Fall Of Dhaka And Pakistan’s Selective Amnesia
After 49 years, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis hold almost diametrically opposite views about the 1971 events. Few outside Pakistan refer to its defeat as the fall of Dhaka as Pakistanis call it. It is widely recognised as the day on which Bangladesh was created and is commemorated as victory day on which Lieutenant-General A A K Niazi of Pakistan army, then martial law administrator of East Pakistan, surrendered to Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Aurora, Joint Commander of Indian and Bangladeshi Forces.
Similarly, Bangladesh commemorates 26 March as the day of its declaration of independence from Pakistan by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. It was around the early morning of 26 March 1971 that Pakistan army launched a military operation unleashing a chain of events that led to the breakup of Pakistan. It was only revealed years later that Yahya’s government had decided to launch a military operation on 22 February 1971, a month before the talks between Yahya and Mujib broke down.
Many Pakistanis see the creation of Bangladesh a result of India’s armed intervention and/or conspiracy. but that is only one part of the story. From the very beginning of the military operation in March 1971, the army high command treated East Pakistan as an enemy territory. Lt. Gen Niazi told his subordinates on the very first day of taking command in April 1971: “what have I been hearing about shortage of rations? Are not there any cows and goats in this country? This is enemy territory. Get what you want. This is what we used to do in Burma.”
The political history of the two wings of united Pakistan has been the subject of both popular and scholarly debates. The roots of the breakup go back to the early days of independent Pakistan even when its founders were alive but the fate of a united Pakistan was sealed when a brutal army operation took the conflict to a point of no return, killing any chances of a negotiated settlement.
In this context, it is important to recall that between 1st of March to the 3rd of March 1971, the Awami League had taken complete control of East Pakistan, paralysing the authority of the federal government. During this period, large scale violence was recorded against members of the non-Bengali minority. However, as the Hamoodur Rehman commission report acknowledged, those facts can’t be used to justify “atrocities or other crimes alleged to have been committed by the Pakistani Army during its operations in East Pakistan”. According to the commission’s report: “damage done during those early days of the military action could never be repaired, and earned for the military leaders names such as “Changez Khan” and “Butcher of East Pakistan”. Estimates of the human toll of what became internationally known as the Pakistani Army’s genocide in Bangladesh range from 300,000 to 3 million fatalities.
Millions of Bengalis fled East Pakistan to neighbouring India to save their lives. According to a United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) document, with an “an estimated 10 million people leaving what was then East Pakistan for India between April and December 1971, this became the largest single displacement of refugees in the second half of the century.”
On 31 March 1971, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi obtained a unanimous resolution of the Indian Parliament expressing ‘profound sympathy and solidarity with the people of East Bengal in their struggle for a democratic way of life’; it also asserted that ‘their struggle and sacrifices will receive the wholehearted sympathy and support of the people of India’.
On 3 April 1971, the (former) Soviet Union became involved for the first time when President Podgorny expressed concern at the ‘arrest and persecution of Mujibur Rahman and other political leaders “who had obtained such an overwhelming majority”.
On 16 April 1971, he American Ambassador to India, Kenneth Keating, was reported as saying the situation was of concern to the world, and should not be treated as an ‘internal affair’ of Pakistan.
In June 1971, the British government announced the suspension of all aid to Pakistan till Pakistan took concrete steps to solve the problem. The World Bank Consortium at its meeting of 21 June 1971 in Paris also decided to postpone aid to Pakistan.
Around the summer of 1971, the army’s high command seemed unconcerned about international repercussions. It was satisfied that the Mukti Bahini had been pushed out of most parts of East Pakistan except a few small pockets in difficult areas north of Raj Shahi. However, the Mukti Bahini had not been fully defeated, having withdrawn in part to India to regroup and receive training and weapons.
India was preparing for the war and fearing American or Chinese intervention on behalf of Pakistan should a war break out, signed a “friendship” treaty with the Soviet Union in August 1971. The treaty’s key part was that the Soviet Union would construe an attack on India as an attack on the Soviet Union.
However, the military junta headed by Yahya Khan acted with astounding arrogance and in complete disregard of Pakistan’s growing international isolation. Mohammed Yunus (a Pakistan foreign office officer in 1971) described in his book “Bhutto and the Breakup of Pakistan” how General Yahya Khan arrogantly snubbed, in his drunken state, China’s Mao Zedong’s invitation to meet during the 1971 war. Yahya antagonised Shah of Iran too and lost a rare chance to achieve a political settlement by walking out on Russian president when he met him in Iran during a meeting arranged by the Shah. Yahya’s conduct left Pakistan so isolated that even the Chinese refused to supply aircraft needed on East Pakistan, according to Yunus.
By November 1971, the Yahya’s regime seemed to have realized the extent of its blunders but it was too late. Yahya requested Bhutto to lead a high-level military mission – which included the Air Force Commander-in-Chief, Rahim Khan, and the Army Chief of the General Staff, Gul Hassan Khan – to visit China to discuss the grim situation. Bhutto was in China for three days from November 5 1971 although he held no official position at that time.
Henry Kissinger revealed in a 2016 interview that in November 1971, Pakistani president (Yahya) had agreed with Nixon to grant independence (to Bangladesh) the following March of 1972. Meanwhile, Indira Gandhi had prepared her ground internationally and on 22 November, Indian infantry supported by tanks advanced on several fronts in East Pakistan by crossing the borders.
At around 6 am on 3 December 1971, the Pakistan Air Force launched air raids, from the West Wing, on eleven Indian airbases, which led to full-scale war which was to last just 13 days. On 14 December 1971 President Yahya Khan sent Signal No. G-0013 to the Governor of East Pakistan and General Niazi as follows:
” you have fought a heroic battle against overwhelming odd(.) the nation is proud of you and the world full of admiration(.) I have done all that is humanly possible to find an acceptable solution to the problem(.) you have now reached a stage where further resistance is no longer HUMANLY possible nor will it serve any useful purpose(.) you should now take all necessary MEASURES TO STOP THE FIGHTING AND PRESERVE the lives of all armed forces.” The war was practically over within 11 days. Pakistani army proved no match for the Indian army which had the overwhelming support of the people of Bangladesh.
Pakistan has chosen to remember only selected parts of 1971 events leading up to its defeat. However, 16 December is commemorated as victory day in Bangladesh.
Yousuf Nazar is a former investment manager. He has published several articles on Pakistan’s politics and economy. He is the author of a book, “Balkanisation and Political Economy of Pakistan.”