December 16 comes every year to haunt the nation, particularly those few remaining who were witness to the debacle. I had the misfortune to be one. On this day the Quaid’s Pakistan, which was considered an epitome of ‘Divided we Stand’, got actually divided by breaking lose all bonds of unity between the two wings. That day the largest Muslim army suffered the humiliation of the greatest defeat. This was the darkest day of our national history that stunned everyone. How did it happen? Equipped with the hindsight knowledge, I will try to reconstruct some of the sad saga.
In early July 70 I was posted to East Pakistan as the Principal Staff Officer (GSO-1) to late Major General Rao Farman Ali Khan – in charge Martial Law (Civil Affairs). In my such capacity I had the opportunity of seeing the events unfolding themselves from the vantage viewpoint of the Governor’s House, Dacca – the then epicentre of the entire activity in East Pakistan. I had also access to the events of the past buried in the files which kept popping up randomly during my daily official work. This all presented me with a fairly clear picture of all that was happening there and why.
If I am asked who to blame for the debacle I would say that we were all – from the common man in the street to the highest person in the office, equally responsible for it. The common man for committing the sin of keeping himself ignorant of the under currents simmering there ever since that fateful 19TH day of March 1948 when Quaid raising his admonishing finger to the Bengali students at the Dacca University convocation had warned them that Urdu will be the only official state language of Pakistan, and not trying to assess the anguish caused to the Bengalis and take measures to bring the rapprochement. The highest in authority were guilty of being too greedy, power hungry and selfish. Unfortunately we all treated East Pakistan as a colony of ours and never granted them their justly deserved status of being the major human organ of the Pakistan’s body – 54 percent of the population. As power barons of the Federal government mostly haled from West Pakistan they never shared the power willingly or happily with their Bengali brethren. Imagine, the Bengalis though in majority going jubilant in 1956 when Suhrawardy got them the ‘parity’ (equal treatment) with the West Pakistanis! Ever heard of a majority thanking the minority for treating them as equals ? We did it again in 1971. The minority pronouncing the majority unpatriotic, traitor and secessionist! Minority forcing the majority to leave the country whose foundations they had laid in 1906! Not only, that the Bengalis were treated as un-equals but it is also a fact that they were the major revenue earner for Pakistan during its early years, mainly through the export of their Golden Fibre to Manchester and Dundee jute mills in the UK. They bore the major financial burden of Pakistan and happily too for more than 15 years and till 1962 the cash flow was from East Pakistan to West Pakistan. Thereafter, after an equilibrium of about two years the process reversed but not that heavily. Bengalis had, therefore, every reason to be chary of and chagrin with the sala Punzabis. (every West Pakistani was a Punjabi to them). Though the Bengalis proved themselves to be equally, if not more, patriotic than the West Pakistan during the 65 war with India, yet the state of mutual confidence between the two left more to be desired. By 1970 the relations deteriorated further and irreversibly. The proverbial last straw that broke the camel’s back was Bhutto’s rejection of the 1970 election results which had given Shaikh Mujib ur Rehman’s Awami League a clear cut majority to form the government at the centre. ZAB’s one after the other statements like “we will break the legs of any one going to Dacca to attend the NA session there”, “Udhar tum idhar humm”, “ Anyone going to Dacca should buy only one way ticket as he will not be allowed to return” and “I would rather be a top dog of half of Pakistan than be an underdog of full Pakistan” left little doubt in the minds of Mujib and company who opted for the Civil Disobedience in the province. Their provincial autonomy stance kept becoming tougher by the day and all negotiations between them and the West Pakistani leaders and the Federal government led by Gen.Yahya himself failed. To quell the civil disobedience the army struck on the night of 25th March 1970, starting an internecine guerrilla war between the military and Mukti Bahani lasting for 8 long months. On 21st November 1970 – Eid Day – the Indians launched a full fledged armed attack on East Pakistan which lasted for 26 days of intense fighting for Pakistan army under extremely adverse conditions of (1) being very badly out-numbered in men and material – 3 Indian Corps against One and that too a lame one, under strength and ill equipped, no tanks, very little artillery – only the infantry and the a battalion of Engineers, (2) hostility of the local populace – no army can fight without the support of the civilians of the country, but here what to talk of the support the civil populace was acting as the enemy, supporting the Indians by providing them with all kinds of intelligence and information needed by them, (3) poor communications and logistics – no reinforcements or arms and equipment could be supplied from West Pakistan. India had stopped the over-flights since February 70 after very cleverly and clandestinely planting the Ganga episode, (4) lack of air cover - the only squadron of the F-86s that we had though inflicted heavy losses on the IAF but could not operate later as the runway of the only military airport Kurmi Tola had been rendered out of service by the Indians bombing it incessantly. If anything, under such impossible conditions, it goes to the credit of the army that it could fight the internal enemy – Muktis – and the external enemy India combined for over nine months in East Pakistan.
