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Letter to a Pakistani Diplomat

After the publication of a letter in The New York Times (April 10, 1971) signed by me jointly with three other West Pakistani scholars and after subsequent statements of mine opposing the Pakistani military government’s intervention in East Bengal, several Pakistani officials protested my position. They all pointed out that: 1) The army, under General Yahya, is only protecting national integrity against a secessionist movement which would cause the 70 million people in East Pakistan to break away from the 56 million in West Pakistan; 2) The army intervened only after the Bengali nationalists had started killing West Pakistani residents in East Pakistan and the minority Bihari refugees from India; 3) Since the leaders of the Awami League of East Pakistan have pro-Western sympathies and connections, and the Chinese “support” the federal government, anti-imperialist and radical elements should not oppose the military’s action. The following is a reply to one such “friend”.

Dear——

I hope you understand that it was not easy for me and my brother Saghir Ahmad to publish the statement you saw in The New York Times (April 10, 1971). First, I did not have any natural sympathy for the Bangla Desh movement. In fact, I had a definite feeling of antipathy for Sheikh Mujib [East Pakistan’s leader whose party, the Awami League, won a governing majority in the national assembly and 98 percent of Bengali votes]. He impressed me as being a limited man, impetuous and unimaginative. But then I have less regard for his West Pakistani counterparts—the miserable Mr. Bhutto who changes his politics like a lizard his color, or the generals who, bred by colonial Britain and armed by the USA, appear bent on turning the country into a Muslim version of Greece and Spain.

Secondly, as you know, I am originally from Bihar, and most of my people had migrated to East Pakistan. Several of them were killed by Bengali zealots during the period immediately preceding the military’s intervention. Furthermore, I grew up during the Movement for Pakistan, and it is hard not to cherish the idea of national unity. Lastly, as a radical and an internationalist, I do not believe that separatist movements constitute a forward step in the right direction. For these reasons, my inclinations should be to support a policy of maintaining the integrity of Pakistan.

However, as I see the facts surrounding recent developments, I am able to find neither a political and economic nor a moral justification for the current policy of military intervention. I have been examining the facts as closely as it is possible to do, given the censorship of news by the military regime and the resulting imbalances in news reports, some of which necessarily emanate from India.

My considered opinion is that:

1) The East Pakistanis had genuine grievances against the federal government, dominated by the military since at least 1957. Not even the most hawkish West Pakistanis deny the gross economic inequities and exploitation suffered by the Bengalis. Politically, twelve years of direct military rule deprived them of even a minor share in the exercise of power.

2) The nearly unanimous electoral support for the Awami League’s demand for provincial autonomy was the result of the neglect of East Pakistan, climaxing in the example of the incredible negligence in the relief of cyclone victims last November. I recognize that the poor in West Pakistan have suffered also. The callousness of our rulers may be undiscriminating. Yet the more disadvantaged people of East Pakistan could only comprehend their condition as caused by regional discrimination.

3) Having failed to arrive at an extra-parliamentary settlement, the military, supported by West Pakistani leaders, intervened on March 25, 1971, to offset the results of Pakistan’s first freely held elections. Perhaps the army had little hope of obtaining the capitulation of Pakistan’s elected representatives. It is now clear that the army used the negotiations between General Yahya and Sheikh Mujib as a cover to prepare for its intervention.

4) There is absolutely no popular base of support for the federal government. Even after four months of terror it has been unable to produce a group of political quislings capable of lending some legitimacy to the army’s occupation.

5) While the military has the power to lord over East Pakistan, the cost of this colonization will be very high for the peoples of both East and West. For the latter it must include increasing economic hardships, militarization of our politics and society, and total denial of civil liberties. The closing of journals like Asad and Lail-O-Nahar, the recent jailing without trial in West Pakistan of 800 persons, including leaders like Afzal Bangash, Mukhtar Rana, and G.M. Syed, intellectuals like Abdullah Malik and Sheikh Ayaz, academicians like G.M. Shah, and the recent public floggings of dissenters against the government in Lyalpur and Sialkot are indicative of the shift toward totalitarianism.

Similarly I worry over the statements and editorials which provoke public paranoia by suggesting an Indian-Jewish-American conspiracy in this conflict. This, regardless of the fact that with arms and money the American government is underwriting the murderous mission of the military dictatorship. Above all I am distressed by the promotion of religious fundamentalism and the systematic killing and harassment by the army of our Hindu citizens. I shudder when I think of the repercussions this policy may have for the 80 million Moslems in India.

6) Unless there is an immediate end to military rule in East Pakistan, famine and pestilence as well as periodic massacres by the army will cost millions of lives in the coming months. The intervention has already caused an estimated 250,000 deaths of unarmed civilians. Six million refugees have reached India. Between 60,000 and 100,000 are arriving daily and are facing infection from cholera and the hostility of poor Indians. Millions languish in the interior of East Pakistan, hungry and terrorized, potential statistics in what threatens to become the greatest holocaust in history.

As you know, the balance of survival is delicate in East Pakistan. Minor disruptions often cause major tragedies. Nineteen seventy and 1971 have been particularly hard years. The floods last August and September were the worst of the last decade and destroyed about half a million tons of rice. The cyclone in November, the most severe of the century, destroyed an equal amount of rice and rendered one thousand square miles of rice lands uncultivable for at least one year.

Then the army, in an effort to deny supplies to the Bengali opposition, started confiscating and burning the food reserves. Many displaced or frightened peasants in the villages have not harvested the winter crop. The combined losses, amounting to about 2.5 million tons of rice, must be replaced immediately if mass starvation is to be prevented. The recent survey by the World Bank, as well as the disclosures by Senator Kennedy of suppressed State Department reports, indicate that Western and US officials in East Pakistan have been warning Washington of the “specter of famine.”

