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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 109

Bangladesh – A Nation Divided? – Part 5

By Dr. Habib Siddiqui

Crime should never be condoned and criminals need to be punished for their crimes. So, in the context of Bangladesh/East Pakistan of 1971 who should be punished for all those crimes that took the lives of so many – probably anywhere from 50,000 to 3 million, depending on whose version one accepts?

There were at least four groups to share the blame – (1) Pakistan Army who planned and executed their program to pacify Bangladeshis, (2) their collaborators within the non-Bengalis – e.g., Urdu-speaking Biharis, many of whom joined paramilitary forces like the Razakar, al-Badr and Al-Shams, (3) their supporters within the pro-Pakistan civilian Bengalis – mostly affiliated with political parties, who collaborated with the regime towards recruiting Razakar, al-Badr and al-Shams paramilitary forces, and (4) political leadership in West Pakistan that provided the justification for the massacre of Bengalis.

Besides these groups, it is worth mentioning here that the vast majority of the people living in the Tribal regions of Chittagong Hill Tract (CHT) opposed the liberation movement. They had voted for Raja Tridiv Roy (only one of the two outside AL candidates to have won the 1970 election) who actively collaborated with the military Government of Pakistan. The armed miscreant groups within them killed many Bengali civilians and freedom fighters. One of my uncles, who worked as an engineer in the Kaptai Rayon Mill, was abducted by them and simply vanished, presumably killed.

The genocide – if we can call it as such - also included killing of serving Bengali senior army officers of the rank of Lt. Colonel and above in East Pakistan within the first few days of Operation Searchlight. The deaths included Col. Badiul Alam, Lt. Col. MA Qadir, Lt. Col. S.A. Hai, Lt. Col. M.R. Choudhury, Lt. Col. (Dr.) Ziaur Rahman, Lt. Col. N. A. M. Jahangir and another dozens of senior majors who were executed by April 1971.

Also, around a hundred junior officers and thousands of unfortunate captured Bengali soldiers, including members of the East Pakistan Rifles and Police, serving in East Pakistan were executed.

These killings happened as part of the strategy of the Operation Searchlight and are unacceptable under any law – military or civil. The accountability lies with the top brass within the Pakistan military that approved this strategy towards pacifying Bengalis in East Pakistan. Lt. General Tikka Khan who executed this strategy cannot evade his responsibility on this crime.

After the defeat of the Pakistan Army, there was a call to try 195 Pakistani POWs for war crimes, but no trials took place. Along with other POWs, all of them returned from India to Pakistan.

It has often been speculated that the Operation Searchlight was formulated by Major General Khadim Hussain Raja, GOC (General Officer in Command) of the East Pakistan-based 14th Infantry Division, and Major General Rao Farman Ali, military advisor to the Governor of East Pakistan, as a follow-up of decisions taken at a meeting of the Pakistani army staff on 22 February.

However, Major General Rao Farman Ali was exonerated in the Hamoodur Rahman Commission (HRC) Report, and has denied any such involvement in planning that “genocidal” campaign. Nevertheless, in the HRC Report, he is recorded admitting that serious excesses and abuses were committed by the Pakistan military. He said, "Harrowing tales of rape, loot, arson, harassment, and of insulting and degrading behaviour were narrated in general terms.... I wrote out an instruction to act as a guide for decent behaviour and recommended action required to be taken to win over the hearts of the people. This instruction under General Tikka Khan's signature was sent to Eastern Command. I found that General Tikka's position was also deliberately undermined and his instructions ignored...excesses were explained away by false and concocted stories and figures."

It is difficult to imagine such a breakdown in chain of command within Pakistan Army – undermining Gen. Tikka Khan’s directives - that early in 1971.

In his memoirs, “A Stranger in My Own Country: East Pakistan 1969-1971,” Major General Khadim Hussain Raja mentioned the “sincere and frantic efforts” made by Lt. Gen. Yaqoob Khan, Vice Admiral Ahsan and Major General Rao Forman Ali till the last moment to avoid bloodshed. He claimed that he hated to be part of an unfavorable militaristic solution that was decided at the Headquarters of the CMLA Yahya Khan in West Pakistan with the connivance of Mr. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the leader of the Pakistan People’s Party.

As noted earlier, General Tikka Khan, who was calling the shots for a month in East Pakistan from mid-March of 1971, when much of the violence took place against the Bengalis, was also exonerated in the HRC Report. He became the Army C-in-C of Pakistan during Bhutto’s time. Neither he nor his boss was blamed for the crimes in East Pakistan.

