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.


Why there will be no coup in Pakistan?

We have just witnessed high drama in Turkey. A segment of the military tried to briefly takeover the government but failed to do so. The elected government asked the people to come out on the streets in their favor and the rebellious soldiers fled in the face of street power that they hadn’t reckoned with. Pakistan and Turkey have a common history of coups. In both countries the military considers itself the custodian of the nation’s physical and ideological borders. In both countries the military has the licence to give a course correction, whenever it is felt that the system is going awry. This right – a constitutional one in case of Turkey and legal one under the doctrine of necessity in Pakistan – has produced long periods of military rule. Turkey has been free of martial laws since the end of 1980s, while Pakistan saw off its last military ruler in 2008. Counting out the recent attempt to disrupt democracy, Turkey has made considerable progress as a stable democracy. In Pakistan democratic traditions are still fragile, there is a skewered civil-military relations and each instance of political turbulence makes the rumor mill run amok predicting that a military putsch is around the corner.

I am no sage but in my opinion there is no imminent possibility of any political coup taking place in Pakistan like Turkey. The reason is quite simple. The Army in Pakistan is strong and doesn’t need to remove a weak and pliant civilian government. From experience it has learnt that it is better to pull the strings from behind the curtains instead of being in the front and be cursed by the common man for his daily miseries like power outages and corruption. Each military dictator had to relinquish power in face of popular unrest after having failed to resolve the country’s multifarious problems. After the return to civil rule it has been fairly smooth sailing for the military. The previous civilian government simply did not interfere in their affairs and gave the powerful army chief and the intelligent head extensions in their tenures of service to keep them happy and out of their hair. The present government lost its political clout when it was jolted by street power demonstrations in 2014. Thereafter it ceded so much space that it simply could not recover. Army occupied the vacuum created and the civilian government just did their bidding. The Army chief became extremely popular and the prime minister plagued by financial scandals just took a long leave of absence on medical grounds and nobody missed him for more than a month.

In Turkey as well in Egypt military coups were launched after extensive foreign propaganda against the elected government. In Egypt the government of Muhammad Morsi was kicked out after merely a year in power because his Islamic credentials and method of governance became repugnant for the people and world at large. The Egyptian military gladly rebounded and resumed from where the previous military strong man Hosni Mubarak had left. In case of Turkey, President Erdogan was also becoming increasingly autocratic and there were reports in the international media condemning him for his strong arm tactics against his political opponents. There are also allegations of foreign sponsorship of the coup makers by the reclusive cleric Fethullah Gülen. In case of Pakistan there is a lot of domestic bad press against the current political leadership but neither the international media is hostile nor are there any known foreign sponsors. At most international leadership is dismissive about the present prime minister but there is no suggestion or encouragement of military interference.

So why should the Army to interfere with a political government that hardly poses a threat to it and creates no problems in its working? In any case it has its hands full with Operation Zarb-i-Azab launched over two years ago to root out terrorism in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The present Army chief wants to leave behind the successful completion of this counter insurgency campaign as his legacy.  Seen from this perspective, the civilian rule under the watchful gaze of the military is likely to continue in the foreseeable future without recourse to martial law.