East Pakistan: Myths Surrounding 1971 War And A Conversation With A Bengali
By Ali Hassnain
The year was 2016, the city was Kuala Lumpur. That morning from a deserted street, I took a cab to the airport. The Uber driver was very talkative; when his talk turned to gibberish, I had a good look at him. I ended up noticing his right finger and what I recalled shook me.
A few years back a psychiatrist friend of mine claimed that the person sitting on a table opposite to ours in a restaurant was a drug user. I promptly dismissed the idea. However, the person soon went to the toilet and came back with his pupils dilated. The friend told me about how drug users keep one nail in a certain shape so they can easily sniff drugs.
What I had learnt in a restaurant at M.M. Alam Road, Lahore a couple of years back horrified me on that day sitting on the passenger seat on a freeway in Kuala Lumpur. I rechecked my seat belt and decided to engage the Uber driver in conversation.
“What do you know about Pakistan?” I asked.
“Aaah, good people.” He replied. Had India not captured East Pakistan (his words) Pakistan would be an hour’s flight. Pakistan should not have surrendered, said the ethnic Chinese Malaysian guy. They should have sent all their men from West (Pakistan) and stayed.
The ride ended in an hour and I was on the flight a few hours later.
After the flight took off I couldn’t shrug off the thoughts; from Pink Floyd’s “hollow laughters in empty marble halls” (a song from their album, The Wall) to Faiz’s ہم جو تاریک راہوں میں مارے گئے۔
As fate would have it, the skinny girl with deep brown eyes sitting next to me in the ferry in next leg of my journey was a Bengali. Her surname was Toma. It was an overnight sea journey and my sixth sense warned me that some arguments were in the offering. She stirred up the conversation by mentioning how deep in thought I was when I sipped the Malaysian style tea.
I usually avoid the pointless conversation where there are 10 factual accuracies in someone’s arguments and due to decades of brainwashing you cannot simply correct them about the factual inaccuracies which the vehemently believe in. Interestingly enough the girl on my left was a hippie style Irish who seemed to be interested in talking as well. It was late at night and the journey would probably last a few more hours (well into the morning).
The Bengali girl it turned out was from Comilla. I took a sigh of relief as my great uncle has served there in 1971 towards the end of war and during his time there, before and after that he had been a pure professional and patriotic soldier. In addition, it turned out the girl’s grandfather was 16 in 1971 and in Mukti Bahini. Out of nowhere, she asked me if I would like to apologise to her. It appeared she was asking for an apology for 1971.
I took a deep breath.
“Yes I apologize,” I said, “for my new born country not being able to defend itself from India, the Soviet Union and from NATO’s deception.
(ہے جرم ضعیفی کی سزا مرگ مفاجات)
She got offended and said about that I could visit her house and talk to her grandfather over tea, but she wanted an apology on rapes and massacre right there and then.
I stared into her deep black eyes. She looked innocent and genuinely offended. I felt like she would jump into the Strait of Malacca if I confronted her with facts.
“What apology do you think you deserve?” I curiously asked her.
“Of massacre and rape,” was her prompt reply.
“Which massacre and which rape?” I asked. She appeared confused.
“Of the 1971 War.” She replied.
“Have you heard of Bosnia?” I quietly asked. There were mass rapes and massacres there and there are a lot of mass graves. She seemed offended but curious. I carried on. “Has there been a single discovery of mass graves? Of systematic state sponsored ‘genocide’ or rapes? A single reported judgment in independent Bangladesh?”
“Do you know victims of the Irish civil war?” (I tried to involve the Irish woman). She said she knew dozens. “So you know dozens while no one knows of a victim of Pakistan government backed rape and massacre!” She seemed confused and took refuge in language.
“Your English is good,” she chuckled and said “you are trying to outsmart me.” The Irish lit her cigarette and came to the rescue,” you asked him for an apology, he did not and he has a point.” Miss Toma responded with Urdu-Bengali issue and repeated her claims of genocide and rape.
“Did you commit genocide?” the Irish asked. To pass the time apparently she had decided to become a moderator.
“Do you know what is genocide and ethnic cleansing?” I asked.
“I am a lawyer, of course I do,” was her reply. I asked her to explain to Miss Toma. In nutshell, she explained it was a systematic killing of people of a certain race or ethnicity usually with the goal of reducing their numerical strength.
I inquired if what she was saying or implying was that the West Pakistan was replacing Bengalis with people of other ethnicity (Punjabi, Sindhi, and Baloch etc.). It appeared she was not expecting this question and jumped to the economic exploitation myth. Fortunately or unfortunately, I had blogged about it a few years back so, on the risk of her jumping in the high seas at night, I presented her with World Bank facts:
GDP of West Pakistan in 1965 — 5.8 Billion US$
GDP of East Pakistan in 1965 — 5.99 Billion US$
GDP of Pakistan In 1970
East Pakistan — 8.9$
West Pakistan —10.02 Billion$
2013: Pakistan’s GDP stood at 236.62 Billion$
2013: Bangladesh’s GDP stood at 129.85 Billion $
She tried to garble the propaganda that West Pakistan left them with nothing etc., but I hesitantly asked her if West Pakistan took the first steel mill and other infrastructure with them. I did not want to offend her; she did not seem political or extremist, just brainwashed. Her complexion was not too dark so in the dimly lit ferry I could see her turning red while trying to stay composed.
“Why did (West) Pakistan surrender with 93000 soldiers then?”
Apparently, she had used the trump card of lies spread by propagandists of India.
“Let’s have a round of Teh Tarik (a kind of tea), lets calm down, we have a long journey,” I offered.
