1971 war: From its origins to Dec 1971
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The Adamjee Jute Mills riot
One day in May 1954 all of us assembled at 9am. at the Governor’s House to take oath. No sooner had we finished taking our oaths than we learned that Bengali and non-Bengali workers had clashed in Adamjee Jute Mill, leading to widespread violence in the area. Syed Azizul Huq had gone there early in the morning. An EPR [East Pakistan Rifles] contingent and a police force had been stationed there overnight. A couple of high-ranking officials from Dhaka and police officials were also present on the scene.
Why did the violence break out right at the moment when we were taking oath? There could be little doubt that this was a bad omen. Along with Mr Huq, we headed straight for Adamjee Jute Mill. In those days you could go to the mill on a launch via Narayanganj. A road to the mill had been built by then but it was not ready for car traffic although a truck or a jeep could make the trip with some difficulty. The rest of our company had departed but the crowd that had gathered outside the Governor’s House now got hold of me. They wanted me to head a procession right then. It took me half an hour to convince them that this was not the time for me to parade with them.
When I reached Narayanganj I heard that Mr Huq had headed back to Dhaka after waiting there for me for some time. However, he had kept a launch waiting for me. As soon as I reached the spot I boarded the launch and directed it to the mill. There I was put in a jeep. There was still some rioting going on then. In whichever direction I travelled I found the roads strewn with dead bodies. Many wounded people were crying out for help but there seemed to be no one around to give them relief. The EPR forces were on patrol and had managed to separate the Bengalis and the non-Bengalis. Thousands of Bengalis living in neighbouring villages had been informed about the riots and had decided to intervene. Non-Bengalis living outside the mills were being herded into trucks and taken inside the mill premises.
I felt quite helpless. All I had with me were two armed policemen. A little later I came across a few other policemen. I ordered them to be with me. I set up a temporary office under a tree. The mill had four trucks but not one of them was to be seen anywhere near us. I managed to gather some men and entrusted them the task of providing the wounded with water, ignoring the dead bodies for the time being. When some officials noticed that I was taking part in the work they lent a helping hand. Then Mohan Mia appeared before me. Looking at him, I took heart.
Three trucks also soon showed up. Their drivers tried to flee but I warned them that they risked being sent to jail for desertion. My wrath seemed to cow them down. Dhaka had been contacted over the phone and asked to send ambulances to this spot. Mohan Mia and I managed to send at least 300 wounded people to hospitals by working from 11am to nightfall. I went to the Bengalis who had come from everywhere and assembled there to assault the mill and managed to placate them through my speeches. They cooled down after they heard me.
However, I doubt whether they would have been swayed by my words if they had discovered the truth. Just before evening set in I went all around the area and counted over 500 corpses myself. I have no doubt that there must have been at least a hundred bodies more in the pond.
The rioting had started over a trivial matter. Three days ago a Bengali worker had got into a fight with a non-Bengali guard. At one point the Bengali worker hit the guard who died on the spot. This led to tension and intrigue. The guards here were all non-Bengalis as were some of the workers. The incident led to a lot of resentment.
The mill authorities kept on inciting the non-Bengalis to attack. They permitted them to hoist a black flag over the mill. Work was stopped in the mill and the Bengalis were asked to come inside to collect their wages one day. When they came to collect their wages armed guards and non-Bengalis pounced on them from all sides and began to assault them. The Bengalis were taken by surprise. Many were murdered.
Next, the Bengalis who were outside the mill attacked the non-Bengalis and ended up killing many of them. What was the intention behind summoning all the Bengali workers to collect their wages at the time the new United Front cabinet members were taking oath? Although the EPR forces were present they had not fired a single bullet to stop the killing. As a consequence, over 500 people died in the riots. The police officials had been informed beforehand of the possibility of trouble; so why had they not done anything to stop the mayhem?
Mr Syed Azizul Huq, the minister who had come there, was entertained with refreshments in the office so that he could not find out what was going on. He had not been told that while he was being entertained in one part of the mill a riot had erupted in another part. While Mr Huq and the other ministers returned to Dhaka, Mr Mohan Mia and I stayed in the mill premises till 9pm. Mr Madani was the commissioner of Dhaka while Hafiz Mohammad Ishak, CSP [Civil Services of Pakistan], was the chief secretary.
When I informed Mr Madani that 500 people had been killed in the riots he did not believe me at first. Mr Madani declared that at best fifty people had been killed. I told him that I had counted the bodies one by one and he should go there himself to verify my figure. Later, he acknowledged that I was right.
At nine that night Mohan Mia and I were informed that the mill area had been handed over to the military. Mr Shamsuddoha was the IG of police then. He said to me, ‘Good grief! All the military personnel are non-Bengalis.’ I could not resist laughing at this reaction and replied, ‘What is so surprising about this turn of events? Since you could not keep things under control with your policemen and the EPR, what other option was left except to hand over power to the army?’ In those days the EPR was under the control of the provincial government. We would have to go to Dhaka to find out what had really led to this situation. No doubt the chief minister had ordered the army to move in by this time.
We headed straight for the chief minister’s house as soon as we reached Dhaka. When we arrived there we were told that he was very worried about me. He was shouting at everyone and blaming them for leaving me behind at the scene of the riot all by myself. When I met him he greeted me very affectionately. He said to me, ‘We are going to have our cabinet meeting right now, so please don’t go away.’
The cabinet finally met at 10.30 pm. I could see even before the cabinet meeting had started that Mr Shamsuddoha had managed to win over a couple of ministers. Mr Abdul Latif Biswas (who is no longer alive) was asking angrily why the military had been given the responsibility of controlling the situation. Mr Fazlul Huq entered the meeting at this time. We could also hear the chief secretary, Mr Ishaque, exchanging strong words.
I protested against this outburst and said we could deal with these issues later. I told him, ‘Let’s first find out who are the people responsible for not maintaining law and order at the scene before the trouble started and take punitive action against them since their negligence has led to the death of so many people.’ The cabinet meeting now started. We discussed many issues which I am not going to divulge since it is not proper to disclose cabinet proceedings.
By the time the meeting ended and we came out, it was almost 1 am. I could see the veteran Muslim League worker Rajab Ali Shet, an admirer of Mr Suhrawardy, and many other non-Bengali leaders standing outside, waiting for us to come out. They told me that I should immediately visit different parts of Dhaka city. Apparently the city was in the grip of a rumour that non-Bengalis were massacring Bengalis everywhere. Non-Bengalis were in danger of being attacked at any moment.
Taking Rajab Ali Shet and a few others along with me, I set out immediately. Even at that time of the night street corners were full of people. I got out of the car at intersections, addressed the crowd that had gathered at those spots and tried to calm people down, with some success. By the time I reached home it was 4 am. I had not been able to spend even five minutes at home since I had taken oath. Moreover, I had not eaten anything throughout the day. I found [my wife] Renu waiting silently for me in the house—she too had not taken any food all day.
I have no doubts that these riots were the result of a huge conspiracy aimed at belittling the United Front government and showing it as incompetent in the eyes of the whole world. The conspiracy must have been hatched in Karachi a few days ago and the conspirators must have involved a particular government official and some mill personnel. Capitalists have resorted to this means of inciting riots and creating strife amidst hapless workers over the ages to achieve their own political ends. But I am not so sure if the owner of Adamjee Jute Mill, Malik Gul Mohammad Adamjee, was aware of the conspiracy.
