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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

What happened to those who broke up Pakistan in 1971?

Former Ambassador to Bangladesh looks at the sad saga behind the breakup of East & West Pakistan through the lens of examining what happened to the major characters involved during and after that period.

Only God knows, who was ‘mainly, directly and actually responsible’ for the tragedy of 1971. Only He knows who did what, and only He knows what was going on in the minds of those who were doing whatever they were doing in 1971.

According to Abdul Rahman Siddiqi, “What happened on 16 December was the inevitable consequence of gross human negligence, misconduct and mismanagement, inviting divine wrath. If anything like poetic justice exists, it did intervene to make a grim example of the principal players….”

A former Bangladeshi High Commissioner, in a discussion with me at my residence (in Dhaka), commented, “We do know the tragic end of those who were responsible for 1971. But the most important aspect is to note that, divine punishment was proportionate to the crime committed.”

In August 1975, less than four years after the creation of Bangladesh, the Father of the Nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was assassinated. The Bangabandhu (the Great Friend of the Bengalis), as he was called, was killed along with 18 members of his family. This included his 10-year-old son Sheikh Russel.

The gory assassinations were committed with surgical precision, by his own army, the Bangladesh Army. Only his daughters, Sheikh Hasina and Sheikh Rehana, were spared by destiny, as they were at that time outside Bangladesh

The people of East Pakistan suffered the real brunt of the conflict. Unaware of what was going on, on the ground in East Pakistan, their brothers in West Pakistan, were only hoping and praying for the unity of Pakistan and for the welfare of their brothers in East Pakistan

Referring to assassins and the assassination, Anthony Mascarenhas states, “…Noor fired a burst from his sten-gun. Mujib didn’t have a chance. The bullets tore a huge hole in his right side. His body twisted backward with the impact.

Then it slipped, face down, towards the bottom of the stairs. The pipe was still gripped tightly in the right hand. The time was 5.40 am (on 15 August). Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s tempestuous love affair with the Bengalis had come to an end.” Mujib was to suffer a further ignominy after he was killed.

“According to Farook, one of the attackers had never seen Mujib at close quarters. So, to get a good look at his face, the man slipped a boot under Mujib’s body and rudely flipped it over. It was thus that the shattered remains of Bangabandhu were snapped four hours later by a photographer, especially brought for the purpose from the government’s Information Department.”

Paradoxically, in his last words before his death, the Bangabandhu had referred to Pakistan positively, or so it may seem. Waking up from gunshots ringing loud, Sheikh Mujib came out of his room on the upper story of the Prime Ministers House.

Dressed in a traditional nightgown, he addressed his killers lodged on the ground floor, “What are you here for?” One foot-soldier stared directly in the Bangabandhu’s eyes, and shouted, “(We are here) For you!” Mujib taunted the would-be assassin, and said, “Haa! the Pakistan army could not kill me, how dare you do it!” And then happened, what has been narrated above.

Read more: Fall of Dhaka 1971: Questioning the Iconic 3 million

Ironically in early 1971, when the Pakistan army came to arrest Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from his Dhanmondi residence in Dhaka, he was respectfully escorted away to West Pakistan. When his own army came, they killed him and his entire family.

It is said that assassins of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had earlier approached an ‘Andha Hafiz’ (blind old holy man) in Chittagong, for his blessings, before they executed their plan. The Hafiz gave them a talisman. Later, he is said to have remarked, “Do whatever you want. But make sure, Islam does not get in danger in Bangladesh.”

In a discussion at my residence in Dhaka, a Bangladeshi industrialist narrated an ‘ominous anecdote.’ During a visit to Karachi in August 1975, he was invited by family friends to a dinner at a sea-side restaurant. An ‘old baba,’ (holy man) known for spiritual leanings, was among the small gathering of guests.

The dinner ended quite late. As the guests were departing, the old man enquired about the time from the host. When told that midnight was approaching, he murmured, “Mujib is gone! Mujib is gone!” Hours later, it was reported that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had been assassinated.

The discussion took place with the ‘old baba’ on 14 August, the Independence Day of Pakistan; Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated in the early morning of 15 August, the Independence Day of India.


Indian General Jagjit Singh Aurora (left) and Pakistani General A.A.k. Niazi, Pakistan Eastern command, sign the document of surrender, 16 December 1971.

Persons convicted of killing Sheikh Mujibur Rahman were hanged in Dhaka Central Jail, much later in January 2010. According to the Bangladeshi authorities, six more convicts have been absconding in India and other countries.

Ironically, New Delhi has been lukewarm in its response to the repeated requests from the Bangladeshi government to arrest and repatriate the assassins of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to Bangladesh.

