GVS: When did you join the Army and what is your link with East Pakistan?
Ikram Sehgal: I joined the Army in May 1964. I entered the Pakistan Military Academy, and I graduated from the Pakistan Military Academy in October 1965, just after the war. My mother was from Bengal, and my father was from Sialkot. Therefore, I had links to both West and East Pakistan.
GVS: When did you first go to East Pakistan?
Ikram Sehgal: Well, I grew up in both East and West Pakistan; in a sense, I was in school in Cumilla, East Pakistan. I, later on, at the age of 12, was sent to Lawrence College, Ghora Gali in West Pakistan. Thereafter I was posted in the Army. I was first posted to East Pakistan in October 1965, but later my battalion was moved to West Pakistan, and therefore, I alternated between East and West Pakistan.
GVS: What was the situation like when you first reached East Pakistan in 1971?
Ikram Sehgal: I first reached East Pakistan on a temporary posting, I am basically an infantry officer, and I was on deputation with the Army Aviation. I was flying fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. I was deputed to logistics flight Eastern command, where I was attached with the commander Eastern command, who at that time was Lieutenant General Shahibzada Yaqoob.
I went there soon after the cyclone took place on Friday, 13th November 1970; we were sent to East Pakistan to help with cyclone relief. When I reached East Pakistan at that time, of course, there was a big human tragedy; hundreds of people perished in that cyclone. Our contingent of aircraft was flying relief operations to the cyclone-hit areas. Then, after my temporary posting finished, I was sent back to West Pakistan in March 1971, just when the problems started. But the problem became worse.
Second time I went to East Pakistan on a permanent posting to logistic flight Eastern command which I reached on soon after the Army crackdown on 27th. In the period between 1st and 12th March 1971, the situation was getting from bad to worse. The Army was confined only to the cantonments. There was complete civil disobedience. The civil affairs Administration was not working right. Even the police were not listening to anything from the central government. So the only authority of the central government which existed was in the cantonment at that time.
Read more: Who Killed Bengali Intellectuals in 1971?
GVS: Did you feel that there was some kind of Indian influence in the physical events taking place?
Ikram Sehgal: At that point of time, No, look, India always had something to do with problems in East Pakistan. There’s no doubt about it, but at that point of time, it was a clear insurrection. The army crackdown had taken place on the 25th March, and by 27th March, the entire country was in sort of a state of revolt.
At that point in time, there we could not see any Indian influence. However, when I was with the East Bengal regiment later, then I, of course, saw Indian influence first hand and not only Indian influence, but Indian presence coming in.
GVS: How do you see the Bengalis inching towards a breakup?
Ikram Sehgal: I think the first reason was political. It started with the language movement when Urdu was declared as a state language, even though the Bangladeshis now, Bengalis at that time were in the majority and obviously they did not accept it, including Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and all who led that movement.
They were actually Muslim League; they were Muslim League activists. They broke away and made the Awami Muslim League. Later on, they dropped the Muslim from it, and it became the Awami League. So basically, it started with the language movement. This became a problem after 1952 when on 21st February, the medical college students were fired upon, and many were killed. That became a rallying point for them.
Thereafter, of course, there were a lot of other reasons which they felt existed, including disparity. They were earning money because of jute, and yet they were not getting enough development funds, etc. So there are a myriad number of reasons they had.
Read more: Pakistan Embassy London Fooled us! 1971 War
GVS: Do you think that the distance between East and West Pakistan contained the DNA for what finally happened in 1971? Was the split inevitable?
Ikram Sehgal: Not at all. I think this was a split that happened, but there were many reasons for it. Number one was the fact of disparity, of course. It was considered by some moron, and I will use the word moron, who thought that the defense of East Pakistan lies in the West, and thus 95 percent of the Army was, as were the Air Force, and the Navy in West Pakistan and only 5 percent was in East Pakistan. They felt that East Pakistan was indefensible.
Now, if you consider part of your country, which is the larger part of your population, that they are indefensible, and you can only protect them by protecting the western side? I think that was a moronic concept and I think that was the start of everything bad.
