Lies and war histories

Published : Oct 14, 2000 00:00 IST

A post-script on the Hamoodur Rahman Report.

AS exercises in democratic accountability, inquiries into military lapses and debacles belong to a hallowed tradition. Britain and France defeated Russia in the Crimean War (1853-56); but at so heavy a cost that an inquiry was instituted in London. Indee d the British had an inquiry even on the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht (April 11, 1713). On July 18, 1916, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith announced in the House of Commons, at the end of a two-day debate, that he would set up a Royal Commission "to in quire into the conduct of the Dardenelles operation". Its Report was debated in the House on March 20, 1917. That was during the First World War (1914-18), in which Britain's very survival was at stake.

The U.S. Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees held joint hearings into defence and foreign policies, following President Truman's dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur, even while the Korean war raged fiercely after Chinese forces cros sed the Yalu river. The New York Times published the full text of the transcripts (May 4-June 8, 1952). Secretaries of State and Defence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were grilled. American correspondents were chagrined to find the Tass correspondent coming daily to buy the official record for a few cents. "We are stripping the nation's security framework to the bare skeleton," Chairman Richard B. Russell remarked.

These and the other British and Israeli precedents cited earlier in this writer's article on the bogus Kargil inquiry ("A dubious exercise"; Frontline; August 27, 1999) show that we have yet to attain standards of accountability in our political s ystem. The Henderson-Brooks Report on the 1962 war remains classified; unconstitutionally, as this writer argued. ("Looking back: A case for publishing the Henderson-Brooks report": Frontline, April 10, 1992). All the 25 annexures and eight append ices to the Kargil Report remain secret despite its authors' plea for their publication. Siddharth Varadarajan notes that of the five wars India has fought since Independence, official accounts of only the first (Kashmir, 1948) and last (Kargil, 1999) we re publicly available. "Official military histories of the 1962, 1965 and 1971 wars exist, but successive governments, obsessed with secrecy, have refused to make them public" (The Times of India; September 6). The newspaper made available that da y the 1965 history on its website. It had been submitted to the government in September 1992; histories of the 1971 and 1962 wars, in 1988 and 1990, respectively.

Reaction in Pakistan and India to the publication of the Supplementary Report of the Hamoodur Rahman Commission, on Pakistan's military defeat in 1971, was on predictable lines. India Today had a write-up on it (issue dated August 21). In India, r ighteous comment on the futility of suppressing such reports was coupled with smirk at exposure of immoral behaviour in high places in Pakistan's set-up. The text of the document which the weekly put on its website was not subjected to analysis; nor were the claims India Today had made, which were utterly untrue. Not once did it avow what the text itself proclaimed for all to read, namely, that it was a "Supplementary Report" prepared after the Prisoners of War (POWs) had returned to Pakistan. It was instead described repeatedly (p. 33) as "the final report" submitted in 1974, while the one submitted two years earlier, on July 12, 1972, was dubbed "a provisional report". A supplement does just what it says; it supplements as a post-script or as a long footnote. It is final only in point of time as the last word. It is not the "main thing". The Supplementary Report refers throughout to the earlier Report as "the Main Report". Its very format is that of a Supplement. An Introduction, subti tled "Reasons for Supplementary Report", is followed by three substantive contributions based on the fresh evidence - on "the Moral Aspect" citing specific acts of misconduct; "alleged atrocities by the Pakistan Army", and "Professional Responsibilities of Certain Senior Army Commanders". Chapter IV contains "Conclusions". Another sets out detailed "Recommendations". A long section records "the sequence of the Signals" between Islamabad and Dhaka from November 21 till December 15, 1971. One Appendix co ntains the terms of reference of the 1974 probe; another, the press release thereon.

