Some Reflections on 1971:A Different Perspective

Even a school child in today’s Pakistan condemns the army, General Yahya and Mr Bhutto for  the 1971 fiasco. This has become fashionable. The recent declassification of the Hamood ur Rahman Commission Report has added fuel to fire.
This brief article is an attempt to see things in a different perspective. It is neither a defence of the army nor of any individual but an attempt to see things as they were.
Pakistan as it was till 1971 was not  a geographically coherent state. Its defence was the strategist’s nightmare. Even drafting its constitution keeping in view its ethnic and cultural makeup was a politician’s nightmare! The politicians of the first decade must, however, be commended for creating a constitution in 1956! This constitution was, however, not allowed to be implemented by the civil-military clique who took power in 1958. Once the Ayub dictatorship  finally overthrown in 1969 the army once again was forced to set the house in order. No one in today’s Pakistan realizes that the Army under General Yahya successfully held the first general election of Pakistan in just one year while Pakistan’s first elected prime minister had failed to do the same in four years!
The alienation of East Pakistanis was not a suddenly mechanical knee jerk reaction that started with the enforcement of Pakistan’s second martial law in 1969. It started right from 1948 over the language question and successively intensified after the army under Generals Iskandar Mirza and Ayub usurped power in 1958. The process gained the momentum of an invincible avalanche by 1971.
Even dispassionate observers agree that in 1971 the East Pakistanis wanted complete autonomy and adoption of the Six Point Programme of Sheikh Mujeeb which would have led in any case to Pakistan’s political disintegration. It was in these circumstances that the Pakistan Army intervened in March 1971. Even a hostile observer like an Indian military historian admitted that ‘Mujib’s Six Points would have meant a virtual dismemberment of Pakistan’.1
General Yahya who led Pakistan in the dual capacity of political and military chief had three broad options after the bloody military crackdown in East Pakistan in March-April 1971; i.e (1) arrive at a political compromise with the East Pakistani political leadership (2)  start a pre-emptive war by attacking India in response to Indian active military aid to the Bengali rebels before the Himalayan snowfall blocked the passes thus closing any chances of Chinese intervention (3)  merely save West Pakistan.
Yahya attempted  to do the first but failed because of various reasons including determined Indian attempts to sabotage any attempt at arriving at a political settlement, delayed initiation of the process of political rapprochement and bitter feelings created in the East Wing as a result of excesses committed by the army.
The second option was not exercised since the US leadership lulled Yahya into a false sense of security into thinking that India would not start an all out war. Pakistan’s only sincere friend and ally China warned Pakistan and repeatedly asked its leadership to arrive at a political solution.
It will be worthwhile to quote an Indian military observer at this point. Brigadier Jagdev Singh thus wrote ‘Yahya showed a good sense in taking decisions and his command decisions were generally well deliberated upon and sound. He had been thrown into a rotten situation which had come into being the day Pakistan with its two wings was born; it was a  totally unnatural alliance..but Yahya faced the situation with tact and intelligence, and made a damn good try to keep the Eastern Wing within Pakistan’.2
In Pakistan the military crackdown of March 1971 is much criticized. Even an Indian admitted that ‘the only course open was to hold on to the military rule and restore the law and order, if necessary by force’.3
Once the war finally started in 1971 Yahya had two options. Start a counter-offensive from day one in an attempt to reduce Indian pressure against East Pakistan or to save West Pakistan from being overrun by the Indians in phase two after the Indians had captured East Pakistan.
The main criticism against Yahya has been that he did not start a counter offensive  immediately after the war started. First of all we will discuss why this may have happened and what would have happened in case Pakistan had started an all out offensive from day one on the Western Front.
All Indian accounts  prove that by November 1971 the Indian Army opposite West Pakistan was well poised to meet any Pakistani attack on the Western Front. Had Pakistan’s main strike force the 1st Armoured Division been launched it could not have gone beyond ten or twenty miles since the Indian 1st Armoured Division was concentrated opposite it in Muktesar-Ganganagar area. Thus an attack by the 1st Armoured Division would not have relieved the Indian pressure on the Eastern Front and Eastern Command’s chances of surviving as a credible military entity were bleak.
The Indians were well prepared to meet Pakistan’s Northern Strategic Reserve i.e the 6 Armoured Division/17 Division in the Shakargarh Bulge and any attack by this formation could not have possibly influenced the war in the Eastern Theatre.
Later the Pakistani High Command was much criticized for having been led by drunkards who did not launch an offensive in 1971. If we keep the above background in mind any sane and dispassionate reader would agree that it was not the question of being drunk or not drunk but a simple strategic reality that a counter-offensive launched by Pakistan Army in December 1971 could not have saved the Eastern Commander from the ignominy of surrender.
Long ago Carl Von Clausewitz beautifully summed up Yahya Khan’s dilemma once he said ‘There are two considerations which as motives may practically take the place of inability to continue the contest. The first is the improbable, the second is the excessive price of success’! 4
Did Pakistan Army had the ability to continue an unnecessary contest defending an area whose people were irrevocably alienated. The price of success which was impossible in any case in December 1971 was excessive! It later became fashionable in Pakistan with the benefit of hindsight to criticize Yahya alone as the principal culprit of 1971.
It goes to Pakistan Army’s credit that they saved West Pakistan without committing its strategic reserves ! Today this fact is not understood at all! If the Bengalis got their independence in 1971, the West Pakistani Muslims were saved from Indian slavery through the ceasefire of 1971! Today with a nuclear capability the Indians will have to think 1000 times before attacking Pakistan! Today we forget that by swallowing the bitter pill of defeat in 1971 our elders saved us to be able to fight in a better manner in future !
The men who died in 1971 gave their lives so that the future generations may have a better tomorrow. The Hamood ur Rahman Commission Report was unfortunately drafted with the help of some retired military windbags who could do anything for a ‘crate of Whiskey’!
 Bhutto or Yahya were no angels but so was Mujeeb! These men, all of them acted rightly in their own manner, none was an angel as I earlier said but none was great a villain as he is today made out to be. Yahya is still remembered by those officers and soldiers who saw him. Mujeeb, whatever we may say was the founder of a nation. Bhutto whatever anyone may say was a great man who did many things which made Pakistan stronger than it was in 1971!
What more can I say but repeat that excellent verse ‘Never set a squadron in the field, nor knew the division of battle, more than a spinster’!
1Page-44- Dismemberment of Pakistan-1971-Indo Pak War- Brigadier Jagdev Singh-Lancer International – New Delhi-1988.
2 Ibid.
4Page-125-On War- Carl Von Clausewitz-Edited by Anatol Rapport-Penguin Books -London-1974-Reprinted by National Book Foundation and distributed in the Pakistan Army during Mr Bhutto’s Prime Ministership by the National Book Foundation in all units/libraries  of Pakistan Army in 1975-76.

February 2001

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