What really happened in 1971!

Posted on August 23, 2013



This is 2006, thirty-five years after the breakup of Pakistan. No one really wants to know why it happened. This should not be surprising because even in 1971, nobody wanted to know why Pakistan had broken up or why the majority had decided to secede, the only instance in history when this has happened, because it is always minorities that secede.

No one in West Pakistan was interested in what was going on in East Pakistan. The army crackdown, which Yahya Khan described to his ADC as the unleashing of tigers, went ahead without a squeak from West Pakistan. The only man, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman said bitterly, who had stood up for the people of Bengal was Abdulla Malik, who told a student meeting at the Engineering University, Lahore, “ Hum Bangladesh ke mazloom awam ke saath hain (We are one with the oppressed people of Bangladesh),” and was promptly arrested and sentenced to a term of imprisonment by a martial law “court” (a session I attended). When the army crackdown came in the East, there was jubilation in the West. The only regret in West Pakistan was that the crackdown hadn’t come earlier. The Bengalis, it was said and popularly believed, were Muslims in name only, since all their teachers were Hindus and their favourite poet was not Iqbal but Rabindranath Tagore. They had to be reconverted to Islam by force, if necessary. After all, it was for the good of their own souls and in the service of Allah. When the balloon went up and 80,000 of Pakistan’s troops surrendered, it caused no trauma or soul searching in West Pakistan, because it was attributed to a grand Indo-Soviet conspiracy. The only elegy for East Pakistan was written by Faiz Ahmed Faiz: Jamay tau kaisay jamay qatl-e-aaam ka mela (This dance of death is like a festival).

A people who do not want to know their past and who do not want to learn from it have no future. And that is where the great merit of Brig Abdul Rehman Siddiqi’s book East Pakistan the Endgame lies. His is one of the few honest books written in Pakistan and every word on its 220 pages is authentic, based on the author’s lived, first-hand experience as the principal spokesman of the Army, which he then was, and since the country was under martial law, as the principal spokesman of the Government of Pakistan. As I read through its pages, I often thought of the lines by Arzoo Lukhnawi: Ab be dharak aye Arzoo, tu keh dey kharri baat: Rassi bhi yahin rakhhi hai sooli bhi garri hai (The time to speak the truth is come: There lies the hangman’s noose and there stands the scaffold). Abdul Rehman Siddiqi, a man who spent his life in uniform, has paid his debt to society and squared his account with history. He has written the story of East Pakistan and the men who made 16 December, 1971, that day of infamy, come upon us.

Siddiqi sums up his case in direct and simple words. “The saddest and the most shocking part of the whole tragedy has been the deep and arguably deliberate silence of the West Pakistani civil society – and the general public and the political leadership – throughout its nine-month long course. Except for a few desultory voices of protest it might have been little more than muted acceptance of a cruel fait accompli.” The one last chance of retrieving Quaid-i-Azam’s Pakistan from the abyss was missed when instead of boycotting the sham elections held to fill the Awami League’s “vacant” assembly seats, “each and every party, including the largest, the Pakistan People’s Party, the minuscule but relatively liberal Tehrik-i-Istiqlal of Asghar Khan, the reputedly principled Jama’at-i-Islami, the various Muslim Leagues etc unashamedly staked their claims to the empty National Assembly seats in East Pakistan, where they had not won a single seat in the general elections.”

Siddiqi writes that while the military junta cannot be forgiven for its unwarranted use of brute force against the people of East Pakistan, the West Pakistani leaders, the high judiciary, in truth, civil society as a whole, all bear their share of blame and shame. “Their sins of omission, in the final tally, would almost evenly balance the military’s sins of commission.” He calls it a “sinful act of bad faith committed by the military with the support of the civilian bureaucracy and much of the political leadership.” As for the Army high command, it just sat in its armchairs, “hoping for the final victory as a gift from God, without even praying for it like good men of faith.”

My view has always been that Yahya and his cabal at no point had any intention of transferring power. The rest is detail. They also at some point took the decision to jettison East Pakistan. The only debate inside the junta was costs. So incompetent was this lot that it could not even lower the costs of its treachery. Some of those who should have been held accountable have since died. Many remain alive and without showing the least sign of shame or guilt. One such whose role Siddiqi details at some length is Gen Muhammad Omar, who is often seen pontificating on national issues on television. Another, Roedad Khan, federal information secretary to Yahya, who now writes soulful newspaper pieces about people’s rights and accountable government, was one of the prime hawks who, on learning of the Army crackdown of March 25, said to Siddiqi, “ Yar iman taaza ho gaya, ” or “my faith stands revived.” Aslam Azhar and Khawaja Shahid Hosain, leading lights of the official electronic media, were as hawkish as Roedad Khan, making films to highlight Bengali atrocities and asking why action was not being taken against the treacherous Bengalis.

As for “Tiger” Niazi, he single-handedly sunk Pakistan. He sanctioned atrocities, including rapes. After the crackdown, every humiliation to which the Army had been subjected during the three weeks of civil disobedience was avenged and things reached a point where an army uniform became the wearer’s ticket to kill, torture or rape. It is to Siddiqi’s great credit that he brings it all out, offering no excuse for such conduct. It was a sign that all it needed was better public relationing.

Siddiqi’s book is dedicated to East Pakistan, “the land I loved,” to which I would like to add that it is a tribute to the greatness and generosity of the people of what was once East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh that they have forgiven us for what we did to them.