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Rewriting the 1971 war

A book that has been republished by the author’s children in the light of new information, to vindicate their father’s name

Rewriting the 1971 war

It seemed that General Rao Farman Ali Khan was caught between a rock and a hard place. He was accused by his colleagues of being a politician and sympathetic to the political forces in East Pakistan. He was even accused of colluding with General Manekshaw, the Indian army chief. After about 20-odd years Farman Ali Khan wrote about his role in East Pakistan, the details that led to the breakup of the country, and the emergence of Bangladesh, in Urdu. The book was translated to English some years later and now in an effort to vindicate their father’s name, his children have made additions to the text in the light of new information they discovered and have republished the book.

It may be said that he was considered a very bright officer and wrote a scathing criticism of Pakistan’s initiation of the 1965 war. He also laid down the defence plans for East Pakistan as he had spent a considerable period of his service in Bengal. Commissioned to the British Indian Army his first posting was in Bengal; after a few years and promotions he was again posted in East Pakistan, and in the fatal run up to the breakup of the country he was appointed as the political officer to the governor/corp commander /martial law administrator. Because of his position of a quasi political nature he was seen by many of his colleagues as currying favour to politicians. Within the army and the bureaucracy being a politician is a word fraught with negative connotations. A politician is crafty, cunning, manipulative, untrustworthy and opportunistic, while a soldier is straightforward, blunt and not accommodating.

As is evident from the book, Farman Ali Khan knew there could only be a political solution to the crisis in East Pakistan and mere military action would have dire consequences. It seemed from his account that he was forever advising his seniors not to simply seek a military solution but to attempt a political solution that was durable and long lasting. “If the entire population is up in arms than no army in the world can restore law and order and enforce normality,” he told his seniors.

It is clear from the book that there was no love lost between him and General Niazi — he did not like him, found fault in his entire approach and also questioned his military strategy. After the surrender, Farman Ali Khan and Niazi were both taken as prisoners of war, along with other officers, and he had to suffer him in confinement as well. Two penalties for one crime.

As is evident from the book, Farman Ali Khan knew there could only be a political solution to the crisis in East Pakistan and mere military action would have dire consequences.

Problems with the Bengalis started soon after independence for multiple reasons. They had a different take on the Pakistan Resolution that was passed in 1940. They insisted that it meant individual states rather than one state, some were even favourably disposed to the vision of greater Bengal that had been floated by Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy. After independence the two issues that rankled most were that of language and Pakistan’s relationship with India.

When the 1962 constitution was abrogated by Yahya Khan, Rao Farman Ali was of the view that the 1956 constitution should have been repromulgated with its principles of parity and One Unit restored. The Legal Framework Order that had replaced the 1962 constitution was not well-thought-out because it left too much open for negotiation and gave a free rein to   political forces and this was further compounded by a period for electioneering that went on for too long.

When the constitution was being drafted after the elections there was no condition of the approval by two-thirds majority. The decisive victory of the Awami League left West Pakistanis out of the equation from the word go. Forming the government and drafting the constitution were seen as two separate things by Mujib Ur Rehman, but not by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.


When the election campaign began Rao Farman Ali was of the view that the field should not have been left open as the Awami League was running its campaign on the basic of six points which was contrary to the principles laid down in the Legal Framework Order. So he proposed that the state should become a party, instead of remaining neutral by supporting those that wanted a united Pakistan.

He also viewed the role of Bhutto with great suspicion as he worked closely with Yahya Khan in the post-election phase. Bhutto’s strategy according to Rao was to put the Awami League in direct confrontation with the army. In the process the Awami League would get destroyed and the army discredited, leaving the field left wide open for Bhutto. From his account it was clear that there was support for certain parties and since the army also came from West Pakistan, Yahya Khan decided to support the parties of the West Wing.

Even after surrender, according to Rao Farman Ali, Bhutto asked Indira Gandhi to delay the return of the prisoners of war because he wanted time to consolidate power and endure some stability to the political process. This demand was acceded to by India. While Rao Farman Ali was a prisoner of war he found out from high officers of the Indian Army that India was not interested in reabsorbing Pakistan. They preferred the option of weak Muslim states bordering it. India believed that this was achieved in the 1971 war.

He was certain that the report of Hamoodur Rahman Commission, which was formed to find out the causes of defeat, was never made public because it exceeded its terms of reference. It was only meant to discover the military reasons for the debacle but it also probed the political causes that led to that situation. A public outing of the political blunders was too much for the political leadership to gulp and hence the report never saw the light of day. The Hamoodur Rahman Commission, however, gave a clean chit to Rao Farman Ali and that could have been the reason why he mentioned its existence and then its findings. All this has reinforced Rao Farman Ali’s childrens’ conviction that their father’s name may be cleared in the popular imagination.

How Pakistan Got Divided
Author: Rao Farman Ali Khan
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Price: Rs1150

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore


  • R S Chakravarti

    Bhutto succeeded in his designs. Clearly, for Bhutto, human beings were just pawns in his power game. He lived by the sword and perished by it.

    But his success was short-lived as Zia was more cunning!

  • How Bhashani was forced to boycott is among hidden facts. The fact is that some power players at top had decided to get rid of Bengalis yet they want to discredit politicians with there smart moves. Bhashani was foced to boycott under a design of those power brokers. it was written in the orders of H R commission to explore political circumstances that lead to division of Pakistan since 1947. How H R C exceeded? India was afraid from a United Bengal move and that is why India was happy to establish Bangladesh. Including K K aziz, we have many books and research papers on this subject.

  • Major General Rao Farman Ali Khan was responsible for the planning of ‘Operation Searchlight’ (Bangladesh Genocide) and killing of Bengali intellectuals in 1971. Farman will be tried by Bangladesh War Criminal Tribunal posthumously.

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