An informal account by Air Marshal Inam-ul-Haque Khan (Retd), HJ, Former Air Officer Commanding East Pakistan
President Yahya Khan held fair and free elections in December, 1970 in which Awami League of Shaikh Mujibur Rahman won a majority largely due to his Six-Point manifesto. National Assembly was to hold its first session in Dacca on 2nd March, 1971. It was, however, sabotaged by vested interests of West Pakistani establishment and some leading politicians, who were not willing to accept a Bengali-led government. Postponement of National Assembly strengthened the secessionist movement in East Pakistan, duly supported by India. Violent civil disobedience ensued through out East Pakistan immediately, resulting in casualties including death of students in a Dacca hostel due to shelling. Army was forced to retreat to cantonments for avoiding bloodshed. The situation was bad demanding careful and intelligent handling. After about a week, when the disobedience had simmered down, Yahya and advisors reached Dacca and held final talks with Mujib on around 20th March for a couple of days. It was then agreed that Yahya will retain the Presidency and, honouring the outcome of election, he will transfer power to Mujib. Yahya, vacillating as ever, swayed by the ill-advice of leading politicians of West Pakistan and his own military junta, to ‘sort out these bloody Bengalis’, resorted to use force in starting on 25th March, 1971, instead of implementing political solution as reached with Awami League – a complete betrayal of trust.
After the war, the Government of Pakistan established a Commission headed by Chief Justice of Supreme Court of Pakistan Mr Hamood-ur-Rahman with just and truly needed Terms of Reference to look into political, economic, social, administrative, bureaucratic, military, etc, causes and factors which led to the debacle. Later, the government of the day and civil establishment, apprehending incrimination, restricted the Terms of Reference and confined these to only the military factors, thus making armed forces the scapegoat for all the misdeeds of past and present rulers, political leaders and the establishment. Hamood-ur-Rahman Commission (HRC) gave their verdict on East Pakistan debacle in 1974, but the report was never shown to us who underwent interrogation. Some years ago, “Declassified portions of HRC report – text 28” published by DAWN on February 4, 2001 dealing with the role of PN and PAF, which came to my notice recently. A few statements therein needed clarification. In this saga, inter alia, I have given the rationale of some of our actions which fell short of HRC approval.
On 30th March, 1971 when I was posted to GHQ as Director Joint Warfare and concurrently, as the first PAF Directing Staff of National Defence College, I was asked at midday to report immediately to the C-in-C PAF, Air Marshal A Rahim Khan, at Peshawar. An aircraft was provided which promptly flew me there. The C-in-C gave me a letter addressed to Air Commodore M Z Masud (though known as Mitty Masud but I will call him MZ), Air Officer Commanding, East Pakistan and Base Commander Dacca, asking him to hand over both commands to me immediately as he (MZ) was not in favour of military action and was seen to be not fully cooperating with the Army. This was evidently told to Rahim Khan by the Generals returning from Dacca.
I returned to Rawalpindi and left by the evening, reaching Dacca next morning by PIA routed via Colombo. Immediately, I went to MZ’s office and performed the most painful and unpleasant task of handing over the C-in-C’s letter. ‘Painful and unpleasant’ because MZ was and probably, has been, the most brilliant planner and professional commander ever produced by PAF, who very ably led the air battle from Sargodha in 1965 War. I had the highest regards and respect for him.
Needless to say that he was shocked and surprised at this unexpected order. MZ had given a presentation to Yahya and others on 16th March, a copy of which he had sent to Rahim Khan for approval, prior to the presentation. The conclusion was that military action was not the proper solution to the crisis in East Pakistan. Rahim Khan fully approved the draft and the presentation was made. Yahya made some ambiguous remarks at the end. General Rao Farman, on coming out of hall, said to MZ, “You have said what we could not say.”
According to MZ, when the civil disobedience started early in the month, according to orders, all Bengalis were removed from vital installations and West Pakistanis, mostly aircraft technicians were put on guard duties. A day or two after military action, General Tikka Khan rang up MZ shortly before sunset and asked for air support for a besieged army unit. MZ replied that all his technicians were on guard duties and it would take him a while to collect them and have the aircraft prepared. He said that it would be dark by then and air support not possible that night, but from next dawn onwards, the army could have all the air support needed. To this Tikka retorted “Masud, I know that PAF can launch fighters within a couple of minutes. You are dragging your feet and not co-operating since you have been against the military action to start with.” MZ attempted to explain how scrambles within a few minutes are done when pilots and ground crew are ready on standby duties. This technicality was, however, beyond the comprehension of General Tikka.