Excerpted with permission from ‘The Unfinished Memoirs’ (published by Penguin Random House)
1966-16 Dec 1971
May 31, 1966 | ‘Mass upsurge against Ayub rule in East Pakistan ’
On February 5 that year, Awami League president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had in Lahore announced the Six-Point Programme, “the national demand of the people of East Pakistan”:
● A federal government for East Pakistan
● A separate reserve bank and currency
● Administrative autonomy (barring on defence and foreign policy)
● A paramilitary force
● Autonomy on fiscal affairs
● Control over its own monetary and trade policies
Campaigning across East Pakistan for the next four months, he was repeatedly arrested. The “direct action” Awami League called for would be within a week from the date of this report, on June 7. That day, armed forces opened fire and killed at least 11
January 19, 1968 | ‘Mujibur Rahman held: Pak ‘plot’ ’
In what came to be known as the ‘Agartala conspiracy case’, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and 34 others were implicated in conspiring against the government to “detach East Pakistan from the rest of the country”. Why Agartala? Because the Pakistan government said Rahman went to the Tripura capital to seek Indian support for an independent capital
March 24, 1968 | ‘E Pak autonomy demand not subdued by arrests ’
As arrests continued, support for Rahman and those named as suspects grew in East Pakistan
November 4, 1968 | ‘Bhutto’s party will challenge President Ayub’s leadership ’
With the first general direct election due in two years, the political backdrop to the movement was changing. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who had served as foreign minister between 1963 and 1966, had fallen out with the Ayub Khan government. In 1967, he founded the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). This report says “restoration of complete democracy and adult franchise” were his primary planks
November 20, 1968 | ‘Struggle in Pakistan, Asghar Khan enters the fray ’
The embattled President Ayub Khan’s regime found resistance on all sides. Air Marshal Asghar Ali Khan, who had served as commander-in-chief of the Pakistan Air Force at 36, set up the Tehrik-e-Istikbal, or Solidarity Party, in 1968 to go up against Ayub Khan and Bhutto’s PPP
March 25, 1969 | ‘Gen Yahya Khan takes over in bid to stem bloodshed ’
Ayub Khan stepped down after “weeks of near anarchy in East Pakistan”
December 7, 1970 | ‘Awami League sweeps polls in E Pakistan ’
December 9, 1970 | ‘Pak poll throws up two kinds of leadership ’
With 160 of the 162 general seats and all seven women’s seats in East Pakistan and a 39% vote share overall, Rahman’s Awami League emerged as the clear winner among 24 parties contesting Pakistan’s first general elections. The other frontrunner, PPP, won 81 general seats and five women’s seats, all in West Pakistan. But the national assembly was never convened because neither Yahya Khan nor Bhutto were willing to cede space to an East Pakistan party in the federal government
March 26, 1971 | Mujib proclaims free Bangla Desh ’
With this proclamation, the movement for autonomy turned into one for liberation. On March 25, Yahya Khan refused to accept Rahman’s demand for a separate constitution. No headway was being made on the Six-Point Programme and, on March 7, Rahman had in an address asked the people of East Pakistan to be prepared for a struggle. When Yahya Khan cut the talks short, Rahman and other Bengali nationalist leaders got word that a military crackdown was being planned. That night, Operation Searchlight was launched, killing intellectuals, students and supporters of the East Pakistan movement. Rahman declared independence
April 12, 1971 | ‘Rangpur is ringed, claims Mukti Fouz ’
The Mukti Bahini, or Liberation Army, was set up by survivors of Operation Searchlight. Within days, the resistance had formed its own military force led by MAG Osmani, who had retired from the Pakistan Army as a colonel in 1967
November 30, 1971 | ‘Pak troops must quit Bangla Desh, says PM ’
The Pakistan Army continued its clampdown in Bangladesh, burning villages, killing people. Since March that year, Indira Gandhi had been mustering international support for the Bangladesh cause, writing to leaders, allowing the Bangladesh government-in-exile to be set up in Calcutta. By November, Indian troops had been stationed at the borders but no action was taken. Indira Gandhi told the Rajya Sabha that the people of Bangladesh would not “settle for anything less than liberation”
December 2, 1971 | ‘Army told to act as Agartala is strafed’
( ‘Pak rocket attack on Agartala’)
Soon after this attack, Pakistan launched airstrikes on Amritsar, Pathankot, Srinagar, Avantipur, Utterlai, Jodhpur, Ambala and Agra. On December 3, Indira Gandhi told the nation in a radio broadcast that Pakistan had launched “full-scale war against us” and “We have no other option but to put our country on a war footing.”
December 4, 1971 | ‘Pak air power decimated ’
(‘Deep Indian thrust into Bangladesh. Hill feature near Haji Pir taken. Attacks repulsed in Jammu, Punjab. Army teams up with Mukti Bahini’)
In 2 days, the Indian Air Force secured complete control over the Bangladesh airspace. The Navy, in its first fight for India, moved its first aircraft carrier INS Vikrant into the Bay of Bengal. Bangladesh was “completely cut off” from Pakistan
December 5, 1971 | ‘2 Pak destroyers and sub sunk ’
(‘Jawans make deep thrust into Sind’)
Pakistan’s submarine Ghazi was destroyed in the Bay of Bengal and almost 50 tonnes of bombs dropped on Pakistan airbases at Tejgaon and Kurmitola. On the ground, Indian Army joined the Mukti Bahini at the Akhaura war field (in Tripura) and launched an attack — the Pakistan army surrendered and Akhaura was “freed”
December 6, 1971 | ‘India recognises Bangla Desh ’
(‘Death-knell of two-nation theory sounded. 3 alarms in city: 2 killed, 43 hurt by empty shells. Key town of Feni captured’)
“The Government of India has, after most careful consideration, decided to grant recognition to the Gana Prajatantri Bangladesh,” Indira Gandhi told the Lok Sabha. An upset US cut off aid to India
December 7, 1971 | ‘Jessore and Sylhet liberated ’
(‘Major thrust towards Dacca imminent. Supremacy in air is complete, says Ram. Indian army in Bangla Desh at Bahini’s behest’)
The Indian Army captured Jessore and Sylhet, both Pakistani strongholds until then. Eight months before this, Pakistan had driven “the then-ravaged Bengali insurgents out of” Jessore
December 9, 1971 | ‘Enemy on the run in Bangla Desh ’
(‘Bid to escape by sea will be thwarted. Comilla, Brahmanberia liberated’)
The Indian army’s capture of Comilla, along with that of Jhenida, a town north of Jessore, cut off Pakistan army’s access to Dhaka. A day before this, the Indian Navy had launched an attack on West Pakistan’s Karachi
December 10, 1971 | ‘Bridgehead established on Meghna ’
December 11, 1971 | ‘More towns fall on way to Dacca’ (‘Mass surrender by beleaguered Pakistani troops. Plans to fly aliens out of Dacca fails’)
As control over Dhaka became the focal point of military operations, the Indian Army and Mukti Bahini airlifted Indian troops across the Meghna river to its western banks in a direct standoff with the Pakistan forces
December 16, 1971 | ‘India orders ceasefire’
(‘Goal achieved, no point in carrying on conflict: PM. Yahya to fight on. Pak troops give up in Desh. Collaborators to face trial. Nixon wants pull-out’)
For the next five days, the Indian army kept surging forward and, on December 16, took Dhaka. The war came to an end. Pakistan Eastern Command Commander Lieutenant General A A K Niazi surrendered to Indian Eastern Commander Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Aurora with 93,000 Pakistan troops laying down arms
==Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in jail: Mar 71-Jan 72== The New York Times, January 18, 1972: Dec 15, 2021: The Times of India
He kissed his weeping wife and children goodbye, telling them what they knew too well—that he might never return. Then the West Pakistani soldiers prodded him down the stairs, hitting him from behind with their rifle butts. He reached their jeep and then, in a reflex of habit and defiance, said: “I have forgotten my pipe and tobacco. I must have my pipe and tobacco!”
The soldiers were taken aback, puzzled, but they escorted him back into the house, where his wife handed him the pipe and the tobacco pouch. He was then driven off to nine and a half months of imprisonment by the Pakistani government for his leadership of the Bengali autonomy movement here in East Pakistan. That was a piece of his narrative today as Sheik Mujibur Rahman related for the first time the full story of his arrest and imprisonment and narrow escapes from death—and his release a week ago.
‘Let them kill me in my own house’ Relaxed and with little bitterness, and sometimes laughing at his good fortune, the Prime Minister of the newly proclaimed nation of Bangladesh talked in fluent English with a handful of American newspaper correspondents. He leaned back on a couch in the sitting room of the occasional official residence of his captor, former President Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan of Pakistan, who is himself now under house arrest in West Pakistan, and started from the beginning—the night of March 25.
His pipe and tobacco pouch lay on a coffee table in front of him. He said he had learned of a plot by the Pakistani military regime to kill him and lay it to the Bengalis. “Whenever I came out of the house,” he related, “they were going to throw a grenade at my car and then say Bengali extremists did it and that was why the army had to move in and take action against my people. I decided I must stay in my own house and let them kill me in my own house, so that everybody would know they had killed me, and my blood would purify my people.”
That day, March 25, with reports mounting that an army crackdown was imminent against the popularly elected movement seeking to end the long West Pakistani domination and exploitation of the more populous eastern region, Sheik Mujib had sent his oldest son, Kamal, and his two daughters into hiding. His wife, keeping their youngest son, Russell, close by her, refused to leave their modest two‐story house in the Dhanmondi section of Dacca.
Recorded ‘last message’ to people before arrest Unknown to them, their middle son, Jamal, was still in the house, sleeping in his room.
By 10pm Sheik Mujib had received word that West Pakistani troops had taken up positions to attack the civilian population. A few minutes later troops surrounded his house and a mortar shell exploded nearby.
He had made some secret preparations for such an attack. At 10.30pm he called a clandestine headquarters in Chittagong, the southeastern port city, and dictated a last message to his people, which was recorded and later broadcast by a secret transmitter. The gist of the broadcast was that they should resist any army attack and fight on regardless of what might happen to their leader. He also spoke of independence for the 75 million people of East Pakistan.
