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OP-ED: Those fretful days of December 1971

  • Published at 06:59 pm December 15th, 2020

The days that led up to the sweet joy of victory

Some may argue, but Pakistan as a country had ceased to exist even before the war started on December 3, 1971. Officially our emancipation began on December 16, Victory Day, when the Pakistan Army led by its infamous Corps Commander of the Eastern Front Lt General Niazi surrendered to the Indian Army in Dhaka Stadium. 

But actually, the so-called invincible army had collapsed much before that date, when its three full divisions and two quasi divisions had retreated from their headquarters spread all over then East Pakistan. An army that had only one division in East Pakistan only a couple of years back had swollen its ranks and file with multiple divisions in less than two years, only with the intent of holding down the Bengali civilian population with brutal force, not to defend it against foreign attack. 

That is why all these divisions and the soldiers that populated these units fell like ninepins when the war actually broke out. That too due to the intransigence and arrogance of the military leaders of this phony army that had hijacked a country. 

The pathetic state the Pakistan Army and its boastful generals had brought Pakistan to was neither understood by the self-deluding political leaders in West Pakistan nor by the common people there. The army camouflaged their defeats in East Pakistan with lies and propaganda of success in the state-controlled media, thereby hoodwinking its own people who would get a severe jolt when their “heroes” surrendered so ignominiously. For people of West Pakistan, December 16 would forever be equated with shame, humiliation, and national disgrace. 

For us in then-East Pakistan, the day did not come easily. It was a day we thought would never come, at least not within the time frame of nine months after the murderous onslaught of March 26 in Dhaka by this army on a civilian population. This onslaught would not stop within the confines of Dhaka city, but it would expand all over the country with ever-increasing fury and brutality, touching all district and sub-divisional towns, and even villages. 

This was done in the name of saving Pakistan against an enemy that was part and parcel of the very country that had nurtured and fed this brutal force. This was done by an army that quadrupled its presence in a province called East Pakistan and filled the cantonments in that province with soldiers, arms, and ammunition in less than a year’s time. This augmentation was done not to prepare the country against any foreign attack, but to fight its own people who had the “audacity” to demand that their elected leaders be allowed to run the country. 

In his somewhat self-exculpatory memoirs -- How Pakistan Got Divided -- Major General Rao Farman Ali, one of the longest serving army generals in then East Pakistan, gives an interesting account of the build-up of the army in East Pakistan to quell East Pakistan after March 25 by importing more soldiers from West Pakistan, and the creation of more army divisions. He also narrated nine-pin like falls of the divisions and their retreat that started much before December 16. 

Prior to 1971, Pakistan Army had only one Army Division in East Pakistan, 14th division headquartered in Dhaka. There were three other brigades -- in Jessore, Comilla, and Rangpur. Well before the beginning of the onslaught of March 26, 1971, the army had started a slow but steady reinforcement, and in less than three months, the force’s strength had mounted to three full-fledged divisions, and two ad hoc divisions in East Pakistan. 

The number of soldiers increased three-fold, from around 14,000 to over 45,000 before the war started. The ad hoc divisions were created in 1971, the regular divisions were set up earlier. The brigades were upgraded to divisions and were commanded by officers of the rank of major generals. The divisional headquarters in Dhaka were upgraded to the status of a Corps Headquarters in 1969, but without addition of any new division. Lt General Sahibzada Yaqub Khan was the first corps commander. 

But things would change dramatically when Lt General Tikka Khan was appointed Corps Commander who arrived in March 1971 with additional responsibility as governor and martial law administrator of East Pakistan. Two more army divisions were created by upgrading the brigades in Jessore and Rangpur. When Lt General Niazi replaced Tikka Khan in April 1971 as corp commander, two more ad hoc divisions were created in anticipation of a possible war with India.  

Gen Niazi, a foulmouthed and licentious military officer, who was known for his bombastic utterances and arrogant behaviour, wanted to turn East Pakistan into a number of fortresses to defend East Pakistan when drums of war had started. He never gave credence to the possibility that his defense scheme would crumble when the opposition would not only come from outside but also from within, when hundreds of thousands of freedom fighters, with support from the local population would destroy these fortresses. He was clueless from the beginning with his interpretation of the war as an Indian ploy to grab East Pakistan, and his total alienation of people with thorough contempt of the Bengalis like his boss Yahya Khan. 

He began with no viable strategy, and with insistence that the divisions be broken up and sent to border areas to create defense fortresses. The result was not only disastrous for the army but also for Pakistan. What Niazi in his boastful and short-sighted wisdom did not realize would be his hubris in eight months. His divisions would fall like nine-pins, and his soldiers recoiled from the bordersi fleeing with their tails between their legs. 

The chronicles of Rao Farman Ali provide in detail how Pakistan Army had started to crumble into pieces even before the formal war began in December. It started when a heavily armed contingent deployed from Jessore Brigade retreated from Chougacha border on November 22-23 under heavy attack from the Indian army aided by the freedom fighters. In the counterattack, Pakistan Air Force, with only one squadron in East Pakistan, lost two of its fighter aircraft. 

After the war broke out on December 4, the entire brigade was forced to retreat from Jessore on December 9 after heavy Indian attack with tanks and artillery. As Farman Ali states, a series of retreats by Pakistan Army following from that day in Jessore Sector decimated the entire 9th Division of Jessore by December 10. 

A similar fate awaited all other divisions that were supposed to act as “fortresses” of Niazi. Troops deployed in Sylhet started to retreat immediately after the war began formally. In other sectors such as Brahmanbaria, Laksam, Comilla, and northern districts, troops began to withdraw within days of the war. As a result, all of the divisions deployed all over East Pakistan were totally demolished well before December 16. 

All that remained was Lt General Niazi with his cowering commanders who had sought shelter in Dhaka by then. His bombastic claim that he would march to Calcutta with his victorious army would turn on his head with his enemy troops waiting to march into Dhaka.

The last nail in the coffin came on December 13, when the Indian army dropped a bomb on the Governor House in Dhaka. Governor Malik (the civilian governor appointed by Yahya in August) had already resigned and had taken shelter in a staff house in the compound. (He would later seek shelter in Hotel Intercontinental along with many other civilian officials who were deputed from West Pakistan.) 

An appeal for a ceasefire reportedly initiated by the Corps Commander Niazi and sent under the governor’s name did not cut any ice with the advancing Indian troop. With a total victory so near, which army would agree to a conditional ceasefire that allowed the Pakistani troop safe passage to the home country? 

But for those of us who were living in a virtual prison in Dhaka those remaining days were like awaiting an uncertain doom. The feeling of thrill in the first few days of war with dog fights in the air, and the sound of bombs and anti-aircraft guns in the cantonment soon gave way to despair and anxiety as the retreating Pakistani troops started to descend in the city. Rumours of a last-ditch war by Gen Niazi and his cohorts supported by the militia that Pakistan army had imported rattled the citizenry to no end. Many started to flee to the villages to avoid the impending doom.

Therefore, the news of Pakistan Army’s surrender on December 16 could not have brought a greater relief and joy to the holed-up citizens of Dhaka, most of whom were actually unaware that much of the country had already been liberated. Fall of Dhaka was actually an official end to the nightmare started by the murderous army. It was the final curtain. Joy, sweet joy of victory. That was December 16th of 1971. 

Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.

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