12:00 AM, December 19, 2012 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, December 19, 2012

Ground Realities

Pakistan . . . in December 1971

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Syed Badrul Ahsan

The moment is appro-priate to revisit Pakistan as it was in December 1971. Given that we have a clear perspective on what went on in Bangladesh in that month of triumph, it follows that people in Bangladesh should also remember, or be enlightened on, how Pakistan coped with its collapse in its former province of East Pakistan. For students of South Asian history, it is important that the incidents, minor as well as major, which occurred in December 1971 be recalled in the interest of academic analyses in the future. People in Bangladesh know how their country came into being. People in Pakistan need to know why their state came to grief in Bangladesh barely a quarter century after it had been cobbled into shape.
The military junta led by General Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan committed a major blunder on December 3 when it launched an attack on Indian air force bases and ordered Pakistan's soldiers to open a new war front on the west. Bad reasoning was involved here. The regime thought that by attacking India from the west, it would be able to prevent East Pakistan from slipping into the hands of the Mukti Bahini. In the event, the Indians hit back hard. In the east, the Indian air force destroyed Pakistan's jet fighters on the ground through sudden and sustained attacks. Between December 3 and 16, therefore, Pakistan's forces in occupied Bangladesh would not have their air force to fall back on.
Meanwhile, even as open hostilities broke out between Pakistan and India on December 3, Yahya Khan announced the formation of a new civilian government, with him at the top of course. He appointed the Bengali Nurul Amin prime minister of Pakistan, with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, chairman of the Pakistan People's Party and the man who would have been leader of the opposition had Sheikh Mujibur Rahman been allowed to take over as Pakistan's prime minister, as deputy prime minister and foreign minister. Bhutto was swiftly sent off to the United Nations, where his theatrics more than his diplomacy drew the attention of the world. Even as Pakistan's soldiers were on the retreat in Bangladesh, Bhutto refused to accept reality. In dramatic fashion, he tore up what he said was a copy of a ceasefire resolution at the Security Council and stalked out of the hall.
The surrender by Lt. Gen. Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi to the joint Indo-Bangladesh command in Dhaka on December 16 was telecast and broadcast in what till then had been West Pakistan, to the horror of Pakistanis. All this while, they had been fed on the lie that the Pakistan army was winning the war, on both the eastern and western sectors. They had been lulled into the belief, in the preceding nine months, that the "miscreants" (meaning the Bengali guerrillas) had been destroyed and everything had returned to normality in East Pakistan. Now, television images of Niazi signing the document of surrender before India's General Jagjit Singh Aurora left Pakistanis feeling humiliated. Spontaneous demonstrations against the regime broke out in various cities. Overall, a state of shock enveloped the country. That the Pakistan army could lose a war was inconceivable for Pakistanis.
There was no statement from either General Yahya Khan or his regime on December 16. The rumour went round that Yahya Khan was too inebriated on the day, either out of habit or from shock at the news from "East Pakistan," to address Pakistan's people on the happenings in distant Dhaka. It would not be until the next day, December 17, that Yahya would go on radio and television, to inform Pakistanis that the war would go on and that Pakistan had nothing to fear. He did not tell his nation clearly that Bangladesh had emerged. His speech was palpably hollow and could not stem the howls of outrage coming in from different regions of Pakistan. On the same day, India's Prime Minister Indira Gandhi unilaterally called a halt to Indian army advances into (West) Pakistan. US President Nixon, his national security advisor Henry Kissinger and other world leaders, concerned that (West) Pakistan too might collapse before the Indian army, had appealed to Mrs. Gandhi for magnanimity.
A couple of days after the surrender in Dhaka, General Abdul Hamid Khan, chief of general staff of the Pakistan army and a Yahya confidant, appeared before a large group of army officers at army headquarters in Rawalpindi to explain the causes behind the disaster in Dhaka. He was shouted down, with epithets being thrown at him, to a point where he made a quick exit from the hall. The entire purpose behind Hamid's appearance, to gauge the mood and see if the Yahya regime could hang on to power despite the debacle in Bangladesh, was thus lost. It was then decided that Bhutto, then in New York, be sent for.
On his way back to Rawalpindi, Bhutto stopped over in Washington, where he met Nixon and Kissinger. Arriving in Rawalpindi on December 20, he headed straight for the presidential residence for a meeting with Yahya Khan. When he re-emerged a few hours later, he was Pakistan's president and chief martial law administrator. As evening passed into night, President Bhutto addressed his countrymen, promising them that the war with India would go on, that there would be a new Pakistan, that "our brothers in East Pakistan" would have the support of the rest of Pakistan in "liberating" themselves from "foreign domination." He also announced the appointment of three new chiefs for the armed services, noting that in future the forces would have only chiefs of staff rather than commanders-in-chief.
Bhutto's speech on December 20, 1971, was rambling and hardly touched on the tragedy Pakistan had encountered in Bangladesh only four days earlier. On December 22, he ordered the freeing of the incarcerated Bengali leader, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, from solitary confinement and placed him under house arrest at a guest house near Rawalpindi. A few days later, he turned up at the guest house, to Mujib's surprise, and told him he was Pakistan's new leader. He tried to extract promises from Bangabandhu about Bangladesh and Pakistan keeping some links, something the latter declined to do.
By the end of December 1971, as global pressure began to build for Mujib's freedom, Bhutto moved to prepare Pakistan's people on the need for Bangabandhu to go home to Bangladesh. Meanwhile, he ordered that the members of the fallen junta -- Yahya, Hamid and the others -- be placed under house arrest. He also had an inquiry commission constituted under Justice Hamoodur Rahman to go into the causes of Pakistan's military defeat in Bangladesh.

The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.
E-mail: ahsan.syedbadrul@gmail.com

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