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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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.
Nahid and the Secretary: Liaison d’Amour
By Pervaiz Munir Alvi
It is London, June 4, 1953. The official delegation of the Dominion of Pakistan, headed by Prime Minister Mohammad Ali Bogra, who also holds the portfolio of Ministry of Defense, is staying at the Claridge’s Hotel. Included in the entourage is the Secretary Ministry of Defense. Only two days earlier the Secretary, as part of the delegation, had attended the pomp and show filled coronation ceremony of Queen Elizabeth II. Today a telegram from the office of Air-Vice Marshal Cannon, Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Pakistan Air Force arrives stating that the Secretary has lost his twenty year old son in a tragic plane accident. The Secretary is devastated. Comforting him in this moment of grief are his few close friends and a thirty-nine year old women named Nahid. The Secretary is Colonel Iskander Mirza – future President of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
Not much is known about Nahid’s background except that she was the wife of one Lieutenant Colonel Afghamy – the Military Attaché at the Iranian Embassy in Pakistan. Also not known are the time and the circumstances under which Colonel Iskander Mirza and Nahid Afghamy had first met. It is a matter of conjecture that perhaps as Military Attaché Colonel Afghamy had frequent dealings with the Pakistan Ministry of Defence and also with Secretary Iskander Mirza. Perhaps Nahid and the Secretary had met near about 1951 in some social gathering of the diplomatic circle of Karachi. However, first knowledge of the personal connection between the two comes to the Mirza family only in early 1952.
The Secretary had sent his elder son Humayun Mirza to England for further studies and training whereas he and his wife Rifaat Mirza would regularly visit their son during their yearly summer sojourn. In early 1952 the twenty-four year old younger Mirza received a letter and some money from his father telling him that the wife of a Colonel Afghamy would be visiting London and he was to entertain her while she was in town. Later that year the Secretary again asked his son to find a suitable school in England for the young daughter of Mrs. Afghamy. In spring of 1953 Mrs. Rifaat Mirza would herself take the little girl Safia Afghamy to London to enroll her in a school.
Then came the fateful day of June 4, 1953. The younger son of the Secretary – Enver Mirza is killed in a plane crash. The next day Government of Pakistan moves Iskander Mirza to Selsdon Park Hotel in Croydon, Surrey for private grieving. To the surprise of his son Humayun, Nahid is present at this hotel as well comforting his father in a very personal way. Humayun Mirza is very upset and embarrassed by the situation and wants Nahid to leave the room to which friends of the Secretary advise the son to let it be. Few days later the son is sent back to Karachi to be with his mother and four sisters while Iskander Mirza and Nahid Afghamy stay behind in London. Finally a month later Iskander Mirza returns to his home and family in Karachi. There is no talk in the family about Mrs. Afghamy.
In April 1954 ruling Muslim League lost the general elections in East Pakistan and the province fell into chaos. To deal with the situation Prime Minister Bogra appointed Iskander Mirza as Governor of East Pakistan. Iskander Mirza moves to Dacca but does not take his family with him. Did he take Nahid with him? Were the two married by this time? Nothing is clear. According to Nahid the two got married by proxy on July 7, 1953 after Iskander Mirza’s return to Pakistan from England and the actual marriage ceremony took place on September 5, 1953. However there is no public record of her account.
After spending six month in East Pakistan, in September 1954 Iskander Mirza left for England supposedly for medical treatment of his ailing back. Also in late September, Prime Minister Bogra, Foreign Minister Sir Zafrullah Khan, Finance Minister Choudary Mohammad Ali, Commander-in-Chief of Pakistan Army, General Ayub Khan and few other members of the administration had gone to the USA on an official visit. On September 21 the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan stripped the Governor-General off most of his administrative powers. Governor-General asked the Prime Minister to return to the capital immediately. On their return trip from the USA, Bogra, Ayub, Mirza, and Pakistan’s High Commissioner in the UK, Abu-al-Hassan Isphani, all met at the London Airport to discuss the political development back home. After the meeting they all decided to fly back to Karachi aboard a chartered Royal Air Force plane arranged by Iskander Mirza.
Upon its arrival, the team with a plan in hand went to the house of Governor-General Ghulam Mohammad. There an agreement was struck between the Prime Minister and the Governor-General. The two agreed to dissolve the Constituent Assembly and form a new government with all in presence getting important cabinet positions. Mirza got the Ministry of the Interior, Choudary Mohammad Ali Ministry of Finance and Ayub in addition to his position as C-in-C got the Ministry of Defence. The occasion marks the beginning of the direct involvement of sitting civil servants and military officers in the running of the government at the highest level.
