Bangladesh was India’s finest hour and Pakistan’s darkest. India changed the map of South Asia and created a new nation. Pakistan lost half its country then called East Pakistan. Its military was humiliated. Ninety-one thousand of its soldiers and officers became Indian prisoners of war. The myth that the Pakistani military dictators, from Ayub Khan to Yahya Khan, had carefully constructed — that one Pakistani soldier is equal to 10 Indian jawans — now stood shattered irrevocably — if the 1947 and 1965 wars had been stalemates, 1971 was a stunning military triumph for India.
The surrender in Dhaka by Lt. Gen. Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi to India’s Eastern Army commander, Lt. Gen. Jagjit Singh Aurora, on December 16 left an indelible scar on the collective psyche of the Pakistani military establishment.
Out of this sense of (false) shame — given the manner in which the West Pakistani Army looted, raped, pillaged and plundered their own countrymen — were born the twin strategies: One, Pakistan must acquire nuclear weapons, and two, India must be targeted through a proxy war. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto ominously declared, “We will eat grass, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own,” referring to the atom bomb.
The man tasked with stealing, smuggling and building a nuclear bomb for Pakistan was the notorious A.Q. Khan. The strategy to bleed India with a thousand cuts became the remit of someone little known in India — Maj. Gen. Ghulam Jilani Khan, then director-general of the ISI, who remained in the post until 1978. Their first target in 1978 was not Jammu and Kashmir, but India’s Punjab. Punjab bore the brunt of the ISI-backed militancy from 1980 to 1995.
Cut to the year 2000. The ISI had successfully executed the IC-814 hijack. On a cold, bleak and windswept runway in Kandahar, on the last day of the previous millennium, December 31, 1999, the foreign minister in the Atal Behari Vajpayee government, Jaswant Singh, handed over three terrorists — Maulana Masood Azhar, Mushtaq Zargar and Omar Sheikh — to our neighbour in exchange for the passengers, crew and aircraft. It was Azhar who went on to found the Jaish-e-Muhammad that carried out the Pulwama attack that left 49 CRPF jawans dead and many more seriously injured on Thursday.
A fortnight later, I was in the United States on an International Visitors Leadership Programme. Along with me was a young Pakistani civil servant who had served in the North-West Frontier Province and Tribal Agencies extensively. He had watched from close quarters the Afghan jihad unfold and radicalise the social fabric of Pakistan. During a cigarette break tucked away in a doorway trying to protect ourselves from the bone-chilling winds that cut through Washington DC at that time of year, he told me: “There will never be peace in South Asia as long as the Pakistani Army remains the dominant actor in Pakistan.” He went on to narrate that on the training grounds of the Pakistani Command and Staff College in Quetta, there are milestones that announce ‘Delhi 1,000 kilometres’, ‘Jerusalem 3,900 kilometres’. These emphasise two things; one, India is the principal enemy and, two, Israel is a thorn in the flesh of the Islamic civilisation. In the context of India, he explained it is about and only about avenging the defeat in East Pakistan.
Cut to 2008. At a conference in London, I was vociferously articulating the proxy war unleashed by Pakistan against India and by then even Afghanistan despite getting billions of dollars as humanitarian and war aid from the United States of America. It was the biggest impediment for South Asia towards achieving its collective potential, I argued. At dinner in the evening a fabled director-general of the ISI, then retired, sallied up to me, a glass of whisky in hand, and said, “Young man, what is this proxy war you keep carping about — you can’t handle a few pinpricks? Remember, you sliced our country in half.” It was back to Bangladesh again.
Cut to 2015. At a Track Two India-Pakistan Dialogue in Bangkok, a retired Pakistani four-star general was fairly gone after a rather intense relationship with good single malt. Looking blearily at me, he said: “A day will come when Bangladesh will be avenged, even if we have to wait a thousand years.”
In all the years that I have interacted with the Pakistani military elite at Track One’s, One-and-a-Halves’ and Track Two’s, the ignominy of Bangladesh weighs heavily on their collective consciousness. The problem gets further compounded because passed on memories from one generation of officers and men become even more toxic.
I recall the chill that went up my spine when the first thing a retired Pakistani officer who had played a seminal role in the evolution of the Pakistani nuclear weapons programme said to me was “I was a prisoner of war in India in 1971”.
Over a period of time this hate for India has also transformed itself into a coldly calibrated and ruthlessly executed strategy of using semi-state actors for tactical gains all across the larger South Asian region. The Pakistani deep state believes that over a period of four decades this strategy has paid them rich dividends. Otherwise why would Pakistan shelter and actively patronise an Osama bin Laden, a Mullah Omar, a Hafiz Saeed or a Maulana Masood Azhar?
The problem with India is now stretching back four decades and more. After the nuclear threat by Pakistan in 1990 that prompted the Gates Mission to India (Robert Gates was then the deputy national security adviser of the US) we have not been able to evolve a strategic or even tactical response to Pakistani depredations.
The fact is that with the Chinese in their corner, the US wanting their help to negotiate with the Taliban, Russia getting into a defence relationship with them and a nuclear shield to boot, Pakistan feels that it has us by the short and curlies. India would have to either find a modus vivendi with Pakistan or take that “bold step”. The question is, would the bold step be decisive enough, and what would be its cost? Beyond the nonsensical blabbering on TV, this is the thing to which it boils down.