Asif Haroon Raja for VT
The Pakistan that was achieved with so much of blood and tears, was split into two on the fateful day of December 16, 1971. Even after the passage of 47 years, the traumatic experience still haunts us and cannot be washed away from the memories of those who had witnessed the tragic break up. After the truncation of Pakistan, the new leadership desperately wanted a scapegoat to defuse the temper of the nation. Having lost the war on the eastern front, the Army was put in the woods. Apparently, the worthy Hamoodur Commission Report (HCR) with a mandate limited to the military’s role in East Pakistan only, influenced by the domestic environments as well as the poisonous propaganda launched by the western and Indian print and electronic media, put the whole blame on General Yahya Khan and Lt Gen AAK Niazi for the debacle. However, the Commission despite harshly bashing the Army also concluded that the debacle was a result of the cumulative follies of our leaders for the past 23 years and the ferment that was simmering in the minds of the Bengalis that led to such an impasse.
While the politicians failed to maintain unity among the diversified communities, the media failed to counter the Indo-Bangla-Soviet-Western-Jewish propaganda campaign. Diplomats failed to defend and present Pakistan’s case before the world – as a victim of preplanned international conspiracy. The military failed to protect our ideological and territorial frontiers against internal and external enemies. Unfortunately, the government officials posted in East Pakistan, mostly Urdu speaking and Punjabis, instead of performing their duties as public servants, behaved like demi-gods and made little effort to address the grievances of East Bengal.
Having suffered for nearly two hundred years at the hands of British-Hindu combo, the Bengalis were in the forefront of Pakistan movement and were the first to respond to Quaid-e-Azam’s call for Pakistan. A.K. Fazlul Haq, Nawab Sir Salimullah, Begum Shaista Ikramullah, Khawaja Nazimuddin, Hussein Shaheed Suhrawardy, Jogendra Nath Mandal, Nurul Amin were the frontrunners of Freedom Movement. However, this love and commitment to Pakistan underwent a radical change in two decades after the birth of Pakistan and their affections shifted to their erstwhile tormentors. This is where the tragedy gets compounded.
The Bengalis had great hopes from Pakistan and dreamt of a prosperous tomorrow; little realising that economics works on hard facts, not on emotional outbursts. They expected economic miracles, which never materialised due to extreme backwardness of East Pakistan, natural calamities, east-west misgivings, divergent perceptions, and above all the Hindu propaganda launched right at the roots of the new generation – the primary and secondary schools level.
The deep-rooted antagonism between the Muslims of East Bengal and the caste Hindus of Bengal was washed away and was replaced with misgivings and hatred between the Muslims of the two wings of Pakistan. This astonishing change in the perceptions of East Bengal Muslims came about as a result of well thought out subversion conducted by the Indian psychological operators duly reinforced by agencies of other regional countries.
Bengalis grew up in a culture of misgivings, mistrust, violence and hate and as a misled nation easily swayed by the Indian brainwashing. They tended to grieve over everything imaginable under the sun and made lot of hue and cry over the oft-repeated theme of exploitation by the western wing. When power resided in the hands of Bengalis (Nazimuddin, Muhammad Ali Bogra, Suhrawardy and Iskandar Mirza from 1951 to 1958), they grieved over language issue, economic deprivation and power sharing based on population. The Bengali political leaders exploited their illiteracy and poverty.
However, it was the belittling attitude of the West Pakistan officials, treating the Bengalis as an inferior and uncouth race, which offended the Bengali Muslims and made them bitter. The affluent Hindu community in East Pakistan, particularly 90% of teachers and professors fueled resentment and converted Muslim Bengali bitterness into hatred. After the military operation in March 1971, about 8-10 million Bengalis, 80% of which were Hindus fled to India. They were housed in 330 refugee camps that had already been prepared and from within them the Indian military trained the rebel force to launch a nine-month long insurgency.
India sowed the seeds of subversion within East Pakistan and self-serving politicians of Pakistan nurtured the crop. Indian propaganda of exploitation by West Pakistan and treating East Pakistan as a colony misled the people of East Pakistan. Their emotional nature started viewing Indians as their saviors against their pre-supposed “West Pakistani masters”. This is where they blundered and showed political unawareness.
Economic iniquities in East Pakistan were considerably reduced during Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s ten-year golden rule, however, issues of power deprivation saw them resorting to violent strikes and vandalism. Lawlessness created by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in East Pakistan and by Z.A. Bhutto in West Pakistan forced Ayub Khan to resign and hand over power to General Yahya Khan. Although the latter did his best to assuage the hurt feelings of the Bengalis by doling out political concessions and addressing economic inequities, by that time it was too late. The charms of Mujib swayed the Bengalis so intensely that they decided to breakaway from Pakistan after living together for more than twenty four years and accept erstwhile tormentor (India) from whose shackles freedom was achieved, as a savior and a mentor.
In the final act of the gory drama, the ill-fated leadership of General Yahya Khan from March 1969 to December 1971 could not save the ship from sinking. Politically naïve Yahya Khan dreamed of another five years of presidency, if not more. Truculent Mujib craved for wresting power on his terms, on the basis of victory in the polls. Bhutto hungered for half of the cake without qualifying for it. The duo remained fixated in their respective orbits and maintained an uncompromising stance till the end. Yahya performed poorly as a referee between the two rival contenders of power. Despite knowing Mujib’s past track record connected with Agartala conspiracy which had been unearthed in 1967, he acted too softly with him and ignored his wrong doings and his willful defiance of the Legal Framework Order. He was allowed to base his election manifesto on his highly controversial six points, which bordered on secession.
Appeasement instead of firmness by Yahya Khan and the administrators in the eastern wing were at the cost of ensuring free and fair elections. While the masses in East Pakistan were terrorized during the yearlong election campaign, wide scale unfair means were employed on the polling day by the ruffians of Awami League to turn the tide in its favor. Militancy of Awami League climaxed after it won a dubious landslide victory in the December 1970 polls.
The obduracy of Bhutto to share power at all costs, intransigence of Mujib to shun all moves for conciliation, cavalier attitude of Yahya Khan and his colleagues and Yahya’s fatal decision to postpone the National Assembly session at Dacca on 01 March 1971 without giving another date and without taking Mujib into confidence, resulted in the otherwise avoidable carnage of human beings. By the middle of March 1971, a civil disobedience movement was in full swing and a parallel government had come into existence.
The militant Bengalis egged on by Mujib and carried away by Bengali nationalism hacked to death 150,000 non-Bengalis and pro-Pakistan Bengalis and raped West Pakistani girls and women in hundreds. According to Qutbuddin Aziz in his book “Blood and Tears”, the figure of those killed ranges between 100,000 to 500,000. The marauders, who indulged in pillage, plunder and slaughter, were no more than few hundred. The massacre of non-Bengalis caused the initial exodus to India. The second spree of massacre of non-Bengalis took place in November-December 1971.
Those who physically saw the savagery of Bengali extremists shudder to recollect the horrifying scenes and feel mystified as to how a Muslim could indulge in such barbarities against another fellow Muslim. They also are still resentful and befuddled as to why the government and the Army remained indifferent for 25 days when East Pakistan was burning, and why our media didn’t counter India and Swadhin Bangla Betar clandestine radio propaganda, and why was media prevented from highlighting the atrocities of Bengalis against non-Bengalis. The plea taken was that there might be a backlash in West Pakistan against Bengalis. The world was kept ignorant of the mass killings of pro-Pakistan Bengalis, Biharis and West Pakistanis. Biharis had been disarmed on the advice of Mujib to the Martial Law Administrator. All the West Pakistan political parties except PPP and Qayyum Khan League supported Mujib.
After the failure of parleys from 15-24 March in Dacca due to Mujib’s intransigence and refusal to accept any formula within the framework of a united Pakistan, Operation Searchlight was launched on the night of 25 March to stop the bloodshed and re-establish the writ of the government. The 35 jilted foreign journalists who had been ousted from Dacca on 27 March by Lt Gen Tikka Khan; because of their biased reporting of the cyclone in October 1970 and hushing of of 1-25 March mayhem of Bengalis, teamed up with Indian media at Calcutta and launched a full-throttled propaganda to demonize the Army and project them as human eating monsters and rapists.
The crackdown ignited the powder keg and demand for provincial autonomy suddenly transformed into a secessionist movement leading to separation. Failure of Pakistan’s publicity wing to counter the vile propaganda, undermined the faith of Pakistani soldiers in the cause they were fighting for and also contributed towards intensification of Bengali nationalism and hatred against the Army.
Once India applied the military instrument with preponderance of ground, air and naval power against a highly fatigued and marooned Pakistani force numbering only 45000 armed forces soldiers and paramilitary forces (23500 as regular soldiers); the end was a foregone conclusion. The sinking could have been delayed by Lt Gen AAK Niazi but not prevented. It was too late.
It must not be forgotten that Pakistani troops in East Pakistan fought under extreme adverse conditions, which have few parallels in history of warfare. To start with they were put under extreme test of patience when they were ridiculed and made the butt of criticism by the Awami League. They were confined to barracks from 03-25 March 1971 during which they helplessly saw the horrifying atrocities committed against non-Bengalis and pro-Pakistan elements by the Awami League militants and rogue elements. Isolated army pickets were attacked and men in uniform were ruthlessly killed. As the Bengali nationalism peaked, many West Pakistani officers, men and their families serving in East Bengal Regiments and East Pakistan Rifles were brutally hacked to death.
Under such volatile conditions, the lone 14 Division initially got busy in the onerous task of disarming the Bengali regular troops, para military forces and civil police and also trying to re-establish the writ of the government. All this was done with a meagre force of 12000 troops. Once reinforcements arrived in April, they recaptured all the towns taken over by the rebels and Indian soldiers (disguised as Mukti Bahini).
