Fifty Years On: A Tragic Warning From Pakistan’s Past

Pakistan’s international repute turned to dust following the killing of a Polish official and three others at Karachi airport, on November 1, 1970.

On the November 1, 1970, 50 years ago today, the Polish deputy foreign minister Zygfryd Wolniak was killed at Karachi airport during welcome ceremonies by a Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) employee and anti-communist Islamic fundamentalist named Mohammed Feroze Abdullah, who was trying to kill the entire delegation but was aiming for Polish President Marian Spychalski in particular.

Driving a PIA cargo lorry at high speed, he mowed down the delegation and narrowly missed his intended target. The other three victims were Pakistani 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.

This occurred on the eve of Pakistan’s first general elections in December 1970 in which right-wing Islamic parties such as the Jamaat-e-Islami (whose main stronghold at the time was Karachi) were employing highly incendiary rhetoric against socialists as part of their election campaigns. 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. Death can be caused at the airport due to a defect in the airplane or a person can be murdered by a bullet or bomb, but we have never heard before that people are standing in an open field welcoming the head of a friendly country and a van rams into them in broad daylight and kills and injures innocents.

Pakistan’s international repute was turned to dust because of this tragedy and the head of every Pakistani bowed in shame and regret. The president of Pakistan gave the task of investigating the tragedy to a judge of the Supreme Court in the hope that the facts concealed behind it would emerge during the investigation and the culprits would be given exemplary punishment.

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The political angle of this tragedy

The details of this tragedy published at that time pointed to two aspects administrative and political. As far as administrative matters are concerned, the finesse which the authorities in Karachi displayed was evident in that the two senior police officers responsible for protective measures were suspended on account of negligence from their duties.

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 duties had been – or would be – punished, because 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 is not the same with every country.

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For example, one also remembered those precautionary measures which were adopted on the arrival of the American President Dwight Eisenhower in Karachi in 1959. The precautions were such that left-wing political workers were arrested before the tour of Eisenhower, lest their presence lie heavy upon his delicate nature. Similarly, just a year earlier, in 1969 when Richard 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 of 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 organisers did not accord that importance to the arrival of the Polish president which he deserved. The result was there for all of us to see.

But the political angle of this tragedy was even more troubling than the administrative angle. It was indeed decided by the investigative court whether the murderous act by the driver Feroze was a private act or a conspiracy was brewing in its depths, although it can be said without the fear of rebuttal that this tragedy was the natural result of the religious frenzy and extremism which had been on display in Pakistan prior to that tragedy.

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 and accusations of apostasy and disbelief were being made even from television and radio. The 1970 elections were being understood as a war between Islam and disbelief, and jihad against socialists was being treated as a sacred duty.

Socialists were threatened that their tongues would be pulled out from the nape of the neck and Pakistan would be ‘Indonesianised’. Socialists were attacked and their houses marked to facilitate score-settling at an opportune moment, that is, 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. So Feroze 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.

It appeared from the news of the national press that Feroze was an active member of the PIA’s ‘Islamist’ union and his association with the Jamaat-e-Islami was also no longer a secret. 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.

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A personal act of the murderer?

Some ‘Islamist’ circles had pronounced that this tragedy should not be given a political colour, but should be imagined as the personal act of a lunatic. This was very strange logic. You used a holy religion like Islam to inflame the religious feelings of naïve Muslims, declared socialists as deserving to be beheaded in the name of Islam and when some gullible actually killed a socialist after being influenced by your speeches and writings, you go scot free after labeling this murder as the personal act of the murderer. This is similar to allowing children to play with a loaded pistol and then expecting that nobody will be 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 organisation or individual to murder anyone owing to political belief. It is also true that Islam, by the grace of God, still faces no danger in Pakistan and if there is a danger, it is to those self-centered elements which want to benefit themselves by raising the slogan of ‘Islam is in danger.’

Thus, 50 years on, the time has come that the danger from violent elements which confronts the peace of Pakistan, the security of the lives and property of its citizens and its international prestige be adequately countered. If the authorities do not feel this growing danger and take reasonable measures, it is possible that the tragedies like the one at Karachi Airport 50 years ago today may become a daily routine. It is also the duty of patriotic citizens of Pakistan to identify the real enemies of state and nation and not be duped by violent religious lunatics otherwise they will meet the same fate as that of the German nation at the hands of Hitler’s Nazis.

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader, currently based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached at [email protected].