The Main Report had said: "Our observations and conclusions regarding the surrender in East Pakistan and other allied matters should be regarded as provisional and subject to modification in the light of the evidence of the Commander, Eastern Command, an d his senior officers as and when such evidence becomes available." The Supplementary Report says: "Although we are now naturally in possession of far more detailed information as to the events in East Pakistan, yet the main conclusions reached by us on the earlier occasion have remained unaffected by the fresh evidence now available." The Main Report rested on the testimony of 213 witnesses; the Supplementary, on 72. The Western sector is totally excluded from the latter. More to the point, each sectio n of the Supplementary Report begins by recalling the relevant Chapter and Part of the Main Report and proceeds - to supplement it. That is true of the Conclusions and the Recommendations as well. It is, therefore, grossly misleading to omit consc iously the title "the Supplementary Report", any reference to this fact and claim that it is "a final report".

Similar stunts were deployed earlier by The Times of India's correspondent in Washington, D.C. in an article in The Illustrated Weekly of India (October 23, 1988) entitled "Night of the Generals". The editorial write-up claimed that he had "recently unearthed a secret report commissioned by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto..." Very few excerpts were reproduced, however. They were evidently drawn from the Supplementary Report. The padding in the four pages was heavy and spurious. The Correspondent wrote : "A xeroxed version of the report was smuggled out of Pakistan under circumstances that must remain secret and it became available to me in Washington. By a strange coincidence, while this writer was researching the 1971 developments in East Paki stan, an American friend who is writing a book on Afghanistan, showed me a large number of secret, but declassified, White House and other official U.S. documents that gave almost a blow-by-blow account of what President Nixon and his National Security A dviser Henry Kissinger were doing while East Pakistan's defences were collapsing under the joint pressure of the Mukti Bahini and Indian troops" (emphasis added, throughout).

Had he been less ignorant, he might have been less excited at his "discovery". For, those documents, known as the Anderson Papers, were published sixteen years earlier. For instance The Times of India Correspondent reproduces with relish He nry Kissinger's famous remark on December 9, 1971 a propos Indira Gandhi: "The lady is cold-blooded and tough and will not turn into a Soviet satellite merely because of pique". This was known to all since 1972 (vide the superb compilation Bang ladesh: The Birth of a Nation compiled by Martha Nicholas and Philip Oldenburg; M. Seshachalam & Co., Madras 1, 1972. This remark is reproduced at p.132 in the full text of the minutes of meeting of the Washington Special Action Group).

And, indeed if "a xeroxed version of the report" - he does not tell us which, though he does mention two reports - "became available to me" why was he so parsimonious in sharing it with the reader? Small wonder the article went largely unnoticed.

Not so, the scoop by Mushahid Hussain, later Minister in Nawaz Sharif's Government (1997-99). In an article in the Lahore daily Nation of December 16, 1990, he wrote: "The 10 recommendations of the Hamoodur Rahman Commission are being reproduce d in their original shape, without any editing, so that past mistakes can serve as a guide for future consolidation." He was quoting obviously from the Main Report since the sixth recommendation envisaged a further inquiry when the POWs in India retu rned to Pakistan. Recommendations in the Supplementary Report, though more detailed, are clearly based on the ten he set out. Mushahid Hussain was known to be close to the army then.

In Pakistan an official spokesman clarified, on August 18, comments on the Report attributed to the Minister for Information and Media Development, Javed Jabbar, during his visit to Sukkur on August 17. Jabbar was reported as having said that the governm ent was considering publishing the report. "The actual position is, the Minister stated that the Government is presently in the process of determining the authenticity of the version of the report published by an Indian Magazine in comparison to the actu al contents of the report... whether it is unauthorisedly handled at any point during the past 26 years. It had been incorrectly attributed to the Minister that as the National Archives Act 1993 allowed documents to be declassified after 20 years, any ci tizen could now approach the National Archives to obtain a copy of the said report." The spokesman said the report remained a classified document. Jabbar had obviously shot his mouth off as he is very prone to.

Reportedly, one of the Zia-ul-Haq's first acts after staging a coup in July 1977 was to order a search of the ousted Prime Minister Z.A. Bhutto's home in order to retrieve the sole surviving copy of the Report from his residence. He had ordered the rest to be destroyed. Retrieved it was, but controversy soon arose on possible deletions and additions.

