1971: The Lessons We Did Not Learn

Posted on November 21, 2009
Filed Under >Imran H. Khan, Foreign Relations, History, Society
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Imran H. Khan

(Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of posts – from different perspectives – we will carry on the events of 1971 and their relevance to Pakistan today.)

Today, is November 21.

November 21, 1971, was a day of infamy for Pakistan. On this day that Indian Air Force planes crossed the international borders in East Pakistan and attacked PAF planes flying ground support missions well inside the Pakistani territory. While Indian ground forces had been covertly supporting Mukti Bahini, this was the first act of aggression across international boundaries that was the actual beginning of hostilities between India and Pakistan. On November 21, 1971, what had been an internal conflict within Pakistan territory became an international conflict when India attacked Pakistan.

The saga of East Pakistan Air Force during the 1971 war written by the Air Office Commanding EPAF can be read at the blog Planet Earth. In this post, I wish to look at what we in Pakistan can learn today from the events of 1971. With all the bloodshed and mayhem going on in Pakistan, it may seem inappropriate to talk about the subject of the 1971 war. Still I think there are many lessons that we can take from that part of our history and hopefully not make the same mistakes twice.

First, let me be clear that the root cause of Pakistan’s breakup in 1971 was a lack of implementation of democracy and majority rule. While seeds of dissension had been sown considerably earlier, it was when Mr. Bhutto threatened to “break the legs” of any politician who dared to go to East Pakistan and form alliances with Awami League, that the die was cast of the eventual breakup. Afterall, the Awami League had won the majority in the fairest elections ever held in Pakistan.

When President Gen.Yahya decided not to hand over the power to Mr. Mujibur Rehman, who was the elected leader of the majority of people of Pakistan, the West Pakistani leadership failed to live up to its constitutional obligations. Based on this alone the East Pakistanis had the right to demand that West Pakistan change its name to something else. West Pakistanis had decided not to follow Quaid e Azam’s emphasis on Unity. The problems of FATA today are in many ways are also linked to lack of democracy and civil institutions. We have only belatedly held elections in Gilgit-Baltistan, which is a step in the right direction. It needs to be followed up by similar elections in all the other areas still not enjoying the right to vote.

A second lesson from the 1971 experience is that the use of defense forces to quell civil unrest is excessive, which in the total analysis is far more detrimental to the resolution of root causes. In 1971 the Pakistani government should have used civil defense forces to stop the Mukti Bahini, and not military forces. Use of heavy guns, armor and air power actually played into their hands, as these blunt weapons invariably cause excessive civil casualties. Armies are trained to fight brutal battles where no holds are barred. Even the most precisely dropped bombs by airplanes result in widespread damage to life and property. It appears that we have not learnt this lesson. By not adequately training the civil defense forces and providing them the tools necessary to quell internal aggression, we have ended up using massive force in Swat and now in Waziristan.

There is something uniquely empowering when people who hold powerful offices are held accountable to public. When countries try members of their defense forces for war crimes, it actually strengthens their institutions and rule of law. If there are claims of war crimes alleged by Bangladesh government and conversely allegations of atrocities by Mukti Bahini, let us have joint war crime trials and let justice be served. After all they were all Pakistanis then. In the life of nations, thirty years are just a blink of the eye. The bitter truth is that we in West Pakistan are guilty of the greater fault in the breakup; we should therefore go further in rebuilding genuine relations with Bangladesh.

No country worth anything should ever abandon its citizens. Pakistanis of Bihari origin (‘stranded Pakistanis’) were loyal to Pakistan and they bore the brunt of the military loss in East Pakistan. There are still nearly a quarter million Pakistanis who have a refugee status and living in camps in Bangladesh. If Pakistan could essentially assimilate three million Afghan refugees, it is very difficult to justify allowing our most fervently loyal Pakistanis to continue living in squalor in Bangladesh. We must find a way to repatriate our brethren from Bangladesh.

History must never be forgotten, no matter whether it is flattering to you or not. It is well know than each nation tells its people the lies it chooses. We in Pakistan have done this too, including on the events on 1971. And so have the Indians. Recently, for example, the Indian Foreign Minister made the comment on Fareed Zakaria’s television show in USA, that Pakistan started all the wars with India. One hopes the Indian Foreign Minister will eventually make peace with the facts of November 21. And so must we in Pakistan.

