The short story of 1971

The short story of 1971

How a six-month stint in East Pakistan drew Nadir Ali the soldier to writing fiction and poetry

The short story of 1971
Nadir Ali found refuge in writing. — Photo by Rahat Dar

Writing poems and short stories is not good for a soldier’s image, even if he is retired. Yet many soldiers write them. The soldiers around us often write memoirs or political commentary in newspapers. Not Col. (retd) Nadir Ali whom we know for his Punjabi poems and short stories and occasional newspaper columns which are mostly reviews of Punjabi fiction and poetry.

But that is Nadir Ali for people like me who got to know him in the late 1990s, as a gentle oldie, a tad too gentle for a former commando. There’s a Major Nadir Ali of 1971, and before and after, whom I did not know till quite recently and without which you can understand neither the stories nor the poems nor the man.

The year 1971 is significant because that is when reality, laced with delusions of grandeur about his own role, played havoc with his imagination. He had served in Dhaka as a Major of the Pakistan army from April to October; circumstances were such that, even as Major, he got an opportunity to command his battalion.

The journey from Dhaka back to Pakistan became a journey from sanity to madness. Back home, he experienced reality of another kind; the colossal sense of tragedy and guilt of what he had seen and heard in the other part of the country and the equally colossal sense of indifference and normalcy in this part was too much for a person of Nadir Ali’s sensibility. He had a nervous breakdown and consequently lost his memory.

The recovery was slow but complete; it came at the hands of literature and some kind-hearted people who got him involved in literary work.

Finally, a few years back, he felt confident enough to talk about the events of 1971, openly, in a detailed interview with BBC Urdu in 2007 under the title Aik Fauji Ki Yadasht. Truthful, crisp and eye-opening, these memoirs were unfortunately not as widely read here. He also gave a talk at BRAC University in 2011 on his experiences during the six month period he was posted there.

The colossal sense of tragedy and guilt of what he had seen in the other part of the country and the equally colossal sense of indifference and normalcy in this part was too much for a person of Nadir Ali’s sensibility.

For the last two years, around December 16, the day marked as the Fall of Dhaka, I had been trying unsuccessfully to meet him and get him to talk about 1971 (he was not in the country at that particular time of the year). This year I thought I was lucky but Nadir Ali did not seem too keen to talk because, in his own words, he has had “enough of Bangladesh”, because “it was also a matter of personal breakdown” and “not very pleasant memories”. The matter is too painful, he says and I agree.

For me, there are other considerations too. One person’s narrative could not offer a complete picture of a historical event of this proportion. But it is through his account that we can hope to correct the twisted history.

He has clearly vented his soldier’s perspective in the BBC interview and the BRAC talk, looking at the failings of the Pakistan army alone with his own understanding of the situation. In my conversation with him, he takes a more analytical and broader view of things. He has, of course, been aware of the literature produced around 1971 the world over (his own views are a part of some of these academic works).

He wants to state a few things at the outset. “The Pakistan army had a huge part to play because it was the most important organ of the state active in East Pakistan. The so-called political people appointed by Ayub Khan like Fazlul Qadri Chaudhry, Abdul Saboor Khan and Abdul Monem Khan who was Governor East Pakistan were minor figures. Even the major political figures like A.K. Fazl-ul-Haq, the senior-most in the history of Muslim League, had no part in the politics of East Pakistan. There was continuous army rule since the 1958 Martial Law until 1971. We were predominantly, and till a certain time entirely, a West Pakistan army.

“The fall of Dhaka could have been avoided if the military action was put to a halt in April 1971 and if the capital had not been shifted from Karachi to Islamabad.

“The military defeat did not come about because there was some organised resistance in East Pakistan but mainly because of the Indian attack. When nine million refugees crossed over to the Indian side, the Indians thought they had a legitimate reason to attack.”

His BBC memoirs talk about the orders given to the forces as well as him to kill the Hindus at sight; there was a consensus within the army that Hindus were the root cause of the problem which could be sorted out by eliminating them. “That there were orders to this effect has been confirmed by the Hamoodur Rehman Commission Report,” he tells me.

