Of distorted facts and fake quotations

Society’s appetite for conspiracy theories and disdain for fact-checking has made rational discourse difficult

The dominant Pakistani narrative is marred by distorted facts, serious inaccuracies and even fake quotations. Unfortunately, the culture of critical thinking and free inquiry does not exist. In fact, the public education system is geared to smothering critical thinking and free inquiry. The concept of fact-checking remains alien to many news media organisations.

Senator Mushahid Hussain Sayed, a former information minister, famously said in his journalism days: “We are the greatest conspiracy theorists east of the Suez.” Most Pakistanis tend to explain almost everything in conspiricist terms. Most textbooks and newspapers, in particular the Urdu ones, reek of hatred and bigotry. Rational discourse has become harder and harder with the passage of time. Even educated people have become quite intolerant and dissent is often equated with treason.

Let’s start with India-Pakistan relationship because the most famous Pakistani fake quotation pertains to it. We are told that in the wake of the December 16, 1971 surrender, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi said that she had avenged thousand years of slavery. There are several variations on this quotation, casting doubts on its authenticity. There is hardly any Pakistani general, diplomat, cleric, politician or journalist who has not mentioned this quotation because to them it is the ultimate proof of Indians’ hatred against Pakistan and Muslims.

There is one big problem with this quotation: it has no basis in fact. Nobody has been able to establish when and where Mrs Gandhi uttered these words. Even Oxford University Press (OUP) has been taken for a ride on this. At least two OUP books have carried this quotation without any verification. The first was Working with Zia (1995) by Gen

KM Arif, but this book did not have any citation of the source. Mr Gowher Rizvi, then a Fellow in International Relations at Nuffield College, Oxford, wrote its foreword.

The second was Pakistan’s Foreign Policy (2007) by Abdul Sattar, who has twice been the foreign minister of Pakistan. Earlier in his 39-year-long career as a Pakistani diplomat, he had served as ambassador to India and foreign secretary. In 1972, he was part of the Pakistani delegation that negotiated the Shimla accords. Obviously, he had met Mrs Gandhi many

times; but apparently, he never asked her about this quotation. The book’s foreword was written by Agha Shahi, the doyen of Pakistani diplomats, who himself had served as foreign secretary and foreign minister.

Mr Abdul Sattar writes in his book: “Speaking in parliament, she was reported to have said she had defeated Pakistan, and avenged several centuries of Hindu humiliation at the hands of Muslim sultans and emperors. ‘Delirious with joy’ the members of parliament gave her a thunderous ovation.’” He cited V Langer’s 1988 book The Defence and

Foreign Policy of India. If Mr Sattar was confident of the authenticity of the quotation, why did he say ‘reported to have said’? The factual position is that the words that evoked the ‘thunderous ovation’ were: “Dacca is now the free capital of a free country.” The word “avenge” is nowhere to be found in Langer’s book. I wrote to the OUP about it in 2010. They conducted their research. They even sought the help of their office in India. In the end, they confronted Mr Abdul Sattar, and he agreed to remove it in the subsequent edition. He never got it removed. It is still there.

Syed Zafar Ali Shah, then a senator and a senior Supreme Court lawyer, has changed the locale and wording of the quotation. In its issue of December 16, 2011, Jang, arguably the most influential newspaper in Pakistan, quoted him as saying that Mrs Gandhi uttered

these words while addressing a rally in New Delhi, “Today a naari (woman) of India has avenged the defeats of a thousand years.” It may be added here that Mr Shah was a stalwart of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s party, i.e., the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz). On the same day, Nawa-i-Waqt, a self-styled guardian of Pakistan’s ideological frontiers, which has been described as Pakistan’s Pravda by Mushahid Hussain Sayed, editorially put these words in Mrs Gandhi’s mouth, “Today by sinking the Two-Nation Theory in the Bay of Bengal, we have avenged a thousand years of Muslims’ slavery.”

