December 16, 1971: The Day Of Infamy In Pakistan’s History

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Jumada' al-Ula' 07, 1444 2022-12-01

News & Analysis

by Zafar Bangash (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 52, No. 10, Jumada' al-Ula', 1444)

December 16, 1971 is one date that most Pakistanis would rather not remember. For good reason. It was on this date 51 years ago, that the Pakistan army surrendered to the invading Indian army in Dhaka, Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan). Who were behind this debacle and what lies were told to hide the truth from people need to be examined.

Regrettably, nothing in Pakistan appears to be what it really is. There are vested interests that spin stories to hide their own criminal conduct. We are witnessing this even today with powerful forces busy destroying the country while wrapping themselves in the cloak of patriotism.

It is important to expose one myth at the outset that is so assiduously peddled: that the army is there to protect Pakistan. Even many well-meaning and otherwise good people parrot this line. The reality is that the military and more particularly the army has become a multi-headed hydra that devours vast state resources. And it has spectacularly failed in fulfilling its primary function: defence of the country. Far from defeating the enemy—India—it frequently conquers its own hapless people.

The most spectacular—and depressing—spectacle of this was witnessed at the race course ground in Dhaka on December 16, 1971 when 90,000 Pakistani troops and members of the civil bureaucracy surrendered to the invading Indian army. Perhaps never before in history has such a large number of troops surrendered to an enemy anywhere.

In his address on the occasion of Martyrs Day at the GHQ in Rawalpindi on November 23, General Qamar Javed Bajwa said there were only 34,000 troops in East Pakistan and that it was a political rather than a military defeat. The Hamoodur Rahman Commission report said there were 59,000 active duty troops.

Bajwa is clearly re-writing history. Pakistan had been under military rule since 1958. Yahya Khan was the president as well as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. So how could Bajwa claim the surrender as a "political defeat"?

Some would argue that the Pakistan army faced an impossible task. It had to confront an enemy army many times larger; that it was one thousand miles away from the western wing and no supplies could be sent to replenish its stocks.

All this is true. The fundamental question is: who was responsible for putting the army in this terrible situation? Further, why was nobody held accountable for this disaster in which not only tens of thousands of soldiers surrendered but half the country was also lost?

Surely, somebody should have been held accountable for this debacle. The fact that nobody was brought to books has had disastrous consequences for the political evolution, or lack thereof, in Pakistan.

At the root lie two fundamental flaws in Pakistan’s psyche. First, the West Pakistani elite exhibited profound racism toward the people of East Pakistan (the Bengalis). Two, the prevailing mindset was—and it persists to this day—that every problem can be solved by brute force.

It was the West Pakistani elite’s racism that refused to accept the results of the December 7, 1970 general elections in which Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League won an absolute majority in the National Assembly. His party secured 160 out of 162 seats plus seven seats for women (all of them from East Pakistan) in the 300-seat assembly (total 313 with the 13 reserved seats for women added).

In West Pakistan, out of 138 national assembly seats, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto won 81 seats plus five seats for women. The remaining seats went to smaller parties. This should have automatically led to power being handed over to the Awami League. Sheikh Mujib would have become the country’s first democratically elected prime minister but Bhutto conspired with then president, General Yahya Khan to subvert this.

It was not difficult for Bhutto to do so given the deep-seated racism against the Bengalis whom the West Pakistani elite considered inferior. Bhutto pushed the canard that Mujib was a “traitor” and an Indian agent. The Awami League chief had already been accused of hatching the ‘Agartala Conspiracy’ to break-up Pakistan during Ayub Khan’s presidency. It was common at that time to accuse political opponents of “treachery” if they criticized the strongman.

Nothing has changed in Pakistan in the intervening years. How Pakistan arrived at the debacle in 1971 needs recounting.

After the election result, Yahya Khan announced in January 1971 that the national assembly session would be convened on March 3, 1971 in Dhaka. Bhutto immediately threatened all West Pakistani members to not attend the session. “We will break your legs if you go to Dhaka,” he said. He knew he could not become the prime minister if the country remained united. So, he refused to accept the election results. Instead, he announced, “Udhar tum, idhar hum” (you [Mujib] there, we [Bhutto] here in power).