Thereafter, of course, there was a disparity in everything. I don’t think anybody contest that there was no disparity; however, the fact of the matter remains, there was a lot of love and affection between East and West Pakistan, and, frankly, speaking, the way it deteriorated at the end of 1970, actually in 1971, the sharp decline of that relationship was even beyond my own imagination.
GVS: Do you attribute this sharp decline to some event or some person?
Ikram Sehgal: I think there were many reasons. A lot of people made a lot of mistakes. I think the biggest mistake was the election. The election should not have been held in November and December, but it was held. It should not have been held because of the cyclone. The cyclone was devastating. A lot of helicopters and relief came in from other countries. We were only four helicopters from Pakistan Army. They were about 30-35 helicopters from other countries, the USA, Russia, France, Saudi Arabia, and the UK. The point was that, at that point in time, the people of East Pakistan felt that West Pakistan was not really helping them, and in fact, that is wrong.
The Army at that time did play a very big role in the scene, but the perception was different, and because the perception was different, a lot of people, people who were mature, suggested to the federal government that do not hold the election now.
Let the feeling subside; let it calm down; this is not the right time. The government did not listen, and at that point, Awami League then won a sweeping majority and completed the thing. Once they had won the sweeping majority, democracy demanded that they be given the power. At that point of time, even the president of the country at one time called Sheikh Mujeeb as the prime minister of the country, but then they were reasons they were within East Pakistan within the Awami League, there were secessionists. There is no doubt about it. But I think, by and large, they thought that with greater autonomy, the country could stay together.
Then, of course, in March, when the assembly was postponed, things deteriorated. There was total civil disobedience, and the administration was taken over, and because of that, at the end of the day, the Army had to restore law and to restore the authority of the central government, they had to crackdown. When that crackdown took place, it took place with a lot of bloodshed, and because of the bloodshed after that, there was no question that it was just a question of time before East Pakistan became Bangladesh.
GVS: How did the stories of 3m dead, rapes, and atrocities start?
Ikram Sehgal: The mistake happened, I think, first from the army side. Soon after the crackdown took place, they collected all the foreign correspondents and sent them out of East Pakistan. They sent them to Karachi, and all these people came back to Calcutta. Then they started spreading all these stories. They only took the news that India was giving them. You also had a complete blackout in West Pakistan; there was no idea of what was going on in East Pakistan.
Now, when a crackdown takes place when you’re trying to restore the authority of the central government, people did get killed, but at the same time, you know, from the other side, there was a lot of killing of Biharis, non-Bengalis, etc., in isolated places. It was brutal, very brutal. I am a witness to it. From 1st March to 12th March, as a helicopter pilot, I was visiting places, and I saw brutal scenes.
Do you know how the figure of 3 million came up? It is given in my book also, three million figure came up because when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman came back to Dhaka, he had been incarcerated, he went to London, he came back to Dhaka in the aircraft, he asked Qamaruz Zaman who was one of the leaders of Awami League who came up to see him and to brief him that how many people died? So he said 3 Lākha, which means 3 Lacs.
So, when Sheikh Mujib came up, soon after that, he said 3 million, 30 Lākha you know, so, once he has said 30 Lākha it became a distinct now. There have been atrocities; there is no question about it. Those atrocities should not have taken place, but those atrocities are not from the regular Army. The regular Army made a mistake of getting a lot of police people, a lot of civil armed forces people and mostly they made Razakars, which were called Shams and Baddar, they committed a lot of atrocities, right, even the killing of intellectuals, in Dhaka jail in the month of December was done by these people, not by the regular Army.
So I think whereas they may be stray cases of the thing, which in any war does take place, you know, but not the way it has been represented in the books, etc. There are a lot of witnesses about it other than Sarmila Bose’s book, you know, which she is written and other people who have written and in fact, do, you know, some of the people were deported. Some of the foreign journalists were later deported, again from Bangladesh, for suggesting that this is not correct. In fact, just to give an example, that there was a war commission, which they made, and in the war commission, they asked people who had lost their lives or missing that they should ask for compensation.