Instead, the blames were put on Lt. General Niazi, mostly for the loss of East Pakistan on December 16. The latter took control on April 11, 1971 after Lt. General Tikka Khan had already led the ‘genocidal’ campaign – the Operation Searchlight. As we have also noted, Niazi himself, in his interview, had pointed fingers at Bhutto, Tikka and Rao. “I volunteered to face court-martial proceedings. But my offer,” said Niazi, “was denied by the then army chief, Tikka Khan. He did not want the Pandora's Box to be reopened.” When asked about arson, loot, rape and killings in East Pakistan, he replied, “Immediately after taking command in East Pakistan, I heard numerous reports of troops indulging in loot and arson, killing people at random and without reason in areas cleared of anti-state elements. Realizing the gravity of the situation, I approached my bosses through a letter dated April 15, 1971, informing them of the mess being created. I clearly wrote in my letter that there have been reports of rapes and even the West Pakistanis are not being spared. I informed my seniors that even officers have been suspected of indulging in this shameful activity.”

A closer look at those accusations and finger-pointing against each other within the top brass of Pakistan military suggests that Niazi might have been telling the truth. It is also reasonable to suspect the intent of the HRC, which rather than finding the Yahya-Bhutto-Hamid-Tikka clique responsible for the circumstances that finally led to the dismemberment of Pakistan made the scapegoats out of the Eastern Command and its senior commanders.

General Niazi was the last Pakistani military administrator in East Pakistan when it surrendered. On 14 December 1971, two days before his surrender, over 200 of East Pakistan's intellectuals including professors, journalists, doctors, artists, engineers, and writers were seemingly picked up from their homes in Dhaka by the Al-Badr militias. They were taken blindfolded to torture cells in Mirpur, Mohammadpur, Nakhalpara, Rajarbagh and other locations in different sections of the city. Later they were executed en masse, most notably at Rayerbazar and Mirpur. It is widely speculated that the killings of 14 December was orchestrated by Major General Rao Farman Ali. After the liberation of Bangladesh a list of those Bengali intellectuals was discovered in a page of his diary left behind at the Governor's House. The existence of such a list was confirmed by Major General Ali himself although he denied the motive of genocide.
On the alleged killing of intellectuals, the HRC Report said:

24. This again is a matter, which was specifically raised by Sk. Mujibur Rehman during his meeting with the Prime Minister [Bhutto] at Dacca. According to Maj. Gen. Farman Ali it was on the 9th and 10th of December 1971 that he was rung up in the evening by Maj. Gen. Jamshed, who was the Deputy Martial Law Administrator for Dacca Division and asked to come to his headquarters in Peelkhana. On reaching the headquarters he saw a large number of vehicles parked there. Maj. Gen. Jamshed was getting into a car and he asked Maj. Gen. Farman Ali to come along. They both drove to Headquarters of Eastern Command to meet Lt. Gen. Niazi and on the way Maj. Gen. Jamshed informed Maj. Gen. Farman that they were thinking of arresting certain people. Gen. Farman Ali advised against it. On reaching Lt. General Niazi's headquarters he repeated his advice, on which Lt. Gen. Niazi kept quiet and so did Maj. Gen. Jamshed. Maj. Gen. Farman Ali has stated that he cannot say anything as to what happened after he came away from the headquarters but he thinks that no further action was taken.

25. When questioned on this point, Lt. Gen. A. A. K. Niazi stated that the local Commanders had, on the 9th of December 1971, brought a list to him which included the names of miscreants, heads of Mukti Bahini etc., but not any intellectuals but he had stopped them from collecting and arresting these people. He denied the allegation that any intellectuals were in fact arrested and killed on the 9th December 1971 or thereafter.

26. Maj. Gen. Jamshed has, however, a slightly different version to offer. He says that it was on the 9th and 10th of December 1971 that General Niazi expressed his apprehension of a general uprising in the Dacca city and ordered him to examine the possibility of arresting certain persons according to lists which were already with the various agencies, namely the Martial Law Authorities and the Intelligence Branch. A conference was held on the 9th and 10th of December 1971 in which these lists were produced by the agencies concerned and the total number of persons to be arrested came to about two or three thousand. According to him, arrangements for accommodation, security guards, missing and the safety of the arrested persons from bombing/strafing by the Indian Air Force presented insurmountable problems and therefore, he reported back to Lt. Gen. Niazi that the proposal be dropped. He states that thereafter no further action was taken in this matter.