Sheikh Mujib’s only grandson, Sajeeb Wazed Joy, has married a Jewish lady and lives in the United States with occasional visits to Bangladesh. He received his education in India when he and his mother, Sheikh Hasina, used to live in Vasant Vihar, New Delhi.

Less than three months after Sheikh Mujib’s assassination, Tajuddin Ahmad, the first Prime Minister of Bangladesh, along with others who had sought Indian help for the break-up of Pakistan in the late 1960s, also had an ugly encounter with death.

According to a narrative, “…the four men who had been most prominent in the Mujibnagar government in Calcutta – Tajuddin Ahmad, Syed Nazrul Islam, Mansoor Ali, and Kamruzzaman” were “rounded-up” and put in jail.

It happened after the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Mansoor Ali had served as Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Syed Nazrul Islam was at one time the country’s Vice President, and Kamruzzaman had been Sheikh Mujib’s close confidant.

Read more: From Kartarpur To Dhaka, Fences that Keep South Asia Medieval

“While in jail, these four political leaders became the object of a diabolical contingency plan which would ultimately result in their massacre…Tajuddin and Nazrul Islam shared one cell; Mansoor Ali and Kamruzzaman, an adjoining one. They were all brought together in Tajuddin’s cell and killed with automatic fire from close range.

Three of them died immediately. The fourth, Tajuddin, had bullet wounds in his abdomen and leg. He seems to have slowly bled to death. Horrified prisoners in adjacent cells, later told the family that they could hear him moaning and calling out for water…”

The case with General Ziaur Rahman was not very different. After Sheikh Mujib, Zia served as President of Bangladesh from 1977 to 1981. Coincidentally, Zia was assassinated in Chittagong (May 1981), the city from where he, as a Major in the Pakistan Army, had declared the independence of Bangladesh in March 1971.

Some even say that the Circuit House in the city where he was assassinated, was the very place where he had made the said announcement against Pakistan. Not many would know that Chittagong’s old name is Islamabad. (Incidentally, the ancient name of Istanbul in Muslim Turkey is Islambul.)

Commenting on the gory massacre, it is said that “President Zia’s body lay unattended for a long time on the floor of the verandah where it had fallen. Lieutenant Colonel Mahtabul Islam, his personal physician, had pronounced Zia dead but did nothing about the body.


None of the BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party) leaders or the Commissioner of Chittagong, senior civil and police officers and the Navy Chief who visited the Circuit House early in the morning, did anything to protect it. They did not even have the grace to place the President’s body on a bed, but let it lie on the floor like some odious piece of baggage.”

General Ziaur Rahman’s son, Arafat Rahman Koko, met a premature death. He died relatively young on 24 January 2015. His other son Tariq Rahman, who was born in Karachi, lives in exile in London.

While referring to 1971, many Bangladeshis would sarcastically remark, “Our Father of the Nation is not Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Our real Father of Nation is Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, as he broke Pakistan.”

A history Professor in Dhaka University was more graphic. He commented, “…Julfikar (Zulfikar) Ali Bhutto was hanged to death (Rawalpindi; 4 April 1979)…his son Murtaza had premature death in police encounter in Karachi when Murtaza’s sister Benazir Bhutto was the Prime Minister of Pakistan….Julfikar (Zulfikar) Bhutto’s other son, Shahnawaz, died earlier of poisoning (July 1985).”

Shafqat Kakakhel was working as a young officer in the Foreign Service of Pakistan in the 1970s. (Later, he was appointed Pakistan’s Ambassador to Kenya in 2001.) During the Islamic Summit Conference in Lahore in February 1974, his services were utilized as a Translator.

Read more: Seven decades of Pakistan

During the banquet hosted by Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto at the Lahore Fort for the visiting Heads of States/Governments, Kakakhel recalls an exciting conversation between Bhutto and Mujib while King Faisal and the Amir of Kuwait were seated nearby.

Bhutto said to Mujib, “You are helpless! You cannot take any decision without the approval of Indira Gandhi!” Mujib retorted, “Bhutto sahib, do not insult me…You know too well, whatever happened was because of you!”

Benazir Bhutto fell victim to a terror attack in Rawalpindi in December 2007, when Pakistan needed her the most. I remember while conveying his condolences on her passing away, Turkish Ambassador in New Delhi commented to the Pakistani High Commissioner there, Shahid Malik, “Pakistan, what an unfortunate country!”

During my first call on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, as High Commissioner in January 2012, she remarked, “Benazir is gone, and I am still alive.”

