Liberation war and creation of Bangladesh ­­– II

by A Qayyum Khan

01Bengali resistance was spontaneous, not preplanned or coordinated. The Pakistanis were unable to make any preemptive strikes on 3 battalions of the East Bengal Regiment (2nd, 4th and 8th) and any of the EPR wings except Peelkhana. These three battalions of the East Bengal Regiment and EPR formed the core of the nascent Mukti Bahini. Bengali soldiers evacuated from cantonments and engaged the enemy in pitched battles. Many deficiencies appeared; insufficient weapons and ammunition, lack of communication and logistical support were major problems as was the acute shortage of trained leaders (officers) who could take charge and make battlefield decisions. Even with these shortcomings, the Bengali soldiers fought fiercely; more than a quarter of the Pakistani military casualties (approximately 5,000 dead) was in the resistance phase. The Bengali civilian population enthusiastically helped the Mukti Bahini with volunteers. The people also provided logistical support and food for their fighters as well as medical care to the wounded. The Mukti Bahini fought rearguard action as overwhelming firepower was brought on them and crossed the border into India around the beginning of May when it was no longer possible to realistically engage the Pakistanis. Whatever Indian assistance the Mukti Bahini received at this stage was meagre. It did not appear that the Indians had any contingency plans to help the Mukti Bahini although some BSF officers entered East Pakistan territory to liaise with Mukti Bahini commanders.
Bengali military personnel who were not posted to East Bengal Regiment or EPR in the eastern wing were re-assigned to new jobs in West Pakistan. Most officers complied by joining their new units although enlisted men in similar situations quietly left and joined the Mukti Bahini. In some cases, even in East Bengal Regiment units, enlisted men had to persuade their officers to revolt. No officer above the rank of major revolted. Subsequently, several Bengali officers and enlisted men who were stationed in West Pakistan deserted their units and crossed over to India to join the Mukti Bahini, the most notable being the Bengali submariners who deserted their posts in France to join the fight for Bangladesh.

Provisional government
SHEIKH Mujibur Rahman expected the army to crack down although he remained optimistic about a political solution. With his senior associates, he had considered the possibility that he may have to lead the liberation struggle by going underground. However, on the night of March 25, when Tajuddin Ahmad went to get him, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was unwilling to go underground (Sharmin Ahmad, Tajuddin Ahmad, Neta O Pita, Oitijo, Dhaka, 2014, p 60). He felt that if the army did not find him they would have no compunction in burning down Dhaka and killing all its inhabitants as the British did to Delhi in 1857. His fears were not unfounded.
In his last meeting with Tajuddin Ahmad, the general secretary of the Awami League, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman did not nominate anyone as the leader in his absence. This was disconcerting for Tajuddin Ahmed because he feared a leadership contest in difficult circumstances which would potentially weaken the struggle. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was arrested on the night of March 25/26 and sent to Pakistan to be interned in Lyallpur jail. Before his arrest, he did not want to leave any signed documents and declarations that could be used as evidence in his sedition trial which he knew he would be facing soon (AK Khandakar, Muyeedul Hasan. and SR Mirza, Muktijudher Purbapar, Prothama Prokashon, Dhaka, 2009, p 28). An unsigned document could not be attributed to him and used as evidence in court.
Tajuddin Ahmad crossed over to India on March 30. By the first week of April, most of the senior leaders of the Awami League were also in India. One of the first things that he did was to look for Chittaranjan Sutar. Unable to find him in Calcutta, Tajuddin Ahmad went to New Delhi to meet the Indian prime minister. He met Indira Gandhi on April 4 who advised him to form a provisional government-in-exile at the earliest so that India’s assistance to Bangladesh could be on a government-to-government basis. On his return, he was severely criticised by the youth leaders led by Sheikh Fazlul Haq Moni. The youth leaders wanted to form a revolutionary council. They even sent a letter to Mrs Gandhi with 42 signatures to prevent Tajuddin Ahmad from forming a government (SA Karim, Sheikh Mujib Triumph and Tragedy, University Press Limited, Dhaka, 2005, p 208).
To compound matters, Khandakar Mushtaque Ahmed demanded that he be made prime minister as he was the senior most party member. After much persuasion, Mushtaque was made to accept a cabinet position. The provisional government of Bangladesh took its oath of office on April 17 at an Ambagan in Meherpur, Kushtia (renamed as Mujibnagar). Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was declared president of the new republic. Syed Nazrul Islam was appointed acting president. Tajuddin Ahmad took over the affairs of the provisional government as prime minister. Other members of the cabinet were AHM Kamaruzzaman (home minister), Mansur Ali (finance minister) and Khandakar Mushtaque Ahmed (foreign minister). Colonel MAG Osmany was appointed the commander-in-chief of the Mukti Bahini.

