A retired Brigadier of the Pakistan Army reminices about the '71 war between India and Pakistan
- Brigadier (Retd.) F.B. Ali fought in the 1971 war between India and Pakistan. Here he gives his account of the events that resulted in the dismemberment of Pakistan and left behind a legacy of shame.September 2000
By F.B. Ali
Monthly 'Newsline'Karachi, Pakistan
The Supplementary Report of the 1971 War Inquiry Commission (headed by Chief Justice Hamoodur Rahman) has recently been published in the magazine India Today. There is little doubt that this is
a genuine document. It is unfortunate that, even though 30 years have passed, the Commission's report has not been made public in Pakistan, and we are forced to depend on foreign sources to learn of its contents in dribs and drabs.
Why this report has been buried so deep in secrecy is a simple question to answer: it is a scathing critique of the conduct of many leading politicians and senior military officers, and recommends that many of them be tried for their actions and failures which led to the shameful defeat and dismemberment of the country.
Since neither Z.A. Bhutto, who set up the Commission, nor any succeeding government was prepared to execute these recommendations, they were unwilling to make them public and then face the
inevitable questions and public anger. In Bhutto's case, his complicity in the break-up of the country (which must have been clear in the Main Report of the Commission) was added reason to keep the report secret.
The devastating account in this Supplementary Report of the despicable actions of a large number of senior officers in East Pakistan in 1971 could create the false impression that these strictures apply to all officers in that theatre, even though the Commission has itself cautioned against this. Even among the senior officers there were outstanding exceptions.
Major General Shaukat Riza, one of the finest officers to serve in the Pakistan army, vehemently disagreed with both the military strategy adopted as well as the policy of excessive use of force against the civilian population. He was promptly removed from East Pakistan, as was Major General Khadim Hussain Raja later, for similar reasons. Many officers, such as Lt. Colonel (later Brigadier) Mansoorul Haq Malik, refused to participate in the violence against civilians and other unethical military conduct, even though there were very strong feelings of revenge among the troops because of atrocities committed by the Mukti Bahini.
Another erroneous impression that has persisted, and which the Commission report may reinforce, is that the Yahya regime was established and propped up by the Pakistan army. That is not the truth.
The Yahya regime was brought into power by a small group of generals and top civil servants. It stayed in power because of the strong tradition of discipline and obedience in the army. It further consolidated its position by promoting its own henchmen to senior positions while removing those who would not go along. Moreover, it ensured the loyalty of its henchmen by giving them full licence to indulge in corruption and moneymaking.
The rest of the officer corps watched with increasing disgust as the regime wallowed deeper and deeper in this filth while leading the country to disaster. It is either not well-known, or often forgotten, that it was the Pakistan army that removed the Yahya regime, as I shall relate further on. Major General M. Rahim Khan has reacted violently to the publication of the Hamoodur Rahman Report. He doth protest too much.
Surely the Commission did not invent the details of what they term his "shameful cowardice and undue regard for his personal safety"; these were based on the evidence of persons who witnessed these events first hand. In fact, General Rahim should be thankful the Commission did not investigate the murky episode in which he had himself flown out of Dhaka to Burma just before the surrender.
I find it amusing that General Rahim shifts all the blame on Z.A. Bhutto, while attempting to distance himself from him. General Rahim was part of the inner circle of the martial law regime. After the People's Party won the 1970 election in West Pakistan, General Rahim began to establish relations with Bhutto. I was there, I saw it. In fact, he engineered a reconciliation between the regime and Bhutto, and became the link between the two as they conspired to wreck the newly elected National Assembly, in which the Awami League had a majority.
General Rahim was also one of the main contributors to the plan to use military force to crush the popular uprising in East Pakistan that would inevitably follow the scuttling of the political process. It was because of his special equation with Bhutto that the latter appointed General Rahim as Chief of the General Staff upon his return from Burma, and later on elevated him to the rank of Secretary-General, Ministry of Defence.
Major General Rao Farman Ali Khan has confirmed that the report published in India is genuine. In this report, the Commission has completely exonerated General Farman, and has even bestowed words of praise upon him.
In the interests of historical integrity, this picture needs to be balanced. General Farman was not in the inner circle of the Yahya clique, but he was a key member of the regime's Election Cell, which used extortion, intimidation, and bribery to ensure a victory for the Jamaat-i-Islami and other religious parties in the 1970 election. Huge sums of money were illegally raised and channelled to these parties.
When this attempt failed and the Awami League won in East Pakistan, General Farman initially supported the efforts of Lt. General Yaqub Ali Khan to arrange a peaceful political settlement. But when this policy was rejected by Yahya Khan and General Yaqub was sacked, Farman saw which way the wind was blowing and trimmed his sails accordingly.
As he said to me at the time: "I was a dove, but when the doves lost out I became a hawk and showed them that I was the most hawkish of them all.” He also became one of the principal architects of
the plan to use force in East Pakistan.
In his evidence before the Commission, General Farman sought to deflect any blame that might attach to General Tikka Khan for his role in East Pakistan. The Commission's report is itself remarkably silent on his role (Tikka was the army chief when this report was written). It is well-known that Tikka Khan was fully involved in the use of military force in East Pakistan.
Generals Rahim and Farman were contemporaries of mine; I knew them both. They were intelligent and capable officers. In their private lives they would be considered good and decent men. That is why they must be held to higher standards, and judged more harshly for their failures (propelled mainly by ravenous ambition) than Generals like A.A.K. Niazi.
The Commission's Supplementary Report deals mainly with the events in East Pakistan. The war in West Pakistan was covered in the Commission's Main Report, which is still suppressed. I participated in these operations, and appeared twice before the Commission. I have no doubt that in its Main Report the Commission paints an equally black picture of the conduct of the war in West Pakistan, and is as scathing in its condemnation of the regime and senior military commanders who lost large areas of the country and then cravenly accepted an ignominious ceasefire.
The details of the faulty strategy that were partly the cause of this debacle are no longer of general interest. But we must not forget the essence of what transpired; we must not let vested interests whitewash the dark truth or bury it. Nations that forget history are condemned to repeat it. My experience of the 1971 war is one window into the past as it really happened.
I commanded an artillery formation in the Sialkot-Narowal-Gujranwala sector, which was defended by 1 Corps under Lt. General Irshad Ahmad Khan.
Since I was simultaneously filling several other command positions, I was able to observe all that went on in this sector. The war was initiated by Pakistan on December 3, 1971 with a few very limited attacks. GHQ had given strict orders that nothing was to be done beyond this; all the requests of local commanders to be allowed to exploit the success of the initial attacks were firmly rejected. It appears that the Yahya regime started the war in the West just to put pressure on the international community to intervene and impose a ceasefire in East Pakistan.
This did not happen, and after a few days the Indians recovered from their initial disarray and began to push into our territory. There was total paralysis in the command on our side: GHQ gave no orders, while the field commanders were content to sit and wait for directions from above that never came.
Meanwhile, every day the enemy was advancing, every day we were giving up territory, every day we were steadily losing the war. I had about 14 or 15 regiments of artillery available to me, and I made the necessary plans and preparations to mass them against the enemy advance. From December 8 onwards, I tried every method I could, official and unofficial, formal and informal, to persuade my superiors and GHQ to use this great potential of firepower available to them, but in vain.
One day, in my capacity as Commander Artillery of Army Reserve North, I attended a meeting called by General Irshad, Commander 1 Corps, at his HQ in Gujranwala. After the dismal opening briefing about more areas lost the night before, I asked General Irshad why he wasn't doing anything about this continuing loss of territory.
"You are worried about this territory; according to the GHQ plan I can give up all the area north of the MRL canal.” (This was many times the area we had already lost!) I was so fed up that I said rather roughly: "If you are not going to use your reserve armoured brigade why don't you give it to us so that we can try to recover the lost territory?” For a few moments he was too shocked to reply; then he burst out: "Don't forget that after the war you will come back under my command and I will write your ACR (Annual Confidential Report)."
This general spent less time commanding his corps than he did on improving the security of his HQ and living quarters. The War Inquiry Commission recommended that Lt. Gen. Irshad Ahmad Khan should be court-martialled for surrendering nearly 500 villages to the enemy without a fight.