I must hasten to add that Tikka Khan was a kind-hearted gentleman, most concerned about the welfare of troops. Far from being a ‘butcher of Bangladesh’, he applied minimum of force in operations and insisted on causing a minimum of collateral casualties – quite contrary to policy of his successor. Only once I saw him losing his cool when, during an evening meeting, he was insisting upon securing the bridge and the radio station in downtown Sylhet. This was opposed by all the four or five Generals present, who wanted limited troops there to secure the airfield where the reinforcement could be flown in. This peeved Tikka Khan.
Normally for intercepting enemy air raids before they reach the target, early warning is needed to scramble (launch) interceptors which are on standby. For high altitude raids, normal radars with long range coverage provide this vital information. But in our environment, attackers fly mostly at low altitude. Till then, the PAF had not been able to acquire any mobile low level radar system. The old WW2 method of early warning was, therefore adopted. In UK, retired military personnel living along the eastern coast were enrolled to do the job. They were given basic aircraft recognition and familiarization training, provided with phone and/or RT, binoculars etc. Their sole job was to inform the Air Defence Centre about any aircraft intruding into own airspace flying at low level. Extra information as to approximate number of raiders, type or name of fighter or bomber, direction of their flight, etc was a bonus. In Pakistan we did not have such civilian personnel available along the border. Hence Mobile Observers Units (MOUs), comprising of a jeep manned by three active servicemen, trained similarly as UK observers, for reporting intruder/s at low level to Control Sector, were established. A string of these Units was deployed just inside our border, about five miles apart from each other. In West Pakistan, as a longer run-in had to be made by intruders for most of our targets, a second string of MOUs was deployed about 25 miles behind the first string. Report from the first string, followed by a report from the second enabled the Control Centre to compute and determine the intended target and the Estimated Time of Arrival (ETA) of attacker over target. This gave time to Bases to scramble interceptors and engage the enemy before they reached the target. In 1965, at dawn on 6th September, it was, in fact, one of such MOUs which first observed and reported Indian tanks rolling towards Lahore for a surprise attack.
East Pakistan had 1,400 miles of border, but we had only a limited number of MOUs. The Units were deployed five miles apart and close to the border towards north and east of Dacca, these being the likely approaches of low level raiders. When the civil disobedience started early March and insurgency commenced in earnest, Mukti Bahini started killing our vulnerable soldiers and other West Pakistanis, in cities and around cantonments, wherever they could lay their hands on them. MOUs being dispersed in hostile surroundings were, thus, sitting ducks for the insurgents. MZ ordered their withdrawal back to Dacca. Only a few could return, while others were massacred as happened in Mymensingh Sector. There, Flight Lieutenant Safi Mustafa, an able pilot and good professional (and newly married), was the MOU Squadron Commander. He collected his troops (about 20 or so in number) but they were overwhelmed by large number of Mukti Bahini. They arrested the MOU personnel and put them in an underground cell of the Civil Jail at Mymensingh. When the military action started on 26th March, all these helpless men were massacred in cold blood, becoming victim of hatred of Bengalis towards the West Pakistanis. I visited the Jail later and found etching and writing, etc on the walls. It was a very moving experience, even when recollected today. I called the Superintendent of the Jail to my office. He cried and said that Mukti Bahini outnumbered his staff and he was helpless in saving the MOU personnel. At the end he said something very odd: “Hindu blood still runs in our veins”.
Initially, for high level raids we had a Russian P-35 radar with a height finder but it was withdrawn to West Pakistan in October to improve radar coverage there. After all, the war strategy clearly articulated: ”Defence of East Pakistan lay in West Pakistan.” This left us with only fixed low level radar, well-sited near Dacca at Mirpur, with excellent foliage camouflage. Indian Air Force could never locate it. This radar could see up to only 20 to 25 miles – thus providing just over three minutes warning of an approaching fighter bomber at 420 knots. As for the height of attacker, in the absence of a height-finder radar, we assumed that they would come at low level, which they luckily did, thus enabling our fighters to spot them.
The share of East Pakistan was only one F-86E (Canadair CL-13 Sabre Mk-6) Squadron of 12 aircraft with same number of pilots, though the Unit Establishment was for 16 aircraft. Bengalis had been taken off from flying duties. There was however one Bengali pilot in the Squadron whose background was known to me at Peshawar, when he was undergoing fighter conversion and I was the Base Commander. I was shocked to learn from him that he got his education in Shillong, India. Since there was no Cadet College in East Pakistan, most Bengali youth went to Shillong or Darjeeling for good education. Taking a calculated risk I cleared him to fly combat missions which he did admirably. Accompanying other pilots he came to Pakistan where he rose to the rank of Air Vice Marshal, including a tenure as Air Attaché in UK.
