16th. December should be a date seared into the psyche of Pakistanis right? But is it? Twice this date has brought immeasurable grief to Pakistan.Grief, ignominy, shame, pain, loss, and a lingering question of why it happened and could it have been prevented.
I am of course referring to the two cataclysmic events in our history; events that led to the fall of Dhaka (Dacca as it was known as in those days) on 16th, December 1971, and the murder of our innocent school children and their brave teachers in the Peshawar Army Public School on the same date in 2014.
What do you remember about December 1971? I was still in school, but old enough to remember the 1965 war, which just brushed by the Karachiites, so the sight of tracer bullets in the sky was something strange on that cold December night in 1971 when Karachi was attacked. Because of 1965 and the the belief that was fed to us post 1965, until Air Marshal Nur Khan busted the myth, we were sure that since we had won the 1965 war, we would overcome the enemy in this one too.
After all, weren’t we holding out in East Pakistan despite great difficulty? Didn’t we just hear our President Yahya Khan say we would defeat the enemy? It was all over the newspapers too and of course the contrarian news on BBC was just plain lies and that Mark Tully was anti-Pakistan anyway!
Even when the entire city lit up due to the missile strike on the oil tanks at Karachi’s shoreline, where my father worked; even the shaking of the ground due to the bombing by Indian Aircraft which led to loss of life in areas like Agra Taj colony, it didn’t really shake us out of the belief that ultimately we would prevail. Despite the immense sadness at loss of precious lives in the missile attack on our naval ship Khyber in which a dear neighbour went down, the enormity of the situation was lost on us because of the narrative we were consuming.
And on December 16, that sanitized narrative spoke of a ‘ceasefire agreement’ and laying down of the arms by ‘Tiger’ Niazi in Dhaka. We didn’t understand the ashen faces of our elders, many of whom wept like children. Fall of Dhaka was a term coined much later. The attention shifted from us schoolgirls going house to house collecting for the defence funds to collecting stuff to make packets for the POWs. That became part and parcel of the school activities which had resumed soon after.
Fast forward many years to when I was working with a leading channel of the country. I was responsible for the content of our morning show that was 180 degrees opposed to the kind of shows aired these days. It handled important subjects sensitively and intelligently through the @Ayeshah Alam and @Faisal Qureishi duo.
We did special programmes on special occasions. When I suggested that December 16 should be dedicated to this unfortunate chapter in our national history, there were raised eyebrows, but only because some in the team, the generation that grew up after 1971, were not aware of the significance of the day. They however readily agreed.
However the initial reaction had given me another idea.. to spur the discussion, we sent a reporter, @Huzaima Bukhari to an elite school to ask what the significance of that date was. The answers were too embarrassing to even narrate here. The reporter called back to say she had not been able to get one correct answer. We told her to go to the history teacher to ask why none of the children knew the answer and no marks for guessing what she said!
We, a nation of ostriches, just buried our head in the sand, and moved on as if nothing happened from which lessons needed to be drawn. True to the saying that ‘we learn from history, that we never learn from history,’ we kept alienating our own, we kept on a path of discriminatory development, making the wrong friends, creating enemies right left and center, and nurturing snakes in the backyard.
Fast forward again to another 16th. December, in 2014, when these snakes hissed and bit us, at the Army Public School in Peshawar. The heart kept sinking lower and the entire atmosphere bore a pall of gloom as news of the attack trickled in. Not just Pakistan but everywhere those images of brutality against the innocent students and their brave teachers went, people recoiled in shock and horror. There was not a dry eye when the parents bid farewell to their beloved children. Toughest of journalists broke down when they went to APS.
The State seemed to suddenly wake from its slumber and resolved not to forgive, or forget. while offering the salve of ‘martydom’ of these children, who had been brutally murdered. It launched the Zarb e Azb. The shock and awe treatment was supposed to have wiped out these barbarians. The National Action Plan was supposed to ACT against all those elements who were perpetrators of horror against our soldiers, our children, the ordinary persons in the street going about their business in bazaars, the people in masjid, mandir, imambargahs and churches.
Today, two years after APS, we again remember those innocent souls and pray for the families who lost their loved ones. There are promises of never forgetting them. But in between there are many others who jostle for a place in our collective memories. Shirakpur reminds us that the NAP was perhaps napping, the large gatherings of the proscribed organizations, the threats hurled by sectarian organizations, the targeting of ‘minorities’ (the word I hate to use, because for me constitutionally, there are none); the glorification of killers like Mumtaz Qadri, the intransigence of Lal masjid mula Abdul Aziz, and the deep deep sorrow of the people of Quetta like the Hazaras, families of police cadets and its entire generation of young lawyers indicate inaction rather than any action or a plan.
After what recently happened in Chakwal to the Ahmadiyya community, can we really say that there is a NAP? Even after what Justice Qazi Faez Isa has put down in the Quetta Inquiry Commission Report?
Can we really claim that we will never forget December 16?