Playing The Fiddle While Dhaka Burned: How We Ended Up With A Leftover Pakistan

Playing The Fiddle While Dhaka Burned: How We Ended Up With A Leftover Pakistan
16th of December 1971: General AAK Niazi receives a telegram from President Yahya Khan which reads:

"You have fought a heroic battle against overwhelming odds. The nation is proud of you. 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 and preserve the lives of armed forces personnel, all those from West Pakistan and all loyal elements."

It took just three lines to turn the Quaid’s dream into a nightmare, even before the nation could celebrate its 25 years of independence from the British. On the 16th of December 1971, the Pakistani armed forces surrendered to the joint forces of the Mukti Bahini and the Indian army, headed by Lt. General Jagjit Singh Arora, the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Eastern Command of the Indian Army. Lieutenant General AAK Niazi, the last corps commander of Eastern Command, signed the Instrument of Surrender at about 4:31 pm. Over 93,000 personnel, including Lt. General Niazi himself and Rear Admiral Shariff, were taken as POWs.

The Eastern Command, civilian institutions and paramilitary forces were all disbanded. On that dark day, the world saw yet another partition and reality stared us in the face. East Pakistan had become the newly independent state of Bangladesh. The former West Pakistan was all that remained of Jinnah’s Pakistan.

Niazi later explained in an interview in December 2001: “I was given a clear order from General Yahya Khan, the President of Pakistan, to surrender because West Pakistan was in danger.” By the time of this interview given in his twilight years, the former army chief had been demoted to a Major General and stripped of all his medals and decorations. This was the same man who had displayed immense courage during the Burma campaign during WWII and was nicknamed “Tiger” by Brigadier Warren, Commander of 161 Infantry Brigade, and was later also awarded the Military Cross in recognition of his acts of exemplary gallantry. He had seen the action in the Middle East, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia as well as in Kashmir and was wounded five times. With 24 medals, Niazi was one of the most decorated soldiers of the Pakistan Army. Niazi held various command postings during the 1965 war and was awarded Hilal-e-Jurat for his outstanding courage, valour and skillful handling of his fighting force in an armoured engagement against the enemy forces. However, all that glory stood suddenly destroyed.

General Jagjit Singh Aurora With General A K Niazi, 1971

The beginning of this tragedy, however, lay much earlier – initially hazy, but getting clearer over time. When Admiral Shariff testified in the War Enquiry Commission after returning to Pakistan once he was released from Indian captivity, he recorded that: "The foundation for the defeat in East Pakistan could be traced back to the military coup d'état in 1958 where senior officers became greedy self-serving politicians rather than soldiers.”

Things progressively deteriorated. In 1966, Awami League leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman announced his 6-Point movement in Lahore. The campaign demanded greater provincial autonomy and the restoration of democracy in Pakistan. After the launch of the 6-Point demand, it came as no surprise that Rahman was indicted for treason under the Agartala Conspiracy Case. However, by then Ayub Khan had done so much to alienate the Bengalis that the uprising in East Pakistan picked up uncontrolled momentum and, although Sheikh Mujib was eventually released under international pressure in 1969, the storm that was created was able to even dislodge the strongman Field Marshal Ayub Khan from the presidency. The steering wheel was hurriedly handed over to General Yahya Khan. Unfortunately, things then went from the frying pan into the fire, to the point of no return and thus the train-wreck was completed.
Since the dismemberment of Pakistan was not mandated by any plebiscite, it was just as obligatory for the federal government to defend its Eastern wing as the Western one

A quick review of the economic discrimination and disparity of that time shows that although East Pakistan had a larger population, West Pakistan dominated the divided country politically and received a greater allocation from the central budget. According to the World Bank, there was much economic discrimination against East Pakistan, including higher government spending on West Pakistan, financial transfers from East to West, and use of the East's foreign exchange surpluses to finance the West's imports. The discrimination continued to occur unchecked, despite East Pakistan generating a major share of Pakistan's exports.

