Betrayal of East Pakistan
December 16, 1971, under clear skies, and in front of a restless crowd of
nearly a million Bengalis, Lieutenant General A. A. K. Niazi, Commander,
Eastern Command of the Pakistan Army, surrendered “first his pistol,
then his sword, and then half his country” to Lieutenant General Jagjit
Singh Aurora of the Indian Army.2
West Pakistan, the President of Pakistan, its Chief of Army Staff, and its
Chief Martial Law Administrator, General Yahya came on the radio to
reassure his shocked nation that even though fighting had ceased on the
eastern front “due to an arrangement between the local commanders,”
the war with India would continue. However,
on the very next day, realizing that his chances of surviving a full-scale
war with India on the western front without US or Chinese support were
nil, he agreed to a ceasefire. An
exultant Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India, and daughter of India’s
first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, declared that “we have avenged
the Muslim capture of Somnath and our history of a thousand years.”3
Yahya had boasted earlier in the year that if India choose to declare war
on Pakistan “I will shoot my way out of it.” He had also boasted about
how he had escaped from a prisoner of war camp in Italy during the Second
World War, while Sam Manekshaw, now the Indian Chief of Staff, was one of
many fellow prisoners who had been unable to escape.
in vastly different circumstances, a chastened General Yahya sought to
justify the ceasefire by stating that “I have always maintained that war
solves no problem.” However, as Oxford historian Robert Jackson noted in
South Asian Crisis, “the victors in Dacca knew otherwise.” East
Pakistan had passed into the history books, and with it some argued the
“two nation theory” that had led to Pakistan’s independence.
did things come to such a sorry pass for Pakistan?
A nation as proud of its martial traditions as Pakistan has still
not to come with this sad legacy. Heir
to the glorious traditions of the Arab, Turkish and Moghul armies of
Muslim history, the Pakistani army was expected to fight to the “last
man, last round” in East Pakistan, and to do anything but surrender
itself to the Indian Army. Several
years later, a Pakistani general officer summed up the nation’s feelings
when he said that “Never before had a Muslim sword been turned over to a
Hindu. In Islam, surrender is
taboo; you either return with the land, or you bathe it in your blood4.”
went wrong? Pakistanis may
well find an answer to this troubling question in General Niazi’s book,
even though it is not the disingenuous answer that presented by the
after the war ended, Indian authors, gloating over their victory, produced
a plethora of books with jingoistic titles such as The Lightning Campaign,
Indian Sword Strikes in East Pakistan and The Liberation of
Bangladesh. A few month’s prior to the surrender,
the Chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party, and soon to be the
new president and first civilian martial law administrator of truncated
Pakistan, penned his version
of events. It blamed the
inept Army leadership and the intransigent Awami League for The Great
Tragedy. There was no mention
of Bhutto’s own intransigence in accepting the right of the Awami League
to form the government, which was its constitutional right given its
absolute majority in parliament. Nor
was there any mention of his collusion with the ruling junta in launching
Operation SEARCHLIGHT on March 25.
Unable to hide his relief at the military crackdown, he had ranted
prematurely on the following day that “Thank God Pakistan has been
he took over the presidency in Islamabad, he asked Major General Fazal
Muqueem Khan who had earlier written ‘A Story of the Pakistani Army’
during the presidency of Ayub Khan to write a “military history” of
last year’s events. Pakistan’s
Crisis in Leadership conveniently placed the blame squarely on
Pakistan’s erstwhile military junta. To deal with any potential public
outcry for justice, Mr. Bhutto appointed a judicial commission of inquiry
headed by then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Hamood-ur-Rehman. The
Commission laboured over several months to interview serving and retired
generals, air marshals, admirals, civil servants and politicians.
However, there was one surprising exception: Lieutenant General
Tikka Khan, who had launched the ill-fated Operation SEARCHLIGHT, and who
would later become Chief of Army Staff.
The Commission’s report was completed but never saw the light of
the day. It remains “Top
Secret” to this day, because its release may compromise “national
the years went by, Major Siddiq Salik, Public Relations Officer to General
Niazi in Eastern Command, produced a lucid and compelling first-hand
narrative called ‘Witness To Surrender’.