Army on Shaky Grounds
On assuming command on 31 March, 1971, I provided all the air support asked by Pak Army, which was pivotal in achieving success in most operations. Pak Army was fully satisfied with the air support and no complaint was ever heard (except for the very first one on start of military action late in the evening on 26th March, 1971). An example of how effective we were, is that of the highly successful army operations at Feni, north of Chittagong, which were possible with full air support. During this period of early April 1971, Army units kept on pouring in from West Pakistan by PIA, flying around Sri Lanka. PIA Boeings were faster and had a quick turn around. These troops arriving Dacca had only their rifles with them, leaving behind weapons such as machine guns, mortars, etc. They had no training, whatsoever, in jungle or guerilla warfare. They were ill-dressed for the terrain of East Pakistan. Instead of gum boots or ammunition shoes, they had only the cheap brown Bata canvas shoes, which might have been suitable for PT but not for jungle warfare. They had only light parkas to protect them from incessant rain. One had to see the gear of Indian soldiers, what with gumboots, proper leather shoes, rain-coats, etc. We felt sorry for the plight of our soldiers. On reaching Dacca, they were immediately rushed to far-flung posts strung along the border, in a strange, hostile environment. Another major contrast between Pakistani and Indian soldiers were the educational disparity. All Indian soldiers could read and write Hindustani, while some of the NCOs were fluent in English. On the other hand, some of our havildars were without the ability to read even Urdu.
The situation in East Pakistan remained adrift throughout summer, with minor skirmishes with Mukti Bahini, and a few cases of bombing/blasting railway line, bridges, etc. PAF continued with air support and rescuing troops whenever they were in a fix. A PAF C-130 transport airplane stayed in Dacca for the first two months, rushing troops where ever needed in an emergency, operating most professionally from remote strips.
GOC, Eastern Command, General Niazi remained busy telling dirty jokes to any and every one coming his way. He once visited our standby hut at Dacca airfield from where interceptors are launched at short notice. Seeing the GOC, aircraft technicians assembled around him. Without appreciating the propriety of the occasion or discipline of PAF, he embarrassed me by relating a very filthy joke to airmen. His conduct and deportment, leaving aside his professional acumen, was not very complimentary to the promotion system of the Army.
Pak Army continued the defence of fixed posts all along the border till the very end. The GHQ in Rawalpindi was giving false hopes to our Eastern elements and, we constantly heard of silly reports of ‘reinforcements by Yellows from North and Whites from South (aircraft carrier)’. War Orders for forces in East Pakistan had clearly stipulated gradual retreat to Dacca Bowl on opening of hostilities. This was totally ignored, which might have helped a better outcome, as will be shown later. This policy of holding onto the posts along the border resulted in considerable casualties to our troops.
In 1971, during my couple of visits to West Pakistan, it was shocking to see a life of fun and frolic at parties, totally oblivious of the war-like situation of their brotherly Wing. The adage that ‘a General has to feel the heat of battle for proper decisions’ was meaningless, given the distance between the two wings which was warping a correct appreciation of the situation and thereby, decisions. This distance of 1,000 miles across India was further multiplied three times due to via-Colombo routing after over flights had been denied by India, following a self-staged hijacking of an Indian Airlines aircraft.
By third week of April, Mukti Bahini insurgency was almost routed, providing an opportunity to resolve the issue politically – the only method to keep Pakistan intact, to some extent. In the third week a high level delegation visited Peking. On return they stopped at Dacca. Our Foreign Secretary Mr Sultan Muhammad Khan was a member of this team. I knew him from China where he was our Ambassador in 1966-68 and I was the Air Attaché. I met and told him that a breather is available for serious resolution of the issue. He replied “Bhai wahan (meaning Yahya and his coterie) to koi sunta he nahi aisi (logical) baat”.
The Government did appoint a helpless Governor Malik, without any authority; it was just a smoke screen for a political solution, a very difficult issue requiring hard decisions. The situation kept on drifting with no decisive act by Pakistan in sight. On the other hand, Indians were seriously preparing for war, along with full diplomatic propaganda about a large number of Bengali refugees in India, atrocities by Pak Army in East Pakistan etc. They were concurrently giving training, arming Mukti Bahini and launching military actions against us. With dry weather suitable for military offensive approaching in Bengal, Mrs Gandhi Prime Minister of India was itching and looking for an excuse to attack.
