The Betrayal of East Pakistan


On December 16, 1971, under clear skies, and in front of a restless crowd of nearly a million Bengalis, Lieutenant General A. A. K. Niazi, Commander, Eastern Command of the Pakistan Army, surrendered “first his pistol, then his sword, and then half his country” to Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Aurora of the Indian Army.

In West Pakistan, the President of Pakistan, its Chief of Army Staff, and its Chief Martial Law Administrator, General Yahya came on the radio to reassure his shocked nation that even though fighting had ceased on the eastern front “due to an arrangement between the local commanders,” the war with India would continue.  However, on the very next day, realizing that his chances of surviving a full-scale war with India on the western front without US or Chinese support were nil, he agreed to a ceasefire.  An exultant Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India, and daughter of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, declared that “we have avenged the Muslim capture of Somnath and our history of a thousand years.”

General Yahya had boasted earlier in the year that if India choose to declare war on Pakistan “I will shoot my way out of it.” He had also boasted about how he had escaped from a prisoner of war camp in Italy during the Second World War, while Sam Manekshaw, now the Indian Chief of Staff, was one of many fellow prisoners who had been unable to escape. 

Now, in vastly different circumstances, a chastened General Yahya sought to justify the ceasefire by stating that “I have always maintained that war solves no problem.” However, as Oxford historian Robert Jackson noted in South Asian Crisis, “the victors in Dacca knew otherwise.” East Pakistan had passed into the history books, and with it some argued the “two nation theory” that had led to Pakistan’s independence.

How did things come to such a sorry pass for Pakistan?  A nation as proud of its martial traditions as Pakistan has still not to come with this sad legacy.  Heir to the glorious traditions of the Arab, Turkish and Moghul armies of Muslim history, the Pakistani army was expected to fight to the “last man, last round” in East Pakistan, and to do anything but surrender itself to the Indian Army.  Several years later, a Pakistani general officer summed up the nation’s feelings when he said that “Never before had a Muslim sword been turned over to a Hindu.  In Islam, surrender is taboo; you either return with the land, or you bathe it in your blood.”

What went wrong?  Pakistanis may well find an answer to this troubling question in General Niazi’s book, even though it is not the disingenuous answer that presented by the author. 

Soon after the war ended, Indian authors, gloating over their victory, produced a plethora of books with jingoistic titles such as The Lightning Campaign,  Indian Sword Strikes in East Pakistan and The Liberation of Bangladesh. A few month’s prior to the surrender,  the Chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party, and soon to be the new president and first civilian martial law administrator of truncated Pakistan,  penned his version of events.  It blamed the inept Army leadership and the intransigent Awami League for The Great Tragedy. There was no mention of Bhutto’s own intransigence in accepting the right of the Awami League to form the government, which was its constitutional right given its absolute majority in parliament.  Nor was there any mention of his collusion with the ruling junta in launching Operation SEARCHLIGHT on March 25.   Unable to hide his relief at the military crackdown, he had ranted prematurely on the following day that “Thank God Pakistan has been saved.”

When he took over the presidency in Islamabad, he asked Major General Fazal Muqueem Khan who had earlier written ‘A Story of the Pakistani Army’ during the presidency of Ayub Khan to write a “military history” of last year’s events.  Pakistan’s Crisis in Leadership conveniently placed the blame squarely on Pakistan’s erstwhile military junta. To deal with any potential public outcry for justice, Mr. Bhutto appointed a judicial commission of inquiry headed by then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Hamood-ur-Rehman. The Commission laboured over several months to interview serving and retired generals, air marshals, admirals, civil servants and politicians.  However, there was one surprising exception: Lieutenant General Tikka Khan, who had launched the ill-fated Operation SEARCHLIGHT, and who would later become Chief of Army Staff.  The Commission’s report was completed but never saw the light of the day.  It remains “Top Secret” to this day, because its release may compromise “national security.”

As the years went by, Major Siddiq Salik, Public Relations Officer to General Niazi in Eastern Command, produced a lucid and compelling first-hand narrative called ‘Witness To Surrender’.  This placed the blame largely on General Niazi’s shoulders.  More recently, Lieutenant General Gul Hasan, then Chief of General Staff, produced his Memoirs.  Accepting responsibility for his portion of the blame, he stated that “we lost half of the country due to our mistakes.”  He also stated that General Niazi should never have been appointed to this command because he had an undistinguished military record and that his “professional ceiling was that of a company commander.”  However, he does not explain how then Brigadier Niazi was one of only eight officers to be awarded the Hilal-e-Jurat in the 1965 war.

General Niazi’s Version

In his book, Niazi reproduces a letter of recommendation from Lieutenant General Tikka Khan where the latter expresses complete confidence in Niazi and says that “I will have him on my side in war.” As the war began, Niazi notes that “I had vast experience of commanding troops.  The troops under my command were probably the best in the world.”  And five months later, General Abdul Hamid Khan, de facto C-in-C during the 1971 war, called him “the highest decorated officer of our Army, and one of our best field commanders.”  General Niazi says that 24 medals “adorned” his chest, including – for some unexplained reason – the Hilal-e-Jurat and Sitara-e-Pakistan for his performance in the 1971 war.

