|Gen Yahya Khan||President of Pakistan and Chief Martial Law Administrator (CMLA)|
|Lt. Gen. Yakub||Martial law Administrator, Zone B (East Pakistan)|
|Vice Admiral Ahsan||Governor East Pakistan|
|Lt. Gen. Abdul Hamid Khan||Deputy CMLA and Chief of Staff (Pak Army)|
|Lt. Gen. Gul Hasan||Chief of General Staff (CGS)|
|Lt. Gen. Peerzada||Principal Staff officer at CMLA HQ|
|Maj. Gen. Khadim Hussain Raja||GOC 14 Division|
|Maj. Gen. Rao Farman Ali
|Advisor on Civil Affairs to the Governor of East Pakistan|
|Sheikh Mujibur Rahman||Leader, Awami League Party|
|Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto||Leader, Pakistan People’s Party|
Fast deteriorating political situation in East Pakistan
General elections of 1970 were the first General Elections of Pakistan since independence and are considered as most fair elections conducted in Pakistan till date. There was no interference by the Pak army or any large scale rigging. Sheikh Mujib’s Awami League came out victorious and claimed its right to form the Government. West Pakistani establishment was not comfortable with Bengalis making a strong central government. However they had no choice but to accept Awami League’s victory.
Bhutto on the other hand was not ready to concede defeat. The least he accepted was formation of two separate governments – one in East Pakistan under Mujib and one in West Pakistan with himself being the PM. This was clearly not acceptable to Awami League and Sheikh Mujib. Later in a meeting, Bhutto proposed to Mujib that the Prime Minister1 could be from East Pakistan (i.e. Mujib) while the President could be form the West (i.e. Bhutto himself). Mujib was a seasoned politician and did not fall into trap. He made it clear to Bhutto that he (Mujib) was the majority leader of the House and it was his prerogative to nominate the President. Mujib informed Rao Farman about this meeting and said, “You know Farman, had I agreed to this setup, Bhutto would have nominated himself as the President and dismissed me within 10 days”.
Third angle of this power triangle was Gen Yahya. During first couple of years of his rule, General Yahya Khan was interested in restoring democracy in the country and handing over the power to civilians. He abolished the Unit System imposed by Prime Minister Mohd Ali Bogra in 1954 (under this system provinces of West Pakistan were merged together to form One Unit and East Pakistan was made another Unit, thereby brought down the 42 million population of East Pakistan at par with 33.7 million was West Pakistan – a clear injustice) and promised to hold general elections on the basis of adult franchise. But as his interaction with politicians increased, he developed a strong dislike for the quality of political leadership. He would share his frank opinion to few of his colleagues. For instance, at a Baluch Regiment’s reunion2 in May 1971 in Abottabad, he said, “Gentlemen, we must be prepared to rule this unfortunate country for the next 14 years or so. For I simply can’t throw the country to the wolves. And if and when I am relieved of my command, I would hand over to the next senior, like one guard commander replacing the other.”
Clearly he had started enjoying the position of absolute power in the country and did not want to lose that. After all he was the all-powerful person in the county, who was (i) the President, (ii) Pakistan Army’s Commander-in-Chief and (iii) Chief Martial Law Administrator – all at the same time. Nothing moved in Pakistan without his consent. He started looking for a power sharing setup where he could retain his absolute Power while sitting on the back seat.
This power struggle dragged on for months and there was no clear solution in sight. No one wanted to budge and it was making Yahya increasingly impatient. He started thinking of using force to sort out the mess.
Yahya was 1000 miles away from the Ground Zero. He had lost touch with reality and continued to believe that his army can sort out the things, once and for all. On the contrary, people on the ground – Admiral Ahsan (Governor), Lt. Gen Yaqub (Marshal Law Administrator – Zone B), Maj Gen Raja (GOC 14 Division) and Rao Farman – believed that it was purely a political crises that had no military solution.