   Year Spending on West Pakistan (millions of rupees) Spending on East Pakistan (millions of rupees) Amount spent on East Pakistan as % of that spent on West Pakistan
1950-55 11,290 5,240 46.4
1955-60 16,550 5,240 31.7
1960-65 33,550 14,040 41.8
1965-70 51,950 21,410 41.2
  Total 113,340 45,930 40.5


(Source: Reports of the Advisory Panels for the Fourth Five Year Plan 1970–75, Vol. I, published by the Planning Commission of Pakistan)

Ethnic and linguistic discrimination was another major issue. Bengalis were significantly underrepresented in Pakistan's bureaucracy and military. In the federal government, only 15% of the positions were occupied by East Pakistanis. The presence in the military from East Pakistan was just 10%. Cultural discrimination also prevailed, compelling the Eastern wing to forge a distinct political identity. There was an invisible bias against Bengali culture itself, even in the state media machinery, such as a ban on broadcasts of the works of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore.

Since the dismemberment of Pakistan was not mandated by any plebiscite, it was just as obligatory for the federal government to defend its Eastern wing as the Western one. But Islamabad deliberately refused to discharge that critical duty. On the contrary, it seemed that the spadework was done and things were engineered to actually facilitate a smooth surrender of the Pakistan Army in East Pakistan. Our entire defense – army, navy and air-force – collapsed within 13 days flat. The dismemberment of Pakistan was clearly planned in the West and executed in full in the East. By the 16th of December, the grand auction of the nation was complete and in the overall scheme of things, General Niazi was to be the chief scapegoat of the failed Operation Searchlight.

Pakistani flags for sale on the 14th of August 1970, East Pakistan

In his book The Betrayal of East Pakistan (1998) Gen Niazi states that in March 1971 the Pakistan Army had only 14,000 soldiers in a land of 75 million people in East Pakistan. Later on, it was increased to only 45,000 to face an Indian Army of about half a million and more than 100,000 Bengali insurgents. The Pakistan Air Force had only one squadron of outdated US Sabre jets to face the most advanced Soviet fighter jets in the Indian Air Force. The Pakistan Air Force in East Pakistan was fully destroyed on the first day of the war itself. Only the Pakistan Navy under Rear Admiral Shariff did its best to block entry from the sea. India had accomplished its greatest military feat of arms in the annals of its history.

There are dozens of how “Nero fiddled while Rome burned” stories, especially in the last two weeks. While some of these tales may sound exaggerated and bizarre, over the years most of them have been proven to be true. That is why I strongly believe that for all Pakistanis over 16 who have college-level education, the declassified Hamoodur Rehman Commission Report should be a must read. Annexures B and C cover the names of guests and their In/Out timings at the President’s House Rawalpindi and President’s House Karachi from March 1971 onward – painful for some of us (especially when familiar names can be seen in print) but also intriguing for others. The visitors continued unfazed and the last entry recorded was on the 18th of December 1971. By that time, operation “Idhar Hum, Udhar Tum ” was already complete. These four words by veteran journalist and columnist Syed Abbas Athar in the Daily Azad (with a powerful comma in between) are now remembered as one of Pakistani journalism’s most powerful headlines. Today, these words seem to ring the bell louder and clearer than ever before.

I wonder how many of the 93,000 POWs are still among us to go through the agony and pain of another 16th of December. 50 years is a long time to come to grips with reality and at the end of my lament, I wish I were able to end on a more positive note than recalling the old Chinese wisdom, “If you are in a deep dark hole and want to get out of it, the first thing to do is to stop digging.”

How I wish I could be more excited, looking ahead to the 14th of August 2022 to celebrate 75 years of independence and freedom, than I am today.

The author is a Karachi-born, Boston-based global finance and audit specialist. A connoisseur of South Asian film music, he has written scripts and directed concerts in the USA, South Asia and the UAE. He believes in using art and culture to build bridges.