Col Ashwani Sharma (retd), Editor-in-Chief, South Asia Defence & Strategic Review
It was September 2007. I had just left the Army and moved to Delhi to take over as the editor of South Asia Defence & Strategic Review. Rajan Arya, a dear friend and owner of Pentagon Press handed me a CD one day and asked me to examine the contents. It was a script written by one Ambassador Arshad Sami Khan, former PAF Sqn Ldr decorated with a Sitara-i-Jurat during 1965 Indo-Pak war. He had the unique distinction of having served with three Presidents (namely, Ayub, Yahya and Bhutto) of Pakistan as their ADC before side stepping to the Foreign Services. The copious notes made by him during this eventful period in Pakistan’s history formed the script handed over to me.
Once I opened the CD, I remained glued to my computer for hours together. It was a revealing and fascinating account of the presidential personalities, political dramas, games played behind the scenes and palace (read Presidency) intrigues in Pakistan. It also reflected, at places, on global personalities including some from India. That is how a young PAF officer observed, noted and perceived the mind-boggling happenings around him at the very top. It was a potboiler and I instantly agreed to edit the script and give it the shape that it needed. The book – ‘Three Presidents and an Aide’ was released in Delhi by Capt Amarinder Singh in 2008. Somehow it never received the due it deserved, in Pakistan for obvious reasons, and in India for lack of adequate publicity and other events overwhelming the scenario at that time.
A few days ago I pulled out the only copy left with me to recount certain facts on 71 Operations, from a Pakistani viewpoint. And what a revelation it is! Specific to Bangladesh, Sami Khan’s account clears many a doubt. This piece on East Pakistan in its final days and the creation of Bangladesh draws heavily from Sami Khan’s book.
The D Day
On 02 Dec 1971, Yahya received a long signal from Gen AAK Niazi, GOC and Martial Law Administrator, East Pakistan, about Jessore being under imminent threat. This was in line with earlier communications of increasing military pressure from the Mukti Bahini and Indian Army. Yahya hurriedly convened a meeting of the entire top military brass at the GHQ the next day, 03 Dec 1971. Briefing the top military leadership, the Chief of General Staff, Lt Gen Gul Hassan recommended war against India, reminding Gen Yahya of his public pledge not to lose an inch of territory. To a concerned Yahya, all the top-ranking officers of the Pakistan Armed Forces nodded their heads in unison. Air Marshal Rahim Khan took over from then on and laid out the pre-emptive air strike plan to immobilise the numerically superior IAF. The other two services would open the offensive simultaneously.
Young Sami Khan was worried. Having been privy to the build-up leading up to the D Day, he had serious reservations about the outcome of the war. The end game had begun.
The End Game: Last few weeks and the Machiavellian Moves within Pak Establishment
10 -20 November 1971. President Yahya Khan, an eternal optimist would at times get riled at the number of fronts he had to deal with, East &West Pakistan, martial law, deteriorating political, economic and diplomatic situations – and hardly ever any good news. Yet he was hopeful that he will pull things off, fix East Pakistan, avert war and settle scores with Pakistani political opponents to continue as the President.
This false hope to a large extent was the result of sycophants surrounding the President.
Interestingly, one evening the ‘spirited’ President picked up two balloons after a party and kicked them in the air and said, “here goes Bhutto, and here goes Mujib”. Little did he know that they were about to burst in his face with full force just a few weeks later.
16 to 20 Nov 1971. The battle of Garibpur in close proximity to Jessore, was the harbinger of bad news. It led to the declaration of emergency in the country and the setting up of an Emergency Council. A hurried civilian government was put together with agingNurul Amin from the East as the Prime Minister, and Zulfikar Bhutto (friend to a foe to friend again) as the Dy PM cum Foreign Minister. Bhutto had earlier supported the imposition of Martial Law in East Pakistan. After that he was side-lined, to be brought back again to salvage the situation at the political level.
Concerned at the imminent war and limited international support from its allies, Yahya decided to despatch a secret delegation to Pakistan’s all-weather friend China. Bhutto was selected to lead the delegation accompanied by Yahya’s confidants, Lt Gen Gul Hassan and Air Marshal Rahim Khan. The latter two were added overtly to discuss the military situation, but covertly for the purpose of keeping an eye on Bhutto and report back the true picture to President Yahya. They met Chinese Premier Chou Enlai and Foreign Minister Chen Ye who assured China’s full support to Pakistan. China also advised Pakistan to avert war till the spring of 1972 when the Himalayan passes would open for possible military intervention if required. It was here that Bhutto hatched a conspiracy to mislead Yahya. China had clearly expressed its inability to assist during the winter months, but Yahya was made to feel secure by his trusted delegation members saying that Chinese Special forces can intervene even during the Himalayan winters. As per Sami Khan, there was no guarantee that India would have fallen for any ruse to wait for the winters to pass, but this misinformation emboldened Yahya, who accepted the advice to launch the offensive during the peak winters in December 1971.
3 to 9 Dec 1971. PAF launched the pre-emptive strike on forward Airbases all along the border in a bid to achieve surprise and inflict maximum damage. The damage was limited and IAF responded with a massive riposte. Yahya was pleased with the initial actions in the West, but that euphoria vanished soon as the Indian Armed Forces seized the initiative on all fronts and the push back was strong. On 09 Dec Governor Malik from East Pakistan spoke with the President on Sacraphone and painted a gloomy picture. Gen Niazi too sought a quick political solution, before the Pakistani military is decimated. Yahya authorised Malik and Niazi to take actions as deemed necessary to save the garrison and Pak administration.