Sheik Mujib related that after sending his message he ordered away the men of the East Pakistan Rifles, a paramilitary unit, and of the Awami League, his political party, who were guarding him.
The West Pakistani attack throughout the city began at about 11pm and quickly mounted in intensity. The troops began firing into Sheik Mujib's house between midnight and 1am. He pushed his wife and the two children into his dressing room upstairs and they all got down on the floor as the bullets whizzed overhead.
The troops soon broke into the house, killing a watchman who had refused to leave, and stormed up the stairs. Sheik Mujib said he opened the door of the dressing room and faced them saying: “Stop shooting! Stop shooting! Why are you shooting? If you want to shoot me, then shoot me; here I am, but why are you shooting my people and my children?”
After another flurry a major halted the men and told them there would be no more shooting. He told Sheik Mujib he was being arrested and, at his request, allowed him a few moments to say his farewells.
He kissed each member of the family and, he recalled, said to them: “They may kill me. I may never see you again. But my people will be free some day and my soul will see it and be happy.”
‘My captors served me tea’ He was driven to the National Assembly building, “where I was given a chair.”
“Then they offered me tea,” he recalled in a voice that became mocking. “I said, ‘That's wonderful. Wonderful situation. This ‘is the best time of my life to have tea.’”
After a while he was taken to “a dark and dirty room” at a school in the military cantonment. For six days he spent his days in that room and his nights—midnight to 6am— in a room in the residence of the martial‐law administrator, Lieutenant General Tikka Khan, the man the Bengalis consider most responsible for the military repression, in which hundreds of thousands of Bengalis were tortured and killed.
On April 1, Sheik Mujib said, he was flown to Rawalpindi, in West Pakistan—separated from East Pakistan by over a thousand miles of Indian territory—and then moved to Mianwali Prison and put in the condemned cell. He passed the next nine months alternating between that prison and two others, at Lyallpur and at Sahiwal, all in the northern part of Punjab Province. The military government began proceedings against him on 12 charges, six of which carried the death penalty. One was “waging war against Pakistan.”
Sheik Mujib, who is a lawyer, knew he had no chance of being acquitted, so he tried delaying tactics. “I was playing a game with them too,” he said, smiling. “I was trying to get some time.”
Why did he send lawyer away? At first he demanded to be defended by A K Brohi, West Pakistan's most eminent lawyer, who is respected by all factions. Mr Brohi was finally assigned to him and began preparing the defense. After several months the trial opened at Lyallpur, at which time Sheik Mujib did a sudden about‐face, announcing that he wanted to enter no defense, so Mr Brohi could be sent home.
President Yahya Khan issued a new martial‐law order saying that Sheik Mujib had to have a lawyer whether he wanted one or not. “You see how they were ‘protecting my rights,’” Sheik Mujib related. “They just wanted a certificate to hang me.”
The trial ended on December 4— the second day of the Indian Pakistani war that grew out of the East Pakistan crisis and ended in an Indian victory and the proclamation of East Pakistan's independence under the name Bangladesh.
“Yahya called all the members of the military court to Rawalpindi to draft their findings in a hurry,” Sheik Mujib said, “but then he got all busy with the war.”
The verdict, which might have looked somewhat ridiculous in the middle of a full scale conflict, was never announced, but on December 7 Sheik Mujib was moved back to Mianwali. On December 15, the day before the Pakistani surrender in the East, General Yahya Khan's plan for Sheik Mujib, which he learned of the next morning, was set in motion.
Almost killed by prison mates Mianwali sits in the home district of Lieutenant General A A K Niazi, who had replaced General Tikka Khan as commander in East Pakistan. On the 15th the prisoners, all of whom were from the district, were told that General Niazi had been killed by the Bengalis and that when their cell doors opened the next morning they were to kill Sheik Mujib. They agreed enthusiastically, he said.
At 4am, two hours before the killing was to take place, Sheik Mujib related, the prison superintendent, who was friendly to him, opened his cell. “Are you taking me to hang me?” asked Sheik Mujib, who had watched prison employees dig a grave in the compound outside his cell (they said it was a trench for his protection in the event of Indian air raids.) The superintendent, who was greatly excited, assured the prisoner that he was not taking him for hanging.
Sheik Mujib was still dubious. “I told him, ‘If you're going to execute me, then please give me a few minutes to say my last prayers.’”
“No, no, there's no time!” said the superintendent, pulling at Sheik Mujib. “You must come with me quickly!”
As they slipped out of the prison the superintendent explained the plot. He took his prisoner to his own house about a mile away and kept him there for two days. The war was ending and there was considerable confusion in official circles, and on December 18 the superintendent told Sheik Mujib that word had leaked out about him and he had to move.
The official, who was also superintendent of police in the district, then took the Bengali leader to an unoccupied house several miles away. He was there nine days when soldiers asked the superintendent where he was. The superintendent said he did not know. The officer in charge then told the superintendent that there was no reason to hide Sheik Mujib or be frightened because Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the West Pakistani politician who had taken power from the discredited generals on December 19, simply wanted to see Sheik Mujib and talk with him.
Sheik Mujib emerged and was immediately flown to Rawalpindi, where he was put under house arrest in the President's guest house.
Yahya Khan’s one regret: He didn’t kill Mujib After a few days, Mr Bhutto, the leader of the majority party in the West, who had collaborated with the army in the moves that led to the crackdown and repression in East Pakistan, went to see Sheik Mujib, who said he greeted him: “Bhutto, what are you doing here?” Sheik Mujib says he had learned of Mr Bhutto's accession to power but was doing a little leg pulling.
“I am the President and also the chief martial‐law administrator,” was the reply, according to Sheik Mujib. “A wonderful situation.”
Mr Bhutto said, Sheik Mujib recalled, that when General Yahya Khan was handing over power to him, he said that his one great regret was that he had not killed Sheik Mujib and asked if he could “finish this one piece of work.” Mr Bhutto told Sheik Mujib that the general offered to predate the papers so it would appear that the execution took place under him. Mr Bhutto refused.
Sheik Mujib said today that the reason he refused was largely political. Mr Bhutto reasoned, he said, that if the Bengali leader was executed, they would kill the nearly 100,000 Pakistani soldiers who had surrendered in East Pakistan and then the people of the Punjab and the North‐West Frontier Province—where most of the West Pakistani troops come from—would blame Mr Bhutto and rise against his government.
Sheik Mujib said that Mr Bhutto kept pressing him to enter into negotiations to retain some link, no matter how tenuous, between the two Pakistani regions.
‘Free me or kill me’ “I told him I had to know one thing first—am I free or not?” Sheik Mujib said. “If I'm free, let me go. If I'm not, I cannot talk.” “You're free,” he quoted Mr Bhutto as saying, “but I need a few days before I can let you go.”
Despite the promise of freedom, Sheik Mujib said, he did not discuss substantive matters with Mr Bhutto.
At another point, when Mr Bhutto had been contending that the two wings were still united by law and tradition, Sheik Mujib—reminding him that the Awami League won a national majority in the last election, the results of which were never honored — said: “Well, if Pakistan is still one country, then you are not President and chief martial‐law administrator. I am.”
On January 7 the President went to see Sheik Mujib for the third and last time. The Bengali leader said he told him: “You must free me tonight. There is no more room for delaying. Either free me or kill me.”
Sheik Mujib said Mr Bhutto replied that it was difficult to make arrangements at such short notice, but finally agreed to fly him to London. Sheik Mujib said that as Mr. Bhutto saw him off, he was still asking him to consider a political tie with West Pakistan.