After being released as a prisoner of war, he states that he “volunteered for Court Martial” because the truth would come out and the real culprits would be exposed.  However, no one took him up on the offer.  Niazi puts the blame for the military debacle on the GHQ and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.  He alleges they conspired to surrender the Eastern wing of the country to India, so that they could hang on to power in the Western wing. 

He simply dismisses all other books that critique his role in the debacle, such as those by Salik and Gul Hassan, as a “pack of lies”.  Nowhere does he find any fault with himself.  If anything, he states that he never abandoned his soldiers, and proudly states that both Hannibal and Napoleon had done so at least once.

Niazi comes across as a general officer eager to follow orders.  Three such orders led to disaster.  The first order was to command the Eastern Garrison.  Several generals senior to him had declined the opportunity.  He knew the mission assigned to him was not achievable with the resources given to him, but he accepted that order even though “I had been given a rudderless ship with a broken mast to take across the stormy seas, with no lighthouse to me in any direction.” 

The second order was to not take the war into India, even though he had planned to “capture Agartala and a big chunk of Assam, and develop multiple thrusts into Indian Bengal.  We would cripple the economy of Calcutta by blowing up bridges and sinking boats and ships in the Hoogly River and create panic amongst the civilians.”  But this proposal was rejected by General Hamid who said that the Pakistan government “was not prepared to fight an open war with India…You will neither enter Indian territory nor send raiding parties into India, and you will not fire into Indian territory either.”

And the third order was to surrender the Eastern garrison to India, “to save West Pakistan, our base, from disintegration and Western Garrison from further repulses.”   Thus, the defence of West Pakistan had now become contingent on the surrender of East Pakistan, in an ironic reversal of Pakistan’s strategic doctrine that “the defence of the East lay in the West.”

He states that he had 32,000 men and the wherewithal to continue the war and “were nowhere near defeat.”  The number of men cited seems implausible since he had started the war with 45,000 troops.  It is highly unlikely, given his deployment of forces, that he could have concentrated 32,000 for the Battle of Dacca.  In fact, others have argued that he only had 5,000 men available for the defence of Dacca, since the troops had been deployed in penny packets around the entire border with India, and were instructed to fall back only when they had experienced 75% casualties.

Regardless of the number of troops available to him, it is not clear how long he could have survived, since there was no hope for reinforcements of any kind from any source. Notes Brian Cloughley, “the concept of operations was faulty: all brigades were forward, with nothing in reserve…The outcome of the Indian advance was inevitable.” 

General Niazi requires an unusual amount of gullibility from his readers when he states that he was forced to surrender by his Commander-in-Chief.  It is the very opposite of what typically happens in such situations.  Informed that Paulus had surrendered the Sixth Army to the Soviet Union, an infuriated Hitler said: “This hurts me so much because the heroism of so many soldiers is nullified by one single characterless weakling…What is Life?  Life is the Nation.  The individual must die anyway…What hurts me most, personally, is that I still promoted him to Field Marshal.  I wanted to give him this final satisfaction.  He could have freed himself from all sorrow and ascended into eternity and national immortality, but he prefers to go to Moscow.”

Valid Insights

He contends correctly that General Yahya disappeared from East Pakistan after March 25, 1971. This was inexcusable behaviour on the part of the Supreme Commander and President. To make matters worse, when asked about East Pakistan, Yahya would say that “all I can do about East Pakistan is pray.”  General Abdul Hamid Khan, the acting C-in-C, visited the troops in the East just twice.  General Gul Hassan, the Chief of General Staff, would not answer Niazi’s phone calls.  The top brass of the Pakistan Army had abandoned their “most decorated officer” to his own devices.

General Niazi excoriates General Yahya and the GHQ for waging a lack lustre campaign on the Western front, where they had a near parity of forces with India and could choose the time and place of attack.  He states that the Western Garrison lost 5,500 square miles of territory in ten days, and failed to launch their much awaited counter offensive into India.  He calls this “a setback militarily unbelievable, unacceptable and unforgivable.”  Lieutenant General Attiqur Rahman states that the counter offensive was not launched for reasons that remain a mystery, but lack of morale was not one of them.  Without any success being achieved in the West, the fate of the garrison in East Pakistan was sealed.  As noted by Sisson-Rose, “the war was planned and pursued with a lack of coordination and foresight not dissimilar to that of 1965.”

Niazi boldly and correctly calls for “a computer model of the conduct of operations by the Armed Forces in the whole of Pakistan, as well as separately for East and West Pakistan, keeping in view the political and military environment at that time.  This is the modern method for assessing performance…  If this were done, I and my generals would be shown to be among the most successful generals of this century.”  By prejudging the outcome of such a computer simulation, he erodes the credibility of this useful suggestion.