Only 2,000 ask for compensation. Obviously, there are many more killed. I estimate that 100 to 150 thousand Bangladeshis were killed and maybe about 75 to 100 thousand. Non-Bengalis, including Biharis, Punjabis, Pathans, and isolated pieces, were killed.
GVS: 3 divisions were deployed in East Pakistan then how did this figure of 93,000 come about?
Ikram Sehgal: Look, First of all, you must remember that they were not division with full complements; there were three and a half divisions, lightly armed troops, they did not have the full complement. Every division has an armored regiment, every division has an artillery regiment, and every division has an engineer regiment.
All those divisions which went from here; they were lightly equipped. There was only one division there pre 25th March, that is 14 division, and 14 division had four brigades. In those four brigades, there were five Bengali battalions that were not used.
So if you take four brigades, and every brigade has got three battalions, so that is twelve battalions; take five battalions out of that, that means only seven battalions. Now the units which went from here, which were from the 9 and 16 division, they were not with their full complement. Then they had civil armed forces, etc. So ad hoc basis, they made three and a half divisions. They included the civil armed forces and police; there were only 35,000 people under arms.
The 93,000 figure came up because of their families, and other civilian administrators, etc. Who were West Pakistani’s. They were also taken into custody. So in the Indian prisoners of war camp, there were only 35,000 people who were wearing the uniform, and the rest of them were not wearing the uniform.
GVS: Can you share your experience as a POW and how did you escape?
Ikram Sehgal: Actually, I escaped on 16th July 1971, which was 99 days in custody, and on 17th July, the Indians were expecting that I would go westwards because we were on the Bihar Bengal border at a place called Panagarh. Only 16 miles away from the border, and they were Urdu speaking, Biharis over there. They expected me to go towards the Bihar side. This is what we had told our other prisoners of war; also, I told them they were going to pass it, but I went the other side.
I went east towards Calcutta, which Indians did not expect. I gained some time because of that, and once I was inside Calcutta, there was a curfew in Calcutta at night.
Long story, I broke into the American Consulate General there. They did not know what to do with me. At that point in time, we were allied with the Americans in Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) and South East Asia treaty organization (SEATO). I said to them that I am an allied officer. They helped me, and they did not help me. They said that we can, and we can’t because of various reasons. By that time, I had cuts on my body. I was badly injured. I needed clothes. I was given clothes. I got money. In fact, they offered that they would somehow get me out. I said, No, I will go on my own.
I made my way on, when I came out in Calcutta, I found that they had my photographs all over the place, as Naxal chief, not as a Pakistani, as a Naxalite. There was a Naxalite Insurrection going on, and there was a reward on my head as a Naxal chief. So I had no other choice. The railway stations were being covered; the bus stations were being covered. So I went to the airport and got myself a ticket to Delhi.
Long story short, I had a lot of help from places. At a certain place, the Special Services Group (SSG) intelligence people were sent in, who escorted me with weapons. We went out to Nepal, from Nepal, we went to Burma, and under different passports, and then from Burma to Thailand, and then back to East Pakistan. By 17th August, I was back in East Pakistan.
Then I went through the normal interrogation period. My views were not very correct, according to them, at that point in time. So I went on to extended interrogation. Then I was posted to West Pakistan on 12th November. I fought the war again in a new unit called 44, Punjab (Now 4 Sindh), which is my unit. In December 1971, during the war, I got promoted to the rank of Major, and my rifle company was renamed as Sehgal Company. Even today, 4 Sindh has Sehgal Company. What happened afterward? I do not want to comment on it.
Read more: Debunking myths around Bangladesh’s creation
GVS: Pakistan expected a lot of support from the United States. Why does this misnomer exist?
Ikram Sehgal: I think it all started with the fact that Kissinger was given the opening to China in July, and because of that, United States, we’re very grateful to Pakistan. President Nixon was leaning towards Pakistan. He did not like Indira Gandhi at all. So he also instructed Kissinger, the Secretary of State, but Kissinger, of course, was more of a realist. He realized that whatever happens in East Pakistan is untenable.