The territory we lost in West Pakistan was given up without a fight because the army was not allowed to fight by its commanders. In the few places where we did fight, the younger officers and soldiers displayed extraordinary valour and self-sacrifice. But the bulk of the army was kept out of battle. Halfway through the war it became a common place saying among officers: if you want to fight this war, forget about the generals and do it yourself.
On December 17, after Yahya Khan announced the acceptance of the ceasefire, I was quite certain, as were most other people, that he and his government would accept responsibility for the debacle and announce that they were quitting. That evening I handed in my resignation from the army, in acknowledgment of my responsibility (shared by all other senior officers) for having silently acquiesced in the takeover and maintenance of power by these corrupt, self-seeking generals who had brought the country to this sorry state.
Next day, on December18, I was stunned to learn that Yahya Khan had no intention of leaving; instead, he announced that he was going to promulgate a new constitution. Meanwhile, angry public demonstrations demanding that the regime should quit had erupted all over the country.
There was a real danger that Yahya Khan might use troops to quell the public outcry, which would have imposed an unbearable strain on the discipline of the army, itself angry and upset over what had happened.
I became convinced that the regime had to be clearly told that it no longer had the support of the army and must go. I tried to persuade my division commander, Major General M.I. Karim, to send such a message to the government through GHQ, but, although he appeared to share my views, he hesitated to take such a step. Finally, on December 19, I could wait no longer, and took over effective command of the division from General Karim. He tacitly accepted this, and gave me valuable support throughout the succeeding events.
In this action, I also had the support of some other senior officers who felt as I did. Our position was that the regime should quit and hand over power to the elected representatives of the people, and that all those incompetent and corrupt commanders who had led us into defeat should be sacked. In practical terms, this meant handing over power to Z.A. Bhutto and his People's Party, who had won the 1970 election in West Pakistan. Even though I was by no means a fan of Mr. Bhutto's, I believed that their elected status gave them the right to govern, and obtain the allegiance of
the armed forces.
Colonels Aleem Afridi and Javed Iqbal went to Rawalpindi with a message from us for Yahya Khan: he should announce by 8 p.m. that evening his readiness to hand over power to the elected representatives of the people. In addition, all those generals who had led the army into this disaster should also quit. In case such an announcement was not made by 8 p.m. then we could not guarantee control of the situation, and any resulting consequences.
The two officers met with General Gul Hassan, Chief of the General Staff, and asked him to convey this message to Yahya Khan. Gul Hassan went to General Hamid, the Chief of Staff, who said he would arrange for a meeting with the President at 7 p.m. General Hamid then went into a flurry of activity. He called several army commanders to see if they could help to restore the situation, but they all expressed inability to do anything. Major General A.O. Mitha, another stalwart of the regime, tried to get some SSG (commando) troops for action against our divisional HQ, but was unable to obtain any.
The failure of these efforts, and the obvious absence of any support in the army, left the Yahya clique with no option. Shortly before 8 p.m., the broadcast was made that Yahya Khan had decided to hand over power to the elected representatives of the people.
After this announcement General Gul Hassan and his friend, Air Marshal Rahim Khan, the air force chief, in consultation with G.M. Khar, a PPP leader, arranged for Z.A. Bhutto's return from Rome, where he was sitting out the crisis, apparently because he was not sure about his personal safety if he came back. When Bhutto arrived on the 20th, Gul Hassan and Rahim told him that the military was behind them, and it was they who had removed the Yahya regime. That night Mr. Bhutto made a broadcast to the nation, in which he announced the retirement of all the generals in Yahya Khan's inner clique, saying that he was doing this "in accord with the sentiments of the armed forces and the younger officers.” He also made Lt. General Gul Hassan the army chief, and confirmed Rahim Khan as the air force chief, though they did not last long when they proved insufficiently pliable.
Bhutto made no attempt to purge the armed forces of the rotten layer at the top, even though he must have known how discredited these officers were in their own services, especially with the War Inquiry Commission hearing evidence of their misdeeds, which were becoming generally known. It suited him to have weak commanders who depended on him for their positions and lacked the respect and support of those under them. But he readily acquiesced in Gul Hassan's removal of a few remaining upright and competent generals, namely, Major Generals Shaukat Riza, Ihsanul Haq Malik
and Khadim Hussain Raja.