(Photos: Wikipedia, 100 years of Mujib website)
1971 war: From its origins to Dec 1971
A day-to-day account, from December 3-16, of the 1971 India-Pakistan war. East Pakistan seceded from then Pakistan dominion and was declared the People's Republic of Bangladesh, with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as its first prime minister
December 3: Pakistan Air Force launches air strikes against Indian airfields in the Western Sector, including Amritsar, Pathankot, Srinagar, Avantipura, Ambala, Sirsa, Halwara, Agra
December 3 to 6: Indian Air Force retaliates by attacking Pakistan air bases in Western and Eastern sectors. Pakistan attacks Indian ground positions in Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir
December 4: Battle of Longewala takes place in Rajasthan where Pakistani advance towards Jaisalmer is thwarted
December 5: Battle of Ghazipur in East Pakistan. Battle of Basantar in Western sector in Pakistan’s Punjab in the Shakargarh salient near Sialkot. Battle of Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur district of Punjab
December 6: India formally recognises Bangladesh as an independent nation. City of Jessore is liberated
December 7: Battle of Sylhet and Moulovi Bazaar begins in Bangladesh
December 8: Indian Navy launches attack on the Pakistani port city of Karachi
December 9: Indian Army fights Battle of Kushtia in Bangladesh. Chandpur and Daudkandi liberated. A helicopter bridge airlifts Indian troops across Meghna river and makes the fall of Dhaka a matter of time
December 10: Chittagong air base in Bangladesh attacked by Indian Air Force aircraft
December 11: Tangail airdrop of a Parachute Battalion to cut off retreating Pakistani troops in Bangladesh
December 12 to 16: Indian forces push through to Dhaka and enter the city. Pakistan Eastern Command Commander Lt Gen AAK Niazi signs the instrument of surrender and capitulates to Indian Eastern Commander Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora. As many as 93,000 Pakistani troops lay down their arms in Bangladesh
December 16, 1971: Ray, the then JS (Pakistan) recalls
Around 1100 hrs on December 16, 1971, the telephone on my desk in the makeshift office in Calcutta tinkled. Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora was on the line. In a voice through which peeped his barely concealed glee, he asked me if I was ready to travel. On my positive response he said, “Then put on a new suit and meet me at Dum Dum at 2pm.”
“You mean it is pucca?”
“Yes, it is. It will be at 1600 hrs.”
“What about clearance from Delhi about me?”
“Chief will be speaking with your Secretary.”
“OK then, I’ll see you at 1400 hrs.”
Like a good civil servant I rang up Secretary SK Banerji in the MEA. He said, “Go ahead”. A few words of instructions to my officers and I was prepared to leave wearing my old Sears Roebuck suit. I had asked (IFS colleague) Arundhati Ghose to ring up my wife in Delhi and tell her that I was off to Dhaka. Wisely she pointed out that it would be better to spare her the worry.
From Dum Dum we took off promptly in an IAF HS-748 with AVM HC Dewan personally in command. The flight was uneventful although there was no certainty that a trigger-happy Pakistani ack-ack gunner would not fire a couple of shells. The sight of the enormous expanse of the Padma south of Narayanganj drew gasps of surprise from those who had not seen it before. As we flew over the course of the Meghna we could still see wisps of smoke hanging in the air. In about an hour we landed at Agartala, and flew thence in an Alouette to Dhanmandi airport at Dhaka where the runway still showed the craters made by Mig-21s in ground attack role.
The first to greet us was Maj Gen (later Lt Gen) JFR Jacob, Chief of Staff Eastern Command, who had flown in much earlier. I was glad to see Maj Gen Gandharv Nagra, my coursemate at NDC (National Defence College). Then came Lt Gen A A K Niazi, commander of the Pakistani forces, in a crisply pressed uniform and reeking of perfume. We got into his car and drove to the Ramna Maidan where a simple table and a few chairs were placed. Aurora carried the bound document of the Instrument of Surrender.
There was a problem over who would represent the Bangladesh government. The three battalion commanders, Lt Cols Shafiullah, Khaled Musharraf and Zia-ur-Rahman were at locations from where they could not be air-lifted in time. So the choice fell on the only armed forces officer available at Mujibnagar, Gp Capt AK Khondkar, the chief of the newly formed BAF. His uniform was not ready. So he flew with us in mufti.
At the Maidan there were just about 300 of our troops (Pakistani forces at Dhaka numbered approx 3,000), and there were perhaps a couple of thousand spectators not quite sure about what they were going to see.
Niazi signed the Instrument, put down his side-arm, took off his Sambrown and belt, and broke into tears. This was the man about whom an American female journalist had written from Karachi, “When Tiger Niazi’s tanks roll, the Indians will run for their lives.” Suddenly, someone in the crowd shouted, “That’s ‘sala’ Niazi,” and all hell broke loose.
Nagra, I and a dozen others formed a human chain around Niazi. Nagra bunged him into a jeep and drove like the blazes towards the Cantonment. We had to protect Niazi; he was a POW now. If we had not done what we did, Niazi would have been lynched by the crowd.
I broke off to pay a courtesy call on Begum Mujib. Sheikh Hasina was also there. So stupendous was the impact of the event that it was difficult to talk about anything. It was a moment to be savoured. As we sat there we could still hear occasional bursts of rifle fire, the dying gasps of a war that had just ended.
Back at the airport, I found that the helicopter allotments had gone haywire in the mad rush of media persons to get back to Agartala. Gp Capt Khondkar also was almost in danger of being left behind. Finally, we managed to squeeze into an Alouette and in the swiftly gathering winter dusk flew towards Agartala.
There was to be a celebration at the Officers’ Club at Fort William. It seemed too far away. We broke an IAF regulation and started the celebration on the IAF HS-748 to Calcutta.
Then I was back again in my bedroom at the rear of the makeshift office on Ballygunge Park Road, Calcutta, waiting for my dinner. As far as I was concerned, the war was over. The end of a war is always somewhat an anti-climax, a sandwich made of two slices – victory and defeat – and in between a spread of exultation and grief, fulfillment and heartbreak, hope and fear – and in the end every good soldier knows what a terrible waste war is.
The night was not for sleep, but for a slow and somewhat sentimental journey into the past, memory touching every event, every incident with infinite gentleness and affection. One can recall history, but not live its passions again. They die with those who lived with them and in them.
(Lead photo: Courtesy Reshmi Dasgupta)
India began the war, not Pakistan. It started with a multi-pronged invasion of East Pakistan on November 21, assisted by the Mukti Bahini (Bangladeshi rebels trained and armed by India). India planned the invasion date to coincide with Id, to help catch the Pakistan army by surprise. The Indian government rejected Pakistani complaints that an invasion had begun and said there were merely ongoing border clashes. But foreign correspondents like the New York Times’ Sydney Schanberg sent on-the-spot reports of Indian troops entering across a wide swath. The Economist, London, said it would now be a race between UN Security Council intervention and a Pakistani counter-attack in the West. India had that summer signed a quasi-defence treaty with the USSR, which vetoed any intervention by the UN Security Council. To raise the stakes and increase chances of US intervention, Pakistan counter-attacked by bombing Indian targets in the West on December 3.
Ultimately it was a 26-day war and not a 13-day one. Pakistan did not start the war and had no motive to do so — it knew it was hopelessly outnumbered in the East and India would have complete military control of the skies. But India had every motive for a war that would give India a friend rather than foe in the East. Detaching Bangladesh from Pakistan meant India would never again have to fight a two-front war against Pakistan. It also meant China could no longer threaten to militarily link up with East Pakistan by capturing the “chicken’s neck” region that connects West Bengal with Assam. Of course, Indian justified its invasion in high moral terms, as the liberation of a territory devastated by Pakistan army genocide, and to facilitate the return of 10 million refugees who had fled to India.
In March 1971, Pakistan arrested Mujibur Rahman, head of the Awami League, for attempting secession. On hearing of this Mujib’s followers led by Tajuddin Ahmad, who had earlier been ambiguous on secession, declared independence and set up a Provisional Government of Bangladesh at the small town of Chuadanga. The only rationale for choosing Chuadanga was that it was far from Dhaka and close to the Indian border and so they could hope, with Indian assistance, to resist for a long time. Meanwhile the Mukti Bahini and rebel Bangladeshi forces attempted, mostly in vain, to combat the Pakistan army advance.
My assignment in The Times of India was to do a daily column titled ‘Gains and Losses’ summing up the military and political events across East Pakistan. I was instructed to play up all positive stories of heroic Bangladeshi resistance and play down reports of Pakistani advances. The newspaper made no pretence of independence or impartiality: it saw itself as a patriotic propaganda tool. However, the advance of the Pakistan army was so swift that the pretence could not be kept up for long. A sad day quickly came when the Bangladesh Provisional Government had to flee from Chuadanga to India. Naturally, I led my column with that news, but was told to relegate that low down. Instead, I was told to lead with a story of a Mukti Bahini attack on a power station in Ashuganj. I could not see how this helped the Bangladeshi cause, but then patriotism is never very logical.
Tajuddin Ahmad and his provisional government started functioning from Kolkata. But for propaganda purposes the Indian government decided to create a fictional town called Mujibnagar, inside the Bangladesh border, from where the Provisional Government led the resistance. This was supposed to somehow confer greater credibility on Tajuddin. But why? In World War II, governments-in-exile of Poland and France operated from London with no loss of credibility.
