Was Pakistan Facing External Military Threat In 1974?

Was Pakistan Facing External Military Threat In 1974?
Umer Farooq raises the question of whether Bhutto's claim of enemy troops amassing on the eastern and western borders was linked to the anti-Ahmadi agitation in 1974.

On July 10,  1974, New York Times printed an interview of Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in which the then Pakistani prime minister claimed that India was moving its fresh troops close to the international border and the Line of Control (LoC).

This was the time when Pakistan’s parliament was examining the religious question of declaring Ahmaddiya community non-Muslims. Several proposals were under consideration including the one proposed by the extremist religious clergy to pass a constitutional amendment to declare the community out of the ambit of Islam.

The Bhutto government was facing a kind of political crisis as the clergy and its followers were up in arms against the government on the streets of major urban centers of the country.

In such a situation, Prime Minister Bhutto dropped the bombshell of India amassing its troops on the international border. On July 15, Bhutto addressed a press conference close to the Pak-Afghan border near Parachanar and said that precautionary measures have been taken to counter India’s move of amassing troops on LoC and the international border. He also informed the public that Kabul was moving troops close to the Durand Line.

Bhutto was continuously raising the bogeyman of external threats like the Indian nuclear explosions and the increasing cooperation between Kabul and Moscow as a ploy to divert the attention of the Pakistani religious clergy. But the clergy simply ignored Bhutto’s entreaties and continued with their violent protest throughout the country.

This was the time when Bhutto’s government was trying to deal with regional repercussions of Indian nuclear tests and Prime Minister Bhutto was under pressure from the domestic opposition to do something about the Indian tests. The Bhutto government was certainly under pressure and there were visible signs of deterioration of the regional security situation when Bhutto informed the nation that India was amassing troops on the Line of Control in Kashmir.

Bhutto was under pressure on multiple fronts, including at the external end. India had just conducted its nuclear strikes. In the middle of June, the Pakistani foreign office announced the postponement of bilateral talks with India over issues related to normalization of communication links between the two countries, as in its view, the circumstances were not favourable for a successful outcome.

Pakistan’s foreign office termed as unsatisfactory the assurance of Indian Prime Minister that Indian nuclear tests were not directed against Pakistan. In the meantime, the foreign office also announced the possible visit of Zulfiqar Bhutto to Bangladesh.

Pakistani protests against Indian nuclear tests continued diplomatically. The foreign office spokesman announced that the Pakistan’s delegation to the Ad Hoc Committee on Indian Ocean in New York had been instructed to raise the issue of Indian nuclear explosions in the committee’s meeting. The National Assembly adopted an adjournment motion for a discussion on Indian nuclear tests in the house.

Prime Minister Bhutto clearly said in the National Assembly address that Indian nuclear explosions were meant to blackmail and intimidate Pakistan. “Why else have Indians spent billions of dollars on the bomb when it was facing an economic crisis,” he asked, adding, “We have also taken the decision to initiate a coherent nuclear programme in 1972 during a meeting in Multan”.

But was Bhutto telling the truth when he informed the nation that India and Afghanistan were amassing troops on Pakistan’s Eastern and Western borders respectively? Or was he only trying to divert the attention of Pakistani public away from the divisive demands of the religious clergy to declare the Ahmaddiya Community non-Muslims? There are no clear answers to these questions as the official record of these events is still out of sight of the public.

Amidst the drama created by the religious clergy on the question of the faith of the Ahmaddiya community, Bhutto was the lone voice speaking about the external threat the country was facing. Religious clergy had taken to the streets and the parliament was examining the constitutional question and yet Bhutto had the audacity point out the external threat emerging on the eastern and western borders.

Those were not the times of the multitude of spokesmen that we see now on our screens prattling incessantly. Bhutto was in fact the lone voice telling people about the external threat. Through a study of two newspapers - Dawn and Nawa-e-Waqt – between the period May 1974, when the Ahmaddiya crisis erupted and September 1974, when the 2nd constitutional amendment was passed, one sees that not a single news story could be found about whether there were troop movements on the international borders. Although the military was no less assertive in those days, but we had not entered the era of unnamed military officials or spokesmen yet; therefore no stories confirming or rejecting the claims of Prime Minister Bhutto about troop movements on Indian side of international border could be found on the newspaper pages.