He got these orders along with others — he was asked to intercept people who ran away or, if there were people resisting, to carry out an interdiction against them. “But I found a few things. One, there was no resistance at all. They were unorganised, unarmed, poor people whose houses were being burnt and some innocent people were getting killed. About the killing of Hindus, I always refused and said that I was not going to kill unarmed people.”

Nadir Ali knew East Pakistan well because he had been posted there earlier too, for more than three years, in the mid-1960s. Since he understood things, people and terrain better, he could defy orders. “People who were giving the orders tolerated that. They would argue with me that this is not the right attitude. I knew in my heart of hearts that there was no resistance or anything. I went to five or six places where I had to directly carry out the action and I found no resistance at all. I didn’t feel any threat. We took some precautions for our own protection, but we were freely moving about by air and by train. I travelled from North Bengal to Dhaka in the middle of April 1971 by jeep alone with my driver,” he recalls.

Yet, they went about with the military action. Why, I ask. He says these were “high level actions over which people like us had no control.”

Nadir Ali wants to clarify some historical myths. As the battalion commander, he was receiving orders directly from Gen. Niazi who “has been blamed for a lot of things. Especially Gen. Khadim Husain Raja’s recent book A Stranger in My Own Country maligns him a lot, for what he said and did. But I know it for a fact as an army man that no General was ready to go to East Pakistan. And the General who was there, Sahibzada Yaqub Ali Khan, ran away. He has wrongly been given credit for saying he didn’t want to stay. He just quit because the situation was too complex and a lot would have been blown in his face.”

Gen. Niazi “has been blamed for a lot of things.”

Gen. Niazi “has been blamed for a lot of things.”

He recalls how a court martial was contemplated against Sahibzada and how he was demoted from Lieutenant General to Major General. Because of his conduct etc., he was allowed to spend the next year at Imperial Defence College in London.

He also recalls the exchange of articles between Altaf Gauhar and Sahibzada Yaqub in a newspaper where the former challenged him on his claim that he didn’t want to serve in East Pakistan. Gauhar claimed that he was in possession of the letter which he wrote to the GHQ saying the situation was very bad in East Pakistan and there was a communist threat. “Altaf Gauhar wrote against him for not doing his duty there. Actually, he should have stayed and handled the situation differently; he should have seen that it is controlled instead of walking away,” he says.

Nadir Ali is of the view that by writing this letter, Yaqub Khan was not only pandering to the Pakistan government but also to the United States government. “Though, in all this period, I went looking for some communists so that there should be some elements with whom we could talk peace but I couldn’t find them. I had some friends who went underground which I have mentioned, like Maj Ziauddin, who while fighting with us went and joined Naxalbaris in 1971 and stayed underground till 1989,” he says.

I want to know his view about the number of casualties, since there is a whole lot of varying scholarship about it. “Sajjad Ahmed, a Jamaat person, wrote a book in Bangladesh which put the casualties at 60,000 or thereabouts. Between that and the official figure of three million from the government as well as most of these Bangladeshi historians, there is a lot of gap. In my view, 60,000 is nearer to the number actually killed.”

But he looks at it from another angle. He thinks if you have the power of life and death and “you kill a number of people, especially if you pick out Hindus, that is oppression enough. What is important is that people were killed randomly, for just being Hindus or Bengalis, without any trial or questioning.”

He says religion was the motivation for killing people — that this was a ‘Hindu conspiracy’ made it supposedly rational. “Even Gen A. A. K. Niazi has written in his book The Betrayal of East Pakistan that so many million Hindus were brought in to vote in 1970. This is absolute rubbish. There was no crossing of border for voting. Everybody acknowledged this was a fair election. There was a sentiment for Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and against the central government of Pakistan.”

He thinks now to pin the blame on any one person and leave the rest of the strands does not cover the entire spectrum of history which in “our case was what we had been doing for the last twenty five years in East Pakistan.”

While talking about the new East Bengal regiment created by Yahya Khan, he recalls that “senior West Pakistani officers were killed by their own [Bengali] soldiers. For example, there was Col. Janjua who was commanding the Ziaur Rahman Battalion. Maj. Ziaur Rahman was the second in command. So the unit rebelled and they killed their own CO, Col. Janjua. A number of West Pakistani officers were killed by their own troops including Major Asjad Lateef.”

