Then out of the blue, my chance presented itself. I heard on the radio that General Yaqub Khan had been appointed Martial Law Administrator, MLA, for East Pakistan. He was a friend of the family, a kind of uncle, but how to send him a message? Inundated with urgent status questions, would he even heed my message? Nothing was working and all the roads as they were remained blocked by groups of aggressive marauders: it was a complete lockdown or, as they called it, a pya jam or “wheel jam”. I chose one of my guards, a Bengali, and gave him a personal handwritten letter and asked him to deliver it to the MP’s house. I was wondering if it would be allowed near this highly secure military area. I wrote my letter in a hurried tone; unless we are displaced, we risk being killed. The next day, a radio message for me was received at the nearest police station where the radio was still working. It was MLA’s order to the civilian government to ask me to immediately drop the charge at Manikganj and move to Dhaka as a member of the governor’s inspection team.
In early 1971, desultory attempts were made by Pakistani politicians to keep Pakistan intact. Senior politicians came to Dhaka to talk to their counterparts. Mr. Bhutto had previously made statements suggesting, we are happy here, you will be happy there, effectively meaning that West Pakistan and East Pakistan should separate respectively. Mr. Kasuri, a senior legal official, asked me to show him around so he could see for himself what was going on outside of official circles. I drove him in the evening in my official jeep and he had an idea of the seriousness of the situation.
I will always be grateful for the memory of Wali Khan of Frontier Province as he told the military high command, I want my officer back to my Province; he shouldn’t be here. When the talks between the politicians bogged down, the military suddenly took action. If 90% of Bengalis were for Pakistan before the military action, after the shooting started, 90% were against. Even then, I was acutely aware that unless Pakistan acts wisely, we could end up losing more than the goodwill of the Bengali people. The Bengalis needed balm, not bullets.
And amid negotiations, General Yaqub was ignominiously sacked when he opposed 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 follow. inevitably. When he left for the airport, I was one of the few civilians invited to say goodbye.
The Indian government has put all possible obstacles between the two wings of Pakistan to weaken the ties between them.
A heavy air of doom hung over the earth. As the year progressed, the sense of crisis grew exponentially. Political positions hardened and crowds lined the streets taking law and order into their own hands. People were divided along ethnic lines. But the majority was still pro-Pakistan when the military crackdown began in March. After the violence, the majority had had enough of Pakistan and wanted Bangladesh. It was becoming dangerous to be a West Pakistani.
My only thought now was to get Zeenat out of the province. We were staying with Brigadier Ali Al Adroos, Chief of Staff of the Martial Law Administrator and we lived in the cantonment. But getting a seat on the only daily flight to Karachi and then navigating through the thousands of people who had camped out more or less permanently at the airport in the hope of getting a ticket was going to be a struggle. To make sure everything went well, I asked two friends to escort Zeenat to the airport. Early in the morning, both arrived, looking dashing in their uniforms. Major Tahseen Mirza in his dark cavalry uniform and Major Sabir Kamal in his Frontier Force khaki. Both were fully armed and had brought their armed guard. In motorcade we left for the airport and had no problems along the way. My friends escorted Zeenat to her seat on the plane. I will always honor the memory of those wonderful friends, Tahseen and Sabir, both of whom are sadly 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 started to move quickly with stories of violence circulating wildly. Once the plane took off, a huge weight was lifted from my shoulders: My wife Zeenat was safe. My fate was now in God’s hands. However, events changed, which would bring me to Zeenat in Karachi and the two of us to Peshawar by the end of the year.
After President Yahya Khan launched a military operation to crush the opposition, those Bengalis who resisted were branded as “infidels” – this was a time before the word terrorist was popularized. There were stories of Bengalis being arrested and missing because a neighbor had given their name as a possible suspect. As 1971 progressed, the violence spread. Remember that the horrific bloodshed in Rwanda and Bosnia was still decades ahead and the world did not know how to deal with this intense internal violence.
An army major has told how he arrived at a girls’ school with his soldiers and found female breasts piled up on the dining tables while the women were writhing in pain upstairs. At the Santahar railway junction, women lay sprawled on the train tracks, the Bangladeshi flag buried in their vaginas. Amid this madness, the Bihari community proudly and defiantly declared their allegiance to Pakistan and proudly waved the Pakistani flag. The price was enormous and would still haunt them today. In the end, they were rejected by the new country of Bangladesh, and Pakistan refused to accept them. Few even know the tragedy of these gifted and neglected people.
Now the international press was almost unanimous in condemning Pakistan and supporting the Bengali struggle. Perhaps the icing on the cake was the famous concert hosted by George Harrison of The Beatles with legendary Indian musician Ravi Shankar at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Additionally, albums were sold to raise funds for refugees from Bangladesh – the name being widely used for East Pakistan. The Pakistani government and the public simply ignored these developments and their implications for the perception of the country. Pakistan had lost the media war at that time.
On the international front, while Pakistan had alliances with the United States, India entered into treaties with the Soviet Union which ensured that any Indian action in East Pakistan would not be censured, for example by the Council of security. In this case, the Soviet Union supplied India with weapons and gave it full international support in 1971, while the United States Sixth Fleet, which we thought would save our lives, n ever arrived in the Bay of Bengal, creating the popular belief in Pakistan that Americans are just fair weather friends. What Pakistanis did not know at the time was that when Indira Gandhi threatened to move Indian troops from East Pakistan to West Pakistan after the fall of Dhaka with the intention of ending Pakistan , it was Nixon who categorically challenged and dissuaded her.
Much of the anger and violence in 1971 stemmed from ethnic ignorance and hatred. The irony here was that it was Muslim on Muslim violence, which is an illustration of intra-religious violence based on ethnicity. But there was ample evidence of how foreigners viewed South Asia through the lens of racial contempt. There are, for example, many quotes from historical records in which President Nixon and Secretary Kissinger at that time called Indians, “the most sexless people, nothing.” They compare “Black Africans” who, they admit, “have a little animal charm”, to Indians, “but God, those Indians, ack, pathetic”. Indira Gandhi is repeatedly called a “bitch”. The two wonder how such a repulsive race can “breed”. Pakistanis on the other hand are ‘good people’ but still ‘primitive’ “I tell you, Pakistanis are good people, but they are primitive in their mental structure. They just don’t have the subtlety of Indians. ( Kissinger to Nixon in August 1971)
Systematically, East Pakistan was cut off from the world. The Indians constantly sent their agents to create dissension between the communities. The Indian government has put all possible obstacles between the two wings of Pakistan to weaken the ties between them, for example, Pakistani international flights which flew over India were denied permission and had to fly south to ‘in Sri Lanka and then back up adding considerable time. and the need to refuel in Colombo. This made flights expensive and infrequent and limited to once a day. It was simply not enough for the volume of passengers who needed to be ferried out of Dhaka to escape the growing crisis.
Following the military operation, as I had little work in the office, I asked for a leave of a few days to go see Zeenat in West Pakistan. I boarded the flight to Karachi and was seated behind Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. I knew him but was too agitated to come up and say salaam. I knew Pakistan was in great danger and I felt angry and betrayed. I was very restless and my appearance must have been quite disheveled as I hadn’t had my hair cut in a long time. Upon disembarking, Bhutto said something about thanking God that Pakistan was saved. I wondered if he believed that.
(To be continued)
The author is Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, School of International Service, American University and author of The Flying Man: Philosophers of the Golden Age of Islam