Revisiting 1971 tragedy

Dawn, March 31, 2005
'Had Yahya heeded sane advice'
By Raja Tridiv Roy


On December 16, 1971, East Pakistan's Commander Lt. Gen. A.A.K. "Tiger" Niazi surrendered to an overwhelmingly larger invading Indian force under Lt. Gen. Jagjit Singh Arora. Pakistan was sundered. East Pakistan became Bangladesh. Pakistani forces had been concentrating at various points along the border and were ready to give the Indians a good fight.

However, the Indian army bypassed these pockets of concentrations and seeped through the extensive and porous 2,500 mile (4,000 km) border between East Pakistan and India.

Some strategists are of the view that instead of dispersing our troops so far away from the capital, we should have concentrated on the defence of Dhaka. This stratagem would have given us more time and permitted Pakistan at the United Nations to bring about a cease fire and withdrawal of Indian forces across the international border.

Another disingenuous view is that the Polish resolution at the UN should have been accepted by Pakistan and it would have saved the country from being dismembered.

In early March this year Agha Shahi, our permanent representative at New York then (1971), openly stated in an interview on a private TV channel that the resolution might have delayed matters by a few days but would not have changed the political outcome.

In the General Assembly, 204 countries, actually 205, (one representative was not familiar with the voting procedure) had voted for the integrity (and not dismemberment) of Pakistan.

However, the General Assembly resolutions have moral value but are not militarily or politically enforceable. The former USSR (which had a veto in the Security Council) and India had concluded a mutual defence treaty a few months earlier. They had a common objective: the break-up of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh.

President Yahya Khan should have viewed this treaty as ominous. However, he seems to have failed to take effective measures to counter or neutralize its portent and relied more on international norms about the inviolability of state sovereignty and territorial integrity.

His public response was mere bluster. The much trumpeted Chinese attack on India in support of Pakistan remained a mirage, a fevered mind's wishful thought. China could help with arms but not with armed intervention. And a single American warship's cruise to the Bay of Bengal could hardly be interpreted as a deterrent to the massive Indian invasion.

The US advised Gen Yahya Khan from time to time to pursue the path of negotiated peace but he could not or would not relent. The Nixon administration had a soft corner for Pakistan and Yahya but the politicians and the American people at large were for the oppressed Bengalis, the much publicized victims of ravaging West Pakistan forces.

In February 1971 there was talk of Sheikh Mujib's forming two committees for drafting Pakistan's future constitution - one for East and another for West Pakistan. And if the Awami League with its majority had passed a resolution declaring East Pakistan a sovereign independent Bangladesh, what then? In such an event, if after efforts at persuasion by politicians as well as international friends the Awami League would prove adamant? Even in such an event other options could perhaps have been sought rather than the pre-emptive military occupation of March 25, 1971.

President Yahya's stance was: 'Political dialogue has failed. Mujib has defied the central government and declared a civil war. It is my duty to save the country so I must militarily occupy East Pakistan.'

Consequently, from early March he started sending troops to Dhaka via Colombo; India had banned over flights after a red herring airplane hijacking drama enacted at the Lahore airport.

Bhutto's stance was: East Pakistan, because of its simple majority in parliament, cannot impose its six point-based constitution on Pakistan because the country was a federal republic and the western provinces also had to have their say in the future constitution.

Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi posed as the economically burdened protector of the Bengalis. Her grievance was: Pakistan was not taking back the millions of its persecuted citizens who had fled for their lives and taken shelter in India.

She had been housing and feeding them for months on end. They did not want to go back for fear of their honour and of their lives. Therefore all Pakistani military must return to West Pakistan first and Mujib must be allowed to return from incarceration in West Pakistan and to form his civilian government without West Pakistan pressure.

If he had permitted the first session of the elected assembly to meet on March 3, 1971, could President Yahya have averted the dismemberment of Pakistan? Each of the protagonists envisioned a solution that was a chimera to the other two or at best a will-o-the-wisp.

Each wanted his pound of flesh but there was no debtor. Should Yahya have allowed the National (Constituent) Assembly to convene on March 3 as scheduled? If then two constitutional committees brought forward two drafts, one for East and one for West Pakistan - what then? Would it be one Pakistan? A number of possibilities with consequent actions can be envisaged ex post facto but all in the realm of conjecture.

According to Yahya's Legal Framework Order, the constitution had to be produced for the President's authentication within 120 days from the first sitting of the National Assembly. The question whether a simple or a two-thirds majority was required was left hanging in the air.

For this reason PPP Chairman Bhutto had asked for relaxation of the 120-day deadline but his demand received a stony silence from Yahya as well as Mujib. Despite a series of parleys, there was no agreement between Yahya, Mujib and Bhutto. Somewhere along the line in March 1971, President Yahya reinforced his apparent earlier inclination into a firm decision for military action in East Pakistan.

The governor of East Pakistan then was Admiral Ahsan. In August 1947 Viscount Montgomery reportedly said to Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah on installing him as the Governor General of Pakistan - "You are lucky to have achieved Pakistan but luckier in inheriting Ahsan" (his naval aide-de-camp). Governor Ahsan felt the impasse, if such a mild word would convey the approaching cataclysm in March, advised President Yahya Khan against attempting military solution.

His view: only a negotiated political solution was the answer. When his advice was ignored, he resigned and returned to West Pakistan. The military commander Sahabzada Yaqub Khan also advised against deployment of troops against the civilian Bengalis. He was relieved of his command. He wished to leave Dhaka immediately but was asked to stay on for a few more days for the arrival of his successor Lt. Gen. Tikka Khan.

Notwithstanding all sane advises to the contrary, military action did take place. By the middle of May 1971 the rebellion had more or less been crushed and the army had taken physical control of East Pakistan. Could a series of effective measures taken then have averted the loss of East Pakistan?

By the autumn of 1971 four factors weighed heavily against President Yahya. Firstly, the Bengalis had been totally alienated; secondly, Indira Gandhi (with a superpower backing her) was determined to create Bangladesh; thirdly, world opinion supported independence for East Pakistan; and fourthly, Pakistan could not muster sufficient military support from its allies to take on and overcome the impending Indian invasion.

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