Bangladesh - now written in history

Controversial absence of Colonel Osmani from the victory ceremony

The picture that flashed around the world showed the glum Pakistani officer Niazi bowed over his signature. The turbaned figure beside him, showing not a scrap of elation, was Indian General Aurora. This huge picture of the two generals signing the surrender document, with General Jacob standing right behind them, adorns most, if not all, Muktijuddho literature.

A major political mistake at the surrender ceremony was the Indian military high command's failure to ensure the presence of General M.A.G. Osmani at the ceremony, and of not making him a signatory. It was only General Aurora who signed the instrument of surrender on behalf of the Joint Command, rather than General Osmani who commanded the Bangladesh Forces from start to end.

The questions remained - where was General MAG Osmani? Was he invited and did he decline the invitation and depute Wing Commander Khandakar? Was he not invited at all and instead was the government of Bangladesh requested to depute a suitable personality? Why weren't the Pakistani Army surrendering to him, after all, it was the Bengalis who...[fought 9 months war, it was under his leadership that the sector commanders and freedom fighters - both known and unknown - sought strategic guidance n inspiration ]? Why wasen't he inviting General Aurora to come to Dhaka to attend the surrender ceremony, why was it the other way around instead? Why on this historic occasion was Colonel Osmani deprived of his legitimate presence? Where was Osmani on the 14th or 15th or 16th December and why was there no back-up plan for his safe transfer to Dhaka? Was Colonel Osmani aware that the headquarters of the occupation army in Dhaka was about to crumble? Was there no coordination, or no exchange of vital information, between headquarters of Bangladesh Forces and headquarters of the Eastern Command of the Indian Army? Did he feel marginalised or were the efforts of the freedom fighters inadequately recognised? Why was Gen. Arora projected in front of the nation and the whole world as the sole conqueror?

These riddles are yet to be unfolded to the people of Bangladesh.

If it was in India’s power to ensure General Osmani’s attendance then why did they not do so? Why a long-winded and ultimately confusing explanation that leads the reader to conclude that there is more here than meets the eye. These actions give the impression that India considers Bangladesh a mere vassal state and that India was merely recovering a piece of its territory from the Pakistanis.

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The Commander-in-Chief of Bangladesh Army was controversially absent from the ceremony, and missed out on this historic moment. He was denied the privilege. Instead, representing him and the Bengalis was the Wing Commander Khandakar who was a junior to Chief of Staff Lt Col MA Rab, who himself was a junior to General Osmani. Lieutenant Colonel MA Rab was also absent.

This was an unfortunate aberration. It generated much resentment in Bangladeshi political circles. Osmani's presence at the surrender ceremony could have helped avoid many of the political misunderstandings that affected Indo-Bangladesh relations in the early days of Bangladesh's independence.

J. N. Dixit, who worked on diplomatic mission in Dhaka for Government of India in 1972

View #1: 'Helicopter attack' means General Osmani unable to attend

The official explanation given for General Osmani's absence was that the helicopter sent for him was damaged en route by hostile fire and could not be made serviceable in time and reach Dhaka as per schedule.

According to Major General KV Krishna Rao - one of the General Officers Commanding under the Indian army corps operating in Sylhet and later the chief of army staff of the Indian army - General Osmani's helicopter was shot at by machine guns whilst trying to reach Sylhet. Thinking that Sylhet had been captured from the Pakistan Army, General Osmani made his way along with MA Rab and Osmani's Aide-de-Camp (ADC), who happened to be Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's eldest son Sheikh Kamal. However, the helicopter was fired upon whilst descending, resulting in serious injuries to MA Rab and Sheikh Kamal whilst General Osmani escaped with few bruises.

...Whilst we were conducting the operations in the Sylhet area, I received a message from my colonel general staff, Colonel Pathania, to the effect that General Osmani and his companions were shot up while flying in the area and had fetched up at the main headquarters of the division, where they were being attended to by the doctors. I was rather upset at this news, as this was the last thing that anyone could have wished to happen at this stage of the war.

Upon return to my headquarters, I was happy to find that Osmani, though badly shaken, was unhurt and fit. He was wearing his battle uniform, which was drenched with engine oil. He explained to me how the incident came about. As he hailed from Sylhet, he wanted to be the first among the Bangladeshis to get there, and requested the corps commander to arrange accordingly. The corps commander had told him to meet me at my headquarters, but as he could not contact me he tried to fly over Sylhet and land there, thinking that Sylhet was captured. As the helicopter descended it was fired upon. The pilot flew out to an area outside Sylhet on the Kalaura road and landed on the roadside, and Osmani proceeded in a vehicle from there to my main headquarters. While Osmani was safe, his chief of staff and ADC were wounded, and were being attended to by our doctors. The pilot was the same person who had flown me in the area on the previous day, and after flying back from Sylhet landed him at the same place where he landed me earlier!

