• Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Reflections on the Liberation War

A. Qayyum Khan

How did we force the Pakistan Army to surrender in nine months? Whatever may be the myth of the Pakistan army, it was not a formidable enemy. It was a Third World army and its senior commanders were inept. Terrorizing unarmed civilians of your country with guns is neither an act of courage or sacrifice, nor an appropriate response to a political crisis. The mere fact that no Pakistani military officer in East Pakistan refused to carry out unlawful orders to kill unarmed civilians en masse or conduct systematic rape, explicitly prohibited by the Geneva Convention and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights is the clearest indication that the Pakistan Army was not professional. In East Pakistan, it had deteriorated into a collection of thugs that thrived on murder, loot and rape. Such an army could not accomplish its mission.   
Yahya and his associates also read the international scenario incorrectly. They seemed to have put too much hope on their cold war alliances: SEATO and CENTO (buttressed by the Chinese initiative brokered by Pakistan). The Nixon Administration did all it could to help Pakistan by proclaiming that the events in East Pakistan were the internal affairs of Pakistan. This was an untenable position totally devoid of compassion for the human tragedy of genocide and mass rapes. It had no moral ground on which its support could be explained to the American people. Besides, 1972 was a presidential election year and Nixon could not afford to get the U. S. military (that depended on conscripts) involved in another Asian conflict before the end of the Vietnam War.
The Awami League had no preparedness to conduct an armed struggle/guerilla war against the Pakistan military. In March, when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Yahya and Bhutto were holding the futile talks that were only a ruse to complete the troop build up, the Awami League rebuffed all efforts by Bengali military personnel to organize resistance. There was almost a naïve expectation that Bengali soldiers would automatically revolt and resist the Pakistan Army in an organized manner. Even if that were to happen, actions would have to be planned and coordinated. The lack of planning and coordination cost the lives of many Bengali soldiers at the East Bengal Regimental Centre, and in the First and Third battalions of the East Bengal Regiment as well as the lives of EPR men in Peelkhana and policemen in Rajarbagh. The only preparation that the Awami League had taken was to send Chittaranjan Sutar to Calcutta for liaising with the Indians. What Sutar accomplished in Calcutta is not easy to assess, but the facts show that even after Mujib had called to organize a fortress in every home on March 7, there was no contact between Sutar and the Awami League high ups. The fact that Tajuddin Ahmed and the BSF could not find him in Calcutta, only illustrates the lack of planning and preparedness to put into effect the call for “building a fortress in every home”.
What would have been our fate without Indian help?  Without the Indian assistance, it is doubtful that the Pakistanis would have surrendered in nine months. India provided us with the essential ingredients to bring a revolutionary guerilla war to a successful conclusion. She gave sanctuary, training, weapons, and logistics for the Mukti Bahini. Most importantly, the Indian Army fought the conventional phase of the guerilla war to rout the enemy once they were weakened and dispersed without giving them the opportunity to reorganize.  The Indian help was not entirely out of altruistic reasons. With an independent Bangladesh, India would have a friendly neighbor on its eastern borders as opposed to a hostile one. It would also put an end to the clandestine support the Pakistan Military was giving to secessionist movements in Nagaland and Mizoram. This in turn, would discourage other secessionist movements in India. Thus, the creation of Bangladesh was of strategic importance to India. Finally, the breakaway of the eastern province proved that Jinnah's two nation theory was wrong; religion was not a sufficient foundation for the creation of a nation; shared ideals and aspirations, language and culture were. There was also the potential of huge economic benefits for India since Bangladesh would create a burgeoning market for Indian goods and services.
Throughout the liberation war, the Awami League was burdened with petty political issues. In the absence of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, no leader commanded the kind of respect and allegiance that he had. Awami Leaguers, who opposed the provisional government, couched their position in such a manner so as to give the impression that it would benefit the great leader himself. The majority of leaders were unwilling to make the sacrifices that were expected of them. Everything was ad-hoc. Had Tajuddin Ahmed not taken over the responsibility of the government what could have happened is difficult to conjecture. In spite of the opposition from the youth leaders, Tajuddin derived his authority through a democratic process; he challenged and debated the youth leaders in the Awami League Council. He did not conspire to eliminate those who opposed him although his opponents had put out a contract on his life. Tajuddin kept his focus on the issue at hand without being bogged down emotionally or politically. Most importantly, his personal relationship with Indira Gandhi and senior members of her staff went a long way in overcoming difficult issues between the two countries.  
The Mukti Bahini was a rag tag army with limited capabilities. There were glaring shortcomings in terms of deficiencies in weaponry, limited skills and inexperienced leadership. With so many weaknesses, how did we succeed? The Mukti Bahini succeeded because of the support of the ordinary people of Bangladesh and the dogged determination of its fighters. By December, the Mukti Bahini was about a hundred thousand strong; out of which four to five thousand were regular Bengali soldiers who revolted and deserted the Pakistan Army; another seven to eight thousand were former EPR men. The rest were volunteers. University and college students had played a pivotal role in various anti-government movements in Pakistan. They were, however, reluctant to undertake roles that would put them in harm's way during the liberation war; they were the 'intellectuals'. My estimate is that no more than three to four thousand college and university students joined the Mukti Bahini. Fewer actually fought. The sons of poor rural farmers of Bangladesh did most of the sacrifice and fighting. These boys remained dedicated throughout.  On many occasions, they took huge risks by putting their lives on the line and willingly made sacrifices for their country. They also bore the brunt of atrocities of the Pakistanis; whenever Pakistan army found out that, an individual from a certain household joined the Mukti Bahini, their homes were burnt and their family members targeted.  The rural people not only fought; they provided most of the assistance the Mukti Bahini needed. They gave the Mukti Bahini shelter, acted as guides and informants at great personal risk, helped in digging trenches and crossing obstacles, provided food and water to the hungry fighters when they did not have enough for their families and even showed the traps and mines laid by the Pakistan Army. It was ordinary people who were the true heroes of the liberation war. They did all this without the expectation of any reward, except the liberation of their homeland.

The writer is a Freedom Fighter.
Excerpted from the author's memoir of the liberation war – Bittersweet Victory: A Freedom Fighter's Tale (footnotes omitted).

Published: 12:00 am Wednesday, March 26, 2014

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