Dozens of Indian newspapers descended on Mujibnagar to take photos of and have interviews with Tajuddin Ahmad and his colleagues. No newspaper denounced or questioned the wisdom of the fiction. After all, the outcome was clearly going to be determined by Indian military action. Whether the Provisional Government was located in Kolkata or Mujibnagar could make no difference. But in the patriotic zeal of those days, as that army man said, it was given to some to die for the country and others to lie for it.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in jail: Mar 71-Jan 72
A grave for Sheikh Mujibur Rahman
Mohanlal Bhaskar was being held in Mianwali jail in Pakistan when Sheikh Mujibur Rehman was brought there in a chopper. A few days later, a jail official picked Bhaskar and seven other Indian inmates to dig a ditch in the block where Sheikh Mujib had a cell. The instructions were specific – the ditch should be eight feet in length and four feet in width and depth. An excerpt from Mohanlal Bhaskar’s book ‘I was India’s spy in Pakistan’
Winter was still tiptoeing in when a chopper alighted inside the prison’s compound. The next morning, we learnt that Sheikh Mujibur Rehman had been brought in from the Lyallpur prison. We also learnt that at the Lyallpur jail, some soldiers belonging to the East Bengal Regiment had attempted to smuggle him out through a secretly-dug tunnel. He was lodged in Mianwali prison’s women inmates’ block. The women inmates were shifted to another barrack. The women inmates’ block lay at the back of barrack number 10.
We, the Indian inmates of the jail, had been shifted to barrack number 10 just days ago. Sheikh Mujibur Rehman was kept amid strict, round-the-clock surveillance by guards from a Pakistani army contingent. His cook prepared his meals, comprising mostly rice and fish.
The next day, when it was confirmed that Sheikh Mujib was in the jail, the Pathans among the prisoners scaled the barracks’ roofs and let out a torrent of filthy abuses aimed at his mother and sisters and threw torn shoes and stones at the women inmates’ block. A few guards got hit with the torn shoes and rocks. The guards subsequently scaled the barracks’ roofs and fired bullets in the air, six shots, to scare the troublemakers who thereafter climbed down. The Pathans, however, continued abusing Sheikh Mujib from their barracks.
Later, the jail’s chief, Chaudhary Naseer, undertook a round of the prison and passed on a message to the inmates – ‘You all must chill. Sheikh Mujib has been brought here to be hanged.’ The clarification sent a wave of jubilation through the jail with the Pakistani inmates breaking into chants of ‘Ya Ali’, ‘Ya Ali’.
We, the Indian inmates, craved a glimpse of Sheikh Mujib. But that was impossible. Yet, the heart yearned to see the ‘Bengal Lion’, who had managed to awaken his people against tyranny and exploitation. He had sacrificed his own family in doing so. As per reports, Sheikh Mujib’s son was shot dead when the latter was being taken into custody. Only his daughter, Sheikh Hasina [Bangladesh’s current prime minister], survived.
We once met his cook in the jail’s storeroom, where one went to collect the ration. The cook was there to pick up the ration meant for Sheikh Mujib. We could not speak to him in the presence of guards. The store’s clerk, however, could not resist a dig: “So, how is the traitor Mujib doing?’ The cook was a tough nut. He responded: “Sheikh Saheb is perfectly fine and healthy and in a good mental space. He keeps saying that he will continue to fight for the rights of the Bengalis till his last breath.”
One day, one of the prison’s senior officials, Fazaldad, arrived at our barrack with a warden in tow and ordered his junior to pick eight Indian prisoners. There was no word about what task we were being assigned. When we were led to the women’s block, where Sheikh Mujib had been lodged, we thought finally we would get a glimpse of the great man. But we found all the windows in the block had been shuttered with wooden screens.
Fazaldad ordered us to dig a ditch – eight feet in length and four feet in width and depth. We deduced instantly that Sheikh Mujib would be hanged and that we were digging his grave. We got on with the job. None of us had the guts to ask Fazaldad what the ditch was for.
No Pakistani inmate was involved in the digging. The jail officials probably thought that the news would be leaked if Pakistanis in the jail got a whiff. By late evening, we had finished the task. Then the wait began, our ears straining for any sound from the gallows.
But nothing happened that night. It seemed the hanging had been postponed. The next morning, when the wards were thrown open, some were saying that the Sheikh was still alive while others claimed he was killed with a poison injection then buried in the grave we had dug last night. But these were all speculations.
Later in the day, when we reached the storeroom to collect our share of jaggery and chana, Sheikh Mujib’s cook was there to collect for him tea leaves, milk and sugar. That was a clear indication that Sheikh Mujib was alive. We later learnt that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had met Pakistan’s President Yahya Khan to ask him to stop the execution. The logic he [Bhutto] had given was that if Sheikh Mujib was hanged, the Bengalis’ anger would burn and destroy the entire rank and file of the Pakistani armed forces stationed in East Pakistan.
The next evening, we were again brought out of our wards and asked to fill up the ditch. We were happy that we had been spared of becoming a part of such a dubious event. But a fortnight later, we were again taken out of our cells and asked to dig a new grave. On this occasion too, Sheikh Mujib was not hanged. And this routine was repeated twice again and each time we were asked the next morning to fill the ditch up.
This is how Sheikh Mujib spent his four months of incarceration at Mianwali prison’s women’s inmates’ block – awaiting to be executed any day, any hour.
When Bangladesh came into being eventually, Sheikh Mujib became its first President. But none would have imagined that the people for whom he had sacrificed everything, including his family, would assassinate him.
A few months before President Mujib was killed, R&AW had got intel of the plot. When the plan for the assassination was being prepared at a secret meeting attended by Bangladeshi army officers, one of the participants there was our mole. He subsequently scribbled a note on the deliberations on a slip of paper and dumped it in a waste bin. An agent of ours later picked up the note.
R&AW’s chief R N Kao posed as a betel-leaf seller to slip into Bangladesh. He met Sheikh Mujib and alerted him about the plot. Sheikh Mujib laughed saying: “How is that possible? They are my sons, they cannot murder me.”
Mujibur Rehman was assassinated at the behest of Bangladesh army’s chief Ziaur Rahman. I go down the memory lane even today, reminiscing about those days when Sheikh Mujib had been imprisoned at the Mianwali prison. Ropes for hanging him had been prepared, graves were dug up. His enemies could not kill him. However, it was his own who assassinated him.
Translated by Abhishek Saran. This memoir, published by Rajkamal Prakashan, won the prestigious Shrikant Verma Award in 1989
Note: Mohanlal Bhaskar was repatriated to India in 1974. He passed away in 2004
[Mohanlal Bhaskar’s account of the events inside Mianwali jail was confirmed by Sheikh Mujibur Rehman himself weeks after he returned to East Pakistan and was elected prime minister of Bangladesh. This is what he told a group of journalists from the US, this NYT story reports:
At 4am, two hours before the killing was to take place, Sheik Mujib related, the prison superintendent, who was friendly to him, opened his cell. “Are you taking me to hang me?” asked Sheik Mujib, who had watched prison employees dig a grave in the compound outside his cell (they said it was a trench for his protection in the event of Indian air raids.) The superintendent, who was greatly excited, assured the prisoner that he was not taking him for hanging.
Sheik Mujib was still dubious. “I told him, ‘If you're going to execute me, then please give me a few minutes to say my last prayers.’”
“No, no, there's no time!” said the superintendent, pulling at Sheik Mujib. “You must come with me quickly!”]
Bangladesh PM’s family flees to Sonamura, Tripura
Tajuddin Ahmad led the Provisional Government of Bangladesh as its prime minister during the Liberation War in 1971. He thus was the first prime minister of Bangladesh
His daughter Seemin Hossain Rimi (then 16), along with her family escaped to Tripura after a murderous military crackdown during the 1971 war for liberation of Bangladesh
Sonamura a small town bordering Comilla district of Bangladesh, sheltered thousands of refugees from East Pakistan during the war.
In 2021, Rimi, by then a Member of Bangladesh's Parliament, made the journey back to thank the people of Tripura.
“I cannot believe that I am standing before the bungalow of the then Sub-divisional Officer, who arranged for our shelter and gave us security. My tears now are of joy...,” she said in 2021. PTI
India’s Grand Strategy
In 1971 War, India Had A Grand Strategy
All elements of power were brought together for an overarching national aim
Former diplomat Chandrashekhar Dasgupta talks to Indrani Bagchi about his book ‘India and the Bangladesh Liberation War: The Untold Story’:
What were the things that surprised you?
The first was about the reasons for India’s intervention. The second was the grand strategy. I found PN Haksar to really be the mastermind of 1971. He said it would be a disaster if you were simply to march into Dhaka and install a government there. The independence of Bangladesh can be won only by Bangladesh’s sons and daughters. The idea was to strengthen the Mukti Bahini, to support the government without recognising it; build international sympathy and support for Bangladesh; explain to the international community that it had a duty to enable the refugees to return to their homes, voluntarily, in safety and in honour.
It was no longer Pakistan’s internal affair. Pakistan was exporting its internal affairs into India and creating what became an internal problem in India. Haksar pointed out that the principles of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, territorial integrity of states were deeply embedded in international law and practice.
