By November of 1971 it was evident that Pakistan wanted a war to ‘punish’ India for supporting the cause of independent Bangladesh and giving refuge to ten million refugees displaced by the nine month long onslaught and genocide committed by Pakistan Army and their cronies in Bangladesh. Through an extraordinary diplomacy by India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her colleagues the world opinion tilted in favour of ‘Independent Bangladesh’ and India’s role in the crisis.
Out of the five permanent representatives in the UN Security Council only US and China decided to side with the Pakistani military junta and Yahiya Khan. Except Iraq practically all Arab countries also supported Pakistan and disregarded as to what was going on in the occupied Bangladesh. Though most Pakistani civil society members and bureaucrats either gave a blind eye as to what was going on in Bangladesh or had a heavily tilted view of the developments with their so called ‘brothers.’ But there are exceptions and few narratives are available about the ground reality of the happenings in Bangladesh in 1971.
Hasan Zaheer, a senior civil bureaucrat who was stationed in Dhaka in May 1971 and served in Bangladesh till the surrender of Pakistani forces to the Joint Command of the Mukti Bahini and Indian Army on December 16. He remained in Indian custody as a civilian PoW until January of 1974. In 1990 Hasan Zaheer retired as cabinet secretary of Pakistan. After his retirement he narrated his experience in Bangladesh though some of the narratives in his book ‘The Separation of East Pakistan’ are reflections of a Pakistani civil bureaucrat. Henry Kissinger who served in Richard Nixon’s cabinet first as National Security Advisor and later as the Secretary of State also gives an inside view of the conspiracies hatched against independent Bangladesh by Khondakar Mushtaque and his cronies and how he and Nixon despised India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Indira Gandhi met Richard Nixon in Washington on November 4 and 5 and tried to convince him that time was running out for a peaceful solution of the Bangladesh crisis. Before Indira’s visit, to the surprise of Washington ‘Yahiya agreed to the unilateral withdrawal (of his troops from Bangladesh)’ writes Nixon in his memoir ‘White House Years.’ Meanwhile one of the villain of the crisis Bhutto also realised that Jinnah’s Pakistan was disintegrating and according to Kissinger ‘on November 3 Bhutto told Farland (US Ambassador to Pakistan) that talks with Bangladesh representatives-including Mujib-were essential.’ When Indira Gandhi visited Nixon disregarding all diplomatic norms Indira Gandhi was kept waiting for forty five minutes on November 5 and Kissinger decided to remain away from the meeting. Indira about whom Kissinger confesses ‘was a strong personality relentlessly pursuing India’s national interest with single-mindedness and finesse’ kept cool and in her opening remarks demonstrating her high moral values and eastern etiquette praised US for all the good things it did before opening the discussion on Bangladesh crisis. Nixon writes ‘Nixon had no time for Mrs. Gandhi’s condescending manner. Privately, he scoffed at her moral pretensions, which he found all the more irritating because he suspected that in pursuit of her purposes she had in fact fewer scruples than he.’ The two day talk with Nixon ended with no result.
At the height of the 1971 crisis Bangladesh’s emergence becoming a reality and on August 9, India signed a Friendship Treaty with Soviet Union which not only dismayed the US and China but also angered both countries. Immediately after Operation Searchlight was launched on March 25/26 of 1971 Yahiya Khan returned to Rawalpindi from Dhaka on March 26 and in the same evening broadcast a speech through radio and TV where he tried to justify the army crackdown on the unarmed people of Bangladesh. About Bangabandhu Sk. Mujib he said ‘his obstinacy, obduracy and absolute refusal to talk sense can lead to buy one conclusion-the man and his party are enemies of Pakistan and they want East Pakistan to break away completely from the country. He had attacked the solidarity and integrity of this country – this crime will not go unpunished.’ Yahiya banned all political activities and about Awami League he said ‘as for the Awami League it is completely banned as a political party.’ From the launching of the ‘Operation Search Light’ on March 25/26 night the genocide and indiscriminate killing of the innocent continued till Bangladesh was liberated. First it was anyone who was thought of to be a Bangali, then the Awami League leaders, workers and supporters and later the religious minorities who were perceived to be sympathisers of Awami League. Throughout 1971 the common target of Pakistan army and their local cronies were generally young people who were thought to be willing volunteers to join the ‘Mukti Bahini.’
The Pakistani military junta misread the spirit of the Bangalis and their leaders, namely Bangabandhu Sk. Mujibur Rahman. Soon after the crackdown the leadership rightfully concluded that to turn the ensuing war into a people’s war it must be waged under the command of a civilian government. On April 10, the first government of the new nation was formed and Bangabandhu was declared as the President and in his absence Syed Nazrul Islam as the Vice-President would act as the President. Tajuddin Ahmed would take over as the premier. On April 17 the new government took oath in Meherpur in Kushtia. All civil military operations were brought under its command and they were paid a token salary by the Bangladesh government in exile as a record that they were servants of the new Republic.
Throughout the Pakistan military junta proved their naiveté to the world community in justifying their crackdown in Bangladesh as compared to Bangladesh and Indian governments’ convincing diplomacy. Not only Indira Gandhi’s diplomatic moves were par-excellence expatriates Bangladeshis were also very active in projecting to the world the cause of Bangladesh. Hasan Zaheer in his memoir writes ‘Mrs. Gandhi having firmed up Soviet obligations under the treaty during her September visit to Moscow, embarked on an extended tour of Western capitals on 25 October. This was intended to demolish whatever reservations that might still have been there in the Western world about the validity on an independent Bangladesh, to project India as the victim of a truculent and irresponsible neighbor, and to place on record a self-righteous India doing everything to avoid war with Pakistan.’
