A true story of real people involving high dignitaries playing to explosively high stakes.
First let us see, who were those front-ranking people, involved in this high-stake project.
There were at least 6 of them that need to be mentioned. There were so many others but we will have no space to include them.
Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto, the Chief Marshall Law Administrator of Pakistan, freshly appointed at the end of the highly toxic India Pakistan War of 1971;
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the newly crowned Father of the Nation of Bangladesh, who was still in military custody in Rawalpindi serving a death sentence handed down by Pakistan’s Military Tribunal;
Begum Laila Hussain, wife of Muzaffar Hussain then Chief Secretary to the Government of East Pakistan, Dhaka;
Sankaran Nair the Acting Chief of India’s External Intelligence RAW or Research and Analysis Wing of the Cabinet Secretariat,
Government of India;
Durga Prasad Dhar, the Policy Planning Chief of the Ministry of
External Ministry, Govt of India and finally yours truly Sashanka S Banerjee, a Senior Political Officer in the Cabinet Secretariat, Govt of India.
What came next, in the order of priorities, were the instructions or the Order of Battle conveyed by the Political Master namely Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to India’s Armed Forces led by General Sam Manek Shaw, who was later promoted to the rank of a Field Marshall.
It was extremely important for PM Indira Gandhi in her calculations that The War must be short, as short as can be, it will be a Limited Conventional War, pick up a maximum number of Prisoners of War ( POWs ). It should be a Total War with no ifs and buts, with no less than a Decisive Outcome.
What did India aspire to achieve at the end.
True to the aspirations of the Prime Minister, India secured a Surrender Ceremony from Pakistan Armed Forces. 93,000 soldiers were taken as Prisoners of War (POWs) sealing Pakistan’s Total Defeat in the 1971 War at the hands of the Joint Command of the Indian Armed Forces and the Mujib Bahini or MITRO BAHINI.
The Surrender Ceremony of 16 December 1971 signed precisely at 16.31 hours Indian Standard Time at the Romna Maidan, Dhaka was the second such Surrender Ceremony of the 20th Century after the Surrender Ceremony following the Defeat of Japan an Axis Power in WW2 at the hands of the Allied Supreme Commander Eastern Command Gen Douglas Mac Arthur.
The emergence of Bangladesh as a sovereign independent nation was a dream fulfilled for the people of Bangladesh.
It was India’s finest hour.
Durga Prashad Dhar appointed me as the Officer on Special Duty to
handle the looming Delicate Assignment.
One day in 1972 bypassing bureaucratic channels Foreign Minister DP Dhar sent a message directly asking me to meet Laila Hussain and deliver a sealed cover informing her that Muzaffar Hussain her husband was doing well and was lodging at the residence of the Foreign Minister and was being looked after very well. Soon we became good friends and had endless discussions on India-Pakistan relations and world affairs.
Meanwhile news had broken with stunning suddenness that Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto who was shuttling between New York (UN) and Washington DC (President Richard Nixon) would be passing through London on his way back home to take over the reins of power from Gen Yahya Khan, Pakistan’s Military Dictator.
It was a vitally important piece of news for India because Bhutto was to take charge as the Chief Marshall Law Administrator of Pakistan and would therefore be the one person in whose hands would lie the fate of Mujibur Rahman who was still in military custody in Rawalpindi. There was deep anxiety over this in India. The Government was beset with the following concerns.
Would Mujib be hanged for treason? Or would he be set free as a matter of political expediency although he was under a sentence of death by hanging in a Military Court in Pakistan?
We were all fully aware that Pakistan was weighing if Mujibur Rahman alive would be more useful than Mujibur Rahman dead.
Now the question was: How to get insights into the inner thinking of Bhutto on the immediate future of Mujibur Rahman. Many channels were opened by India’s Security Services positioning listening posts all over the key centres of power in the GHQ in Rawalpindi.
Meanwhile K Sankaran Nair, the Acting Chief of RAW, came up with an uniquely bright idea. Why not persuade Laila Hussain to tactfully broach the subject of Mujib’s release with Bhutto. This could be done in London on his way back home from the US. Nair had professional knowledge that Zulfiquar Ali and Laila Hussain were long standing intimate friends who moved closely in the rarefied circles of Pakistani high society. If anybody would, it was only she who could. Why? Laila’s husband Muzaffar Hussain, till recently the Chief Secretary of East Pakistan Govt. was a POW in New Delhi and he was staying with DP Dhar the Foreign Secretary.
Since I was now acting as the Officer on Special Duty (OSD) working closely with Laila Hussain (LH) I was given the task of arranging the logistics. I gladly went forward to play the part. LH was so excited about the mission assigned to her that she brought with her a bugging device to record the event.
The operational part was put in motion successfully without too much fuss.
After ZA Bhutto arrived at Alcock and Brown Suite, the VIP Lounge those days at the Heathrow Airport, Zulfiquar Bhutto and Laila Hussain instantly came together meeting as old friends engaging in talking about subjects of common interest. The VIP Lounge had very few people there. Laila turned the subject of discussion on the India-Pakistan War, the 93000POWs and her husband Muzaffar who was a POW in India etc. Laila took an early opportunity to ask Bhutto for his personal help in securing her husband’s out of turn release from Indian custody as a POW. She suggested that her husband’s release and the release of the POWs could be combined to make Pakistan’s case so much stronger.
Bhutto was quick on the uptake. He suspected that she was briefed by her “Indian Masters” meaning Mrs Indira Gandhi (without naming her) to speak about POWs which was out of sync with her husband’s case for release. As the discussions progressed Bhutto came out with an explosive offer which stupefied Laila no end. To quote ZA Bhutto in his own words: “You may inform your Masters in Delhi that after taking over as CMLA , I will release Mujibur Rahman not long thereafter.
What I want in return I will convey to her in due course through other channels. You can go now.” The meeting lasted abruptly.
This sensational breaking news item was communicated to Delhi by me through the fastest diplomatic channels available. The waiting game started immediately. When the news reached the table of Mrs Indira Gandhi in her South Block office, her reaction was cautious ” Let us wait and see”.
True to his words, Bhutto released Mujibur Rahman from Mianwali Prison on 7 January 1972. He reached Dhaka visiting New Delhi on his way on 9 January 1972. Mujib took over as Prime Minster of Bangladesh on 12 January 1972.
In a return gesture of goodwill, PM Indira Gandhi unconditionally released all 93000 soldiers and civilians including Laila Hussain’s husband Muzaffar Hussain. The occasion was Shimla Agreement signed on 2 July 1972 and the venue was Shimla. One notable presence was Benazir Bhutto, Zulfiquar Ali’s daughter who was to become Prime Minister of Pakistan later in life.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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