It is quite incredible how lightly portentous decisions were taken.” This is how General Khadim Husain Raja, GOC commanding, Dhaka, comments on the conduct of the military leadership in Islamabad, which governed Pakistan and was managing the affairs of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) during the crisis of 1971. It is, perhaps, the most incisive analysis of that catastrophe. He had commanded the division for two years and left Dhaka a fortnight after the military action was launched. This so-called military action was an assault by the national army upon the biggest province of Pakistan. In the event, we lost half of the country and earned ineffaceable humiliation.

General Raja devotes the last chapter of his memoires to an examination of those traumatic events. And it is this part of the book that I would like to discuss.

He says that Mujib and Bhutto were, each, devoted to his region, while Yahya wanted to hold on to power, which, of course, neither of the others wanted. Yahya, therefore, decided to keep the two wings of the country together by force.

Now, regionalism and the disappearance of a commitment to the nation is what one gets after 13 years of army rule. Ayub explained his putsch in childish terms: there was unrest in Balochistan and the Speaker of the Provincial Assembly in Dhaka had been murdered. Iskandar Mirza, who had actually issued the decree abrogating the Constitution, went one better. He said he had been advised by Adnan Menderes to do so. The fact is that the West Pakistani ruling class, particularly that of Punjab, did not want power to go to Bengalis as the result of the first general elections due in five months. They, therefore, instigated the army to revolt against the constitutional government.

The land reforms in East Bengal in the early fifties had, unlike those in West Pakistan, been thorough-going, thus eliminating the landlord class there. As a result, the society had become bourgeois. Mujib was a product of that society. He had not just been alienated by the prolonged military rule of Ayub, but was not even otherwise interested in dealing with the feudals in the other wing. When he was told that, if his six points were implemented, the result would be the creation of four independent states in West Pakistan, he replied “make a sub-federation there.”

Bhutto’s game was more naked. He wanted power and so came up with the theory of two majorities. If the country had to split as a result, so be it!

Raja says Bhutto encouraged “class war”. He did nothing of the sort. Those who want a social change, talk of classes, not of the poor, which is bland, really meaning nothing in the context of socialism. He was devoted to his own class, the feudal. Later, to save it, he destroyed the most progressive class in Pakistan - the industrial bourgeoisie. We have still not been able to loosen the trap of backwardness and economic stagnation into which that decision threw us.

If there had been democracy in Pakistan, there would have been no crisis in 1971. And if one had arisen, the politicians would have settled it peacefully, even separating as friends, as Malaya and Singapore did. What complicated the problem for us was the attempt of the army to solve by its own methods a problem, which was far beyond its capacity to solve.

The author holds that the Muslims (presumably those of Bengal) “were crushed and reduced to the level of serfs and menials” after the Battle of Plassey. A social change did not come in Bengal then, but only after the Permanent Settlement. By then, a Hindu bourgeoisie had arisen as a result of close collaboration with the British. They were now able to draw the surplus of the agricultural economy through the market.

As to the national language, the Congress’ tactic throughout the independence movement was to oppose Urdu with Hindi wherever Urdu was commonly spoken. But, in whichever Muslim-majority province, some other language was prevalent, e.g. Punjabi or Bengali in the respective provinces, the Congress confronted Urdu with that language.

After independence, it was a Congress member of the Provincial Assembly in Dhaka who proposed that Bengali be made a national language. And again a member of the same party in the National Assembly repeated the proposal there. In adopting this demand, the East Pakistani leadership overlooked the fact that the independence of Pakistan (including that of its eastern wing) was the outcome of the struggle of the Muslims of the entire South Asia. And they had voted for the “Muslim nation and the Urdu language.” Bengal itself had voted for that platform. So East Bengal’s rejection of Urdu was a betrayal of this pledge. Further, as Raja says, the rejection of Urdu created a division between the Muslims of the two wings.

Raja says: “East Pakistan did not have a military tradition.” He means the British did not recruit mercenaries for their colonial army from Bengal.

The colonial authorities created a “Bengal Army” after 1774. But they did not recruit for it from Bengal because political consciousness was already developed there. Instead the mercenaries were recruited from Awadh and Bihar. They rose in revolt against the British in 1857 and could not be finally crushed until well into 1859 after troops were brought from Britain. The British were supported by local mercenaries in large numbers mainly from Nepal, Punjab and Pakhtunkhwa. After the war, the Awadhis were declared “non-martial” and replaced by these new “martial races”. That is the reality of the “military tradition”.

The memoires are well written and the analysis is honest, if not always profound. They are a valuable addition to one important aspect of our history of that period.

The writer is a retired ambassador. Email: