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1971 War Hearts Divided but Not the Soul

By Usman Saeed

Bengalis are not alien to us for we co-existed for centuries as part of united India and later until we recognized them as an independent country. Chain of tragic events began with Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman’s Awami Party victory in general elections followed by postponement of National Assembly (NA) inaugural session by the President General Yahya Khan to deny him make the government, suspecting his six point agenda as veiled formula for separation.

Sheikh Mujib was a popular leader who could swing public mood to any limit. To some analysts, his six point agenda was designed for elimination of dominating policies by West Pakistan and acquiring more economic freedom for his province. But for many, the agenda had the germs of armed rebellion and seize power in case it was not likely by the constitutional means.

His six point agenda first appeared in 1966. Who drafted it is still a mystery? India, CIA, intellectuals/economists from East Pakistan or by political advisors of Ayub regime for widening political rift between the politicians? Prima facie, it mentioned faith in Federation of Pakistan, maximum autonomy to the provinces i.e. defence and foreign affairs with the federal government and all other subjects with the provinces, separate foreign exchange reserves, provinces to collect taxes and share federal expenditures, and separate para military forces etc. Sheikh Mujib in his public address shortly before elections reiterated that “Pakistan’s integrity would not be jeopardized.” Like-wise, Mr Taj-ud-Din Ahmad, the General Secretary Awami League also stated that “Integrity and sovereignty of Pakistan shall be maintained.”

Bangladesh Pakistan

The trust deficit, however, about his political motives persisted in the minds of civil-military leadership in West Pakistan.

Awami League’s victory, though all seats were won in the East, gave them different tone and tenor. General Yahya Khan and his political advisors got trapped in a quagmire created by the victory of ethnically homogeneous population stock comprising 54% in the East vis-à-vis politically and ethnically divided population stock comprising 46% in the West. Awami League (AL) demanded from the military regime lifting of Martial Law and unconditional transfer of power. AL also insisted framing of the new constitution in the Assembly, while the second big party from the west wing insisted agreement on principles of new constitution, first outside the Assembly.

Yahya Khan came close to transfer of power to Awami League but categorically rejected Awami League’s demand for lifting martial law. Yahya Khan exhausted all his political options and took final decision for indefinite postponement of NA session until restoration of law and order situation. A flagrant disregard of the democratic decision of the majority through self-created constitutional crisis proved fatal for the country.

Militant’s reaction on first postponement of NA session was extremely barbaric leading to widespread massacre of non-Bengalis in all the districts of East Pakistan. Unfortunately, no solution could be readily found to stem the crisis. The events that followed next were indefinite postponement of NA session, arrest of Sheikh Mujib and his deportation to West Pakistan, Army crackdown on militants, and finally unfortunate outcome of war in favour of overwhelming Indian armed forces. It cleared the hurdle for separation of East Pakistan. International diplomatic efforts in the UN failed to make any impact on the situation. The US Resolution voted up on December 6, 1971 could have retrieved the situation for ceasefire and political settlement but discussion continued and only eleven out of fifteen countries favoured while France USSR, UK and Poland abstained, eventually the inevitable happened on December 16, 1971.

A fatal mistrust made Pakistan suffer an irreparable loss of an educated and hospitable breed of nation, known for her obsession to language, culture, traditions and values. The tragic end notwithstanding, Pakistan remembers fond associations with the class of intellectuals, politicians, diplomats, bureaucrats and armed forces officers/men who were once part of us. Nawab Saleem Ullah tops the list for founding the All India Muslim League in Dhaka and providing platform for freedom movement against the British Empire. Maulvi A.K. Fazlul Haq, who presented the historic Objectives Resolution of 1940 in Lahore was also from Bengal. Three Bengali Prime Ministers of Pakistan i.e. Khawaja Nazim-ud-Din, H.S. Suharwardi, and Muhammad Ali Bogra were also prominent in their role in making first Constitution of Pakistan. Many roads in Pakistan were thus named after them.

The officers and men forming part of armed forces from Bengal were at their best when it came to test during India-Pakistan war in 1965. The East Bengal Rifles fought well in Sialkot and Lahore sectors and won gallantry awards. Magnificent air battles fought by PAF pilots during Pakistan-India 1965 war i.e. Rajshahi born Squadron Leader Sarfraz Rafique (Hilal-e-Jurat & Sitara-e-Jurat) Shaheed, Calcutta born Squadron Leader M. M. Alam, (Sitara-e-Jurat &, Bar), Flight Lieutenant, Saif-ul-Azam, (Sitara-e-Jurat) are unchallenged role models for PAF. Flight Lieutenant Saif-ul-Azam earned further distinction while on deputation to Jordan by shooting down four Israeli-Air-force jets in an air-to-air combat within 72 hours during Arab-Israel war in 1967 over Jordan and Iraq airspaces that has no parallel as yet in the world. Similarly, thousands of valiant West Pakistani officers/men posted in East Pakistan fought bravely against Indian armed forces during 1965 and 1971 wars for territorial integrity and protection of people of East Pakistan and are buried there.

Brojen Das of East Pakistan, the first Asian who successfully swam across English Channel in 1958 is also remembered for his feat that made Pakistan great in formative years. List of high achievers from East Pakistan is long and the scope does not permit mentioning more here.

Hospitality is another blessed virtue of Bengalis though Pakistanis are no less. I recall my visit as part of three member military delegation to Bangladesh (BD). We experienced exceptional hospitality from the BD Army that hosted our stay in Dhaka and Jessore. Cruise in River Meghna, trip to Chittagong and Ranga-Matti Hill Station followed by travel back by speedboat in Karnaphuli River ending the journey at Karnaphuli Dam was extremely memorable. Interaction with common people, we came across in the shopping centres, at Dhaka was also very pleasant. Display of love for Pakistan can still be seen even now during cricket series in Dhaka.

Now that 43 years have passed for both as independent countries, we should forget and condone excesses made by BD militants and security forces then in East Pakistan. According to white paper by Pakistan published in August 1971, more than one hundred thousand men, women and children of non-Bengali origin suffered unmentionable brutalities at the hands of Indian controlled guerillas/militants and were ruthlessly massacred in East Pakistan, whereas not a single incident of retaliation is on record against the Bengalis in West Pakistan. Late Justice Hamood-ur-Rehman, a Bengali gentleman and resident of Pakistan, in his commission report mentions alleged killing of 26000 Bengali militants/citizens by the security forces as against extremely distorted figure of three million by the BD authorities. Whatever may be the reality, those who died like this deserve highest sympathy and respect from both the countries.

Pakistan fortunately is well endowed in terms of natural resources, professional human resource, geographical contiguity with Central Asia, the Middle East and China etc. It is time now to bury the acrimonious past and build our future. Both the countries can bilaterally encourage and mutually benefit from business, investments, trade, tourism, cultural-exchanges, youth interaction, defence cooperation, training, education and health related programs with more relaxed visa policies. A small beginning in any field will lead to a major breakthrough in future.

The writer is a retired Brigadier and Ex. Director ‘Awareness and Prevention Division’ National Accountability Bureau (NAB). [email protected]

(Courtesy Hilal Magazine)