Truths & Myths of 1971

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How Pakistan Got Divided

by Rao Farman Ali Khan;

Oxford University Press,

Karachi, 298 pages; Rs. 1150.

The truths about the break up of Pakistan in 1971 are still shrouded in myths. Hasan Zaheer’s book The Separation of East Pakistan was a partisan account. One of the best accounts so far is by R. Sison and Leo Rose War and Secession: Pakistan, India and the Creation of Bangladesh (1990). Recently a retired member of India’s Foreign Service wrote an article for a scholarly periodical based on privileged access to the archives. Major General (Retd.) Rao Farman Ali was posted to Dhaka in 1967 and was Advisor on Civil-Political Relations to successive Governors. He was a prisoner of war in India until 1974. Fully exonerated by the Hamoodur Reham Commission, he retired from the army in 1976 and served as Federal Minister for Petroleum and Natural Resources (1981-83, 1983) under Zia-ul-Haq. His narrative departs significantly from the conventional view but bears imprints of a soldier’s limitations on matters political.

He writes: “The solution was to accept Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his party as the majority party of Pakistan. Unfortunately, we in West Pakistan persistently stated that there were two majority parties in the country. The fact is, we did attempt some political action in East Pakistan, but it was small and insignificant, and therefore ineffective. In fact, some attempts were counterproductive. For example: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was captured to facilitate a political solution through discussions with the West Pakistani leadership. Instead of negotiations, President Yahya Khan and his advisors sent him to jail and filed a case of treason against him, later handing him a death sentence. All the while, Sheikh Mujibir Rahman had been telling his lawyer, Brohi, that a political solution was possible.” Brohi left no memoir behind.

His appraisal of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s aims is contradictory. “It is without hesitation that I say the defeat was a result of Pakistan’s national political leadership’s ineptitude, personal ego, and pursuit of personal gains. After the elections, both Mujib and Bhutto displayed a complete lack of political wisdom and focused solely on the goal of achieving power. They were fixated on achieving their own personal objective over that of the nation. Since there could not be two prime ministers in one country, by creating two countries, both became prime minister. The Pakistan Army suffered a military defeat because 80 per cent of East Pakistanis had become its enemy and allied with India.

… Even at the very end of the conflict, however, a ceasefire could have been obtained from the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) if conciliatory resolution, coupled with a political solution, had been accepted. But a military defeat was what the political leadership of West Pakistan desired.”

It is hardly fair to bracket Mujib with Bhutto. Mujib was justified in aspiring to be Prime Minister of Pakistan. Bhutto was not justified in denying him that right. His formula “idhar hum udhar tum” (we here, you there) spelt a break up. The statesmanlike course for both sides would have been to propose a Grand Coalition like the one in former Western Germany between the SPD and the CDU.

The last line in the quote confirms the view expressed in this writer’s analysis of the Polish Resolution in Criterion querterly (Volume 7 Number 2, April/June 2012) that Bhutto “desired” the break up of his country so that he could rule in its Western part. As for Mujib, the evidence cited by the former Indian diplomat reveals that he was in touch with Indian intelligence agencies well before the 1970 elections. But he was not India’s agent or stooge. He was keeping an option open. In March 1971 he was prepared to settle for a confederation with executive powers for the centre.

The author claims: “I was trying to get Mujib to become the Prime Minister of Pakistan (after his election victory) and wanted the Bengalis to get their rights. I also helped in getting Bengali political leaders freed (Ata ur Rahman, Jadu Mian, Zahoor ul Islam) and asked for inquiries into unlawful Bengali killings (Saeed Hasan). The senior officers in West Pakistan considered me a pro-Bengali officer.” In his view a settlement was possible at the U.N. Security Council even in December 1971 – the Polish Resolution. Bhutto wrecked it. Had he not, instead of a surrender there would have been an orderly transfer of power from Islamabad to Dacca; not a single POW or inch of territory would have gone to India; and, there would have been no Simla Agreement. Furthermore, Pakistan would have gained immense goodwill in Moscow.

“Surrender is the most ignominious and degrading outcome of any war. We should have avoided it at all costs. The Governor of East Pakistan and I tried for a ceasefire but were not successful as all attempts were subverted by people who wanted the army defeated in East Pakistan so they could acquire power in West Pakistan.”