Raising and organising Mukti Bahini
THE Bengali soldiers who revolted had to literally evacuate with only the shirts on their backs leaving heavy weapons and critical equipment behind. The Pakistan army pursued the Mukti Bahini vigorously. They launched attack after attack using infantry supported by artillery/naval guns/air attacks. Mukti Bahini soldiers exhausted their ammunition fighting. The need for replenishment and re-supply became acute. India did not stockpile Warsaw Pact 7.62mm ammunition (needed for former 14 Division units) and captured ammunition was the only source of replenishment. Many family members were left behind and the men did not know where their kith and kin were. Unless family members were moved to safety, these men would have difficulty in devoting their attention to the war effort. They needed time off. At the same time, some sort of military action had to continue inside the country so that the Pakistanis got no respite.
Refugees by the thousands began to pour into India and the exodus continued throughout the nine-month war. By November, 10 million had crossed over. Among them were thousands who wanted to fight the Pakistanis. They needed training, weapons and organisation. In the absence of an overall framework, all problems were dealt locally with varying degrees of success. Many volunteers joined the Mukti Bahini when they were fighting rearguard action. After crossing over to India, some of these new volunteers, mostly rural, received two weeks’ training in grenades and pistols. Beginning in May, they were infiltrated inside the country for sabotage. A group would consist of 3–4 volunteers armed with only grenades and their leader carried a pistol. Their task was to find isolated Pakistani outposts, attack them with grenades and extricate. Most of these fighters just sacrificed their lives keeping the struggle alive through the months of May and June while the Mukti Bahini regrouped and reorganised.
Defeat of the Pakistan army required an effective strategy. At the same time, it was important that the liberation of Bangladesh did not take too much time. The Bangladesh issue could not end up in the Security Council where China and the United States were Pakistan’s allies and had veto powers. This was a major reason why India could not accord a premature diplomatic recognition to Bangladesh.
To prevent the Chinese from interfering and at the same time ensure the completion of preparations, the Indian army chief General Sam Manekshaw advised his prime minister that the final offensive should not start before the Himalayan passes freeze, ie, mid-November. The provisional government decided to raise a 1,00,000-strong guerrilla army; there was no dearth of volunteers. The territory of Bangladesh was divided into 10 land sectors and one special operations sector (Sector 10) for air and naval operations. The East Bengal Regiment battalions were reorganised and 3 infantry brigades (Z Force, S Force and K Force) were raised with these units. Training new volunteers was a massive task and the only organisation who could undertake this job was the Indian army. Training of new volunteers began in June. The Indian army set up six training camps for Mukti Bahini recruits. Each camp could train up to 1,500–2,000 at a time. The duration was four weeks and the recruits received training in small arms, field craft, battle craft, and explosives. Specialised training camps (for naval commandos, pilot and technician conversion, heavy weapons and communications) were also set up. The Indian army set up separate brigade headquarters for every Mukti Bahini sector to coordinate operational and logistical matters.
The strategy was to wage a guerrilla war to weaken the Pakistanis and break their will to fight. When the Pakistanis were dispersed chasing guerrillas and their morale was low, the Indo-Bangladesh forces would launch the final phase of the guerrilla war in the winter to defeat the Pakistani forces in Bangladesh. The means to bring the Pakistanis to their knees was explained to the new guerrillas by Khaled Musharaf, commander, K Force, as: ‘We are not fighting to capture land. This is our land; the Pakistanis cannot take our land to West Pakistan. We shall make everything in this land hostile to the enemy. We will not allow him to sleep, eat, drink or even shit. If he doesn’t die of a bullet, he’ll die of a heart attack. We must make it so bad for the enemy that he will start imagining freedom fighters everywhere, behind every bush, tree, hillock, and even in his dreams. The harassment will have to be so intense that even the rustle of a leaf shall strike fear in their hearts! We will make the Pakistani soldier paranoid of us. And when he is down on his knees the regular elements of the Mukti Bahini will finish him off. If the Americans with all their money, modern weapons, airplanes cannot defeat the Viet Cong, we will prevail over the Pakistan Army’ (A Qayyum Khan, Bittersweet Victory A Freedom Fighter’s Tale, University Press Limited, Dhaka, 2013, p 63).
Raising and organising the Mukti Bahini was fraught with problems. Some of it was conceptual as Mukti Bahini commanders adjusted to the change in their orientation from a conventional army to a guerrilla army. The Bangladesh Forces Headquarters was too small with inadequate communication links to give any meaningful higher direction of war. At the same time, Osmany’s idiosyncratic personality and inflexible attitude made a difficult situation worse. Osmany was a colonial brown sahib. He was not inspirational and visible to his men. His methods were rigid that made taking advantage of battlefield situations difficult. A challenging issue for the Mukti Bahini was to find suitable battlefield leaders. Most of the new volunteers were sons of poor farmers of Bangladesh with very little education. Compared with the rural volunteers, the number of university and college students was considerably less, no more than 300–400 in each sector. The Indian army set up an officers’ training school in Murtee. The first batch of officer trainees, mostly student volunteers, began training in June. Every Mukti Bahini training camp also conducted six-week junior leader’s training for guerrilla leaders. The fighters of the Mukti Bahini were categorised in two categories — Gana Bahini and Mukti Fauj — to distinguish between volunteers and regulars. Allowances for the two groups were different with Mukti Fauj receiving a higher allowance causing heartburn among the married Gana Bahini volunteers especially the ones with children.

