December 16, 1971 — A Judgement Fiasco

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Brigadier Tariq Khalil (Retd)

LATELY the Chief of Army Staff of Pakistan in his outgoing address mentioned about the 1971 war. He said that in the 1971 war in East Pakistan, India attacked with overwhelming superiority, the quantum of forces was totally outbalanced, 34,000 Pakistani troops versus over half a million Indian regular army and almost half a million Mukti Bahini forces. India had complete Air and Naval superiority. The soldiers and the officers fought valiantly to safeguard their country against heavy odds. It created a storm in the media and in political circles, as he mentioned that the failure in Dhaka was political.

This scribe is the last of the few who, 50 years ago, had participated in this saga of war. There are multiple factors for the defeat of the troops in East Pakistan and overall failure of the government of Pakistan in controlling the situation. The factors included: political, military, internal governance and geo-strategic. The gathering clouds were visible. The political elite in West Pakistan soon after partition, after the death of Quaid, got into the political musical chair. East Pakistani political leaders were denied rightful share in the governance. At partition, in the Indian civil service the only Bengali officers were from West Bengal.

In the military, they were completely denied entry. Complete restructuring of civil services and defense forces services was undertaken after the partition. The ratio of the civil service officers by 1970 had almost reached parity level. A similar position was in other services which were totally restructured to cater to the needs of the local population. However, to organize the services West Pakistani officers were sent to East Pakistan.

It was at this point, which was taken up by the Bengali politicians who did not support this continued posting of West Pakistani officers in the eastern wing. It created space for political exploitation. Economically, East Bengal had nothing at the time of partition by way of industry or reasonable communication infrastructure. This all had to be created and there is no doubt that Pakistan did splendid work. East Pakistan Development Corporation and other such institutions did set up industries and also developed infrastructure. Chittagong and Khulna Port was developed. Industrialists were encouraged from West Pakistan.

By 1970, distribution of finances and parity was achieved in all segments. Yet Bengali politicians continued to exploit this factor. By 1971, ten East Bengal regiments were raised. East Pakistan rifles were restructured and by 1970 had almost 23,000 troops, all Bengalis. Among officers’ special concessions were given to the Bengali youths to bring them at par with West Pakistan. By 1970 , besides 10 East Bengal regiments roughly 30% of the troops in all other arms of services were from East Bengal. The number of troops and officers in the Pakistan Air Force and Navy were larger… Yet, perception is stronger than logic.

The local body system of selection of the President left the Bengali politicians thinking that they were left with no space forever in the new set-up. The 1965 war was the watershed when East Pakistan felt they were totally naked against any possible aggression by India. Major portion of forces were invested in West Pakistan under the doctrine, Defence of East Pakistan lies in the West. It proved totally misplaced and wrong in the changed strategic and geo-political scenario.

Suppression in the political sphere created space for the subversive elements. Indian Intelligence and later RAW in 1968 under Kao was tasked to penetrate into East Pakistan. The Agartala conspiracy was a reality. Mujib who was arrested and released under political pressure was a blunder. September 1970, a cyclone hit the shores of Bangladesh. There was huge loss of property and human lives on the shores of Noakhali and adjoining coasts. There were thousands of dead and property destroyed. The role of the Pakistan army was lauded internationally to alleviate the suffering of the people. The Awami League nevertheless used this tragedy also for the political end.

The legal framework order issued by the Martial law Administration for the upcoming elections was totally flouted. One year East Pakistani people were poisoned by the Awami League. No West Pakistani politician ever visited. The Awami League trumpeted that West Pakistan had eaten away East Pakistan resources. Indians penetration worsened the situation. In this background 1970 elections were held. Election was rigged as Awami League had complete control over the entire apparatus. Martial Law administration was a helpless spectator. West Pakistan political parties, especially the People’s Party, did not put up a single candidate in the Eastern Wing.

Thus, hundred percent of seats went to Awami League. In West Pakistan, Bhutto’s party won only 85 seats out of 162 seats. Yet Bhutto was adamant that he be made part of the new government by Mujeeb. With a majority he was rigid in his stance to form Government alone with smaller parties from West Pakistan. As early as January later, in February the meetings of the President Yahya in Larkana and later Karachi with Bhutto ended in failure. He threatened MNAs dire consequences if they travelled to Dacca to attend NA session. At one stage, as Mujib revealed, let there be two PMs. In this background, Mr. Bhutto forced President Yahya to postpone the National Assembly session to be held on March 4th 1971.

We conveyed the pulse of the people and troops to the higher command in Dacca. Rightly the commander Eastern Command Gen Sahibzada Yakub tried all efforts to persuade the President to seek a political solution but in vain. The postponement of the session was a grave blunder on the part of the President under pressure. General Yakub warned any military solution will ensure the disintegration of the country, failing to convince Yahya he (Yaqub) resigned. Simultaneously, the killing of non-Bengalis started.

Pakistan army which consisted of at that time only one division out of which three regiments were of East Bengal and in other arms themselves virtually they were 40 to 50% Bengali troops. The civil disobedience created a nerve wrecking situation on Bengali and Non-Bengali troops alike. The operation Search Light was a reaction and not earlier planned. We were briefed and tasked on the evening of 25. The Army was asked earlier to be ready in Aid Civil of Power. It was inevitable as the situation developed between March – March 24. Civil disobedience had turned into open rebellion. The Bengali troops, who were clandestinely briefed, rose into rebellion on the night of 25 March. Reportedly Col Usmani in connivance with Bengali PAF personnel planned to seize Dacca Airport.

On the western front no major offensive was undertaken by both sides. It killed the doctrine defense of the East lay in the West.

As for the myth of killing by Pakistani troops, Indian propaganda has been effectively exposed. No killing of millions happened barring usual casualties which occur in war. (Recent Iraq, Syria and Ukraine depict the battle casualties). In final analysis, 1971 was an avoidable war. It was a combination of geo-strategic, diplomatic, political and militaryJudgment.

The author is Brigadier Rtd, a decorated veteran of 1965 and 1971 wars. A senior defense and Industry analyst.