Fateful month of March 1971 – Political chess played by Army Officers
Rapidly changing events of March 1971 were as dramatic as they could get. It saw ouster of two Governors (Ahsan and Yaqub) within four days, arrival of a hawk – Lt. Gen. Tikka Khan, hectic political activity and finally the infamous Military Crackdown. Generally it is summed up in a couple of lines in most books, it would be interesting to know what exactly happened behind the scene.
On 22nd Feb, 1971 Yakhya Khan called a meeting of all Governors and Martial Law Administrators. A decision was taken to postpone the National Assembly session indefinitely. He reportedly said in the meeting, “Kill three million of them (Bengalis), and the rest will eat out of our hands.”
After the meeting Admiral Ahsan3 and Gen Yaqub, Governor and MLA of East Pakistan respectively, spent rest of the night making sense of this decision. In the morning they call Rao Farman and told him about the decision taken. “This means military action” was the instant response of Rao Farman. Both Ahsan and Yaqub had the same opinion. All three peaceniks knew the disastrous results of the decision and decided to put their objections in writing.
Yaqub wrote a letter to the President giving him details of fast deteriorating situation in East Pakistan and the need to find a political solution. He reasoned that postponement of NA or a military action will ignite an open public revolt in East Pakistan, which will pave the way of a military intervention by India at a later stage. Yahya read the letter and told Yaqub and Ahsan, “I am willing to accept your views, only if you can convince Bhutto. It is Bhutto, who is insisting on postponement.”
Yaqub and Ahsan went to Karachi to meet Bhutto. Bhutto was least bothered and told them that their apprehensions of violent reaction of Bengalis were unfounded. “Awami league is a bourgeois party and not a party of masses. It can’t fight a guerrilla war. There won’t be any violent reaction”, said Bhutto.
Peaceniks returned to Rawalpindi to update Yahya. They were told to go back to Dacca on 27th and to inform Mujib about the postponement on 28th Feb. Public announcement of the postponement was to be made on 1st March.
Governor Ahsan’s Dismissal
As ordered, Governor Ahsan called Awami league leadership on the evening on 28th Feb. Mujib and his party leaders were furious when they heard about the postponement. Even then Mujib was willing to cooperate. He sent his angry comrades out of the room and spoke to Ahsan alone. He said, “This decision will have an adverse effect on the already boiling political situation of East Pakistan. But I will be able to control the crowd if you can get me a fresh date before the public announcement tomorrow”
Governor Ahsan tried hard but could not speak to Yahya. Somehow he managed to speak to Gen Hamid and requested him to speak to the President for a new date. Hamid never called Ahsan back. Finally Ahsan sent a signal to Yahya begging for “a fresh date tonight as tomorrow will be too late”. There was no response from West Pakistan.
Public announcement was made at 1305 hours on 1st March and it set entire East Pakistan on fire. People from all walks of life – students, teachers, professors, lawyers, judges, shopkeepers, almost everyone was on the streets protesting against the postponement. The crowd started moving towards Hotel Purbani where Shiekh Mujib was holding a meeting of his MNAs. As Fazal Muqeen aptly mentioned in his book,
“It was apparent that the people and the leaders were in a mood of utter desperation…..The people had risen, they were in mood of listening to speeches, they wanted action.”4
While East Pakistan was filled with rage and protests, Ahsan, Yaqub and Rao Farman were still waiting for a reply to their signal sent on 28th Feb. It was 10PM in the Governor House when the phone rang. Governor Ahsan answered the phone. It was Gen Peerzada from the GHQ in Rawalpindi and asked for Gen Yaqub. Ahsan handed over the phone to Yaqub. After few minutes, Yaqub put down the phone and said, “I am the Governor now”.5 And there was a pin drop silence. Ahsan was shell shocked and felt embarrassed at the way he was dismissed unceremoniously. He was a close friend of Yahya, surely he would have a sense of betrayal as well. Yaqub was equally perplexed and just did not utter a word. He left for his residence in the Cantonment.
Yaqub was to go after four days for making the same mistake – requesting President Yahya to visit East Pakistan to defuse the situation.
