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. ved says:

    If we continue blaming, it is never ending game. One of the friend said, Muslims are 4th grade citizen in India. I just ask, if he ever been in India. If not, how can he arrived on his judgement. But I’ll not say any thing on his suspicion, because on this suspicion only Pakistan is born. And if someone thinks for reunification of Pakistan and India then, he must be day dreaming. Because 60 years are too long to we on same wave length again. Then the population of 20 crore suspicious people is to large to handle. So accept the reality of Pakistan’s existence. We the people of both country should accepts it as the natural partition of one’s ancestral property, and solve it peacefully like two brothers. If we follow same philosophy, to resolve every outstanding issues, we may bequeath a great future of our children. Otherwise lage raho ek dusare ki tang khichne. Shouting Who attacked whom first.

  2. mst says:

    Greetings, Pakistani friends

    I strayed onto this website thanks to some excellent posts on the history of temples in Pakistan. I congratulate the administrators of this site, a most excellent view of Pakistan.

    As usual comments spew vitriol from both sides, even though the columnist might have the most innocent of intentions. I find this is not just a habit of the sub continent, but the anonymity that the internet affords seems to bring out the worst in all people : Like a crude reality show these vestiges of hatred make for compulsive reading and are immortalized on the internet forever. I suppose future generations will forage through our archaic servers some day and pity us for our putrid pettiness.

    I think before Indians and Pakistanis throw stones at each other on some issue or the other, each of us has the responsibility to think: what if we were in their shoes, what would we be doing? I think each of us should spend some time, just thinking from the others point of view : in terms of cold logic what is it that we expect from each other, and would we in their place afford that courtesy?

    The famous subcontinental high horse must be shot immediately.

    Much peace, love and respect

  3. libertarian says:

    benawa: They don’t seem to understand that no free-born
    Pakistani would ever want to live as a 4th class citizen, as a
    member of a beleagured minority, in a country like India.

    Presumptious no? Assuming that India and Indians really wants to reunite? Two words describe Pakistan: toxic asset. No Indian with any hint of pragmatism would advocate political reunification of British India. The time for reaggregation of the “truncated and moth-eaten” (Jinnah’s words) parts is long past.

  4. Benawa says:

    To Misfit: You didn’t read all of my reply. I said we shouldn’t have gotten ourselves embroiled into a civil war in the first place; that our politicians should have been wiser.

    To Anju: I have got news for you: I don’t care what Mountbaatton said. (At least, you admit that he was not an
    honest broker!) The bottom line is that Pakistan is here to stay,
    and the sooner Indians accept that reality the better. The pro-
    lem is that Indians keep on trying to break-up Pakistan.
    They never miss an opportunity to put a spoke in Pakistan’s
    wheel. They don’t seem to understand that no free-born
    Pakistani would ever want to live as a 4th class citizen, as a
    member of a beleagured minority, in a country like India.
    (I don’t think the Bangla Deshis are lining up to reunite with
    India either!) Actually, it is the quite the opposite: Jinnah was
    vindicated the day Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu
    terrorist. If Indians could treat their Mahatma like like,
    what chance an ordinary Muslim can possibly have with them?.
    Not very much, if we were to judge by the pogroms occurring
    during the past two decades. I do sincerely hope that Indians
    can some how learn to peacefully co-exist with their neighbors.
    (And I mean All of their neighbors, for they seem to have this
    unfortunate penchant for picking-up fights with all their

  5. Sridhar says:

    I will not argue with the opinions expressed by the author of this article. However, let me correct some factual errors in the article.

    1. The first aerial engagement between the IAF and PAF happened on 22nd November, not 21st. This was the battle of Boyra, where four Gnats of the IAF took on four Sabres of the PAF. In this battle, two of the Sabres were downed – the two pilots bailed out. One of them – Pervez Mehdi Qureshi – went on to later become the Chief of the PAF. A third Sabre was hit but the pilot managed with considerable skill to flythe damaged aircraft back to base. The IAF gnats came out of this battle without being hit.

    2. This air battle took place partially over Indian territory and partially over Pakistani territory. It would be incorrect to claim that this happened over Pakistani territory entirely. Whenever air engagements happen close to the border, it is quite natural that they would stray on both sides of the border.

    3. The offending aircraft in this case were the four PAF aircraft. The IAF aircraft were scrambled “after” the PAF aircraft were well on their way to the place of the air battle, which was partially over Indian territory. Hence, the aggressors in this case were the PAF, not the IAF.

    4. It is highly misleading to suggest that the PAF was fighting against a force that had eleven squadrons of modern and supersonic aircraft. Yes, the IAF had the Mig 21 (just as the PAF had the Starfighter, albeit in the West), but there was a total of 6 squadrons of this aircraft in the IAF at the time, of which 3 were in the East. The primary air interdiction duties were performed by the Gnats and the Hawker Hunters – both subsonic aircraft. Yes, the PAF did not have numbers – this was in keeping with the Pakistani policy of concentrating military forces of all kinds in the West and keeping the bare minimum in the East – part of the “defence in the east lies in the west” philosophy.

    5. While the reference to the two days it took to complete incapacitate the PAF airfields in the East reflects the author’s opinion about the ineptitude of the IAF, I would like to point to the fact that most air forces have the capability to rapidly repair cratered airfields and runways. On the night of Dec 3, 1971 for instance, the PAF launched a blitzkrieg of preemptive attacks on IAF airfields. While IAF aircraft were not significantly damaged, airfields were. Yet, the IAF launched its own massive counterattack from those very airfields on the morning of Dec 4th – within a few hours of the Pakistani attack. So it is not surprising that the PAF continued to launch missions in the East, albeit very small in number, until Dec 5th.

    6. Nothing I have said is to take away from the bravery of individual soldiers, airmen, pilots etc. of the PAF. I don’t think however that the author’s style of claiming bravery for the PAF while putting down the IAF has any factual basis. Many officers on both sides have over the years shown honesty in appreciating the bravery of each other. For instance, the IAF pilot who had shot down Pervez Mehdi Qureshi, Donald Lazarus, wrote a letter to him congratulating him on becoming PAF chief. Qureshi replied, complimenting Lazarus for the “fight he showed”in Boyra.

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