You needed to prepare the diplomatic grounds for a successful intervention. These are the seeds of grand strategy ensuring there was no interference, ensuring there’d be no critical shortages of petroleum or other critical products, no foreign exchange crisis.
Then, after the first few weeks, when the overwhelming majority of refugees who were Hindus were being driven across the border by the Pakistan army, ensuring communal peace and harmony in border areas.
All these had been planned. So it was really something quite unique, you know, in the history of independent India.
What was it like to serve in Dhaka after the war?
It was very exciting. Once Bangladesh was liberated, I got orders transferring to Dhaka. I arrived in Dhaka after arranging for my family to stay behind in Delhi because we were told very clearly we would have no time for our families. That is how we worked virtually round the clock from early morning to late night, seven days a week. It was only after six months that we were allowed to take Sunday afternoons off. I moved into a house that had no furniture, there was only a mattress on which I could sleep. It had no curtains, on tables or chairs. But we had no time for these things. There was a massive task at hand.
Ten million refugees were returning to their homes. , they had to be resettled into some sort of decent housing. We had to ensure adequate supplies of food and medicines. Chittagong harbour had been mined, and therefore non-functional. That had to be cleared. The bridges that had been destroyed during the war had to be rebuilt. We were very busy, but it was a very, very exciting time. It was a huge challenge. Our government’s response was absolutely fantastic. I’ll give you one small example. We received indications that a cholera epidemic was about to break out. The High Commissioner decided, therefore, that we needed to bring in the vaccine from India because it wasn’t available in Bangladesh. I rang up MEA in Delhi. Within 36 hours, two IAF planes landed in Dhaka having picked up the supplies from Poona. In normal times, there would be financial approvals, questions about whether you actually need so many doses, how much had to be paid for transportation and so on. This sort of thing works only when there is an overarching national purpose and overarching national aim. And that is what we had in 1971.
You say the RAW chief, RN Kao had predicted this in 1969.
In April 1969, Kao had alerted the government after the Agartala conspiracy case. He had said the six-point demand would increase exponentially and the Pakistan authorities would crush it with military force. But India did not actually want to break up Pakistan.
That is not so. This question was debated quite intensely in Delhi, after the 1970 elections in Pakistan. Some in the government felt Pakistan’s breakup was inevitable. But that was not the feeling in the MEA or PMO. India was hoping that because the Awami League had a majority in the Pakistan National Assembly, it would be allowed to form a government. The sense in the government was that so long as the army and the West Pakistan political establishment, Bhutto et al, continued to be in total charge of affairs in Pakistan, there was no hope of a breakthrough with India. But if a democratically elected government came to power in Islamabad – the majority of Pakistanis at that time were Bengalis – then there could be some sort of normalisation in relations. That was what we were hoping for – a transition to democracy in Pakistan. We did not want the breakup of Pakistan.
It was only after March 25 1971, when the Pakistan military authorities launched that brutal crackdown, massacring hundreds of thousands of people, driving out 10 million people across the border into India, when we saw that the ruins of a united Pakistan lay buried under a mountain of corpses.
We thought if there’s prolonged civil war in East Pakistan, prolonged guerrilla war, control of that guerrilla war would pass into the hands of leftist extremists, pro-Naxalite, pro-Chinese elements.
We feared for the impact not only of the refugee sort of outflow into India but the destabilising impact of this war. We mustn’t forget that the Naxalite problem was a very serious one in eastern India, particularly West Bengal in 1971.
What was the geopolitical situation that India found itself in?
The Bangladesh liberation struggle coincided with a dramatic change in the geopolitical situation. That was the new rapprochement in US-China relations, which was unanticipated, not only by India but by every other country. What took us by surprise, was that some sort of new entente seemed to be formed, a Washington-Islamabad-Beijing axis. That became clear after Kissinger had returned from Beijing and his briefing to L.K. Jha. We had always assumed that if the Chinese were to threaten our borders again, then we’d have American diplomatic support. Kissinger disabused us of this notion, he told us quite clearly that we should not count on US support. It became clear to us that there had been a fundamental shift in the US stand on this question. We responded quickly by concluding the Indo-Soviet treaty.
You mentioned Kissinger met the Chinese ambassador and suggested that if they sent their troops to the boundary, there would be no pushback from the Americans. Why did you think the Chinese did not take the Americans up on that offer?
Kissinger told the Chinese that if China were to consider it in her interest, to move troops to the border, obviously, to bring pressure on India. And if another country were to oppose China, then the US would oppose the other country. What he was saying is that if the Soviet Union were to bring pressure to bear on you, then we would help you. Now, this was based on a total misunderstanding of China’s intentions and Chinese policies. China wanted the normalisation of relations with the US because it did not want to simultaneously confront two superpowers, the USSR and US. Therefore, it wanted to quieten down things with the US. It hoped for some movement on the Taiwan issue. China was not looking for a US umbrella or US protection against anybody. This was made clear to Alexander Haig, Kissinger’s deputy when he visited Beijing shortly after the December war. He was surprised. China had no intention of placing itself in that position being beholden to the US.
It is said Mrs Gandhi won the war and squandered the gains of that war.
This is one of the questions I had in mind. On the one hand, you have this view that you just mentioned that India won the war but lost the peace. On the other, we have the account of P.N. Haksar that she never intended to convert the new Line of Control (LoC) into an international boundary. Had she done so at Simla she would have been accused by the opposition of having surrendered POK. The detailed records fully bear out PN Haksar’s position. Our main objective in 1971 had nothing to do with Kashmir. This is the only Indo-Pak war where we were not concerned with Kashmir, it was to do with the liberation of Bangladesh. And that objective was achieved on 16th December 1971.
When General Niazi surrendered unconditionally to the Indo-Bangladesh joint command, the objective had already been achieved. In the course of the war, we developed a subsidiary aim, and that had to do with Kashmir. This was to replace the 1949 CFL (ceasefire line) with a mutually agreed LoC, reflecting the realities on the ground as they existed after the ’71 conflict. The intention was to carry out minor mutually agreed territorial changes, and, more importantly, to shift from accords reached in multilateral fora, into bilaterally agreed agreements. We did not attempt to find a final solution for the Kashmir issue. In the final Indian draft, which was submitted just a few hours before the Simla Agreement, this was made clear in the final paragraph which reserves settlement.
A view from Pakistan
Almost exactly a year after its first elections based on universal adult franchise, Pakistan went to war. The unnecessary and unfortunate conflagration could directly be traced back to the nation’s failure to build on the democratic consequences of the electoral results.
The horrendous military crackdown in Dhaka on the night of March 25-26, 1971, had inevitably presaged a full-fledged civil war in East Pakistan. Millions of refugees — initially a representative sample of the territory’s confessional composition, but predominantly Hindus as the conflict wore on — crossed into India.
The decision to support the Mukti Bahini was effectively a no-brainer for New Delhi. A direct military intervention was a somewhat different matter. Indira Gandhi sounded out her generals as early as April, as she was coming under increasing pressure from the opposition to go beyond expressing sympathy for the Bengali nationalist cause.
The army leadership told her it would be ready in six months or so. The terrain was tricky enough without having to navigate the natural challenges regularly thrown up by the region’s monsoons. Nov 15 was deemed an appropriate date for launching an action. Eventually, Dec 4 was picked as D-day.
Mrs Gandhi evidently heaved a sigh of relief when Pakistan unleashed its air force across India’s western border on Dec 3, assuming that Islamabad could henceforth safely be designated as the aggressor.
It wasn’t that simple. At least three United Nations Security Council resolutions calling for an immediate ceasefire had to be vetoed by the Soviet Union, which had signed a defence pact with India earlier in the year. The United States, generally hostile to the UN, was thrilled by the votes in the Security Council as well as the General Assembly.
President Richard Nixon and his all-powerful national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, were implacably hostile towards not just the government in New Delhi but Indians in general. They were inordinately fond, on the other hand, of Yahya Khan, the pall bearer of Pakistan’s demise as a double-winged entity.
The White House’s desperation involved overtures to the kings of Jordan and Iran to supply the Yahya regime with American arms and ammunition. It became clear that East Pakistan was beyond salvation — even Nixon wondered what his nation was doing in the circumstances.
The US president even wondered whether Kissinger required psychiatric therapy. At that point, they probably both did. Kissinger was prone to rants lamenting inaction in the face of the ‘rape’ of a US protectorate by a Soviet ally, after having more or less ignored the bloodbath unleashed.
Nixon’s delusions were equally grandiose. At one point he said, “If we ever allow the internal problems of one country to be the justification for the right of another country, bigger, more powerful, to invade it, then international order is finished in the world.”