Governor Yaqub dismissed after four days
Next few days witnessed intense protests by public, clash with security forces, rioting, killing, non –cooperation movement and what not. East Pakistan was on fire. Yahya asked for a Round Table Conference of all political parties on 9th March. Mujib refused to attend the RTC and was to address a large public rally on 7th March.
Meanwhile Governor Gen Yaqub was relentlessly working to convince Yahya. Ahsan, Yaqub, Farman and Khadim Hussain Raja firmly believed that the soaring temperatures in East Pakistan can come down, only if the President visits Dacca and resumes dialog with Mujib to end the deadlock.
On the morning of 4th March, Yaqub spoke to Lt. Gen. Peerzada over the phone and said, “If the President’s visit did not materialize, I would be left with no choice but to resign.”6 GOC 14 Division Maj Gen Khadim Hussain Raja was present there and witnessed the entire episode. There were more phone calls between Dacca and Rawalpindi and a phone call was also arranged between Yahya and Mujib.
Finally, just before lunch Yaqub was informed that Yahya has agreed to visit Dacca on 15th March. That phone call brought a breeze of happiness. Everyone present felt relieved. At last there was a positive development, they thought. Yaqub then invited Farman and Raja for dinner that evening along with their wives. Admiral Ahsan was returning to West Pakistan the same evening. He was also expected to join them for the dinner before his flight back to Karachi but Ahsan took an earlier flight.
In the evening, Generals Farman and Raja along with their wives reached the Command House, official residence of Eastern Theatre Commander. After a quiet dinner, all three officers were in the drawing room having Green Tea. At around 10 PM, the phone rang. A servant answered the call and gave it to Yaqub. It was Yahya Khan from West Pakistan, who had changed his plan again and called Yaqub to inform him personally, “I have changed my mind and I am not coming to Dacca.” Yaqub pleaded with him not to change his plan but to avail nothing. Yahya hung up and dejected Yaqub started walking towards his guests. Just then he asked the operator to connect him to Gen Peerzada in West Pakistan.
When Peerzada came on line, Yaqub told him about the phone call with Yahya and said, “Please convey my resignation to the President.7 I will send the written resignation tomorrow.”
Peerzada did not believe him and tried to laugh it off. But then he realized that Yaqub was serious. He asked, “Would you like to talk to the President?” Yaqub said, “No”.
Phone call was over and thus ended the last hope of finding a peaceful political solution to the East Pakistan’s crisis.
While Yaqub was talking to Farman and Raja, the phone rang again. It was Peerzada who asked Farman to report to Rawalpindi immediately to brief the President. Last flight to Karachi that night was to leave at 11 AM. Farman called Dacca airport and requested PIA to delay the flight. PIA accepted and the flight waited for Farman!
Farman reached Karachi early next day and during the last leg of his journey, he saw Gen Tikka Khan boarding the plane ahead of him. He understood that Tikka was selected to replace Yaqub.
On 4th Mar evening, after Peerzada had spoken to Yaqub, he went to inform Yahya about it. Yahya could not believe it and asked, “What the hell is he talking about? Are you joking?”
“No sir, he is serious” said Peerzada.
Yahya turned red. He just could not digest that his trusted subordinate had refused his instructions. Trusted because Yaqub had worked as Yahya’s Vice Chief of General Staff (VCGS) when Yahya was the CGS. Yahya considered Yaqub “an officer of a8 very high calibre with unbiased views, possessing exceptionally wide knowledge of his profession and a deep thinker.” In 1967 when Yahya became the Commander-in-Chief, he rated Yaqub as “highly intelligent and clear headed with an analytical mind which could assess intricate problems correctly.”
Now that Yaqub lived up to his reputation and assessed the situation correctly, a stubborn and arrogant Yahya refused to see the reality. For him, Yaqub had developed cold feet and was deserting a sinking ship. Angry Yahya turned to Gen Hamid and said, “Take action against Yaqub.”
Gen Hamid replied, “Yes sir. We need to find Gen Yaqub’ replacement.”
