Road To Bangladesh – Part Four : Rewards For The Demons

THE military problems of East Pakistan had been clearly seen by US consular at Dacca as early as 1958, several months before the Ayub Khan’s coup. In his telegram to State Department on May 29, 1958, he wrote, “To hold East Pakistan, a dictator would have to strengthen army here, now one under-strength division, including two Bengali battalions which might mutiny.”
Such foresight would be a very rare commodity in Pakistani leadership.

In a multi-ethnic state, the composition of the armed forces has both negative and positive impact on the society at large. This becomes especially important when military as an institution is involved in the direct running of the state as is the case of Pakistan. Both factors of low inclination of Bengalis towards soldiering and British theory of ‘Martial Races’ were responsible for almost no Bengali representation in the armed forces of Pakistan at the time of independence.

The first battalion of East Bengal Regiment (EBR) was raised in February 1948. The second battalion of EBR was raised in December 1948. This policy of incorporating the Bengalis was done half heartedly in the beginning as by 1968, there were only four Bengali regiments. There were several reasons for that. In a multi-ethnic society, where one dominant group defines the parameters of national security and proper code of patriotism, the group, which has different opinion, is seen as less ‘patriotic’. If the Bengali is less inclined to join the armed forces (which may have historical, social or cultural reasons), then it is assumed that he is less patriotic and his allegiance to the state is suspect. This is exactly what Pakistani leadership did in case of Bengalis.

The British theory of Bengalis being non-Martial was also prevalent among the Punjabi and Pushtun officers (the dominant groups in Pakistan army). In Air Force and Navy, the numbers of Bengalis were steadily increased. There were several reasons for that. Compared to army, these two arms of armed forces are less politically involved in coups. Second, these two arms require more technical skills and higher education standards to run state of the art machines and Bengalis were able to perform these functions. In the military academy, Kakul, the Bengali cadets were considered inferior to the ‘Martial Races’. One former instructor at the academy in 1950s stated that Bengalis were generally given poor grades and seldom given any higher appointments. Many of them were shunted out as ‘Duds’. The gulf between Bengali and non-Bengali officers was as wide as between the general populations of the two wings.

The total disregard of Bengali sentiments can be gauged by one incident which one Bengali cadet experienced during his stay at Kakul in 1970. At a dinner night, Major Shabbir Sharif (a good and well-respected officer of 6 Frontier Force Regiment who died in action in 1971 at Suleimanki sector) was sitting at the table with the Bengali cadet. He commented about the recent devastating cyclone in East Pakistan that more than hundred thousand people have perished. He then added that there were so many Bengalis that “I’m sure they will not be missed”.

The commander of Eastern theatre, Lt. General Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi’s plan which he presented to the central government in June 1971 (when he was facing a full blown rebellion of his own population with no heavy equipment and air force), in his own words was, “… I would capture Agartala and a big chunk of Assam, and develop multiple thrusts into Indian Bengal. We would cripple the economy of Calcutta by blowing up bridges and sinking boats and ships in Hoogly River and create panic amongst the civilians. One air raid on Calcutta would set a sea of humanity in motion to get out of Calcutta”.

In summer of 1971, when Niazi was asked what will be his strategy in case of war, he had these words, which he uttered in the presence of senior military officers, “Have you not heard of the Niazi corridor theory? I will cross into India and march up the Ganges and capture Delhi and thus link up with Pakistan. This will be the corridor that will link East and West Pakistan. It was a corridor that the Quaid-e-Azam demanded and I will obtain it by force of arms”.


The tragic part is that no one was held accountable let alone punished for the tragedy. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto became the powerful chief executive of the country in the aftermath, therefore who was going to question him about his role? Many civilian bureaucrats close to regime enjoyed the same immunity. None of them felt any remorse or acknowledged even a grain of responsibility for their actions. Information Secretary of Yahya Khan, Roedad Khan continued to climb the ladders of promotions and retired with all perks and privileges from the senior most post. Ghulam Ishaque Khan weathered the socialism of Bhutto and Islamization of Zia very smoothly and ended up occupying the President House for quite a while.

