Pakistan: Undiminished Scars of 1971 Tragedy
Part – 2
Asif Haroon Raja
Election Results and Effects
“The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything”. Joseph Stalin
In the elections held on Dec 7, 1970, AL swept the polls in EP with a tally of 167 out of 169 national assembly seats and the PPP securing 87 of 126 seats in WP (simple majority in Punjab and Sindh).
As per Bengali writer Maswani, ‘Only about 7% of Muslim votes in EP had catapulted secessionist AL into majority. Its apparent success didn’t truly represent the will of the people of EP. The AL had won with only 43% of total votes, out of which about 12% were bogus votes cast mostly by infiltrators and 24.35% by the Hindus. (AMK Maswani, Subversion in EP, P 2).
There is no doubt of heavy rigging before and during the polls by the AL since the entire civil machinery was in its hands, the people terrorized and the military looked the other way.
After creating political ruckus to force Ayub to resign, Bhutto chose to side with the military junta rather than with the AL after the 1970 elections. Mujib-Bhutto confrontation sparked over the issue of framing of constitution, former wanting to formulate it entirely on his six points inside the Assembly and the latter wanting to do it jointly outside the Assembly. Both adopted a piggish stance which created a logjam. Had Gen Yahya retained the 1962 Constitution or reincarnated the 1956 Constitution, the constitutional crisis wouldn’t have arisen.
From Feb 1971 onwards, Bhutto became highly aggressive. Wanting to share power he threatened to break the legs of politicians going to Dacca. Mujib paid his bellicosity in the same coin which heated up the political temperature. Bhashani added fuel to the fire. Upset by Mujib’s intransigence over six-points, Yahya began to lean more heavily upon Bhutto.
Bengali nationalism was intensified by Mujib during the year-long election campaign based on his six-points, resulting in AL’s landslide victory. Militancy peaked when on 01 March President Gen Yahya postponed the session of the Constituent National Assembly at Dacca scheduled on 03 March 1971 indefinitely on the advice of Bhutto and hawks in his cabinet who dubbed Mujib as a security risk. It set ablaze the festering volcano.
Slaughter of Non-Bengalis/Biharis
From 02 March a systematic genocide of Biharis, non-Bengalis and pro-Pakistan Bengalis, rapes of women and destruction of their properties was unleashed by the AL activists and Mukti Bahini (MB). West Pakistani officers serving in East Pakistan Rifles (EPR) and their families were killed, and banks were looted. Pakistan flags were burnt, BD flags hoisted and taxes were not paid. Military cantonments were besieged and water supply and fresh supplies blocked; soldiers confined to barracks since 4 March were abused and ridiculed.
A parallel government had been put into force in EP and it was only Mujib’s directives that were obeyed. Bedlam could have been kept under control had reinforcements sent from WP not stopped, and troops not sent back to barracks on 4 March.
March 25 was given as the new date for the National Assembly meeting but it didn’t mitigate the anger of Mujib who became haughtier. In order to defuse the explosive situation, Gen Yahya and his team flew to Dacca on March 15 and till 24 March held negotiations with the Mujib led team. On 21-22 March, WP politicians joined to avert the crisis. Bhutto played on both sides of the wicket by poisoning the ears of Mujib and Yahya.
Talks broke down when Mujib ruled out federation and insisted upon confederation provided EP was given 56% share of federal assets. According to Professor G.W Choudhury (p.168), ‘Some foreign economists financed by the Ford Foundation were the loudest in making extreme demands and were responsible for the failure of the Dacca dialogue’.
When the ten-day negotiations between the two teams at Dacca failed to yield results due to obduracy of Mujib, and there was no letup in the killing spree, and Gen Yahya was scorned for keeping the army in cotton wool, the President directed Lt Gen Tikka Khan, who had replaced Lt Gen Sahibzada Yaqub Khan on 7 March, to launch Operation Searchlight on the night of March 25. Mujib and Dr. Kamal were arrested while all other AL leaders managed to flee to India where they set up BD govt in exile. Had they been rounded up, things could be different.
By dawn of 26 March, Dacca was in full control of the army after killing 66 extremists and injuring 31. Bhutto hailed the action saying “Thank God, Pakistan has at last been saved”. His exclamation was the manifestation of inner sentiments of the majority in WP. Yahya was eulogized for his action. (Hasan Zaheer, Separation of East Pakistan, Oxford, p 327). Only three EBR could be disarmed and the rest defected with arms. AL was outlawed and Mujib was declared a traitor and tried on charges of treason.
