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Friday, April 12, 2024

From East Pakistan to Bangladesh: What went wrong?

Prisoner of War in 1971 and defense analyst describes the events that led to the breakup of Pakistan but explains why there was no inevitability about the split between the two wings of the country.

Ikram Sehgal was born to a Punjabi father and an Urdu-speaking Bengali mother. He joined the army in October 1965 and then qualified as a pilot, where he served until 1971. He was taken Prisoner of War in April 1971 from East Pakistan and kept as a POW in Panagarh camp in India until he escaped in July 1971.

GVS: When you reached Dhaka on the 27th March, what was the situation like? Did the separation of East Pakistan feel imminent?

Ikram Sehgal: Once I went back to Dhaka on the 27th March 1971, I was in a shock, because for the first time I heard people who were staunch Pakistanis say “it’s all over”. Prominently, the Bengali side including my older cousin who used to be the Mayor of Dhaka and a hardcore Muslim Leaguer. He told me flatly “It’s over. You Punjabis better get out of here!”

And this was the refrain in-house after house after house, after the 25th March. People telling me that you should go back and you should not be here. There was so much confusion going on you cannot imagine. But I felt quite clear, for me coming back to East Pakistan, that this was not a mistake.

GVS: According to you what were the factors that led to 25th March -Operation Searchlight?

Ikram Sehgal: First of all, I am one of those who believe that the 25th March had to happen because there was a complete breakdown of authority in East Pakistan, chaos ruled as a massive in law and order situation developed. As a helicopter pilot, I was ferrying ammunition and food to pockets of West Pakistani troops at various places.

There is no question that given the limited number of Pakistani troops to control what was happening there, it was inevitable. The grave mistake was to take Mujib out of that place. They should have kept Mujib there and negotiated with him at that time. Mujib under those circumstances, at that point, had to choose survival over anything else.

Diplomats failed to defend and present Pakistan’s case before the world – as a victim of a preplanned international conspiracy. The military failed to protect the ideology and territorial frontiers against internal and external enemies. 

Once they took him out, India took advantage of the confusion for its own propaganda. The other mistake was removing all the media – local and international. All the rumors about hundreds of people killed came from the lack of journalists around, who could have reported the real situation on the ground.

I went to Dhaka University on the 28th March and having heard the reports of so many people had been killed; I was wondering how is it possible that ‘they killed’ so many people and yet there were no mass graves. The point is that while no doubt people were killed, in some numbers and graves were dug, but the scale was undoubtedly exaggerated.

GVS: Would the situation been different had west Pakistani leadership considered Mujib’s Six-Point Agenda?

Ikram Sehgal: Once Mujib was taken out of the equation, there was no leadership left in East Pakistan to negotiate with. The Army removed the possibility of bringing Mujib and the Bengali agenda to the talking table. They listened to Bhutto, who suggested a re-election in July or August 1971.

He turned the loyalties of some of the MNAs and peers of Mujib, who were later elected under the Pakistan People’s Party in these elections. So an election was held, which not many people know of. This election was for the seats that were made vacant, because of people evacuating the multiple seats they had stood on and some of the seats were for those people that had left the country.

The Mukhti Bahini was used very cleverly by tying down Pakistani forces and then the Indians kept circling around.

Most of these seats went to PPP in East Pakistan. Some of them were turncoats from Mujib’s government some of them were people who came in and were granted amnesty. PPP won these by-elections in East Pakistan. The Army leadership was in agreement with Bhutto.

At that point, it was General Tikka Khan who was on the spot and enjoyed a lot of freedom. Then by the time General Niazi came to take over the military, the military’s role in East Pakistan aspect was almost over. We couldn’t have accepted Mujib’s Six Points per se. But we could have negotiated.

Sartaj Aziz Sahab was part of the negotiating team on the economic side and was quite clear that they could come to an agreement. This was around 21st or 22nd March because the team had gone for the final negotiations, there were hardliners there, but, the Awami league also had soft liners. I think it was possible we could have come to a looser arrangement, yet we would have stayed together as a Federalist nation.

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GVS: Do you think this East and West Pakistan split was inevitable? What do you think?

Ikram Sehgal: No, it was not inevitable. There was so much goodwill there (East Pakistan) towards the idea of ‘Pakistan’. The majority did not get to vote in the elections that happened. Furthermore, the 1970 Bhola cyclone came on Friday 12, November, a propaganda campaign started which said West Pakistan is doing nothing.