You know that General Manekshaw himself said that at one time, we had a ratio of 10 to 1. I do not for one second. You know, except for the crackdown, it was necessary to restore the central authority, but once you had done the crackdown, the way you did, there’s no question of East and West Pakistan staying together.
On the other hand, the myths that you said are wrong. There was only one battalion, and I’m not going to name the battalion, but a quarter element of that battalion, surrendered before the 16th December in Chandpur. Except this, out of all the fighting elements of Pakistan armed forces, nobody surrendered till 16th December came along, and even after 16th December, they had a lot of difficulty in convincing people to lay down their arms.
Not only that, let me tell you that I’m very proud of the fact that my own unit 4 Army Aviation Squadron came out, leaving only one damaged helicopter. The surrender took place at nine o’clock in the morning, and they flew out at three o’clock in the afternoon, right from the center of the Dhaka cantonment, and they brought all the nurses of Pakistan outfit with them. They flew, and they flew first north, towards India side, then east towards India, and then south toward Burma. They came over Burma, and they threw their weapons into the sea. Then they came and landed in Burma.
Then air force pilots were put in a plane, and they escaped from there. They did not surrender. You know, in the sense that none of the units had surrendered, I think if you look at it, and I don’t want to go into the military planning, because I never rose to the exalted rank of a general but the army as it is fought very well and that is something that has been acknowledged by the enemy It was certainly superior generalship from the other side and why not if you have a 10 to one ratio then you have a superior generalship.
GVS: What is needed to be done for improving the relations between Pakistan and Bangladesh?
Ikram Sehgal: The first thing to understand is that the people love each other. It’s only propaganda that has been fed. I went with General Musharraf. General Musharraf took me deliberately when he went to visit Delhi; that look, he was the one that got away. There one of India’s famous anchors Sartashi, he asked me, and Kuldeep Nayyar was there, and J N Dixit was there. They were there for the same thing, and they asked me this. Oh, the Bengalis hate you this and that. I told them Okay, so what I will do is next time when there’s a cricket match in Dhaka, I will pay for your tickets to the cricket match, and we will see who hates who. Do you know that they do not allow in Bangladesh even today flags inside the stadium? Do you know why? because most people come out in the stadium with Pakistani flags.
You can believe the Indian propaganda, which is true in that in the big cities, there is a lot of animosities the history books say differently, etc. but I am 100% sure that there will be a rapprochement between Bangladesh and Pakistan. Bangladesh and Pakistan must recognize they are independent, and they still need each other. Both are complementary economies, and if they do this, it is only good that will come of it.
There is no question of making a union against India or somebody else. That’s not a reason for the relations. The reason for the relationship between two peoples is love and affection that is there, and there is a need for each other.
I have no doubt whatsoever that this relationship will come back. It was there. It was there even during Ziaur Rahman’s time when he was the President. It continued till he died. It continued with General Shad; it continued with Khaleda Zia, even continued with Hasina Wazed during her first term.
I have been to Bangladesh with Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif. It continued during that time. When we visited Dhaka stadium where India was playing against Pakistan and the crowd was cheering Pakistan. When they found the Pakistan Prime Minister in the VIPs hall, they cheered for Mian Nawaz Sharif. I am an eyewitness to it. I am not somebody that didn’t see that, and when we, by the way, crossed the girl’s pavilion, they had all crescent and star on their cheeks. Mian Nawaz Sharif was stunned for some time. He’s just stood there and looked at what was happening there.
There is a bad feeling because the bad feeling has been fostered by propaganda but let us say, Why didn’t Mr. Modi get a tremendous welcome in Dhaka, when he went there on 25th March, this year on the 50th of this thing, and when he declared that this thing why didn’t he? He could not really, really heave as he was met with a lot of protests.
He had to be helicoptered in from the airport to where he had to go. So what you see and read in the newspaper or on social media, don’t believe it; believe what you can see with your own eyes. I can tell you that this relationship will become what it once was.