The fall of Dhaka: a personal narrative – by Hassan N. Gardezi

by admin

December 16, 1971 was a gray and chilly winter day in Canada. We had just turned of the TV after watching the ritual of Gen. (Tiger) Niazi surrendering East Pakistan to an Indian commander displayed on the evening news when phone rang. It was Islam Waheed, a university student from Pakistan and a left political activist. He wanted me and my colleague Dr. Feroze Ahmed to come to Montreal as soon as possible and talk about the political situation back home at a meeting of the metropolitan city’s Pakistani community. The two of us took a flight from Sault Ste Marie[i] on the 18th, reaching Montreal in the evening. From the airport we were driven directly to the McGill University where a large room was full of Pakistani expatriates and their families.

From previous experience I must admit that our compatriots had not been inclined to take our “leftist” ideas seriously, but on that evening a large gathering of them seemed to be waiting very anxiously to hear us speak. They wanted to know what had happened to Pakistan and why it happened.

Feroze spoke first. The gist of what he said was that the defeat of the Pakistan army at the hands of India was not the defeat of the people of Pakistan. The elitist rulers of Pakistan had kept the people in deception in order to serve their own interests. They had been too busy in manipulating the system to keep their hold on power, instead of caring for the integrity of Pakistan. He warned that the unity of Pakistan cannot be maintained by emotionally charged sloganeering and authoritarian rule of the central power elite. We expatriate Pakistanis, he said, will have to do more than engaging in seasonal demonstrations of patriotism. What is needed is a coolheaded and critical understanding of political and economic issues confronting our country. Pakistan’s unity and integrity can only be preserved by basing it firmly on the principles of equality, social justice and popular participation. Pakistan cannot be protected by the strength and supremacy of its armed forces alone.

When I was called upon to speak a Punjabi lady in the audience stood up with tears in her eyes and said, “Before you begin, I want to know if Indra Gandhi is going to annex the rest of Pakistan as well?” To appease such fears, I had to point out that Prime Minister Gandhi was not so foolish to annex Pakistan and thereby put around her neck a chain of troubles forever. It may have been possible to create a unified independent India at the time of the withdrawal of British rule with agreement between the different political parties, but too much has happened since that moment, including the holocaust of partition, for the people of Pakistan to ever reconcile to integration with India, particularly a forced one.

The discussion then turned to the principles of federalism and how the ruling class of Pakistan at the centre had violated these principles by not only refusing to share governing authority with provincial units but using brute force to suppress their legitimate cultural identities and economic aspirations.

This type of discussion and dialogue continued for some time even after the end of the formal meeting in smaller groups, until everyone stepped out into the snowy night of Montreal. We too left and reassembled at our host’s place for late night snacks and conversation. We were joined also by two Bengali sailors who had jumped ship at a Canadian port after army action was launched in their province of East Bengal on March 25, 1971.

While we sat chatting, someone brought the latest issue of McGill Daily, the university’s student newspaper for circulation in our small group. It carried an interesting report of an earlier meeting of our compatriots held on the campus on December 4, a day after Pakistan had launched an air strike against India from the West in retaliation against Indian army’s invasion of East Pakistan. According to the student newspaper report the organisers of that meeting had invited Mr. A. K. Saadi an emissary of the government of Pakistan to address the audience. But as soon as the meeting started the entire building began to resound with the call to prayers, azan, and soon thereafter two men entered the meeting room waving Pakistani flags and announced that the meeting was adjourned for the evening prayers. After the prayer break the meeting was reconvened but the guest speaker, Mr. Saadi, was missing. While some people went looking for him one of the organizers took the floor and launched a passionate speech attacking Soviet Premier Kosygin, Mao Zedong, Indra Gandhi and Gen. Yahya Khan.

Mr. Saadi was eventually brought back to the meeting and after a long introduction started his address by expressing his worries at the political situation back home, but before he could get very far with his address, another call for prayer rang out in the building, this time for the night (asha) prayer. The meeting was adjourned for another break, but this time Mr. Saadi disappeared without a trace. People who had some questions for him were left frustrated. Two of the organizers got into a heated argument and had to be separated by others before coming to blows.

This newspaper account of the earlier meeting obviously stood in sharp contrast to the proceedings of the one we had just attended. The flag waving patriotism, the religiosity, and the combativeness displayed in the earlier meeting was quite amazing. Was all this indicative of something about our national character or could it be attributed to isolated behaviour of a few individuals carried away in the excitement of the news of extraordinary events occurring in Pakistan? And what about the calm and tolerant, almost penitent, mood we had encountered in our meeting? Had our fellow Pakistanis learned a lesson of realism, mutual respect and humility after the dismemberment of their beloved Pakistan? Time flew by as we pondered these questions through the long winter night.

Finally someone came up with the bright idea of getting some sleep. Our host took us upstairs to show us to our beds. Still wide awake, I walked to the window to take a look outside. There was no sign of life on the street below. Montreal, the city of over 5 million people, had gone to sleep. Snowfall had tapered off. A few tiny white flakes were visibly flurrying around the street lamp. That for a moment brought to mind a familiar image of the rainy summer seasons in Pakistan – the frantic dance of those winged insects around street lights till they dropped dead by hitting the hot light bulbs again and again.


If someone would ask me today, what have you learned since that night in Montreal 39 years ago? I will have to say that I now know the answers to the two questions that had arisen that night.

  1. Yes, flag waving patriotism, religiosity, and combativeness are very much part of our Pakistani national character.
  2. No, we Pakistanis never learned the lesson of realism, mutual respect and humility from the fall of Dhaka.

I leave it to the readers to imagine were this is going to lead Pakistan and its people.