Many fellow tourists had started taking interest so I tried to end the debate. After all, there was a risk of her jumping in Strait of Malacca on knowing that we had 45000 ill-equipped troops there, not 93000. We had hardly 32000-37000 combatants, those too ill-equipped but well-motivated light infantry. I decided to end the debate.
Then an intoxicated Pakistani rattled in a heavy Yahiya Khan like voice, “How you could defend that drunkard general?”
I turned and saw a Pakistani well into his 50s, reasonably intoxicated. I told him that we are all friends there who had just a little academic discussion going on, nothing serious. In addition, we could carry on provided he let us enjoy the tea along with the snacks we had ordered. Again, he commented something about the drunken generals of Yahiya regime. Well the Teh Tarik was going nowhere, I would have to comment, I decided.
I put a simple question to him, “Sir to settle my curiosity I dare ask, do you have a problem with drunken people or drunken people ruling the country or the head of state drinking or the drinking effecting his decisions?”
On my mention of alcohol, he gave a smile and shied away from answering, as he was intoxicated himself. Something that confuses me to this date, do we have problem with intoxicated Yahiya? Or intoxicated Yahiya in office (on job)? Or his policies? General Yahiya was a secular person and apparently the liberals have a problem with General Yahiya and General Zia both. A lot can be written for and against Yahiya regime’s decisions but it is very interesting when an intoxicated person starts calling Yahiya ‘a bloody drunk’… comical at times. Another discussion for another time.
Then, a Vietnam War veteran with his 27 years old Southeast Asian wife came into the discussion. All of a sudden we had a military angle (I am a civilian). Summary of his ranting was as follows:
93000 troops are enough to control a country
Where was the air force?
Why did the war only last 13 days
Why didn’t we use the rivers of East Pakistan as defense?
Why didn’t we ask the US and/or the UN to intervene?
Finally we had some rational questions. I ordered a Teh Tarik for myself and his wife who (looked visibly upset for being seen with her old husband and) had started answering his questions.
Something as basic as google can tell you that the military POWs in 1971 were 45000. That included military para military and reserves, the rest were West Pakistani civilians. Out of 45000 troops, there were 32000-37000 combatants, which included paramilitary and reserves. No armored division, no heavy artillery, no long range anti-aircraft guns, which was light infantry, at best one core. To compare today we have 200000 troops deployed at border with Afghanistan.
The old veteran blinked in surprise and asked me to carry on.
We had a symbolic presence of air force, which due to American arms embargo of 1965 was already scrambling to recover even in West Pakistan. Pakistan was created in 1947. In 1951, there was this famous incident of Liaquat Ali Khan’s mukka (fist) where he waved his fist and vowed we would fight India to death if attacked. In President Ayyub Khan’s book “Friends, Not Masters”, he has disclosed that although India backed down but he had 13 functional tanks in the military…
It was simply a question of resources; the little air force we had lacked spare parts and was severely hampered by the embargo.
Then I came to the third part where he asked why the war lasted 13 days. Well it was mid-March 1971 when Mukti Bahini rebelled and started mass killings of opponents and it was 25th March late night when military was asked to intervene. Before 25th March we had some 25000 troops (all included) in East Pakistan. We simply did not have enough troops even after induction of more troops to defend the local population. The villagers switching flags when they saw Pakistan Army and when they saw Mukti Bahini, was quite frequent.
It was like Swat, and that happened right in our backyard; until the military was called in and Operation Rah e Raast was launched, the local population could not resist Indian backed terrorists. FATA was one of the most weaponized areas in the world, yet we had to launch Operation Zarb e Azb and go all out and only then the pro-Pakistani armed tribals could rise. There was no such situation in East Pakistan.
Then there is the question of terrain. Yes, we did use it for our defense; India had to airlift a handful of troops directly to Dhaka bypassing our small deployments despite lack of long-range artillery, anti-aircraft guns and air force. There were deployments around Dhaka and it is another chapter, but the war started on 25th March and ended on 16th December. It was all out Indian invasion from 3rd December but before that open war, cross border terrorism and military raids were happening.
The answer to last question was long, another discussion for another time again. But in short, on 10th December we did ask the UN for help, we already had pacts with the US and verbal on the record assurance against Indian invasion which were not honoured (according to the now declassified US state department documents).
There was a letter by VP Nixon in our archives and in the US which is clear on this topic. There was a possible secret section in SEATO and CENTO against India which was not honoured, USSR was outright involved and there was no help to us what so ever from our western allies. The US state department declassified documents reveal that the US could help, but was hesitant to do so.
Then there was fateful resolution of 15th December at UN. Soviet Union pretended to agree and asked their client state Poland to move a resolution.
S/10453, in that they agreed to set up a zone where as per Pakistani offer of 10th December Pakistan would hand over power to elected people (so-called) and go to West Pakistan along with civilians, non-Bengalis (Biharis) and Bengalis who want to go with them. There would be ceasefire before that and Bangladesh would be created.
Z.A. Bhutto was the official deputy minister of General Yahya administration. He suddenly pulled the argument that local issues are no grounds for foreign intervention, tore up the resolution and walked away (a few hours before surrender of General Niazi).
The American veteran was astonished. Why/how did the Pakistan Army fight in such circumstances? His own experiences in Korea and Vietnam were nothing compared with what our soldiers had to cope with in East Pakistan. He giggled, “At least I have good pension and a young wife, and my war buddies own night clubs in Pattaya. What did these people get?” The answer surprised him.
Mujib killed by Bengalis.
Indra killed by Indians.
Bhutto hanged for murder by Pakistanis.
General Yahya never saw a day of freedom after that and died in house arrest, buried in Iran.