– A khaki dissident on 1971
By Colonel Nadir Ali
“It is Mujib’s home district. Kill as many bastards as you can and make sure there is no Hindu left alive,” I was ordered. I frequently met Mr Fazlul Qadir Chaudhry, Maulana Farid Ahmed and many other Muslim League and Jamaat leaders. In the Army, you wear no separate uniform. We all share the guilt. We may not have killed. But we connived and were part of the same force
During the fateful months preceding the dismemberment of Pakistan, I served as a young Captain, meantime promoted to the rank of the Major, in Dhaka as well as Chittagong. In my position as second-in-command and later as commander, I served with 3 Commando Battalion.
My first action was in mid April 1971. “It is Mujib-ur-Rahman’s home district. It is a hard area. Kill as many bastards as you can and make sure there is no Hindu left alive,” I was ordered.
“Sir, I do not kill unarmed civilians who do not fire at me,” I replied.
“Kill the Hindus. It is an order for everyone. Don’t show me your commando finesse!”.
I flew in for my first action. I was dropped behind Farid Pur. I made a fire base and we fired all around. Luckily there was nobody to shoot at. Then suddenly I saw some civilians running towards us. They appeared unarmed. I ordered “Stop firing!” and shouted at villagers, questioning them what did they want. “Sir we have brought you some water to drink!”, was the brisk reply.
I ordered my subordinates to put the weapons away and ordered a tea-break. We remained there for hours. Somebody brought and hoisted a Pakistani flag. “Yesterday I saw all Awami League flags over your village” I told the villagers. That was indeed the fact. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Later the main army column caught up to make contact. They arrived firing with machine guns all around and I saw smoke columns rising in villages behind them. “What’s the score?” the Colonel asked.
“There was no resistance so we didn’t kill anyone,” he was informed.
He fired from his machine gun and some of the villagers who had brought us water, fell dead. “That is the way my boy,” the Colonel told this poor Major.
I was posted there from early April to early October. We were at the heart of events. A team from my unit had picked up Sheikh Mujib Ur Rehman from his residence on 25th March, 1971. We were directly under the command of Eastern Command. As SSG battalion commander, I received direct orders from General Niazi, General Rahim and later Gen Qazi Majid of 14 Div Dhaka.
Ironically, the resistance was led by General Zia Ur Rehman (later to become Bangladesh’s military ruler) was a fellow instructor at Pakistan Military Academy. Similarly, General Khalid Musharaf, who overthrew Zia in a counter-coup, was my course mate as well as a room-mate at the Pakistan Military Academy (PMA). He was also a fellow officer in SSG. Brig Abu Tahir, who brought General Zia back to power in a counter-counter coup, was also a friend and fellow officer in SSG. He was a leftist, jailed and later hanged by Gen Zia Ur Rehman whom he brought back to power in the fateful months in Bangladesh’s history, after the murder of founding father, Sheikh Mujib Ur Rehman.
Another leftist friend was Major Zia Ud Din. He was a freedom fighter and as Naxalite remained under ground from 1971 to1989 when a general amnesty was declared.
I came back to West Pakistan for getting my promotion to Lt. Colonel, in my parent corp, Ordnance, in October 1971.From December 1971 onwards, I began to suffer memory loss till my retirement on medical grounds in 1973. I remained in the nut house for six months in 1973. As a Punjabi writer, I regained my memory and rebuilt my life. I remember every moment from the year 1971.
For operations and visits to my sub units, I travelled all over East Pakistan. I never killed anybody nor ever ordered any killing. I was fortunately not even witness to any massacre. But I knew what was going on in every sector. Thousands were killed and millions rendered homeless. Over nine million went as refugees to India. An order was given to kill the Hindus. I received the same order many times and was reminded of it . The West Pakistani soldiery considered that Kosher. The Hamood Ur Rehman Commission Report mentions this order. Of the ninety-three lakh (9.3 million) refugees in India, ninety lakh were Hindus .That gave us, world-wide, a bad press and morally destroyed us. Military defeat was easy due to feckless military leader ship. Only couple of battalions in the north offered some resistance. For example, the unit of Major Akram, who was awarded highest military medal, Nishan-e-Haider, resisted and he lost his life.
East Pakistan, part of the country a thousand miles away, was “a geographical and political absurdity” as John Gunther said in “Inside Asia Today”.
With federal capital in Islamabad, dominated by West Pakistani civil servants and what they called a Punjabi Army, East Pakistanis felt like subjects of a colony. They never liked it ever since 1947. In early sixties, my fellow Bengali officers called each other general, a rank they would have in an independent East Pakistan. We all took it in good humour. But 1971 was not a joke. Every single Bengali felt oppressed. Their life and death was now in the hands of what they called “Shala Punjabies”.
I granted a long interview, recounting what I saw and felt in 1971, to BBC Urdu Service in December 2007. The Bangladesh Liberation Museum asked for a copy of the interview. It was too lengthy for me to transcribe, translate and type. Here, I attempt to re-collect bits and pieces yet again.