27. From the statements made by the three Generals who appear to be directly concerned in the matter, it seems that although there was some talks of arresting persons known to be leaders of the Awami League or Mukti Bahini so as to prevent chances of a general uprising in Dacca during the closing phases of the war with India, yet no practical action was taken in view of the circumstances then prevailing, namely the precarious position of the Pakistan Army and the impending surrender. We consider, therefore, that unless the Bangladesh authorities can produce some convincing evidence, it is not possible to record a finding that any intellectuals or professionals were indeed arrested and killed by the Pakistan Army during December 1971.” (Chapter 2)

Sadly, no supporting evidence was subsequently either requested from or provided by the Government of Bangladesh (GOB) to its counterpart in Pakistan to follow up on this crucial issue of killing of Bengali intellectuals. With that we probably shut the door to connect the dots in this gruesome murder, let alone prosecuting the Pakistani war criminals.

As per the HRC Report, Rao Farman Ali was not convicted with any charges and was the only Major General Rank officer, serving in East Pakistan, who was not charged. The HRC report noted, “He frankly admitted before the Commission that he was associated with the planning of the military action of the 25th of March 1971, and also with the subsequent political steps taken by the military regime to noramlise the situation, including the proposed by-elections necessitated by the disqualification of a large number of Awami league members of the National and Provincial Assemblies. Nevertheless, as a result of our detailed study of the written statement, submitted by the General and the lengthy cross-examination to which we subjected him during his appearance before us, as well as the evidences from other witnesses from East Pakistan, we have formed the view that Maj. Gen. Farman Ali merely functioned as an intelligent, well-intentioned and sincere staff officer in the various appointments held by him, and at no stage could he be regarded as being a member of the inner military junta surrounding and supporting General Yahya Khan. We have also found that at no stage did he advise, or himself indulge in, actions opposed to public morality, sound political sense or humanitarian considerations. In this context, we have already commented at some length, in a previous Chapter of this Report, on the allegation made by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman at General Farman Ali was wanting to "paint the green of East Pakistan red," and have found that the entire incident has been deliberately distorted.” (Chapter 3)

However, along with other senior officers stationed in East Pakistan immediately before and during the war of 1971 who were held collectively responsible for the failings and weaknesses, which led to the defeat of the Pakistan Army, Rao Farman Ali was reprimanded in the Report.

The HRC Report is also shockingly reserved about the political leadership within West Pakistan, e.g., the role of Bhutto and his People’s Party, that provided the political justification for the heavy-handed policy of the military that led to the dismemberment of Pakistan. It is simply improbable that the ‘genocidal’ activities of the Operation Searchlight would have been carried out without any tacit approval of those politicians. Ultimately, however, the accountability for their crimes rests with the military government of Yahya Khan.

After the humiliating defeat against India and the loss of Bangladesh, General Yahya Khan resigned on December 20, 1971 and handed over power to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Within weeks, Bhutto put him under house arrest until being released by General Ziaul Huq who came to power in a military coup on July 5, 1977.
Yahya Khan died on August 10, 1980. Twenty-five years after his death, in December 2005 the Pakistan government released Yahya Khan’s affidavit that was placed with the Lahore High Court in 1978. In that 57-page long affidavit, Yahya Khan said, "It was Bhutto, not Mujib, who broke Pakistan. Bhutto's stance in 1971 and his stubbornness harmed Pakistan’s solidarity much more than Sheikh Mujib’s Six-Point demand. It was his high ambitions and rigid stance that led to rebellion in East Pakistan. He riled up the Bengalis and brought an end to Pakistan’s solidarity. East Pakistan broke away."

Interestingly, Yahya Khan said that he did not launch the Operation Searchlight on March 25, 1971 at the behest of Bhutto or anyone else. He said he had issued those orders in his capacity as President and Army Chief in order to quell the uprising. According to him, it was Tikka Khan who issued the orders to capture Mujib dead or alive.

One can only pity a wretched character like Yahya Khan who wants to leave behind a legacy of a responsible captain of a sinking ship taking accountability for his ill-conceived decision while is nonchalant about finger pointing his immediate junior for the outcome. One wonders what deterred him from stopping Tikka! We shall never know that answer!

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was hanged at the Central jail, Rawalpindi, on 4 April 1979 - not for his Machiavellian role in the dismemberment of Pakistan but for the murder of a political opponent.

To be continued….>>>

- Asian Tribune -

Bangladesh – A Nation Divided? – Part 5
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