What Went Wrong In 1971?

Lt-Gen Niazi with Lt-Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora of the Indian Army arriving together at the Ramna Race Course in Dhaka on December 16, 1971. (Courtesy: Raghu Rai)
Lt-Gen Niazi with Lt-Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora of the Indian Army arriving together at the Ramna Race Course in Dhaka on December 16, 1971. (Courtesy: Raghu Rai)

THE state of Pakistan had a rough birth in 1947. Displacement, religious violence, and a massive exchange of populations between India and Pakistan with the partition of British India left indelible wounds on the psyches of the two countries. Pakistan’s survival and unity was made even harder by geography, economic disparities, and cultural differences between its two wings that came together under a single banner, as a last-minute arrangement of a united Pakistan because of the Muslim Bengali elite in Dhaka at that time who had played a key role in the freedom movement, and the British decision to partition Bengal.

It did not take too long before internal tensions between the two wings laid the ground for the demise of the young state in 1971. The fraternal twins named Pakistan were separated by nearly a thousand miles of hostile India. Each wing had its own languages, with the western wing bound together by Urdu as the language of the freedom movement in northern and north-western India, and Bangla in the east.

The language issue

The issue of national languages was controversial, as Bengalis pressed for recognition of their lingua franca, while in the West, Urdu speakers, including Urdu-speaking elites from what became East Pakistan, like the patrician family of Khawaja Nazimuddin, opted for Urdu. Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah tried to settle the issue in a couple of speeches during a week-long visit to East Pakistan in March 1948.

In a speech at the Race Course Ground on March 21, 1948, Jinnah said: “The state language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language.” He repeated this message in his convocation address at the Curzon Hall of the University of Dhaka, on March 24, 1948, even as members of the audience protested, and then reiterated it in a radio speech.

Shuja Nawaz traces the events and the missteps that led to the breakup of United Pakistan. Could the loss of Pakistan’s eastern wing have been foretold?

Ironic that these words emanated from a leader who was not fluent in Urdu himself.

The seeds of dissent and disruption were sown in those early days, leading to violent rioting in East Pakistan in 1952 with severe government action, under the new Bengali, but Urdu-speaking, prime minister Nazimuddin. Protesters were killed in police firing, fuelling further unrest. The language movement gave birth, among other things, to the Awami Muslim League, later becoming the Awami League in 1955, and the erection of the Shaheed Minar, or Martyrs’ Column. February 21 was marked as Shohid Dibosh, or Martyrs’ Day, later to become a national holiday in Bangladesh.

West Pakistani elites feared the majority of East Pakistan within the union. They came up with the formula of One Unit for West Pakistan in 1955 that would place it at parity with the East. This was a signal to the Bengalis of the mistrust of their brethren in the West Wing. They never fully accepted this political subterfuge.

All these were the portents of the failure of united Pakistan, as a tone-deaf and West-based civil and military elite downplayed the cultural identity and economic needs of their majority province in the East Wing. Despite efforts later to placate the Bengalis by making Bangla and Urdu as joint national languages in 1956, the unrest continued to simmer, fed by the economic and power disparities between the two wings.

Mujib’s Six Points

Refugees stream out of East Pakistan on the way to the Indian state of West Bengal as tensions heighten as a result of the Pakistan Army’s clampdown in March 1971. (Courtesy: Raghu Rai)
Refugees stream out of East Pakistan on the way to the Indian state of West Bengal as tensions heighten as a result of the Pakistan Army’s clampdown in March 1971. (Courtesy: Raghu Rai)

Matters came to a head after the end of the 1965 Pakistan-India war that had been fought mainly in the West and that had heightened the feeling of East Pakistanis that they were not seen as important by the rulers in the West. At the meeting in Lahore of the opposition parties to the government of military ruler Field Marshal Ayub Khan in February 1966, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman of the Awami League presented his Six Points in the form of a charter to give his wing more control over its affairs, especially its economy.

Most Pakistanis today may not be familiar with these Six Points that became the basis for the breakup of Pakistan and the motive force behind the Bengali freedom movement. Here they are:

  • The Constitution should provide for a Federation of Pakistan in its true sense [based] on the Lahore Resolution, and the parliamentary form of government with supremacy of a Legislature directly elected on the basis of universal adult franchise.

  • The federal government should deal with only two subjects, Defence and Foreign Affairs, and all other residuary subjects shall be vested in the federating states.