If one examines the Supplementary Report on its merits in the light of known facts about the Commission that produced it, one is driven to the sad conclusion that judges of eminence lent their services to the state to produce a political document dressed in the garb of a judicial verdict, a spectacle by no means unknown in this subcontinent. The Hamoodur Rahman Commission Supplementary Report, and its Main Report, insofar as it is cited in the former, are thoroughly dishonest documents shorn of any vest ige of objectivity in appreciation of evidence or legality or fairness in the procedure the Commission followed. The entire process was disgraceful; so were its products.

Pakistan's armed forces surrendered at Dhaka on December 16, 1971. Ten days later, in order to assuage public opinion, Z.A. Bhutto, President as well as Martial Law Administrator, set up this Commission with severely restricted terms of reference; namely , "to inquire into the circumstances in which the Commander, Eastern Command, surrendered and the members of the Armed Forces of Pakistan under his command laid down their arms and a ceasefire was ordered along the borders of West Pakistan and India and along the ceasefire line in the State of Jammu and Kashmir."

Two points must be noted. The terms of reference covered the west also, on which the Supplementary Report is totally silent. It was, presumably, dealt with in the Main Report. Secondly, the entire political and military background preceding the surrender in the east and ceasefire in the west is excluded. A lot had happened, diplomatically and militarily since the Pakistan Army's brutal crackdown in Dhaka on March 25, 1971, to go no further. Involved principally were Gen. A.A.K. Niazi, Commander, Eastern Command, as well as the Zonal Martial Law Administrator. Major-General Rao Farman Ali was military adviser to the Governor. Niazi took over the job on April 4, 1971 from Lt. Gen. Tikka Khan who was responsible for the crackdown on March 25. He had repla ced Lt. Gen. Yaqub Khan, who, being this honourable man that he is, had resigned on March 7. Bhutto made Tikka Khan Army Chief shortly after he became President. Farman Ali was reputed to be the brains behind the killing of Bengali intellectuals. He was exonerated by the Commission. So was Tikka Khan. At the apex stood Gen. M. Yahya Khan, the Martial Law Administrator who had staged a coup against Ayub Khan in 1969. Niazi was the last of the POWs to be repatriated to Pakistan on April 30, 1974. The Inqu iry was reopened on May 25.

The Commission was headed by the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Justice Hamoodur Rahman. The other members of the Commission were Justice S. Anwarul Haq, Chief Justice of the Punjab High Court, and Justice Tufail Ali Abdur Rahman, Chief Justice of Sind and B aluchistan High Court, Lt. Gen (Retd.) Altaf Qadir and M.A. Latif, Assistance Registrar of the Supreme Court of Pakistan and Military Adviser and Secretary of the Commission, respectively.

The government had decided to repatriate all Bengalis to Bangladesh. Justice Hamoodur Rahman, a Bengali, was spared. Allegedly, his son, a Major in the Army, was not being cleared for repatriation. Anwarul Haq was elevated to the Supreme Court by the tim e the inquiry was reopened in 1974.

A.T. Chaudhuri, one of Pakistan's most intrepid journalists, wrote a revealing article on the Commission in Dawn (July 23 and 26, 1986). It was "based on incontrovertible evidence gathered from and corroborated by several sources. The object is to bring out how a democratic regime accountable to the people tried to muzzle and sweep under the carpet the report of a high-powered commission it had itself set up...

"One can say, on the authority of unimpeachable sources, that the probe body was specifically told to confine its investigation to the 'military debacle' and not to delve into the 'causes of surrender', notably its political background. Chief Justice Ham oodur Rahman is believed to have pleaded for the enlargement of the terms of reference to enable him to look into the 'totality of the situation' before the traumatic fall of Dhaka. But he was firmly directed not to burn his fingers with the political ne ttle. The implication was clear." The Commission was "saddled with a former Defence Secretary". Lt. Gen. Altaf Qadir and another high-ranking officer who was the author of Pakistan Army and who had close links with the regime in power.

Neither Yahya Khan nor Bhutto was examined though the former submitted a written statement to the Commission (Khabrain; July 15-16, 1994).

