YOU are deterred from reading the book when you realise it is about the 1971 war. The ignominy of the defeat and the way we surrendered will live in the Pakistani nation’s collective memory for generations the way the French are haunted by 1871 and 1940. The real failure was, however, on the western front. With a sizable section of the army sent to East Pakistan, where it never had a chance, the army in West Pakistan lost the capability to go over to the offensive and make gains that would have made the difference. December 16 came and East Pakistan was lost after a shameful surrender.
Every defeat need not be shameful. Let’s recall the way the Germans lost but fought the two wars; let’s not forget Ottoman tenacity for four years, including the defeat inflicted on the Allies at Kut and Gallipoli, and the way Japan chased the enemy all the way from Singapore to India’s border, accepting defeat only after the Allies A-bombed it. Our army had no grand strategy for either of the two ‘wings’. The result was one of the worst defeats of a Muslim army.
As Habib Ahmed in The Battle of Hussainiwala and Qaiser-i-Hind says, “an offensive by the Pakistan Army from West Pakistan […] could have altered the course of history. Besides militarily relieving East Pakistan, it also, in all probability, would have enabled us to capture sizeable strategic areas on the periphery of the vast Indian territory to seal off the Indian land routes to Kashmir. Thereafter, Pakistan would only have been required to sustain a hastily planned Indian counter-offensive. This opportunity, most horrendously, was lost .”
Ahmed’s frustration was all the greater because the unit under his command, 41st Baloch (part of 106th brigade), launched a tactically superb offensive to capture the Qaiser-i-Hind fortress and the perimeter in the Hussainiwala sector. As he tells us, he himself had raised the 41st Baloch regiment as war with India appeared on the horizon, and led it to victory after what Brigadier Mumtaz Khan, commander 106th brigade, called “gallant action” showing “exemplary leadership” to earn a well-deserved Sitara-i-Jurat. Many other officers and men of 41st Baloch also won awards for acts of bravery and courage which made the Indian army fall back.
The smallness of the locale, and the clashes at company and platoon levels shouldn’t serve to dilute the ferocity of the battles. Both sides used heavy artillery and tanks (and the Indian side, the air force), and there were fierce hand-to-hand combats, with both sides showing courage and tenacity. The Indian machine-gun on the top floor of the Qaiser-i-Hind citadel kept firing until a Pakistani tank fire silenced it.
The Indian version of the battle admits defeat as given in The Liberation Times and quoted in the book: “Pakistan troops attacked the (Hussainiwala) enclave at last light on 3rd December and had overwhelmed the Indian troops [...] The fighting raged [...] till the morning of the 4th, when some troops were still holding out from the last floor of the Kaiser-i-Hind memorial. As the position became precarious, the remaining troops were ordered to withdraw from the enclave on the night of December 4th. Our losses were 99 killed and missing.” However, for the 41st Baloch regiment, the joy of a hard-won victory disappeared when the news of the ceasefire on Dec 17 struck them like lightning. Officers and men, says the book, “went berserk”. The book has some very harsh words for Yahya Khan and his cronies.
Unlike many Pakistani war books which tend to belittle the fighting quality of the opposing forces, and in that process belittle their own soldiers’ achievement, Ahmed pays tributes to Indian soldiers where due. Inter-regimental rivalry can be read between the lines, “moistened eyes” after two days of battle appear odd, and the index omits Major General Malik Abdul Majid. One wishes casualties were recorded for history instead of being couched in religious idiom. On the whole, the book is a valuable contribution to the modest Pakistani literature on the 1971 war.
The writer is Dawn’s Readers’ Editor
The Battle of Hussainiwala and Qaiser-i-Hind: The 1971 War
By Lieutenant Colonel (Retd) Habib Ahmed
Oxford University Press, Karachi