Dec 16, 2009

December 16

By Tayyab Siddiqui

My association with Sri Lanka started with my diplomatic assignment to Colombo in the days when the movement for independent Bangladesh was gaining momentum, with open military and political support from India. The air links between East and West Pakistan were broken. The only alternative was Colombo. This was also the period when Bengali diplomats working in Pakistani missions abroad were deserting their posts, leaving most missions totally dysfunctional.

It was the most critical period in Pakistan's history. The sensational news of genocide and military crackdown on Mukti Bahini had raised a storm in world capitals. Pakistan was bereft of sympathy and support and totally isolated. The military government of Yahya Khan, instead of pacifying the Bengalis and engaging them in dialogue, decided to send cultural troupes to different capitals, including Colombo, to project Pakistan's soft image.

Colombo served PIA as a refuelling stop as its aircraft could not fly non-stop between Dhaka and Karachi. While a stop-over for fuelling was unavoidable, the crew decided to make a quick buck. The flight to Dhaka was primarily to augment our military presence. The return flights invariably carried bodies of army jawan who laid down their lives in defence of their motherland. Instead of having a sobering effect the crew used the stop-over to buy semi-precious stones, even paan. At that time a single leaf of paan was being sold in Karachi for Rs 5 each. Confronted with dead bodies, "the great people to fly with" were using the opportunity to enrich themselves.

Among Pakistan's neighbours, Sri Lanka was the only country that extended its full support to Pakistan's integrity. The prime minister came under intense pressure from India and the Hindu Tamils in Sir Lanka. Mrs B, as she was affectionately called, was indeed an Iron lady. She refused to cave in.

It was a cold morning on December 17, 1972, when I as per routine entered the embassy. I saw hundreds of Sri Lankans sitting on the sprawling lawns. I went upstairs to inform the high commissioner of the presence of hundreds of Sri Lankans. In a brusque official tone he asked me to meet them. The 500 or so Muslims led by Sir Abubakar Fareed, who later served in Islamabad as Sri Lanka high commissioner, were sobbing and crying over the Dhaka surrender -- loss they could not bear.

I sat for a while consoling them. When I came back to the high commissioner, he was entertaining another Pakistani diplomat en route to his posting in Kuala Lumpur. The high commissioner asked me to bring the gradation list of the Foreign Office to ascertain his seniority after the exodus of the Bengali officers. No expression of grief or loss. The tragedy was seen as holding promise of his quick upward mobility in the service with the departure of Bengali diplomats.

This was not a solitary instance. Contrary to what the media reported, I saw little evidence of genuine grief at the humiliation and the ignoble surrender. Most would regard it as a millstone in the federation's neck. Some would consider it good riddance.

No wonder we are in such a mess today. Our elite does not live and feel in consonance with the man on the street who is a genuine Pakistani and ready and willing to sacrifice the last drop of his blood for the integrity and independence of the country. The establishment and the upper crust of our society basically remain occupied with their own agenda of seeking power and privileges.

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