1971: A Personal Account Of The Year Pakistan Broke Apart - I

1971: A Personal Account Of The Year Pakistan Broke Apart - I
Into 1971, there was one thing I knew for certain in East Pakistan: a tsunami of ethnic violence was heading my way and unless I moved out of its awful path there was no chance of survival. But there was a catch. Moving out of my jurisdiction meant obtaining permissions not easily given. In 1971 all leave was cancelled. I was a young officer fiercely committed to protecting and representing the Pakistan state that my elite cadre of civil servants, the Civil Service of Pakistan, believed we embodied. By the end of the year many of my core beliefs would be challenged as I saw the state that I so proudly represented begin to collapse around me.

There has been a great deal of commentary and discussion on the 50th anniversary of the creation of Bangladesh which was marked recently. To that considerable outpouring of commentary and discussion, I also wish to offer my first-hand and eyewitness experiences based on my having lived through that historic period. It was a harrowing and traumatising time that would scar me.

The government in its wisdom had decided to send West Pakistani CSP officers to East Pakistan and vice versa in order to strengthen ties between the two. We were told that we were the last link between the two wings of Pakistan. The idea had merit but by the time it was implemented it was too little too late. I was at the time posted as Assistant Commissioner in charge of Mansehra one of the most beautiful parts of Asia with Swat on one side and Kashmir on the other. I swapped with my batch mate from East Pakistan Shafi Sami who would one day become the foreign secretary of independent Bangladesh. I had recently married Zeenat from Swat and after a brief honeymoon in Bangkok, where my father worked for the United Nations, we flew to Dhaka. From there we travelled by train, boat and rickshaw to my posting at Kishoreganj which was a heavily populated remote area in the northern part of the province with poor communications to the capital city Dhaka.

In the beginning of the year my aim was to return with Zeenat to my home base in Peshawar. In order for me to arrive back in Peshawar by the end of the year with my posting orders in hand several steps had to take place, one connected to the other and each smoothly following the other. A single missed connection would have derailed and foiled my plans. As the year progressed, the concatenation of events worked meticulously as if an invisible hand was planning them to keep me one step ahead of disaster and in the end to extract   me from the jaws of death.

I had arrived in East Pakistan to find a discontented and surly population. The crisis in 1971 had been brewing. Perhaps the two most significant developments in the previous year were: the elections in Pakistan that established the victory of the Awami League representing Bengali nationalism against West Pakistan political parties and the apocalyptic cyclone that devastated East Pakistan. All in all, the elections were fair and the results should have been honoured by West Pakistan who now saw power slipping from their grasp. The history of neglect and humiliation on the part of Pakistan since the creation of the nation was well known and Bengalis had little faith in finding justice even after the elections.  There began to grow a feeling that perhaps the only answer was a complete break from Pakistan, even an independent nation. There is no doubt that this anti-Pakistan emotion was fanned from and found active sympathy in India. The situation was fraught with danger. With every week as the violence increased there was less and less hope of the Bengalis being offered their right to form the national government and the chances for reconciliation became increasingly remote. It was becoming like a Greek tragedy with the ending not difficult to predict. Pakistan, I believed, had to handle the delicate situation with great wisdom and compassion.
At this stage of my posting, I was literally cut off from the world. As violence spread, I became aware of the imminent danger to our lives. There were stories of four of my CSP batch mates being brutally butchered in their subdivisions by their own public and police

The second crisis came with the cyclone that destroyed lives and properties and devastated crops and paralysed communications including railways and roads. I recall attending a meeting with the Governor of the Province on his official yacht one evening as he arrived on his tour to assess the damage. We were desperately short of every kind of resource and the population again felt totally neglected by West Pakistan. That evening the rain and winds lashed the land and after the meeting I decided to head back to my headquarters as I especially did not wish to leave Zeenat alone for the night. The rivers had swollen and become vast lakes at night with the storm and rain and in the darkness no one was prepared to cross the waters and get me to the other side. In the end, I did find a person with a boat which was little more than a couple of planks tied together and resembled a raft. After some persuasion we plunged into the waters. I had to stand in the middle of the boat holding onto the mast which shook as much as the planks under my feet. Through the planks I could see the dark raging waters below me and there were moments when I felt I may not survive the journey. Later even my office chided me for taking such a risk but appreciated the fact that I was determined to return to my headquarters.

On arrival in East Pakistan, we traveled by train, rickshaw, jeep, and boat to arrive at Kishoreganj. It was late and I had a splitting headache. My assistant came to brief me about the political situation and warned me of growing tension among the workers union demanding rights. I noticed the punka puller sitting unobtrusively on the floor, his back against the wall, pulling the rope that moved the fan-like cloth hanging from the ceiling so that it would generate some wind for the officer.  Tiny moth-like insects with glutinous limbs buzzed about and were impossible to control. We were sitting in the veranda with the hot sticky pitch black night   around us when I noticed dozens of what looked like fire- flies in the distance. These began to grow in size and appeared to be moving towards us. With some alarm I realised they were heading towards the house of the Assistant Commissioner where we sat.  There were no walls of protection around the huge compound so there was no way of stopping them.  There were literally thousands of Bengali men holding torches, their semi-naked bodies glistening in the dark and under the torches, and they looked deadly earnest. I realised I faced my first administrative challenge and that a misstep could spark a larger crisis.  I therefore went out to meet them at the entrance so there was no question of forced entrance. After a brief conversation I persuaded them to meet me in the office the next morning.