Courtesy: Viewpoint

One Comment to “The fall of Dhaka: a personal narrative – by Hassan N. Gardezi”

  1. Learning lessons from 1971!
    by Dr. Qaisar Abbas

    While we still debate what went wrong in 1971, we might assess the current geopolitical changes to make sense of the things that surround us now and develop our own vision in the context of what we can learn from the 1971 war

    Thirty nine years after East Pakistan went through a blood bath and emerged as an independent nation of Bangladesh, we now live in a different kind of world. Since the two archrivals India and Pakistan fought in what was then East Pakistan, new geopolitical dynamics have drastically changed the South Asian and international scene.

    Terrorism has become the paramount fixation of today’s world after the cold-war era evaporated. America has come closer to our borders in Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11. With the disappearance of the Soviet empire, we now live in a unipolar world where America is the top, unchallenged game player. The legendary Indo-Soviet friendship is going into oblivion while India and the United States have just entered into a new era of friendship and collaboration. And surprisingly, Asia is preparing to lead the world with China and India strategizing their game plans on how to become superpowers of the future.

    With this backdrop, while we still debate what went wrong in 1971, we might assess the current geopolitical changes to make sense of the things that surround us now and develop our own vision in the context of what we can learn from the 1971 war.

    The unfortunate scenario of 1971 looks like a classic story of internal colonialism. From the beginning we treated East Pakistan as our colony economically, politically and culturally. Although Bengalis were in majority the idea to share power with them always haunted us. While Quid-e Azam was announcing in Dhaka that Urdu will be our national language, Mujib was protesting the decision right outside the auditorium as a firebrand student leader. The mainstream thinking at the time that a single language can unite a nation, ignoring the fact that East Pakistanis had their own, centuries old language, literature and culture, was deeply rooted in colonializing the Eastern part of the country. The idea did not strike us that language and religion alone cannot unite a nation and it is actually economic, cultural and political parity and equal distribution of power that can develop a sense of unity between the two parts of the country, about one thousand miles a apart from each other.

    The events of 1971 were only an outburst of increasing frustrations and grievances of the Bengali population from 1947 to 1971 which were further exacerbated by the army action and the atrocities committed by the armed forces of West Pakistan. The Hamood Ur Rehman Commission Report analyzing the war widely held the West Pakistan army responsible for the events. The report concluded that the responsible army officers “have asserted before us that because of corruption resulting from such involvement, the lust for wine and women and greed for lands and houses, a large number of senior army officers, particularly those occupying the highest positions, had lost not only their will to fight but also their professional competence.”

    The report, consequently, demanded to try the responsible army officers including General Yahiya Khan but none was tried. The three key players who were involved in the 1971 war met with a tragic ending. Yahiya Khan resigned in disgrace, Mujibur Rehman who became prime minister of Bangladesh was assassinated in a bloody coup in 1975 and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who became prime minister of Pakistan was overthrown by General Ziaul Haq and finally he was hanged in 1979.

    Here are eight lessons we might learn from this important chapter of our history:

    1.1 All wars are political

    Although wars are fought by the armed forces they are initiated, operated and come to an end through political means all over the world. Military alone cannot win a war itself. It takes a combination of political insights and defense strategies both to win a war. The issues between East and West Pakistanis in 1971 were inherently political that involved three dimensions of power, control and economy. Instead of resolving these issues we tried to get rid of them through the military force which ultimately backfired.

    1.2 All wars are internal, regional and international

    Although internal issues of how we treated Bengalis gave birth to the events of 1971, the final war became part of international and regional affairs involving India, the United States, Soviet Union and China. The United States tilted toward Pakistan for its own vested interest as Pakistan was playing an intermediary role to connect U.S. with China incidentally during the same time. Soviet Union in retaliation sided with India. With that the internal conflict was transformed into a regional and international war at the same time.

    1.3 National conflicts are internal with a capacity to become international

    National conflicts are deeply rooted in internal complexities of burning issues and if we do not resolve those issues internally they can easily transform into larger, regional and even international conflicts. The 1971 war is a classic example of this where we failed to address grievances of the Eastern wing which ultimately led to a regional war.

    1.4 Beware of the goliath near you

    This was true in 1971 as it is true today. It was India in 1971 that took advantage of the vulnerabilities of the West Pakistan Army fighting in an area far away from their home and isolated from the native Bengali population. Today we are not only surrounded by the two aspiring superpowers, India and China, we also have a superpower right on our doorsteps in Afghanistan. Additionally, there are three nuclear powers in the vicinity: China, India and Russia.

    1.5 War is not solution, dialogue is

    Wining people’s heart is more important than invading their land. Issues should be resolved with negotiations and dialogues, not violence.

    1.6 Religion alone is not enough for unity

    If religion alone would be enough for unity the Middle Eastern Muslim nations would have been one nation under a single flag. There are other realities that unite people including the economic interest, common history, cultural links and geopolitical realities. We cannot ignore these factors to forge an artificial unity of people.

    1.7 Never underestimate people’s power

    People are the real source of power, which should not be underestimated. We ignored this in 1971 spreading the unfounded myths that Bengalis are racially and culturally inferior to West Pakistanis.

    1.8 Democracy demands fairness

    Democracy is the game of fairness and it demands an equal treatment of all partners involved. Treachary, dishonesty and injustice do not go hand in hand with the norms of democracy. The election on December 7, 1970 was based on the principle of one-person-one-vote with the knowledge that Bengalis were in majority but its outcomes were never accepted which started the conflict.

    Some say the way the British rulers structured Pakistan at the time of independence, with two separate wings, the nation was destined to break up at some point. Even if we believe 1971 was that point, it does not justify the sins our political leaders and the army committed in 1971. If we do not learn from history, it always comes back to haunt us!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: