Volume 21 Issue 12 December 2017


The birth of Pakistan and its breakup in 1971 were two most important events in recent history. Yet no truly researched books have been published mainly for lack of access to original records, particularly official. This was unsafe because history acted as the pointer to the future as evident from the Quran itself which provided most moral and material guidance by relating events of the past. Thus history based on insufficient or misconstrued facts gave wrong guidance and was most likely the cause of continuous difficulties Pakistan has faced so far. This article is an effort to convey a few of my personal experiences which could add some more information on the self-created 1971 disaster. But first a brief background of important events before the mid-1960s:

My first exposure to East Pakistan was a two months stay there in 1954 as a young lieutenant on board the naval frigate Shamsher. The disparity in economic development between the two wings was so marked that it touched the hearts of even those on board from poorer areas of West Pakistan. Nevertheless, everywhere the ship visited - Chittagong, Khulna and a village on Teknaf River, the boundary with Burma (Myanmar), we received much brotherly love and affection. Yet a social gap was evident amongst the business employees, particularly in the multinationals, with Europeans being on top followed by West Pakistani scions of the rich and powerful, migrants from India and Bengalis, in that order. This social gap was most marked at the beautifully located Chittagong Club where Bengalis were hardly visible and which probably sowed a feeling amongst non-Bengalis of being brown sahibs.

All intentions and initial post-independence efforts to overcome this legacy of the colonial era and exploitation of East Bengal by Calcutta (now Kolkata) were unfortunately brought to naught by the civil servants coup in 1953 led by Governor General Ghulam Mohammed. Already the civil service had sown seeds of dispute amongst the politician class, inexperienced both in administration and in politics and thus dependent on the civil servants for guidance. Three even more harmful consequences followed. First, power passed into the hands of an unelected institution (civil service) with hardly any Bengalis in it. Worse still, most of the higher level civil servants were refugees from India who were better educated and provided a good proportion of middle level federal and East Pakistani civil servants. This led to increasing tensions between the two communities in East Pakistan which only increased with time as the migrants disdained the adoption of the Bengali language and culture and the higher civil servants in East Pakistan remained mostly non-Bengalis and considered partners of the federal government.

Second, the involvement of the armed forces in the mid-fifties in security or civil duties e.g. anti-smuggling in the Eastern wing where young officers could and did detain important politicians, which gave a sense of power to the former and left a gnawing feeling of resentment amongst the latter. And third, the new Establishment under Ghulam Mohammed having discarded the “Founders’ aim of Democracy” soon also replaced Quaid e Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s vision of “Friendship towards all and Enmity towards none” through defence pacts with the USA against the Soviet Union and later China. This was done to obtain civil and military aid in the hope of getting security against a constantly unfriendly if not hostile India. Theaid from the United States proved ruinous, a fact not realized in Pakistan, and contributed much towards the breakup of the country in 1971.

Thus, while economic aid may have been equitably distributed amongst the provinces, the military aid, almost equal or larger than the economic aid, was almost totally spent in the west wing. The effective outfall of this huge military investment completely distorted the overall rate of economic development between the two wings and added to the Bengali people’s earlier resentment to the subsequently modified decision of Urdu and English as national languages and was reflected in the rout of the governing Muslim League in the very first election for the national and provincial assemblies leading to the emergence of a powerful Awami League.

The language controversy was not forgotten even years later when the naval C-in-C Admiral HMS Choudhri with me as his Flag Lieutenant (ADC) visited naval units in East Pakistan in December 1956 and also addressed students of Dacca (Dhaka) University. As Admiral Choudhri was about to start, a student stood up and said that they would listen only if the talk was either in Bengali or in English. In pindrop silence and without any ado, the Admiral started with “Asalam o Alaikum to all present.” Immediately thunderous applause broke out – an appreciation and victory. For the record, the Pakistan Navy had no problem with Urdu as Bengalis, on joining, soon realized that Urdu belonged to no province and had evolved between soldiers after the Mughals started garrisoning troops from different regions of Hindustan in cantonments.

The East Pakistanis also felt that most of the foreign exchange earned with export of jute was being utilized in West Pakistan. Another political outfall, not fully realized but which acted like slow poison or cancer, was the lack of action in West Pakistan on the Muslim League high command’s decision under the Quaid e Azam to abolish zamindari (as mentioned to me by Khwaja Nazimuddin) while East Pakistan went ahead with it immediately. The political seeds of differences were thus sown, according to what US documents stated in a US Embassy report in 1956. The ability of the two wings to remain together for long with one wing led by the feudal class and the other by a middle class leadership was questioned. Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy from East Pakistan (and the leader of the Awami League) lasted hardly a year (1956/7) as Prime Minister under Iskander Mirza.