The Supplementary Report reveals that, like the Main Report, it was tailored to Bhutto's needs. "After analysing the evidence brought before the Commission, we came to the conclusion that the process of moral degeneration among the senior ranks of the Ar med Forces was set in motion by their involvement in Martial Law duties in 1958, that these tendencies reappeared and were, in fact, intensified when Martial Law was imposed in the country once again in March 1969 by General Yahya Khan, and that there wa s indeed substance in the allegations that a considerable number of senior Army Officers had not only indulged in large-scale acquisition of lands and houses and other commercial activities, but had also adopted highly immoral and licentious ways of life which seriously affected their professional capabilities and their qualities of leadership."

Tikka Khan, "the butcher", was not only exonerated of all charges but was praised: "always willing to redress grievances." Figures of the killings provided by the Army HQs (that is, Tikka Khan) were readily accepted. "Indian infiltrators and members of M ukti Bahini sponsored by the Awami League continue (even after March 25, 1971) to indulge in killings, rape and arson". Read this: "We consider, therefore, that unless the Bangladesh authorities can produce some convincing evidence, it is not possible to record a finding that any intellectuals or professionals were indeed arrested and killed by the Pakistan Army during December 1971."

In an article free of any trace of the national chauvinism that besets most in our region, Ahmed Salim exposed this falsehood in the Karachi monthly Newsline (September 2000). The Sunday Times (London) of December 19, 1971 had reported the killing in Dhaka of more than 50 of surviving intellectuals, scientists and businessmen. On January 19, 1992, 101 well-known Bangladeshi personalities including retired Supreme Court Judges, university teachers, veterans of the independence war, artists and journalists formed a committee known as the Ekatarer Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee, to track down the killers and collaborators of the 1971 war of independence.

Two other bodies deserve mention - the National People's Enquiry Commission of Bangladesh and Generation 1971. "Members of the organisation say they aim to discover why their parents were slaughtered, to investigate war crimes, and to provide fina ncial assistance to families who were left destitute after the '71 carnage."

It is no consolation to them that the Report recommended court-martialling of named officers. They all went scot-free, retiring with full pension, save for Niazi and one Brigadier Baquir Siddique. None of those recommended for trial by courts martial was affected one bit.

Chaudhury need not have worried. The Commission did not confine itself to its terms of reference. It roamed far and wide to discuss inter alia the Indo-Soviet Treaty of August 1971; failure to achieve a political settlement between May and Septemb er 1971; Yahya Khan's rejection of the Soviet resolution in the U.N. Security Council; Yahya Khan's coup and even "the genesis of the Pakistan movement, the events preceding the establishment of Pakistan, and the political developments which took place b etween 1947 and 1971, including a detailed study of the effects of the two Martial Law periods in hastening the process of political and emotional isolation of East Pakistan from West Pakistan."

Its studied omission to deal with Bhutto's role in Dhaka in March 1971 and at the Security Council in December 1971 is as indefensible as it is understandable. It was out "to fix" his opponents; not bring him to account. (For details on Bhutto's role vid e the writer's "The Making of Bangladesh"; Frontline; January 10, 1997) The whole episode of "the Polish Resolution" of December 15, which Bhutto had rejected brusquely, is omitted. The Commission was aware of public disquiet. Outlook of Ka rachi, a weekly edited by the late I.H. Burney, faced Bhutto's ire fearlessly. Its issue of May 25, 1974 carried a brilliant documented "Staff Study" entitled "The War Commission and the Surrender." The facts were well set out and the issues squarely rai sed. It recalled that Bhutto had said on November 23, 1971, that Pakistan should not move the Security Council. The Report censured Yahya Khan, instead, for this omission.

