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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2961

Letter from America: Bangladesh – A Nation Divided? – Part 3

By Dr. Habib Siddiqui

After the promulgation of East Pakistan Razakar Ordinance of June 1, 1971, some Bengalis either volunteered or were recruited to work as a paramilitary force or collaborators for the Pakistan’s military regime. They were called the Razakars.

Some of the political parties that did not like the division of Pakistan actively sought out recruits for the Razakar (and other militia groups like the al-Shams and al-Badr) to fight and weaken the Mukti Bahini (the freedom fighters for Bangladesh) so that the emergence of Bangladesh as a separate state could be halted.

More zealous of those party leaders even allowed their homes to be used as torture chambers for anyone suspected of belonging to the Mukti Bahini. In Chittagong, I was told by Rafiq bhai’s friends how the Goods Hill residence of Mr. Fazlul Quader Chowdhury, ex-speaker of the Pakistan National Assembly, was used to torture many students who were suspected of being members of the Mukti Bahini. Some members of the Razakar came also from the Urdu-speaking Bihari community. One day, my first cousin brother Munna was
The pro-Pakistani paramilitary groups terrorized the rural areas of East Pakistan trying to find Mukti Bahini, suspecting anyone young in age who had not joined their forces. Since an overwhelming majority of the East Pakistanis supported the freedom struggle, they would often pass on tactical information on the Razakars to the Mukti Bahini, and hide information on the latter when pressed by the Razakars. Thus, the Mukti Bahini had comparatively much more success in ambushing and killing the members of the Razakar. Consequently, by the last quarter of 1971, the recruits to Razakar fell drastically, and they hardly dared to go out of their camps without superior firepower coverage provided by the Pakistan military.

By the last quarter of 1971, India had started not only providing material support to the Mukti Bahini but had also been training select groups of freedom fighters -- the Bangladesh Liberation Front (BLF), who would later come to be known as the Mujib Bahini. The Mukti Bahini guerrilla forces grew in size and numbered around 100,000. In his insightful book, Witness to Surrender, Brigadier General Siddique Salik estimated that Pakistan needed at least 250,000 to 300,000 troops, but even after organizing the Razakars (estimated strength 40,000), Pakistan could field only 150,000 (45,000 regular army, the rest paramilitary units) soldiers in East Pakistan.

With the added material support provided by the Indian government, the insurgency grew ever stronger. And with their guerilla-style hit-and-run tactics, the morale of the Pakistan military, deployed in East Pakistan, waned down. It was quite evident that tensions would reach a climax towards triggering a full blown war between India and Pakistan. That came on December 3, 1971. The eventual failure of combating the insurgency caused Pakistan to attack Indian air bases in Jammu and Punjab on that day with the objective to stop the Indian support for the Mukti Bahini. In response, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared war at midnight, December 3. Thirteen days later, Pakistani troops under Lieutenant General A. A. K. Niazi surrendered in Dhaka. Bangladesh emerged as an independent state on December 16, 1971.

The surrendering Pakistani forces – numbering more than 90,000 - were taken to India as Prisoners of War (POWs). They were later released in 1974 to Pakistan after a supplement to the Simla Agreement (July 2, 1972) was signed about repatriation between India and Pakistan. Those released included 195 POWs who were accused of committing war crimes or genocide in Bangladesh.

Amid overwhelming public anger in Pakistan over the loss of East Pakistan, the chief martial law administrator (CMLA) General Yahya Khan resigned on December 20, 1971 and transferred power to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who became president, commander-in-chief and the first civilian CMLA in Pakistan’s history. Bhutto immediately placed General Yahya Khan under house arrest, and ordered the release of Sheikh Mujib, who was held prisoner by the Pakistan Army. To implement this, Bhutto reversed the verdict of Sheikh Mujib's court-martial trial that had taken place earlier, in which the latter was sentenced to death.

Bhutto also created a judicial commission in December 1971 with Chief Justice Hamoodur Rahman, the then Chief Justice of Supreme Court of Pakistan as its Chairman, to investigate military and political causes of the country's defeat in the 1971 war, or more specifically, "the circumstances in which the Commander, Eastern command, surrendered” and also to investigate the accusations of atrocities committed by the military personnel in 1971 in what was once East Pakistan. The commission’s first report, prepared based on the interview of 213 people, was submitted to Bhutto in July 1972. After the return of the POWs, the inquiry was reopened. The final report, based on the interview of some 300 people altogether, also called supplementary report, was submitted on October 23, 1974, showed how political, administrative, military and moral failings were responsible for the surrender of Pakistani forces in East Pakistan. The commission challenged the claims by Bangladesh authorities that 3 million Bengalis had been killed by Pakistan army and 200,000 women were raped. The commission put the casualty figure as low as 26,000 civilian casualties.

The report accused the generals of what it called a premature surrender to India. The report said Pakistan's military ruler at the time, General Yahya Khan, 'permitted and even instigated' the surrender, and it recommended that he be publicly tried along with other senior military colleagues - General Abdul Hamid Khan (Chief of Staff, Army), Lieutenant General S.G.M.M. Pirzada, Lieutenant General Gul Hasan (Chief of General Staff), Major General Umar and Major General Mitha (commandant of Army SS Group) - for being party to a criminal conspiracy to illegally usurp power from President Mohammad Ayub Khan. Five other Lieutenant-Generals (which included Lt. General A.A.K. Niazi) and three Brigadier-Generals were recommended to be tried for willful neglect of duty during the 1971 War.

It is worth noting here that Lt. General Gul Hasan, who had become the Army C-in-C after the 1971 War, was ousted on March 3, 1972, and was dishonorably discharged from the army by Bhutto. His alleged involvement and controversial approvals of military operations in East Pakistan during 1971 created a public resentment towards him, as he was the Director-General for the Military Operations (DGMO). Bhutto later appointed General Tikka Khan as the new Chief of the Army Staff in March 1972, just about a year after the latter was responsible for directing the brutal military crackdown in Bangladesh.