The military action which was falsely termed as a genocide by Indian media resulted in exodus of 7-10 million Bengalis to India 85% of whom were Hindus who should have migrated in 1947. (Kuldip Nayyar, Distant Neighbors, Delhi, p 155). It also sparked province wide rebellion which morphed into 9 months of civil war. The MB, six EB Regts, 16000 Bengalis in EPR and 45000 Policemen were aided by 50,000 Indian soldiers dressed in civvies. There were 116000 Bengalis in units, HQs, EBR, EPR, Police etc. and all had rebelled.
Role of Outsiders
The western media had turned against the military regime after the ouster of journalists from Dacca by Lt Gen Tikka due to their biased reporting. In the Whitehouse tapes released in the mid-nineties, President Nixon referred to the involvement of U.S diplomats in Pakistan who ignored his instructions and supported the separatists. CIA and the US Congress sided with Mujib in spite of Gen Yahya taking the risk of arranging a meeting of Henry Kissinger with Chinese PM at Beijing in Jul 1971 which led to US-China rapprochement. The USSR concluded a defence agreement with India in August 1971 to forestall any intervention by China.
Airlifting of Additional Forces
The magnitude of the insurrection was beyond the capacity of lone 14 Division. 9 and 16 Divisions, two wings each of CAF and Rangers and 5000 policemen were airlifted to Dacca via Colombo in a record time of less than two weeks since the East-West air corridor had been blocked by India after the engineered hijacking of Indian airline on Jan 31 the blame of which was put on Pakistan.
In order to tackle the insurgency and to be prepared for a war with India, local Razakars numbering 60, 000 were raised to provide rear area security. The EPCAF numbering 13000 with a heavy intake of Biharis and pro-Pakistan Bengalis were formed into units and wings. Out of the Razakars, Al-Badr and Al-Shams were created which mostly comprised Biharis and patriotic Bengalis. The two outfits became the eyes and ears of the army. The Razakars and the EPCAF supported the army fighting the insurgents and in the clearance of border towns and border posts captured by the MB.
Bhutto encouraged Yahya to withhold invoking UN action when India started to intervene militarily in April 1971(Memories and Reflections of a Pakistani Diplomat, p. 359). Foreign Secretary Sultan M. Khan wrote in his book (Memoirs and Reflections of a Pakistani Diplomat, London Centre for Pakistan Studies), ‘After the use of military power in East Pakistan on March 25th. 1971, the situation escalated out of Yahya Khan’s grasp and he could no longer control it. From then on he was merely reacting to the developing situation and had lost all initiative’.
By end April 1971, the whole area was cleared and the slaughter spree of the MB that was at its height till March 31 began to decline rapidly. By May/June complete normalcy was restored, the civil administration became functional. A general amnesty was announced, reception centres established for those who had fled to India including the politicians and a call for by-elections was given. However, India blocked their return, and in concert with Russia continued to train, equip and launch MBs to keep the pot of EP boiling. RAW and BSF had set up 59 training camps.
In the clearing operations from March to Nov 1971, 237 officers, 136 JCOs and 3559 other ranks were killed and wounded in action. (Indian Army after Independence, Major K.C Praval, Delhi, 1990, p 321).
Gathering of War Clouds
The MB supported by BSF and Indian Army launched border attacks in Sept/Oct with a view to draw Pak forces towards the border. Eastern Command hastened to push forward army units, broke them in sub-units and deployed them in penny-packets all along the border. Even the command reserves (53 Bde) were pushed forward denuding Dacca of regular troops. It resulted in loss of cohesion and made the units vulnerable to envelopment and piecemeal destruction.
Creation of ad hoc divisions/brigades two weeks before the start of the war was a big sham, since they were raised by milking the resources of infantry divisions/units and further weakening their combat strength deployed on extended frontages with no depth and no reserves. The formations were critically short of war munitions and manpower and didn’t have a single medium artillery regt. Limitation of range of guns and tanks was another drawback.
EPCAF and the Razakars plugged the yawning gaps between defensive localities and took part in the war with India. They fought valiantly till the end and large numbers embraced martyrdom or were injured in action.
The War (Nov 21 – Dec 16, 1971)
When it was found that the MBs were unable to defeat the Pak forces or to capture a chunk of territory near the border where a BD flag could be hoisted, the Indian military barged into EP on 21 Nov which was Eid day, and attacked 23 salients across the border. Lodgment areas were secured in Jessore, Dinajpur and Sylhet sectors. The MB resorted to large-scale massacre of pro-Pakistan elements in the captured areas. That was the time to modify the defensive plan and bring a change in the exaggerated forward posture but it was not done. Lt Gen Niazi issued orders, ‘Fortress will be abandoned after incurring 75% casualties’.