They decided on Gen Bahadur Sher, who was a very strong headed Corps commander. But Gen Sher (like few other officers) declined the offer. Finally Gen Tikka Khan was summoned, hence Tikka and Farman both visiting the GHQ at the same time on 5th Mar’71.
At 11AM, Farman went straight to Chief Martial Law Administrator’s HQ to Yahya but Yahya was not in his office. To his utter surprise, he found Yahya sitting9 in the rear Varanda with his bare feet on the table and scotch in his hand. Hamid and Bhutto were there as well. All three were drinking. Farman could not believe his eye!
Farman explained the President that the situation in East Pakistan had gone beyond the Six Points and time to act was now. Yahya heard him patiently and invited him for dinner. During the dinner, Yahya told Farman, “I will court martial all of you. Yaqub has chickened out. He has left his post while on active duty.” Sensing the seriousness of the situation, Farman tried to explain, “Sir, Gen Yaqub has just resigned and is waiting to hand over his command. He has not deserted his post yet.” And when he got the first moment, Farman spoke to Yaqub and asked him not hand over to anyone till he heard from the GHQ. Farman saved Yaqub from a court martial as Yaqub was already thinking of handing over to Raja and go to Sylhet to relax.
With his interaction with Farman, Yahya had understood that he would have to do something. First thing he did was to call Mujib on 6th March. Mujib was to address a massive rally on 7th March. Fearing Unilateral Declaration of Independence from Mujib, Yahya said, “Do not take any10 hasty decision. I will be coming to Dacca shortly to discuss details with you.” He also declared 25th March as the date of holding inaugural session of National Assembly.
Meanwhile Tikka was ordered to move to Dacca and assume command. Yahya told Tikka, “A first class Army in East Pakistan is completely demoralized because of two women (Yaqub and Ahsan).”11
Thus Yahya’s “man” was on his way to Dacca to restore order.
New Governor – Gen Tikka Khan – Butcher of Dacca
Tikka had earned a name of himself while handling Baluchi insurgency. There was a reason he was called Butcher of Baluchistan. He was a straight forward, battle hardened, strong-willed and loyal general who would obey the orders, even if he had to use force on his own people. He did not have the strategic mind of Yaqub who could see that the real challenge in East Pakistan was winning over people’s hearts and not to subjugate them. Tikka had neither the strategic vision of a leader nor the flexibility of a politician, so required to deal with the situation.
Tikka arrived in Dacca at 3:30 PM on 7th March. At that time, Mujib was addressing a million strong rally in the Paltan Maidan. Tikka saw that sea of people from the plane. To give an idea to Tikka what he was getting into, Farman said to Tikka, “This is what happens in Dacca.”
The plane landed safely, Yaqub and Raja were there to receive Tikka. As they were walking towards the car from the aircraft, Tikka remarked, “Khadim, what the hell has your division been doing all this time? There is such a bloody mess out here.”12
Angry Khadim tried his best to control but could not help replying, ”Now that you are here, you will see it for yourself.”
Clearly, like other General officers in West Pakistan, Tikka was off the mark regarding the ground reality of East Pakistan and had a negative approach towards officers posted in the East for being “soft” on Bengalis.
Tikka was to be sworn-in as Governor of East Pakistan but so angry were Bengalis that Justice Siddiqui (Chief Justice of Dacca High court) feigned illness and did not come to Governor House. They had to fly in a judge all the way from West Pakistan to swear in Tikka.
Yahya (along with several General officers) came to Dacca on 15th March and Bhutto also arrived on 21st March. Bengalis were dead against Bhutto and welcomed him with slogans like “Killer no. 1, the killer of democracy etc”. So much so that Yahya, Mujib and Bhutto were negotiating under the same roof but Mujib and Bhutto would not talk to each other directly. Yahya would communicate messages between them!
At 10PM on 17th March, before Bhutto had arrived in Dacca, Tikka Khan summoned Maj Gen Khadim Hussain Raja and Maj Gen Rao Farman to the Command House (official residence of Commander, Eastern Command). When Raja and Farman reported to Tikka Khan, they found Gen Hamid was already there. Tikka khan told them, “Negotiations with Sheikh Mujibare13 not proceeding well. The presidents wants us to be ready for military action and prepare a plan to “restore government authority”.” They were asked to prepare a plan and discuss that with Tikka and Hamid by the next evening (18th March).