The principal actor of the tragedy of 1971, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her own Sikh security guards in October 1984. In the words of the Indian analyst Kuldip Nayar, “months before her assassination,” Indira Gandhi used to say, “They are now after me.” Insiders also quoted her as stating, “They are not going to spare me.” She never specified, who were the people who were after her.

Indira Gandhi’s heir apparent, Sanjay Gandhi died in a sudden plane crash in New Delhi at a young age in June 1980. Sanjay had enforced sterilization campaign on the Indian Muslims to decrease their population growth rate.

President Major General Zia ur Rahman greeted by the crowds. Bangladesh, late 1970’s.

This happened when the infamous Emergency was imposed in India. In the process, hundreds of families were attacked, and numerous incidents of gang-rape of Muslim women took place, some of which were reported; others just went unnoticed.

Indira Gandhi’s other son, Rajiv Gandhi, who served as the sixth Prime Minister of India (1984-1989), was later assassinated in a suicide attack in May 1991. After his dismissal from the army “in disgrace”, (former President of united Pakistan), Yahya Khan was put “under house arrest.” Later, he became paralyzed, and died after a prolonged illness.

According to Brigadier Abdul Rahman Siddiqi, “When I last saw him at his brother Agha Mohammad Ali’s house in Lahore, he lay in bed completely immobilized. His eyes were wide open, staring blankly into space, hardly recognizing me. He died in August 1979.”

During a conversation in Dhaka in early 2012, the well-known Pakistani film actress of one time, Shabnam and her husband Robin Ghosh mentioned to me that they had personally witnessed people jeering at Yahya Khan, whenever they saw him standing “all alone” on the roof of the house where he spent his last days in Lahore. (Shabnam was from East Pakistan. She continued to live in Pakistan after 1971. She returned to Dhaka for permanent residence in the late 1990s, for family reasons.)

Lieutenant General Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi was an ex-communicated man. He was “the last Pakistani soldier” to cross the Wagha border into Pakistan on 30 April 1974. According to Colonel S.P. Salunke, only a Provincial Education Minister, Abdul Khalik, represented the elected government of Pakistan, to receive Niazi at the border. It is said that whenever General Niazi visited the Army Mess, even the military officers avoided talking to him.

Read more: India’s nefarious role to break up Pakistan in 1971

Air Marshal Rahim Khan was the Commander in Chief of the Pakistan Airforce during the 1971 war. He spent his last days in the United States as a lonely man. I was serving as Third Secretary in our Embassy in Washington, DC (1987-91), when one day, we learned that Rahim Khan had passed away.

Ambassador Air Chief Marshal (Retd) Zulfiqar Ali Khan directed all officers of the Mission to attend the funeral. We witnessed the late Air Marshal buried in a solitary grave in a solitary graveyard in a solitary place near the American capital. Had the officers of the Pakistan Embassy not been there, there would have been nobody to attend the funeral of the late Air chief, except his daughter.

It is said that the head of the Pakistan Army in 1971, “(General) Hamid outlived Yahya Khan by a number of years and died at his Lahore home, unsung and unmourned.” Gul Hassan, who held important assignments at the General Headquarters, Rawalpindi in 1971, was promoted as Commander-in-Chief of the Pakistan Army on 21 December 1971 by President Bhutto but was “summarily retired on 2 March 1972…Disfigured by a rash of leukoderma, he died in 1997 at the CMH, Rawalpindi, after a long bout with cancer.”

General Gul Hasan remained a bachelor till his retirement from the Army. Later, he was appointed as Ambassador of Pakistan to Vienna, where I served as First Secretary in the late 1990s. There, he married an Austrian lady who ran a small barbershop. Pakistani generals never marry barbers.

Human nature is multifaceted and omnidirectional. The human psyche is complex and complicated. Whatever had to happen happened; there is another side to the story also, which should not be ignored.

Even in 2014, some Bangladeshis would tell the Pakistani High Commissioner in Dhaka, with all sincerity, that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman “never wanted the break-up of Pakistan.” The son of a private physician to Sheikh Mujib told me at the Indian National Day Reception in January 2013 that his father used to say that Mujib had “only raised the threshold” with Islamabad, in the hope that President Yahya would agree to his demands.

But, when the situation reached “the point of no return, he had no option but to go for Bangladesh.” According to another account, when Mujib was informed about the 1971 developments during his custody in Islamabad, he fell in prostration and remarked that he had no hand in the dismemberment of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

There should be no doubt that Mujib used to actively participate in the Pakistan movement in Bengal for the creation of Pakistan. He had also worked as the chief polling representative of Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah when she contested the Presidential elections against Ayub Khan in 1965.