Internal rifts and cleavages
IN 1971, before the influx of refugees, the Indian government was trying its hardest to quell the Naxalbari movement in West Bengal. It was an armed insurrection by pro-Chinese leftist guerrillas. The Naxals had connections with pro-Chinese political elements of East Bengal. This was a matter of grave concern for the Indira government. There was a need for recruitment policy that would ensure that armaments given to the Mukti Bahini do not end up with Naxals including trained personnel. All volunteers were initially housed in youth camps where they received motivational and physical training. During this period, the volunteers were screened by political leaders before sending them to Indian army training camps. In reality, there was no effective screening mechanism and only prominent leftist students were prevented from joining the Mukti Bahini.
Many senior leaders of the Awami Leauge (namely Khandakar Mushtaque Ahmed, Professor Yousuf Ali, Abdur Rob Seraniabat and Mizanur Rahman Chowdhury) as well as youth leaders led by Sheikh Fazlul Haq Moni began criticising and opposing Tajuddin Ahmad. They blamed him for the lack of progress in the battlefield as well as the international political scenario. Raising a guerrilla army and launching it for war against a professional army on a shoestring budget with no prior preparation was much more complicated than organising a civil unrest or political event. Moni, and other youth leaders challenged Tajuddin Ahmad politically and had even sent an assassin to kill him (Faruq Aziz Khan, Spring 1971: A Centre Stage Account of Bangladesh War of Liberation, University Press Limited, Dhaka, 1993, p 184). The assassin had a change of heart when he saw the prime minister working at his desk late at night and surrendered to him. In the first week of July, the Awami League held a party council in Siliguiri. Tajuddin Ahmad went to the meeting with some trepidation where he debated the youth leaders. He stated that he would have no problem stepping aside if the council found him unsuitable as prime minister. The council was not swayed by the youth leaders and Tajuddin Ahmad came out of the council with a strong mandate.
Without the consent and authorisation of the provisional government, the youth leaders then raised a special force called Mujib Bahini. Major General Oban who had experience with Tibetan guerillas was assigned by India’s premier intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing, to raise and train this force. Only active members of the Chhatra League were selected. Their training was longer than Mukti Bahini recruits. They were also better equipped. The inclusion of the acting president’s eldest son and one of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s sons in this force added to complications for the provisional government. Tajuddin Ahmad viewed the Mujib Bahini as a source of disunity and wanted to bring this force under Mukti Bahini command. He raised the issue with Indira Gandhi on several occasions. She agreed with him. RAW, however, advised the Indian prime minister against this move because of the weaknesses in the provisional government. There were internal conflicts and multiple voices within the Awami League. RAW emphasised the need for an insurance policy if the liberation war was unable to achieve its objective and the provisional government failed. Mujib Bahini also created problems for Mukti Bahini commanders as their fighters were coaxed, and sometimes intimidated, to desert with weapons and join Mujib Bahini. Lieutenant General Aurora, GO C-in-C, Eastern Command, determined that the Mukti Bahini would operate within 20 miles of the border and the Mujib Bahini in the interior. In reality, the sleeper cells of the Mujib Bahini inside Bangladesh were never activated during the liberation war and they did not undertake operations against the Pakistanis.