Niazi's record reveals him to be a singularly loathsome character. But every man is entitled to justice according to the law. In his memoirs The Betrayal of East Pakistan (Oxford, 1998; pp. 321; Rs.450) he makes the valid point that had he been co urt-martialled under the Pakistan Army Act, as he had demanded, he would have been entitled to cross-examine the witnesses, produce evidence in defence and be represented by a lawyer. A Commission of Inquiry's denial of these rights to any person likely to be affected by its findings vitiates its Report completely. He writes: "Although the Commission consisted of three judges, a legal and a military adviser, the perennial presence of a GHQ team, comprising Major-General Qureshi, Colonel Sabir Qureshi, a nd others, was indeed baffling. Their pompous manner and constant interference were not only irritating, but they also reduced the HRC to an illegal Court of Inquiry. They cross-examined witnesses at will, while we were denied this fundamental right. Their constant interruptions were demeaning and an affront to the Commission, who nevertheless put up with this behaviour without a whimper of protest. They were neither law officers nor members of the Commission, and it is unclear what legal authori ty they had for cross-examining us."

A parallel Army inquiry was set up to record statements "suitable" for production before the Commission. "The HRC invited Maj. Gen. Qureshi to attend the proceedings as an observer... Under what law of the land did they allow him to sit in when none o f us were even allowed to listen to the witnesses or to cross-examine them, particularly where our character and reputation was involved?" It was a solemn farce. Bhutto suppressed the Reports because they would have revived controversies about his co nduct in 1971 and strained relations with Bangladesh. Zia suppressed them because they exposed the criminality of the Army's usurpation of power since 1958.

FROM precedents of dubious worth it is refreshing to turn to a classic for all time - the Report of the Inquiry Commission headed by Dr. Shimon Agranat, President of Israel's Supreme Court, and comprising four other members, on the Yom Kippur War. It beg an on October 6, 1973 and ended on October 22 when Egypt agreed to a ceasefire. The Israeli Cabinet appointed the Commission on November 18 to probe, mainly, into two matters - intelligence and deployment of Israel's Defence Forces. It submitted a Report on April 1, 1974 but promised a further Report which would contain "a detailed description of the facts and a complete exposition of the Commission's conclusions". The "Partial Report" was published in 1975. The Commission cautioned that the later Repor t would "contain many secret facts which, in all probability, will rule out publication in full." On April 4, 1994, the Cabinet authorised release of the final Report. It runs into seven volumes and is in Hebrew. Fortunately, significant extracts from th e classic were reproduced in Revisiting the Yom Kippur War edited by P. R. Kumaraswamy. It was published last March (Frank Cass; 249 pages; 39.50 hb, 16.50 pb).

The editor reminds us: "With fewer than 3,000 killed, 15,000 wounded and about 1,000 POWs, the Israeli casualties were the highest since the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1984... When the initial counter-offensive against Egypt failed on October 8, some feare d the fall of the Third Temple. Driven by apprehensions and even panic, Defence Minister Moshe Dayan apparently sought nuclear options to reverse the military trends."

Israel received invaluable help from the United States. King Hussein of Jordan, smarting under the loss of the West Bank to Israel in the 1967 war, which he had joined, went to the other extreme and lost again. Prof. Efraim Karsh writes in the Preface th at the King went "so far as to warn Israel's Prime Minister Golda Meir of its imminent outbreak (the 1973 war)... Had he ventured into the West Bank, he would have been able to establish a foothold, which would have possibly made him a partner to any fut ure settlement over the territory". Instead, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) emerged as the representative of the people of the West Bank. In 1967, U.S. Defence Secretary Robert McNamara gave the "green signal" to Israel for its attack on Egy pt - three weeks in advance.

In 1973, Israel was taken by surprise, despite at least 11 strategic warnings, informing that the increasing military preparations near its borders were not geared to defensive needs (Syria) or exercise (Egypt), but were intended for war" (emphasi s here, as in the original).

The essays deal with varied aspects of the war with a wealth of material and remarkable detachment. Nothing of comparable quality in either respect has been written in India on any of its wars. India fought limited wars. Israel battled for survival. With China our relations improved qualitatively. In 1971, we defeated Pakistan, as we had in 1948 and 1965. Yet, to this day, let alone officials even academics are unwilling to face the truth; worse, some hold that in the national interest the truth should not be told. None other than S. N. Prasad, General Editor of the 1965 war and editor of the 1947-48 war in Kashmir, has propounded this disgraceful doctrine in an interview to The Times of India (September 25, 2000).

