The following is a note from Dr Hamid Hussain about the military career of Gen Niazi, who later earned infamy in the eyes of humanists for the genocide in East Pakistan and in the eyes of Paknationalists for surrendering Pakistan’s Eastern Command on Dec 16 1971. Based on these events, most people imagine that he was an incompetent buffoon at every stage in his career, but as this note makes clear, that is not entirely true. While no Rommel or Guderian, he had done reasonably well in various positions until he got promoted above his level of competence..
26 December 2020
Someone had asked about Lt. General Niazi’s career especially early days. The journey ended up picking many interesting points. I thought would be interesting to document a chapter of history of Pakistan army.
Lieutenant General Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi – Career Profile
Lieutenant General Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi was commander of Eastern Command in December 1971 when East Pakistan seceded with the help of Indian army and emerged as an independent nation of Bangladesh.
Niazi was born in 1915 in a small village near Mianwali district of Punjab. He joined Indian army as a sepoy. Details of early part of his career are not available and even in his own autobiography, Niazi did not mention it. He joined the army probably in 1935 (this estimation is based on the information that in a news item published in 1946 about him when he commanded the guard of honor for Lord Mountbatten during his visit to Java in May 1946 stated that he had eleven years of military service). He probably joined the ranks of Ist Battalion of 7th Rajput Regiment. Class composition of this regiment was fifty percent Hindu Rajputs and fifty percent Punjabi Muslims.
During Second World War, Indian army was rapidly expanded, and emergency commissions were granted. These officers were called Emergency Commissioned Officers (ECOs) in comparison to Indian Commissioned Officers (ICOs) trained at Indian Military Academy Dehra Dun and King’s Commissioned Indian Officers (KCIOs) trained at British Military Academy Sandhurst. Many Indians serving in the ranks were sent to Officer Training Schools (OTS) to be commissioned as officers. Niazi received his training at OTS Bangalore and commissioned on 08 March 1942. He spent about six months at Rajput Regimental Center at Fatehgarh and then joined his parent 4th Battalion of 7th Rajput Regiment then stationed in the Middle East. He was appointed Intelligence Officer (IO) of his battalion. 4/7 Rajput Regiment was part of 161st Indian Brigade of 5th Indian Division. The other two battalions of the brigade were Ist Battalion of Ist Punjab Regiment and 4th Queens Own West Kent Regiment. 5th Division was sent to Iraq as part of Persia-Iraq Force (Pai Force). In the Middle East, division was mainly involved in training. It was brought to India for jungle warfare training before induction into Burma. 161 Brigade was now commanded by Brigadier D. F. W. Warren nick named ‘Daddy Warren’ and Commanding Officer (CO) of 4/7 Rajput was Lieutenant Colonel J. C. W. Cargill.
Niazi won his Military Cross (MC) in the battle against Japanese in Kohima. In an impressive ceremony with presence of many heavy weights of the Burma theatre, Viceroy Lord Wavell knighted 14th Army Commander General William Slim and decorated his three Corps Commanders. Niazi was the only Indian army officer decorated by Lord Wavell. At the end of war, 4/7 Rajput was sent to Indonesia. Niazi was commanding D Company of his battalion and commanded the guard of honor when Lord Mountbatten visited Java. In May 1946, battalion returned to India.
After Second World War, Indian army was reduced in size and large number of officers and other ranks were demobilized. A small number of ECOs were considered for regular commission by special selection boards. Niazi was approved for regular commission and assigned Indian Commissioned Officer (ICO) number 906.
Niazi attended tactical course at Tactical School Clement Town near Dehra Dun and after completion of course appointed instructor at school. He was at Tactical School when India was partitioned in August 1947. He flew from Palampur airfield to Lahore. Indian army was divided with Muslim elements going to Pakistan and non-Muslim elements to India. Majority of regiments were mixed therefore companies and squadrons were exchanged. Rajput Regiment was allotted to India and Muslim elements were transferred to 8 Punjab Regiment (later re-designated Baloch Regiment) and 14 Punjab Regiments allotted to Pakistan. Niazi was attached to 8 Punjab Regiment and assigned Pakistan Army (PA) number 477.
In Rawalpindi, Niazi reported to Colonel (later Major General) I. C. A. Lauder who was in the process of taking over as Commandant of Staff College at Quetta. Lauder sent Niazi to Quetta to start Tactical Wing of the college. After spending a year as instructor at Tactical Wing, Niazi completed his staff course in 1949. He was then appointed GSO II to Colonel Halsay Officer Commanding (OC) Officers Training School at Kohat. In March 1951 a conspiracy by army officers to overthrow the government was unearthed. 2/1 Punjab Regiment was stationed at Tal; a town near Kohat and was assigned the task of arresting senior officers by the conspirators. Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Niaz Muhammad Arbab and Adjutant Captain Khizar were arrested and Niazi was asked to take over the command of the battalion in April 1951. After commanding the battalion for two and a half years, he was posted as instructor at School of Infantry & Tactics at Quetta. He spent three years at the school and then appointed GSO-I of 8th Division then based in Quetta. In June 1957, he was appointed CO of 1/14 Punjab Regiment (now 5 Punjab); a post that he held for four years. He was promoted Brigadier and given command of 51 Brigade based in Karachi. He served for two years Commandant of School of Infantry & Tactics. When tensions with India increased in the prelude to 1965 Indo-Pakistan war, he was appointed commander of 14 Para Brigade of 7 Division. GOC of Murree based 12 Division Major General Akhtar Hussain Malik asked for Niazi’s brigade and brigade headquarters and one battalion came under 12 Division. During pressure on Sialkot sector, 14 Para Brigade was put under command of 6 Armored Division. After the war, Niazi was posted back as Commandant of School of Infantry & Tactics. In October 1966, he was promoted Major General and appointed GOC of Sialkot based 8 Division. Later, he commanded Lahore based 10 Division. In April 1971, he was promoted to Lieutenant General rank and appointed Commander Eastern Command. Many senior officers felt that East Pakistan was now a lost cause although no one publicly stated it. Several officers refused the command while others managed to get themselves posted back to West Pakistan. Some senior officers may have also played the role to keep elite regiments from posted to East Pakistan.
On 16 December 1971, Pakistan’s eastern garrison surrendered. Senior officers were kept in Dacca for few days and then flown to Calcutta on 20 December. Niazi was accommodated at Fort Williams and then transferred to camp 100 at Jabalpur. After negotiations, POWs were released and Niazi came back in April 1974. In May 1975, he was removed from service through an administrative action without assigning any cause.
It is human nature that we feel more comfortable with people we know. In army, this factor is also at play. If institutional foundations are strong and one is confident that an officer groomed up for senior ranks is qualified then individual acquaintance will not matter much. Niazi’s career provides a window to this phenomenon. First native Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) General Ayub Khan had appointed Niazi to command 2/1 Punjab Regiment in the aftermath of 1951 Conspiracy case although he was junior. Niazi gained the confidence of C-in-C and Ayub chose him to command his own parent battalion 1/14 Punjab Regiment. After promotion to Brigadier, Ayub gave him command of Karachi based 51 Brigade and he also became Martial Law Administrator of Karachi & Sindh. In 1965, Niazi commanded 14 Para Brigade and his division commander was Major General (Later General & C-in-C) Yahya Khan. Yahya had known Niazi since Staff College days when both were posted there. GOC 12 Division Major General Akhtar Hussain Malik asked for Niazi’s brigade for his operations as Niazi and Malik had lived in the same house in Quetta when both were at Staff College. Niazi was GOC of 8 Division and his Corps Commander was Lieutenant General (later General) Abdul Hamid. Yahya and Hamid were close friends from regimental days. When Yahya Khan declared Martial Law in 1969, Hamid was his right hand man and they brought Niazi as GOC of Lahore based 10 Division for Martial Law duties. It was Niazi’s relationship with this power duo that resulted in his promotion to Lieutenant General rank and Command of Eastern Command. Brigadier (later Lieutenant General) Ghulam Jilani was working at Martial Law Head Quarters in Dacca. His boss Director General Inter-Services Intelligence (DGISI) Major General Muhammad Akbar Khan ordered transfer of Jilani back to West Pakistan to be retired from service. Niazi saved Jilani by asking to appoint him as his Chief of Staff (COS). Jilani had served as battalion commander when Niazi was commanding 51 Brigade and then Brigade commander when Niazi was commanding 10 Division.
Niazi has his share of responsibility but he is not the only villain in the saga. He was an average officer like his peers. The professional ceiling of majority of officers of Indian and Pakistan armies of that vintage era was battalion or at the most brigade commander level. They were recruited and trained by British to be efficient regimental officers and their performance in Second World War was superb. They were neither trained nor groomed to be general rank officers. Unexpected and sudden departure of British in the aftermath of Second World War changed the course of history. The higher direction of war has been Achille’s heel of Indian and Pakistan armies. Later generation of officers are better as training for higher ranks has improved. A quote that is attributed to Niazi if correct is probably the best explanation of Indo-Pakistan conflicts. He said that “”War is a competition of incompetence – the least incompetent usually win”.
Niazi may have many weaknesses but he had no corrupt bone in his body. He had served as Martial Law Administrator of Sindh Province as well as then capital of the country Karachi during General Ayub Khan’s Martial Law. In Yahya Khan’s Martial Law, he was in-charge of Lahore; the largest city of Punjab. Later, he was de facto ruler of East Pakistan with unlimited powers. In 1975, when he was dismissed from service and asked to vacate official residence in two weeks, he had no place to live as he did not own a house. He sent his wife and daughter to his son’s house and moved with a relative.
Niazi was nick named ‘Tiger’ and this was given to him by his brigade commander Brigadier Warren in Burma. In 1971, Bengalis ridiculed him and leader of one of the militias Qadir Bahini took a dig at Niazi stating that ‘there are no tigers in Mianwali. Here you are among the tigers of Bengal”.
Separation of East Pakistan was the result of a process that had started before the creation of Pakistan. Even founding fathers never considered Bengalis as equal citizens. Every effort to impose vision of West Pakistan on Bengalis increased resentment. Policies of over two decades finally resulted in the point of no return. Military conflict of 1971 was the final curtain of a tragic drama. There was no attempt to honestly face the truths and look at the causes of Bengali alienation. It was more convenient to find few scape goats to put all the blame rather than look at the collective failure. Niazi was the perfect scape goat as his face was known to the public. Only two army officers; Niazi and his Chief of Staff Brigadier Baqir Siddiqi were dismissed from service with revocation of pensions. Niazi’s own words sums up the dilemma; “It was to be my destiny to pay for the collective blunders of the high command and many others who fortunately by and large lived happily ever after.”
25 December 2020
Defence Journal, January 2021