This placed the blame largely on General Niazi’s shoulders.
More recently, Lieutenant General Gul Hasan, then Chief of General
Staff, produced his Memoirs. Accepting
responsibility for his portion of the blame, he stated that “we lost
half of the country due to our mistakes.”
He also stated that General Niazi should never have been appointed
to this command because he had an undistinguished military record and that
his “professional ceiling was that of a company commander.”
However, he does not explain how then Brigadier Niazi was one of
only eight officers to be awarded the Hilal-e-Jurat in the 1965 war.
his book, Niazi reproduces a letter of recommendation from Lieutenant
General Tikka Khan where the latter expresses complete confidence in Niazi
and says that “I will have him on my side in war.” As the war began,
Niazi notes that “I had vast experience of commanding troops.
The troops under my command were probably the best in the world.”
And five months later, General Abdul Hamid Khan, de facto C-in-C
during the 1971 war, called him “the highest decorated officer of our
Army, and one of our best field commanders.”
General Niazi says that 24 medals “adorned” his chest,
including — for some unexplained reason — the Hilal-e-Jurat and Sitara-e-Pakistan
for his performance in the 1971 war.
being released as a prisoner of war, he states that he “volunteered for
Court Martial” because the truth would come out and the real culprits
would be exposed. However, no
one took him up on the offer. Niazi
puts the blame for the military debacle on the GHQ and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. He alleges they conspired to surrender the Eastern wing of
the country to India, so that they could hang on to power in the Western
simply dismisses all other books that critique his role in the debacle,
such as those by Salik and Gul Hassan, as a “pack of lies”.
Nowhere does he find any fault with himself. If anything, he states that he never abandoned his soldiers,
and proudly states that both Hannibal and Napoleon had done so at least
comes across as a general officer eager to follow orders. Three such orders led to disaster. The first order was to command the Eastern Garrison.
Several generals senior to him had declined the opportunity.
He knew the mission assigned to him was not achievable with the
resources given to him, but he accepted that order even though “I had
been given a rudderless ship with a broken mast to take across the stormy
seas, with no lighthouse to me in any direction.”
second order was to not take the war into India, even though he had
planned to “capture Agartala and a big chunk of Assam, and develop
multiple thrusts into Indian Bengal.
We would cripple the economy of Calcutta by blowing up bridges and
sinking boats and ships in the Hoogly River and create panic amongst the
civilians.” But this
proposal was rejected by General Hamid who said that the Pakistan
government “was not prepared to fight an open war with India...You will
neither enter Indian territory nor send raiding parties into India, and
you will not fire into Indian territory either.”
the third order was to surrender the Eastern garrison to India, “to save
West Pakistan, our base, from disintegration and Western Garrison from
further repulses.” Thus,
the defence of West Pakistan had now become contingent on the surrender of
East Pakistan, in an ironic reversal of Pakistan’s strategic doctrine
that “the defence of the East lay in the West.”
states that he had 32,000 men and the wherewithal to continue the war and
“were nowhere near defeat.” The
number of men cited seems implausible since he had started the war with
45,000 troops. It is highly
unlikely, given his deployment of forces, that he could have concentrated
32,000 for the Battle of Dacca. In
fact, others have argued that he only had 5,000 men available for the
defence of Dacca, since the troops had been deployed in penny packets
around the entire border with India, and were instructed to fall back only
when they had experienced 75% casualties.5
of the number of troops available to him, it is not clear how long he
could have survived, since there was no hope for reinforcements of any
kind from any source. Notes Brian Cloughley, “the concept of operations
was faulty: all brigades were forward, with nothing in reserve...The
outcome of the Indian advance was inevitable.6”
Niazi requires an unusual amount of gullibility from his readers when he
states that he was forced to surrender by his Commander-in-Chief. It is the very opposite of what typically happens in such
situations. Informed that
Paulus had surrendered the Sixth Army to the Soviet Union, an infuriated
Hitler said: “This hurts me so much because the heroism of so many
soldiers is nullified by one single characterless weakling...What is Life? Life is the Nation. The
individual must die anyway...What hurts me most, personally, is that I
still promoted him to Field Marshal.
