A Tragic Warning From Pakistan’s Past, 50 Years On
On the 1st of November 1970, 50 years ago today during a welcome ceremony, the Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Zygfryd Wolniak was killed at Karachi airport by a Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) employee and anti-communist Islamic fundamentalist named Mohammed Feroze Abdullah who was trying to kill the entire delegation, aiming Polish President Marian Spychalski in particular.
Driving a PIA cargo lorry at high speed he mowed down the delegation, narrowly missing his intended target. The other three victims were Pakistanis; the Deputy Director of the Intelligence Bureau, Chaudhri Mohammed Nazir, and two government photographers. His stated motivation to the interrogators was his desire to kill socialists, believing that socialists and socialism were against Islam and Muslims. The incident occurred on the eve of Pakistan’s first general elections in December 1970 in which right-wing Islamic parties, such as Jamaat-i- Islami (whose main stronghold at the time was Karachi), were employing highly incendiary rhetoric against socialists as part of their election campaign. Feroze was sentenced to death by a special military court on May 10, 1971, but permitted to appeal for clemency.
The sudden death of Poland’s Deputy Foreign Minister and three Pakistani citizens was an unprecedented tragedy; the head of a friendly country arrives on an airport and a van rams into open field ceremony and kills and injures innocents in broad daylight. Pakistan’s international repute was turned to dust because of this tragedy and the head of every Pakistani bowed in shame and regret. The then president of Pakistan gave the task of investigating the tragedy to a judge of the Supreme Court in a hope that the facts concealed behind would emerge during the investigation and the culprits be given exemplary punishment accordingly.
The details of this tragedy published at that time pointed to two aspects: one administrative and the other political. As far as administrative matters were concerned, two senior police officers responsible for protective measures were suspended on account of negligence. The penetration of the van unhindered into the crowd, where the Polish president and the Sindh Governor as well as other eminent personalities were also standing, itself suggested that the administrators had neither created an enclosure of protective divisions around the airplane, nor were any precautionary measures undertaken while the Polish president and other members of the goodwill delegation were conversing with the guests.The administration could not relieve itself of its responsibilities by saying that the officers who were negligent in their official duties had been – or would be – punished. The problem was not just a matter of negligence of a few individuals but that of the general attitude and inclination of the bureaucracy, which was not the same with every country. For example, one could recall the serious precautionary measures adopted on the arrival of the American president Eisenhower in Karachi in 1959. The precautions were such that the left-wing political workers were arrested before the tour of Eisenhower. Similarly, just a year earlier in 1969 when Nixon arrived in Lahore, the security had been arranged in a very reasonable manner. In short, the Pakistani administration possessed the full ability of discharging duties, although sometimes feats of preparedness and performance were evident and at others, curtains of negligence and failure were drawn over a sense of responsibility. It was the misfortune of the victims that the organizers did not accord similar importance to the arrival of the Polish president which he was entitled to as a head of state. The result was there for all of us to see.
However, the political angle of this tragedy was even more troubling than the administrative one. It was indeed decided by the investigative court whether the murderous act by the driver Feroz was a private act or a conspiracy brewed in its depths. It can be said without the shadow of doubt that this tragedy was the natural consequence of the religious frenzy and extremism which had been on display in our country at the time. Religious scholars gave fatwas denouncing socialism as un-Islamic. Addresses, sermons in mosques and political processions presented socialism as the greatest enemy of Islam. Newspapers published such statements and essays against socialism which inflamed the religious sentiments of readers while accusations of apostasy and disbelief were being made even from television and radio. The 1970 elections were being depicted as a war between Islam and disbelief, and jihad against socialists was hailed as a sacred duty. Socialists were threatened that their tongues would be pulled out from the nape of their necks and Pakistan would be Indonesianized. Socialists were attacked and their houses were marked to facilitate score-settling at an opportune moment. Such an aggressive environment of hate, intolerance and religious bias had developed in the country that if a person murdered some socialist, it would be an occasion of sorrow, not surprise.
Feroz himself had confessed that he did not run over the people due to being in an agitated state or negligence, but because he wanted to kill Poland’s socialist president since that was the greatest service to Islam in his opinion. The news revealed that Feroz was a very active member of the PIA’s ‘Islamist’ union and associated with Jamaat-i-Islami. This union had created a climate of violence at Karachi airport and beating up socialists had become the custom of the union workers. The next step of this style of thought and action could have been to murder a socialist in order to attain the status of a brave warrior or martyr.
Some ‘Islamist’ circles had pronounced that this tragedy should not be given a political colour. All in all, this was a personal act alone. A very strange logic coming from them when they were using a holy religion to inflame the religious feelings of naïve Muslims and declaring socialists as deserving to be beheaded in service to Islam. And when some gullible actually killed a socialist after being influenced by their speeches and writings, they go scot free after labeling this murder as the personal act. This is similar to allowing children to play with a loaded pistol and then expecting that nobody will get hurt.
Islam is the biggest claimant of peace and the Prophet of Islam (PBUH) is known by the title of ‘Blessing for the Worlds’. Islam has not allowed any organization or individual to murder anyone owing to political belief. It is also true that Islam faces no danger in Pakistan except from those self-centered elements who want to benefit themselves by raising the slogan of ‘Islam is in danger.’ 50 years on, the times are still the same; only worse is the danger from violent elements. If the authorities are oblivious to this growing danger to security and peace and fail to take reasonable preventive measures, all the sacrifices by armed forces and citizens would be in vain. It is also the duty of patriotic citizens of Pakistan to identify the real enemies of the state and not be duped by violent religious lunatics.
The writer, is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic, and an award-winning translator based in Lahore. He is currently the President of the Progressive Writers Association in Lahore. He can be reached at: [email protected]