It was only the British, the Americans, the French, the Saudis, and the Soviets. Whereas what the army did there was tremendous in terms of cyclone relief. As a helicopter pilot I was flying 14 hours a day from 5 am to 8 pm, I used to go to sleep in my harness sometimes. We had two Edwards and two MI-8s.

Pakistan had maybe 16 MI-8s at that time, and we could have sent more helicopters. Although I cannot answer for the people’s thinking here [West Pakistan] but it would not have changed anything. The first time we flew out, I departed from Gilgit, I was put in a C-130 with my helicopter, and sent to East Pakistan after 13th November.

Ikram Sehgal standing next to a Alouette 3 in Azad Kashmir.

I reached on 16th November, until that time no one had even gone out to the Bay of Bengal. I was taken from the helipad, they put my rotors together, and was asked to take off. It was 4 o clock in the afternoon, I didn’t have a map to navigate through. I was just told to take off and go down South.

The main river, the Brahmaputra River, is about two miles wide at the mouth, there is a dam there. At first, I saw something and thought it was a debris, but as my helicopter descended, I realized they were all dead bodies. When I reported this, General Safdar among others said it was just something helicopter pilots might say.

They gave me instructions to go further down and confirm what I could see; maybe I was confusing dead animals for dead human bodies. I said ‘no sir’ these are dead bodies. The point is, the election should never have been held, in those circumstances, with that sort of feeling people had among themselves, West Pakistan provided all the ingredients for propaganda.

GVS: You have discussed how the August floods were a precipitating cause, operation searchlight on 25th March, and then the underlying divides of culture and language. Didn’t all this suggest that everything was moving towards a day when two countries would finally materialize?

Ikram Sehgal: It is said, Hindu culture dominated Bengali politics. This is not true, that was their own culture. Bengalis had their own existing culture, predating anything else. For west Pakistanis, it was really difficult for people to understand that all good families of Bengal taught their girls singing and dancing and a musical instrument.

Here they associated it with the red-light area and so on. My sister and I went to the best boarding school and convent colleges, to pay for this, my mother used to augment her husband’s earning by teaching classes at home, she was always questioned over why she was doing it.

But my father’s colleagues always supported it. What I am saying is that there was hope in the sense that the culture was accepted by many. The best example I can give is of Quetta where my mother would ride a bicycle. So different cultures among the two parts of Pakistan was not a myth.

However, the thing that really broke us was trying to impose Urdu as a national language. That was the non-starter. However, take the fact that in 1966, all the riots against the Tashkent Peace Declaration with India, took place in East Pakistan and not West Pakistan. Yet only a few years later, Pakistan broke into two with the help of India to East Pakistan.

Ikram Sehgal as Captain, Army Aviation

Another snippet I would like to share with you. Once I accompanied Nawaz Sharif to a meeting of Muslim finance ministers of South Asia in Bangladesh. There was a cricket match (India vs Pakistan) and Nawaz Sharif said he did not want to go to it ‘because it was a Friday and there would be demonstrations against me’.

We persuaded him – as we walked past the girls’ stands, I still remember the girls had Pakistani flag painted on their cheeks. Even today Bangladesh does not allow flags inside cricket matches? Why? Because during the India-Pakistan cricket matches there would only Pakistani flags there.

So, you see there was still cohesiveness in East and West Pakistan despite the bad things, but it was initially the intellectuals and elites had decided to align with India and Calcutta (Many who still went there for studies).

I believe East Pakistanis were still in a dilemma in 1971, but their loyalties shifted after the crackdown began and they realized, “Oh, they are killing us now!” But even on this, I will say – it was fake news that drove this feeling.

When I flew my helicopter to Chittagong, to investigate the 4000 who we had heard had been killed, I found out only 16 people died and of them some were Biharis. A lot of fake news by the media played a significant part – in actualizing the division. India played a significant role in this.

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GVS: Where do you see India’s role starting in this? Sashanka Bannerjee’s book writes about meetings as early as 1962, Sheikh Mujib ur Rehman was having with Nehru’s team, with requests to support him in creating an independent country and support from India towards this idea.

Ikram Sehgal: I have no doubt that the Indians were at it all this time. The exact date I don’t know whether it started whether it was 62 or 65 and how that fed into 71. But RAW was created with one purpose only; to make East Pakistan secede, and that is what happened. But as far as their motives were concerned; yes.