Throughout the war, the possibility of American and Chinese intervention in support of Pakistan always seemed likely. Hence, the need for a deterrence was of paramount importance. India started negotiations with the Soviet Union to sign a friendship treaty so that the Soviet Union could help India and Bangladesh if the need arose. The Soviet Union agreed to help only if pro-Moscow leftist volunteers were included in the provisional government as well as the Mukti Bahini. The foreign minister, Khandakar Mushtaque Ahmad, and the youth leaders led by Moni vehemently opposed the idea. Indira Gandhi sent her ambassador to Moscow, DP Dhar, three times to Calcutta to impress upon the provisional government that this was not a negotiable issue. Tajuddin Ahmad understood the importance and eventually convinced his cabinet colleagues to accept the Soviet pre-condition. As a compromise, a national consultative committee was formed with representatives from NAP (Muzzaffar), Communist Party and Congress party that some Awami League leaders felt was a dilution of the party’s control on the provisional government. Because of secrecy requirements, the cabinet could not disclose the background for the creation of the NCC. Abdur Rob Seraniabat circulated a letter signed by 40 Awami League members from south-western districts demanding the removal of Tajuddin Ahmad from the office of prime minister. Nothing came of it. The Indians signed the Friendship Treaty with Soviet Union after the formation of the NCC and began shipping armaments to India under the auspices of the treaty.
The Nixon administration wanted to break up the provisional government and find a means to bring the Bangladesh issue to the Security Council. Premature recognition of the provisional government by Indians could be characterised as India trying to break up a member country of the United Nations and that would create sufficient grounds for a Security Council resolution on Bangladesh. India understood the risks of a premature recognition. The Yahya government was at the end of its rope. All its initiatives to bring Bangladesh under its control had failed. The Nixon administration, however, almost succeeded in undermining the provisional government. The foreign minister of Bangladesh was supposed to go to New York to attend the UN General Assembly session with the Indian delegation. The US consulate in Calcutta contacted Khandakar Mushtaque Ahmed through a conduit, Zahirul Qayyum, an MNA from Comilla. Tajuddin got wind of the plot and tipped off Indian intelligence agencies and they arrested Qayyum as he was coming out of the consulate thus foiling the conspiracy. Khandakar Mushtaque had planned to propose a confederation with Pakistan on the basis of six points and also demand Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s release while he was in New York (Lawrence Lifschultz, Bangladesh: The Unfinished Revolution, Zed Press, London, 1979, p 113-117). If Mushtaque succeeded, he would have pulled a complete coup on the provisional government and the Mukti Bahini. Following the revelation of this conspiracy, Abdus Samad Azad started functioning as foreign minister although on paper Mushtaque still retained the title (JN Dixit, Liberation and Beyond Indo-Bangladesh Relations, University Press Limited, Dhaka, 1999, pp 69-70).
The provisional government created six zonal councils that were comprised of elected representatives (MNAs and MPAs) and staffed by officials. The purpose was to extend the control of the provisional government in liberated areas. These councils never became functional although they were supposed to be the backbone of civil administration. Paucity of resources was a major reason for its ineffectiveness. Other reasons included the unwillingness of most elected representatives to bear the hardships of being field-based and deal with difficult problems. Consequently, the field administration remained detached from the government as well as from the people of the country. This created opportunities for corruption for certain individuals with political connections who were pilfering from the youth camps as well as other supplies for personal gain.
Osmany busied himself with things that were close to his heart such as writing the military law manual for the new Bangladesh army. He took a backseat and became almost a recluse. By default, the task of providing higher direction of war fell on Tajuddin Ahmad who was making all the important military decisions for the government. He was assisted by Group Captain AK Khandakar. The prime minsiter and Khandakar maintained close contact with the sector commanders. They were sympathetic to the problems of the Mukti Bahini and thei intervention helped in resolving difficult situations.