On several occasions, I enquired from intellectuals in Dhaka whether Bangladesh’s relations with Pakistan would have been better “had Sheikh Mujib been alive today.” Each one of them categorically stressed Bangladesh would have had “the best of relations with Pakistan.”

Awami League ideologues describe Sheikh Mujib as “the greatest Bengali of all times.”

Other Awami Leaguers rate him as “one who is even greater than Rabindranath Tagore.” Those who know Mujib well would say that “in financial matters,” he was “above board.” Mujib’s reputation suffered mainly due to the wrongdoings of his family members. In personal life, “he was simple and austere.”

Read more: 93,000 Pakistani soldiers did not surrender in 1971 because….?

Many consider Zulfikar Ali Bhutto a “political genius;” some call him an “evil genius.” Some Bangladeshis today, also respect Bhutto “for giving the Islamic world, a nuclear bomb.” Others even opine that like President Field Marshal Ayub Khan, “Bhutto knew too well way back in 1966, that it was not really possible for East Pakistan to remain part of Pakistan for long.”

Henry Kissinger was not impressed by many. It is said that on top of the list of people who left a deep impression on his mind was Chinese Premier Chou Enlai, and “then it was the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.”

It was Chou Enlai who, in a meeting, had remarked to Bhutto after the debacle of East Pakistan, “Do not worry…Take a long-term view, who knows what is going to happen in the subcontinent 50 years from now, 70 years from now, 100 years from now!”

In discussion with me in Dhaka, Nepalese Ambassador Hari Kumar Shrestha made an interesting remark. He said, “Democracy came to Nepal because of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.”

He added, “When Bhutto was executed (April 1979), demonstrations took place on the streets of Kathmandu in favour of Bhutto….This is how the people of Nepal learned to protest and demonstrate for their rights against the King and the royal autocracy.”

In late 1973 and after that, demonstrations broke out in Pakistan, emphasizing the government never to extend recognition to Bangladesh. In an informal address to the nation in February 1974, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto stressed that if Pakistan did not recognize Bangladesh, Islam, over a period of time, “will disappear from Bengal.”

Read more: ‘Let Us Bury the Past, Not the Future’: Pakistan and Bangladesh

Many would rightly say that General Yahya Khan was morally bankrupt. Nobody would deny the fact that ‘financially’ Yahya was a very honest man. As Chairman of the Islamabad Capital Development Authority in the early 1960s, he could have made money. He did not. If media reports are correct, his son, Ali Yahya, had approached President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto for a job, as he was almost destitute.

At the time of death, General Gul Hasan did not have a house of his own. He died in a military Mess. Lieutenant General Niazi was called “Tiger Niazi.” It was Brigadier D.F.W. Warren, Commanding Officer of the 161st Infantry Division of the British Army, who gave him this soubriquet, for valor in World War II.

The British gave Niazi the ‘Military Cross.’ It is said that in December 1944, Lord Wavell, Viceroy of India, “knighted General Slim and his commanders, Scoones, Stopford and Christison in the very presence of Lord Mountbatten.” Only two Indian officers of the Royal British Army were chosen for the honour; “one was Niazi, and the other was Major (later Field Marshal) Sam Manekshaw.”

General Ziaur Rahman was a professional soldier of the Pakistan Army. He had fought for the integrity and solidarity of Pakistan when India attacked Pakistan in 1965. As President of Bangladesh, he asserted his country’s independent foreign policy on matters relating to India. Even today, a large number of Bangladeshis hold Zia in high respect and esteem.

As a Brahman Hindu, Indira Gandhi did what, according to her, she should have done: break up Muslim Pakistan – the largest Muslim country in the world. Certainly, she was not too intelligent, nor was her India too powerful, to have done a ‘good job.’ She had all the help she needed from powerful quarters in Washington DC, Tel Aviv, Moscow, and other world capitals.

Read more: Bangladesh vs Pakistan: What is Hasina’s Real Problem?

Immediately after her assassination on 31 October 1984, violent riots broke out in India against the Sikh population. By various accounts, “2000 Sikhs were massacred in just one day, in Delhi alone.” Many Sikhs shaved off their beards for fear of threats to their lives and properties.

Several Sikh families even sought refuge at the residences of Pakistani diplomats in New Delhi. Later, when a Sikh delegation called on Rajiv Gandhi to convey their plight, he sarcastically remarked, “When a large tree collapses, ants do get crushed.”

The Lieutenant-General of the Indian Army, Jagjit Singh Aurora, who led his country’s military campaign in East Pakistan in 1971, was a Sikh. He had personal connections with Pakistan. He was born near Jhelum in what became Pakistan after 1947.

