1971 field notes – lessons for Pakistan today

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By Akbar Ahmed
President Ayub Khan was right. Though watching the 1971 crisis from Islamabad, as a field marshal of the Pakistan Army, he had spotted what for me, a junior assistant commissioner in the field in East Pakistan that year, was glaringly obvious: no nation could fight on two fronts and hope to win. After the military action against the Bengalis he saw little hope.
As I was staying with my school friend Tahir Ayub Khan, the son of Ayub Khan, I took the opportunity to call on his father and update him on the unfolding crisis. President Khan was not well but still came to the living room, wearing a dressing gown and carrying a book, as he always did, to see me. His Sandhurst training lingered, and as I was leaving Maaji gently said he wanted me to have my long hair cut. I headed straight for a barbershop.
In contrast to Ayub Khan, West Pakistani officials were not appreciating the scale of the crisis. There were even celebrations cheering on the military action, and people were gleeful that the Bengalis were being taught a lesson. The crudest abuse was heaped on the Bengalis. They were called bingos, the equivalent of the “n-word” for African Americans, or “black bastards.” For simply arguing for justice and human rights my wife and I were sarcastically referred to as “Bingo-lovers.”
An articulate and artistic people, Bengalis, in spite of forming the majority province, faced widespread discrimination within the government: there was only one Bengali general among thirty-five generals in the Pakistan army and not one central secretary among twenty. Although Bengalis had been at the forefront of the Pakistan movement, the military action had been the last straw.Because Bengalis associated the Pakistan power elite with the Punjab province, some Bengali friends warned me that I needed to memorize “I am not a Punjabi” in Bengali in case I was attacked by a mob.

Former president Gen Ayub Khan

In March that year I was Sub-divisional Magistrate in charge of Manikganj sub-division of Dhaka district, when an all-East Pakistan protest strike was called. The strike literally paralyzed all administration and movement. There was no communication between headquarters in Dhaka and myself except through sporadic telegraph messages. Rumors of attacks on West Pakistanis were circulating and I was concerned about Zeenat, my newly married bride.
I wrote a personal hand-written letter to the recently installed Martial Law Administrator, General Yaqub Khan. I had asked my most trusted orderly to hand-deliver the letter to his headquarters, somehow avoiding the groups of people who had set up roadblocks. In it I pointed out that my batch of CSP officers were sitting ducks in a civil war situation, and three of them had already been savagely killed. Wives were not spared. Shortly afterwards a man came running from the telegraph office informing me of an urgent order from Martial Law Headquarters in Dhaka. General Yaqub, God bless him, had transferred me to Dhaka. Once there, I managed to get a seat for Zeenat on the daily flight to Karachi, impossibly overbooked due to the rush to get out. I saw her off with several friends including Major Sabir Kamal who escorted her to her seat. As the plane took off, and Zeenat safely gone, I felt a huge pressure lifted from me.
In Dhaka I saw the political leadership of Pakistan attempting to salvage the nation. All the big names were there and I had the opportunity to interact with several of them. I took Mr. Mahmud Ali Kasuri, future law minister, around Dhaka in the evenings so he could see the situation for himself.
Meanwhile, Wali Khan, as a key member of the National Assembly, argued with the martial law authorities to send me back to Peshawar, as he said the province requested the return of its officer. His pleas fell on deaf ears.

A profile picture shows two main political characters of 1971 tragedy – Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto discussing the prevailing situation that year.

And in the midst of negotiations, Yaqub was ignominiously sacked when he argued against military action in East Pakistan noting the impossibility of holding the province with only three divisions against the Indian army in the war that would follow. At his send-off at the airport I was one of the very few civilians invited to say goodbye. President Yahya Khan decided to launch a military operation to crush the opposition. Bengalis who resisted were called “miscreants” – this was a time before the word terrorist was popularized. If the vast majority of Bengalis were in favor of Pakistan before this action, the figures were reversed after it. Just as West Pakistanis were killing Bengalis, Bengalis were also rounding up and killing non-Bengalis. The fate of the Biharis was particularly tragic as in the end they were rejected by both wings of Pakistan. Society was descending into universal anarchy. No one was safe. Hundreds of thousands were raped and killed and although the final number of deaths is debated Bengalis claim over 3 million lives were lost.

Sheikh Mujibur Rehman with former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi

Following the military operation, I boarded the flight to Karachi and was seated behind Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. I knew him but was too agitated to go up and say salaam. I knew Pakistan was in deep danger and I felt angry and betrayed. On disembarking, Bhutto said something about thanking God that Pakistan had been saved. I wondered whether he believed that.
On arrival I tracked down General Yaqub who was living under a cloud and there was talk of court martial. His house was watched but I went straight in and asked to see him. He entered the drawing room and greeted me warmly. His first words were: “How long do we have?” “Six to eight months,” I replied. He sat down as if I had hit him. “What is your reasoning,” he asked. “Mainly because the Pakistan army has been trained to fight conventional battles on the plains of the Punjab not guerrilla warfare in the rain-sodden lowlands and deltas of Bengal,” I replied. He looked somber.

Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger discussing the volatile situation with former president of Pakistan General Yahya Khan in Islamabad.

From Karachi, I took the opportunity to fly to Islamabad to meet senior officials with some of my batch-mates to apprise the government of the dire situation and advocate for their pulling us out. We were brushed off. A senior secretary heard our story with some cynicism and a complete lack of sympathy. One batch-mate described his ordeal of escaping with his life from his headquarters, having to hide at the bottom of trucks and boats before finally managing to get to Dhaka to take a flight out. He kept his pistol in his belt ready to take action, but it had only one bullet. At this, our senior colleague exploded and called us “funk”. If the army could rough it out, so could we. Our argument that we were civil servants without weapons, tanks, or missiles, and were therefore totally vulnerable made little difference. We were unceremoniously told to go back to our posts. It was suicide.
By the end of 1971, of the seven West Pakistan CSPs who remained, three had been brutally butchered in the field by rampaging mobs and three were taken prisoner to spend several miserable years in an Indian POW camp. I survived by sheer chance. It was a game of Russian roulette at a time of Apocalypse Now.
In the midst of the madness, because of my posting, I could still perform acts of kindness. I got a well-spoken Bengali couple two coveted plane seats, for example, after I advised them to leave for Karachi and escape from the hungry eyes of the officer who desired the wife. In another instance, I was able to save a senior Bengali CSP officer from serious harm, possibly peremptory execution, by taking bold bureaucratic action. All this was risky stuff and could have cost me my job and worse; recall we lived under martial law and civilian life did not matter much.

A historical document of shame – Gen Niazi is seen signing the accord of surrender.

As if to confirm the reality on the ground, one quiet afternoon when I was serving as a member of the governor’s inspection team, my friend Major Sabir, in full uniform, came to see me. He walked in, cocked his revolver, and put it to my forehead. He told me to write to the chief secretary of East Pakistan and request emergency leave, as he believed we were in grave danger. I just pushed the paper away and said it was impossible as all leaves were cancelled. Sabir became angry, saying if you stay you will be killed. “What about you? Why are you here then?” I said. He replied, he had married a general’s daughter and he was being sent abroad. It was therefore a shock for me to hear that when the war began in December, Sabir was still at his post in the northeast of East Pakistan on the border and killed in action. He had refused to surrender to a vastly larger Indian army force. That year I lost two good and noble friends who went down honourably fighting rather than surrender -Major Sabir and Major Shabbir Sharif.
In late November, I flew to Karachi on short leave given on “compassionate grounds” to be with my wife for the birth of our first child. My daughter’s birth was delayed, and in the meantime all flights to East Pakistan were cancelled and the war began. With her birth I received my official posting order to Peshawar, the one Wali Khan had lobbied for.
It was a traumatic year for my country, my people and me. I was a helpless witness to the destruction of Pakistan, and its demise was like a Greek tragedy in which no one could alter the final act. I felt Pakistan lost due to its incompetent, corrupt and bungling leadership. Pakistan witnessed a humiliating surrender in Dhaka and 100,000 troops were taken into captivity.
We waited in vain for the American fleet and later learned that the Americans had drawn a red line that prevented the Indian Army from crossing into West Pakistan.
I was never to return to what was once East Pakistan. That was the darkest hour of Pakistan’s history but it may still have lessons for us today.
Firstly, using military force to brutalize a civilian population to solve political problems is not only inhumane, it will almost certainly backfire.
Second, it is crucial that the central government treat its minorities and outlying provinces with honor and dignity. Even today, the smaller provinces complain of being neglected, culturally humiliated, and deemed “backward” by arrogant higher officials in Islamabad and the words “miscreants” and “terrorists” are bandied about.
Thirdly, Pakistan needs to reestablish its civil service. When Jinnah in Pakistan and Nehru in India lauded their civil services as the “steel frame” for their nations, they recognized their central importance. Unfortunately, the ways of the CSP attracted jealousy and hatred, and each government diminished it. Today, Pakistan, always own-goal champs, have reduced the services to malleable plastic, making the pursuit of good governance nationwide much harder to achieve.
In this same vein, all governments must attempt to maintain law and order and at all costs. They must check those who would challenge the writ of the state as in Faizabad and on the campus in Peshawar recently; that is a symptom of a dysfunctional state.
Finally, the power elite needs to be far better informed and sensitive to the trends and opinions of their own people and the outside world. Senior civil servants and politicians must be in close touch with field officers nationwide, so as to avoid remaining in an echo chamber. Yayha Khan hiding bizarrely behind a still photograph on television and ordering his army to expel the Indians after the fall of Dhaka summed up the disconnect of that fateful year.
As Santayana famously stated, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
(The writer is an author, poet, filmmaker, playwright, and is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University in Washington, DC. He formerly served as the Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland. He tweets @AskAkbar)