Month of October 1954 brings some more dramatic developments for Iskander Mirza. His son Humayun is in the USA getting ready to marry the daughter of Horace A. Hildreth, American Ambassador to Pakistan. None of the groom’s family is present at the wedding. Mrs. Rifaat Mirza is away in China as part of a Pakistani women’s delegation. Iskander Mirza is at home in Karachi with his four daughters when the phone rings. Nahid has returned to Karachi and for Iskander Mirza a personal scandal is about to break open in the public. All of a sudden the power broker par excellence is now powerless. The Minister of Interior is embroiled in a domestic problem of his own. White as a ghost Iskander Mirza rushes out of the house without speaking a word to his daughters. The master of crisis must control the biggest crisis of fifty-five years of his personal life. Nahid is no longer willing to be ‘l’autre femme’.
After absence of one week Iskander Mirza returns home and informs his daughters that he has taken Nahid Afghamy as his second wife. The news of his father’s secret marriage is related to Humayun Mirza on his wedding day in the USA while the first wife, Rifaat Mirza learns that only after her return from China. Iskander Mirza leaves his broken family never to return home or to see his first wife again. Two months later a second reception is held in Karachi to receive the newly weds. In addition to the families of the bride and the groom are present the dignitaries such as the Governor-General and the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Conspicuously absent are the father-of-the-groom and his new wife Nahid.
The new Cabinet included a number of civil bureaucrats and military officers. Country’s politicians unhappy with this development took the matter to the Supreme Court. The Court upheld Governor-General’s action but directed the government to hold fresh elections. Elections were held in spring 1955 and Iskander Mirza was elected as member of the new Constituent Assembly. His friend Ayub Khan chose to stay with the army and did not run for the election. The new Constituent Assembly was formed in June 1955 and Ayub left the government in July 1955. Year 1955 brought more dramatic developments in the life of Iskander Mirza. Pakistan, along with Iran, Iraq and Turkey joined the Baghdad Pact thus formalizing its alliance with the West. In coming months Governor-General Ghulam Mohammad became increasingly ill. The Cabinet in its August 4 meeting decided to appoint Iskander Mirza as the Acting Governor-General; he was sworn in his new position on August 7, 1955. Bogra resigned from the Premiership and later on was reappointed to his old job as Ambassador to the United States.
In the new Constituent Assembly Muslim League had lost the majority status and was forced to form a coalition government in partnership with the United Front. On August 11, 1955 Choudary Mohammad Ali became the new Prime Mister of Pakistan. Ghulam Mohammad resigned as Governor-General and Queen Elizabeth on September 19 confirmed Iskander Mirza on that post. On September 30 the Constituent Assembly passed Establishment of West Pakistan Act. On October 6, 1955 Iskander Mirza took the oath of Governor-General and a week later all four provinces of West Pakistan were merged into single West Pakistan Province to create parity with East Pakistan.
The new Constituent Assembly drafted the constitution on January 8, 1956 and after some debate passed it on February 17. On March 6 Iskander Mirza was elected as President and the constitution was promulgated on March 23, 1956. Three days later on March 26, 1956 with Nahid on his side Iskander Mirza took the oath as President of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.. Thus in a passage of two years, mostly through palace intrigues and backroom dealings, an ex-soldier and a career bureaucrat rose from the level of a department head to the position of the Head of the State. And the Iranian born Nahid Afghamy, the wife of a Military Attaché lifted by a government Secretary of the host country, became the First Lady of Pakistan. For the next two and half years Nahid Mirza as wife of the President will play significant role in the national and international affairs of Pakistan. A few years back Zulfi a young advocate gifts a packet of a dozen bottles of Black Dog to the GG House on the new Year. He is invited to the GG house; dances with the Nahid’s cousin Nusrat, looking for a match, who fall for him and they quickly get married. Zulfi’s after a few years told Nusrat about his first wife Amir Begum. As Iskander Mirza, proclaims Martial Law on 7th October Zulfi gets into the cabinet as Industries Minister. On unceremonious departure of Iskander Mirza, on 27th October 1958, Zulfi remains in Ayub Khan’s cabinet.