I will give you one example when the Agartala case took place, one person who I used to look up as a role model, was a chap called Captain Noor uz Zaman. Noor uz Zaman professed innocence at the time and said that the intelligence people were spreading false news.

However, when I was taken prisoner and I was in open prison because East Bengal Regiment wouldn’t touch me in that sense, he walked in and at that time he accepted it and said that it had been absolutely true. To me, it was a great shock that this man, who was Captain in the ISI went on to become a Major, and then became a brigadier as part of the Rakhi Bahini. When Sheikh Mujib was killed in 1975 he was heading the Rakhi Bahini.

GVS: India uses the date of December the 3rd when Pakistan bombed the Mukti Bahini camps as its entry into the war. Did you hear of any preparations before that date which alludes to India’s involvement in the 1971 conflict?

Ikram Sehgal: Nonsense! The Indians were preparing for it long before that. We were prisoners of war (POW) since April. We were put in a POW camp – now why should they have a POW camp set up in April 1971?

When supposedly the war started in December 1971! Initially, we are 11 officers then we became 30 officers and then the numbers swelled up to thousands. The people who held us captive would come to us and boast about “sorting” us out and emphasizing that we will be here for a long time.

GVS: Pakistan expected the USA to support them in the war, Pakistan was a member of SEATO/CENTO. Do you think the Americans should have supported Pakistan more?

Ikram Sehgal: I think it was stupid to think that the Americans would support us for two reasons. After the 1962 Sino-India war, America gave India more weapons than they ever gave to Pakistan. On May 25, 1965, it was Chester Bowles, I think, who wrote a famous memo which became a policy paper.

That said while the U.S. must continue relations with Pakistan, it was India that would eventually become the lynchpin to contain China. So to the U.S., Pakistan was important but not at the expense of India. That 1965 policy continues to this day, nothing has changed about it. What surprises me is that people think otherwise.

When I escaped and managed to get into the American consulate in Calcutta, I was only lucky because it happened a few days after Pakistan had facilitated Kissinger’s visit to China, which of course at the time I had no knowledge of. The point is to expect the Americans to come in particularly after Archer Blood was writing all those famous telegrams of his. We were living in fantasies that power politics would tilt in our favor.

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GVS: Why did the Americans put the 7th fleet in the Bay of Bengal?

Ikram Sehgal: It was just a gesture because remember there was a very bad relationship between Nixon and Indira Gandhi, but the person running the shots at that time was Henry Kissinger. He certainly was not going against them. Indira got a clear signal during her visit to the USA in November 1971, once she was through talking with Kissinger, that Americans would not interfere.

GVS: Do you think the CIA knew about RAW training Mukhti Bahini?

Ikram Sehgal: 100 percent yes! The people and the training was given on a very small scale till that point, to a handful of saboteurs. The training on a large scale started after April 25th, 1971 when the go-ahead was given, Mukhti Bahini. And then the CIA would have to know. No way the Americans did not know.

GVS: How many people got trained after that point in April?

Ikram Sehgal: About 100,000 Bengalese were trained in all types of warfare including sea warfare. They blew up ships in Chittagong harbor and Jamuna.

GVS: Do you think training of 7 to 8 months was sufficient to take on an army?

Ikram Sehgal: Do you know what they called the American conscripts who went into the Second World War? The 90-day wonders. So while that much time is not enough, once you get into battle conditions, you learn very quickly.

GVS: So by your estimates how many Indians were there on East Pakistan soil?

Ikram Sehgal: Till the Mukhti Bahini came in, the number of Indians was really negligible. The Mukhti Bahini was used very cleverly by tying down Pakistani forces and then the Indians kept circling around.

The main defensive posture strategy for Pakistan up to that point had been – we are not going to be able to defend everything – so we should have three boxes; the Dhaka box, the Chittagong box, and the Khulna box. General Sahabzada Yaqub had made this into a proper plan, in case of Indian intervention.

If we maintain the three boxes in that scenario we would be good. But those boxes never existed. Because General Tikka decided to defend every inch of the territory, so people got picked off in ones and twos. Did you know that no single army unit surrendered before December 16th? There were many places they were overrun, people were captured individually but units did not surrender.

GVS: Let’s tackle this famous number of 93,000 soldiers surrendered and went to Indian POW camps. What is your take on that?

