PERHAPS half the readers of this column might not have been born 50 years ago. Others old enough will recall the mood prevailing in January 1971 across East and West Pakistan — a feeling of child-like accomplishment, of a new-found confidence as our dyslexic nation tottered towards democracy.

The month before, in December 1970, the country had voted in its first ‘free and fair’ general elections, overseen by a military president, Gen A.M. Yahya Khan. He expressed his determination to hand over power to the elected representatives of the people. The results put paid to his avuncular hopes.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League party won 160 of the 162 seats in East Pakistan. In West Pakistan (then still One Unit), Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party won 81 out of 138 seats. The Awami League had every right to be invited to form a national government in a united Pakistan. Mr Bhutto objected.

He did not question the conduct of the elections nor the results. He disliked their consequences. He contended (as President Donald Trump is doing today) that ‘a majority alone does not count’. His lieutenant Abdul Hafeez Pirzada went further. He argued that the representatives of one fifth of the country’s land mass should not be allowed to dictate to four-fifths of it.

Mr Bhutto’s intransigence veered towards the violent. He threatened to break the legs of any elected representative from West Pakistan (not just of his PPP MNAs) who dared to attend the National Assembly session convened by Yahya Khan, scheduled for March 3, 1971 in Dhaka. Bhutto’s challenge to his East Pakistani compatriots — udhar tum, idhar hum (you there, us here) — became a cruel prophecy.

In those dark days, it did not require prescience to foresee that Mr Bhutto’s obstinacy would lead to a clash between the two unequal halves of Pakistan, or that India would exploit our predicament. Three months later, Operation Searchlight was unleashed by the Pakistan Army against its own citizens in East Pakistan. Before the year was out, a war with India shrank Pakistan to its present size and an infant Bangladesh emerged to claim its nascent potential.

Fifty years later, Mr Bhutto’s grandson Bilawal sees the slogan his grandfather had released with such destructive venom resurrected, used this time against his PPP in Sindh. The PTI-led government in Islamabad (Idhar hum) regards the governments in Sindh and Balochistan (Udhar tum) as no better than seditious separatists. It would be happier still seeing PML-N leaders in jail (as was Sheikh Mujib in the 1970s), preferably beyond restoration. Unbridgeable fissures have emerged again in our political landscape.

Today, Pakistan remains as vulnerable as it was in 1971. This time, it has more enemies than friends. Crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia is different from the kingdom governed with open-pursed sagacity by King Faisal bin Abdul Aziz. The UAE today is not the same gaggle of emirates that followed the lead of the generous, hospitable Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan. The UK, especially after Brexit, will no longer be primus inter pares among 54 nations, the occasional circle from which each member prefers to look outwards. The US, even after president-elect Joe Biden is sworn in, will have little time or money for mercenary part-time allies. And China must quickly cultivate a special vaccine to revive the gasping, Covid-affected CPEC.

Internally, our country suffers pandemic issues without domestically developed panaceas. Political parties invoke the tattered flag of democracy, but only after the flagpole has been snatched from their hands. Turncoat ministers bark with vehemence at their former masters, and would bite, if only their teeth were their own. And now, after two years in office, our prime minister has confessed that he was ignorant about the machinery of governance when he took oath. A harried opposition suspects that his ineptness, compounded by an obsessive vendetta against its leaders, has turned him into another Bourbon, who, in Talleyrand’s piercing epigram, “had learned nothing and forgotten nothing”.

Imran Khan’s personal success in establishing three cancer hospitals has overshadowed the herculean achievements of forgotten medics like Dr Henry Holland. Holland spent 50 years between 1900 and 1950 restoring the eyesight of over 150,000 patients in hospitals at Quetta and Shikarpur, and at ad hoc eye camps in Sindh and Balochistan. Dr Holland’s autobiography Frontier Doctor (1958) described his experiences, from conducting surgeries in a converted Hindu crematorium in Marri territory to removing the cataracts of Wali Miangul Abdul Wadud of Swat.

Holland observed that the Wali spent half his state’s revenue on his army and the remainder on his impoverished subjects. If only Dr Holland had been alive today. He could have removed the cloudy cataracts afflicting all our modern rulers.

The writer is an author.

Published in Dawn, January 7th, 2021

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