A Journey Through History

History repeats itself, goes the cliche. It does so, perhaps, for the human beings to have more than one chance of learning a lesson if they have missed out on the first opportunity. If Pakistani history is anything to go by, it is a clear indication that they, as a nation, happen to be pretty dumb fellows, unable to learn anything at all despite the fact that history has been very kind to them by way of repeating the same chain of events time and time again. They sure have disappointed history on this count.

The first sentence in a recent book, The British Papers, reads: “These are uneasy days in Pakistan.” The remark is as pertinent today as it was back in 1958 when it was written as part of a note sent by the then British High Commissioner R.W.D. Fowler to Sir Henry Lintott at the Commonwealth Relations Office in London.

But there is, indeed, at least one difference in the two eras. Explaining the ‘uneasiness’ mentioned in the first sentence, the second sentence says: “In the last week or two public morale has sustained two severe blows.” Four-and-a-half decades later, public morale has taken so many blows of such severity that it now lies almost de-sensitized.

As the title suggests, the book is a compilation of secret and confidential British documents from 1958 to 1969 and dealing with the subcontinent. The book carries an Introduction by Humayun Khan, who served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Bangladesh, India and the United Kingdom before wearing the Foreign Secretary’s mantle in 1988-89. The Introduction, while making for an absorbing read, is slightly lopsided in the sense that it carries an unduly heavy anti-Bhutto undertone.

Talking, for instance, about the Ayub era — the period that the book basically covers — Humayun Khan has regretted that “the positive contributions of Ayub Khan proved to be less durable than the negative,” and has tried to absolve the country’s first dictator of his responsibility with this phrase, “Whether the blame for this lies on him or on those that followed is another matter.”

Narrating a few ‘positives’ and ‘negatives’ of the era, here is what he has concluded: “Lastly, and most ironically of all, his (Ayub’s) ultimate political bequest to the nation, unintended though it was, turned out to be Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, whom he nurtured for eight years without detecting his flaws. It was only after returning to Swat in 969 that, in a private conversation, Ayub expressed the view that if Bhutto was not stopped, he would dismantle the country brick by brick.”

Interestingly, the “private conversation” he is referring to happened to be between Ayub and British High Commissioner Sir C.S. Pickard on April 8, 1969, (Document No. 11.37 in the book), and does not at all mention Bhutto’s name even once. Yes, an indirect but clear reference is there. “… (T)he politicians had really shown themselves unable to take a constructive view and in their desire to appease their more extreme supporters they had committed themselves to policies which would have meant the destruction of Pakistan.”

See the tone of the note sent to London by the High Commissioner, with whom the “private conversation” was held, and then assess the “brick by brick” twist given by Humayun Khan. A fair and impartial Introduction would have surely added to the worth of the book.

While almost every single document tells — through British eyes, of course — an interesting tale of “internal power struggle, shifting loyalties and Byzantine palace intrigues”, together they all throw up a rather disgusting picture where even the most intricate and sensitive national issues were first discussed with the foreigners, sometimes to even their surprise. A couple of such episodes would suffice.

Document 1.13, labelled Top Secret and dated just past midnight October 6, 1958, from the High Commissioner to London, says: “President told me this evening that with the support of army … he will declare martial law at 10.30pm tomorrow (Tuesday) … He will broadcast to the nation at 7am Wednesday.”

In fact, there are at least four documents in the book between September 27 and October 6 that directly quote the president on the possible coup. And there is an icing on this unsavory cake as well: “When I expressed the hope that his proposed action will be within constitution, he said bluntly that constitution would be scraped,” reads the High Commissioner’s note to London.

That was the beginning, but the end was no different. In Document No. 11.11 dated February 26, 1969, British High Commissioner H.A. Twist writes to London about his two meetings with Naseem Aurangzeb, the daughter of Ayub Khan. “… I was more than a little surprised by the question which Naseem said … she had come to ask me specifically, ‘What the President should do?’ … When Naseem came to see me again … her opening question was almost as startling as on the former occasion. This time it was, “Do you think the President should throw in his hand soon if the politicians do not agree?’ Naseem helped me over the surprise … I confessed that I was nonplussed.”

One wonders if the elite of the country have stopped surprising foreign diplomats with their tendency to seek advice from them. Only declassified papers a few decades down the line will tell us if they have.

Though the book is worthy enough to find a place on most bookshelves, the claim of the compiler and the publishers that it provides “a revealing view of events in the subcontinent from 1947 right up to 1970” is somewhat disingenuous. The fact is that, as the sub-title itself mentions, the book contains documents related strictly to the 1958-1969 period, and, at times, the reader would even find occasion to differ from the selection criterion. But, frankly, the comment is more in the spirit of keeping the record straight, and should take nothing away from the merit of the book.

Fittingly, Roedad Khan, the compiler, must have the last word, and every thinking mind would surely share his hope that some day governments in the Third World would overcome their liking to “avoid the embarrassment of sunshine” and declassify their documents as is done by the developed countries. “I look forward to the day when every citizen in our part of the world shall have a right of access to all documents including those dealing with security and military affairs.” We all do, but the gut feeling says it might be a case of hoping against hope.

The British Papers: Secret and Confidential India, Pakistan and Bangladesh Documents 1958-1969. Published by Oxford University Press, Karachi.

The writer is a senior Pakistani journalist, associated at present with the largest circulate English-language newspaper of the country, the daily Dawn, as its Assistant Editor. He is based in Karachi. he can be reached at Humair_IQ@hotmail.com

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