On the diplomatic front, it was the right time to move the case to the UN against unprovoked aggression of India as was suggested by Agha Shahi, but no move was made.
On Dec 2, India threw in 3 more divisions supported by armor to expand its penetrations at 7 different fronts. At that stage it dawned upon GHQ that India’s plans were much bigger than assumed, but it was too late to affect a change in defensive posture. Most crossing points on the rivers were destroyed or seized by the MB.
The Indian forces aided by the MB launched their offensive through gaps under complete air superiority on multiple axes with speed, grounding defending forces in respective compartments, while the MB stepped up their disruptive activities in the rear to block rearward moves of Pak troops. It made the task of forward troops to converge into the Dacca Bowl almost impossible. The ground situation changed with such rapidity that it left the Eastern Command dislocated and paralyzed. Its strategic balance lay in tatters and the defensive operational cycle got jammed.
After the PAF launched an air offensive on the western front on Dec 3, India declared war on both fronts with main effort in EP and secondary effort in the WP. India also forwarded a complaint to the UN Secretary General alleging that Pakistan had attacked India.
In EP, the Indian military enjoying 15:1 superiority, launched their offensive with main effort against Sylhet-Comilla by 4 Corps, secondary effort against Jessore sector by 2 Corps, another secondary effort against Bogra by 33 Corps and an auxiliary effort against Mymensingh-Tangail sector by 101 Communication Zone.
It had 7 armor regts with T-55 and T-72 tanks, a Para Bde, 46 artillery regts including Mediums, 24 Mortar Btys, 4 AA regts, 32 BSF units, 4 BD Bdes, 287000 MBs, helicopter support, 11 sqns of MiG-21, SU-23, Gnat, Canberra generating 120 sorties a day. Its naval assets consisted of one aircraft carrier, 3 landing ships and 8 destroyers. The IAF flew 80 air sorties in support of ground forces from 3-15 Dec and generated a total of 1978 sorties. The Indian Navy affected a sea blockade on 4 Dec.
Pakistan’s Eastern Command had one Corps HQ, 3 infantry divisions, 2 adhoc divisions, one armor regiment with M-24 tanks, 6 Field regts, 5 Mortar Batteries, 13000 EPCAF men, 60,000 Razaqars. The PAF had only one squadron and the Navy had 4 converted gunboats and 8 Chinese Coasters/landing crafts.
Major towns were converted into fortresses. While the static fronts outmaneuvered by Indian tanks and supported by armor collapsed at most places, at Hilli, 4 FF under Lt Col Akhlaq Abbasi, SJ put up a gallant fight and didn’t allow 20 Mountain Div with an additional Inf Bde supported by Armored Bde to breakout towards Bogra for 19 days. The unit was ordered to withdraw on 11 Dec when the opposing enemy outflanked the whole brigade. Another gallant fight was put up at Kamalpur and Jamalpur by 31 Baluch under Lt Col Sultan, SJ & Bar. 107 Bde under Brig Hayat Khan, SJ, put up a stubborn resistance at Khulna till 16 Dec. There were several other valiant actions at sub-unit levels. Most of the fortresses were intact on 16 Dec.
The lone PAF squadron put up an extremely brave show by flying 292 air sorties in support of the ground forces from 29 March till 6 Dec. Pak Navy’s Ghazi sent from Karachi to carry out strategic mining of Visakhapatnam and to interdict Indian Navy ships sank close to its target with 93 all ranks on board on the night of 3 Dec as a result of underwater explosion.
On 12 Dec, Lt Gen Gul Hassan informed Lt Gen Niazi that US and Chinese help was on the way. On 14 Dec, the GHQ gave an assurance to Niazi that the UNSC was in session and was most likely to order a ceasefire and he should hold on. Niazi cracked up when the heat came upon Dacca on 15 Dec. His oft repeated motto “last man last round” was probably meant for the forward troops only. Dacca, which was viewed by the opposing side as the toughest nut to crack and identified by Niazi as the centre of gravity, was left defenseless and had no regular troops. It fell like a ripe apple without being penetrated and without a fight.
Heavily outnumbered, outgunned, cut off from the world, subjected to psychological war and demonized by Indo-Russian-Western propaganda, the beleaguered Pak forces fought and defended the motherland gallantly. Overwhelmed by the sheer weight and size of the enemy and adverse obtaining conditions, Gen Niazi gave orders on the morning of Dec 16 to stop fighting and ceasefire. The ceasefire transformed into surrender.
To be concluded
The writer is Brig, war veteran, defence analyst, international columnist, author of five books, sixth book under publication, Chairman Thinkers Forum Pakistan, Director Measac Research Centre. email@example.com
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″