What drove me mad? Well I felt the collective guilt of the Army action which at worst should have stopped by late April 1971. Moreover, when I returned to West Pakistan, here nobody was pushed about what had happened or was happening in East Pakistan. Thousands of innocent fellow citizens had been killed, women were raped and millions were ejected from their homes in East Pakistan but West Pakistan was calm. It went on and on .The world outside did not know very much either. This owes to the fact that reporters were not there. General Tikka was branded as “Butcher Of Bengal”. He hardly commanded for two weeks. Even during those two weeks, the real command was in the hands of General Mitha, his second-in-command. General Mitha literally knew every inch of Bengal. He personally took charge of every operation till General Niazi reached at the helm. At this juncture, General Mitha returned to GHQ. General Tikka, as governor, was a good administrator and made sure that all services ran. Trains, ferries, postal services, telephone lines were functioning and offices were open. There was no shortage of food, anywhere by May 1971. All in all, a better administrative situation than Pakistan of today ! But like Pakistan of today, nobody gave a damn about what happens to the poor and the minorities. My worry today is whether my granddaughter goes to Wisconsin University or Harvard. That nobody gets any education in my very large village or in the Urdu-medium schools of Lahore, where I have lived as for forty years so called concerned citizen, does not worry me or anyone else.
In Dhaka, where I served most of the time, there was a ghostly feeling until about mid April 1971. But gradually life returned to normal in the little circuit I moved: Cantonment, Dacca Club, Hotel Intercontinental, the Chinese restaurant near New Market. Like most human beings, I was not looking beyond my nose. I moved around a lot in the city. My brother-in-law, Riaz Ahmed Sipra was serving as SSP Dhaka. We met almost daily. But the site of rendezvous were officers’ mess, some club or a friend’s house in Dhan Mandi. Even if I could move everywhere, I did not peep into the hearts of the Bengalis. They were silent but felt oppressed and aware of the fact that the men in uniforms were masters of their lives and properties. I frequently met Mr Fazlul Qadir Chaudhry, Maulana Farid Ahmed and many other Muslim League and Jamaat leaders in one government office or the other. Prof. Ghulam Azam and Ch Rehmat Elahi also used to meet me to provide me volunteers to carry out sabotage across the Indian Border.
Dr Yasmin Sakia, an Indian scholar teaching in America, told me once an anecdote. When she asked why in the 1990s she could not find any cooperation in tracing rape-victims of 1971, she was told by a victim,” Those who offered us to the Army are rulers now.”
One can tell and twist the tale. The untold part also matters in history. Two Bengali soldiers whom I released from custody, were issued weapons and put back in uniform. They became POWs along 90 thousand Pakistani soldiers and spent three years in Indian jails. I discovered one of them serving as a cook in 1976 in Lahore. I had regained my memory. “Kamal –ud-Din you?” I exclaimed on sighting him. “Sir you got me into this!”
The Pakistani Army had thrown them out. The other guy teaches in Dhaka now.
The untold part of the story is that one day I enquired about one soldier from Cammandos unit. He used to be my favourite in 1962. “Sir, Aziz-ul –Haq was killed”, the Subedar told me rather sheepishly.
“How?” was not a relevant question in those days. Still I did ask.
“Sir! first they were put in a cell, later shot in the cell”.
My worst nightmare even forty years later is the sight of fellow soldiers being shot in a cell. “How many ?” was my next question. “There were six sir, but two survived. They pretended to be dead but were alive,” came the reply.
“Where are they ?”
“In Cammilla sir, under custody”.
I flew from Dacca to Commilla. I saw two barely recognizable wraiths. Only if you know what that means to a fellow soldier! It is worse than suffering or causing a thousand deaths. I got them out, ordered their uniforms and weapons. “Go, take your salary and weapons and come back after ten days.” They came back and fought alongside, were prisoners and then were with difficulty, repatriated in 1976. Such stories differ, depending on who reports.
All these incidents, often gone unreported, are not meant to boast about my innocence. I was guilty of having volunteered to go to East Pakistan. My brother-in-law Justice Sajjad Sipra was the only one who criticized my choice of posting. “You surely have no shame,” he said to my disconcert. My army friends celebrated my march from Kakul to Lahore. We drank and sang! None of us were in two minds. We were single-mindedly murderous! In the Air Force Mess at Dacca, over Scotch, a friend who later rose to a high rank said, “ I saw a gathering of Mukti Bahini in thousands. I made a few runs and let them have it. A few hundred bastards must have been killed” My heart sank. “Dear! it is the weekly Haath (Market) day and villagers gather there,” I informed him in horror. “ Surely they were all Bingo Bastards!,” he added. There were friends who boasted about their score. I had gone on a visit to Commilla. I met my old friend, then Lt. Col. Mirza Aslam Beg and my teacher, Gen. Shaukat Raza. Both expressed their distaste for what was happening. Tony, a journalist working with state-owned news agency APP, escaped to London. He wrote about these atrocities that officers had committed and boasted about. It was all published by the ‘Times of London’. The reading made me feel guilty as if I had been caught doing it myself! In the Army, you wear no separate uniform. We all share the guilt. We may not have killed. But we connived and were part of the same force. History does not forgive!
The writer is a retired Army Officer, Punjabi poet and short story writer.