  • Two separate but freely convertible currencies for two wings should be introduced; or, if this is not feasible, there should be one currency for the whole country, but effective constitutional provisions should be introduced to stop the flight of capital from East to West Pakistan. Furthermore, a separate Banking Reserve should be established, and separate fiscal and monetary policy be adopted for East Pakistan.

  • The power of taxation and revenue collection shall be vested in the federating units and the federal centre will have no such power on the issue. The federation will be entitled to a share in the state taxes to meet its expenditures.

  • There should be two separate accounts for the foreign exchange earnings of the two wings; the foreign exchange requirements of the federal government should be met by the two wings equally or in a ratio to be fixed; indigenous products should move free of duty between the two wings, and the Constitution should empower the units to establish trade links with foreign countries.

  • East Pakistan should have a separate militia or paramilitary force.

These Six Points actually emerged from the 11 that had initially comprised the 21 points of the 1954 provincial election in the run-up to which Mujib had sought virtual provincial autonomy for East Pakistan. Rehman Sobhan and Nurul Islam were among the authors of these points. To a Pakistani born after 1971, it will be interesting to note how similar some of these points are to the 18th Amendment of modern Pakistan.

The West Pakistani opposition parties rejected the Mujib proposal and portrayed him as a separatist. He left the conference and immediately came into the cross-hairs of the government.

Soon he was ensnared in the so-called Agartala Conspiracy of 1966 in which some 35 East Pakistani civil servants and military officers were accused of having crossed over to the Indian town of Agartala in the north-eastern state of Tripura and connived with Indian agents to overthrow the government in East Pakistan.

Mujib was named the prime suspect much later, in 1968, and arrested. It was even alleged that he continued to direct the seditious conspiracy from his jail cell. An open trial under a tribunal headed by Justice S.A. Rehman was convened and the government publicised the Six Points, hoping thus to garner public support for its efforts to control ‘anti-state elements’. That ham-handed policy backfired as more people in East Pakistan became aware of the demands for equitable treatment of their province. Mujib became a hero.

Economic inequality

In the corridors of the Planning Commission, Bengali economists, led by Nurul Islam (then director of the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics [PIDE]) and West Pakistani economists debated ways of making the economic system equitable, as they prepared the Fourth Five-Year Plan and a perspective plan for the economy till 1985.

The Third Plan had already tried to give East Pakistan more resources than West Pakistan, but this was not enough to assuage the East Pakistani economists who were, in turn, briefing Bengali politicians. West Pakistan, they argued, had greater resources spent on it under headings that were not part of the total allocation of resources to be divided between the two wings. For instance, the massive Indus Basin Project was outside the plan, as was the expenditure on the new capital in Islamabad.

Khalid Ikram, an economist, who then was at the Planning Commission, defines the basis of the inequity: “With the country’s capital located in West Pakistan and a ‘license raj’ dominating economic policymaking, geographical propinquity gave West Pakistani businessmen much greater access to policymakers and greater ease in acquiring industrial and import licenses. It is not surprising that the private sector was much more vibrant in West Pakistan than in East. The ascendancy of West Pakistanis in the military and the civil service also provided a disproportionate clout to that region.”

Moreover, Ikram noted, the actual investment allocation favoured West Pakistan, and “since about 80pc of the armed forces were stationed in West Pakistan, the multiplier generated by expenditure on salaries, construction of cantonments, military roads, airfields and naval installations etc., was conveniently overlooked”.

Another leading economist of the time at the Planning Commission, Sartaj Aziz, noted in his diary at the time that “East Pakistan economists are convinced that they would be better off economically if they were separate. They have no large defence burden to carry, they would be responsible for only 10-15pc of the total debt, and they would get food under PL-480 from the USA to balance the inter-wing trade. They would still be left with Rs100 crores of foreign exchange for development, unlike West Pakistan which will give up all its foreign exchange in debt, defence, barter and bonus voucher scheme.” (Between Dreams and Realities: Some Milestones in Pakistan’s History by Sartaj Aziz; 2009. Pp. 22-23)

Aziz noted that the Planning Commission pushed for a substantial transfer of resources to East Pakistan in the Fourth Plan. But much larger affirmative action to make up for past inequity was demanded by the Bengali economists.

Aziz recalls that Nurul Islam calculated for the discussion on the Fourth Plan that West Pakistan owed East Pakistan some Rs1,500 crores for the transfer of resources to West Pakistan from the East. When discussions began with Bengali leaders, Mujib stated that this transfer was actually equal to Rs3,800 crores. The real number, Aziz contends, was closer to Rs320 crores. Negotiations continued in East Pakistan with a team led by M.M. Ahmed and including Sartaj Aziz and Moin Baqai. But political turmoil overtook everything.

