COMMENT: Coming to grips with the past
There are two obstacles that civil servants face when writing of the past. The first is the ban on passing on ‘secrets’ and the cumbersome vetting process. And second, the fear of jeopardising one’s life
Apart from the past nothing else is secure in Pakistan. But is the past really worth knowing? Does it really matter? An English poet, Edward Thomas, once said that the past is the only dead thing that smells sweet. But here even the past stinks.
German philosopher Friedrich Hegel thought that the past matters because events and personalities in history reappear in one form or another and hence, without knowing the past, we will not know how to deal with them in the future. But Hegel died before he could visit us. Had he done so he would have discovered that while we had some idea of how to deal with the problems in the past, we have absolutely none when they reappear presently, what to talk of the future. There are others, of course, who blasphemously aver that we have no future.
Being a history buff once, I thought that the government should encourage those who saw how earlier governments struggled to cope with problems, which are essentially perennial, to record their views. I thought that the reading of their experience might help us to understand our history, current and future problems and, most of all, ourselves.
Hence on a propitious occasion when I felt Benazir Bhutto would be receptive, I suggested that select retired civil servants be asked to record their views and experiences in writing and be given a small stipend for their efforts.
“Really?” she replied, giving me a withering look, “and what makes you think that such men will have anything worthwhile to say?” At which point I felt it imprudent to pursue the matter.
However, I wish I had summoned up the courage to do so because there were many who had enough good advice to offer but who, even if she was averse to meeting them, she would have read with the lightning speed that she was capable of, having taken a course in ‘speed reading’, and emerged much the wiser.
Only the other day, one of the few surviving witnesses of the immediate post-partition period remarked about someone who had passed on without writing of his experiences: “It was a great pity,” he said, “that he left no record considering what he knew about the Afghans and their fighting and negotiating tactics.” He then mentioned that had he the time (and perhaps also the guts to ride the incoming flack that it would generate) he would prove, with supporting evidence, that Liaquat Ali Khan was a bounder and that, realising this, Quaid-e-Azam had decided to dispense with his services and had informed Begum Liaquat accordingly. And it was to forestall such a move that Liaquat had rushed to Ziarat and yes, threatened the Quaid, and that this had greatly upset the Quaid. It was to attend to this dispute and to replace Liaquat with Sardar Abdur Rab Nishtar that the Quaid had made his fateful and final journey to Karachi.
Having related to me something that HV Hudson may have found interesting and then only when updating his book on Jinnah, my age-wisened interlocutor stopped to observe: “I hope you see why I am telling you this. Note the similarity between the way that Liaquat angered his mentor and how Leghari stabbed Benazir. It will happen again in the future.”
Ah, I thought, if Benazir had accepted my proposal and read what the oldies would have written, given a little encouragement, she could have summoned the past to deal with the present and turned the tables on Leghari and Karamat.
There are two obstacles that civil servants face when writing of the past. The first is the ban on passing on ‘secrets’ and the cumbersome vetting process. And second, the fear of jeopardising one’s life, or that of one’s relatives and friends, by spilling the beans. But neither are insurmountable hurdles.
Indeed, it was to partly overcome this reluctance to confront the truth that had prompted my suggestion to Benazir. And I, in turn, had been prodded by the candid and often heated private discussions between the brothers Agha Hilaly and Agha Shahi in 1971, which threw an entirely different light on events leading up to the 1971 War, the role of the major players of that conflict, their aims and ambitions and the lengths to which some were prepared to go to promote their own selfish agendas. The entire history of the conflict would have to be re-written, it occurred to me, if their take on the events was correct. And yet, neither of them for fear of, let us say, the embarrassment that it may cause them and others, considered the possibility of setting it down for posterity.
So too the negotiations with India that took place mostly in London in the mid-60s, the leading role of Sheikh Abdullah, his visits to London, the furtive meetings, his exchanges with Ayub Khan and the verbal confidences exchanged between Abdullah and Ayub. From what one gleaned, it was not inconceivable that if Nehru had not died at that critical juncture, the Kashmir dispute could have been resolved. But little of these talks saw the light of day.
True, they are of little relevance to what is the situation today, but had they been known then, or soon thereafter, it would have provided an impetus to peace, notwithstanding Nehru’s death. Fortified by the knowledge, for example, that a peaceful resolution of Kashmir was in the works, why wage war, some may have asked. Nam et ipsa scientia potestas est (knowledge itself is power/wisdom).
But because they were not, and on the surface, at least, India and Pakistan carried on much as before hurling abuse and invective, those of his successors, for whom the boots that Nehru left behind were far too big, abandoning the effort was convenient and easy.
Our elders in retrospect were wrong in not letting us on to what they knew and the government was wrong then, and today, for not encouraging those who have knowledge to share from doing so. The past may stink but it can be a valuable guide to the future.
The writer is a former ambassador. He can be reached at [email protected]