This comment to America’s UN ambassador, future president George HW Bush, came while the US was still involved in bombing the bejesus out of North Vietnam. Equally, there was no recognition of the irony when a naval fleet commanded by future presidential candidate John McCain’s dad sailed from the Gulf of Tonkin to the Bay of Bengal as a pointless show of strength.
Simultaneously, secret efforts were under way to cajole China — seen by then as an American ally in the geopolitical contest with the Soviet Union — to mount a show of force on its border with India. Beijing didn’t exactly say no, but also didn’t quite come to the party, notwithstanding its affinity with Yahya, who had personally played a key role in facilitating the breakthrough in relations between the US and China.
Moscow vetoed three US-sponsored Security Council resolutions on halting the war, giving Indian forces time to reach Dhaka, where Gen AAK Niazi, who initially sought to negotiate a ceasefire, realised that the game was up. In the circumstances, his surrender was the most sensible option.
On the western front, where Indian forces were more evenly matched, India announced a unilateral ceasefire. The US saw this as a victory. It had feared that after the more or less inevitable fall of Dhaka, India would attempt to dismember what remained of Pakistan. But Mrs Gandhi had wisely cautioned her generals against the disastrous potential folly of invading West Pakistan. What followed Pakistani foreign minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s well-rehearsed histrionics in the Security Council chamber cannot be addressed in this comment, but suffice it to say that Pakistan was never quite the same again, nor was Bangladesh an instant success story in the wake of 1971. It’s fortunate that the third Indo-Pakistan war concluded within two weeks. The aftermath is another story.
The diplomatic front
Chandrashekhar Dasgupta’s research
As a young diplomat, Chandrashekhar Dasgupta was sent to newly-liberated Bangladesh in 1972, and he lived and worked at the Indian High Commission in Dhaka for two years. On the occasion of 50 years of the birth of Bangladesh, Dasgupta has published India and the Bangladesh Liberation War: The Definitive Story (Juggernaut), based on years of research into the P N Haksar papers, the T N Kaul papers, and files and records in the Ministry of External Affairs.
The book offers a comprehensive view of the political, military, and diplomatic strategy adopted by the Indian government during one of the biggest challenges it has faced in the last seven decades — to turn a monumental crisis into an unparalleled opportunity.
Decision to intervene
It was not until March end-early April in 1971 that “the Indian government decided to intervene in the liberation struggle to bring it to an early conclusion”, Dasgupta, now 81, and who went on to become India’s ambassador to China and the European Union, recounted.
“I cite in my book an extremely prescient 1969 R&AW report, which noted the strength of popular feelings. It said this was going to get out of hand and the military was going to be brought in to crush the movement. At that time (1969), the East Bengal rifles would take up arms on behalf of Sheikh Mujib (Mujibur Rahman) and demand autonomy for Bangladesh.”
What India was hoping for “was a transition to democracy in Pakistan”, Dasgupta said. “The Awami League won an absolute majority of seats in the Pakistan National Assembly in the December 1970 elections. New Delhi hoped to see the Awami League-led government installed in power in Islamabad, because we believed that that was the only hope for a breakthrough in Indo-Pakistan relations as a whole.”
However, hopes of a democratic transition were smashed on March 25, when the Pakistani military began a brutal crackdown that resulted in the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Bengalis and a massive refugee crisis, he said. “Then, we (India) decided to intervene.”
The question of timing
But India knew that immediate military intervention would be counterproductive. “It would result in loss of all international sympathy and support for the Bangladesh cause. It would be viewed simply as another India-Pakistan conflict, a case of Indian intervention in the domestic affairs of Pakistan, and an attempt to promote a secessionist movement.”
Even before General Sam Manekshaw had conveyed the Army’s position that entering the war would have to wait until after the monsoon, “the government was quite clear that…the diplomatic and political ground would have to be prepared before the military intervention”, he said.
Records from the Prime Minister’s Office show that “Mrs (Indira) Gandhi had decided against an immediate early intervention even before that famous sort-of-briefing session with Manekshaw.” Also, the “very careful record” by then Deputy Director of Military Operations Maj Gen Sukhwant Singh states that “political compulsions clinched the issue (of timing)”.
“If the creation of an independent Bangladesh was achieved by Indian military action, how was its domestic and external viability to be assured without its recognition by the international forum, the United Nations? If India intervened without clearly justifying the action in foreign eyes, the charge that it was engineering the break-up of Pakistan would be established and Bangladesh would be refused recognition by the majority of nations,” Dasgupta said.
The diplomatic strategy
So “the first task of the foreign ministry was to promote international sympathy and support for Bangladesh,” Dasgupta said. “Of course, the Bangladeshis were doing this very effectively themselves, but we assisted them in a major way.” The second task was to “explain to the international community that the problem in East Bengal was not simply an internal problem of Pakistan — that by driving out millions of refugees into India, Pakistan was exporting a domestic problem to India. And, this threatened to destabilise the political situation in the neighbouring states.”
Third, “we had to ensure uninterrupted and timely supply of military equipment”, Dasgupta said. “For this, we turned to the Soviet Union. We had to take diplomatic measures to deter possible Chinese intervention and the Soviet Union Treaty achieved this purpose. We also had to ensure the UN Security Council veto did not halt operations before a decisive conclusion could be reached.”
It was not until November 30 that New Delhi received the final assurance of the Soviet support in the UN Security Council, and an understanding that the objective was the emergence of an independent Bangladesh, Dasgupta said.
Architects of victory
The common criticism that India won the war but lost peace with Pakistan is “totally misplaced”, Dasgupta said. “The principal aim of the war had nothing to do with Kashmir; it was to speed up the emergence of an independent state of Bangladesh… We won the peace at the (1972) Simla Agreement, which was meant to seek solutions bilaterally with Pakistan rather than in international fora.”
India’s achievement was all the more remarkable in the absence of supporting institutional structures — it had no equivalent of the US National Security Council, nor even an integrated structure for the three defence services, Dasgupta said.
The credit for formulating the grand strategy and overseeing its implementation goes to a small circle of officials who enjoyed Indira’s trust and confidence — Principal Secretary Haksar, Foreign Secretary Kaul, Ambassador to the USSR D P Dhar, and R&AW chief R N Kao. “Haksar derived his authority from the PM, and his leading role was never questioned…the core group met frequently, often in the presence of Gen Manekshaw, who, in turn, kept the other service chiefs in the picture.” The members of this quintet were on easy and informal terms, and were able to work together in harmony.
Initially unsympathetic to India’s refugee crisis
India and Bangladesh are now recalling and celebrating the events of 1971 that marked the birth of Bangladesh. It was a period when the two halves of Pakistan, the East and the West, were separated by over 1,000km of Indian territory. It was also a period when the world order was witnessing tumultuous changes, with a right wing US President Richard Nixon seeking a virtual alliance with China’s Communist Party czar Mao Tse-tung. Nixon was determined to seek such an alliance with Beijing primarily to curb and contain communist Soviet Union amid serious territorial and other disputes between Moscow and Beijing.
Despite territorial and other differences, India had no interest in escalating tensions with Beijing. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was then celebrating her huge electoral victory in India. She was looking forward to peace and economic development in an era when India was developing a clear military edge over Pakistan. What India had not envisaged was that it would get drawn into a fratricidal conflict between the eastern and western halves of Pakistan, resulting in the inflow of over 10 million refugees from East Pakistan.
PM Gandhi moved dexterously in her efforts in the days preceding the conflict. The primary effort was to ensure Soviet support at a time when the none too friendly Nixon was determined to build bridges with China. But this was easier said than done. Her meetings in Moscow in October were marked by the presence of the entire Soviet leadership comprising Party General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, President Podgorny and Prime Minister Kosygin. It, however, appeared clear that while Brezhnev and Podgorny understood the Indian position that it could not be expected to play host to 10 million refugees for any length of time, Kosygin dismissed such thinking. He told Indian correspondents later that evening that any talk of India crossing the border into Bangladesh, in an effort to facilitate the return of refugees, was unacceptable. Kosygin had played a key role in the Tashkent Agreement that ended the 1965 war and was fully versed with India-Pakistan relations. He was also keen to improve relations with the US that would help the rather fragile USSR economy.
The controversies arising from Kosygin’s remarks kept members of the Indian and Soviet delegations working for hours past midnight as there were serious concerns in India about his comments becoming public. This compelled Kosygin to withdraw his earlier comments when he met Indian correspondents at the Moscow airport during Mrs Gandhi’s departure. It was clear that his Politburo comrades, including Brezhnev and Podgorny, did not accept his views. Fully appreciating the seriousness of the situation, the Indian press blocked out any reference to Kosygin’s ill-advised comments after they heard his explanation that he had been misunderstood. D P Dhar (India’s ambassador to the Soviet Union until mid-1971) and Nicolai Pegov, then Soviet ambassador in India, played a key role in dealing with this episode.