An important turning point was the Agartala Conspiracy Case. “The Agartala Case did more harm to the integrity of Pakistan than anything else. The case was framed in the light of a conspiracy ‘unearthed’. The main charge in this case against the accused was that they had planned to remove East Pakistan from Rawalpindi’s control through violent means; with arms, ammunition, and other material help provided by India. The Intelligence agencies, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Intelligence Bureau (IB), had alleged that a certain number of Bengali personnel from all three Services of the armed forces had coordinated with the Indians and, with the active support of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and a few other politicians had hatched a conspiracy to undo Pakistan. Several meetings with the Indians had taken place in the bordering Indian town of Agartala. The case was not handled well, and several mistakes were made. …

“I refer to an open letter written by Kohinoor Hossain, the late Lieutenant Commander Moazzem Hossain’s wife, one of the accused in the Agartala Conspiracy case. This letter took the form of an ‘in memoriam to her husband’ published in an issue of the daily Purbadesh of Dacca, dated 26 March 1972. I distinctly remember some of the lines, which I quote verbatim here, after translation from Bangla:

‘Dearest husband,

[…] You are no longer with me. I remember your contribution towards the cause of ‘Independent Bangladesh’. I remember how you came to Dacca from Karachi on leave under a pseudonym, met P.N. Ojha, first Secretary of the Indian Embassy, at the border at Agartala along with other Indian and Bangladeshi officers. You negotiated with Indian authorities for arms and other kinds of help. […]’

Readers in the Indian subcontinent may recall that P.N. Ojha was none other than the man who the Government of Pakistan had expelled on charges of ‘espionage and subversive activities’. There is no doubt that the Indians had all along been working towards the separation of East Pakistan, and they took full advantage of the situation that resulted from East Pakistan’s demand for independence.”

The author records an important talk with Mujib. “I rang up Mujib and asked him whether I could come over to see him. Despite the time (late in the night), he readily agreed. … I started the conversation without any preliminaries or pleasantries. I asked him if Pakistan could be saved. My question reveals the seriousness of the situation and the agony in which we all were in East Pakistan. He replied in the affirmative, saying, ‘It can be saved if somebody listens to us. So many people are being killed by the army. They listen to Bhutto. They do not listen to me. Even now, even after all this, we are willing to discuss.’

“Before he could elaborate, I spotted a shadow on the wall. I told him that somebody was eavesdropping. He got up saying there cannot be anybody. However, upon seeing the person, I heard him invite him in. It was Tajuddin, the die-hard, pro-India, Awami Leaguer. He hated West Pakistan and perhaps Pakistan itself. Mujib recounted our conversation to Tajuddin who shared the same opinion as Mujib. He said, ‘Yes, it could be but under a new formula. We cannot, after all this butchery, sit with Bhutto under the same roof. He is responsible for all this. Let the assembly be divided into two houses, one for East and the other for West Pakistan. Each assembly should write the constitution for its own Wing. Then the two assemblies should meet to write a constitution for Pakistan’. When I said that they would have to sit with Bhutto, they responded with: ‘but that will be as equals’. What they were suggesting was a formula for a confederation. I told them this was not a solution to save Pakistan. However, I promised to convey their thoughts to the President when I met him, which I did. In his demands Sheikh Mujib had the support of almost all the prominent leaders of the province.”

This was natural for a soldier; politically that was the only way to save a united Pakistan. Read this: “I rang up Mujib on 19 March (four days before the crack-down) to get some information from him. He told me that they had arrived at an agreement and the President would issue a proclamation, which would contain the outline of arrangements for the transfer of power. He also stated that he was to be Prime Minister with five ministers each from West and East Pakistan. I asked whether he was satisfied with the arrangement. He said yes and asked for prayers for his success. It was essential that this agreement be approved by Bhutto. … Bhutto objected to the agreement; he termed it a ‘massive betrayal of West Pakistan’. He proposed that the National Assembly session be called to approve the agreement or that he be allowed to have further discussions with Mujib. But Awami League leaders adamantly opposed further protracted negotiations and were pressurizing Mujib to declare independence.” Mujib, like many leaders in such situations, had to reckon with hardliners.

The author describes graphically General A.A.K. Niazi’s disgraceful conduct before, during and after the surrender. Particularly useful is his account of the procedure adopted by the Homoodur Rahman Commission.

A definitive history of that period remains to be written. But no historian or student can afford to ignore this informative book.