Tariq Rahman

The following edited extract is taken from Anam Zakaria’s wonderful book 1971 and includes difficult content including violence that requires real consideration before using in the classroom. Questions that could guide a sensitive class discussion can be found below and could be used alongside a glossary and timeline.


Known to me primarily as an academic and writer, I asked Tariq how he had come to join the army. He explained that upon migrating from India to Pakistan, his father had landed a job at the Pakistan Military Academy (PMA, which is responsible for training officers of the Pakistan Army) as the head of the mathematics department. Tariq, as a result, grew up in the academy, studying at Burn Hall School, Abbottabad. But, he told me, that despite growing up in a military environment, he did not always agree with the views of those around him, including his family. ‘I disagreed with many of them . . . for instance, while people praised wars, I thought they harmed the country. I used to read a lot, I used to read anti-war literature. And I always found the suffering of others distressing. Since wars caused distress, I was against them. Now you must be thinking that if this was so, why didn’t I shun the army in the first place? Why did I join it at all? It was because I really didn’t know what being in the army meant. I thought it meant having a good life because that’s what I saw around me. I had a very comfortable home, a comfortable life in the academy. PMA was a beautiful place, really beautiful. And I enjoyed it very much. I had a happy childhood there, horse riding, mountaineering, playing in the open fields, the mountains, the valleys. I didn’t know anything about politics. It was only when I joined the PMA as a cadet and started hearing what was happening in East Pakistan did I think seriously for the first time. I realized that all the wars, all that I had read about in books, happened in real life and touched real people. People who are in the army find themselves in a moral dilemma. That’s when I realized that the army was not only about riding horses and wearing dinner jackets. You’re not just a gentleman but also an officer who commands troops. You have to kill people. I was commissioned in 1971 and was reluctant to serve in the army because if there was a war, and I knew that there would be one, it would make things worse for me because serving in a war means to kill people, whether they are Indians or Bangladeshis . . .

‘. . . Now, I must tell you that I am not against all wars, but I was against the type of war that happened in 1971. I can understand when armies fight a war to defend themselves, but this wasn’t a defensive war. I was convinced that the Bengalis were greater in number and wanted to be free. In fact, my suggestion, which no one took seriously, was that our job, like that of the British, was to go (to East Pakistan) and lower the flag ourselves as Lord Mountbatten had done.’ While most people treated what Tariq suggested as a joke, one brigadier warned him saying that his words went against national interest. ‘If groups start rising like this, there will be no Pakistan,’ he told Tariq, adding that such views were in the interest of the enemies of Pakistan. ‘For half an hour he argued with me, but he was the only one who took what I said seriously,’ Tariq added.

I asked Tariq if there was a specific moment when these thoughts, about war and killings, really started to trouble him. ‘Yes, the thoughts started troubling me in early 1971. Now, when I look back, I can trace the moment. We were doing an exercise and one had to fire at targets. Suddenly, the thought occurred to me that I might be asked to fire at a person whom I didn’t want to kill . . . to have murder on my conscience would be too much . . .’

Speaking to me, he said, ‘Nobody (amidst his colleagues) said they had personally participated in it, all except one officer who said he had burnt the village because his family members had been killed and he was taking revenge. But nobody else confessed what they had done, they just used to talk about what other people did . . .

‘. . . I started to think that if a person has a conscience, and that conscience encompasses humanity, you can’t serve the nation if the nation is wrong. In this case, it happened to be wrong. So, I wasn’t against all wars, I was against that particular war, and other wars of the same kind.’ I knew that leaving the army at that time wouldn’t have been easy.

Fearing that his resignation would not be accepted given the imminent war, Tariq first decided to feign sickness but was soon sent back to the military academy and assigned to the Armoured Corps. Fortunately for him, he said, the armoured division was never launched. So, ‘in practice, I did not kill anyone. But in theory, of course I did.’ The events of 1971 left a lasting impact on Tariq. The following poem, which he wrote based on what he saw in Nowshera (in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan) during the war, encompassed his distress:

I saw it as a cannonade in the sky

And sabre jets on deathly ways

I saw it as boys who should’ve been in schools

Stuffed in stifling trenches

I saw it as the smile, which faded

When the dust and smoke invaded.

I saw it as a woman in a bus

Not knowing where to go

Because a youth she saw as a child

Was rotten meat on the enemy’s side.

I saw it in the winter days

When wheat is sown and hope

But now the tanks dug the earth

And death was sown and pain,

It peeped out of the squalor and the gore

And on my boyhood slammed a door.

As soon as the war was over, Tariq knew he wanted to resign. ‘I went to my commanding officer, but he thought I was just misled. He jokingly asked if I had a Bengali girlfriend, to which I said no. I had never been to East Pakistan and I had no girlfriend. He was quite surprised to hear this. Then I went to another colonel, who became my commanding officer, and told him I wanted to leave. He suggested I think about it. He said that if this was my protest against the 1971 war, then it was over. I said that while it was indeed over, my objection wasn’t. As a commissioned officer, I might have to serve in another war. But the colonel insisted that I think about it and read more. And so I took his advice and started studying. I did an MA in literature, then one in political science and then a third MA. I wanted to pursue war studies and then write books against wars . . . I thought that perhaps I could stay with the PMA, but in a teaching capacity. I could serve in the army, enjoy the perks, all while avoiding battle. For two years, I was in PMA. But, you see, the problem was the same. I was still in the army, drawing a salary. But I didn’t believe in warfare like the others. So, eventually I came back to the armoured corps. By now, more than eight years had passed. Yet, I wasn’t happy. I knew that I couldn’t select wars, only fighting in the ones that I agreed with. So, this time I decided to resign once and for all (this was in 1978). They asked me to stay on for another one and a half year because that would make me eligible for all the benefits that retired army officers got, such as medical care, pension, etc. But I felt it would be morally wrong to take the pension without agreeing to participate in a war. Today, one of my biggest fears is that if my wife or I fall ill, we won’t have enough money to go to a decent hospital. CMH (Civil Military Hospital, which provides free healthcare to army personnel and their families) is a good place to go to, but I made that decision; I resigned.’

Decades later, when Tariq was told that the Bangladesh government wanted to honour him for being a conscientious Pakistani, he said, ‘I hope there’s no mistake because I didn’t do anything. I don’t consider myself a hero, and there was nothing heroic about what I did. I was just naïve. I firmly belief that a gentleman doesn’t harm another . . . there were others who had really suffered in 1971. Measuring myself against them, I had not suffered. I was never persecuted, never treated harshly in the army.’

But he added that he was pleased when he got the award. ‘I thought that this thing that nobody knew about, no one talked about, something which even I didn’t talk about, was remembered . . . and honoured. I won’t say I was proud, but I was definitely happy.’

Questions to guide class discussion

  1. What was Tariq’s dad’s job and what did Tariq – at a young age – think of this?
  2. What did Tariq realise when he joined the army?
  3. Why was Tariq against the war in East Pakistan?
  4. What did Tariq joke the army should do in East Pakistan instead?
  5. Tariq says – ‘in practice, I did not kill anyone. But in theory, of course I did.’ – what do you think he meant by this?
  6. When did Tariq eventually leave the army?
  7. Do you think Tariq is a perpetrator or not? Why?
  8. Do you think Tariq deserves a ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ or not? Why?
  9. Could Tariq’s story be difficult to hear in Pakistan? Why? 
  10. Could it be difficult to hear in Bangladesh? Why?