On arrival as Assistant Commissioner in charge of Kishorganj, I found myself in charge of several million people and by virtue of my post was administrative head of the subdivision. Appreciating the developing political crisis and its ethnic over tones, in due course, I requested the Deputy Commissioner, a senior and brilliant Bengali CSP officer, that I wanted a posting near Dhaka. At first he was unsympathetic but later helped me get posted to Manikganj, a subdivision nearer to Dhaka.  I noted with growing alarm that the Province was wracked by anti- government   processions and then a complete lockdown. Atrocities of an unspeakable nature were being reported. My Bengali friends said, only half-jokingly, to memorise the sentence, “I am not a Punjabi” in Bengali, as Punjabis dominated the Pakistan army and government and were being especially targeted as the authors of Bengali misery. There were wild rumours and unconfirmed reports circulating everywhere. Everyone was involved and everyone a potential target. It was like a game of Russian roulette and our lives were in the hands of fate.

Everything in Manikganj, my subdivision, came to a stop; shops and offices were closed and life came to a standstill. I was in splendid isolation, but continued my work in the office provided on the grounds of the official residence. My local assistant would still come to my office hoping no one would see him and I could carry on a modicum of official work although no communications were working. I was acutely aware of the stories now circulating of attacks on West Pakistanis where they were isolated or vulnerable. These attacks were being joined by the local police whose job it was to maintain law and order. At this stage of my posting, I was literally cut off from the world. As violence spread, I became aware of the imminent danger to our lives. There were stories of four of my CSP batch mates being brutally butchered in their subdivisions by their own public and police. Wives had not been spared. Zeenat had been remarkably calm, but I knew that I must now get her out of the province as soon as possible. The desperate situation demanded urgent action. But as normal channels were in paralysis, I was not sure what line of action to take.

Then out of the blue my chance came. I heard on the radio that General Yaqub Khan had been appointed the Martial Law Administrator (MLA) for East Pakistan, He was a family friend, a sort of uncle, but how do I send him a message? Inundated with urgent matters of state would he even heed my message? Nothing was working and all roads such as they were remained blocked by aggressively marauding groups: it was a complete lockdown or as they called it a "pya jam" (“jamming the wheel”). I selected one of my guards, a Bengali, and gave him a handwritten personal letter and asked him to deliver it at the house of the MLA. I wondered whether he would be allowed near that highly secure military zone. I wrote my letter in urgent tones; unless we were moved we may well be killed. Next day, there was a radio message for me received at the nearest police station where the wireless was still working. It was orders from the MLA to the civilian government to ask me to immediately relinquish charge at Manikganj and move to Dhaka as member of the Governor’s Inspection Team.

Early in 1971, desultory attempts were made by Pakistani politicians to keep Pakistan intact. The senior politicians came to Dhaka to talk to their counterparts. Mr Bhutto had already made statements suggesting, we are happy here, you will be happy there, meaning effectively that West and East Pakistan respectively should separate. Mr. Kasuri, a senior legal figure, asked me to show him around so he could see for himself what was going on outside official circles. I drove him about in the evenings in my official jeep and he had an idea of the gravity of the situation.

I will always be grateful to the memory of Wali Khan from the Frontier Province as he told the military high command, “I want my officer back to my Province; he should not be here.” When the talks between the politicians stalled, the military abruptly took action. If 90% of Bengalis were for Pakistan before the military action, after the shooting began 90% were against it. Even then I was acutely aware that unless Pakistan acted with wisdom, we may end up by losing more than just the goodwill of the Bengali people. Bengalis needed balm not bullets.

And in the midst of negotiations, General Yaqub was ignominiously sacked when he argued against military action in East Pakistan noting the impossibility of holding the province with only three divisions against the Indian army in the war that would inevitably follow. At his send-off at the airport, I was one of the very few civilians invited to say goodbye.

A heavy air of doom hung over the land. As the year progressed the sense of crisis grew exponentially. Political positions hardened and mobs roamed the streets taking the law and order in their own hands. People were divided along ethnic lines. But the majority were still pro Pakistan when in March the military crackdown began. After the violence the majority had had enough of Pakistan and wanted Bangladesh. It was becoming dangerous to be a West Pakistani.

My one thought now was to get Zeenat out of the province. We were staying with Brigadier Ali Al Adroos, Chief of Staff to the Martial Law Administrator and we lived in the Cantonment. But to get a place on the one daily flight to Karachi and then push our way through the thousands who had more or less permanently camped at the airport in the hope of getting a ticket was going to be a struggle. In order to make sure everything went smoothly I asked two friends to escort Zeenat to the airport. Early in the morning both turned up looking dashing in their uniforms. Major Tahseen Mirza in his dark cavalry uniform and Major Sabir Kamal in his Frontier Force khakis. Both were fully armed and had brought along their armed guard. In a procession we set off for the airport and had no problem along the way. My friends escorted Zeenat to her seat on the plane. I will always honour the memory of those wonderful friends, Tahseen and Sabir, both alas no longer with us. It was a pleasure to reconnect decades later with Tahseen’s twin brother Commander Kemal living in London.

After Zeenat left things began to move swiftly with stories of violence circulating wildly. Once the plane took off a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders: My wife Zeenat was safe. My fate now was in the hands of God. Yet events moved which would get me to Zeenat in Karachi and both of us to Peshawar by the end of the year.

Ambassador Akbar Ahmed is Distinguished Professor of International Relations and holds the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at the American University, School of International Service. He is also a global fellow at the Wilson Center Washington DC. His academic career included appointments such as Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution; the First Distinguished Chair of Middle East and Islamic Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD; the Iqbal Fellow and Fellow of Selwyn College at the University of Cambridge; and teaching positions at Harvard and Princeton universities. Ahmed dedicated more than three decades to the Civil Service of Pakistan, where his posts included Commissioner in Balochistan, Political Agent in the Tribal Areas, and Pakistan High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland