An Army Insider’s Honest Expose of Atrocities in East Pakistan Debacle

(A review from a book written by an insider close to power in 1971)

KARACHI, March 25: The East Pakistan tragedy was not just a failure of the military establishment of the day but also the abysmal collapse of civil society in West Pakistan. Launched at midnight, 25 March 1971, the military action went on for nine long months without eliciting any concerted protest from the West Pakistani public and political leadership.

The few low voices raised against the military action were too feeble to make the army change the suicidal course it had set itself, leading to an ignominious military defeat and the breakup of the country.

Brigadier Abdul Rehman Siddiqi, who headed the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) and was Press Advisor to Army Chief General Yahya Khan, was clearly in the thick of things. Therefore, his book ‘East Pakistan: The Endgame — An Onlooker’s Journal 1969-1971′ will be of interest to those wishing to penetrate the historical veil that has subsequently been draped over the more unsavory events of that era.

The author had the unique advantage of observing the tragedy as it unfolded. As the ISPR chief, he interacted with the national press and a cross-section of public and political leadership in both wings. In his description and appraisal of the various dramatis personae, he acts as an impartial observer.

Apart from the fresh light the book sheds on the traumatic episode, the simplicity and candor of the narrative adds much to its readability. Thus, the book may well contribute towards the much-needed bridge building between Pakistan and Bangladesh.

“In 1971, Pakistan was torn into two, its eastern half declaring itself the independent nation of Bangladesh. While the broader details of this debacle have since become comprehensible, historians are still trying to glean a few remaining facts from the myths and half-truths that continue to linger some 33 years later.

From the start, the author makes it clear that the book is based on his diaries and other sources that he had personal access to as the ISPR chief. He also admits to have “scrupulously avoided” relying on any subsequent books or other published material that relates to the events. As a result, the reader is presented with a first-hand account of those fateful days.

The narrative begins in February 1969 when President Ayub Khan, besieged by street agitation, sought to negotiate his way out by calling for a Round Table Conference (RTC). However, as Siddiqi explains, Yahya had already started plotting against his boss. Unknown to most people at the time, the army chief secretly met the East Pakistani leader Mujibur Rehman and asked him not to relent on his demands. In fact, as Siddiqi points out, Yahya went as far as to tell Mujib that “he could go ahead with his anti-Ayub campaign without any let or hindrance from the army.”

Siddiqi also reveals that a week before the RTC, he was ordered by General Ghulam Umar to secretly prepare an advance draft for Yahya’s address to the nation as the Chief Martial Law Administrator. Two days later, Yahya flatly refused Ayub’s direct request for the army to come to the aid of the civil government.

According to Siddiqi, Yahya made it abundantly clear to his superior that it was either complete martial law under his own control or nothing. And Ayub knew then that his days were numbered. Following his refusal to help Ayub quell the violent civic unrest, Siddiqi discloses how Yahya cunningly enlisted the support of his old drinking buddy interior minister Admiral AR Khan, who persisted in presenting highly pessimistic daily briefs to further undermine the president.

When Siddiqi confronted General Pirzada with these peculiar goings-on, he was politely told to hush up. The dice had been cast and within a month Ayub departed from the scene after handing over power to Yahya.

Following the takeover, Siddiqi claims that Yahya was quick to reveal his true intentions and confided to some of his senior officers: “Gentlemen, we must be prepared to rule this unfortunate country for the next 14 years or so.”

Soon, Yahya announced general elections after being convinced by the intelligence agencies that they would result in a split vote and a fractious National Assembly, making it impossible for the new government to fulfil the stipulation of an approved constitution within 120 days. This failure, the thinking went, would then lead to fresh elections while power would indefinitely remain in the army’s firm grip.

However, the election results could not have been farther from Yahya’s calculations. Badly let down by the intelligence agencies, Yahya decided to pursue a new course of action. His famous reference to Mujib as the future prime minister was in reality no more than “a calculated maneuver aimed at, first to set the military against Mujib, and second, to provoke the Pakistan Peoples Party.”

The worried generals then recruited Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to ensure that any chance of a compromise with Mujib would be non-existent. In fact, as Siddiqi informs us, General Umar even met many West Pakistani minority party leaders to actively dissuade them from attending the first National Assembly session at Dhaka. Not surprisingly, East Pakistan soon went on the boil in the face of such intransigence. And the army-controlled West Pakistani media retaliated by accusing East Pakistanis of treason.

We all know what followed. The army’s subjugation of East Pakistan resulted in untold misery for millions of innocent Pakistanis, the death of many thousands as well as the breakup of Jinnah’s original Pakistan. And as Siddiqi’s narrative makes apparent, all this happened so that the generals could maintain their hold on power. Since then, it has suited successive army generals to place the blame on Bhutto. But the pertinent question is: how many tanks, guns and soldiers did Bhutto have at his disposal? The answer, of course, is none.

Another fact the author emphasizes is the sheer profusion of war crimes inflicted on hapless Pakistani citizens by its own army. The reader comes across a devastated Major General Ansari telling Siddiqi that rape and brutality were widespread. The general also confesses to a complete breakdown in the “discipline of his junior officers [and that] there was little he could do to check their “atrocities.” If junior officers had run amok, one shudders to think what the less-educated jawans got up to.

Siddiqi also exposes the infamous General Niazi who shamelessly defended the rapists by declaring that: “You cannot expect a man to live, fight and die in East Pakistan and go to Jhelum for sex, would you?” Even 30-plus years later, the fact that most, if not all, of these perpetrators got away scot-free, can provoke tears of rage and shame.

Ultimately, ‘The End Game’ is a brave and honest book and Siddiqi should be commended for writing it, even if it took him all these years to muster the resolve. A must-read for anyone interested in Pakistan’s past.” – Courtesy Herald.

Credit: AK Zaman