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The Rediff Interview/Lt Gen A A Khan Niazi
February 02, 2004
After a series of stunning advances in December 1971, Indian forces routed Pakistan and liberated Bangladesh in less than two weeks. It was one of India's swiftest and most brilliant military campaigns that not only dismembered Pakistan, but became a lasting cause of humiliation for that country.
Triggered by the civil war in Pakistan -- pitting the West Pakistan army against the large Bengali-speaking East Pakistanis demanding greater autonomy -- India was swamped with 10 million Bengali refugees fleeing the crackdown in the east. Tensions reached a flashpoint when Pakistan President Yahya Khan ordered the attack on Indian air bases in Jammu and Punjab. In response, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared war at midnight, December 3.
Thirteen days later, Pakistani troops under Lieutenant General Ameer Abdullah Khan Niazi, surrendered. In charge of Pakistan's Eastern Command, General Niazi was blamed for the defeat and was removed from the army in 1975. Though the Hamoodur Rehman Inquiry Commission set up in Pakistan after the war -- parts of the report were officially released in 2001 -- had recommended his court-martial, General Niazi did not face a trial.
Three decades later, the 86-year-old and ailing General Niazi volunteered to face a court-martial to prove his innocence.
Born in 1915 in Balo-Khel, a village near Mianwali in the Punjab province of then India, General Niazi received 24 medals during his military service. He held various command positions: 5 Punjab during the 1965 war against India, 14 Para Brigade during operations in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Sialkot, and martial law administrator of Karachi and Lahore.
General Niazi, who passed away on Monday, spoke to India Abroad -- the largest circulated Indian-American newspaper, which is owned by rediff.com -- in December 2001. A rare interview conducted by Amir Mir.
The release of the Hamoodur Commission report has generated a fresh debate, with the public endorsing the recommendation for action against those army officers responsible for the 1971 debacle. How do you react?
I agree with the general public's demand that those responsible for the East Pakistan crisis, especially the uniformed ones, should have been punished. Having returned to Pakistan after the debacle, I volunteered to face court-martial proceedings. But my offer was denied by the then army chief, Tikka Khan. He did not want the Pandora's Box to be reopened. Any such action could have exposed the general headquarters' inept conduct of war and Tikka's role as army reserve commander. As a matter of fact, we were denied the right to self-defense before the Hamoodur Rehman Commission, which would not have been denied in a court-martial.
Under the Pakistan Army Act, you can cross-examine and call a witness in your support, especially when your character and reputation are at stake. Since such an opportunity would have exposed the GHQ's own weaknesses, we were never court-martialed. Even otherwise, had there been a court-martial, I would have been exonerated quite easily. The commission had agreed with my contention that the orders for surrender were given to me by President Agha Yahya Khan.
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You say the commission had agreed with your contention that the surrender orders were given by President Yahya Khan. But the report released by the Musharraf regime holds you and a few other generals responsible for the debacle.
If I was responsible for such a big tragedy, why was I not court-martialed, although Tikka was out to damage me? Being the army chief, Tikka cancelled two squares of borderland allotted to me in Kasur. In his January 1991 statement published in an English daily, Tikka had stated: 'We even did not find any potential material against Lt Gen A A K Niazi, who surrendered to the Indian Commander, Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora, because he had permission to surrender from Yahya Khan. But we did not take him back in the army and through an administrative action, retired him with normal benefits.'
You mean to say then President Yahya Khan was solely responsible for the fall of Dhaka and you were just following his orders?
No. Besides Yahya Khan, there were a few more personalities equally responsible for the East Pakistan crisis who have not been blamed in the report. The commission did not unravel the whole truth about various personalities and factors, which fuelled the separatist movement in East Pakistan and caused the final break-up of Jinnah's united Pakistan.
The report concludes there was no order to surrender. However, 'in view of the desperate picture' painted by you [being the commander of the Eastern Command], the higher authorities only gave you a consent to surrender, and that too, only if necessary. The report says that you could have disobeyed such an order if you thought you could defend Dhaka.
I swear on oath that I was given clear-cut orders from Yahya to surrender, but still I was determined to fight till the end. I even sent a message that my decision to fight till the end stands. However, General Abdul Hamid Khan and Air Chief Marshal Rahim rang me up, ordering me to act on the GHQ signal of December 14, 1971 because West Pakistan was in danger. It was at this stage that I was asked to agree on a cease-fire so that the safety of the troops could be ensured.
However, I still believe that had a counter-offensive been launched by the Pakistan Army Reserves, composed of two armored and three infantry divisions, Pakistan would have remained united and the war results would have been much different.
What do you say about the commission's findings that your troops in East Pakistan indulged in loot, arson, rape and killings?
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.
However, despite repeated warnings and instructions, the respective commanders failed to curb this alarming state of indiscipline. And this trend definitely undermined our troops' battle efficiency.
How do you justify your failure as a military commander and do you accept responsibility for the Pakistan army's humiliating surrender in East Pakistan?
Our 45,000 troops were fighting against half a million Indian troops, lakhs of Mukti Bahinis (Bengali freedom fighters supported by India) and a hostile Bengali population. I actually needed around 300,000 troops to simply combat insurgency. By that time, we were already cut from the base but still fighting without any respite.
If Hamood thought we were on a picnic, he should have joined us. Let me make it clear that the army fought bravely under my command in East Pakistan. However, it was an unabated power struggle, which finally led to the 1971 debacle, especially when the barrel of the gun blocked the transfer of power.
