When General Pervez Musharraf seized power in 1999, the fourth army chief to do so, some people asked him to put the people responsible for the 1971 debacle on trial. The general was dismissive, “Something happened 30 years ago. Why do we want to live in history? As a Pakistani, I would like to forget 1971.”
Unsurprisingly, he wanted people to forget that East Pakistan was lost on the army’s watch on the 16th of December. When the War Commission led by Justice Hamoodur Rehman asked General Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan, the second military dictator who presided over the debacle, to explain why Pakistan lost the war, he showed no signs of remorse or guilty. Instead, he responded incredulously, saying that the breakup of Pakistan was due to the “treachery of the Indians.”
Yahya was responsible for plunging Pakistan into a war that was un-winnable. Because he had once served as General Officer Commanding of the sole army division that was based in East Pakistan, the 14th, he would often boast that he knew the province “like the back of his hand.”
Yahya had no real plan for its defense. In the run-up to full-scale hostilities with India, like Hamlet, he was often heard mumbling: “What will I do about East Pakistan?”
At Pakistan’s birth in 1947, then-Major Yahya had commented that the day of independence “should be a day of mourning.” Little did he know that he would bring a greater day of mourning to Pakistan.
How did things come to such a sorry pass? Once Pakistan initiated full-scale hostilities with India on December 3, India had the excuse to unleash its full military might on the beleaguered Pakistani forces in East Pakistan. They were outnumbered and outgunned by the Indian forces, unfamiliar with the terrain and culture of the East, and worn out by the Civil War they had been fighting since March 25.
For nearly two weeks, Lt-.Gen. A. A. K. Niazi, the commander of the Eastern Garrison, kept hoping for a miracle, that the army leadership headquartered in West Pakistan would provide him additional troops, warships and combat aircraft.
When he saw paratroopers dropping into his compound, he wondered if they were the Americans whose aircraft carrier was anchored in the Bay of Bengal or the Chinese who were not that far away across the Himalayas.
He asked his press relations officer, Captain Salim Salik, to see if they were “blue from the south or yellow from the north.” Salik came back to give the bad news: “They are brown just like us.” Niazi broke down and wept, saying to Salik that it was a good thing that he was not a general.
Earlier, in a failed attempt to boost the morale of the nurses in a hospital, he told them that in case Dhaka fell, “Your honor will not be stained by Indian soldiers. We will shoot you first.”
Niazi’s forces could not hold the invading Indian forces at bay for even two weeks. The war, which had begun on the night of a full moon, ended on a moonless night. The surrender ceremony in Dhaka was Pakistan’s darkest hour.
In the West, Yahya came on Radio Pakistan and said the war was going to continue. Just a couple of days later, he was freed of his delusions and deposed by the army in concert with the air force.
In a failed attempt to boost the morale of the nurses in a hospital, he told them that in case Dhaka fell, “Your honor will not be stained by Indian soldiers. We will shoot you first.”
The defeat of the Pakistani army in 1971 finally dispelled any vain dreams that it was the ‘sword-arm’ of the Subcontinent. More than one Pakistani general had claimed that, despite its numerical inferiority, it could sweep aside the armies of the effete Hindus, and win yet another battle of Panipat outside the walls of Delhi.
Acclaimed military historian John Keegan noted, “Pakistan plummeted abruptly from a formidable rival to India and the fifth most populous state in the world, to a rump-state with only a tenth of India’s population and approximately proportional military and diplomatic leverage.”
The military drew the wrong lessons from its defeat. Instead of refocusing its national security policies toward the social, cultural and economic development of its citizens, it became obsessed with the military dimension of security. It drastically increased the size of the armed forces even though the population had been cut in half.
Indophobia became the dominant motif of national security. Paranoia reached a new height when India exploded an atomic device near the border. Prime Minister Z. A. Bhutto responded by committing Pakistan to developing the “Islamic” nuclear bomb, at any cost, even if it meant that the nation would “eat grass.”
The military drew the wrong lessons from its defeat. Instead of refocusing its national security policies toward the social, cultural and economic development of its citizens, it became obsessed with the military dimension of security.
Bhutto reminded the military that “We have spent many billions on defence with the result that the country is bankrupt and mortgaged to foreign debt…[but] we were unable to fight for more than 17 days in 1965 and for about 14 days in 1971.”
Very conveniently, he attributed Pakistan’s military failures, which were due in no small part to advice as foreign minister, to the US in 1965 and to the USSR in 1971. Otherwise, as one analyst noted, “Who would there be to blame but oneself?”
How did matters come to such a pass that Pakistan not only lost a war to India, which it had long claimed was an impossibility, but also lost half the country? Commenting on the war’s outcome, Henry Kissinger noted, “There was no likelihood that a small military force owing loyalty to one wing of the country could indefinitely hold down the other. Once indigenous Bengali support for a united Pakistan evaporated, the integrity of Pakistan was finished. An independent Bengali state was certain to emerge, even without Indian intervention.”
In February of 1971, with great foresight, Pakistan’s self-stated all-weather friend, China, had asked Yahya to seek a political settlement with the political leaders of East Pakistan. Consumed by hubris, Yahya and the top brass of the army were in no mood to listen to anyone.
The defeat would have long-lasting consequences. Many parties argued that Pakistan needed to intensify its religiosity. Even the secular Bhutto, in his zeal to get a new constitution passed, yielded to right-wing zealots and agreed that Ahmadi’s were non-Muslims. The religious fervor reached its zenith during General Zia’s reign. It shows no signs of abating.
Maj.-Gen. Rao Farman Ali Khan was a witness to the fall of East Pakistan. In his memoir, he says, “The [Army’s] Higher Command … lacked sense of direction, political sagacity and sound military judgment…Though it took another nine months to take shape, the breakup of the country was the direct …consequence of two major political decisions: first, to postpone the National Assembly session and second, to launch military action.”
Unlike Yahya, Farman Ali does not blame India for the breakup of Pakistan. Nor does he shift the blame to Bhutto. He puts it squarely on the army that governed the country.