Major General Mitha was particularly active in East Pakistan in the days preceding the military action of March 25, 1971. After General Yahya Khan had secretly departed on the evening of March 25, 1971, Major General Mitha is said to have remained behind. He allegedly planned the military action with Lt. General Tikka Khan, Major General Rao Farman Ali and Major General Khadim Hussain Raja. His retirement was announced by Bhutto in December 1971, months before the Commission report was submitted to him. After retirement he was stripped of his medals and pensions without due cause. He was however never court-martialed, as recommended by the Hamoodur Rahman Commission.

After his return to Pakistan, Lt. General Niazi was blamed for the defeat and was removed from the army in 1975. Though the Hamoodur Rahman Inquiry Commission had recommended his court-martial, Lt. General Niazi did not face a trial. The final report included his statement, which supports some allegations of war crimes against the Pakistani Army in the early days of Pakistani crackdown in East Pakistan: “Damage done during those early days of the military action could never be repaired, and earned for the military leaders names such as ‘Changez Khan’ and ‘Butcher of East Pakistan.’” The report said, “He [Niazi] went on to add: "on the assumption of command I was very much concerned with the discipline of troops, and on 15th of April, 1971, that is within four days of my command, I addressed a letter to all formations located in the area and insisted that loot, rape, arson, killing of people at random must stop and a high standard of discipline should be maintained. I had come to know that looted material had been sent to West Pakistan which included cars, refrigerators and air conditioners etc." When asked about the alleged killing of East Pakistani officers and men during the process of disarming, the General replied that he had heard something of the kind but all these things had happened in the initial stages of the military action before his time. He denied the allegation that he ever ordered his subordinates to exterminate the Hindu minority. He denied that any intellectuals were killed during December, 1971. He admitted that there were a few cases of rape, but asserted that the guilty persons were duly punished.” (Chapter 2)

The report quoted Brigadier Shah Abdul Qasim (witness No. 267) about the use of excessive force on the night between the 25th and 26th March 1971: “Army personnel acted under the influence of revenge and anger during the military operation."

The report also quoted Brigadier Iqbalur Rehman Shariff (Witness no. 269), who alleged that during his visit to formations in East Pakistan, General Gul Hassan used to ask the soldiers "how many Bengalis have you shot." The report quoted Lt. Col. Aziz Ahmed Khan (Witness no 276) who was Commanding Officer 8 Baluch and then CO 86 Mujahid Battalion: "Brigadier Arbbab also told me to destroy all houses in Joydepur. To a great extent I executed this order.”

The Report said, “There is also evidence that Lt. Gen Tikka Khan, Major Gen. Farman Ali and Maj. Gen Khadim Hussain were associated with the planning of the military action. There is, however, nothing to show that they contemplated the use of excessive force or the commission of atrocities and excesses on the people of East Pakistan.”

Interestingly, thus, the Commission did not find any of the major players, including Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and General Tikka Khan, guilty of the crisis which led to the dismemberment of Pakistan. As noted by Lt. General Niazi in his interview with journalist Amir Mir (December 2001), Pakistan’s new Army chief General Tikka Khan and his boss President Bhutto did not want to open the Pandora’s Box.

According to Lt. General Niazi, “Yahya and Bhutto viewed Mujib's victory in the 1970 election with distaste, because it meant that Yahya had to vacate the presidency and Bhutto had to sit in the Opposition benches, which was contrary to his aspirations. So these two got together and hatched a plan in Larkana, Bhutto's hometown, which came to be known as the Larkana Conspiracy. The plan was to postpone the session of the National Assembly indefinitely, and to block the transfer of power to the Awami League by diplomacy, threats, intrigues and the use of military force. Connected to this conspiracy was the 'M. M. Ahmed plan', which aimed at allowing Yahya and Bhutto to continue as president and prime minister, besides leaving East Pakistan without a successor government. After the announcement of the date of the assembly session (to be held at Dhaka), there was pressure on the politicians to boycott it. The reason given was that East Pakistan had become a hub of international intrigue, therefore, it should be discarded. In the end, this clique achieved its aim.”

Commenting on the Hamoodur Rahman Commission of Inquiry Report, Lt. General Niazi said, “Similarly, Tikka has not been mentioned in the report, although his barbaric action of March 25 earned him the name of butcher. The commission overlooked his heinous crimes. As far as Rao Farman is concerned, he was in-charge of the Dhaka operations. According to authentic press reports, tanks, mortars and artillery were ruthlessly employed against the Dhaka University inmates, killing scores of them. Rao remained military adviser to five governors and had his finger in every pie.”

In its concluding remarks on allegations of war crimes, the Hamoodur Rahman Commission of Inquiry Report said, “From what we have said in the preceding Paragraphs it is clear that there is substance in the allegations that during and after the military action excesses were indeed committed on the people of East Pakistan, but the versions and estimates put forward by the Dacca authorities are highly coloured and exaggerated… Irrespective, therefore, of the magnitude of the atrocities, we are of the considered opinion that it's necessary for the Government of Pakistan to take effective action to punish those who were responsible for the commission of these alleged excesses and atrocities.” It further recommended a fruitful inquiry to be undertaken to investigate all the allegations by requesting the Dacca authorities to forward whatever evidences they may have.

In December 2000, 29 years after the inquiry was completed, the full report of the Hamoodur Rahman Commission of Inquiry was finally declassified in Pakistan by President Musharraf's Military government.

To be continued…

- Asian Tribune -

Dr. Habib Siddiqui
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