This means accepting the mistakes we made – like all the ones I have listed above – but it also means honoring the valour of those who made sacrifices. Maybe it was the trauma of loosing a big part of the country, that we never really celebrated amazing acts of valor by members of our defense forces. Amongst the mistakes made by the defense forces, there were also great acts of heroism. One that stands out like a shining beacon is the heroic stand taken by airmen of PAF. Which country asks its airmen to take one squadron of aged sub sonic planes to fight eleven squadrons of considerable modern and supersonic planes. This is exactly what we asked PAF airmen to do in East Pakistan. They held off IAF for two days before the runway got cratered to an extent that they could not launch any fighters. IAF with over one hundred fighters and bombers at its disposal should have rendered the solitary airbase dysfunctional in a matter of hours. PAF pilots braved taking off when under attack, fighting an enemy with ten to one ratio and landing under attack. The PAF airmen turned the aircrafts around with bombs dropping all around them. I cannot think of anyone more worthy of Nishan e Haiders than the East PAF airmen in general and pilots in particular.

38 responses to “1971: The Lessons We Did Not Learn”

  1. Anuj says:

    Well Riaz is back here too.. now he is giving some american accord praising pakistnai Air force.. but Wiki pedia or any other war documentry does not say this .. Americans were frustrated in 1971 .. Richard nixon promised yayha of full support at military level but when it actully came .. americans could not do anythnig,.. PAF attacked on air bases of Agra but thats it .. It got beaten heaviliy on E.pakistna side and Yayha kept waiting for American or chinese support.. Finally end result matters Mr. Riaz .. Its written on wall.. that pakistan broke in less than 25 years of its creation as predicted by Mountbattaon

  2. Calculating_Misfit says:

    “How is an army supposed to defend a part of its country
    that is located a thousand miles away, totally surrounded by a devious enemy?”

    Ok, so lets say India had not intervened, then what? Would Niazi have gone with his repressions, inciting even more anger and an ever wider insurgency against the military forces therein., Do seriously think that Pakistan could have beaten the Bengalis into a pulp such that they would ever accept third class citizen status whose votes did not matter? Thanks to Pakistan’s actions, India came out looking like the heroic liberator of the Bengalis to the rest of the world.

  3. Tambi Dude says:

    Is there any proof that India started the war on the East Pak side on Nov 21 1971. Also remember that 10 million East Pakistanis poured to India as refugees. That gives India a definite right to go and strike east Pakistan.

  4. Zaheer says:

    Benawa, Riaz and others.

    Yes, I agree that India did not help. But why should it? Would we have?

    The point is that the crisis was created by us ourselves and brought to conclusion by us. WE ARE TO BLAME. India made use of our mistakes. But the mistakes were ours.

  5. Benawa says:

    Once again, I have to agree with Riaz Haq Bhai. It is amazing
    to me how many people responding to this post have completely
    ignored the elephant in the room, i.e., our ever meddling Eastern neighbor. Many countries in the world have lived through/and survived civil wars but hardly any ever had the
    misfortune to be saddled by a mean-spirited adversary like India. How is an army supposed to defend a part of its country
    that is located a thousand miles away, totally surrounded by a devious enemy? Talk about an asymmetrical warfare!

    That said, things should never have been allowed to deteriorate to the point where a military action was deemed
    necessary. Bhutto could have campaigned in East Pakistan,
    and vice versa. (At the very least, the 1970 eletion was fair.)
    Why the political leaders in the East and West had to
    confine themselves to their own separate territories– thereby
    sowing the seeds of separation? ( I am sure Miss Jinnah, in
    1965, had about as much support in the Eastern wing as she
    did in the West, if not more–too bad the election in 1965 was rigged.)

    I don’t think the current situation in Pakistan has any resemblance whatever to the situaton in East Pakistan. What
    Pakistan deals with today is the inevitable fall-out from the
    decade long bloody slog in Afghanistan following the Soviet
    invasion of 1979, plus the 20 years of civil war following their
    departure, plus the US “shock and awe” in Afghanistan following the unfortunate events back in 2001.

    To those who keep on invoking the Berlin Wall, Berlin Wall
    would still be intact if Russian had not been stopped in their tracks in Afghanistan. (Do I need to remind you what
    happened in Prague and Warsa and Vietnam?)

    That Communism had been on a roll until it got to Afghanistan,
    is a fact that has been conveniently forgotten by the Western media and their protege, India.

    Pakistan’s success in dealing with its current travail will
    depend entirely on whether or not it can find an effetive way
    of dealing with the lost generation of Afghans, aka., the Talibans who never had a chance at “normal” existence.
    Can they be, somehow, weaned from their parallel view of the
    universe which is most likely steeped in incessent blood-letting
    they have lived with all their lives. Can they be taught that
    this is not their only option? Does the world have any other
    option for them?

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