1971 Debacle

Fall of East Pakistan Remembered

Those punitive months of 1971 were both gloomy and demoralizing. Outnumbered, faced with paucity of resources and series of failures through enemy actions, supported by the insurgents, defeat appeared imminent. There were though some brilliant tactical battles fought by our officers and soldiers alike acclaimed by even Indians in their later war accounts. Battles like 'Behrab Bridge', 'Balunia Bulge' and many others will go down in annals of history as classical examples of courage and bravery in the face of materially and numerically superior enemy. It was 16th Day of December, Second Lieutenant Shafaat in the forward assembly area of Army's strike division on western border, was shocked at hearing on radio, the sad news of the fall of Dhaka. Commissioned just a month earlier, his nascent military experience could not digest this shocking defeat and the manner in which the surrender document was signed. His thoughts went to his coursemates posted to units in earstwhile East Pakistan, their plight and the state of their families. He fondly recalled happy faces of coursemates at passing out on November 14, 1971 and the comradeship and association they had mutually developed during exacting training schedule of Pakistan Military Academy. As a student of military history he had studied Japanese practice of Hara-Kiri during Second World War in that instead of subjugation, they opted to commit suicide missions as an honourable way out. Here, an icon figure of Lt Gen 'Tiger' Niazi, Commander Eastern Command, symbol of pride for thousands of soldiers who had fought under him in extremely adverse environments, was smiling and sharing jokes while signing the surrender document to Lt Gen Arora of India. This was another shock to him which made the news of surrender even more painful. It was after a month of the fall of Dhaka when I was granted the leave to visit my parents at Peshawar, then a very peaceful and serene city. I had studied account of Mohammad Ghori, in that after the defeat in Battle of Tarain in 1191 A.D. by Prithviraj and his return to Afghanistan, he did not sleep on bed nor changed his clothes till he avenged his earlier defeat after one year. I was expecting same gloom and feeling of revenge by the nation but alas this turned out to be another shock when I saw life as usual with virtually no impact of the separation of East Pakistan. More than four decades have passed since Pakistan was dismembered. In retrospect it can be easily concluded that if we had accepted the verdict of the majority in 1970 Elections, the fate of Pakistan would have been different. In the first fair elections held under the auspices of Election Commission on the basis of adult franchise and population, Mujib-led Awami League had won 160 out of 162 reserved seats from East Pakistan, while Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party claimed 81 out of 138 seats from West Pakistan. Awami League had the democratic mandate to form the government. This was not the only reason of separation though! The process of alienation was definitely precipitated after cancellation of announced date of convening of newly elected Assembly at Dhaka on March 3, 1971, sequent to political formula tabled by Z. A. Bhutto of two separate Prime Ministers from majority party in each wing of Pakistan. I do not want to enter into controversy as to who can be blamed for the separation of East Pakistan as accepting mistakes is not in our psyche. Suffice it would be to reproduce the findings of Hamood-ur-Rehman Commission report, declassified by President Musharraf in December 2000, which stated that, “The defeat suffered by the armed forces was not a result of military factor alone, but had been brought about as the cumulative result of political, international, moral and military factors. The political developments that took place between 1947 and 1971, including the effects of the two martial law periods, hastened the process of political and emotional isolation of East Pakistan from West Pakistan.” In the context of above findings, it may be pertinent to analyze some of the issues manifested even today despite elapse of 43 long years. The fall of Dhaka clearly indicates that military action is no substitute to the political process. No serious effort was made in 1971 to start a political dialogue and the emerged majority party as a result of elections was denied the right to form the government. Unfortunately even now, our political system has not attained that maturity to accommodate each other and keep national interest above personal motives. Military operations can at best gain time for the political dispensation to take place. In the aftermath of East Pakistan debacle, in many a military actions initiated against separatists and terrorists, political process to win hearts and minds is generally lacking with few exceptions. Similarly judicial dispensation in penalizing culprits has also been found wanting. The level and intensity of military operations also need to be tailored according to the nature of resistance and the visualized end state. As can be discerned, use of excessive force during the military action estranged the sympathies of people of East Pakistan. To quash a rebellion by separatists would be with lesser intensity as the objective would be to force them to accept writ of the state and rejoin the national fold, opposed to countering terrorists with full force, as they have different ideology which they want to enforce. The strategy of the time that defence of East Pakistan lies in West Pakistan also proved to be misplaced in 1971 war. While we waited in our forward assembly areas to launch the offensive against 'soft under belly' of India to force them to recoil from East Pakistan, the 'bugle' was not sounded and rest is the history. Uneven allocation of resources was another major cause of the alienation of populace. East Pakistan was marginalized based on their language and efficiency. Despite edge in population which forms the basis of allocation of funds and quotas in government jobs, East Pakistan suffered discrimination. Army, though somewhat late, was the first institution to address this anomaly and allocated 50% seats for cadets ex Eastern wing in 1969 and our course, 47 PMA Long Course was the first course on which this provision was applied. Bureaucracy, mainly from West Pakistan, imbibed by false notion of being rulers, ill