Farman and Raja started doing what they have been trying to avoid for months. On 18th Morning, Raja and Farman met in former’s office to prepare the operation Search Light, name given to the Pak Army’s crackdown on Bengali people. Raja’s ADC was a Bengali officer. To avoid any suspicion, Raja asked his wife to keep the ADC busy and away from his office. They divided the work among themselves – Farman focused on Dacca and Raja on rest of the province. In the evening, Raja presented the plan to Tikka and Hamid, who approved it without any significant change.
During those intense political negotiations, there were few agreements and then sudden U turns. On 20st Mar, it appeared that Yahya & Mujib were very close to a solution. Yahya informed14 Tikka about the progress and asked him to wait. Unfortunately that solution disappeared in thin air within few hours. By 21st March evening, they were back to square one.
Military Junta was running out of patience. Generals were already suspicious of Mujib and their mistrust (and hatred) was increasing with every passing day. One officer told a close aide of Bhutto, “tell your chairman to stand firm. We will teach them a lesson.”
ISI Chief Gen Akber told Farman, “We will not let these bastards rule over West Pakistan.”15 He had earlier said in a meeting, “No commander should be afraid16 to be called a butcher if that is the demand of the hour.”
Yahya’s own thinking was no different, “The killing of few17 thousands would not be too high a price for keeping the country together. Show them the teeth and they will be quiet.”
Thus came the final nail in the coffin when Yahya’s ordered Tikka, “The bastard (Mujib) is not behaving. You get ready.”
Tikaa had already received his orders from Yahya and on early morning 23rd March, he ordered GOC 14 Div, “oh Kuch ho raha hai, tyari mayari karo.”
23rd March is celebrated as the Pakistan Day and on that day in 1971, Pakistani flag was confined to army cantonments in East Pakistan. Mujib hoisted Bangladeshi flag atop his house in Dhanmandi, Dacca. Entire Dacca was wrapped in Bangladeshi flag. So much so that Mujib came to meet Yahya18 on 23rd March with Bangladeshi flag on his car! Awami League presented his final proposal to the President with a 48 hours’ notice to accept it.
Political negotiations failed completely by 23rd March. Yahya had already decided to sort out the mess his way. When Mujib were presenting his proposal to Yahya, Farman and Raja were writing operational instructions for various army units.
No date was set for the operations. They were told to keep everything ready and wait for the Go Ahead from the President. Considering the criticality, Raja and Farman were to convey the orders to the subordinate officers in person. East Pakistani soldiers and officers were not to get wind of the plan. Maintaining secrecy was the top priority.
Raja went to Comilla and Chittagong to brief the West Pakistani officers of 20 Baluch. One of the main objective of his visit to Chittagong was trapping Brig Majumdar, who was the Commandant of East Bengal Regimental Center, Chittagong. Majumdar was most senior Bengali officer who was like a father figure for Bengali soldiers and officers. Raja had discussed this matter before leaving for Comilla and it was decided that Raja somehow must bring Majumdar to Dacca on one pretext or the other.
Raja played dirty and told Majumdar, “2 East Bengal Regiment is little restive in the absence of a proper commanding officer. I think you should accompany me to Dacca and talk to the battalion in the capacity of ‘papa tiger’.”19 Poor Majumdar fell in the trap and came to Dacca with Raja. He was taken into protective custody and later moved to West Pakistan. Majumdar was later repatriated after the war.
On 25th March, Yahya visited the Corps Commander Lt. Gen. Tikka Khan at the Command house. All senior officers namely Generals Hamid, Janjhua, Omar, Mitha and Khuda Dad were invisited for the meeting except Farman and Raja. Much awaited ‘Go Ahead’ was given in this meeting. IftikharJanjua and Mitha were specially flown to Dacca to take over from Farman and Raja,20 should they have shown any reluctance in carrying out the orders. Such was the negative attitude of West Pakistani military leadership towards the men on the ground zero!
