also did not comprehend just what had hit them.
The military government of Gen Yahya Khan claimed that it would “spare no efforts” in relief but would never delay the forthcoming elections, but was severely criticised for a shoddy response and for never fully understanding the scale of the catastrophe. Military helicopters could not move from West to East Pakistan in time as the government in India refused to give them clearance. Operations were delayed. The citizen response in the West tepid.
By the time Gen Yahya arrived in Dhaka to take charge of the relief operations on November 24 (he had earlier aerially inspected the area on November 16) it was already too late. Ultimately, he himself conceded that his government had made “slips” and “mistakes”. By then, Bhola had become, in the East Pakistani sensibility, a metaphor and a validation of all that was and had been wrong in West Pakistan’s relationship with East Pakistan.
Bhola became an election rally for the Awami League. More proof of West Pakistani callousness. The result of the election would probably have been the same without Bhola. But the cyclone served to frame just how much had gone how terribly wrong in the relations between the two. Not just in terms of the government response, but in the essence of citizen connectedness.
Time has at least healed some of the physical hurt caused by Bhola, as those affected had no options but for life to move on. But the real lesson – unlearnt still – that Bhola has left us with is that the pain of neglect does not lessen with time. It compounds. It seethes. It festers. It reeks. That is a lesson that the Pakistan of 1970 had never understood. It is not clear that the Pakistani of 2013 has learnt it any better.
Even without global climate change, there are too many Bholas that lurk on our horizon. With climate change there are likely to be even more. The lesson here is to respect nature and its awesome forces, but also to recognise that, terrible as it can be, the wrath of nature is so much less terrible – and, ultimately, so much more manageable – than the wrath of history and a messed up polity.
Yes, natural calamities tear apart the very fabric of life. But, handled right, they can also bring together societies in common cause. We have seen some of that happening in recent floods and earthquakes. But the politics of disenfranchisement, of distress, of derision, of disparagement, of disdain can only divide society. And the hurt of division knows few cures. It feeds on its own agony. It compounds over time. And ultimately it blows back in ways more gruesome and ghastly than any that even nature can conjure up in all its fury.
As we remember Bhola and think about the shadows of 1971 on 2013, let us also remember that the worst calamities are nearly never natural, they are creatures of our own disconnect. All too often, they are political. If so, then the response must also be so.