treated Bengalis. There was a major disparity between the two wings of Pakistan which is even evident today between Punjab and other smaller provinces. The problem is further aggravated due to the limited capacity of provinces other than Punjab to even utilize the allocated resources and funds. The main cause of disenchantment of people even today is poor governance and non existence of local bodies at grassroots levels. The Constitution of 1973 provides for regular convening of meetings of Council of Common Interest. However, this forum has hardly been given any importance, much less convening its regular meetings to address genuine concerns of smaller provinces. Education forms the foundation of nurturing a society and building nationhood. In East Pakistan, entire education system since 1947 Independence was dominated by Hindus, who tailored syllabus according to their religious moorings casting Muslims in evil fabric. Seeds were sown on the pretext of unjust division of India on the basis of religion while logically it should have been a 'Greater Bengal'. Anti Pakistan propaganda by the Hindu teachers in East Pakistani schools, colleges and universities as well as by Indian sponsored media and politicians, constituted a major factor in building momentum for the rebellion. Indian Government and RAW both overtly and covertly financed and supported the movement for separation. Our education system even today suffers from lack of resources and a viable long term vision. In present days, Indians are virtually dominating all global institutions and organizations due to earlier tangible investments in fields of education. In early 1960s, Pundit Nehru, then Prime Minister of India, opened doors to foreign education and established institutes of higher learnings in medical sciences, economics, and managements etc. which has enabled Indian system to benefit and provide quality education. Pakistan on the other hand spends only 2.5 % of its GDP on education, which is the lowest in the entire region. In fact current Education Budget has been reduced from last year. A major initiative to provide quality education to the people of Pakistan was instituted in 2006 when nine 'Science and Technology' universities from First World countries were invited to open campuses and provide faculty members in various parts of Pakistan. The degrees to be awarded by these would have been of parent university, thereby providing local students modern education at doorstep and access to global job markets. This initiative was unfortunately shelved by the PPP Government when they came to power in 2008. Similarly, our syllabus and methods of teachings are outdated, devoid of any vision and encourages rote learning while curbing inquisitiveness. There is no system of teachers' training and emoluments available to teaching faculty are meagre, discouraging adoption of this profession. Unless we as a nation realize the value of education and knowledge (not merely degrees), our orientation and moorings would remain weak. The fissiparous tendencies in today's Pakistan are as visible as they were in East Pakistan. The ethnic, religious and linguistic segmentation is still there as we have not emerged as a united nation; a nation beyond petty differences. What is absent in our fabric is respect for diversity and the understanding that diversity is actually strength of any nation. It should not matter if one is Shia, Sunni, Ahmadi, Hindu or Parsi, so long as they are Pakistani, is all that matters. In my military career, I have never once seen prejudices in the army against other religion, creed or colour. I vividly remember my senior in regiment during 1971 War, Captain John, who was a Christian but was as patriotic as any one of us while fighting the Indians. He used to join us at 'Iftar' parties and on the occasion of Eid festivity. I wish other institutions and strata of our society also emulate this lack of discrimination and cohesiveness, akin to the armed forces. Some ill-informed and overly misguided person try to feed the false narrative that Pakistan was created to become the citadel of Islam and exists for Muslims inhabitance alone. Can we learn from the past and create a different perspective? It is still not too late to realize that our identities and ethnicities actually bond us together. Another lesson worth learning from the separation of East Pakistan is that religion alone cannot be the sole binding force for a nation state. It has to be complemented by common aspirations, objectives and interests. Pakistan was created as an intellectual and political emergence from the minds and efforts of progressive and enlightened Muslims. It was created as a Muslim country that was to eschew the religious communalism that the Muslims of India faced and evolved a separate state and society based on progressive understanding of Islam. East Pakistan breaking away rendered the early notion of Pakistan Ideology obsolete and even detrimental. Bengalis have always been in the forefront of struggle for Pakistan and Muslim League was formed at Dhaka in 1906. Despite geographical separation, they have been most patriotic and participated in wars against arch adversary India. Then why the majority chose to separate? My first Company Commander when I joined unit during war was a Bengali officer, Major Mohsin (later rose to be a Major General in Bangladesh Army), who even in those days of the uprising in East Pakistan, shared our patriotism and yearning to fight Indians. The beginning of this process commenced in early years of independence when Bengalis were treated with discrimination, un-even distribution of resources, jobs, industries etc. They perceived that state of Pakistan was using religion to erode their culture. India played a decisive role in building negative perceptions and orchestrating the movement, with international support, for separation of East Pakistan. This vast and highly controversial subject warrants a continuous debate and reappraisal as the aftershocks reverberate even today. To conclude, the most important message emerging from the fall of Dhaka is that we accept our mistakes in earnest, learn from them and not repeat them, as failure is no more an option.

The writer has been Commander Lahore Corps and Military Secretary to the President. He is also author of 'Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan' (published 1983).

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