Ikram Sehgal: Not true! There were 37,000 regular army soldiers. There were also some police and frontier corps as well as rangers, but more than half of the people in the POW camps were dependents i.e. families. So a maximum of 40,000 west Pakistani soldiers were in the area and they were facing a 100,000 Mukhti Bahini and 200,000 Indians. There were almost 7 to 8 divisions functioning against us, it was a huge campaign.

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GVS: The Bangladeshi government has created a law that does not allow anyone to challenge the iconic 3 million figure, for the number of deaths caused by the Pakistan Army in East Pakistan? Do you agree with the number?

Ikram Sehgal: I know from Bengali sources where that number came from. When Mujib returned to Dhaka from London, Tajuddin Ahmad and Qamaruzzaman immediately went up to his aircraft to brief him. Mujib was not in the picture by that time as he had just come out of isolation in West Pakistan.

So, he asked, how many people have died? Tajuddin said, “Teen lakho” (300,000). After that Mujib came down from the aircraft for a press conference. In the press conference, he said: “Tees lakho” (3,000,000). Whether he said it deliberately or whether it was a slip of the tongue it has now become an act of Quran. There is no way that many people could have been killed.

Even in the three lakh who actually died, there are more than a hundred thousand Biharis. These were predominantly West Pakistanis and Biharis and believe me, in some places they were mercilessly butchered. It is wrong to say that people were not unnecessarily killed, but certainly not in the scale that was being told.

GVS: Moving forward, while Pakistan and Bangladesh enjoyed fairly good relations through the 1980s and ’90s, Sheikh Hasina seems to have brought out all the hatred again. She declared, for instance, that March 25th will be commemorated in Bangladesh as genocide day, and has put people in prison for disputing it? How do we go forward from here?

Ikram Sehgal: The point is that Hasina Wajed holds Dhaka. Even in Dhaka, her reign is tenuous. The first time she managed quite a good relationship with Pakistan. The second time after she took over, in Dhaka, the Indians brought about 200-300 Bengali students, near a famous hotel Shahbag Hotel, and got them to block the road.

Once you blocked that road, you blocked Dhaka traffic. Now you have 15-20 thousand people sitting on either side of the road and in the middle is a big demonstration, all of it ‘becomes’ anti-Pakistan. It started from there. The change was when she went out of power, the way Khaleda Zia was becoming close to Pakistan, India told her there is no way you can come back unless we help you get back into office.

They engineered her coming back, and then, of course, you get the BDR (Bangladesh Rifles revolt) killings and so on, the whole narrative which is RAW engineered. Today, what India has been able to do which it had not previously managed, is that the Indian armed forces have got – ten hold of Bangladeshi armed forces. But it is tenuous hold.

East Pakistan to Bangladesh
Ikram Sehgal with Sehgal Company, 4 Sindh (formally 44 Punjab), Malir Cantonment, Karachi (2007)

I know Bengalis, they are not willing to be slaves to anyone. There is a lot of resentment currently against India, but it does not come out, because the media is highly restricted, someone puts up a photograph and they put him in jail.

Anybody speaks about genocide, they put him in jail, anybody says anything about 3 million figure was wrong, they even put a David Berg – man, a British journalist in jail. I don’t go to Bangladesh now for a reason, I have been told she [Hasina Wajid] will try to embarrass you, but between 1999 to 2008 I used to give lectures at the National Defense College in Bangladesh.

She stopped me from lecturing any – more. I always stressed that the best thing for these three countries is to have a friendship with each other. Although Benga – li officers sitting there would joke with me and say ‘are you smoking something – do you think the Indians will allow it.’

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GVS: Regardless of Bangladesh’s willingness for better relations, is there anything Pakistan can unilaterally do for better relations?

Ikram Sehgal: Recently, ISI asked me to come and give a lecture on this topic – how to improve relations with Bangladesh. I received a call from someone asking me how much time would I need and so on. I said I only need 5 minutes. He was surprised – I said you only need to ‘not make Pakistanis out of Bangladesh – is any more’.

The Bangladeshis are natural anti-Indians. If you make Pakistanis out them, they will react. So leave that chapter alone, they will never become Pakistanis ever again. You got to take it easy. We can help by saying “Great Bangladesh!”, “We are very proud of you!” and “wonderful!” We should say let us move on.