Well, Yahya decided to secretly leave for West Pakistan the same evening and the crackdown was to start once Yahya’s plane was 40 miles off the Karachi coast. Farman and Raja were given the Go Ahead in the evening.
The last dramatic act of this political drama was Yahya’s unsuccessful attempt to leave Dacca in a Hollywood movie style. Success of the military crackdown lied in surprise and Yahya’s sudden departure in full public view would have jeopardize the surprise. Therefore Yahya went to the airport21 in a small civilian car with no escort or security whatsoever. And to fool Awami League, one officer was sitting in Yahya’s official car moving around with full security.
But this trick did not help Yahya. Wing Commander A.K. Khondkar of PAF, who waved off real Yahya, immediately informed Sheikh Mujib. Awami League understood that military action was in offing.
Raja mentioned an interesting incident in his book. On 25th Mar evening22 (knowing fully that they were to act in few hours), Farman and Raja went to Garrison Cinema with their family. As usual, the cinema was filled with officers (West Pakistani and Bengali alike) and their families. But when lights were switched on during the interval, all the Bengali officers and their families had left quietly. Raja and Farman realized that the cat was out of the bag.
Pak Army struck down at around 1AM. Shiekh Mujib was arrested from his home at 1:30AM, Telephone exchange was shut down at 2AM, East Pakistan Rifles at Peelkhana and reserve police was disarmed by 3AM. Finally one of the main targets, Jaganath Hall of the university campus that housed “hindu students” and was “most notorious for anti-Pakistan activities”, was secured by Pak Army.
What happened that day laid the foundation of a new country in Indian sub-continent. Raja, Farman, Yaqub, Ahsan and couple of more officers knew that East Pakistan was gone forever. It was just a matter of time when Bangladesh would become a reality.
How Pakistan Got Divided by Rao Farman Ali Khan, Oxford Univ Press, page 61
East Pakistan The Endgame An On lookers Journal-1969-1971 by Brig AR Siddiqui, Oxford Univ Press, pg 25.
How Pakistan Got Divided, Rao Farman, pg 66
Pakistan’s crisis in leadership by Fazal Muqeem Khan, National Book Foundation, pg 55
How Pakistan Got Divided, Rao Farman, pg 70
A stranger in my own country by Ma Gen Khadim Hussain Raja, OUP pg 56
Tragedy of Errors, East Pakistan crisis 1968-71 by Lt. Gen. Kamal Matinuddin, Services Book Club. Page 184
Tragedy of Errors, East Pakistan crisis 1968-71 by Lt. Gen. Kamal Matinuddin, Services Book Club, page 186
How Pakistan Got Divided, Rao Farman, pg 80
Tragedy of Errors, East Pakistan crisis 1968-71 by Lt. Gen. Kamal Matinuddin, Services Book Club, pg 186
Tragedy of Errors, East Pakistan crisis 1968-71 by Lt. Gen. Kamal Matinuddin, Services Book Club, pg 242
A stranger in my own country by Ma Gen Khadim Hussain Raja, pg 65
A stranger in my own country by Ma Gen Khadim Hussain Raja, pg 71
Pakistan’s crisis in leadership by Fazal Muqeem Khan, National Book Foundation, pg 67
Tragedy of Errors, East Pakistan crisis 1968-71 by Lt. Gen. Kamal Matinuddin, Services Book Club, pg 200
Tragedy of Errors, East Pakistan crisis 1968-71 by Lt. Gen. Kamal Matinuddin, Services Book Club, pg 243
Pakistan’s crisis in leadership by Fazal Muqeem Khan, National Book Foundation, pg 51
How Pakistan Got Divided, Rao Farman, pg 92
A stranger in my own country by Ma Gen Khadim Hussain Raja, pg 75
How Pakistan Got Divided, Rao Farman, pg 102
How Pakistan Got Divided, Rao Farman, pg 104
A Stranger in my own country by Ma Gen Khadim Hussain Raja, pg 80