In November, a mission comprising of the Services Chiefs and led by Chairman PPP Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto visited Peking. The Foreign Secretary S M Khan, being an old China hand, was also a member of the team. On its return, the team briefed President Yahya Khan but excluded Sultan Muhammad Khan. In 1974, on my return to Pakistan from a POW Camp at Jubbulpur in India, I met S M Khan and asked him about the team’s visit to China just before the war. He related that Prime Minister Mr Chou En Lai met the team at dinner. According to Mr Khan, Mr Chou En Lai continued the whole night with his analysis of world opinion regarding the developing situation in the Sub-Continent, especially with respect to Indian aims. This meeting continued till the morning, when Mr Chou said he will discuss the matter with Chairman Mao Tse Tung and meet the team again at dinner. In the evening Mr Chou En Lai further elaborated all the related factors and, by morning he summed it up in a brief gist. Mr Chou, in his arguments and analysis, made some what of a pyramid of these from ground upwards, ending up at the apex with a concise plan of action. For our team it was: DO NOT PRECIPITATE WAR AS THE WORLD OPINION IS TURNING AGAINST INDIA. IF NECESSARY TRADE TERRITORY FOR TIME.
Being a civilized person, he formally added at the end, total friendship and support for people of Pakistan. The leader of Pakistani team offered no words of thanks or gratitude. Being an ex-China hand and seasoned diplomat, S M Khan took upon himself to thank the PM for his very apt and useful advice. Sooner they came out of meeting, Bhutto rebuked him for thanking the Prime Minister for advice, and said “Sultan, what do these Chinese know of Indo Pakistan affairs.” S M Khan said at once that he was not sure as to what message will be conveyed to Yahya Khan. When I enquired from S M Khan as to what message was actually conveyed to President Yahya from this last China trip, he said that he was not taken to the Presidency, but General Peerzada was present in the briefing to the President and I could ask him. This I did, who confirmed that Bhutto only conveyed general remarks of Mr Chou En Lai about friendship and support for people of Pakistan; the specific advice for not precipitating war was intentionally not conveyed. Clearly, the PPP leader had his own agenda, which he could not achieve in 1965.
PAF Braves it Out
On 21st November, 1971, a flight of our four F-86s was providing air support just west of Jessore, well within own territory, but without any radar cover which was not available there. They were intercepted by IAF Gnat aircraft, and two of our fighters were shot down. The pilots ejected safely but on landing they were handed over to Indians by unfriendly East Pakistanis. Flying over East Pakistan was as if you were over enemy territory. No directive or intimation about the imminent war was conveyed to us from Rawalpindi, though we were to bear the main brunt. Indians knew about it well before PAF’s pre-emptive dusk attack on IAF airfields adjacent to West Pakistan. An hour or so before sunset on 3rd December (that is at least two hours before sunset in West Pakistan) Captain Hanif, the PIA chief in Dacca, whom I knew from Risalpur when he was under training, came to see me in the Mess and said war is starting tonight. A PIA Boeing which was coming to Dacca, flying opposite Madras (now Chennai) and only an hour or so short of Dacca, was ordered by Karachi through Indian Flight Information Centre to return back to base. Eastern Command and rest of people learnt about it from 9 PM TV news.
As for PAF’s pre-emptive air strike on 3rd Dec, I learnt from Air Commodore Grewal, Director Air Intelligence IAF, who came to see me at Fort Williams, Calcutta, that PAF’s strike against seven IAF Bases caused only superficial damage. Had it concentrated against two or three bases only, IAF would have been in some trouble. Grewal also wondered as to how Air Commodore ‘Polly’ Shah, a transport pilot with whom he had undergone conversion on C-47 Dakota aircraft before partition in Mauripur, could have been Operations Chief in Air Headquarters. I gave some lame explanation.