Then, in August 1972, Bhutto retired me and five other officers who had been the principals in the removal of the Yahya regime. He publicly accused us of having engaged in a conspiracy to prevent the elected representatives of the people from coming into power in December 1971!
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had a glorious opportunity when he became President. The people of Pakistan were shaken to the roots of their national psyche. They looked longingly for a leader to guide them back to the right path; they were prepared to make a new beginning as a cohesive people ready to work together again to achieve the vision that had created their homeland 25 years ago. All they needed was a leader who felt the same pain and yearned for the same goal.
But at this great crossroads in history, the man of the hour was found pitifully wanting. His lack of vision, meanness of spirit, and pettiness of mind, all led him to see this historic moment as just an opportunity to grab personal power. Even the use of this power was affected by his limitations: witness, as one of his first acts as President, the arrest and public humiliation of persons against whom he harboured personal grudges.
When it became clear that Bhutto was not going to remove the incompetent and corrupt officers still remaining in the senior ranks of the military, a wave of anger spread among the younger officers of the army and the air force. Many of them began to talk about changing the government if this was the only way of purging the armed forces. This talk became serious among the brightest and bravest of them, who felt most deeply the shame inflicted upon the armed forces and the country in 1971, and for whom the profession of arms was an honourable calling in the service of the nation.
The moving spirit in the army was Major Farouk Adam Khan, while in the air force it was Squadron Leader Ghous. They got in touch with Colonel Aleem Afridi, who contacted me. The gnawing sense of responsibility that I felt for the existing situation would not let me stand aside; I decided to explore whether I could undo what I had done, even though I knew the risks and difficulties that the undertaking involved.
Matters had not gone beyond the serious discussion stage when a traitor in our midst, Lt. Colonel Tariq Rafi, betrayed us to the generals. Early in 1973, a large number of army and air force officers were arrested in a particularly brutal fashion, confined under very harsh conditions, and tried by courts martial at Attock and Badaber. Bhutto saw this as an excellent opportunity to teach a lasting lesson to anyone else in the armed forces who might think of acting against him.
In spite of a superb defence led by Mr. Manzur Qadir, the outcome was a foregone conclusion: all the accused were convicted and many of them were given long prison entences, including life imprisonment for Aleem Afridi and me. Manzur Qadir was ill but continued to defend us, even though we could barely pay enough to cover his expenses (his normal fees were totally beyond our means), and lived for long periods in primitive conditions in the Attock rest house, as did his colleagues, Ijaz Hussain Batalvi, Aitzaz Ahsan and Wasim Sajjad.
The emotions that drove these young officers to contemplate such a drastic step, involving grave risks, and then stoically suffer such harsh consequences, were poignantly expressed by Major Saeed Akhtar Malik in his address to the Attock court martial trying him for his life.
"When the war became imminent, I took leave from the PMA and joined my unit, with thanks to the CO who requisitioned my services. The next day the war started. But instead of glory, I found only disillusionment. The truth was that we were a defeated army even before a shot was fired. This was a very bitter truth. With each corpse that I saw, my revulsion increased for the men who had signed the death warrants of so many very fine men. Yes, fine men, but poor soldiers, who were never given the chance to fight back, because they were not trained to fight back. When they should have been training for war, they were performing the role of labourers, farmers or herdsmen, anything but the role of soldiers. This was not 'shahadat.' This was cold-blooded murder."Who was responsible for this? I was responsible! But more than me someone else was responsible. People who get paid more than me were responsible. What were some of these men, these callous, inhuman degenerates, doing when their only job was to prepare this army for war?
Were these men not grabbing lands and building houses? Did it not appear in foreign magazines that some of them were pimping for their bloated grandmaster? Yes, generals, wearing that uniform (he pointed at the court's president) pimping and whore-mongering!"High on the roll of honour of those great patriots who suffered and sacrificed for this country must be inscribed the names of Majors Saeed Akhtar Malik, Farouk Adam Khan, Asaf Shafi, Ishtiaq Asif, Farooq Nawaz Janjua, Nadir Parvez, Munir Rafiq, Iftikhar Adam, Sajjad Akbar, Tariq Parvez, Ayyaz Ahmed Sipra, and Nasrullah Khan; Captains Sarwar Mahmood Azhar and Naveed Rasul Mirza; Lt. Colonels Muzaffar Hamdani, Iftikhar Ahmed, and Afzal Mirza; Colonel Aleem Afridi; Brigadiers Wajid Ali Shah and Ateeq Ahmed; Squadron Leader Ghous, Wing Commander Hashmi and Group Captain Sikandar Masood.