There is a similar quotation attributed to Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the Indian National Congress, who purportedly said in the 1990s that India had culturally conquered Pakistan and that there was no need for it to conquer it militarily. Like the Indira Gandhi quotation, it, too, has several variants. This quotation is particularly popular with Urdu columnists. Again, nobody has bothered to ascertain its authenticity. In fact, a denial was issued a few days after this statement appeared in a section of Pakistani press, but Pakistani publicists continue to quote it. Even liberal newspapers are not completely immune from publishing such fabrications. For example, writing in the Daily Times (August 30, 2010), Ayaz Malik put these words in Sonia Gandhi’s mouth: “We have conquered Pakistan through television and movies because Pakistan follows all of our customs and traditions in their lifestyle.” Writing in Express (March 4, 2019), Basheer Ahmad Arman claimed that addressing a seminar on “Modern warfare and we” at a five-star hotel in Mumbai on March 8, 1996, Sonia Gandhi said: “By introducing our culture in Pakistan, we have won a war that could not have been won through weapons. We have culturally invaded Pakistan, undermining its foundations.”

Let’s switch gears a bit. Writing in the Pakistan Observer, Islamabad, (October 17, 2000), Lt

Col MZ Malik (retired) quoted the London-based Jewish Chronicle (August 9, 1967) as writing:

The World Zionist Movement should not be neglectful of the dangers of Pakistan to it. And Pakistan now should be its first target, for this ideological state is a threat to our existence. And Pakistan, the whole of it, hates the Jews and loves the Arabs. This lover of Arabs is more dangerous to us than the Arabs themselves. For that matter, it is most essential for the World Zionism that it should now take immediate steps against Pakistan. Whereas the inhabitants of the Indian peninsula are Hindus whose hearts have been full of hatred throughout history against Muslims, therefore, India is the most important base for us to work there from against Pakistan. It is essential that we exploit this base and strike and crush Pakistanis, enemies of Jew and Zionism, by all disguised and secret plans.

According to Altaf Hasan Qureshi, the Urdu Digest editor since 1960, these words appeared in The Jewish Chronicle on August 19, 1967 (Nawa-i-Waqt, September 13, 2005). Dr Zahoor Ahmed Azhar, an emeritus professor of Arabic at Punjab University, Lahore, wrote in the same paper (October 4, 2005) that the first Israeli prime minister, David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973), uttered these words while addressing the Jewish Council in London after the 1967 war.

Writing in the same paper, Lt Gen Abdul Qayyum (retired), former military secretary to Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and currently a Pakistan Muslim League senator, also put these words in Ben-Gurion’s mouth. Salma Awan says that he said all this while speaking at Sorbonne University in Paris (Pakistan, Lahore, August 15, 2012).

These are additional reasons that cast doubt on its authenticity. First, there is no agreement on its date of publication. Second, there is no agreement whether it was an editorial, an article or a speech by Ben-Gurion. Third, no native speaker of English, least of all such a well-established magazine, can print such lousy English and crude propaganda. Fourth, if the Jews really wanted to crush Pakistan, why would they make the plan public? Fifth, Ben-Gurion held office until June 21, 1963. Levi Eshkol (1895-1969) was the Israeli prime minister during the 1967 war. Why weren’t these words put in his mouth?

All of this prompted me to contact the publication in question. In response to my query, Stephen Pollard, the Oxford-educated editor of The Jewish Chronicle since November 2008, wrote to me on December 16, 2010: “We’ve looked and no such quote has ever appeared in the JC. I’m certain it’s a fake.” It may be added here that The Jewish Chronicle was founded in 1841. It is the oldest continuously published Jewish publication in the world.

The writer is an Islamabad-based journalist, researcher and academic. He studied international relations in Islamabad and media in London. He is the author of Handbook of Functional    English. shakil.chaudhary@gmail.com

Of distorted facts and fake quotations