Meanwhile, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) had launched a protest movement against his erstwhile patron, Ayub Khan, even as the latter was celebrating his ‘Decade of Development’. Protests spread to both wings. In the East, Mujib became the focal point of the opposition to the military ruler. When one of the accused in the Agartala case died in police custody, a firestorm erupted in East Pakistan. The beleaguered Ayub government finally withdrew the conspiracy case in 1968. But the damage had been done. The emperor had been seen to have feet of clay. This emboldened both Bhutto and Mujib to up the ante.

Ayub’s exit, Yahya’s mistakes

Pakistani soldiers and former prisoners in India line up as they return to Pakistan on October 1, 1973 after the Pakistani-India War of 1971. - Photo: AFP
Pakistani soldiers and former prisoners in India line up as they return to Pakistan on October 1, 1973 after the Pakistani-India War of 1971. - Photo: AFP

Street protests against an ailing and weakened Ayub Khan grew day by day. Rioting crowds in both wings engulfed the seats of power, protesting unequal development and political repression. Ayub stepped down on March 26, 1969, and handed over power in an unconstitutional manner not to the proper successor, the Bengali speaker of the National Assembly, but to his army chief Gen Yahya Khan.

Yahya Khan promised free and fair elections in 1970. He also abolished One Unit as a sop to the Bengalis. But that did not help. He appeared ill-equipped to run a complex and politically awakened country and was partly distracted by a new assignment that he had taken on: to build a bridge between China and the United States and prepare the ground for Nixon’s national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, to visit the Chinese capital.

Yahya was also reportedly prone to inebriation to the extent that he was sometimes incapable of making sound decisions or fulfil his duties. His intelligence agencies were reported to have predicted a hung parliament. This, they believed, would allow Yahya to remain president, with a weak and compliant prime minister.

Feverish campaigning began in both wings of Pakistan for the elections, slated originally for October 1970, but postponed due to heavy flooding in East Pakistan. They were rescheduled for December 7, 1970. However, nature had other plans. Cyclone Bhola began forming from the remnants of Tropical Storm Nora that had developed in the South China Sea and then meandered westward. It headed up the Bay of Bengal and struck East Pakistan in the evening of November 12. Despite warnings of the impending storm, East Pakistan was ill prepared for the effects of the devastating cyclone. This sad and harrowing story is told in The Vortex: A True Story of History’s Deadliest Storm, and Unspeakable War, and Liberation by Scott Carney and Jason Miklian (Harper Collins, New York, 2022).

After a 1960 cyclone, Gordon Dunn of the US National Hurricane Centre had come and made recommendations for East Pakistan to be protected against the next big one. Few of his suggestions were implemented. Some 300-500,000 deaths may have been caused by the latest storm. Yahya’s government was slow to respond. Even the president himself only came after a trip to China on Nov 14, arriving in an apparently inebriated state as he stumbled through his remarks to the press at the airport and then took a hurried aerial tour of the affected areas. When pressure mounted locally against the slow response of the government, he came back again on Nov 23 and four days later acknowledged at a press conference “slips and mistakes” made by his administration while promising greater provincial autonomy to provide responsive governance.

Sheikh Mujib and Maulana Abdul Hamid Bhashani, a left-leaning Deobandi scholar and founder of the Awami League who later formed his own progressive National Awami Party (NAP), both began openly criticising the efforts of the martial law government after visiting the flood-ravaged areas. Mujib spoke of regional autonomy as the key to a stable political system. Yahya was asked to postpone the elections. He refused. It was against this background that country had its first true and generally free and fair general elections since independence. They were also the first national polls held under the glare of broadcast media coverage and instant and unfiltered reporting of results. (I was among the team that reported the results in a marathon broadcast of some 29 hours from PTV’s Rawalpindi-Islamabad studios.) This created great confidence among the population regarding the results of the elections.

Mujib put forward only a few candidates in the West Wing in an effort to claim national support in a united Pakistan. In the East he had candidates for 160 of 162 seats, leaving one seat for Nurul Amin, the venerable Bengali leader, and one for Raja Tridev Roy of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Bhutto had no PPP candidate in East Pakistan.

The Awami League swept the polls in the East. Bhutto’s PPP got 81 out of the 132 seats in the West, primarily in Sindh and Punjab. Yahya was ready to concede to Mujib the honorific of prime minister in waiting. He met Bhutto who said no future constitution could be written without his party’s assent. Yahya also went to Dhaka and met Mujib, saying to the press on his way out that Mujib would be the next prime minister, but he himself would not be there. He then met Bhutto and persuaded him to return to Dhaka to meet Mujib.