The 1971 imbroglio was the outcome of an unabated struggle for power between Yahya, Mujib (founder of the Awami League, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman) and Bhutto (former Pakistan prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto). Yahya wanted to retain power while Bhutto wanted to attain it. This was despite the fact that Sheikh Mujib's Awami League had emerged victorious and he should have been handed over the government. Bhutto's fiery speeches were not mere rhetoric, but the actions of a desperate man vying for power at any cost. Had power been transferred to Mujib, Pakistan would have remained united. However, it is pity that the commission absolved Bhutto of any blame.
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The commission recommended that a coterie of generals be publicly tried for the 1971 debacle. However, General Tikka, Sahibzada Yaqoob Ali Khan (former commander of Eastern Command) and Rao Farman Ali (advisor to Niazi) were exonerated. Were they were innocent?
I don't agree with the commission's act of exonerating these three. It is surprising that no responsibility for the break-up of Pakistan has been apportioned to Tikka, Yaqoob and Farman. In fact, Yaqoob's inaction as commander of the eastern command resulted in aggravating the situation in East Pakistan. Having messed up everything, Yaqoob deemed it fit to desert his post and resign, while taking cover behind his conscience. He should have been sent to the gallows for betraying the nation. Yahya demoted him. However, Bhutto restored his rank and sent him as ambassador to the USA. What a prize for desertion!
The Hamoodur Commission exculpated him, thus paving ground for officers to resign instead of fighting out the enemy, whenever a difficult situation develops. Similarly, Tikka has not been mentioned in the report, although his barbaric action of March 25 earned him the name of butcher. The commission overlooked his heinous crimes.
As far as Rao Farman is concerned, he was in-charge of the Dhaka operations.
Why didn't the Bhutto government make the Hamoodur Report public?
Bhutto was afraid of making it public given the fact that he was equally responsible for the circumstances that finally led to the dismemberment of Pakistan. A sub-committee of seven Bhutto aides was permitted to have a glance at the report. The committee recommended that the report should not be made public. Bhutto later used his powers to modify 34 pages of the report.
You insist that the Hamoodur Report is faulty, partial and influenced by Bhutto. On the other hand, no one in the corridors of power seems ready to court-martial the generals responsible for the Dhaka debacle. With this in mind, do you have any solid suggestion to bring the culprits to task?
To find out the truth about the 1971 debacle and punish the guilty, it is essential to appoint a new commission with wider terms of reference. This exercise should be presided over by the chief of army staff. Two syndicates should take part.
It would be a very interesting exercise, with many useful lessons to be learned. A military exercise should also be held to find out how and why the small, tired and ill-equipped eastern garrison completed all the given tasks under the worst possible conditions against overwhelming odds, and why the western garrison, with enough forces and resources and having the initiative, failed and lost 5,500 square miles of territory in less than 10 days under conducive conditions.
After my return to Pakistan from Indian captivity in 1974, while preparing my report on the East Pakistan debacle, I heard persistent hints from GHQ sources that the Eastern Command had been sacrificed according to a detailed plan, and that its senior commanders were made the scapegoats for the loss of East Pakistan. My initial doubts turned into conviction when, over the years, I pondered over this episode and discussed it with people who knew that the GHQ Eastern Command had been deliberately cheated, tricked and misled as part of a grave conspiracy by the high command.
In fact it was so obvious that even the Indian Major General Shah Beg Singh told me, "Your goose is cooked, sir. They have decided to put the whole blame on you and your command for this episode." I am therefore convinced that the fall of East Pakistan was deliberately engineered.
Can you substantiate your contention that the East Pakistan debacle was deliberately engineered?
Yahya and Bhutto viewed Mujib's victory in the 1970 election with distaste, because it meant that Yahya had to vacate the presidency and Bhutto had to sit in the Opposition benches, which was contrary to his aspirations. So these two got together and hatched a plan in Larkana, Bhutto's hometown, which came to be known as the Larkana Conspiracy. The plan was to postpone the session of the National Assembly indefinitely, and to block the transfer of power to the Awami League by diplomacy, threats, intrigues and the use of military force.
Connected to this conspiracy was the 'M M Ahmed plan', which aimed at allowing Yahya and Bhutto to continue as president and prime minister, besides leaving East Pakistan without a successor government. After the announcement of the date of the assembly session (to be held at Dhaka), there was pressure on the politicians to boycott it. The reason given was that East Pakistan had become a hub of international intrigue, therefore, it should be discarded.
In the end, this clique achieved its aim.
Don't you think that the time has come for India and Pakistan to shun their differences and enter into a peace dialogue for the betterment of the masses?
We should never trust India. Successive Indian governments have never reconciled to the idea of a strong Pakistan and have always tried to weaken our country. Previous records show that India has always damaged Pakistan. Whenever they get a chance in future, they would never spare Pakistan. Even now in Kashmir, India has more than hundreds of thousands of troops, killing innocent Muslims in the name of fighting militants.
Even otherwise, Pakistan cannot enter into a peace dialogue with India until and unless the latter gives a commitment to resolve the Kashmir dispute in accordance with United Nations resolutions.
If given a chance, would you like to play a role in the ongoing diplomatic efforts for a peaceful settlement of the Kashmir dispute?
No. I would rather prefer to be even with India. Though I am too old to fight now, I am still ready to command Pakistani troops in Jammu and Kashmir to fight Indian troops.
Design: Uttam Ghosh