The long-awaited Hamoodur Rahman Commission Report into the East Pakistan debacle of 1971 was finally released on December 30, 2000, although “sensitive” segments still remain out of the public eye. Even the 700 pages that have been released — not an inconsiderable portion by any means — have been made difficult to obtain, according to journalists and researchers in Pakistan: they can be leafed through but not copied. This has prevented a thorough review of the material. Unreleased material was considered “too sensitive” even 29 years after the event, clearly indicating that there are still too many sacred cows, as far as the establishment in Pakistan is concerned.
However, first things first. Much of the content of the Report was known already, leaked through the media, especially in India, as long ago as 1990-1991. That Pakistan’s secrets should first surface in the Indian media speaks volumes for the nature of Pakistan’s system. Similar material also appeared last August, again in India, and then made the rounds on the internet. The report confirms that 13 senior military officers were recommended for court martial; not one of them was actually tried. Many, such as Yahya Khan, generals Abdul-Hamid, Pirzada, Mitha and others, enjoyed their pensions and perks even after retirement. The only two persons to have paid, albeit in a small way (they were denied their pensions), for their gross incompetence were lieutenant-general Abdullah Khan Niazi, commander of the Eastern Command, and brigadier Baqir Siddiqui. The rest got off scot free, although the Commission, to its credit, has not minced words.
The Commis-sion, headed by Hamoodur Rahman, then Chief Justice of Pakistan, and aided by other justices of the supreme court, was established in January 1972 by then-president (and later prime minister) Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and charged to investigate the causes of the debacle of East Pakistan. Although its terms of reference were circumscribed to military matters, the nature of the investigation was such that political and other issues were also revealed. The report confirms unambiguously that a coterie of corrupt and incompetent generals around Yahya Khan were largely responsible for the 1971 debacle. Their professional incompetence was compounded by their greed for material possessions, including land allocations, business-deals and other perks, as well as their lust for women and wine. While Pakistan burned, Yahya Khan and his associates chased women in a state of drunken stupor. Yet if they had been sober their incompetence alone would probably have lost East Pakistan.
The army action in East Pakistan in March 1971 was launched on the orders of Yahya Khan but instigated by the ambitions of Bhutto, who knew that Shaikh Mujibur Rahman, leader of the majority in the National Assembly, had to be removed from the scene for his own ambitions to be realized. Yahya Khan was foolish enough to fall for Bhutto’s scheme. But Yahya harboured ambitions of his own; he wanted to remain president and play one political party (the Awami League led by Shaikh Mujib) against another (the People’s Party led by Bhutto). In the end his strategy blew up in his face and destroyed the country, as well as bringing the disgrace of the surrender of 90,000 Pakistani troops to the invading Indian army in Dhaka.
But it would be wrong to view the catastrophe only in the narrow context of what happened in East Pakistan. Its genesis lay even earlier than the 1965 war, which was again instigated at the behest of Bhutto and Aziz Ahmed, foreign secretary when Bhutto was foreign minister. Ayub Khan, who imposed military rule in 1958, should never have risen above the rank of lieutenant colonel, according to his British commanding officer in the second world war. But after the creation of Pakistan he rose to prominence and secured himself the job of commander-in-chief of the armed forces. When he declared martial law, he promoted himself to the rank of field marshal with a single army to command. Rommel and Montgomery must have been turning in their graves.
Not only was the 1965 war ill-conceived and ill-planned, it also exposed the vulnerability of East Pakistan, which the Indians could see as clearly as anyone else. It was also during the 1965 war that Yahya Khan, for some mysterious reason, was given much prominence, although his record was dismal. In fact, he was hurriedly sent to command the 12th Division, which under major general Akhtar Husain Malik had made great gains in Kashmir, occupying such important posts as Chhamb and Jorian. While his forces were poised to take Akhnur, general Malik was transferred and Yahya was given command. Yahya refused to take Akhnur although it was easily within grasp. Brigadier Amjad Chaudhry, who then commanded the artillery, was astonished at Yahya’s refusal to go for Akhnur, although it would have bottled up at least seven divisions of the Indian army (India did not build the Banihall tunnel until after the 1965 war as an alternative route into Kashmir, bypassing Akhnur) and sealed the fate of Kashmir.
For such incompetence, if not outright treachery, Yahya was awarded the Hilal-e Jurrat (the second highest military honour) and promoted to the rank of commander-in-chief to succeed general Mohammed Musa, another incompetent who was merely a yes-man for Ayub. The “Islamic” Republic of Pakistan was to have incompetent drunkards and womanisers for its generals, presidents and commanders-in-chief.
Both Ayub and Yahya treated the country as their private fief, drawing privileges and benefits without regard to the plight of the people, especially in East Pakistan, where a sense of deprivation set in, exploited by Mujib. Ayub, his family and his friends made their fortunes during the 10 years of his rule; Yahya and his clique had to make theirs in a much shorter time. Regrettably, it is this culture of pseudo-legal theft that has brought Pakistan to the brink.
Yet, even though major parts of the while major parts of the Hamoodur Rahman Commission Report have finally been released, it is safe to assume that no lessons will be drawn from it in order not to repeat such disastrous policies again. Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it. Pakistan’s fate seems to be to sink form trough to trough; only the Islamic movement might break it out of this cycle.