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1971 field notes: lessons for Pakistan

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1971 field notes: lessons for Pakistan
By Akbar Ahmed
Published: December 26, 2017

The writer is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, DC and was former Pakistani high commissioner to the UK and Ireland. He has just completed the fourth book of his award-winning quartet of studies on Islam and the West


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, 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. 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 35 generals in the Pakistan Army and not one central secretary among 20. 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 memorise “I am not a Punjabi” in Bengali in case I was attacked by a mob.

In March that year I was the sub-divisional magistrate in charge of Manikganj sub-division of Dhaka district, when an all-East Pakistan protest strike was called. The strike literally paralysed all administration and movement. There was no communication between headquarters in Dhaka and myself except through sporadic telegraph messages. Rumours 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 the 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, the 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.

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 popularised. If the vast majority of Bengalis were in favour 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 three million lives were lost.

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 guerilla warfare in the rainsodden lowlands and deltas of Bengal,” I replied. He looked sombre.

(To be concluded in the December 27th edition)

Published in The Express Tribune, December 26th, 2017.

1971 field notes: lessons for Pakistan — Part II
By Akbar Ahmed Published: December 27, 2017



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.


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 brutalise a civilian population to solve political problems is not only inhumane, it will almost certainly backfire.

Second, it is crucial that the central government treats its minorities and outlying provinces with honour 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 recognised 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.”

(Concluded)

Published in The Express Tribune, December 27th, 2017.
 

Dalit

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When are the Zionists going to learn the lesson that they have no real friends? LOL Israel got backstabbed by India.
 

Indus Pakistan

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“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 guerilla warfare in the rainsodden lowlands and deltas of Bengal,” I replied. He looked sombre.
Here is some interesting facts that should take the air out of your Indian friends -

  • Bangla is about 1,200 miles from Pakistan mainland. Vietnam is only 900 miles from Bangla. Meaning Bangla is closer to Vietnam then mainland Pakistan. In addition Bangla and Vietnam share similar climate and geography - damp, tropical delta jungles.




  • As the writer mentions Pakistan had only 3 divisions posted there to hold down 70 million angry Banglas and fight your braves - the Indians who were at this time scheming to attack with advantages as high as 15:1 in soldiers. Assuming each div was about 15k men that tallies to 45k combat troops. Yet your braves [Indian] peddle the 95k figure. Which of course includes regular combat troops, police, West Pakistani civilian officials like the writer, his wife [although he managed to ship her out] and any kids.

  • In 1971 while our boys [one member of my family were serving in PA in Bangla] were going around wasting "Bingos" in the jungles US Marines just around the corner were wasting piles of "Gooks" while allegedly helping to save them from commies. Back in America the *nig*gas* were fighting to get civil rights in a country which they had helped to build. I guess rampent racism was everywhere with Gooks, Bingos, Nigggas getting "bad".

  • Finally both Washington and Islamabad failed to see the direction the wind was blowing. Result despite 2.7 million Americans serving in Vietnam, 58,000 killed, millions dead it all came to this. The last US helicopter pulling out the remaning desperate American soldiers and officials out of Hanoi, Vietnam and saving them from the "Gooks".





  • This is where the Bangla/Vietnam analogy runs out. US was superpower. Pakistan was not. It did not have the planes, ships and helicopters to take it's men out. We had to leave our men behind. There was no way back other then swom 2,500 miles back home.

  • So there goes my tale of Bingos, Banglas, Gooks and Ni*ggas.
 

Maarkhoor

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sir i dnt think it was blessing.. it was a disaster in my view
It is your personal opinion and I respect that now listen me...they (Bangladeshi people) connected with each other not by religion but by language and race....they are living 1500 kms away....there are no way to defend Bangladesh from that far away....
There are 1000 x 1000 reasons for me they are separated for good.
If they separate now believe me there would be no Pakistan but 5 micro nations....
India did the biggest blunder to remove a fear from us of loosing Bangladesh since they can do it at any time but they used their best card when we needed it most.

I will post complete thread and will tag you..why liberation of Bangladesh is blessing for us and for them.
 

Indus Pakistan

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How do you leave your men behind in your own country?
The moment the Banglas went wild it was no more our "own" country. That is a status by consent. Once that consent is drawn it is no more de fact "our" country. The only thing remaining was the legal status - de jure to catch up with facts on the ground. This is evident by the writer wanting his wife to be sent back to "Pakistan" and imploring GHQ to pull his staff out of the sea of annoyed Banglas. As he himself says "the game was up".
 

Peshwa

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  • As the writer mentions Pakistan had only 3 divisions posted there to hold down 70 million angry Banglas and fight your braves - the Indians who were at this time scheming to attack with advantages as high as 15:1 in soldiers. Assuming each div was about 15k men that tallies to 45k combat troops. Yet your braves [Indian] peddle the 95k figure. Which of course includes regular combat troops, police, West Pakistani civilian officials like the writer, his wife [although he managed to ship her out] and any kids
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.
The 100K Troops is being quoted by the author himself, so please take this up with him.
 

Indus Pakistan

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The 100K Troops is being quoted by the author himself, so please take this up with him.
Okay it is on record that Field Marshall Maneckshaw said quite unambigously that he built up his forces [Indian Army] until they enjoyed 15:1 advantage over Pakistani forces. Do we conclude then that India sent 1.5 million men in?
 

Peshwa

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Okay it is on record that Field Marshall Maneckshaw said quite unambigously that he built up his forces [Indian Army] until they enjoyed 15:1 advantage over Pakistani forces. Do we conclude then that India sent 1.5 million men in?
Ever considered the fact that the 15:1 ratio was an advantage in CERTAIN sectors and phases of war?

Unless you believe that every battle or skirmish that was fought was done so with a 15:1 advantage? A mammoth feat for an India that is not exactly known for its logistics and infrastructure skills.

Another folly of your example is the fact that Indian troops were delployed on both fronts, east and west where hostilities were ongoing. So the 600K odd troops of India that fought were not all concentrated on the eastern side. What you’re doing is assuming that the entire force was focused on the east. So that ratio is unbelievable to begin with.
Secondly, Pakistan was utilizing troops in much larger numbers as well if you take into account the forces in both sectors, while you only take into account the ones that surrendered to make the claim for your ratio. You have not included the dead, the wounded etc.
You need to clarify the 15:1 ratio with some evidence of your own.

Either way, can you post the excerpt from the field marshals comments that speak of this ratio and context?
 
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Indus Pakistan

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Ever considered the fact that the 15:1 ratio was an advantage in CERTAIN sectors and phases of war?
No, don't be smart. FM Maneckshaw said "I did not attack until I enjoyed 15:1 advantage". He did not say it was specific to a sector but as a general referance to Eastern Command, PA. And the "phase" does not apply because when the war started Pakistan was not really in a position to send over major forces as it lacked the logistical ability.

And if you doubt me please refer to the original interview of FM Maneckshaw by Karan Thapar. The FM was asked by Thapar that "PA was incompetent" to which replied "no they fought valiantly but they had no chance. They were over 1,000 miles from their home bases, I had eight months to build up my forces and enjoyed 15:1 advantage and they had no chance".

If you doubt me please watch the interview on YT.
 

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