On June 30th  1974, Bhutto presided over a meeting of PPP in which issues relating to Khatum-e-Nabwat were discussed. On the same day, the National Assembly was converted into a committee to examine the issue of Khatum e Nabuwat. The committee was constituted to fulfil certain aims. Firstly, the committee was to discuss the status of a person in Islam who doesn’t believe in the finality of Prophethood. Secondly, the committee was to receive and consider proposals and resolutions from its members within a period to be specified by the committee. And finally, the committee aimed to make recommendations for the determination of the above issue as a result of its deliberations, examinations of witnesses and perusal of documents, if any. The law minister of the time said that there were speculations that the government would put the issue in cold storage.

Bhutto was clearly trying to link the crisis in the country over the Ahmaddiya question with the regional security situation prevailing in those days.

While addressing a rally in Saidu Sharif, Bhutto said that the government would succeed in handling and tackling the crisis at hand. Moreover, Bhutto warned Kabul not to exceed its limits otherwise it would harm itself.

Bhutto’s claims about Indian troops movement was not an isolated statement, it was part of a campaign. On July 12, Bhutto in a public speech in Malakand lashed out at Wali Khan and Mufti Mehmood and said that Mufti Mehmood was trying to exploit the Ahmaddiya issue for political gains. He said that when India carried out the nuclear tests, Wali Khan of the National Awami Party met with Daud Khan, the then president of Afghanistan, four times.

Bhutto continued to harp on about external conspiracy and this was quite visible when he accused Wali Khan of meeting Daud Khan, within days of the Ahmadiya issue. This he said despite the fact that Wali Khan was completely out of the picture as far as the Ahmaddiya issue was concerned. Newspapers from the three months mentioned above did not carry a single statement of Wali Khan on the Ahmaddiya question. On July 18th, Wali Khan proposed that the government should convene a secret session of the national assembly to discuss the movements of troops on Pak-Afghan border as he had some important information to convey to the government. Wali Khan said that Bhutto was misleading the nation.

Bhutto in his speeches in the national assembly seemed to be excessively focused on dealing with the threat from India especially after the latter had carried out a nuclear explosion. In one part of the speech he even pointed out that India would not hesitate to use the bomb if it is put in a tight corner. This seemed to be in response to the opinion coming from the opposition benches that no country had used the bomb after 1945, and India would not get anything out of this bomb.

Political historians of Pakistan, especially Saeed Shafaqat, in a personal interview with the author, disagreed with the suggestion that there was any linkage between the regional situation and the Ahmaddiya issue. Most of the historians just reject the notion that the deteriorating regional security situation was in any way linked with the domestic political crisis that the Bhutto government was facing on the Ahmaddiya question.

But whether we would ever know for sure whether there were any troop movements on the international border while the Bhutto government was dealing with the Ahmaddiya issue is a question that is going to remain unanswered.

Meanwhile, the domestic situation as a result of the Ahmaddiya issue was worsening. Nawa-e-Waqt reported that in Mardan, local traders brought out a protest rally to protest against the incident of Rabwah - the violence in May 1974 between a group of students belonging to Jamat-e-Islami’s student wing and the Ahmaddiya community members in Rabwah Railway station. The traders were supported by local religious scholars and Islami Jamiat Tulba.  They were demanding that Ahmadis should be declared non-Muslims. The resolution passed during the rally said that the government should rescind the special status of Rabwah, recover the weapons stored in Rabwah and arrest Mirza Nasir, the leader of Ahmadis who was still residing in Pakistan at that time.

By the end of June, the Bhutto government started to tilt towards the Sunni orthodox position on the matter. Dawn reported that Prime Minister Bhutto had started the discussion with religious scholars and journalists on the situation arising out of the Rabwah incident. Bhutto continued meetings with religious scholars for at least one week. Those who met Bhutto separately included Mian Tufail Muhammad of JI, Nawabzada Nusrullah Khan, Maulana Yousaf Binori, and Maulana Zafar Ahmed Ansari.

The vulgarization of media and public discourse, Pakistani nation’s lack of interests in its own history and the trend among higher echelons of power to use media industry to earn cheap popularity have made it our fate to remain oblivious towards how crucial decisions in our history were made - those crucial decisions which still impact the normalcy and sanity of our society.

Umer Farooq is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist. He writes on security, foreign policy and domestic political issues.