IAF had ten Squadrons of Mig-21, Su-7 and Hunter aircraft deployed at bases around East Pakistan. Anticipating air raids without any MOU in operation, we would not get attack warning of more than 3 or 4 minutes from our low level radar. From dawn of 4th December 1971, No 14 Squadron started launching a pair F-86s every half hour, so as to maintain Combat Air Patrol (CAP), ready to respond to an oncoming raid instantly. As expected, the IAF raiders started early and flew in low. They were picked up by the CAPs and a number of them shot down. Some of attackers did manage to slip through to Dacca and Kurmitola despite our boosting the CAP effort to four aircraft at a time. CAPs are very demanding both for pilots and aircraft. After the pre-hostilites loss of one aircraft that went into a river due to vertigo of pilot, and two lost at Jessore in November, we were left with nine F-86s only. The pilot strength was about the same. Due to this paucity of both man and machine, the CAP effort reduced as the day progressed. On reaching Dacca airfield, the attackers encountered our Light Anti-Aircraft Artillery equipped with Chinese guns having a range of 7,000 feet. The attackers failed to destroy even a single fighter aircraft on the ground in pens. Our two helicopters, which were operating from playground of a school in domestic camp escaped enemy attention and both safely escaped to Burma on 16th morning. (I cannot ever forget the heart rending pleas made by PAF helicopter pilot Squadron Leader Masud and by my younger brother, then Major Riaz-ul-Haq Khan, an Mi-8 Captain, for accompanying and escaping with them, but that was out of question.) Air Marshal Rahim Khan also rang me up to advise me not to escape. I angrily asked the C-in-C as to what made him think that I was planning to escape, as I had no intention to leave my sub-ordinates in this critical situation.
There were, two PIA Twin Otter aircraft, which were hidden under the trees, no pen being large enough to hide them. On 4th December I was at Killer Control (a small platform perched above the tree line, equipped with R/T for a pilot to visually guide or warn own aircraft of the attacker behind him) when we saw an IAF Su-7 make a short firing pass on one of the Otters, barely 150 yards away from us. This was enough to destroy the soft-skinned passenger airplane. The Su-7 hurriedly lit the after-burner and zoomed away. We had planned to fly our fighter pilots out to Burma in the Twin Otters, if and when fighter operations become impossible, so that they could continue the war in West Pakistan. It was very lucky that the second Twin Otter survived.
On the third day around 11 AM, when all our fighters were down, IAF Mig-21s armed with bombs cratered the runway every two to three thousand feet. It made the runway totally unfit for F-86s to operate. These craters on the runway were about 20 feet deep and 50 feet wide, with volcano-like upward thrusting lips of runway slabs. Craters were deep due to time-delay fuses on these sleek bombs. Quick repairing of runway need large amounts of sand, with loading and dumping vehicles, cement slab cutting machines and quick-setting cement. None of the equipment and material was available; nor was repair time available due to frequent strikes by fighter-bombers, now orbiting safely at 10,000 feet beyond the AAA range with no interceptor to chase them. They would dive steeply along the runway for releasing bombs, exposing themselves to AAA for a very short time. Some raids inflicted casualties on the repairing teams which were doing whatever little they could, with all the handicaps. At the end of the third day of bombing, I inspected the big craters. Fully aware that Dacca runway would not be available for fighter operations any more during the war, I decided to fly the fighter pilots to Burma in PIA’s surviving Twin Otter. I saw eight or nine remaining pilots at dawn and could sense their sympathetic feelings on leaving me behind. The Twin Otter took off from a taxi track.
Our pilots and airmen connected with air operations did a magnificent job under some very adverse limitations and conditions, both during air support phase and later during combat phase against IAF from 3rd to 6th December, 1971. As for the pilots, I must mention our very brave Base Operations Officer, Wing Commander S M Ahmed who was not required to be on combat duty, but volunteered to participate. On second day that is on 5th December, 1971 he intercepted a formation of intruders about 10 miles north of Dacca. After targeting one attacker, he was bracketed by a pair of IAF fighters who shot him down. He was seen ejecting out and landing safely, as observed by a Pak Army Subedar. He then saw Wing Commander Ahmed swarmed by locals and some Mukti Bahini from nearby Tangail who took him way. We never got any further news about him; presumably he was tortured and later killed in cold blood. For us, as stated earlier, our own territory was akin to enemy country.
Indian Canberra bombers also kept on raiding frequently at night. Their bombing was hopeless, doing little damage to any important installation. A bomb fell not too far from my house, and close to the bungalow where Begum Khalida Zia was detained. A stray bomb, however, did land on our Officers’ Mess, the debris from which fell on many of the personnel in trenches. Squadron Leader Rabbani, the only Bengali officer loyal to Pakistan till the very end, died immediately. May Allah rest Rabbani in peace, Ameen. (He was one of my last students pilot at Risalpur in 1953. He later became a Navigator.) The following morning, I had gone to see an injured General officer at CMH. The place was cluttered with dead and injured, the air putrid all over. By chance I entered a room in which dead bodies were stacked and I was shocked to see our Senior Air Traffic Officer lying among the dead but breathing very feebly. His lungs were in a mess, being the result of previous night’s bombing on Officers’ Mess. On my pointing out, the medical staff worked on him and brought him back to life, literally.
