December 16 is a national holiday in Bangladesh to commemorate the joint victory of Bangladeshi freedom fighters and the Indian military over the Pakistani armed forces in 1971. This victory day is called Bijoy Dibas in Bangladesh and Vijay Diwas in India. The then commanding officer of the Pakistan army, Lieutenant General Ameer Abdullah Khan Niazi, had surrendered his weapon to the Indian army commander, Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Aurora, on December 16, 1971.
December 16 is considered to be a day of grief in Pakistan because of the country’s dismemberment. Ordinary Pakistanis have been made to believe that India broke up their country in 1971 with the collaboration of a Bengali traitor, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Most Pakistanis are unaware that Mujib of the Awami League had supported Fatima Jinnah (sister of Muhammad Ali Jinnah) in the 1965 presidential election against the then military dictator Ayub Khan. Few young Pakistanis know that Mujib had won a majority in the first ever general election in Pakistan in 1970, but the then military ruler Yahya Khan did not transfer power to him.
This grave injustice forced him to revolt. Yahya Khan ordered the use of force against the Awami League, but Lieutenant General Sahibzada Yaqub Ali Khan refused to use force against his own people. He suggested a political solution and ultimately resigned. The Pakistan army subsequently launched a military operation against the majority leader, who was arrested in Dhaka and shifted to the Mianwali Jail in West Pakistan.
The question is: Why was Mujib shifted to Mianwali, instead of another major prison in Karachi or Lahore? He was arrested on the orders of Lieutenant General Tikka Khan, who was later replaced by Niazi in April 1971. The new commanding officer in Dhaka belonged to Mianwali and was glad that Mujib was imprisoned in his hometown. Some Pakistanis still prefer to call him “Tiger Niazi”. I read a December 14 article in Urdu newspaper Daily Duniya in which “Tiger Niazi” was painted as a national hero. The writer never mentioned that the Pakistan government had discharged Niazi after stripping him of his military rank, the pension usually accorded to retired soldiers and his military decorations, because a commission of inquiry had charged him with misconduct and corruption in Dhaka.
The three-member commission led by Justice Hamoodur Rehman examined more than 200 witnesses, including Niazi. The final report was submitted to the government in 1974, but it was not made public for several years. This report was quietly released only a few years ago. The commission had recommended a public trial of several senior army officers and a court martial for Niazi on 15 different charges, including smuggling of paan and involvement in immoral activities. But no government dared to try him, which could have enlightened the people of Pakistan about the background to the surrender on December 16, 1971. The naivete of many Pakistanis about the events of 1971 turned into an embarrassment on November 30, this year, when a popular opposition leader, Imran Khan, announced at a big public gathering that he will shut down the country on December 16 to protest against alleged rigging in the 2013 election.
Imran Khan faced strong criticism from not only some federal ministers but also the opposition parties. The Pakistan Peoples Party leader and former president, Asif Ali Zardari, dubbed him “Imran Khan Niazi”, saying that he knows nothing of the tragedy of December 16. It is just a coincidence that Khan belongs to the Niazi clan of Mianwali and won his National Assembly seat for the first time from Mianwali in 2002. His full name is Imran Khan Niazi. He has always criticised the military operation of 1971 and even pressed Pakistan to apologise to Bangladesh for the excesses committed by its armed forces in the 1971 operations. Yet, he failed to remember that December 16 is a day of shame for Pakistan.
Why? I quote page 520 of the Hamoodur Rehman Commission report, which said that Niazi had failed to defend Dhaka and agreed to a shameful and premature surrender, in spite of his own assertion before the commission that Indians would have required at least a period of seven days to mount an offensive and another week to reduce the defences of Dhaka. The report added, “He [Niazi] displayed a shameful and abject attitude in agreeing to surrender when he had himself offered a ceasefire to the Indian commander-in-chief; in signing the surrender document agreeing to lay down arms to the joint command of the Indian forces and Mukti Bahini; in being present at the Dacca airport to receive the victorious Indian General Aurora; in ordering his own ADC to present a guard of honour to the said general; and in accepting the Indian proposal for a public surrender ceremony which brought everlasting shame to the Pakistan army.”
The report mentioned an incident on December 7, 1971, when the governor of East Pakistan, A.M. Malik, called Niazi and asked about the situation on the war front: “The governor hardly said a few words when Niazi started crying loudly with tears.” Page 534 of the report suggested: “If General Niazi had done so and lost his life in the process, he would have made history and would have been remembered by coming generations as a great hero and a great martyr but the events show that he had already lost the will to fight after December 7, 1971”.
After being relieved, Niazi wrote a book titled The Betrayal of East Pakistan (1998) and criticised Justice Rehman because he was a Bengali. Justice Rehman only recorded and reproduced the statements of some army officers who served under Niazi in East Pakistan and, interestingly, all of them were Punjabis. Major General (retired) Khadim Hussain Raja was the mastermind of the military operation in 1971. He quoted some shameful words by Niazi in his book, A Stranger in My Own Country: “One day, Niazi used abusive language and in the presence of some Bengali officers, he said in Urdu: ‘Main iss haramzadi qom ki nasal badal doonga (I will change the race of the Bengalis)’.
To be fair, all the officers and soldiers of the Pakistan army were not like Niazi. Then Major General J.F.R. Jacob was the chief of staff of the Indian army’s Eastern Command in 1971. He finalised the surrender document with Niazi and gave his version in a book titled Surrender at Dacca. He wrote: “The Pakistani army in the east fought with courage and determination from their defensive positions.” On the same page, he added: “Due credit must be given to the Mukti Bahini. Their guerilla operations isolated the Pakistanis and hampered their morale. Their contribution to the victory of joint Indo-Bangladesh forces was therefore enormous.” Jacob disclosed that Niazi never surrendered his personal weapon to the Indian army. He surrendered a normal army issue .38 revolver. Jacob checked the weapon himself. The barrel was choked with muck and apparently had not been cleaned for a considerable time. The lanyard was dirty and frayed in parts. This was not the personal weapon of a commanding general. More likely, Niazi had taken it from one of his military policemen and surrendered it as his personal weapon.
Forty-three years after the fall of East Pakistan, few Pakistanis are ready to accept that December 16 is a day of shame for them. Even Imran Khan had to reschedule his shutdown plan. Khan may have realised that a day of surrender cannot become the day of his victory against the Nawaz Sharif government. The people of Pakistan need to learn lessons from the 1971 surrender. They need to debate the commission report in parliament. They need to know why the army’s interference in national politics is bad for the country. They should know that Niazi saved his .38 revolver by deceiving the Indian army, but he failed to save the honour of his country on December 16 mainly because he was actually fighting not against India, but against the majority population of his own country.
The writer is executive editor of Geo TV, Pakistan