They also got embroiled in quelling the insurgency waged by the 100,000 Mukti Bahini duly trained in all types of warfare, equipped and aided by India in 59 camps. Reinforcements rushed in from West Pakistan in the last week of March/first week of April 1971 (depleted two divisions) were neither in possession of tanks; medium artillery, heavy weapons, nor acclimatized or trained to fight guerrilla warfare in riverine terrain.
After quelling the insurgency in record time of a little over one month, they had to suffer the rigors of monsoon under insecure battle conditions with no rest or respite. They also remained involved in restoring the rail, road and river communication means and putting the administrative machinery back on the rail while maintaining law and order. During this perilous process, many lives were lost and many got maimed for life owing to clashes with the rebels, and mines and booby traps planted for them.
After September 1971, they got distributed in penny packets to guard the frontiers and defend every inch of the territory. By November 1971, casualties in counter insurgency operations steadily mounted. 237 officers, 136 JCOs and 3559 other ranks embraced martyrdom and few thousands got wounded.
Indian military took nine months to get prepared for the offensive. By the time the Indian forces intervened on 21 November, the deployed troops were thoroughly fatigued and suffered from innumerable operational, administrative and technical handicaps. The troops knew that they were surrounded on all sides and no help could reach them from West Pakistan or from elsewhere. With 10:1 ratio, and devoid of air cover, they were fighting outnumbered and outgunned. Fighting the enemy in front, and the Mukti Bahini hiding behind every bush made the entire rear area insecure and facilitated forward movement of Indian forces. At the time of surrender, the defenders of Khulna, Rajshahi, Nator, Dinajpur, Rangpur, Joyedpur, Bogra, Sylhet, Myanmati and Chittagong were still putting up stiff resistance. No single army unit surrendered before 16 December.
Stiffest resistance was put up by my unit 4 FF of which I was a part in the battle of Hilli, where the repeated attacks of the Indian 20 Mountain Division supported by an armored brigade, corps artillery and air support were blunted for 19 days and not an inch was lost. The enemy had to change its axis of advance and undertook a wide detour to race for Bogra. In the epic battle, Maj Muhammad Akram Shaheed was awarded Nishan-e-Haider posthumously, and I had the proud privilege of taking over the command of his Company and also recovering his body lying well ahead of forward defences. Maj Akram was buried in Bogra on 6 December.
The troops in erstwhile East Pakistan fought with valor and determination to protect the motherland until ordered to ceasefire. They may have continued to fight had the senior leadership not caved in and decided to give up. Thousands of our brave officers and men were killed while fighting for a united Pakistan. They were never to return home and are buried somewhere in a foreign land. Their graves are unknown and their deeds have been over shadowed under the dark shadow of capitulation.
It will be unfair not to make a mention of the sacrifices rendered by the Biharis and pro-Pakistan Bengalis who stood beside the Pak security forces and fought the rebels tenaciously till the very end.
But for the betrayal of Bengalis, the Indian military despite its preponderance in men and material could never have achieved victory.
Had the Polish resolution or the Anglo-French resolution been accepted by Bhutto, a face saving UN resolution of ceasefire and honorable return of armed forces and civilians to West Pakistan, and possibly some kind of political settlement like confederation with East Pakistan could have been obtained.
The writer is a retired Brig, war veteran, defence and security analyst, author of five books which include ‘Maarka Hilli’, ‘Muhammad bin Qasim to Gen Musharraf’ and ‘Roots of 1971 Tragedy’. His next book ‘East Pakistan Crisis: Battle of Hilli’ is under publication. He is Vice Chairman Thinkers Forum Pakistan, Director Measac Research Centre and member Central Working Committee of Pakistan-Ex-Servicemen-Society. firstname.lastname@example.org
Brig. General Asif Haroon Raja is on the board of advisors for Opinion Maker. He holds an MSc war studies degree. A second-generation officer, he fought the epic battle of Hilli in northwest East Bengal during 1971 war,
He served as Directing Staff Command & Staff College, Defence Attaché Egypt, and Sudan and Dean of Corps of Military Attaches in Cairo. He commanded the heaviest brigade in Kashmir. He is tri-lingual and speaks English, Pashto, and Punjabi fluently.
Currently, he is a defense analyst and columnist and writes articles on security, defense, and political matters for numerous international/national publications. He is chairman at the Thinkers Forum Pakistan, Director Measac Research Centre, & Member CWC PESS & Veterans Think Tank
He is also the author of many books; ‘Battle of Hilli’, ‘1948, 1965 & 1971 Kashmir Battles and Freedom Struggle’, ‘Muhammad bin Qasim to Gen Musharraf’, and Roots of 1971 Tragedy’. His latest book is ‘Tangled knot of Kashmir : Indo-Pakistan antagonism: vol. 1 and vol. 2″