I wanted to give him this final satisfaction.
He could have freed himself from all sorrow and ascended into
eternity and national immortality, but he prefers to go to Moscow.7”
contends correctly that General Yahya disappeared from East Pakistan after
March 25, 1971. This was inexcusable behaviour on the part of the Supreme
Commander and President. To make matters worse, when asked about East
Pakistan, Yahya would say that “all I can do about East Pakistan is
pray.” General Abdul Hamid Khan, the acting C-in-C, visited the
troops in the East just twice. General
Gul Hassan, the Chief of General Staff, would not answer Niazi’s phone
calls. The top brass of the
Pakistan Army had abandoned their “most decorated officer” to his own
Niazi excoriates General Yahya and the GHQ for waging a lack lustre
campaign on the Western front, where they had a near parity of forces with
India and could choose the time and place of attack.
He states that the Western Garrison lost 5,500 square miles of
territory in ten days, and failed to launch their much awaited counter
offensive into India. He
calls this “a setback militarily unbelievable, unacceptable and
General Attiqur Rahman states that the counter offensive was not launched
for reasons that remain a mystery, but lack of morale was not one of them.
Without any success being achieved in the West, the fate of the
garrison in East Pakistan was sealed.
As noted by Sisson-Rose, “the war was planned and pursued with a
lack of coordination and foresight not dissimilar to that of 1965.”8
boldly and correctly calls for “a computer model of the conduct of
operations by the Armed Forces in the whole of Pakistan, as well as
separately for East and West Pakistan, keeping in view the political and
military environment at that time. This
is the modern method for assessing performance...
If this were done, I and my generals would be shown to be among the
most successful generals of this century.”
By prejudging the outcome of such a computer simulation, he erodes
the credibility of this useful suggestion.
Engima of Surrender
Niazi is not inclined to accept any blame for himself. Having prided
himself on his superiority to Hannibal and Napoleon, he states elsewhere
that he “did more for the good of the country and its armed forces than
anyone else.” As mentioned
earlier, he says he challenged the Pakistan Army to Court Martial him, but
they refused. It is likely that much would have come out of such
proceedings that would have implicated not only the top Army brass but
also General Niazi himself. It
is very likely that he would have been subjected to intense cross
examination on his conduct of war. Perhaps
the following questions would have been put to him.
Did you think that East Pakistan could be defended with the troops that
were likely to be made available to you?
I.e., three divisions
without much supporting armour or artillery, and only one squadron of
subsonic Sabre fighter bombers. War
with India was coming on the heels of a gruelling civil war, and your
“troops were not only tired and exhausted but had swollen feet, ravaged
chests, and bare legs, because clothing and footwear were not available in
the required quantity.”
Did you not anticipate that you would be required to simultaneously fight
a conventional war and a guerilla war?
The Mukti Bahini was fighting a war of liberation, supported by a
local population of 75 million up in arms against the Pakistan Army which
it viewed as an occupation force.
What stroke of generalship led you to believe that India would merely
conduct a minor incursion into East Pakistan to set up a puppet regime?
Is that why you deployed your troops in penny packets?
Niazi told his captors that they “always seemed to come round
behind us.” Pran Chopra argues that the credit for this goes very largely
to the Mukti Bahini. “Jointly,
the IAF and the Mukti Bahini destroyed the logic of Niazi’s
Why did you expect Pakistan would succeed in pulling off its well-known
but untested strategy that the “Defence of the East lies in the West.”
Was this not a case of putting “all your eggs in one basket?”
What caused you to expect the Chinese would intervene through the
Himalayan passes which the winter snows had rendered impassable in
December? Were you not aware of India’s treaty with the Soviet Union,
and the decision of the Soviet Union to deploy scores of additional
divisions along the Manchurian border with China.
