CERTAIN events in a nation’s history (however traumatic) need to be retrieved from the cupboard of memory. One such occasion occurred 50 years ago, when, following the surrender at Dhaka on Dec 16, 1971, 93,000 Pakistanis were herded into trains and transported across India to over a dozen jails and 50 detention camps.
It took Indian Railways three weeks to carry 79,676 Pakistani combatants deemed Prisoners of War and 13,324 non-combatant Civilians under Protective Custody to their destinations. The International Red Cross knew the difference. Treatment of the POWs was governed by the Geneva Convention; the CUPCs were left to the mercy of Mrs Indira Gandhi.
Some seriously injured prisoners were repatriated. The remainder spent up to 28 months in conditions of varying discomfort. During their incarceration, POWs received 3,491 calories per head and CUPCs 3,032. The cruelty lay in the detail. A POW was given 200 millilitres of fresh milk, 80 grammes of sugar, and 90 g of cooking oil. A CUPC had to make do with 26 ml of milk, 36 g of sugar and 35 g of oil. On Eid, each was given Rs1 per head, and on Muharram Shias 25 paisas. And two matchboxes a week amongst 45 men. This grudging hospitality cost the Indian government Rs36.37 crores.
Finally, on Aug 30, 1973, the Indian and Pakistani governments signed an agreement regarding repatriation. It was completed by April 1974. Lt-Gen A.A.K. Niazi, the first soldier to surrender, following the maxim ‘first in, last out’, opted to be the last POW to be repatriated.
It took years for the POWs or CUPCs to talk about their experiences.
It took years for the POWs or CUPCs to talk about their experiences during captivity. Some, like those who flung their POW uniforms branded PXW out the train window before they reached Wagah border, did so out of shame. Others needed time and privacy to rinse their guilt.
Three memoirs — all by military personnel — provide insights into this painful period. The most recent, certainly the most disingenuous of them was Lt-Gen Niazi’s self-exoneration published under the title The Betrayal of East Pakistan (1998).The book failed to restore his reputation nor erase the devastating indictment in the Hamoodur Rahman Commission report that castigated him for “acquiring a notorious reputation for sexual immorality and indulgence in the smuggling of Pan from East to West Pakistan”.
The second book was by Gen Niazi’s adviser Maj-Gen Rao Farman Ali. It appeared in 1992 under the title How Pakistan Got Divided. Farman Ali covered an incarceration that lasted “two years and four months” in less than 12 sparse pages. Unlike many less fortunate repatriates, he landed on his feet. He became managing director Fauji Foundation (1974-84) and later a petroleum minister and national security adviser to Gen Ziaul Haq.
The third more authentic account of his imprisonment as a POW came from the pen of Brig Siddiq Salik (then a lieutenant-colonel). He smuggled the notes for it in the bottom of a clay pot. His book Hamah Yaran Dozakh (1974) was translated into English as The Wounded Pride (1984).
I met Col Sadik on July 18, 1977. I had been asked to edit his book Witness to Surrender. He received me in Prime Minister House where he functioned as PRO to Gen Ziaul Haq (as he had been to Gen Niazi in East Pakistan). Zia had removed prime minister Z.A. Bhutto only a fortnight earlier.
Rereading The Wounded Pride recently made one relive Salik’s harrowing experiences, first in brutal solitary confinement and then during his soul-damaging imprisonment in Agra jail, until his repatriation in October 1973. Each page carries the scars he bore within.
With a novelist’s sensitivity, Salik recalled: “It was not the overwhelming presence of the enemy troops which disquieted us. Rather it was the weight of defeat and surrender which depressed us.” He chafed at the gratuitous humiliation of 2,500 Pakistani soldiers, during a railway stopover, being given only two hours in which to cook their midday meal, without any utensils.
Repatriated, Salik returned home to discover that his beloved mother had passed away a few days earlier. A cruel homecoming, one as heart-breaking as that of another soldier repatriate from a village near Mardan. He returned to his wife at night. Next morning, while his wife left to milk the cows, his sister-in-law came into the room, saw a male figure asleep, and called her husband. Enraged, he shot the sleeping figure. When he discovered that he had killed his brother, he shot his own wife and then himself.
That new widow’s cries reverberated unheard until revenged by the hanging of Mr Bhutto, the assassination by Mrs Gandhi in Delhi, and the murder of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in Dhaka.
There are too many such tragedies still unburied on our conscience.
The writer is an author.
Published in Dawn, January 28th, 2021