To counter the India’s move in the diplomatic fronts Pakistan Foreign Ministry held two meeting one in Tehran were fifteen Pakistani envoys in Middle Eastern countries and North Africa attended on 21-22 August. The meetings were attended by Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary and Major General Umer. The second was held in Geneva for the envoys posted in Europe. Hasan Zaheer quotes General Umer saying ‘they (envoys) did not know what was happening in Pakistan. There were all sorts of propaganda about atrocities (in Bangladesh). Pakistani officials did not have a clear understanding as to what was being thought abroad about Pakistan.’ About Pakistan’s senior and seasoned diplomat Roedad Khan’s opinion who attended the meetings, Zaheer writes ‘Umer, I and Sultan Muhammad (Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary) addressed the meetings. We dwelt at length on the Bengali plans of secession, and how the army had saved Pakistan. We assured them that everything was under control and that the majority of Bengalis was with us. As evidence of Bengali plans, we referred to the television film which was prepared by Aslam Azhar. No one spoke or reacted, but they all requested us not to show the film.’ Quoting Agah Shahi (later to become Pakistan’s Ambassador to UN) Zaheer writes ‘The ambassadors meeting in Geneva was a farce.’ It was evident that by August Pakistan had lost all possible perceived advantages in the diplomatic front and was fast losing ground in the eastern front to the Mukti Bahini. By this time the Mukti Bahini regrouped, had access to better training and arms and the civilian government was in control though at times few insiders in the civilian government wanted to destabilise the government under Tajuddin. His superb handling of the situation prevailed over their evil designs. Though US and China along with the Arab countries, excepting Iraq gave moral support to Pakistan none was prepared to give any military assistance to Pakistan, apprehending Soviet Union and India putting into operation the treaty signed in September thus complicating the situation. Pakistan for all practical purpose was isolated; only the occasional rhetoric by the Junta survived. Hasan Zaheer writes ‘The mystical belief in the superiority of (Punjabi) Muslim soldiers over the Hindus was so persistently inculcated among the West Pakistani public and the army, that the higher command itself came to believe in it and overlooked the professional demands of a modern war.’
Many pundits think a meaningful dialogue between Mujib in custody and Yahiya would perhaps save Pakistan. They were totally wrong. Zaheer assesses the situation correctly when he says ‘Yahiya called him (Mujib) a traitor in his 26 March broadcast, and this finally closed any chance of communication between the two after the army officers operations.’ On 11 August Bangaobandhu’s trial began before a special military court, convened by the CMLA, with power and procedures as prescribed for field general court martial. The trial was brief and Bangabandhu was sentenced to death.
By late October Pakistan army was losing grounds fast in Bangladesh to Mukti Bahini. Pakistan’s forces were stretched because of their wrong strategy. They erroneously thought they would be able to defend the borders to stop the Mukti Bahini entering Bangladesh. They were totally wrong. Mukti Bahini knew their country better. In a desperate attempt Yahiya on 2 December in a letter to Nixon, formally invoked Article 1 of the Pakistan-US Bilateral Agreement of 5 March 1959 for direct military assistance from the US against Indian `aggression against Pakistan’. Nixon knew very well the dream of a united Pakistan was lost. Yahiya in another desperate attempt ordered the Pakistan air force to commence attack on Indian bases at 5.20 p.m. of December 3. The pre-emptive strike which assumed that Indian squadrons had been placed on the forward bases and that they would be parked in the open indicated ‘a drastic breakdown of Pakistan’s intelligence.’ At that time India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was addressing a big public meeting in Calcutta. Her aide gave her the news of the strike confidentially. Immediately Indira rushed to Delhi.
By midnight the battle for Bangladesh was on. The first sortie by the newly formed Bangladesh Air Force was led by Bangladesh war hero Air-vice Marshall Sultan Mahmud, BU to be followed by the Indian forces. The Pakistan air force in Bangladesh consisting of just 14 second world war vintage Sabre jets were no match for Indian Air Force and had no capability for night operation. By next evening Bangladesh’s sky was controlled by the Indian Air Force and the ground by Mukti Bahini and the Indian Army. Following the pre-emptive attack by the Pakistan air force on Indian forward bases Mukti Bahini and Indian Army formed the Joint Allied Forces under the command of Lt. General Jagjit Singh Arora, the GOC of Eastern Command of Indian Army. In another desperate attempt the US tried to table a ceasefire proposal in the UN Security Council on 4 and 5 December and both were vetoed by Soviet Union. For Pakistan time was running out fast. None came to rescue the disintegrating country, not even US or China. The Middle Eastern countries were mere silent spectators. At 10.40 in the winter morning of December 16, 1971 the joint forces of Bangladesh and India entered Dhaka led by General Nagra to be followed by General Jacob.
I met General Jacob in Fort Williams, the Headquarters of the Indian Army’s Eastern Command in 2014 and asked him how he felt meeting General Niazi, the GOC of Eastern Command of Pakistan Army. Jacob told me he knew Niazi from pre-partition days when both attended the same military school in India. When Jacob faced Niazi it was a moment of joy for him but suddenly Niazi broke down in tears. He felt sorry for his old buddy. He told Niazi the game is over and bargained the instrument of surrender to be signed in the late afternoon between him and General Jagjit Singh Arora. General Arora arrived in Dhaka accompanied by his wife Sardarni Bhagwant Kaur, clad in immaculate white sari. When General Arora and General Niazi signed the dotted lines of the instrument of surrender at 4.20 in the late afternoon of December 16, 1971 the whole of Bangladesh shouted in one voice ‘Joy Bangla.’ Dhaka was the capital of a free country as Indira Gandhi announced in the Indian Lokh Sabha same evening. Tributes to those fallen for liberating the country in 1971. Joy Bangla!
The writer is the Chairman, University Grants Commission of Bangladesh