The country was governed from 1953 onwards by an establishment successively led by ex-civil servants Ghulam Mohammed and Iskander Mirza (originally from West Bengal but more at home in West Pakistan) and then by Generals Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan. It was always composed of West Pakistanis who did little to comfort the East Pakistanis about their political future in a united Pakistan even though most of the elder generations had not forgotten their exploitation by Calcutta during the British era and wanted a continued association with the western wing for security. The supercession of senior Bengali officers under Ayub Khan, two in the Army and one in the Navy, left its own impression on many Bengali military officers. Yet, in 1971, Bengalis on the frontline in West Pakistan reportedly fought the Indians as passionately as their West Pakistani colleagues.
In 1964/65 a highly professional Bengali Engineer Officer Lieutenant Moazzam Hussain serving under me had stated that he belonged to a very poor family and was supporting the education of three children which anomaly I included in his otherwise praiseworthy Confidential Report. Subsequently, in 1971 he was killed defending Mujeebur Rehman in the Army Operation.
After the 1965 War, while in East Pakistan with destroyer ALAMGIR under my command, a Bengali gentleman told me that Colonel Osmani (Retd) was trying to recruit Bengali officers of the newly raised East Bengal Battalion in Chittagong for some unknown organization. This information according to Naval Headquarters was personally appreciated by President Ayub Khan. Furthermore, there were at least one or two riots every month between the immigrant community and locals in Chittagong but no sailor even in plain clothes caught in the riot was ever harmed but always safely escorted out.

During 1968 in Dhaka a relative in the know of the political situation named two powerful federal secretaries who would rather break up the country rather than have feudalism abolished in West Pakistan. In May or June 1970 the Quarter Master General, a relative, paid one of his many official visits to Karachi. At the end of a four day stay, he appeared particularly happy and on enquiry mentioned that the GHQ had held a paper exercise and that he was able to airlift four lightly armed Divisions from West to East Pakistan within the time-scale prescribed. Its significance became evident in 1970/71 when political upheaval broke out in East Pakistan and led to military action.

During November the same year the political situation between the Federal Government and the Awami League was literally sizzling when on the 12th the monstrous “BHOLA cyclone” struck coastal areas of East Pakistan and I was ordered to proceed forthwith to Chittagong and assist the Naval Officer In Charge in cyclone relief operations. I found myself on the same flight to Dacca as the CinC PN and his Director of Public Relations (later DG ISPR under General Zia). Both appeared very somber and the latter remarked to me, “I think East Pakistan is now gone” though I felt there was still a possibility of maintaining unity of the country.

The connecting flight to Chittagong being next morning I spent the night with relatives in Dhaka where a sage well-versed in national politics said that “the Marshal Law Administrator and Corps Commander” and the Governor were practically at “no speaking terms” as the former was for military action while the latter recommended political settlement. The sage further remarked that the military thinks in the forthcoming general elections Mujib’s Awami League would get no more than about 45% seats in the National Assembly but the acquittal of Mujeeb after an unnecessarily prolonged Agartala Conspiracy Case resulted in a lot of sympathy for him which after the monstrous cyclone and lack of meaningful aid response from West Pakistan had created a rising wind such that leaves of trees not turning into the wind would be torn away. He felt the turnout for Mujib in East Pakistan would be over 80%.

Early next morning reaching Chittagong, the vast lawns of the airport was a sight with tents all over and foreigners hustling about and no Pakistani around. A visit to the camps brought out that they were aid groups from various Western countries and working independently, remaining in direct contact with the Governor’s office in Dhaka. Some countries had aircraft of their own flying about freely with what they stated were relief supplies. Later, at the Naval Base, the Naval Officer In-charge (NOIC) confirmed that all relief operations were directly under the Governor and the Armed Forces were to assist as requested. The NOIC who had earlier served as Director of Naval Intelligence. He said that Corps Headquarters was under-estimating the gravity of the political situation and while confirming the rift between the Governor and Corps Commander, was fully supportive of seeking a political solution.

The next day I flew in an Army helicopter to visit Bhola Island about seven miles North West of Chittagong. It was a shock at first sight; the whole area was bereft of any sign of habitation or vegetation and as we flew northward, an even worse sight brought tears to our eyes and made the three of us (the technician included) speechless for a while. The whole surface of water in the channel about three miles wide was littered for about three miles with human bodies, animal corpses and flotsam of all kinds. One could literally walk on them from and to the Island and back to the mainland. Most unfortunately, we had no camera to record for posterity that grim and bone-chilling sight. Turning back we saw the only sign of past life on Bhola - the remains of a two/three storied building where we landed and observed a water mark at about twenty feet height. Nothing could and did survive the onrush of that wall of water. The provincial authorities estimated about three hundred thousand people were on the Island celebrating a bumper crop collection.

The writer is a retired vice admiral of the Pakistan Navy.

The second part of this article will be carried in our next issue.


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