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OP-ED: Bangabandhu’s release and Pakistan’s prisoners of war

  • Published at 06:29 am May 30th, 2021
Sheikh Mujib
Sheikh Mujib speaks at a press conference at London’s Claridge’s Hotel on January 8, 1972 following his release from Pakistani prison MUJIB100 PHOTO ARCHIVE

Historical narratives are certainly welcome, but when it is long yarns that are spun by individuals, deep disappointment is the sad consequence

The retired Indian diplomat Sashanka S Bannerjee has been writing on Bangladesh, with particular emphasis on the country’s War of Liberation in 1971. In that year, Bannerjee was posted at the Indian High Commission in London. In that capacity, he travelled with the newly freed Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to Delhi and then onward to Dhaka as somewhat a representative of the Indian government. On the flight to Dhaka, Bannerjee had, or claims he had, a good conversation with the Bangali leader, especially about the latter’s dreams for his war-devastated country.

Stretching of the truth

One hardly has any reason to take issue with Sashanka Bannerjee on this score. But what is clearly a stretching of the truth is Bannerjee’s assertion, which he has been making for a good number of years now, that when Bangabandhu arrived at Heathrow from Pakistan on the cold morning of January 8, 1972, he (Bannerjee) was on hand along with Indian High Commissioner to Britain Apa Pant to welcome Bangladesh’s founder. 

The truth is that neither Sashanka Bannerjee nor Apa Pant was at Heathrow on that morning, nor did they know of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s arrival in London until later, when the rest of the world woke up to the news that Bangladesh’s leader, in Pakistani incarceration for nearly 10 months since March 1971, had flown out of Pakistan aboard a special aircraft of Pakistan International Airlines and had arrived in London. 

On that flight were, besides Bangabandhu, his constitutional advisor Kamal Hossain --- who had been in prison in Pakistan as well --- and the wife and young daughters of Kamal Hossain. Accompanying Bangabandhu and the Kamal Hossain family to Britain on the flight were senior officers of the Pakistan air force.

Moments before the flight carrying Bangabandhu from Rawalpindi was to land at Heathrow, a senior officer of Britain’s Foreign Office, Ian Sutherland, informed MM Rezaul Karim, the senior Bangali diplomat in London at that point, of the Bangali leader’s impending arrival. Karim, along with two other Bangali diplomats, Mohiuddin Ahmed and Mohiuddin Ahmed Jaigirdar, made his way to Heathrow. Sutherland was on hand too. Bangabandhu had arrived. 

The Pakistan air force officers, having made sure that Bangabandhu was safe in the company of his people, saluted him and took their flight back home to Pakistan. From the airport, the Father of the Nation, who had been named president of Bangladesh by the provisional government at Mujibnagar in April 1971, was driven to Hotel Claridges, where he would stay till the evening of January 9 before flying home by way of Delhi.

In all these dramatic moments of Bangabandhu’s arrival and reception in London, neither Sashanka Bannerjee nor Apa Pant was present. Both men met Bangabandhu later at Claridges. And yet Bannerjee has gone on repeating a story that simply is not true. Mohiuddin Ahmed, one of the three Bangali diplomats who received Bangabandhu at Heathrow on January 8, 1972, has always wondered why Bannerjee has been disseminating this falsehood all these years.

A new tale

Not very long ago, in March 2017 to be precise, Sashanka Bannerjee spun a new tale in his observations on the conditions which arose in the Indian subcontinent following the emergence of Bangladesh in late 1971. Writing for the news outlet The Wire, (the article was republished in The Wire in March 2019) Bannerjee comes up with a wrong interpretation of the Simla Agreement reached by Indian premier Indira Gandhi and Pakistan’s new president Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1972.

Bannerjee’s first mistake is that he gets the date relating to the agreement wrong. In his view, the Simla Agreement was signed by the leaders of India and Pakistan in August 1972. The fact is that it was initialled by Indira Gandhi and ZA Bhutto on July 2, 1972.

The bigger mistake Sashanka Bannerjee makes in his assessment of the Simla deal is his contention that the Pakistani prisoners of war then in camps in India were eventually freed under the terms of the agreement. In light of the agreement, and eight months after Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was freed by Pakistan, he contends, Mrs Gandhi ordered the immediate release of all 93,000 Pakistani POWs. Nothing of the sort happened. History is proof. 

At Simla, the Indians and the Pakistanis fundamentally focused on a normalization of ties between their two countries in the aftermath of the war, with both governments stating their desire to do all that was necessary to ensure a peaceful atmosphere in the subcontinent. That said, Bannerjee ignores the fact that there could be no agreement on the return of the Pakistani prisoners of war to their country without the consent of Bangladesh, which was necessarily a party, and an important one at that, to any deal on the issue. 

The question of a normalization of relations in the subcontinent was undertaken by India and Pakistan in August 1973. But prior to that, when Bangladesh insisted that, except for 195 Pakistani military officers who would be tried as war criminals in Dhaka, all Bangalis stranded in Pakistan be returned to Bangladesh and all Pakistani POWs be freed from camps in India to go back home, the Bhutto government put up serious roadblocks to the process of normalization. It came up with the ludicrous threat that if Bangladesh did not free the 195 officers, it would place on trial 203 Bangali officers trapped in Pakistan in reprisal.

