General in the labyrinth

The Betrayal Of East Pakistan
by Lt Gen. A.A.K. Niazi

reviewed by Ashok K. Mehta

For old warriors, the 1971 war is not yet over.

Before 1971, India was seen by its neighbours as a weak and vacillating state for several reasons: its failure to prevent Beijing´s takeover of Tibet in 1949; the military humiliation by the Chinese in 1962; and its inability to convert the military initiative in 1965 into a decisive victory against Pakistan. It took another six years to change that image. The third India-Pakistan war in 1971 may have been the most decisive clash of arms in the Subcontinent this century.

The 1971 adventure has been variously called the "Lightning Campaign", "Birth of a Nation" and "Betrayal of East Pakistan". It was also one of the most ferociously argued about military campaigns – one which the Indians love to talk about, Pakistanis wish to forget, and catches Bangladeshis in the crossfire.

There has never been a Bangladeshi version of the war, but many Indian and Pakistani generals have presented graphic accounts of it. The latest two come from Lt Gen J.F.R. Jacob and Lt Gen A.A.K. Niazi, both of whom have taken credit for the positive aspects of the campaign while blaming others for the deficiencies and errors in planning and conducting the war. Remember, Jacob was only a staff officer subordinate to Lt Gen J.S. Aurora, whose counterpart in Pakistan´s Eastern Command was Niazi. Not to forget the redoubtable Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, then the Indian army chief and the brain behind the liberation of Bangladesh (something which Jacob does not concede).

The picture, therefore, will not be complete until Aurora and Manekshaw write their own 1971 war memoirs. It is also worthwhile to note that Pakistanis tend to forget to thank the Indians for defeating Niazi´s beleaguered force; this led ultimately to the fall of military dictatorship and the dawn of democracy, however frail in Pakistan.

But, for immediate reference, the first phase of writings on the Pakistani military debacle in East Pakistan is now complete with Niazi´s The Betrayal of East Pakistan. The book is about the soldier, the impossible task given to him, his failed mission, his grand strategy, the ignominy of defeat and surrender, and his subsequent jehad in Pakistan to tell the truth about how and why the war was lost in 1971.

Niazi is today a bitter man. Any soldier would be, had he suffered the collective shame of defeat, surrender and the humiliation of being a POW, And if he had to return home two years and eight months later, to be ´welcomed´ with a placard marked "No 1" – meaning Traitor No 1 -thrown around his neck, dismissed from service without pension, and jailed.


Two years ago in Lahore, this reviewer met many retired officers who were on the opposite side during the war. One of them, wounded in my sector of operations, was my host. I heard the story of how Niazi had been paraded through the streets of the city with a garland of shoes. No wonder he turned a recluse, and would not take my telephone calls.

During that visit, I was curious to note how openly critical the Pakistani English language press was of the Pakistani army for losing the war. At the same time, with Benazir Bhutto then in the prime ministerial seat, there was the glorification of ´martyr´ Zulfikar AH Bhutto. According to Niazi, however, it was Bhutto, in complicity with some generals, who was responsible for the breakup of Pakistan.

Describing Bhutto´s gameplan, Niazi writes that first he got ´rid´ of East Pakistan so that he could become prime minister of a truncated Pakistan, all the while blaming the army for the breakup. Next, he got Lt Gen Gul Hassan, the then chief of General Staff, to organise a coup in cahoots with Air Chief Rahim Khan in order to get rid of the President and Supreme Commander, Gen Yahya Khan. Later, Bhutto double-crossed Gul Hassan as well. Bhutto paid dearly for the games he played with the generals. After all, it was ultimately the same Zia-ul Haq, whom he had appointed army chief out of turn over nine generals, who saw him to the gallows.

Self justifications

Niazi´s book reveals all the intrigue and duplicity that was then routine in both the wings of Pakistan. It was against this background that Niazi, a veteran of insurgencies in Punjab and Sindh, was elevated, superseding 12 other officers, to replace Lt Gen Tikka Khan´s suave successor in East Pakistan, Lt Gen Sahibzada Yaqub Khan. Anyone familiar with the Sahibzada from Rampur would know that hewould not have the stomach for the butchery perpetrated on the Bengalis by his predecessor. Less than four days after assuming command, he announced, "I refuse to kill my brethren."

Niazi´s mission appeared simple: "Your task is not to allow the Indians to establish a government of Bangladesh on the soil of East Pakistan." Indeed, on the other side, the task given to Aurora was to carve out an enclave in East Pakistan where a provisional government of Bangladesh could be set up and to later create conditions for the return of the refugees.

Last year, in his own book, Jacob told the world that the capture of Dhaka was not the military objective. So what was? With hindsight, both Jacob, and now Niazi, have doctored their versions to suit their personal interests. Their writings are nothing more than self-justifications.

However, Niazi´s task was altered mid-stream – he was also required to tie down the maximum number of Indian forces in the east for as long as possible. A difficult task was made impossible as Niazi´s strategic theory rested on the thesis that the decision for the war in the east lay on the outcome of the war in the west. He may have been right But his 43,000-strong force proved no match for "the 12 divisions and 39 BSF battalions". By the time the war started on 3 December, Niazi was already doomed to defeat. Talk of help from the north (Chinese) and south (Americans) proved illusory.

Full marks should go to Niazi´s courage and stamina for continuing to fight for ´vindication´ 37 years after it all ended in a defeat for his side. However, his book has not created as many ripples in India as it has in Pakistan. Despite its many blemishes, it is a useful work because of the identity of the writer. Niazi has also demanded a new enquiry to reject the as-yet unreleased Hamood ur Rehman Commission report. More significantly, The Betrayal of East Pakistan seems to have set the cat among the pigeons, because now Tikka Khan, Gul Hassan and Yaqub Khan have all joined in the battle of recrimination.

Thanks to Niazi, it looks like the 1971 war has not yet ended.

A.K. Mehta is a journalist, a former army officer, and founder-member of the Indian Defence Planning Staff of the Chiefs of Staff Committee.

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