Did you not recall that China had issued an ultimatum to India
during the September 1965 war, but then never delivered on it?
Given his poor track record, what caused you to think that General Hamid
would indeed send your beleaguered garrison supplies from the West through the “hump back” trade route that traverses Tibet,
thereby circumventing the Indian blockade of the sea routes? He states that when he asked General Hamid to send him
supplies through this route, Hamid dismissed the request politely by
simply saying that it was infeasible.
Did you honestly think the US government was in a position to intervene on
Pakistan’s side, in the face of significant domestic opposition to the
well-publicized brutalities of Tikka Khan’s military crack-down? You surely had seen first hand how the US had abandoned its
military ally, Pakistan, during the 1965 War with non-aligned India.
That “equal” embargo on both India and Pakistan had
significantly affected import-dependent Pakistan without making any dent
in India war-making capabilities.
When hostilities broke out, why did you succumb to a “bunker
mentality” and did not dare to venture out of Dacca.
On reaching Calcutta after the surrender, he stated to reporters
that the IAF bombing “had kept him awake for 12 nights, and he just
could not continue any more.10” There
were times when he would break down during military briefings.
Once he did that in the presence of Bengali servants, who were
immediately ordered outside where they gleefully reported that the
“Sahibs are crying inside.”
book is a failed attempt by General Niazi to clear his name, and its tone
is entirely self-serving. Ironically, the book provides unique insights
into the workings of his mind. Such
insights could not have been obtained through other means.
That alone makes it essential reading for students of military
history. Sums up Brian
Cloughley: “Yahya bore overall responsibility for what befell his
country; but General Niazi was the commander who lost the war in the
East.” Perhaps the book
should have been entitled General Niazi’s Betrayal of Pakistan.
book makes it very clear why the Pakistan Army surrendered in 13 days with
more than 45,000 soldiers still in fighting condition.
As General Gul Hasan notes, “with Niazi at the helm, they had no
chance.” Of course that
begs the question of who put Niazi there.
The most strategic command in the Army was turned over to a
“hastily promoted Major General.”11
The list of culprits begins with Generals Yahya and Hamid, but it
cannot exclude General Gul Hasan either, who was then Chief of the General
is then the bigger question of why did Pakistan get involved in a war with
India under such adverse circumstances.
Can India be blamed for assisting the Mukti Bahini guerillas in
seeking the liberation of Bangladesh?
In one year, India implemented successfully what Pakistan had been
trying unsuccessfully for two decades to implement in Kashmir.
then of course there is the role of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, unwilling to take
a back seat to Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman.
He insidiously ingratiated himself with leading personalities of
the military junta, including Generals Peerzada, Mitha, and Umar, and
blocked the National Assembly from meeting in Dacca.
That essentially sealed the fate of United Pakistan. Later on, he tore up the Polish resolution which would have
preserved the honour of the Pakistan Army from being considered by the
United Nations Security Council.12
Robert Jackson, now a British Member of Parliament, “Looking back on it
all, the sad story of the demise of East Pakistan does seem to have been a
miasma of personal ambition.”1314
The author is an economist in Palo Alto, California.
He lived in Pakistan during the 1965 and 1971 wars.
He has written on Pakistan’s Strategic Myopia in the RUSI
Journal, and reviewed Mazari’s book, Journey to
Disillusionment for International Affairs.
P. Sterba, Wall Street Journal,
November 6, 1984.
Dad Khan, Pakistan: Leadership
Challenges, OUP, 1999.
Sisson and Leo E. Rose, Pakistan, India, and the Creation of Bangladesh,
University of California Press, 1990.
Cloughley, A History of the Pakistan Army, OUP, 1999.
Cloughley, op. cit.
Beevor, Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, 1942-1943,
Penguin Books, 1998.
Sisson-Rose, op. cit.
Chopra, India’s Second Liberation, MIT Press, 1974.
Chopra, op. cit.
A. A. K. Chaudhry, September 1965, Ferozesons, 1977.
Sisson-Rose, op. cit.
Personal correspondence, January 20, 2000.