I hesitate a little before asking about his information about the allegations of rape. Like his early memoirs, once again he refers to Yasmeen Saikia, a Professor of History at the Arizona State University, who wrote a book Women, War and the making of Bangladesh. She did her research extensively in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Nadir Ali thinks Sharmila Bose’s research [Dead Reckoning] is very casual in comparison. “Saikia who was in Bangladesh for a year could not find any woman who came forward and said she had been raped. She was there for a year. She went to the judge who was incharge of rehabilitation of these women. He said he could not give out their names because it is not good for them and their families.”

Thirty years had already passed. Finally, she found an old woman, a prostitute, who said she was raped in 1971 and that’s how she was in this profession since her family disowned her. “Through her, she got the names of some other women and got in touch with them. She asked this woman why don’t they come forward and talk about it. To which the woman replied that the people who brought those army officers to her were ruling the country then. So, it is the elite which is always collaborating; they were collaborating with the army, perhaps to save their lives,” says Ali.

He dealt with a rape allegation in his own unit too. But this was not done “on a day-to-day basis. On the contrary, all these West Pakistani units were in small detachments in a supposedly hostile environment. So you could not go out on a rape spree. This was exaggerated then and much more now.”

But they had the force of arms, I ask. “It was not difficult. If you asked, somebody could arrange it for you to save his own life.” His own experience was that wherever the army went, people vacated their houses and ran away.

We come to what exactly led to his breakdown. He was posted back to West Pakistan in late October, early November, he tells me. He was reluctant to return but his unit, 3 Commando Battalion, was shifted back to West Pakistan and he was to be promoted to the rank of Lt. Colonel.

Apart from officially commanding his battalion while in East Pakistan, he was carrying out operations across the [Indian] border. “That is why I had gained some importance. Now some people say this should not have been done; we weren’t at war with India. But India was acting very much like it was in a state of war. It was training people and launching them,” he says.

Was the order to kill Hindus the provocation for India? “No. You should read this book The Blood Telegram; now the classified papers have been released in India as well as the US. According to it, the Indian government had decided at the beginning of the year that it was going to launch this operation. As soon as the army action started, P.N. Haksar, a secretary level and influential person, persuaded Indira Gandhi that this was a good time to act. His minutes and advice to Indira Gandhi have all been quoted in the book.”

When he came back, his first reaction was that nobody cared what was going on in the Eastern part. “I also started drinking very heavily; that also was a contributing factor. I do not think it was entirely due to Bangladesh, it was because of my personal reaction to whatever was happening. I had volunteered to go from here, so in a way I was guilty of having gone there. Back in Lahore, I was doing my routine work; I would dress up in the morning, go to the office, do my routine duties, sign letters and come home. Only my wife knew that I was completely off my rocker. I was promoted in that state.

“I recovered in 1973 after staying under treatment for six months in the army psychiatric ward by then Col. Shoaib, a very competent psychiatrist. This was a very prolonged treatment; they gave me a number of shocks, I lost my memory temporarily. As I recovered, I realised my family had suffered so much. My psychiatrist told me I had no future in the army. So I volunteered to retire.”

He was already in touch with this Punjabi literary group at Najm Hosain Syed’s house which met every week. “I have written an autobiography which is being published in installments in Punjabi magazine Pancham. About twelve parts have been published. I have written that one of the things that helped me recover was getting in touch with this group. And Najm played a great role in that, in helping me regain my memory, talking about my life before 1971 and also about ’71, my childhood etc.”

These were mostly element from the Left, people from the Mazdoor Kissan Party, who got him introduced to this group. Major Ishaq and other people also used to come to Najm Hosain’s house. “This will be late 1970s right till 1984 when I went to the US. In ’89, I came back and one of the reasons was that I wanted to continue with this interaction. I started writing. I wrote a book of poems which was published in which I wrote a few poems about the East Pakistan experience also.”

He wrote about the Bengal famine of the 1940s and one of the poems was about the fact that he cannot go back and interact with those people. That is how Col. Nadir Ali overcame the sadness. That is when Nadir Ali the writer was born.

The short story of 1971 became a rather long one.

The article appeared in


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