Others have been more concrete in their predictions. Three months ago, Iain MacDonald, Relief Coordinator for Oxfam and other agencies, warned that 1.5 million persons may face starvation. Recently the Financial Times of London estimated that possibly four million would die unless relief and reconstruction were speedily begun. Alan Hart, a BBC reporter, believes it “probable that twenty or more million East Pakistanis will be starving by September or October.”

The dispatch of more supplies for relief is by itself unlikely to avert the impending tragedy. Only a quick restoration of civilian rule can prevent the use of food grains and medicine as military weapons; and only such a restoration can ensure both the distribution of relief and an effective role for international agencies in the administration of such relief.

7) Lastly, I should stress that no genuine restoration of civilian government will be possible until the East Pakistanis have been conceded their right to autonomy or even secession.

For these reasons, I believe that the only workable course for West Pakistanis is to insist on immediate and unconditional termination of martial law, the convening of the duly elected national assembly, and a commitment that the majority decisions of that assembly shall be binding on all, even if these decisions dismember Pakistan as a state consisting of East and West. We must reject the army’s absurd claim that it has intervened to protect the nation’s “integrity” from the party that had just won, in Pakistan’s only freely held elections, a governing majority in the national assembly.

In fact, the elected representatives of East Pakistan had insisted only on fulfilling their mandate to achieve autonomy for their province. The proclamation by the East Pakistanis of the independent state of Bangla Desh took place only after the army refused to convene the national assembly and after it had brutally intervened in East Pakistan on March 25, 1971. In his speech of June 28, General Yahya denied the right of the national constituent assembly to draw up a constitution and he harshly attacked all the leaders of the Awami League. This destroyed the possibility of any settlement based on the mandate of the elections.

I know that I shall be condemned for my position. For someone who is facing a serious trial in America, it is not easy to confront one’s own government. Yet it is not possible for me to oppose American crimes in Southeast Asia or Indian occupation of Kashmir while accepting the crimes that my government is committing against the people of East Pakistan. Although I mourn the death of Biharis by Bengali vigilantes, and condemn the irresponsibilities of the Awami League, I am not willing to equate their actions with that of the government and the criminal acts of an organized, professional army.

According to reliable reports, which were not challenged by the government, no more than 10,000 persons were killed or wounded by Bengali nationalists in the riots against the Biharis. At the beginning of August, however, West Pakistan military authorities issued a white paper which claimed that 100,000 people were killed by the Bengali opposition. These and other exaggerated claims in the white paper were obviously intended to justify trials and possible death sentences for opposition leaders. As this letter is being written, the military government has announced that Sheikh Mujib will face a secret military tribunal on August 12, on charges of “waging war” against Pakistan. Since the white paper announced that seventy-nine members of the unconvened national assembly will face criminal charges, Mujib’s trial may foreshadow more secret prosecutions.

I know that the army did not intervene in East Pakistan to stop the killing of non-Bengalis, which went on for three weeks while the generals pretended to seek extra-parliamentary deals with the politicians. Saving civilian lives was not the motive behind the vast repressions that have already cost countless Pakistanis their lives and property and forced millions to flee to India. Unequal bartering of brutalities is not a function of responsible government. The very fact that this military regime seeks justification for its behavior by referring to the excesses of the Awami League and the aroused masses is a measure of the steep decline in the civic standards of our army and civil services. Above all, criminality is not a commercial proposition: one cannot deposit the crimes of one into the account of another.

The Chinese rhetoric on this issue is irrelevant. They have offered Pakistan their support only against foreign interference; and indicated their belief that this conflict is an internal matter. Much more alarming is the American government’s decision to continue armaments sales and economic aid to the dictatorship, despite the unanimous opposition of its Western allies, of important men in the Congress, and of the World Bank. This is particularly striking in view of the long-standing loyalty to the West and to the US of Sheikh Mujib and his party.

Washington’s assistance to the West Pakistan junta should be a lesson to those Pakistanis who believed that the US, given a choice between militarists and moderate democrats, would choose the latter. The leaders of the Awami League in East Pakistan failed to understand how important West Pakistan was to the Nixon-Kissinger strategy of building an informal anti-Soviet alliance of dependable clients around the Mediterranean and Indian oceans—from Spain and Portugal, through Greece and Israel, to Iran and Pakistan.

It has been said that General Yahya is now being rewarded by US support for having arranged Mr. Kissinger’s recent mission to China. If this is so, then the Chinese-American detente will have started by being detrimental to the weak and poor in Asia. Whatever the reasons for US policy, however, one effect is clear: Americans have become silent accomplices in crimes against humanity in yet another part of Asia. But their obligations are not as urgent as yours and mine.

I should also stress that the recent developments strengthen the possibility of a war between India and Pakistan. The two countries are more and more becoming pawns in world politics. India and the USSR have now signed a twenty-year friendship pact in which Russia promises to give military assistance to India in the event of war with Pakistan. This treaty cancels the gains that Pakistan had made at the Tashkent conference in 1966, when the Russians promised both to give aid to Pakistan and to be neutral in India-Pakistan relations.

I do not know if my position would at all contribute to a humane settlement. Given the fact that our government is neither accountable to the public nor sensitive to the opinion of mankind, our protest may have no effect until this regime has exhausted all its assets and taken the country down the road to moral, political, and economic bankruptcy. However, lack of success does not justify the crime of silence in the face of criminal, arbitrary power.

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