On 21st November 1971, during Eid day, Indian forces attacked former East Pakistan from different sides. The attack can be termed an ‘undeclared war’, in which India had strategised to capture territory within East Pakistan and declare it as an independent Bangladesh. India succeeded in its aim as Pakistani forces began to retreat from the borders enabling the Indian military to occupy the strategic town of Jessore.
Fifty years down the road, it is time to analyse how the Indian offensive of November 1971 triggered the process of the military defeat of Pakistani forces in East Pakistan, which culminated in their surrender on 16th December in a racecourse in Dhaka. The Eastern command had been warning General Headquarters (GHQ) of Indian military designs in East Pakistan since the end of the monsoon season. They also requested appropriate supplies to cope with a superior Indian military deployed along the borders of East Pakistan and growing guerrilla attacks of Mukti Bahani. However, the regime of President Yahya Khan was least mindful of the predictable collapse of Pakistani forces in the event of an Indian attack. In November 1971, Major General Rao Farman Ali, adviser to the Governor of East Pakistan, visited Rawalpindi and again explained the grim scenario to military high-ups. In response to this, only six companies of army were dispatched to Dhaka before the outbreak of an all-out war on 3rd December 1971.
Indifference and irresponsibility of the government in Islamabad vis-à-vis East Pakistan was reflected when President Yahya Khan sadly asked, “What can I do for East Pakistan?” One cannot help but wonder that had the GHQ adhered to the request of the Eastern command to provide sufficient military resources to meet possible Indian attacks, it would have been possible to save a United Pakistan.
November 1971 was a crucial month. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the leader of PPP under the authorisation of President Yahya Khan, undertook a visit to Peking to seek Chinese support in case of an Indian attack. However, he only received verbal assurances.
In his book, Betrayal of East Pakistan, Lieutenant General Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi, former commander of Eastern Command, writes: “Major-General Nazar Hussain Shah, General Officer Commanding 16 Division, reported that the Indians had crossed the border in strength and a full-fled attack [is] on. Reports from other sectors confirmed that East Pakistan was under an all-out Indian attack from all sides. The Indian plan was to attack East Pakistan from all directions by carrying out a battle of encirclement and finally converging in Dhaka.”
He further elaborated on how vulnerable East Pakistan was on 21st November and the indifferent attitude of the GHQ. Niazi, in his book, laments: “On 21 November, my Chief of Staff rang up the Vice-Chief of General Staff at GHQ, Major-General Qureshi, and followed up with a written signal about the Indian invasion. I tried to speak to the Chief of General Staff, Lieutenant General Gul Hasan, but he had gone to Lahore to celebrate Eid knowing that the Indians were going to attack East Pakistan. I tried to contact General Hamid, Chief Of Army Staff who was not available either. The callous attitude of the three senior-most officers of the Army shows that they were not in the least interested in the affairs of East Pakistan or the integrity of Pakistan. Like Nero, they played [flute] while Dhaka burned.” Apathy and indifference of the GHQ left Eastern command of East Pakistan in the lurch as with merely 45,000 regular troops they had to deal with an all-out Indian invasion along with Mukti Bahini on 21st November and the hostile local population.
The United Pakistan of 21st November 1971 needs to be examined from three angles, as follows:
First, from 25th March 1971, when Operation Search Light was launched against the majority party Awami League till 21st November, it was the West Pakistani military that was bogged down to counterinsurgency in East Pakistan. The Bengal Regiment and East Pakistan Rifles had revolted following the military operation. Fighting fatigue and psychological pressures further compounded the capability of Eastern command when India attacked East Pakistan on 21st November. Despite the resilience and courage demonstrated by the Pakistani armed forces, victory against Indian aggression was not possible because they were outnumbered by Indian forces coupled with Mukti Bahini, and the hostile local population.
Second, following the military operation in April 1971, Pakistan forces had succeeded in establishing writ of the state and the time was ripe for a viable political solution to the East Pakistan crisis. Unfortunately, the regime of General Yahya Khan failed to negotiate with the imprisoned Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and other moderate elements of the banned Awami League to unleash a political process and transfer power to the majority population. According to Golam Wahed Choudhry, a central minister during the regime of Yahya Khan, “In August when I became convinced that Yahya was searching frantically for a political solution of the crisis, and I knew that some political dialogue had again started, I made my second trip from London to West Pakistan and Dacca. The scene in Islamabad where I landed on 23rd August 1971 was bewildering. A significant feature of the proposed constitution was the provision for a ‘Bengali Vice-President’ who would exercise provincial autonomy sitting in Dacca. How could either Bhutto or Peerzada still believe that a constitution framed by a few West Pakistani civil and military officials sitting in Rawalpindi would be acceptable to the Bengalis, who had proclaimed their national goal of an independent state?” The die was cast, and the days of United Pakistan were numbered because of the mismanagement of a grave national crisis by the military regime of Yahya Khan and the two major political parties at that time, the Awami League and the PPP.
Third, even when India attacked East Pakistan on 21st November air and sea links between East and West Pakistan remained open. With the declaration of war against India on 3rd December 1971, there was no question of getting supplies from the West. Had there not been an all-out war with India from 3rd December, it would have been possible for the Eastern command to sustain its resistance against the Indian intervention.
Revisiting November 1971 of United Pakistan is essential particularly for the new generation of the country to understand how Jinnah’s Pakistan was dismembered. Certainly, historical truth and facts cannot be erased.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 21st, 2021.