From harassment to pitched battles
MAY and June was the most difficult period for the Mukti Bahini. The units of the EPR and East Bengal Regiment were being reorganised; 1 E Bengal and 3 E Bengal had lost two companies each during extrication, 9 E Bengal and 10 E Bengal were lost and would have to be re-raised. While groups of three-four went into operation, the Mukti Bahini reorganised. In June, small groups also infiltrated into Dhaka for similar operations in the capital. The casualties from such actions in Dhaka were negligible compared with the countryside mainly because the maze of narrow lanes and by-lanes of the city provided cover and easy escape for the guerrillas.
The first batch of recruits joined Mukti Bahini training camps in the third week of May. Most of the trainees were rural, sons of poor farmers. They received four weeks’ training. It could not be any longer or more rigorous given the urgency of the situation. There were many deficiencies and the newly trained guerrillas had limited capabilities. They did not have any communication equipment and could not be resupplied and replenished once they were inside the country. Induction of the newly trained guerrillas began in the last week of June. The new fighters were tasked to eliminate collaborators, disrupt communication and economic activity, and ambush/attack isolated enemy patrols/positions. They had to collect intelligence, select their target, plan and execute their operation, and extricate to safety. This was a tall order for them. The level of success varied but the guerrillas were effective in breaking the enemy’s will to fight by conducting operations night after night.
Siddiq Salik, a Pakistani army officer who worked in military public relations in Dhaka in 1971 states (Siddiq Salik, Witness to Surrender, Oxford University Press, Karachi. 1977, p 103-104): ‘As time passed, their sabotage work attained a degree of sophistication … Their sabotage inventory included damage to, or destruction of, 231 bridges, 122 railway lines, and 90 electric installations. They could not reach this figure without a high degree of motivation… On 11 October the rebels introduced a new element to their operations. They used mortars for the first time in Dacca … Quite contrary to the wishful optimism of their commanders, the (Pakistani) troops were in low state of training, equipment and morale… Worst of all, several of them had no heart in operations… It is said that three quarters of command lies in knowing what is going on in the minds of their troops… When they (Pakistani commanders) were told that we lost 237 officers, 136 junior commissioned officers, and 3,559 other ranks in counter-insurgency operations, they preferred to count those who had survived. Little did they realize that the psychological casualties in their command were several times higher than the physical losses. As a result of this low state of morale, the troops had lost aggressiveness in patrolling and tenacity in fighting’. Salik also states that captured young Mukti Bahini prisoners scoffed at their interrogators and never revealed their comrades or led the army to hideouts. The guerrillas remained dedicated to their cause and displayed tremendous determination even when subjected to barbaric torture. In a few cases, Pakistani interrogators tried to get information by offering monetary inducements but they did not succeed even in a single case. The population inside the country sustained the guerrillas by providing food and shelter as well as acting as guides for MB. People also collected intelligence on Pakistani camps and the army’s movements which they gave to their fighters.

To be continued
A Qayyum Khan joined the Mukti Bahini in the early days of the liberation war when he was a university student. He was commissioned during liberation war and fought in Sector 7 as a second lieutenant. After leaving the Bangladesh army in 1981, he went to the United States and completed his doctorate in finance from Georgia State University. He taught in several American universities and returned to Bangladesh in the late nineties.

The article headlined ‘Liberation war exposed a neocolonial state’s failure’ by Farooque Chwodhury as published on page S2 of New Age’s Victory Day Special on December 16, 2015 wrongly puts the date of the Express Tribune article ‘Remembering 1971: A retired major tells the story he’d forget’ to December 16, 1971, which should, in fact, be December 16, 2011. We regret any inconvenience.

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