Aurora was not a happy man to see the holiest place of the Sikh religion, Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple), desecrated by the Indian army during ‘Operation Blue Star’ on 1-8 June 1984.

Major General Shabeg Singh of the Indian army was earlier in his career responsible for the training of the Mukti Bahini in 1971. He was mercilessly killed by his own very army when he was leading the Sikh force defending the Golden Temple during Operation Blue Star. Shabeg Singh was an old Ravian having studied in Government College, Lahore.

Read more: Bangladesh’s democratic erosion: how democracy assistance can help

Lieutenant General Kuldip Singh Brar had led the Operation Blue Star. By various accounts, his boss, the Chief of Staff of the Indian Army, General Arun Shridhar Vaidya, had given him instructions to attack the Golden Temple on Guru Arjan Dev’s ‘Martyrdom Day’ to “kill the maximum number of Sikhs so as to teach Sikhs a lesson they will remember forever.”

Kuldip Singh Brar had actively participated in the 1971 war against Pakistan. Brar, even today, is running for his life. Living under full police protection in Mumbai, he has survived several attempts on life, including one in London in September 2012.

In an interview with The Independent in September 2013, the former General said, “I don’t know how I will eventually pass away; if I will die a natural death or I’m assassinated.”

As regards General Arun Shridhar Vaidya himself, readers would recall what had happened. Following his retirement on 31 January 1986 as one of India’s most decorated military officers, the General took up residence in Pune.

Just six months later, on 10 August 1986, he was shot to death. According to police reports, four clean-shaven men pulled up alongside his car on motorcycles, with the lead assassin firing three shots at Vaidya.

The first two bullets penetrated his brain and killed him instantly. A third bullet struck Vaidya in the shoulder, with another striking his wife in the neck. The bleeding general was carried to the hospital in a passing van and was declared “brought dead.”

Read more: War against its own: UN concerned for students in Bangladesh protests

The witnesses who deposed in court said that the assailants were clean-shaven, but later the assassins were seen in turban and beard. Following the assassination, the Khalistan Commando Force, in a statement, declared that Vaidya had been killed in retaliation for the Golden Temple operation.

As a Brigadier, Arun Shridhar Vaidya had actively participated in the 1971 conflict. Importantly, the ‘foundation stone’ of the Golden Temple was laid centuries ago in December 1588, by a Muslim saint Hazrat Mian Mir. Mian Mir was from what is today Pakistan.

It is said that later, a mason tried to “straighten the stone” as it was a little uneven. Sikh Guru Arjan chided the mason and said, “You should not have done this…The stone was laid by a holy Muslim saint. Now, I fear the Sikh community will have to face tremendous difficulties in the future.”

Indeed, all this is a sad story, sad saga, and the saddest tragedy for the Muslims of South Asia. Sometimes, even Indians have been commenting, “Was it a wise decision on part of New Delhi to create two Pakistans in 1971!”

Bangladesh is the only state in the world that came into being on the basis of Bengali nationalism. Now, on its West, India has to deal with Muslim Pakistan; and on its East, India has to deal with both Muslim and Bengali Bangladesh.

Read more: Bangladesh detains FIFA official for ‘defaming’ PM

In 1971, India was a country ruled by the ideals of Karamchand Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Today, India is ruled by the Rashtarya Swayamsevakh Sangh, whose activists like Narendra Modi, silently eulogize not Gandhi but his assassin Nathuram Godse.

The Muslims of Pakistan and the Muslims of Bangladesh are aware of all this. They are carefully noting what Hindu fundamentalist India is doing to the Muslims in India and the Muslims in Kashmir.

Those who know Pakistan might know that ‘Pakistan is not just a country; Pakistan is also an idea.’ Pakistan is a very powerful idea that continues to live on ever since 712 AD.

In fact, Pakistan’s soul is much bigger than its size. Perhaps, this is the reason that during his visit to Islamabad in the wake of 9/11, French Foreign Minister Vedrin stressed to his Pakistani counterpart Abdus Sattar, “When Pakistan looks North, the Islamic world looks North; when Pakistan looks South, the Islamic world looks South.”

May Pakistan remain strong forever. May the Muslims of Bangladesh remain happy, and may they prosper forever.

Ambassador Afrasiab served as High Commissioner of Pakistan to Bangladesh from 2011 to 2014 and has worked in various capacities in the Pakistani Missions in Washington DC, New Delhi, and Beijing. Afrasiab has authored several books on issues relevant to Pakistan’s foreign policy. This write-up has been excerpted from his book titled ‘1971: Fact and Fiction’ whose fourth print was published in 2016.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.