Mujib had already annouced his six-point formula under which he demanded autonomy for East Pakistan. He further stated that Pakistan should become a confederation with the centre responsible only for foreign policy and defence.

Facing political impasse, Yahya postponed the assembly session. Not surprisingly, Mujib saw this as an attempt by the West Pakistani elite to deprive the Bengalis of their right to rule the country. He launched a general strike in East Pakistan that further reinforced the belief in West Pakistan that he wanted to break-up the country.

With Mujib’s strident rhetoric, Awami League thugs went on a rampage killing West Pakistanis working in East Pakistan as well as Biharis—Urdu-speaking Muslims who had fled India during partition. With the law-and-order situation deteriorating rapidly in East Pakistan, Bhutto kept up the pressure on Yahya demanding stern action against Mujib and his party.

Yahya, the soldier, could only think of one option: military force. Military commanders in East Pakistan—Admiral Ahsan, Lt. Gen Yaqub Ali Khan and others—advised against military action fearing it will exacerbate the situation further. They urged dialogue with Mujib but Yahya’s ego, pumped by Bhutto, got in the way.

He felt he had to enforce the state’s writ, regardless of the consequences for the country. Officers who urged dialogue were considered weak. They were divested of their authority and replaced by Lt Gen Tikka Khan, notorious for brutal action. On March 25, 1971, Tikka Khan launched his military operation in East Pakistan. Sheikh Mujib was arrested and flown to West Pakistan to face trial on treason charges. Bhutto announced, “Thank God, Pakistan has been saved”!

The military operation was ‘successful’ in suppressing the uprising in East Pakistan but no steps toward political dialogue were initiated. Riding high, Yahya Khan was in no mood for dialogue. He wanted to teach Mujib, and any other upstart politician, a lesson. Does it sound familiar?

He also helped, secretly, Henry Kissinger’s visit to Beijing (then called Peking) in July 1971 from Islamabad to pave the way for US-China détente. Yahya thought this would secure American and Chinese help in the inevitable Indian attack on East Pakistan. Under normal circumstances, this may have held true but the visit immediately aroused the Soviet Union’s wrath that entered into a military pact with India thus sealing Pakistan’s fate.

By summer, Lt Gen Abdullah Khan Niazi had replaced Tikka Khan as commander of Pakistani forces in East Pakistan. The generals knew that Pakistani forces were no match for India. The conventional wisdom was that East Pakistan would be defended by military operations launched against India from West Pakistan.

India launched a full-fledged invasion of East Pakistan on November 23, 1971. Pakistan retaliated by attacking India on the western front on December 3, 1971. Indian troops made rapid advance toward Dhaka bypassing major cities where Pakistani garrisons were located. In West Pakistan, it was largely a stalemate.

While Yahya and the coterie of generals around him as well as Niazi waited for Chinese and American military help to arrive, Indian forces arrived in Dhaka. Despite putting up valiant resistance, Pakistani forces were overwhelmed and the world witnessed the spectacle of more than 90,000 troops surrendering to India.

The fundamental question that must be asked is: if Yahya was not prepared to hold dialogue with Mujib because he could not preside over the dismemberment of Pakistan (as he put it), why did Pakistani forces surrender on December 16, 1971? The logical course would have been to continue fighting, regardless of the odds.

Even when a face-saving option was provided through the Polish resolution at the UN Security Council, Bhutto then serving as Pakistan’s foreign minister, tore up the resolution and walked out of the council chamber. He was not prepared to accept a political solution. He was determined to see Pakistani forces surrender so that the army, thus weakened and humiliated, would not be able to challenge his power in what was left of Pakistan.

By not holding anyone to account, nor learning any lessons from the Dhaka debacle, Pakistan continues to repeat these mistakes to this day. This is the real tragedy of Pakistan.

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