“Hello Abdullah!” Gen Nagra extended his hand to Gen Niazi. The two stood at Niazi's office. Two old course mates. One was the victor, the other, vanquished. The genocide at Bangladesh by the Pakistanis had come to an end.
It was a treacherous journey. On bull-carts and on foot. But it was the journey that finally led to the fall of Dhaka in 1971 and the victory for Bangladesh and its 75 million Bangalis.
Major General Gandharv Singh Nagra advanced with his two brigades of soldiers with lightning speed from the north. He had just replaced Major General Gurbax Gill who was injured when his jeep hit a mine on December 5.
And now on this chilly winter morning of December 9, Nagra crossed the river to the south of Jamalpur. There was a formidable Pakistani troop position in Kamalpur that showed tough fighting spirit. So it was better to bypass it, cut its retreating line and then move fast towards Dhaka, the ultimate target.
The troops could hardly wait for the final push -- the final battle. Let it be bitter and bloody but let it be over quickly, was the mood.
Nagra's two brigades of troops linked up with the Indian paratroopers who were dropped over there earlier. He then marched off towards Joydevpur and met a strong resistance from the Pakistan army. So Nagra left one of his brigades there to engage the enemy and took the second brigade with him to proceed. They crossed a river and marched towards Tongi.
But then Nagra changed his mind. Probably because information was there that he would meet stiff resistance. In front of him was a newly built road east of Kaliakair that linked up with Dhaka-Aricha highway. It was still unmarked on the map.
On December 14, General Nagra decided to place his bet on this axis and rapidly marched forward. On the way they had a bitter skirmish at Savar.
But then very early in the morning on December 16 he reached Mirpur, an outskirt of Dhaka. His troops took position across the Mirpur bridge and waited. A lull before the final battle.
Nagra had only 3,000 troops with him to take on 26,000 Pakistani soldiers hell-bent on saving Dhaka.
When the game was over
Meanwhile, in Dhaka a different drama was unfolding.
On December 14, Pakistan president Yahya Khan had sent a cable to General AAK Niazi, the commander of the Pakistan army in East Pakistan, and Governor AM Malik.
“You have fought a heroic battle against overwhelming odds…. You have now reached a stage where further resistance is no longer HUMANLY possible nor will it serve any useful purpose. You should now take all necessary MEASURES TO STOP THE FIGHTING….,” the message read.
Just a little while ago, Niazi had visited a Bihari camp in Mohammadpur and boasted to journalists, “We will fight it out till the last. It is the price of freedom. Pakistan will stay, yes, Inshallah, we will stay.”
And now when he got the president's cable, Niazi's hands trembled. He knew the full meaning of this message. It was a moment no career soldier ever expected to see. The most loathsome, most ignominious moment of his life had arrived. The decision to lay down arms, to surrender to the enemy, was his to take.
In the evening, Niazi and General Rao Farman Ali rushed to US consul general Spivack and asked him to negotiate the cease-fire terms with the Indians for him.
“I cannot negotiate a cease-fire on your behalf. I can only send a message if you like,” Spivack said in a matter-of-fact tone.
So General Rao Farman drafted the message addressed to Indian Chief of Staff General Sam Manekshaw, according to Siddiq Salik's book “Witness to surrender.”
It called for an immediate case-fire, safety of Pakistan Armed and paramilitary forces, the protection of the loyal civilian population against reprisals by the Mukti Bahini and the safety and medical care of the sick and the wounded.
Spivack promised to transmit the message in twenty minutes. But he actually sent it to Washington to get comments on Yahya Khan. Nobody knew where Yahya was at that moment in time.
Finally when it reached General Manekshaw, the Indian chief of staff immediately replied. The cease fire would be acceptable provided the Pakistan Army surrendered. He also provided the radio frequency 6605 KHz by day and 3216 kHz by night with a call sign CALBAC on which Kolkata, the seat of Indian Eastern Command, could be contacted for co-ordination of details.
His massage contained a stern warning as The New York Times reported: “Should you not comply with what I had stated you will leave me with no other alternative but to resume my offensive with utmost vigor at 0900 hours on 16 December.”
He also withheld air strikes from 5pm, December 15.
The temporary cease-fire was to be from 5 pm on 15 December till 9 am the following day. It was later extended to 3 pm, 16 December, to allow more time to finalize cease-fire arrangements.
