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The Role of the Military Officers in the War of Liberation

By focusing on the role of the Bengali military officers in general and those of Chittagong Cantonment in particular, this Chapter emphasizes how and why they revolted during that fateful night between 25 and 26 March 1971 and proceeded eventually to the crucial phase of the Declaration of Independence of Bangladesh. Since the researcher himself was an actor in these events, his role along with that of others in the whole drama has been delineated in some details. The critical situation in which they had to decide upon the appropriate course of action as they did, involved not only their personal survival but also the survival of the Bengalis as a nation. Thus their motivation t get involved in the national war of liberation seems to be sublimated from a coarse instinct of personal safety to a noble cause of national emancipation. This is how they saw it, and the researcher being an insider perceived it that way. This chapter delineates the sequence of events that unfolded in quick succession; it also reflects the perceptions of the key players. What is also of importance is that this kind of academic work has not been performed earlier.

At that point of time there were about 50 well trained Bengali officers and approximately 5000 soldiers stationed in Chittagong, Comilla, Jessore, Saidpur and Dhaka Cantonments (see Appendix-1) in addition to about 15 thousand members of the East Pakistan Rifles (EPR), a para-military force trained for guarding the national frontiers. The Chittagong Cantonment had an added advantage in the sense that though quite far from Dhaka, it provided the Bengali military officers at the Chittagong Cantonment ample opportunities to watch closely how the Pakistani strategists were re-inforcing their grip over East Pakistan by bringing in more and more arms and ammunition through the Chittagong Port. The Comilla Cantonment being closer to the Chittagong Cantonment provided a convenient opportunity for easy communication between the military officers and the political leaders. The political leaders of Chittagong, many of whom were quite influential in the policy-making hierarchy of the Awami League, had been in touch with the Bengali military officers at Chittagong. Chittagong also had one radio station.

The researcher was commissioned on 29 October 1967 and posted to 4 East Bengal Regiment at Joydevpur, Dhaka. He was transferred to the Chittagong Cantonment in September 1970 and was appointed Quarter-Master in the newly raised 8th battalion of the East Bengal Regiment stationed in Sholoshahar, Chittagong. The office of the Quarter-Master in the regiment was a crucial vantage point from which to view the events which ultimately led to the historic decision to wage the Liberation War in 1971.

Background of Revolutionary Decision of the Bengali Military Officers

For those who might question why the military officers and not the political leaders initiated the first salvo against the Pakistani authorities in East Pakistan, some reflection on the Pakistan military is in order.

Immediately after the emergence of Pakistan in 1947 its armed forces were preoccupied with their won organization. For a time they remained content with the policies of the ruling elite, since the armed forces were assured of their privileged status in respect of pay and other perquisites. Furthermore, having their roots firmly implanted in the landed aristocracy in West Pakistan, the military officers also felt a kind of class affinity with the civilian rulers (Ahamed, 1988, 40-41). Pakistan’s strong anti-Indian foreign policy, coupled with a “stand off” at the first Kashmir Conflict of 1948, resulted in a stalemate with India on the issues of canal water and evacuee property and contributed towards making the armed forces in Pakistan strongly anti-Indian in nature from the beginning. This ultimately drove Pakistan much closer to the US, which had for long been seeking a reliable ally in south Asia within the framework of its global strategy of containing communism.

After the conclusion of the mutual Defense assistance agreement in 1954 with the US, the Pakistan armed forces acquired sophisticated weapons from the US. It enhanced not only its striking power but also its bargaining strength, and gradually it began to penetrate the civilian government of Pakistan. When in 1954 effective political power was assumed by the bureaucratic elite the generals found it quite propitious to enter the political arena openly. Symbolic of the significant changes that had taken place in Pakistan in 1954 were the dismissal of the national government by President Ghulam Mohammad, dissolution of the National Parliament and appointment of a member of the armed forces as a minister in the new government headed by Mohammad Ali. This new minister was General Ayub Khan who in league with the top-level military officers and civil servants, frustrated the development of a democratic system, and by staging a coup and then assuming dictatorial powers in 1958, established the supremacy of the military in Pakistan.

All the Bengali military officers, who played crucial roles in the Liberation War, Were recruited during this period and were trained and socialized under the shadow of Ayub Khan’s martial law. This had far-reaching effects on the Bengali military officers in many ways. In the first place, they became conscious of a regional imbalance in the armed forces. Moreover, they began to realize that the small number of Bengali officers and soldiers, who were recruited into the Pakistan armed forces, were not accorded equal treatment. They also felt that a policy of discrimination was followed against Bengali officers in matters of privileges, promotion and other perquisites. The discriminatory policies made the Bengali officers not only resentful but also vociferous against the Pakistan’s ruling elite (Ahamed, 1988: 35-50).

In the 1960s, their complaints became louder and more structured when regional conflicts were “diverted from the usual political channels of expression and deflected into bureaucracy”, and bureaucracy turned into “the arena for covert forms of political struggle,” in the absence of a political elite after the imposition of Martial Law in Pakistan in 1958 (Ahamed, 1988: 41). The limitations put on the political process and the absence of a Bengali Political elite meant that the Bengali bureaucrats, both civil and military, constituted the only substantial Bengali group taking part at the national decision-making level. In fact, at that time the Bengali bureaucrats, both civil and military, though not holding senior positions at the key ministries became by default the chief spokesmen for Bengali interests.

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