Dhaka Debacle: ‘War is Too Serious a Business to Be Left to the Generals’

IRSHAD SALIM: A clear and imminent military defeat was inevitable and unavoidable; any military mind knew it then, and would know this now –looking at things on hindsight:

Still, the military bogged down in the unfriendly lush green battlefields of former East Pakistan, put up indeed a fight wherever it could against all odds and in order to show & tell Z A Bhutto’s “Thank God Pakistan is Saved” narrative. It took hits after hits until –to paraphrase the defeat, “fell on its sword”. Bhutto’s one-liner, in my view, had actually meant “Thank God West Pakistan is Saved” –he was vying to become the Prime Minister (of united Pakistan); that’s what the perception was, despite having lesser number of votes than Mujib of East Pakistan in the National Assembly. Mujib led the pack with two-thirds, but faced unfriendly negotiations post-elections, and subsequently faced headwinds due to Bhutto-led pack backed by politicos’ chicanery. And for Gen. Yahya? He and the media gave the impression that he was in-charge. In fact, Yahya was not. In the political developments that were happening then, “he’s a sleeper”, someone important in former East Pakistan’s Dhaka told my Dad (who lived in Khulna) in mid-March 1971.

Things started to appear surreal after mid-March. I was back home from the school in Jhenidah (near Jessore) on March 11 –having not realized that it was the last time I would be seeing my batch mates until decades later progressively and around the globe, specially USA.

On March 25th or 26th, Mujib’s brother Shaikh Nasir stopped by at my Dad’s residence and I overheard him saying, “We don’t want independence…we want justice, not war…please tell Pagriwalas (West Pakistani politicos) that Lungiwalas (East Pakistani politicos) are brothers…we are in fact their elder brothers…we are in majority in numbers and also in the Assembly.”

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Dad looked helpless, Nasir appeared optimistic. Over the months, the crackdown developed into a low intensity kinetic op and then mushroomed into a war.

Headwinds faced by Mujib ironically turned out to be tailwinds for Bhutto. He became the “undisputed” leader of a truncated Pakistan. Some I’ve talked to over the five decades have called Bhutto moves diabolical –I don’t agree though, and still admire him as a visionary notwithstanding his urgent need then to grab power –it was backed by his tribal-cum-political stalwarts (aka electables) that he had gathered around him from Punjab and Sindh. Dr. Mubashar Hasan said, “We did not understand what was happening” (Hamay Samajh Me Nahi Aya Kya Ho Raha Hai). I agreed with him as I put up the question during his visit to Washington in the early 2000s.

Post-debacle, Bhutto became the Chief Martial Law Administrator (traditionally a position taken by a General ) –he ousted Gen. Yahya, later became the President and then the PM of ‘saved’ Pakistan having majority in the truncated West Pakistan. And majority-holder Mujib of East Pakistan waited his fate, incarcerated in jail somewhere in West Pakistan, now in ‘saved’Pakistan. He was clueless what happened, and what was happening.

Raindrops had fallen on many heads!

To quote Winston Churchill, War is indeed too serious a business to be left to the Generals. Churchill –a shrewd, witty and astute politician had said so as the World War II played havoc with lives and boundaries of communities and nations.

Bhutto’s “Thank God Pakistan is Saved” narrative as he returned from Dhaka, and the crackdown begun late evening of March 25, 1971 in former East Pakistan was meant to say goodbye to the elder brother. Surely, he could not/did not say so without nod by the electables (from Punjab & Sindh) he had gathered around him to claim majority in the Assembly. Silence of traditional and political families was another consent (Silence is Consent -Pluto) Bhutto balmed his moves with.

At the end of the day, there were more grim reapers than happy campers. Majoritism took a new meaning, democratic principles swirled like a coin spinning on the floor.

So, I was first confused when poet Nasir Turabi’s poem on the Dhaka Fall generally gave the impression to many in ‘saved Pakistan’ that East Pakistan was Humsafar but NOT Humnawa. In my view, East Pakistan was both to West Pakistan. Indeed, West Pakistan did not have Humnawee with East Pakistan. Turabi Sahib’s poetry actually drives this home and many are now tending to realize so. Majority East Pakistan, a first in history, said goodbye to its minority part West Pakistan, and renamed itself as Bangladesh. Rest is real history which still remains closeted. I’ve italicized ‘real as “history is full of lies”, Napoleon had said. It’s written by the victors and institutionalized with and for the ‘selective memory’ for all to move on. Rest get stranded!

“A ghazal written by Nasir Turabi after listening to the news of fall of Dhaka on 16 December 1971. Listen, will touch your heart,” said Shahid Sahib (co-founder of Back2School Forum) as he WhatsApped me. It always did to me and to many, after the fall and to-date. There was no going back for me and my family which had moved to Karachi hoping that things would gradually turn out to be okay, and that sense & sensibility would prevail.

Turabi Sahib’s poem, decades later, became a hit as the title song in popular Humsafar TV Serial. Both the song and the Serial raked in lots of dollars and cents (revenues) and the title song became the household humming bird’s tweet –most don’t know that what the tweet was and is all about!:

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