The military as institution also failed in this regard. Even if one accepts the notion that a particular individual has not committed any wrong, decency demands that in the wake of such a disaster, one should honourably leave the scene quietly and let others take charge. Rather than held accountable, many key players in 1971 tragic drama rose in ranks and held cushy appointments after retirement. Yahya Khan died while he was confined to his house. To his credit, when the time came to face the truth and informing the nation about ceasefire, he said, “The responsibility is mine and I am not going to shift it to anybody else. Whether it is popular or not, I will do it”.

Chief of General Staff (CGS) Lt. General Gul Hassan became C-in-C for a while and after being fired from the post accepted the ambassadorial assignment in Austria. Air Force Chief Air Marshal Rahim Khan became ambassador to Greece. Lt. General Tikka Khan (the architect of “Operation Searchlight” in East Pakistan) rose to become Chief of Army Staff (COAS). Major General Rahim Khan (he was accused of deserting his command and escaping in a helicopter to Burma hours before surrender at Dacca) became CGS after his return from Burma. After retirement, he served as Defence Secretary and later Chairman of Pakistan International Airline. Major General Rao Farman Ali (Political advisor of the regime in East Pakistan) became Managing Director of Fauji Foundation. He also served in the election cell set up by General Zia in July 1977, to utilize his skills of political manoeuvring which he had sharpened in East Pakistan.

Director General of Inter Services Intelligence (DG ISI) Major General Akbar Khan served as High Commissioner to United Kingdom. Director General of Military Intelligence (DG MI) Major General Iqbal Khan rose to become a four star general and Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (JCSC). Major General Ghulam Omar (Secretary of National Security Council) served as Chairman of National Language Authority after retirement. Director General Military Operations (DGMO) Major General Majeed Malik was promoted to Lt. General. After retirement, he served as ambassador to Morocco and later Minister of Kashmir Affairs.

Lt. General Niazi states that he sent back Brigadier Jahanzeb Arbab to West Pakistan on charges of corruption. Arbab rose to become Lt. General, Corps Commander and Governor of Sindh province. After retirement, he served as ambassador to United Arab Emirates. Niazi after his release from India, became a politician for a while and started to address public rallies. The in charge of Khulna Naval Base, Commander Gul Zareen took a gunboat and escaped towards sea, where he was picked by a foreign ship. This occurred on December 7, nine days before the surrender. It is not known what action, if any, was taken against this officer.

General Musharraf’s comments about accountability of officers accused of misconduct in 1971 is not correct. He stated, “It was a tragic part of our history but the nation should move forward rather than living in the past. We should leave the matter to history. As a Pakistani, I would like to forget 1971”. If the nation forgets 1971, it is more likely that the mistakes will be repeated. Many actors of 1971 have died. It is the moral duty of those who are living to honestly admit about their role. Admitting one’s mistake is a sign of greatness and not weakness. In the strict legal sense, everybody is innocent as no one has been tried in a competent court of law and convicted. There are more higher values, which need to be upheld. The code of conduct of a soldier and moral law necessitates that those individuals who are still alive should come up with the truth rather than attempting to save their distorted sense of ‘honour’.

Conclusion: In a multi-ethnic society like Pakistan, where all ethnic groups are not represented in the institution of armed forces can result in a very complicated situation when army takes control of the state. The military’s seizure of power have the effect of ethnicization of areas of politics not formerly ethnically salient and/or intensifying ethnic awareness where it already exists. This is a prelude to a violent showdown between the state and the aggrieved ethnic group. The country has seen this with Bengalis, Baluchs, Sindhis and Muhajirs.

The reason of opening of old wounds (over) thirty years later is the tragic fact that the nation and its leaders refuse to face the facts. As a nation, the first step for Pakistan is to admit its mistakes and tender apology to Bengalis for the conduct in 1971. For a fresh start, it is essential that all skeletons in the closets should be taken out. Unless, all old demons are taken out from darkness and exorcised, they will keep haunting the nation forever.

[This is the concluding part of the Pakistan Defence Journal analysis released by SAN-Feature Service in four abridged installments.- SAN-Feature Service]

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