ISLAMABAD - The West Pakistan Army was in position to fight the Indian Army and rebellion forces in the East Pakistan for up to six months had the military’s Eastern command led by Lieutenant General Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi not surrendered, which had stirred enormous resentment within the army’s rank and file. 

This was disclosed by war veteran Brigadier (r) Saadullah Khan, the only living soldier in Pakistan Army’s history to have been recommended for Nishan-e-Haider for the demonstration of unmatched gallantry in 1971 war, during a detailed interview with The Nation, his first-ever to any media outlet. He was one of the prisoners of war (PoW) detained in India.  

The ex-army officer, whose book “From East Pakistan to Bangladesh,” guides the army’s textbook curriculum, broke his silence after leading a quiet life for decades in Faisalabad. From terming the killings of Biharis in East Pakistan allegedly at the hands of miscreants in Hindu community as the beginning of the Fall of Dhaka to holding former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto responsible for his forced retirement from army, Saadullah Khan brought to light some stunning revelations about the separation of East and West Pakistan saga.

The Eastern Command’s surrender in the East Pakistan had sparked the fears of an internal revolt within the army, Khan disclosed. “Because the resentment was enormous. The soldiers were extremely angry. They knew our side was fully capable of fighting it out for up to six months. We had all the required operational and logistical support including the ammunition and weaponry and ration and related logistics.”

Why the military had to give up arms in the form of unconditional surrender, Brig (r) Saadullah Khan believed, had much to do with the weakness shown by the Commander Eastern Command (Corps Commander East Pakistan) Lt-Gen Amir Abdullah Niazi.

Khan, although, spoke high about Niazi’s professional traits as a soldier including his bravery and patriotism, he rejected the former commander’s ability to serve as a general. “In my opinion, Niazi was a matchless soldier, very brave and patriot, but he was not fit for general-ship. He was not capable of leading a corps as important as Eastern Command. Leading such an important corps required the qualities of visionary military leadership that he lacked. Elevating Niazi at that position was a big mistake.”

Elaborating on the actual causes of the Fall of Dhaka, the ex-brigadier said the dominance of Hindu community in East Pakistan, especially in Dhaka, and its hostile attitude towards Biharis had sown the seeds of unrest. “The influence of Hindu community in Dhaka could be judged from the fact that the professor of Islamiat at Dhaka University was a Hindu. There were over a dozen villages of Hindus near Dhaka that did not allow the Muslims to even pass through that particular area. Then there were Biharis who were always been a subject of Hindus hatred. The Hindus would stigmatise Biharis as ‘Mohra,’ which means dead in Bangla language.”

The problem, Brigadier (r) Saadullah Khan said, started when the Hindus started killing Biharis. “The Biharis and Muslim Bengalis were terrified. The situation was turning violent and volatile in the East Pakistan with each passing day. Troops were called from West Pakistan. Our army took on the miscreant elements in Hindu community, many of whom fled to India to take refuge. They were aided and funded by Indian Army and Mukti Bahini was formed. This organisation wreaked havoc in East Pakistan. It raped and killed Bengali women and children only to malign West Pakistan Army. “

According to Khan, the Bengalis, who, he said, were relieved with the fleeing of miscreants in Hindu community to India, would ask him in Bangla, “Sahib Hindu aashbay? (Sir will Hindus return?)” and the brigadier would respond “Hindu konu din na aashbay (Hindus will never return.)” 

Saadullah, who belonged to the Infantry’s 216 Punjab Regiment, was posted in the East Pakistan at Aashuganj Sector at the bank of Maigna River where he was heading 32nd Infantry Brigade.

Recalling some instances of bravery shown by the West Pakistan Army soldiers, the brigadier especially mentioned of Captain Zulfiqar Ahmed, commonly known as Zulfi, who lost his life in the war.

“Zulfi was the brightest light of my brigade. By virtue of the exemplary courage and gallantry shown by the soldiers like him, I was able to lead my brigade and destroy six battalions of the Indian Army.” In his book, Khan has also paid profound tribute to Zulfi.

He also spoke remarkably high of Ghulam Rasool Haadi, a Razakaar commander, who, Khan said, destroyed Mukti Bahini’s chain of command. “This man was a billionaire in East Pakistan. After separation, Haadi devoted all his life to Pakistan and quietly spent the rest of his life in Karachi.”

About his detainment days in India, Brig (r) Saadullah said, he would recall the 1971 war events and pen them stealthily. “We were not allowed to write anything. I trimmed my pen’s nib, wrote some points on the tiny pieces of paper and stuffed them in the toothpaste, which I carried with me to Pakistan. These notes helped me refresh my memory when I was writing ‘From East Pakistan to Bangladesh.”

The Indian Army treated the detained Pakistan Army officers with dignity and respect in Jabalpur Central Jail, Saadullah said. “Once in the winter, we put the water-filled buckets under the sunlight to make the water warm. The Indian Army Chief Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw visited the jail and saw the water buckets placed outside the barracks. He immediately ordered the jail officials to install geysers for the provision of warm water for the PoWs.” 

Brig Saadullah’s senior officer General Abdul Majeed (not Gen Majeed Malik), recommended Nishan-e-Haider for the brigadier but the General Headquarters (GHQ) cited the military rules that did not allow conferring Nishan-e-Haider on a living army soldier. Saadullah was later conferred with Sitara-e-Jurat and Hilal-e-Jurat.

About his forced retirement from army, the retired brigadier saw the then PM Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s direct role. “In the post-Fall of Dhaka days, Bhutto feared that officers like me, if elevated to the rank of general, could brew problems for him. His fears compounded when I was leading the 23rd March parade in Rawalpindi in 1973 and Bhutto was the Chief Guest. There, everybody was telling the tales of my bravery in the East Pakistan that alarmed Bhutto.”

Consequently, the former army officer said, Bhutto got his entire brigade transferred to Qalat and nearly after a year, he was handed forced retirement. To this effect, the letter sent to Brig(r) Saadullah Khan said, “Compulsory retirement of the officer through no fault of the officer.”

Saadullah Khan recalled having received the letter on February 14, 1974, followed by a call from his boss, whom the brigadier told, “Sir’ today is Valentine’s Day and I have got a love letter. The only difference is that the love birds who write letters on this day don’t sign their letters but this letter is signed.”

Khan further remembers, “My superior told me, you are joking? Don’t you regret leaving the army?’”  

Brig (r) Saadullah Khan was later appointed Director General Faisalabad Development Authority (FDA) during General Zia-ul-Haq’s rule. During his three-year stint, Khan is said to have laid the foundation of the modern Faisalabad.