[Trigger Warning: Extreme Violence]
After President Yahya Khan launched a military operation to crush the opposition, Bengalis who resisted were called “miscreants” – this was a time before the word “terrorist” was popularised. There were stories of Bengalis being picked up and disappearing because a neighbour had given in their name as a possible suspect.
As 1971 progressed, the violence spread. The reader must recall that the horrific bloodbath in Rwanda and Bosnia was still decades ahead and the world had little idea how to deal with this intense internal violence.
A major recounted how he arrived at a girls’ school with his soldiers and found female breasts piled on the dining tables while the women writhed in agony upstairs. At Santahar railway junction women lay spread out on the railroad tracks, the Bangladesh flag jammed into their vaginas. In the midst of this madness, the Bihari community proudly and provocatively declared its allegiance to Pakistan and proudly waved the Pakistani flag. The price was enormous and would haunt them to this day. In the end they were rejected by the new country of Bangladesh and Pakistan refused to accept them. Few even know the tragedy of this gifted and neglected people.
By now the international press was almost unanimous in condemning Pakistan and supporting the Bengali struggle. Perhaps the cherry on the cake was the famous concert organised by George Harrison of the Beatles along with the legendary Indian musician Ravi Shankar at Madison Square Garden in New York. In addition, albums were sold to raise funds for refugees from Bangladesh – the name being widely used for East Pakistan. Both the Pakistani government and the public simply ignored these developments and their implications for the perception of the country. Pakistan had lost the media war by this time.
In contrast to Ayub Khan, West Pakistani officials were not appreciating the scale of the crisis. They were in denial. There were even celebrations cheering on the military action, and people were gleeful that the Bengalis were being taught a lesson
On the international front, while Pakistan had alliances with the United States, India secured treaties with the Soviet Union which insured that any Indian action in East Pakistan would not face censure in, for example, the Security Council. In the event, the Soviet Union supplied India with arms and gave it full international support in 1971 while the United States’ Seventh Fleet – which we presumed would save the day for us – never arrived in the Bay of Bengal, thus creating the popular belief in Pakistan that Americans are only fair-weather friends. What Pakistanis did not know at the time is that when Indira Gandhi threatened to move Indian troops from East to West Pakistan after the fall of Dhaka with the intention of finishing Pakistan, it was Nixon who emphatically challenged and dissuaded her.
Much of the anger and violence of 1971 came from ethnic ignorance and hatred. The irony was here it was Muslim-on-Muslim violence, that is an illustration of intra-religious violence based on ethnicity. But there was ample evidence of how outsiders were looking at South Asia through the prism of racial contempt. There are, for example, plenty of quotations from the historical archives in which President Nixon and Secretary Kissinger during this time call Indians, “the most sexless, nothing, people.” They compare “Black Africans” who they admit, “have a little animal-like charm,” to Indians, “but God, those Indians, ack, pathetic.” Indira Gandhi is referred to as a “bitch” several times. The two wonder how such a repellant race can “reproduce.” Pakistanis in contrast are “fine people” but still “primitive” “I tell you, the Pakistanis are fine people, but they are primitive in their mental structure. They just don’t have the subtlety of the Indians.” (Kissinger to Nixon in August 1971).
Systematically, East Pakistan was being cut off from the world. Indians were constantly sending in their agents to create dissension between the communities. The Indian government put every possible hurdle between the two wings of Pakistan to weaken the links between them, for example, the Pakistan international flights which flew over India were denied permission and had to fly down south to Sri Lanka and then up again, adding considerable time and the need to refuel in Colombo. This made flights expensive and infrequent and restricted to once a day. That was just not enough for the volume of passengers who required transport out of Dhaka to escape the growing crisis.
General Yaqub’s first words were, “How long do we have?” “Six to eight months,” I replied. He sat down as if I had hit him. “What is your reasoning?” he asked. “Mainly because the Pakistan army has been trained to fight conventional battles on the plains of the Punjab, not guerrilla warfare in the rain-sodden lowlands and deltas of Bengal,” I replied.
Following the military operation, as I had little work to do in the office, I asked for a few days leave to go and see Zeenat in West Pakistan. I boarded the flight to Karachi and was seated behind Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. I knew him but was too agitated to go up and say ‘salaam.’ I knew Pakistan was in deep danger and I felt angry and betrayed. I was in a highly agitated state and my appearance must have been quite disheveled, as I had not had a haircut for a long time. On disembarking, Bhutto said something about thanking God that Pakistan had been saved. I wondered whether he believed that.