It was a revelation for me to learn from the HRC Report about the Naval suggestion for our F-86s to be diverted from air defense duties during the war to search for the Indian aircraft carrier INS Vikrant in the vast Bay of Bengal. The idea was to sink it or at least cause some damage so as to boost our morale!
Navies employ multi-engine aircraft (such as the twin-engine French Atlantique or four-engine Lockheed P-3C Orion), having long endurance and fitted with radar and other detection devices to reconnoiter and locate enemy warships and submarines. Old fighters like the F-86, with hardly any maritime sensor and, with a short endurance, were not capable of carrying out the mission as suggested. I feel that the suggestion had overtones of a suicide mission, which I would have trashed, if it had been brought to my notice in Dacca. Hamood-ur-Rahman showed better understanding in dismissing such an operation as unfeasible, particularly when the mission would not have gone unintercepted by Vikrant’s Sea Hawk interceptors.
During the summer before the war, the Chinese Counsellor came to my office, emphasizing the need for a political solution rather than military. But the visit by IG Police, East Pakistan along with Commissioner Dacca during the war was strange to say the least. Knowing fully all the shortcomings, conditions and handicaps, they surprisingly said, “So Air Commodore ‘your army’ is incapable of defending the country.” This was most unbecoming of these high officials and I nearly threw them out. Later both, after foregoing their Pakistani citizenship, approached the UN representative for shelter in Hotel Pearl Continental (declared as neutral area), but the request was rejected, forcing them to stay in the Cantonment. Ironically, after the war one of them became Secretary Interior, Government of Pakistan!
The war lingered on with assurances of aid from North and South. The policy of fixed defence along the border was henceforth to continue, no retreat to Dacca Bowl, as stipulated in War Plan, was to be attempted officially. Diplomatic efforts were also being made in and outside UN with some solution like retaining both East and West Pakistan intact within a Confederation. It was not to the liking of the PPP leader, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who wished for a quick unconditional defeat in Dacca at the earliest. That is why the War Plan of retreating to Dacca Bowl was not allowed, as it may have prolonged the war and delayed surrender, allowing more time for a possible peaceful resolution, retaining the integrity of Pakistan. When detailed to lead the mission to UN, he took his own sweet time enroute, hoping for an early surrender in the mean time. In the Security Council he played the drama of scornfully tearing the notes pertaining to the only sensible Polish Resolution and walking out angrily. He had put up a similar drama in UN Security Council in 1965 when he dashed out after calling the Indian Foreign Minister Swaran Singh a dog. S M Khan, who was the High Commissioner in Canada at the time and was a member of the delegation, had to follow him. On getting out of the chamber he turned to S M Khan and said ‘dekha sain kaisi acting keeti hey’. This time in 1971 it was an encore. That walk-out ended all hopes of one Pakistan.
HRC considered that we should have destroyed the F-86s immediately after dispatch of the pilots to Burma. The reason for not destroying the aircraft earlier was that it was thought to be an easy task to dynamite aircraft and could be done any time. This we undertook on 15th December, after receiving surrender orders but were told not to cause explosions which might cause alarm and panic. Hence, hammers and crowbars, etc were used quite effectively. Bangladesh Air Force might have recovered some of the aircraft through cannibalization of others, but they were never made them operationally ready.
During preparations for the war, fighter aircraft pens were constructed at Dacca with wire mesh on top, covered with foliage. Taxi tracks leading to these pens were also camouflaged. Due to these measures not a single fighter aircraft was destroyed on the ground. The brunt of the repeated attacks was borne only by wooden dummy aircraft four each of which were placed at both ends of Dacca and Kurmitola runways, (although the latter runway was still under construction).
During the surrender ceremony in Ramna Maidan in Dacca City, Air Marshal Dewan, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, IAF Eastern Command met me. He first praised our performance under such an adverse environment. He then said that the IAF made a fool of themselves in continual attacks on dummies alone. He then enquired as to how come Pakistani military commanders in East Pakistan were not C-in-Cs and were being controlled by Rawalpindi? I replied that for all intent and purposes we considered ourselves independent.