The 1971 Bangladesh conflict saw a new pattern of alliances in which China, the US and some “non-aligned” countries backed Pakistan and moved Security Council resolutions against India. However, the UK and France – major US allies – had little sympathy for the Pakistani cause. They were averse to joining the US-China axis during the conflict. Most importantly, the Soviet Union vetoed American-backed resolutions seeking a cease-fire and Indian withdrawal, even as the Pakistan army was preparing to surrender in Bangladesh. There were then lobbies in New Delhi ready to shift armed forces and airpower in Bangladesh to the west, as victory in the east was around the corner. It was, however, made clear that India had no intention of doing so. Going through the records of what transpired in the talks, it was clear that PM Gandhi had played her cards in her talks skilfully in Moscow, and obtained the full support of the Soviet leadership. It was only appropriate and statesmanlike for defence minister Rajnath Singh to have acknowledged this publicly in a meeting he addressed in Bengaluru last month.
Apart from dealing with a continuing stream of visits by ministers and senior officials to Moscow, officials like me also facilitated visits by senior Awami League politicians like Abdus Samad Azad, who became Sheikh Mujib’s foreign minister after the liberation of Bangladesh. Officials of the Soviet Communist Party appeared keen to meet members of the Awami League to understand their political role.
We had a fair idea of what was transpiring in the Pakistan embassy in Moscow and a particular interest in seeing how their two Bangladeshi officials, counsellor Abdus Kibria, who was dealing with economic issues, and the young first secretary Reazul Hussein from the foreign office, would react to the creation of Bangladesh. Both officials contacted us just after the conflict ended, stating their wish to leave the Pakistan embassy. The Soviets cooperated with us on this matter too and granted them stay. Both were involved in the setting up of a new Bangladesh embassy when the first Bangladesh ambassador arrived.
(The author is a former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan and Australia and was a diplomat with the Indian embassy in Moscow during the 1971 war)
2nd Lt Arun Khetarpal
On the 50th anniversary of the 1971 war, author Rachna Bisht Rawat tells the tale of Brigadier Khetarpal’s remarkable face-to face with the Pakistani who took his son’s life
Mukesh Khetarpal is now 71 years old, while his elder brother, Arun, who smiles rakishly from a portrait on the wall, dressed in army fatigues, is an eternal 21. ‘I have aged but Arun never will,’ Mukesh smiles. He says he clearly remembers the cold Delhi winter of 1971 when he was studying in IIT Delhi and Arun’s Young Officers course at Ahmednagar had been interrupted by the war. Arun was recalled to his unit like all the other officers, and he had taken a train to Delhi, carting along with his beloved Java motorcycle, a gift from his dad.
Since there were a few hours before he had to catch the Punjab Mail to Jammu, he had unloaded his bike at Delhi and decided to ride it home.
‘I was home that day,’ remembers Mukesh. ‘Arun parked his bike and walked in, looking extremely handsome in his black Armoured Corps dungarees.’
The Khetarpals had an early dinner, and it was at the dining table that Mrs Khetarpal said to Arun those famous words that would become part of army folklore. Recounting to him how his father and grandfather had both fought in wars, she had said, ‘Sher ki tarah ladna, Arun, qayar ki tarah wapis mat aana (Fight like a tiger. Don’t return like a coward).’ Arun had looked into her eyes and smiled.
Early December went by in a haze. ‘We had an imported Hitachi transistor. We would spend all our time listening to Radio Ceylon, which was reporting the war in detail. Sometimes the signal was good and sometimes we could hardly hear anything, but we all sat glued to it,’ Mukesh remembers. On the evening of December 16, Radio Ceylon reported that a massive tank battle had happened in Shakargarh. ‘We knew Arun’s regiment was in that area and our hearts sank.’
The very next morning, there came the announcement that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had declared a ceasefire. The war had finally ended. ‘It was such a relief,’ Mukesh recollects. ‘My mother got Arun’s room cleaned up and we started looking forward to the day he would be back home.’
And then, on December 19, the bell rang, and his mother opened the door to the postman. ‘That telegram shattered our lives forever,’ remembers Mukesh. ‘After that, a sadness seeped into our lives. My mother immersed herself in household chores. My father became quiet and withdrawn and would spend most of his time locked up in his room,’ Mukesh says.
Thirty years passed as the Khetarpals slowly accepted their loss. Mukesh studied at IIT Delhi, found a job, got married and had a daughter, though he continued to stay with his parents.
And then one day, he and Mrs Khetarpal were surprised to see Brig. Khetarpal smiling again. ‘He said he was going to Sargodha, his ancestral place in Pakistan where the family had lived before Partition,’ says Mukesh. Both Mukesh and Mrs Khetarpal tried their best to dissuade Brig. Khetarpal. ‘“You are eighty-one. Where will you go?” we told him, but he dismissed our pleas.’
‘I am staying with another graduate of our college, a Pakistan Army officer who lives in Lahore,’ he told her.
‘That reassured us a little, and finally, when the day arrived, we drove him to the airport, where he got on to the Air India flight. He was as excited as a schoolboy,’ says Mukesh.
Three days later, Mukesh drove to the airport to pick up his father. ‘Papa appeared very quiet and withdrawn. Even at home, he wouldn’t talk to us about the visit, which surprised us.’
A week later, Mukesh was reading India Today magazine when he came across an article that talked about his father’s Pakistan trip and his meeting with the Armoured Corps officer who had been the cause of his son’s death. A shocked Mukesh went looking for his father. ‘I confronted him and asked if what I had read was true. He said it was. When my mother and I asked him why he had not shared this with us, he said what could he have told us. It was not a pleasant episode.’ And that was when a shocked Mrs Khetarpal and Mukesh heard the story of what had transpired in Lahore.
March 1, 2001, Lahore: Brig. Khetarpal is pushing his chair back after dinner when he catches his host’s eye. The retired Brig. Khwaja Mohammad Naser, the Pakistan Army officer who has volunteered to be his host for the three-day Lahore stay, has a hesitant smile on his weather-beaten face. ‘Mausam achha hai, Brigadier sahab, Insha Allah kuchh der bahar bageeche mein chal kar baithen (The weather is nice, shall we sit outside),’ he asks. In the garden, the Pakistani officer says softly: ‘Main kuchh qubool karna chahta hun, Brigadier sahib (I have a confession to make),’ he says softly. ‘Kahiye, beta, main sun raha hun,’ Brig. Khetarpal replies, looking affectionately at his host, who is younger than him by some 30 years. Brig. Naser clears his throat. ‘Sir, there is something I wanted to tell you…I too participated in the 1971 war. I was then a young major, squadron commander of the Pakistan Army’s 13 Lancers,’ he says. Brig. Khetarpal is surprised — 13 Lancers is the same regiment which had exchanged its Sikh squadron with the Muslim squadron of Poona Horse (his son’s regiment) during Partition in 1947.
On December 16, 1971, in a sense, the Indian and Pakistani soldiers had fought their old regiments. ‘We fought Poona Horse in the Battle of Basantar,’ says Naser, ‘Sir, I am the man who killed your son.’ A speechless Brig. Khetarpal listens quietly.
‘On the morning of December 16, I was leading the counter-attack of 13 Lancers against the Indian bridgehead at Basantar,’ Brig. Naser recounts. ‘Your son was on the opposite side, standing there like a rock. He destroyed many of our tanks, and finally, it was just the two of us left facing each other with our tanks just 200 m apart.’ We both fired simultaneously, and both our tanks were hit. It was, however, destined that I was to live, and Arun was to die,’ Naser says. ‘Your son was a very brave man, sir. He was singularly responsible for our defeat.’
Stunned, Brig. Khetarpal could only ask, ‘How did you know it was Arun’s tank?’
Naser tells him that when a ceasefire was declared the next morning (17 December), he went to collect the bodies of his dead comrades. Curious about the identity of the brave man who had fought him so fiercely, Naser walked up to the Indian soldiers and inquired who had been commanding the tank. He was told it was 2nd Lt Arun Khetarpal of Poona Horse. ‘Bahut bahaduri se lade aapke sahab. Chot toh nahi aayi unhe?’ he asked the soldiers. ‘Sahab shaheed ho gaye,’ they told him.
Naser tells him that he realised much later when Arun got the Param Vir Chakra and became a national hero, how young he was. ‘I didn’t know he was only 21, sir,’ he says. ‘We were both soldiers doing our duty for our nations.’
The two officers sit quietly under the moonlight for some time. Then Brig. Khetarpal slowly gets up from his chair. Naser springs to his feet as well. Brig. Khetarpal looks at his moist eyes and moves forward to gently hug the man who killed his son. He then walks back to his bedroom.