On arrival in Karachi, I tracked down General Yaqub, who was living under a cloud and there was talk of court martial. His house was watched but I went straight in and asked to see him. He entered the drawing room and greeted me warmly. His first words were, “How long do we have?” “Six to eight months,” I replied. He sat down as if I had hit him. “What is your reasoning?” he asked. “Mainly because the Pakistan army has been trained to fight conventional battles on the plains of the Punjab, not guerrilla warfare in the rain-sodden lowlands and deltas of Bengal,” I replied. He looked somber.
In Islamabad, as I was staying with my school friend Tahir Ayub Khan, the son of Ayub Khan, I took the opportunity to call on his father and update him on the unfolding crisis. President Khan was not well but still came to the living room, wearing a dressing gown and carrying a book, as he always did, to see me. His Sandhurst training lingered, and as I was leaving, Maaji gently said he wanted me to have my long hair cut. I headed straight for a barbershop.
President Ayub Khan was right. Though watching the 1971 crisis from Islamabad, as a field marshal of the Pakistan Army, he had spotted what for me, a junior assistant commissioner in the field in East Pakistan that year, was glaringly obvious: no nation could fight on two fronts and hope to win. After the military action against the Bengalis he saw little hope.
Walking around the table, he placed the barrel of the revolver against my forehead and said, “I want you to write a letter to the Chief Secretary.”
Ayub Khan was reflective. He said something that struck me: that he didn’t really know the younger officers as he was out of touch. I recalled that he had been away from the army effectively for over a decade. That is why he was able to give a detached picture of the global landscape and was yet unaware of the men running the army. He appeared baffled as to why they would be making one of the most fundamental strategic miscalculations any army could make – of fighting on two fronts.
In contrast to Ayub Khan, West Pakistani officials were not appreciating the scale of the crisis. They were in denial. There were even celebrations cheering on the military action, and people were gleeful that the Bengalis were being taught a lesson. The crudest abuse was heaped on the Bengalis. They were called “black bastards” or bingos, the equivalent of the “n-word” for African Americans. For simply arguing for justice and human rights for Bengalis, my wife and I were sarcastically referred to as “Bingo-lovers.”
One of my batch mates who was also an assistant commissioner in the field recounted how he barely escaped after hiding at the bottom of an ordinary boat. He had taken a revolver with him with one bullet in it. The bullet he said was for himself in case he was captured. When we finally met up in Rawalpindi in the Establishment Secretary’s office, he recounted his dramatic tale. Our senior colleague was not impressed. He said, “Get back right now to your posts.” He had not shown the slightest interest in our arguments about the situation in the field.
One day in Dhaka as I sat in my large, lonely office in an old colonial building from the British days, behind a large desk with little to do, I was visited by a friend. It was Major Sabir Kamal. He had a grim look on his face and was in full uniform, with his revolver prominently displayed around his waist. As he walked towards me, he pulled out his revolver and cocked. Walking around the table, he placed the barrel of the revolver against my forehead and said, “I want you to write a letter to the Chief Secretary.”
Annoyed and alarmed, I said, “Don’t be silly, that damn thing could go off.”
Sabir replied, “I am more concerned for your life. You must ask for long leave and get out of East Pakistan before it is too late. The way things are going, we will all be killed.”
I explained to him patiently, as he appeared distraught, that I had no intention of writing that letter. I belonged to the CSP cadre, and we were trained to be in position whatever the circumstances. “Besides,” I said, “if things are so bad, how come you are still here?”
Somewhat grimly, he said that he had made arrangements. He had married a general’s daughter and was being posted to the Pakistan foreign service to a European country. The encounter made me think, but there was no way I would leave my post at this critical time. Yet I had a blind faith that somehow it would be alright in the end.
It was an irony of fate that my dear sincere, intelligent and courageous friend Sabir, who had cared so much for me, was unable to save himself in the end. Just a short while after we met, when war came, he was posted in the northern districts. His Frontier Force regiment was surrounded by Indian troops supported by armour.
Infantry men cannot stand against tanks, but Sabir and his men fought like tigers. The Indian commander took the loudspeaker and yelled to Sabir to compliment him on his courage, but said, “You are now surrounded and there is no way you can escape.”
He asked Sabir to surrender to avoid further bloodshed. Sabir refused, and in the fight that followed, lost his life. He was nominated for Pakistan’s highest military award for valour. I wrote a poem in his honour, which I sent to his family and regiment.
It was called: “Major Sabir Kamal, the last stand.”