The Engima of Surrender

General Niazi is not inclined to accept any blame for himself. Having prided himself on his superiority to Hannibal and Napoleon, he states elsewhere that he “did more for the good of the country and its armed forces than anyone else.”  As mentioned earlier, he says he challenged the Pakistan Army to Court Martial him, but they refused. It is likely that much would have come out of such proceedings that would have implicated not only the top Army brass but also General Niazi himself.  It is very likely that he would have been subjected to intense cross examination on his conduct of war.  Perhaps the following questions would have been put to him.

(1) Did you think that East Pakistan could be defended with the troops that were likely to be made available to you?  I.e.,  three divisions without much supporting armour or artillery, and only one squadron of subsonic Sabre fighter bombers.  War with India was coming on the heels of a gruelling civil war, and your “troops were not only tired and exhausted but had swollen feet, ravaged chests, and bare legs, because clothing and footwear were not available in the required quantity.”

(2) Did you not anticipate that you would be required to simultaneously fight a conventional war and a guerilla war?  The Mukti Bahini was fighting a war of liberation, supported by a local population of 75 million up in arms against the Pakistan Army which it viewed as an occupation force.

(3) What stroke of generalship led you to believe that India would merely conduct a minor incursion into East Pakistan to set up a puppet regime?  Is that why you deployed your troops in penny packets?  Niazi told his captors that they “always seemed to come round behind us.”  Pran Chopra argues that the credit for this goes very largely to the Mukti Bahini.  “Jointly, the IAF and the Mukti Bahini destroyed the logic of Niazi’s strategy.”

(4) Why did you expect Pakistan would succeed in pulling off its well-known but untested strategy that the “Defence of the East lies in the West.”  Was this not a case of putting “all your eggs in one basket?”

(5) What caused you to expect the Chinese would intervene through the Himalayan passes which the winter snows had rendered impassable in December? Were you not aware of India’s treaty with the Soviet Union, and the decision of the Soviet Union to deploy scores of additional divisions along the Manchurian border with China.  Did you not recall that China had issued an ultimatum to India during the September 1965 war, but then never delivered on it?

(6) Given his poor track record, what caused you to think that General Hamid would indeed send your beleaguered garrison supplies from the West  through the “hump back” trade route that traverses Tibet, thereby circumventing the Indian blockade of the sea routes?  He states that when he asked General Hamid to send him supplies through this route, Hamid dismissed the request politely by simply saying that it was infeasible.

(7) Did you honestly think the US government was in a position to intervene on Pakistan’s side, in the face of significant domestic opposition to the well-publicized brutalities of Tikka Khan’s military crack-down?  You surely had seen first hand how the US had abandoned its military ally, Pakistan, during the 1965 War with non-aligned India.  That “equal” embargo on both India and Pakistan had significantly affected import-dependent Pakistan without making any dent in India war-making capabilities.

(8) When hostilities broke out, why did you succumb to a “bunker mentality” and did not dare to venture out of Dacca.  On reaching Calcutta after the surrender, he stated to reporters that the IAF bombing “had kept him awake for 12 nights, and he just could not continue any more.10”  There were times when he would break down during military briefings.  Once he did that in the presence of Bengali servants, who were immediately ordered outside where they gleefully reported that the “Sahibs are crying inside.”

Post Script

This book is a failed attempt by General Niazi to clear his name, and its tone is entirely self-serving. Ironically, the book provides unique insights into the workings of his mind.  Such insights could not have been obtained through other means.  That alone makes it essential reading for students of military history.  Sums up Brian Cloughley: “Yahya bore overall responsibility for what befell his country; but General Niazi was the commander who lost the war in the East.”  Perhaps the book should have been entitled General Niazi’s Betrayal of Pakistan.

The book makes it very clear why the Pakistan Army surrendered in 13 days with more than 45,000 soldiers still in fighting condition.  As General Gul Hasan notes, “with Niazi at the helm, they had no chance.”  Of course that begs the question of who put Niazi there.  The most strategic command in the Army was turned over to a “hastily promoted Major General.” The list of culprits begins with Generals Yahya and Hamid, but it cannot exclude General Gul Hasan either, who was then Chief of the General Staff. 

There is then the bigger question of why did Pakistan get involved in a war with India under such adverse circumstances.  Can India be blamed for assisting the Mukti Bahini guerillas in seeking the liberation of Bangladesh?  In one year, India implemented successfully what Pakistan had been trying unsuccessfully for two decades to implement in Kashmir.

And then of course there is the role of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, unwilling to take a back seat to Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman.  He insidiously ingratiated himself with leading personalities of the military junta, including Generals Peerzada, Mitha, and Umar, and blocked the National Assembly from meeting in Dacca.  That essentially sealed the fate of United Pakistan.  Later on, he tore up the Polish resolution which would have preserved the honour of the Pakistan Army from being considered by the United Nations Security Council.

Writes Robert Jackson, now a British Member of Parliament, “Looking back on it all, the sad story of the demise of East Pakistan does seem to have been a miasma of personal ambition.”


The author is an economist in Palo Alto, California.  He lived in Pakistan during the 1965 and 1971 wars.  He has written on Pakistan’s Strategic Myopia in the RUSI Journal, and reviewed Mazari’s book, Journey to  Disillusionment for International Affairs.