Asked why publication of the war histories had been delayed, he revealed that while the services cleared them, officials in the Defence Ministry and - mark these words - "even more so the External Affairs Ministry opposed publication without givin g any convincing reasons". Indeed, "the MEA wanted to do some 'retouching' of some small sections relating to external affairs". He amplified: "The official history has to be vetted by half-a-dozen departments. Each of the glorified babus there believe t hey know whether this is the better adjective or that." Prasad added meaningfully and revealingly: "Over a lifetime one learns to realise the limits you can go if you want the things to get cleared." Comment is superfluous. One has heard of a hist orian in the employ of the U.S. State Department who sharply told off his bosses, when they asked him to portray the Viet Cong as Hanoi's stooges, "I am a historian, not a writer of fiction".

However, Prasad himself, while berating "public ignorance", and "the flamboyance available to a journalist", gives ample evidence that, irrespective of the truth of his charges against others, he is himself not poorly endowed with "ignorance" and "flambo yance". He tells us that "the parliamentarians of the time pressurised and coerced Pandit Nehru into adopting a military posture" against China. Doubtless, the Opposition was ignorant and chauvinistic. But no historian can ignore the material that has co me to light of Nehru's own arrogant chauvinism on the border (1950-59) years before the issue became public. To Prasad, Lt. Gen. B. M. Kaul was "exceptionally able in general matters, but turned out to be unlucky".

The Ministry of External Affairs told him that the official history of the 1962 war with China might spoil India's good relations with the country. Could they do more damage than the reckless comments of Defence Minister George Fernandes? And how can you write an honest account without revealing the truth about the Forward Policy followed by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Defence Minister V. K. Krishna Menon with Kaul's "professional" endorsement?

This brings us to S.N. Prasad's own commitment to the truth. He holds: "About the Bangladesh war, they (the MEA) perhaps were on stronger grounds because it deals with the entire gamut of the national effort - intelligence, Mukti Bahini and so on - which perhaps should not have been revealed." This is a good expression of the mentality that prevails among a large and influential section of the foreign and defence policy Establishment - journalists, academics, officials, retired as well as serving , and the rest. But you can count on your soldiers to speak the truth. Witness: Major-General Sukhwant Singh's book The Liberation of Bangladesh published in 1980 by Vikas. India's arming of the Mukti Bahini and the Government's orders to the Army are truthfully recorded.

It is therefore futile to expect an official history of the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka. When a senior correspondent of a journal of repute, now editor-in-chief of a national daily, reported on the arming of the Tamil outfits on Indian soil, he received a warning from the Joint Secretary of the MEA's External Publicity Division.

Neither the media nor academia should ever be deflected from doing their duty by the nation in the only manner they are professionally required to - write the truth. After the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1962, President John F. Kennedy publicly warned the medi a to ask of every story they proposed to print: "Is it in the interest of national security?" However, as Tom Wicker of The New York Times revealed in his book On Press (Prentice Hall, 1979) Kennedy himself, "two weeks later, in the privacy of Whi te House, told Managing Editor Turner Catledge of The New York Times: May be if you had printed more about the operation you would have saved us from a colossal mistake" (p.199). Which is why Wicker advised the press "to take an adversary position toward the most powerful institutions of American life" (p.259).

For the press the issue was settled in the classic editorial retort to Lord Derby in The Times (London) of February 6, 1852: "The Press can enter into no close or binding alliances with the statesmen of the day, nor can it surrender its permanent interests to the convenience of the ephemeral power of any Government."

All the greater the duties of both the war historian and of the official inquiry into the conduct of war. Greater access to the records imposes a more stringent duty to the nation which demands to know why precious life and treasure were expended in conf lict.

The Agranat Report and contributors to the book on the Yom Kippur War reveal a keen awareness of that duty. The War had two consequences, immediate and long-term. Publication of the 1974 Report led to the resignation of Prime Minister Golda Meir. "A whol e generation of political leaders," including Moshe Dayan and Abba Eban, "were sent into the wilderness." While it made some more hawkish, "successive opinion polls in the wake of the October War showed a steady growth in public support for the 'territor y for peace' formula".

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