Before 16th December, hardly any Bengali was visible anywhere, but from that morning onwards they started pouring in large numbers from nowhere onto the airfield, streets and were present in great number at this ceremony. Mukti Bahini were thrashing and killing non- Bengalis even during the ceremony while nearby Indian troops made no attempt to stop the carnage. A small group of Mukti Bahini approached and addressed me, ignoring the Indian Air Commodore (my escort) standing besides me, and said “thank you Sir for liberating us from the Pakistani barbarians”. When I replied that I am one of those barbarians, they got perplexed and slipped away.
For a couple of days after surrender, the Indian GOC of the formation investing Dacca allowed us to retain our arms, as the Mukti Bahini had started sniping at our personnel in our Camps. Our men retaliated and killed a few snipers. This could have flared into a serious problem, so I went to the Indian GOC for restraining the Mukti Bahini from provocative shooting. The Indian GOC was occupying the office of General Niazi, sitting on his chair while Niazi was sitting on one side and, without any remorse, telling jokes and laughing. On my request, the Indian GOC called in Brig Shabeg Singh and asked whether the Mukti Bahini could be restrained. Shabeg hurriedly consulted Tiger Siddiqui, (Commander, Tangail Mukti Bahini) who was standing in the veranda outside, and reported back that they would not be able to comply. The GOC then ordered Shabeg to accompany me to the Base, where the latter contacted the Officer Commanding of an Infantry Battalion to sort out the sniping. On reaching the office, the Battalion Commander was called in and assigned the task. During this period Shabeg Singh told me that he was in charge of Mukti Bahini training and organizing in Agartala Sector. He had made many trips into East Pakistan and Dacca prior to war. His last trip to Dacca was on 3rd December, masquerading as a rickshaw driver with his small beard flowing and balding head covered with a white maulvi cap. Shabeg Singh also offered me safe-keeping of any jewelry or fire arms that I may have had. I had none. As luck would have it, he was promoted and posted as GOC Jubbulpur where our camp was located. Later, after retirement, he became the Military Advisor to Sikh militant politician Jarnail Singh Bhindrawala. When Bhindrawala threw a challenge to the authority of Union Government, a strong-willed Mrs Gandhi ordered an attack on the sacred Golden Temple at Amritsar in 1984. Shabeg Singh who was killed by Indian troops during the attack.
On 15th December, while driving, I was stopped by a bearded, well-dressed gentleman who turned out to be the Chief Flying Instructor of Dacca Flying Club. He was famous for his flying prowess throughout India. He enquired of me whether it was true about the surrender. On my confirmation he tore at his beard and clothes and said what will happen to the Biharis now. His apprehensions turned out to be correct, as can be seen from the squalid conditions of camps where they have been living ever since, under very adverse conditions. Urdu-speaking Biharis never integrated with the Bengalis and retained their own language, culture and traditions. They always considered themselves as true Pakistanis which they proved by their loyalties till the end, incurring the wrath of locals. Biharis were relatively better educated than Bengalis, and were also technically qualified, thus running railways, telephone and telegraph and other technical services. They were, however, all along considered as traitors for their open support to West Pakistani troops and civilians. After the war, Biharis justifiably expected to be repatriated to Pakistan. Barring a handful, no Pakistan Government permitted their repatriation. This reprehensible treatment in disowning patriotic Pakistanis would remain a blemish on Pakistan.
The night 15/16th December, 1971 was traumatic and hectic to say the least. Army helicopters were flying out to Burma in the early hours. An injured General was also a passenger on one, without the knowledge of General Niazi who was annoyed by his departure. Niazi wanted all the six General officers to accompany him, a logic which is difficult to understand. There were three Pak Army Divisions in East Pakistan, hence only General Officers should, at best, have remained with him. Offering three additional trophies to the Indians was not called for.
On repatriation to Pakistan, I was told by none less than the Chief of Air Staff of PAF that the sole purpose of going to war was to extricate West Pakistanis safely across India, therefore no meaningful operation against India was undertaken. This was not understood or acceptable to highly patriotic and professionally outstanding officers such as Brigadier F B Ali or Group Captain A M Sikander who rightly blamed Yahya for the break up of Pakistan. Several of these officers were tried by General Court Martial (GCM) for engineering a conspiracy against the State. General Zia-ul-Haq, heading the Attock GCM appreciated the sensitivity of the situation correctly and awarded punishments to only a few. On the contrary, PAF overdid itself on the grounds of not tolerating indiscipline. It held a sadistic GCM at Badaber and awarded severe punishments to the cream of our small Air Force, the ill effects of which lasted for decades.
Mercifully, later the PAF did a better job of treating its repatriated POWs. It prematurely retired only once officer while most went on to continue their careers successfully. The Army POWs were, however shabbily treated, on grounds that they had been brain washed.
