By Akbar Ahmed
December 26, 2017
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.
As I was staying with my school friend Tahir Ayub Khan, 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.
In contrast to Ayub Khan, West Pakistani officials were not appreciating the scale of the crisis. 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 bingos, the equivalent of the ‘n-word’ for African Americans. For simply arguing for justice and human rights my wife and I were sarcastically referred to as ‘bingo lovers’.
An articulate and artistic people, Bengalis, in spite of forming the majority province, faced widespread discrimination within the government: there was only one Bengali general among 35 generals in the Pakistan Army and not one central secretary among 20. Although Bengalis had been at the forefront of the Pakistan movement, the military action had been the last straw. Because Bengalis associated the Pakistan power elite with the Punjab province, some Bengali friends warned me that I needed to memorise “I am not a Punjabi” in Bengali in case I was attacked by a mob.
In March that year I was the sub-divisional magistrate in charge of Manikganj sub-division of Dhaka district, when an all-East Pakistan protest strike was called. The strike literally paralysed all administration and movement. There was no communication between headquarters in Dhaka and myself except through sporadic telegraph messages. Rumours of attacks on West Pakistanis were circulating and I was concerned about Zeenat, my newly-married bride.
I wrote a personal hand-written letter to the recently-installed Martial Law Administrator, General Yaqub Khan. I had asked my most trusted orderly to hand-deliver the letter to his headquarters, somehow avoiding the groups of people who had set up the roadblocks. In it I pointed out that my batch of CSP officers were sitting ducks in a civil war situation, and three of them had already been savagely killed. Wives were not spared. Shortly afterwards a man came running from the telegraph office informing me of an urgent order from Martial Law Headquarters in Dhaka. General Yaqub, God bless him, had transferred me to Dhaka. Once there, I managed to get a seat for Zeenat on the daily flight to Karachi, impossibly overbooked due to the rush to get out. I saw her off with several friends, including Major Sabir Kamal who escorted her to her seat. As the plane took off, and Zeenat safely gone, I felt a huge pressure lifted from me.
In Dhaka, I saw the political leadership of Pakistan attempting to salvage the nation. All the big names were there and I had the opportunity to interact with several of them. I took Mr Mahmud Ali Kasuri, the future law minister, around Dhaka in the evenings so he could see the situation for himself. Meanwhile, Wali Khan, as a key member of the National Assembly, argued with the martial law authorities to send me back to Peshawar, as he said the province requested the return of its officer. His pleas fell on deaf ears.
And in the midst of negotiations, Yaqub was ignominiously sacked when he argued against military action in East Pakistan noting the impossibility of holding the province with only three divisions against the Indian Army in the war that would follow. At his send-off at the airport I was one of the very few civilians invited to say goodbye.
President Yahya Khan decided to launch a military operation to crush the opposition. Bengalis who resisted were called ‘miscreants’ — this was a time before the word terrorist was popularised. If the vast majority of Bengalis were in favour of Pakistan before this action, the figures were reversed after it. Just as West Pakistanis were killing Bengalis, Bengalis were also rounding up and killing non-Bengalis. The fate of the Biharis was particularly tragic as in the end they were rejected by both wings of Pakistan. Society was descending into universal anarchy. No one was safe. Hundreds of thousands were raped and killed, and although the final number of deaths is debated, Bengalis claim over three million lives were lost.
Following the military operation, I boarded the flight to Karachi and was seated behind Zulfiqar 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. On disembarking, Bhutto said something about thanking God that Pakistan had been saved. I wondered whether he believed that.
On arrival 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 rainsodden lowlands and deltas of Bengal,” I replied. He looked sombre.
(To be concluded)