Niazi had no option left now. Bhutto's bid to institute a ceasefire and withdrawal of Indian troops through the UN had failed because of repeated vetoes by the Soviets.
So he asked his chief of staff Brigadier Baqar to issue the necessary orders to the formations and asked the local commanders to contact their Indian counterparts to arrange the cease-fire.
“It did not say 'surrender' except in the following sentence, “Unfortunately, it also involves the laying down of arms,” writes Salik.
All was set for the fall of Dhaka.
FALL OF DHAKA
We are here. We have surrounded you. Your game is up. Choose between surrender or total destruction. We assure you will be treated according to the Geneva Convention. I personally assure you that you have no risk of life.
Major General Nagra
8:30 am, Dec 16, 1971”
The message was clear and exact. Captain Mehta, ADC of Nagra, carried the message with him riding a jeep. A white shirt was tied to it for want of a flag.
At around 9 in the morning, Niazi was handed the small chit of message. He read it silently and passed it to Rao Farman Ali. They were surprised to find Nagra's name on the message as they had expected General Jacob to be there. It also revealed how weak their defence was as Nagra was virtually breathing down their neck.
But the more urgent question was whether they would welcome Nagra or fight on.
“Have you any reserves left?” Major-General Farman asked Niazi, according to Farman's book “How Pakistan got divided.”
Niazi remained silent just as he had been for the last three days.
“How long can you resist?” Farman Ali asked again.
As silence prevailed, Rear-Admiral Shariff said in Punjabi: “Kuj palley hai?” (Have you anything in the kitty?)
Niazi looked at major general Jamshed, the defender of Dacca, Farman Ali wrote in his book.
Jamshed shook his head sideways to signify “nothing.”
“I cannot advise you anything,” Farman Ali then said. “Go ahead and do whatever you like.”
Niazi sent Jamshed to receive Nagra.
“The Indian General entered Dacca with a handful of soldiers and a lot of pride. That was the virtual fall of Dacca. It fell quietly like a heart patient,” Salik wrote.
Niazi was in a way relieved to meet Nagra, his longtime course mate at the military academy.
"Surely by the 13th day of the war, Abdullah knew that he had lost the war. It was only a question of time. Any further delay would have meant more casualties," General Nagra recalled in an interview with The Tribune, an Indian newspaper in 1998.
"And when I walked into Abdullah's (Niazi) office in Dacca, there was instant recognition. General Niazi had put on some weight though his face still had the same glow.
"Hello Abdullah, how are you?" I asked him.
Nagra then mentioned that Abdullah broke down and exclaimed: “Pindi mein bethe hue logon ne marwa diya (The people sitting in Pindi doomed us.) I let him talk to lighten his heart. There were reminiscences. Tea followed and of course there was forced friendliness," says General Nagra.
“TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT”
At 12 noon came the message from Kolkata that General Jacob will arrive with a 12-member negotiating team.
Jacob stepped off his chopper with the surrender deed in hand. When it was handed to Rao Farman Ali after a quickly look by Niazi, the former objected to the clause that the surrender would be to the joint command of India and Bangladesh.
An angry Farman Ali said, “It is not acceptable to me…. Please delete the words Freedom Fighters.”
Just then General Jacob entered the room with a cigar in hand, writes Farman Ali.
“It has come from Delhi. Either you take it or leave it,” Jacob asserted.
Niazi had no alternative but to accept any terms being thrust on him. Jacob then asked General Jagjit Singh Aurora, chief of Indian Eastern Command, to come to Dhaka for the surrender ceremony.
BIRTH OF A NATION
A few hours later, the victors and the vanquished rode down to the Race Course at Ramna.
And here, “on a broad grassy field … the Pakistani forces formally surrendered, 13 days after the Indian army began its drive into East Pakistan,” The New York Times report of the day said.
“As I signed the document with trembling hands, sorrow rose from my heart to my eyes, brimming them with unshed tears of despair and frustration,” Niazi later wrote of the moment.
Before the ceremony, a French reporter came to Niazi and asked, “How are you feeling, Tiger?”
“Depressed,” was the curt reply Niazi could mutter.
It was from this Race Course that Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on March 7 had called upon the Bangalis to wage a movement for independence and freedom. It was from here he promised to liberate the country at any cost.
And exactly that had happened here. A nation was born out of blood and fire.