December 16, 1971 was a gray and chilly winter day in Canada. We had just turned of the TV after watching the ritual of Gen. (Tiger) Niazi surrendering East Pakistan to an Indian commander displayed on the evening news when phone rang. It was Islam Waheed, a university student from Pakistan and a left political activist. He wanted me and my colleague Dr. Feroze Ahmed to come to Montreal as soon as possible and talk about the political situation back home at a meeting of the metropolitan city’s Pakistani community. The two of us took a flight from Sault Ste Marie[i] on the 18th, reaching Montreal in the evening. From the airport we were driven directly to the McGill University where a large room was full of Pakistani expatriates and their families.
From previous experience I must admit that our compatriots had not been inclined to take our “leftist” ideas seriously, but on that evening a large gathering of them seemed to be waiting very anxiously to hear us speak. They wanted to know what had happened to Pakistan and why it happened.
Feroze spoke first. The gist of what he said was that the defeat of the Pakistan army at the hands of India was not the defeat of the people of Pakistan. The elitist rulers of Pakistan had kept the people in deception in order to serve their own interests. They had been too busy in manipulating the system to keep their hold on power, instead of caring for the integrity of Pakistan. He warned that the unity of Pakistan cannot be maintained by emotionally charged sloganeering and authoritarian rule of the central power elite. We expatriate Pakistanis, he said, will have to do more than engaging in seasonal demonstrations of patriotism. What is needed is a coolheaded and critical understanding of political and economic issues confronting our country. Pakistan’s unity and integrity can only be preserved by basing it firmly on the principles of equality, social justice and popular participation. Pakistan cannot be protected by the strength and supremacy of its armed forces alone.
When I was called upon to speak a Punjabi lady in the audience stood up with tears in her eyes and said, “Before you begin, I want to know if Indra Gandhi is going to annex the rest of Pakistan as well?” To appease such fears, I had to point out that Prime Minister Gandhi was not so foolish to annex Pakistan and thereby put around her neck a chain of troubles forever. It may have been possible to create a unified independent India at the time of the withdrawal of British rule with agreement between the different political parties, but too much has happened since that moment, including the holocaust of partition, for the people of Pakistan to ever reconcile to integration with India, particularly a forced one.
The discussion then turned to the principles of federalism and how the ruling class of Pakistan at the centre had violated these principles by not only refusing to share governing authority with provincial units but using brute force to suppress their legitimate cultural identities and economic aspirations.
This type of discussion and dialogue continued for some time even after the end of the formal meeting in smaller groups, until everyone stepped out into the snowy night of Montreal. We too left and reassembled at our host’s place for late night snacks and conversation. We were joined also by two Bengali sailors who had jumped ship at a Canadian port after army action was launched in their province of East Bengal on March 25, 1971.
While we sat chatting, someone brought the latest issue of McGill Daily, the university’s student newspaper for circulation in our small group. It carried an interesting report of an earlier meeting of our compatriots held on the campus on December 4, a day after Pakistan had launched an air strike against India from the West in retaliation against Indian army’s invasion of East Pakistan. According to the student newspaper report the organisers of that meeting had invited Mr. A. K. Saadi an emissary of the government of Pakistan to address the audience. But as soon as the meeting started the entire building began to resound with the call to prayers, azan, and soon thereafter two men entered the meeting room waving Pakistani flags and announced that the meeting was adjourned for the evening prayers. After the prayer break the meeting was reconvened but the guest speaker, Mr. Saadi, was missing. While some people went looking for him one of the organizers took the floor and launched a passionate speech attacking Soviet Premier Kosygin, Mao Zedong, Indra Gandhi and Gen. Yahya Khan.
Mr. Saadi was eventually brought back to the meeting and after a long introduction started his address by expressing his worries at the political situation back home, but before he could get very far with his address, another call for prayer rang out in the building, this time for the night (asha) prayer. The meeting was adjourned for another break, but this time Mr. Saadi disappeared without a trace. People who had some questions for him were left frustrated. Two of the organizers got into a heated argument and had to be separated by others before coming to blows.
This newspaper account of the earlier meeting obviously stood in sharp contrast to the proceedings of the one we had just attended. The flag waving patriotism, the religiosity, and the combativeness displayed in the earlier meeting was quite amazing. Was all this indicative of something about our national character or could it be attributed to isolated behaviour of a few individuals carried away in the excitement of the news of extraordinary events occurring in Pakistan? And what about the calm and tolerant, almost penitent, mood we had encountered in our meeting? Had our fellow Pakistanis learned a lesson of realism, mutual respect and humility after the dismemberment of their beloved Pakistan? Time flew by as we pondered these questions through the long winter night.
Finally someone came up with the bright idea of getting some sleep. Our host took us upstairs to show us to our beds. Still wide awake, I walked to the window to take a look outside. There was no sign of life on the street below. Montreal, the city of over 5 million people, had gone to sleep. Snowfall had tapered off. A few tiny white flakes were visibly flurrying around the street lamp. That for a moment brought to mind a familiar image of the rainy summer seasons in Pakistan – the frantic dance of those winged insects around street lights till they dropped dead by hitting the hot light bulbs again and again.
If someone would ask me today, what have you learned since that night in Montreal 39 years ago? I will have to say that I now know the answers to the two questions that had arisen that night.
- Yes, flag waving patriotism, religiosity, and combativeness are very much part of our Pakistani national character.
- No, we Pakistanis never learned the lesson of realism, mutual respect and humility from the fall of Dhaka.
I leave it to the readers to imagine were this is going to lead Pakistan and its people.