Unrest begins

Behind the scenes, the army in East Pakistan had prepared plans for civil unrest. The original author of this plan, Lt-Gen Sahibzada Yaqub Khan, eventually had a change of heart and demurred on military action. He was removed and demoted to his substantive rank of major-general. Mujib’s party swore allegiance to an independent Bangladesh. A new military commander, Lt-Gen Tikka Khan, was sent to head the Eastern Command and act as governor of East Pakistan after Sahibzada’s dismissal. He was prepared for the use of force to assert control over the province. His heavy-handed tactics provoked further unrest.

Meanwhile, Yahya’s team, including M.M. Ahmed and his own principal staff officer, Lt-Gen S.G.M. Pirzada, continued negotiation with the Awami League team that included Rehman Sobhan, Kamal Hossain and Nurul Islam. Among others, Sobhan noted, there was no constitutional draft prepared by the military high command. Later in the negotiations with Bhutto’s team, the same situation persisted. Interestingly, Bhutto’s team included Sobhan’s childhood classmate at St. Paul’s in Darjeeling, Rafi Raza, and Abdul Hafeez Pirzada.

Sobhan had made a trip to Lahore and then Karachi in early January at the behest of Tajuddin and met Mubashir Hassan Khan, Mumtaz Daultana and Mahmud Ali Kasuri. Sobhan said he was surprised that they too had not done any homework on the constitutional issues. Bhutto declined to meet Sobhan. Later, when Bhutto came to Dhaka he only dealt in rhetoric and talked about power-sharing. Nothing specific on the constitutional issues. Sobhan invited Rafi Raza, Kamal Azfar and Mubashir Hassan to his home for discussion, but they still had no defined proposals. The final economic discussions in the last days of March in Dhaka with Yahya’s team led by M.M. Ahmed were fruitless. Kamal Hossain was waiting for a call from Ahmed, but Pirzada instructed Ahmed to depart for West Pakistan.

Operation Searchlight

Meanwhile, Tikka had been recalled and made a corps commander in the West, and Lt-Gen A.A.K. Niazi was sent to implement Operation Searchlight to assert military control over the province in March 1971. As Bhutto and others departed for Karachi, the army went into action during the night of March 25. Mujib was captured in his home by commandos and was airlifted to West Pakistan. The army went on a rampage against rebellious soldiers of the East Bengal Regiment and other locals, especially Bengali university students dubbed ‘miscreants’ by the military public relations machine (an archaic English term derived from the Latin for those who strayed from the religious path. The term continues to be in the lexicon of the military even today.)

They were spurred in part by the reports of large-scale killing of Bengali and Bihari sympathisers of the Pakistan military by Bengali rebels and the Mukti Bahini. No accurate figures have been compiled in Bangladesh of these internecine killings. But they could well be in the tens of thousands.

The army’s actions were later termed an attempt at genocide, among others by the US consul-general in Dhaka, Archer Blood, who wrote to his bosses in Washington DC: “Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy. Our government has failed to denounce atrocities … Our government has evidenced what many will consider moral bankruptcy.” The number of people killed has been much debated, but horrific nevertheless. A figure used by Pravda of three million is much cited though not fully supported by evidence.

Similarly, systematically planned rapes of Bengali women by the military are discussed extensively and have not been rebutted effectively by Pakistani authorities. “When Australian doctor Geoffrey Davis was brought to Dhaka by the United Nations to assist with late-term abortions of raped women, at the end of the war, he believed the estimated figure for the number of Bengali women who were raped — 200,000 to 400,000 — was probably too low,” according to a report in the Smithsonian.

A childhood schoolmate of mine, who was a young army officer in East Pakistan at the time, told me of the horrors he witnessed. It still haunts him, he said. His was not an isolated reaction.

Meanwhile, West Pakistanis were kept in the dark by the officially controlled media and their elites largely remained silent as the tragedy unfolded in East Pakistan.

Some 1.5 million Bengalis fled to India, which gave India its opportunity of the century to cut Pakistan to size. As 1971 progressed, prime minister Indira Gandhi prepared and strengthened her forces under Gen Sam Manekshaw to encircle East Pakistan. It took her some time to get her forces into position. When Sobhan escaped to Agartala and made his way to Delhi, he discovered that Indian officialdom in Tripura and Delhi was unaware of the full extent of the carnage in East Pakistan. Mujib’s main lieutenant, Tajuddin, had also made his way to Delhi, but the Indians apparently did not know him or about him, according to Sobhan, who was taken to meet him apparently to help identify him to the Indian authorities. Sobhan then proceeded to Europe, England, and then the United States to garner support for the Bengali cause.

