Editor’s Note: History has many faces. It may be written from different perspectives.The account by Brig. F.B Ali is one.
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By: Brig. F.B Ali
19 December 1971 was a remarkable day in Pakistan’s short and unfortunate history. It was the day on which the Pakistan Army removed the country’s military ruler and forced him to hand over power to an elected leader, the first and only time that such a thing has happened. It may be worthwhile revisiting this event after all these years for the benefit of the many who do not know what happened. To understand it, however, it is necessary to recall the context within which it occurred.
On 16 December Lt. Gen. AAK Niazi surrendered the army in East Pakistan to Indian forces, and half the country was lost. That night President Yahya Khan broadcast a speech in which, in a voice slurred with drink, he announced that though a battle had been lost the war would go on.
Next day he accepted the unilateral Indian offer of a cease-fire in West Pakistan. Yahya Khan’s shameful acceptance of defeat on behalf of an army that he and his generals had prevented from fighting during the 14-day war burst like a thunderclap over soldiers and civilians alike. While feelings of anger and betrayal were common among both, the soldiers felt in addition a deep shame that their cowardly and incompetent generals had caused them to let the country down so badly.
The true significance of the events of 19 December 1971 is that it was the Pakistan Army that rid the country (and itself) of this foul regime that had ruled in its name.
The overt action was taken by a small group of officers, but it depended for its success on the tacit support of the rest of the army. If even a small element of the military had acted to preserve the regime, our move could well have failed since we were determined that there would be no clash within the army. But no one lifted a finger to support the Yahya gang, in spite of the desperate efforts they made to seek help.
During the 1971 war I commanded an armoured division artillery in the Gujranwala-Sialkot-Shakargarh sector. On 17 December, after Yahya Khan announced the acceptance of the cease-fire, I was quite certain, as were most other people, that he and his government would accept responsibility for the debacle and announce that they were quitting.
That evening I handed in my resignation from the Army, acknowledging my responsibility (shared by all other senior officers) for having silently acquiesced in the takeover and maintenance of power by these corrupt, self-seeking generals who had brought the country to this sorry state.
Next day, the 18th, I was stunned to learn that Yahya Khan had no intention of leaving; instead, he announced that he was going to promulgate a new constitution. Meanwhile, angry public demonstrations demanding that the regime should quit had erupted all over the country. There was a real danger that Yahya Khan might use troops to quell the public outcry, which would have imposed an unbearable strain on the discipline of the Army, itself angry and upset over what had happened. I became convinced that the regime had to be clearly told that it no longer had the support of the Army and must go.
I tried to persuade my division commander, Maj. Gen. MI Karim, to send such a message to the government through GHQ, but, although he appeared to share my views, he hesitated to take such a step. Finally, on 19 December, I could wait no longer, and took over effective command of the division from Gen. Karim. (He tacitly accepted this, and gave me valuable help during the subsequent events).
In this action I also had the support of some other senior officers who felt as I did. Our position was that the regime should quit and hand over to the elected representatives of the people, and that all those incompetent and corrupt commanders who had led us into defeat should be sacked. In practical terms this meant handing over power to ZA Bhutto and his People’s Party, who had won the 1970 election in West Pakistan. Even though I was by no means a fan of Mr. Bhutto’s, I believed that their elected status gave them the right to govern, and obtain the allegiance of the armed forces.
We decided that Cols. Aleem Afridi and Javed Iqbal would fly to Rawalpindi with a message from us for Yahya Khan : he should announce by 8 p.m. that evening his readiness to hand over power to the elected representatives of the people. In addition, all those generals who had led the army into this disaster should also quit. In case such an announcement was not made by 8 p.m. then we could not guarantee control of the situation, and any resulting consequences.
The two officers met with Gen. Gul Hassan, Chief of the General Staff, that afternoon and asked him to convey this message to Yahya Khan. Gul Hassan went to Gen. Hamid, the Chief of Staff, who said he would arrange for a meeting with the President at 7 p.m.
Gen. Hamid then went into a flurry of activity. He called several army commanders to see if they could help to restore the situation in our area, but they all expressed inability to do anything. Maj. Gen. AO Mitha, another stalwart of the regime, tried to get some SSG commando troops for action against our divisional HQ, but was unable to obtain any. The failure of these efforts, and the obvious absence of any support in the Army, left the Yahya clique with no option. Shortly before 8 p.m. the broadcast was made that Yahya Khan had decided to hand over power to the elected representatives of the people
After this announcement Gen. Gul Hassan and his friend, Air Marshal Rahim Khan, the Air Force chief, in consultation with GM Khar, a PPP leader, arranged for ZA Bhutto’s return from Rome, where he was sitting out the crisis, apparently because he was not sure about his personal safety if he came back. When Bhutto arrived on the 20th Gul Hassan and Rahim told him that the military was behind them, and it was they who had removed the Yahya regime.
That night Mr. Bhutto made a broadcast to the nation in which he announced the retirement of all the generals in Yahya Khan’s inner clique, saying that he was doing this “in accord with the sentiments of the Armed Forces and the younger officers“. He also made Lt. Gen. Gul Hassan the Army chief, and confirmed Rahim Khan as the Air Force chief, though they did not last long when they proved insufficiently pliable.
Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had a glorious opportunity when he became President. The people of Pakistan were shaken down to the roots of their national psyche. The country had splintered, but much worse was that the very basis of their nationhood, their justification for being a people, long chipped away, had finally been shattered. Their lives, devoted mainly to selfish, individual pursuits, suddenly stood starkly revealed in all their pettiness and worthlessness. Shorn of their illusions and their excuses, in their helplessness they looked longingly for a leader to guide them back to the right path; they were prepared to give up the weaknesses and follies of the past, to make a new beginning as a cohesive, caring people ready to work together again to achieve the vision that had created their homeland 25 years ago. All they wanted was a leader who felt the same pain and yearned for the same goal.
Bhutto could have rallied the people of Pakistan to Herculean effort, led them to reverse the decline of the past years, and recreated the nation that had, against all odds, established Pakistan in 1947. But at this great crossroads in history, the man of the hour was found pitifully wanting. His lack of vision, meanness of spirit, and pettiness of mind, all led him to see this historic moment as just an opportunity to grab personal power. Even the use of this power was affected by his limitations : for example, one of his first acts as President was the arrest and public humiliation of persons against whom he harbored personal grudges; and the childish reveling in the trappings of office, typically exemplified by the monkey uniforms in which he clothed himself and his ministers.
That the effort by this small group of officers to end an inglorious chapter in Pakistan’s history, and provide to the nation another opportunity under the leader it had chosen, ultimately failed to produce the desired results does not in any way diminish the great credit due to them.
They risked everything (their careers, their liberty, their families, even their lives) to answer the call of this critical moment in their nation’s destiny. Even though their action succeeded, they still lost the promising careers they had in the profession they loved; Bhutto made sure of that. If ever a true history of Pakistan is written, then high up on the roll of honor of its true patriots should be inscribed the names of Lt. Col. Muhammad Khurshid, Col. Aleem Afridi, Col. Javed Iqbal and Brig. Iqbal Mehdi Shah.
Later on, other young, patriotic military officers tried again to stop the downward slide on which Pakistan was launched. They failed, and paid a heavier price. The cycle of feckless generals and politicians continues; the country founders from one crisis to another. Yet, the action of 19 December 1971 should neither be forgotten nor diminished. It was an affirmation that Pakistan was worth fighting for, worth risking one’s life for. We still need that affirmation today.