The Coup of 19th December 1971

The month of December brings painful memories. In 1971, we lost half our country and thousands of soldiers after having fought a long civil war and a full-fledged invasion by India went into captivity. The trauma was severe and the hurt was felt most acutely at all levels. A small but significant event of those days is now largely forgotten. After the War, a group of officers in 6 Armoured Division, decided to force the military junta to relinquish power and succeeded in doing so.

Those involved in this initiative to push out the ruling clique included the colonel staff of the armoured division, Colonel Agha Javed Iqbal, the commanding officer of the Signal Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Khurshid, the commander 9 Armoured Brigade, Brigadier Iqbal Mehdi Shah, the commanding officer 9 FF, commander Corps Artillery Brigadier F.B. Ali and Colonel Aleem Afridi, Artillery. The short story is that after the ceasefire, there was a telephonic conversation between Colonel Javed Iqbal and the Chief of the General Staff, Lieutenant General Gul Hasan Khan about the sentiments of the officers about the existing military leadership and their role in the defeat of the country. To make known their ideas, Brigadier F. B. Ali, Colonel Javed Iqbal and Colonel Aleem Afridi drafted a letter asking President Yahya to resign and hand over power or else the troops of 6 Armoured Division would march on Rawalpindi and force him out. Major General M. I. Karim, the Bengali GOC was asked to sign the letter that set out the officers’ demands. Colonel Javed Iqbal and Colonel Aleem Afridi flew to Rawalpindi and delivered the letter to the CGS, who conveyed the contents to President Yahya. The threat worked.

There is a background to these events. The junior officers clearly thought that injury was being added to the insult by Yahya’s indecision to step down. In his address to the nation that  on the 18th of December General Yahya had given no such indication and had announced that he was going to promulgate a new constitution. The officers thought that Yahya’s continued presence at the helm of affairs was neither good for the country nor for the Army. Something had to be done quickly. F.B. Ali I tried to persuade the GOC Maj. Gen. M.I. Karim, to send a message to the government about their demands. Understandably, he was hesitant to do so initially. On 9 December, F.B. Ali claims he took over the command from Gen Karim. There was no resistance, Karim had already made up his mind to opt for Bangladesh.

It was then decided that Cols. Aleem Afridi and Javed Iqbal would fly to Rawalpindi with a clear message for Yahya Khan to announce by 8 p.m. that evening that he would be handing over power to the elected representatives of the people and that all his generals responsible for the defeat would also be quitting. In case such an announcement was not made by the given time, he would be responsible for his own actions. The two officers met with Gen. Gul Hassan, Chief of the General Staff, that afternoon and asked him to convey this message to Yahya Khan. Gul Hassan went to Gen. Hamid, the Chief of Staff, who said he would arrange for a meeting with the President at 7 p.m. Gen. Hamid called several army commanders to see if they could help to restore the situation but all of them were reluctant to do anything. There was some news that some SSG troops would be sent to arrest the putsch makers but nothing of that sort happened. With no other option in sight Yahya Khan made the announcement on the appointed time to hand over power to the elected representatives of the people.

The rest as they say is history. A civilian government was swept into power immediately. That night Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto made a broadcast to the nation in which he announced the retirement of all the generals in Yahya Khan’s clique, saying that he was doing this “in accordance with the sentiments of the Armed Forces and the younger officers.” He also made Lt. Gen. Gul Hassan the Army chief, and confirmed Rahim Khan as the Air Force chief. This change in the military high command was only temporary because both the army and air force chief were subsequently relieved unceremoniously. Also the young officers, who had risked their careers, their liberty, their families, and their lives were the ultimate losers. All of them Lt. Col. Muhammad Khurshid, Col. Aleem Afridi, Col. Javed Iqbal, Brig. Iqbal Mehdi Shah and Brig F.B. Ali were summarily retired. Some of them including Ali served long jail terms. F.B. Ali at least is unrepentant and feels that all his suffering were a risk worth taking for the good of his country. Ali now lives in Canada.