In the second half of the year 1971 those in power - both civil and military – seemed to be suffering from a stupor and behaving like silent spectators waiting helplessly for the catastrophe to fall. I distinctly remember Major General A Rahim Khan – later Secretary General Defence, on or around 11 July 1971 while addressing a batch of newly posted two dozen Lt Cols and Majors to East Pakistan saying, “Gentlemen, the entire administration of the province had collapsed. I have made it stand but only on its knees. Now it will be for you to make it stand and stand it erect.” Having said this the General went on to add, “I have given my word to the Chief (Gen. Yahya) to give me three months for the task, and if I cannot do it, he can -- (I murmured under my lip, hang me!, but he went on to say ) he can - replace me.”. I was shocked that the general had equated the stakes simply to his replacement! There would be nothing left in the three months to replace him for!! On another occasion Lieutenant General Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi – alias Tiger Niazi – the GOC Eastern Command as late as in October 71, before a special briefing to a visiting high powered army team from the GHQ on the latest military situation in East Pakistan, advised his senior staff officers not to discourage the generals from the GHQ by giving them the dismal picture or ask them for more troops. He quipped, “gentlemen, if they send us more troops - more the merrier, if not - lesser the better”. With the result that the operational military map on the board showed more of ‘green’ pins all over the area than the ‘Red’ pins depicting the area under the control of the Mukti Bahani. Whereas the map should have been clustered with the Red pins all over. The GHQ team returned satisfied about all being hunky-dory in East Pakistan. Similar ‘Sab Achha’ reports kept emanating from various sectors and parts of East Pakistan to West Pakistan, till the water passed over the head. But by then it was too late for any political solution that the likes of Gen. Farman were advocating from the beginning but being too junior in the army hierarchy were not given due importance. To a few others it was a case of misplaced egoistic valour – not to be dubbed as the ‘chickens’ in the army parlance. The true information was not only denied to the common man in West Pakistan but even to those at the helm also.
Handling of the East Pakistan issue at the International level, too, was a fiasco on our part. We had not only not mobilised any world opinion in our favour but had rather alienated them mostly. On the other hand Indira Gandhi undertook a whirlwind tour of 19 countries in October 1970 propagating the imaginary atrocities against the Bengalis and particularly the Hindus of East Pakistan and yet assuring each one of them that India had no designs of attacking it. While she was convincing and canvassing the world powers, her army’s Eastern Command was giving the final touches to the Attack Plan in Fort William at the eastern bank of river Hooghly, Calcutta. Whereas in our case despite Nixon’s more or less ordering Kissinger to ‘do some thing’ their 7th Fleet just passed by the Bay of Bengal without even radioing the customary courtesy good will message or tooting its horns thrice ceremonially. I am personally a witness to the Chinese repeated enquiries as to what could they do, after we had established am emergency radio link with them? But all that we could get from the stupor laden President’s Secretariat at Rawalpindi was, “Just wait, please”. Hopes from the sincere Chinese friends were so high that when the Indians parachuted their troops at Narain Ganj every one thought them to be the Chinese! Our Eastern Command had a morbid fear of the Indians capturing a piece of the territory and passing it on to the Muktis who would plant a flag there and declare it to be Bangla Desh, and which the Indians will recognise instantly. Thus giving birth to Bangla Desh. Consequently they spread the troops in a thin line all along the border, weakening themselves all over. There was no depth, no reserves, no second lines. There was enemy (Indians) in the front and enemy at the back (Muktis).They never realised that it was not the territory but the capital of the country that mattered. It had to be the Warsaw, the Paris, the Moscow, the Berlin and in our case the Dacca which until captured by the enemy the country would not fall. If only they had concentrated all the troops in Dacca, made a fortress out of it and fought there for months, which they could do, the East Pakistan story would have been different. We still wouldn’t have been able to avert the creation of Bangla Desh but it would have come into being by the intervention of the world powers and probably the UNO itself. Pakistan would not have had to suffer the ignominy of the defeat.