1971 in retrospect
ONE key point in outgoing army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa’s farewell address at GHQ that has been lost amidst the intense developments of the past few days is the general’s comments on the East Pakistan debacle.
Gen Bajwa said that it was 34,000 soldiers — not 92,000 — who were fighting in the erstwhile eastern wing, while observing that “the fall of East Pakistan was not a military but a political failure”.
It is welcome that the general has clarified the record regarding the actual number of combat forces in the eastern wing. Without doubt, facing a numerically far larger adversary in the shape of combined Indian and Mukti Bahini forces, our troops were vastly outmanned and outgunned.
Yet Gen Bajwa’s laying the blame for the separation of East Pakistan at the door of political forces must be examined more closely, for while West Pakistan’s politicians certainly had a role to play, it was the military leadership at the time that was in control, and whose actions ultimately resulted in the break-up of united Pakistan.
It should be recalled that in the run-up to the fall of Dhaka, Gen Yahya Khan was the president and chief martial law administrator of Pakistan.
Indeed, the West Pakistani elite — politicians, bureaucracy, military — all played a role in aggravating the crisis. There can be little argument that parties of the western wing, particularly Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s PPP, were reluctant to hand over power to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s victorious Awami League after the 1970 general elections. And the postponement of the National Assembly session, under Gen Yahya’s watch, was a major catalyst for unrest in the eastern wing.
But arguably, the point of no return came when the military launched Operation Searchlight in March 1971. This move resulted in a political and constitutional crisis metastasising into a bloody civil war, with atrocities committed by both sides.
By December, India would enter the fray, leading up to Gen ‘Tiger’ Niazi signing the instrument of surrender, and resulting in the permanent rupture of Jinnah’s Pakistan.
Even before December 1971, the sense of disillusionment felt by the eastern wing’s population was greatly exacerbated during Gen Ayub Khan’s long military rule. This included the denial of cultural and economic rights to the people of East Pakistan.
So for the outgoing chief to say that the fall of Dhaka was a political failure is highly debatable, especially when military strongmen had such a key role to play in the development of this crisis.
Unfortunately, we as a nation have yet to come to terms with the bitter truths of 1971. For example, although the Hamoodur Rahman Commission report — a redacted version of which was officially released in 2000 — had recommended the court martial of some senior military officials, action was never taken. For there to be full closure, we need to make peace with the truth.
Published in Dawn, November 28th, 2022
The editorial has been corrected to clarify that the Hamoodur Rahman Commission report was officially released in 2000.