To the reader whose eyes have just skipped over the last paragraph I would say: Pause a moment. These are brave men who fought for you and your children and your country, not only against the foreign enemy but also against the dark night of tyranny that was descending over this land. Even though they did not succeed, at least they tried, when so many others just sat and watched, or wrung their hands, or joined the victors. The least you can do is pay them the tribute of reading their names. Equal honour is due to our families, especially those whose husbands and fathers spent long years in prison. Effectively reduced to widows and orphans, in a hostile environment created by a powerful government that branded their men as traitors, they refused to be cowed down or give up. They waged constant battle in the courts of law and in the court of public opinion, all the while sustaining us with steadfast support. Without it many of us could not have survived.
I was instrumental in bringing Zulfikar Ali Bhutto into power in December 1971. This had an immediate effect upon the career of one Brigadier Zia-ul- Haq, who had recently returned from Jordan (where he had been a military adviser) under something of a cloud for his involvement in the crushing of the PLO by King Hussein. Bhutto made Zia's friend and patron, Gul Hassan, the army chief, who promptly promoted Zia to the rank of Major General.As a junior general, Zia was picked to be president of the Attock court martial. Bhutto took a strong personal interest in the progress of the Attock trial and required Zia to provide him with regular briefings; these private sessions gave Zia the opportunity to convince Bhutto of his personal loyalty. Bhutto wanted very much to have a few of the Attock accused sentenced to death. Zia assured him that he could manage to do this in my case and Aleem Afridi's. So sure were they of this that the gallows in Campbellpur Jail was prepared, and we were both moved next to the jail so that as soon as the court passed the sentence it could be immediately carried out. However, to accomplish this, Zia needed the votes of some of the younger officers on the court, but they did not agree.
Having failed to get me hanged, Bhutto continued to pursue me with a vengeance. When he learnt that 'life imprisonment' meant, in practice, 14 years behind bars,he had the rules changed so that such court-martial sentences really meant imprisonment for life. As required by prison regulations, all the Attock case prisoners were moved to jails near their homes except me.
When my wife questioned this, she was told that all decisions in my case were made by Bhutto. She then tried through Nusrat Bhutto and others close to him, but to no avail. So I spent about 4 1/2 years in solitary confinement far away from home. Finally, after Zia-ul-Haq dethroned Bhutto, I was moved to Kot Lakhpat Jail. Shortly thereafter, Bhutto arrived there as my neighbour, housed barely a 100 yards away. We were both in solitary confinement, but he was in a death row cell while I was in an A-class suite.
After the Attock trial, Zia assiduously built upon the foundation he had laid there to convince Bhutto of his fealty. When the time came, Bhutto picked him to be the next army chief, even though he was the junior-most of the five contenders. Not one of these other generals, any one of whom Bhutto could have picked instead of Zia, possessed the ruthlessness required to have him hanged later on. But it was Zia whom he picked. But for his early promotion in 1972 and the resulting opportunity provided by the Attock court martial to establish a personal equation with Bhutto, Zia-ul-Haq would never have become army chief. If he had not been so chosen, Zia would not have become President of Pakistan. Perhaps then he would not have been riding in that plane over the Bahawalpur desert.
I sit in a faraway land, and it is but rarely that I view the events of the past unfold as if on a dim stage. Sometimes the side curtains move, and it seems to me that in the shadows there, I catch a glimpse of the grinning face of History's Black Jester.
Following the 1971 war, Brigadier Furrukh B. Ali was retired by Bhutto in 1972 and spent five years in prison after the Attock conspiracy trial. He moved to Canada in 1979 and worked in the civil service there. Married with two children, F.B. Ali now leads a retired life in Toronto.