It is true that the seeds of hatred had been sown a long time ago. This hatred was nurtured over the years due to arrogant, callous, unjust, bigoted, short-sighted, and disdainful policies of the West Pakistani establishment and self-serving politicians. Seeds of such hatred were sown right in the beginning, when Urdu was declared the official language of Pakistan, ignoring the rich Bengali language and culture of the majority. In such a sorry milieu, it is not easy to vilify individuals, but the actions of three actors are far too obvious to be overlooked.
I had little respect for Shaikh Mujib since I met him once in Los Angeles in 1957 at a dinner in his honour given by two Lahori brothers who were students in University of Southern California. I too was attending a course in USC. He was then an important politician holding the post of Secretary General of Awami League under Mr Suhrawardy. During dinner I was expecting him to speak on national issues facing Pakistan, politics, current and international affairs etc, but I was shocked to hear him talk mostly about women. Shaikh Mujib was neither an intellectual nor a man of principles, he was simply a loud-mouthed rabble rouser. Hard core policies and decisions were made by the hardliner Tajuddin sitting in Calcutta, with his coterie. In the sixties, Mujib was fully involved in Agartala Conspiracy. He was declared innocent on the urging of some of our well meaning leaders so that he could attend a round table conference chaired by Ayub Khan, as he tried desperately to hold on to power. This action by Ayub made Mujeeb an overnight hero in the eyes of Bengalis who had doubts about his involvement in the conspiracy.
Yahya Khan blundered naively in permitting Sheikh Mujib of Awami League to fight election of Dec ‘70 on the basis of his notorious Six Point manifesto. However, Yahya should have accepted the outcome of elections once held fairly and legally. He blundered again by not ensuring holding of Assembly session on 2nd March at Dacca as planned, and handing over the government to the majority party, regardless. One thing is certain, Mujib once in power would NEVER have seceded from Pakistan for bringing about Bangladesh. Any one opposing holding of this session or instigating and threatening members who wished to attend, should have been arrested for sedition or at least isolated, for defying the writ of the government. Yahya foolishly kept on vacillating from one party to the other till he was led into a trap by Bhutto, convincing Yahya to commit yet another blunder on 26th March 1971. Military action suited Bhutto, as he would have never been able to form a government once the parity of seats between the two wings was fairly but unwittingly abolished, giving more seats to East Pakistan on population basis. Yahya Khan also abolished One Unit system of each wing, thus reviving provincial rivalries. In doing so, a naïve and simpleton Yahya undid what was achieved with great effort, viz parity of members in National Assembly, so graciously accepted by East Pakistanis. Yahya committed his last blunder in initiating the war which appalled Chinese and other friendly countries, but pleased some of our leaders. Most happy was ‘that woman’ Mrs Indira Gandhi, since she was frantically looking for an excuse to undo the unity of Pakistan.
Before I finish, I would like to clarify some confusion in the ‘Conclusion’ of Hamood-ur-Rehman Commission Report with my comments in brackets. The concluding paragraph in verbatim states: “Before, the air force was grounded by reason of Indian attack (due to cratering of runway around mid-day on 6th Dec) it had indeed performed creditably. Before 3rd December, 1971, it had been of some considerable use and in all it had succeeded in destroying 11 (enemy) aircraft. (These aircraft were shot between 3rd and mid-day 6th Dec and not before 3rd, as stated incorrectly by the report. What they perhaps mean was very effective air support to Army till 3rd December, 1971 which is fully covered in the text above. Shooting 11 aircraft up to 6th Dec was creditable as per their stated judgment). On the whole, therefore, we have reached to the conclusion that while the performance of the air force deserves praise in the phase at least before 3rd December, 1971, (actually meaning period till the end of air operations from 3rd till 6th December – confusing dates again) their performance thereafter was disappointing”. (After crediting good performance, ie shooting down of 11 enemy aircraft till 6th December, 1971, only two issues described in the text give these remarks of disapproval. Those two issues were regarding dispatch of pilots without waiting enough for runway to be repaired, and secondly for not destroying F-86s soon after dispatch of these pilots, rationale for action regarding both points is amply stated at length, in preceding paragraphs).
In the end I would like to pray to Allah for granting Pakistanis the wisdom to appreciate the value of FREEDOM and to cherish and nurture it through sincere and honest application, in word and deed, of the most apt words: UNITY, FAITH, DISCIPLINE prescribed by the Father of the Nation. Pakistan Zindabad.Views: 13158Share