09-13 Dec 1971. Pakistan’s long-held strategic belief that East Pakistan’s security lay in the West, was crumbling quickly. Defences in East Pakistan were crumbling like a house of cards. Pakistan’s offensive in the West had been blunted and the Indian Army, Navy and Airforce were all on the offensive, with the IAF hitting targets deep inside and the Navy striking oil storage tanks at Karachi. A panic-stricken Yahya wanted a UN driven ceasefire at the earliest. With the USSR solidly vetoing all such moves at the UN, Yahya dispatched Bhutto to the UN on the advice of Lt Gen Gul Hassan and Air Marshal Rahim Khan. His charter was to find a diplomatic solution to end the war and allow Pakistan to work out a political solution.
13 Dec 1971. After repeated attempts by Yahya, President Nixon finally returned the call at around 2 am Pakistan time. Yahya literally jumped out of his bed to take the call and instructed Sami Khan to hold the parallel line, lest the precious call gets disconnected. Nixon promised full support to Pakistan and intimated Yahya that he had ordered the 7th Fleet (Task Force 74) to steam into the Bay of Bengal and rescue the beleaguered Pakistan Army. An ecstatic Yahya woke up his COS Lt Gen Hameed, recounted the conversation and finally said “Ham, and tell Niazi to hold on to East Pakistan. The Americans are on their way”. That was the first and the last message on the 7th fleet which never really showed up as Pakistani hopes sank deep into the depths of the Bay of Bengal.
15 Dec 1971 (Military Situation). Gen AAK Niazi (Tiger Niazi to his colleagues), under severe military pressure and incessant offensive from the Indian Armed Forces, isolated from all directions, approached the US Consul General in Dhaka seeking an immediate ceasefire, protection of all Pakistani forces in East Pakistan and an assurance by the Indian Army for protection and no reprisals. In Rawalpindi, upon receiving the signal from Niazi, Yahya addressed the nation on TV and radio and acknowledged the ‘unfortunate temporary setback’. He also conveyed his resolve to continue fighting on the Western front till complete victory was achieved.
The Emergency Council and the military leadership of Pakistan, however, was increasingly aware of the dangers of prolonging the war as they realised that India was capable of inflicting grave damage to its military infrastructure and economic centres, especially as the entire weight could be shifted to the Western theatre. The President would have to rethink his resolve.
15 Dec 1971 (Diplomatic Situation). With the Soviets voting against US-sponsored UN resolutions for a ceasefire, Pakistan was running out of options. Out of the blue, a Poland sponsored resolution for an immediate cease-fire was moved at the UN General Assembly. President Yahya and his staff learnt about the resolution through media reports the next day! Yahya, furious with his Foreign Office, tried to contact Bhutto in New York to accept the resolution forthwith. Bhutto, however, was incommunicado, either too sick with influenza or too drugged to talk or simply not available at the hotel. Unable to contact his Foreign Minister, a frantic Yahya then got hold of Agha Shahi, Pakistan’s permanent envoy at the UN and ordered him to accept the Polish resolution without delay.
Bhutto finally emerged from his room in Hotel Astoria on the 15th. It was Bhutto’s turn to speak at the UN Security Council convened at Pakistan’s request to discuss the situation. Bhutto walked up to the podium, in a fiery address blamed the international community for inaction while his country disintegrated, tore up the notes in his hand and walked off the stage stating “I am not a rat, inflict what you may, I shall go back and fight”. In place of garnering the badly needed support, Bhutto in fact had antagonised the General Assembly, hardly an effective way to counter the world’s largest democracy. India accepted the UN resolution on 16 Dec, after declaring ceasefire.
16 Dec 1971. Lt Gen AAK Niazi, Martial Law Administrator Zone B, GOC East Pakistan Armed Forces in Dacca signed the instrument of surrender and handed it over to Lt Gen JS Aurora, GOC-in-C, Eastern Command. India accepted the Polish resolution at the General Assembly and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared ceasefire and ordered cessation of hostilities in both the theatres of war.
17 Dec 1971. The scene at the Presidency was one of disbelief and despondency. Yahya had vowed to continue the war. There was public outrage at the serious reverses on both fronts. Bangladesh was a reality. And the public was yet to be informed of 90,000 POWs and a loss of approx. 2000 sq Kms in the West.
Pakistan military’s top brass met at the Presidency to decide on the future course of events. Suddenly the news of revolt by the 6 Armoured Division Artillery Brigade was conveyed by Gul Hassan. Its highly-regarded Commander, Brig FB Ali had decided to arrest the GOC of 6 Armoured Division on charges of cowardice in battle! The brigade was also supposedly on the move to Islamabad, headed for the Presidency. Yahya was alarmed – revolt in the army was the last thing he wanted to hear. It could snowball into a general revolt and the public’s ire would be difficult to contain.
A couple of hours into the evening, a visibly tired Yahya declared his intention to resign and hand over the reins to Bhutto.
An overnight attempt by Lt Gen Hameed, COS to take control was thwarted by a crafty Gul Hassan.
Bhutto was traced in Rome, Italy, through one of his close friends, Ghulam Mustafa Khar.
The rebellion inexplicably vanished into thin air!
Prime Minister Bhutto appointed Gul Hassan as the new Chief of Army Staff. Air Marshal Rahim Khan was retained as the C-in-C of PAF.
Yahya was sent to exile unceremoniously for the rest of his life.
Sheikh Mujib was released forthwith and unconditionally, Amar Sonar Bangla was a reality.
Epilogue. Bhutto remained suspicious of his allies, Army Chief, Gen Gul Hassan and Air Chief, Air Marshal Rahim Khan and sacked them in 1972. He then paved the way for his favourite and trusted General Zia-ul-Haq as the new Chief of Army Staff.
Some things never change!!
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