Indian intervention

Indira’s forces joined the ranks of Mukti Bahini, and trained them to keep the Pakistani forces occupied. Pakistan did not have an effective defence in East Pakistan. Its forces were ill-equipped and outnumbered. It had virtually no naval or air force.

The strategy that Niazi came up with was to protect the routes of ingress from India. His isolated forces fought as hard as they could along the border against a superior number of Indian and Mukti Bahini forces without air cover or support. There was no plan to defend Dhaka. Interestingly, India did not have a strategic plan for the capture of Dhaka either, except in the minds of a couple of local commanders.

Dhaka falls

The war continued inside East Pakistan through most of 1971. Then Yahya, in a desperate attempt to provoke international intervention in the conflict between Pakistan and India, launched an air attack on the evening of Dec 3, the night of the full moon, from the West on selected Indian airfields. Too little, too late. Full-scale war broke out. It was a desperate gamble of a man who held few cards in his hands. A huge bluff that did not pay off.

To preserve his pride, Yahya sacrificed his manpower and his country. In the end, his foreign friends did not come to his aid, as he had hoped. Neither America nor China stepped in to stop the Indian invasion of East Pakistan or prevent the fall of Dhaka when Indian paratroopers dropped near Tangail and made their way to an undefended capital.

Niazi surrendered at Ramna Race Course ground on Dec 16, 1971, to his Indian counterpart Lt-Gen Jagjit Singh Arora. His bluster fading into his signature crass jokes, he met his Indian captors over lunch prior to the surrender ceremony and won a small victory by handing over a JCO’s damaged revolver as if it was his personal weapon.

A comical scene was played out on Dec 17 evening at the PTV studios in Chaklala, where I was ready to introduce a speech by Yahya from the President’s House on a new constitution for Pakistan that might resolve the crisis with the Eastern wing. At the last minute, I was instructed to present in the first person the president’s address to the nation, since he was apparently incapacitated. I then proceeded to read Yahya’s speech, mightily resisting the urge to mimic his staccato delivery and clipped pseudo-British accent!

Mujib sat out the war, isolated in a jail on Jarranwala Road outside Faisalabad in Punjab at a military trial chaired by then Brigadier Rahimuddin Khan. He was released by Bhutto on January 8, 1972, and was flown to London en route to Dhaka.

Thus was Pakistan broken apart. Jinnah’s Pakistan died a premature death in December 1971, as Bangladesh emerged as an independent state. Gen Yahya was quickly ousted by an internal army putsch orchestrated, among others, by Brig F.B. Ali. Bhutto was summoned back from New York, where he was playing a dramatic role at the United Nations as Pakistan’s passionate spokesperson on the global stage, pleading for his nation to be saved against Indian aggression. Ironically, Brig Ali and other army officers were later convicted of trying to overthrow Bhutto in 1973.

Bhutto was sworn in as the new but unelected president and the first civilian chief martial law administrator of Pakistan on the night of Dec 20. A thousand miles to the East, 90,000 plus civilians and military personnel became Indian prisoners of war. They returned eventually after Bhutto negotiated a peace with India at Simla in July 1972.

The army had conducted its own high-level and rapid post-mortem of the lost war against India. It pointed out many flaws of strategy and tactics. But the new military high command buried that report in its archives, hoping perhaps to deprive Bhutto of ammunition to use against the military. (Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars within by Shuja Nawaz; 2008 and 2017; Pp.310-311.)

The army took back the reins of power in a coup by Bhutto’s chosen army chief Gen Ziaul Haq in July 1977. Pakistan was changed forever. As for the East wing, Khalid Ikram’s poignant epitaph sums it all up for what it was: “Very painfully, I must say that the best thing that happened to East Pakistan was that it became Bangladesh.”

The writer was the first director of the South Asia Centre at the Atlantic Council in Washington DC, January 2009 through October 2014. He is currently a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre. He was a PTV newscaster and its first war correspondent during the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971. He is the author of The Battle for Pakistan: The Bitter US Friendship and a Tough Neighbourhood (Penguin Random House, and Liberty Books, Pakistan 2019 and Rowman & Littlefield 2020), and Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within (Oxford University Press 2008 and 2017). www.shujanawaz.com

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