Over five decades have passed since East Pakistan seceded, after terrible carnage and a bruising civil war, marking the period a shameful chapter in Pakistan’s history. The painful story has been recounted in various books and historical documents. Among the books written soon after the civil war, The Last Days of United Pakistan, by G.W. Chaudhry, and Witness to Surrender by Brigadier General Siddique Salik, are especially noteworthy, as they tell the story as experienced by them from their vantage point.
The separation of the two wings of Pakistan drew international attention as well and has been the subject of several books by Western authors. Among them, The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide (2014) by Gary J. Bass has attracted special attention. The latest book that came out just this year (2022), is titled The Vortex, authored by Scott Carney and Jason Miklian.
The storyline of The Vortex is rooted in the devastating cyclone that struck the Chittagong coastal region of East Pakistan on November 12-13, 1970, with unprecedented ferocity, causing an estimated 500,000 fatalities. East Pakistan, already mired in extreme poverty, sank even deeper into a state of misery and deprivation. The cyclone, according to the authors, unleashed a cascade of events that culminated in the civil war and birth of Bangladesh. The book recounts a number of cases where authorities, mostly from West Pakistan, showed scant concern for the plight of the Bengalis.
The military ruler of Pakistan at the time, Agha Mohammed Yahya Khan, often in a drunken stupor and distracted by ongoing secret negotiations to open relations between China and the United States, remained oblivious to the disaster in faraway East Pakistan. Finally, his aides persuaded him to visit East Pakistan to witness the destruction firsthand. Some bizarre details are recorded of the visit. A staff officer is quoted as telling a junior Bengali military officer; “Why don’t you gather up a few dozen dead bodies and drag them over to the landing zone, since the president is not in the most spectacular physical shape,” to walk around.
Of corpses, there was no shortage. When Yahya stepped out of the helicopter, he could see a number of them rotting in the hot sun only a few feet away. He lingered briefly among the dead to allow photographers to take pictures. When a crowd of starving Bengalis gathered around him asking for food, he offered nothing except platitudes. Meanwhile, “Pakistan army officers played badminton in starched whites, while bodies rotted in the fields, and starving local wailed for food.”
The authors contend that the cyclone was a watershed event that sealed the fate of a united Pakistan. A great fury swept over East Pakistan in the wake of the storm, and it was reflected in the fiery speeches at the rallies prior to general elections scheduled on December 7, 1970. The leader of the Awami League, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, a passionate orator, was demanding regional autonomy for East Pakistan, but he was not seeking independence. Mujib’s party decisively won the elections in East Pakistan whilst Zulfiqar Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party did so in West Pakistan.
Mujibur Rahman is portrayed as a belligerent Bengali nationalist on the outside, but in reality soft and willing to compromise. Most heart-wrenching is the chapter that deal with the military action in East Pakistan, dubbed as operation searchlight, resulting from Yahya’s and Bhutto’s refusal to accept Mujibur Rahman as prime minister of Pakistan. Instead, they planned to suppress Bengali demands by force. The much-liked Governor of the province, Sahibzada Yaqub Khan, was replaced by Lt. General Tikka Khan, with a reputation for ruthlessness. The book records some vicious indoctrination of Pakistan soldiers as they were about to be sent to East Pakistan to fight their own people: “Bengalis were just pretending to be Muslims; most were pork-eating conniving Hindus trying to steal Pakistan”.
While Yahya and Bhutto were in Dhaka ostensibly for negotiations with Mujibur Rahman, the military operation was launched on March 26, 1971. Yahya departed Dhaka stealthily in “a single, unmarked plane, stocked with whisky and soda, and half a dozen handpicked hostesses.” Tikka Khan in command instructed his soldiers “to be more merciless than the massacre at Bukhara by Genghis Khan.” Their principal targets were residential neighborhoods populated by Awami League supporters, especially Hindus, and the campus of the Dhaka University, the intellectual hub of the city. There was some discussion about the fate of Mujibur Rahman, with Yahya’s clear instruction that he should not be harmed and taken as a prisoner, while Tikka and Bhutto arguing for his execution.
Operation Searchlight unleashed mayhem and havoc in Dhaka and other towns of East Pakistan, and the book documents many harrowing cases of wanton destruction of life and property. Many of these details are already recorded in earlier publications, but The Vortex reveals some details that have not been known before.
After suppression of the independence movement, a superficial, temporary calm returned to East Pakistan. However, guerrilla outfits, such as Mukti Bahini, emerged and flourished with India’s assistance, challenging the control of the Government. It soon became evident that India planned militarily intervention in the civil war. Yahya was banking on help from China and America to counter it. President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger viscerally disliked India and its prime minister, Indra Gandhi, and were seeking ways to help Pakistan keep control of its eastern wing.
As Indian forces advanced towards Dhaka and its fall seemed inevitable, Nixon and Kissinger talked about measures to block the Indian advance by force if necessary. Nixon ordered the powerful Seventh Fleet, with the nuclear armed Enterprise flotilla, to the Bay of Bengal to support Pakistan. The fleet had enough fire power to obliterate major cities in the region. India had a defense treaty with the Soviet Union that ordered its own naval forces to support India and prevent the American fleet from intervention; the two navies were only five hundred miles away. The book provides riveting details of the confrontation between the navies of the US and the Soviet Union. The potential clash of two nuclear powers in the Bay of Bengal revived the frightening specter of the Cuban Missile Crisis nine years before when the world came to the brink of extinction. Fortunately, the situation was defused by the news that Dhaka had fallen to Indian and Mukti Bahini forces. There was not much left to do.
The book reads like a work of fiction, recreating conversations and events much like eye-witness accounts. The authors assert that they conducted over two hundred interviews, drew upon seven hundred and fifty sources, and spoke to many civilian and former military officers. However, it is replete with anecdotes and descriptions some of which are unbelievable, even risible. For example, the story about the Shah of Iran showing up and knocking at Yahya Khan’s bedroom door to wake him up or Bhutto employing Sikh bodyguards for protection are implausible. Overall, the book is one more addition to the existing literature on the East Pakistan civil war, without providing any startling new insights.