Eventually, the Delhi Agreement between India and Pakistan, through consultations with Bangladesh, was signed on 28 August 1973. Its principal features included the return of all Bangalis, including the 203 Islamabad had threatened to put on trial, from Pakistan to Bangladesh, with a simultaneous repatriation of all but the 195 officers marked for trial as war criminals to Pakistan.

On the issue of the 195 Pakistani military officers, it was agreed by Delhi, Islamabad, and Dhaka that they would not be brought to trial during the course of repatriation and that the issue would be discussed at trilateral talks between the three countries. 

It was not until Pakistan recognized Bangladesh in February 1974 that serious negotiations between Islamabad, Delhi and Dhaka on issues arising out of the 1971 war got underway. Bangladesh’s insistence on a trial of 195 Pakistani military officers on charges of genocide was the centerpiece of negotiations which were to commence post-February 1974. 

More muddled facts

Bannerjee states, mistakenly, that Pakistan’s POWS, under the Simla Agreement, were exchanged for the freedom of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. As noted, not until the Delhi Agreement of August 1973 did Pakistan’s soldiers begin to go home from India. And on April 9, 1974, after protracted negotiations punctuated by Pakistani intransigence, a tripartite agreement was signed in Delhi by Indian External Affairs Minister Sardar Swaran Singh, Bangladesh Foreign Minister Kamal Hossain, and Pakistani Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Aziz Ahmed.

The significant features of the agreement were the following: 

“The question of 195 Pakistani prisoners of war was discussed by the three ministers, in the context of the earnest desire of the governments for reconciliation, peace and friendship in the sub-continent. The Foreign Minister of Bangladesh stated that the excesses and manifold crimes committed by these prisoners of war constituted, according to the relevant provisions of the UN General Assembly resolutions and international law, war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, and that there was universal consensus that persons charged with such crimes as Pakistani prisoners of war should be held to account and subjected to the due process of law. The Minister of State for Defense and Foreign Affairs of the Government of Pakistan said that his Government condemned and deeply regretted any crimes that may have been committed. 

The Foreign Minister of Bangladesh stated that the Government of Bangladesh had decided not to proceed with the trials as an act of clemency. It was agreed that the 195 prisoners of war might be repatriated to Pakistan along with the other prisoners of war now in the process of repatriation under the Delhi Agreement . . .”

Sashanka Bannerjee would have us know that it was not Bhutto but Indira Gandhi who saved Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s life by compelling the Pakistani leader to free Bangladesh’s founding father. That assertion flies in the face of historical reality, for after December 16, 1971 it was global pressure on Pakistan, plus Bhutto’s acknowledgement of the drastically changed conditions in his truncated country, which led to Bangabandhu’s freedom from incarceration. 

In much the same breath, Bannerjee gives Bhutto and Pakistan’s ISI, despite their moments of humiliation following the defeat of their army in Bangladesh, credit for the return of their POWs from India. Bhutto and the ISI, claims Bannerjee, extracted a promise from India that the POWs would be freed once Mujib was permitted to go home to Bangladesh.

Bannerjee gets his facts wrong nearly every step of the way. He informs readers that Mrs Gandhi knew Bangabandhu would be freed by Bhutto and would fly to London before returning home to Dhaka. That statement is unsubstantiated. No one but Bhutto knew where the Bangali leader was going once his flight had taken off from Chaklala airport on January 8, 1972. Not until Mujib arrived in London did the Indians or anyone else know of his flight path after the take-off in Rawalpindi. 

Sashanka Bannerjee makes yet another mistake when he states that General Yahya Khan took full responsibility for Pakistan’s defeat in Bangladesh and that he resigned and informed Bhutto, who was still in New York, that the latter had been appointed Chief Martial Law Administrator. 

Here is the truth: Yahya Khan did not take responsibility and instead tried to hang on to power. He and his cohorts were forced to quit when military officers in the cantonments and demonstrators on the streets loudly demanded that they be tried for leading the country to disaster. Yahya Khan resigned on December 20, 1971 once Bhutto had arrived back from New York, where he had been speaking for Pakistan at the UN Security Council.

Bannerjee compounds his mistake by averring that two days before Bhutto arrived in London, where his aircraft needed refuelling before flying on to Rawalpindi, Indira Gandhi’s advisor DP Dhar called him (Bannerjee) -- and High Commissioner Apa Pant was sidelined? -- to inform him that Bhutto had been appointed Pakistan’s new CMLA. 

The arithmetic does not add up. Those “two days before” would mean December 17, which in the circumstances prevailing in Pakistan at that point sounds incongruous. Bhutto travelled, in post-December 16 circumstances, to Washington from New York to meet US President Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. He arrived in Rome after a brief stop-over in London -- the aircraft was sent from Pakistan to bring him home -- on December 19 and on the evening of the same day left for Rawalpindi. It was early morning on December 20 in Pakistan when his plane landed and he was whisked away to the President’s House, where a disgraced Yahya Khan waited.

Historical narratives are certainly welcome, but when it is long yarns that are spun by individuals, tales that do not stand up to tests of truth, deep disappointment is the sad consequence. Sashanka Bannerjee has been disappointing. He has been economical with the truth. And he has got his facts wrong, beginning with the less than credible story of his and his High Commissioner’s presence at Heathrow to welcome Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on his arrival from Pakistan.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.

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