Although considerable fuel had leaked out, there was just enough for getting till there. I must say that this pilot had shown great presence of mind and flying skill.

Osmani reiterated his desire to be the first in Sylhet of Bangladesh leaders. I expressed my faith in the Almighty and assured him that I would personally take him there at the appropriate time, God willing.

Major General KV Krishna Rao on the situation of 14-15 December 1971

The proponent of this explanation - including General Jacob himself - claim that his absence 'has been misrepresented' and acknowledge this was to cause 'problems later'.

There is a lot of propaganda about it. The fact is, he was in Sylhet. He was in a helicopter that was shot at by the Pakistan army. I had ordered everyone on the Bangladesh side to stay in Kolkata. But he rode the chopper, got shot and couldn't attend the ceremony. It's not our fault. He should have been there. We wanted him there. Khandker (deputy commander-in-chief AK Khandker) attended in his absence.

Lt. Gen. Jacob on General MAG Osmani's absence from the handover ceremony

Others also point out West Pakistan's reservation to surrender to 'Bangladesh'. Since Pakistanis did not recognise the Bengalis they weren't willing to surrender to them - they had been defeated by the Indian Army, so they viewed it as surrendering to the Eastern Command of the Indian Army and not to India itself.

Under such hasty circumstance and intense climate, it is argued that General Jacob did his best to organise local protocol and he was not to blame as he did not have the final decision as to who would be present at the surrender ceremony.

View #2: Indian conspiracy to take away Bangladesh's limelight

There was also widespread suspicion that General Osmani's helicopter had been sent astray so that he could not reach Dhaka in time, and the focus of attention at the ceremony would be on the Indian military commanders.

The helicopter was brought down in Fenchuganj. This area was cleared of Pakistanis, despite that the helicopter received ground fire as a result of which Lt.Col MA Rob received bullets wounds to his thigh and right hand, the choppers fuel tank was hit and when Osmani as a reflex tried to secure the leak with his hand, the hot oil injured him. He then used his own jacket to stop the leak.

The rear ramp was open.The passenger were sat on two benches on either side of the chopper, none had secured fastening. As the pilot took emergency measures unconscious Col MA Rob almost fell out of the helicopter, but was grabbed by Mustafa Allama.

The helicopter crash landed into a field. Almost immediately an Indian Colonel in a jeep and two ambulances arrived on the scene. Unusually speedily. No investigations seemed to have been carried out by either the Government of Bangladesh or the Indians, both side conveniently have "forgotten" this "embarrassing" incidence.

The clever Indians also experimented with a bit of friendly fire with their MiG-21s on BNS Padma and BNS Palash even when they clearly knew there were no Pakistani ships in Khulna on 10th December 1971, following which Artificer Ruhul Amin became Shaheed.

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Proponent of this view - including Colonel Taher, one of the sector commanders - believe that the direct Indian intervention shattered the dream of national emancipation. By 'stealing' Bangladesh's moment of glory, history failed to recognise the true extent of the Bengali's contribution during the Liberation War which had been earned by the blood, sweat, and sacrifice of the 75 million ordinary people of Bangladesh.

Questions had been raised regarding the 'design' of these third party - a hark back to the past when Muhammad Ali Jinnah referred to the "Fifth Element" during Basha Andolan.

Even within the mainstream liberation movement, questions were raised about the "over-dependence" on India. Firebrand Bengali guerrilla commanders like Major Abu Taher [later Colonel] pressed for adopting a "protracted war" strategy to defeat the Pakistanis without Indian military intervention, but found very few takers within the Mukti Fauj ranks. He later organised a guerrilla campaign on his own around Chilmari, deep inside East Pakistan, and had the Indians not dropped paratroopers to surround Dhaka, Taher's guerrilla unit would have been the first to reach the city.

Taher would later grudge the fact that the Pakistani Army commander in the Eastern theatre, Lieutenant General Niazi, surrendered only to the Indian Eastern Army commander, Lieutenant General J. Aurora. He should have surrendered to the "Indo-Bangladesh Joint Command", Taher insisted.

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Colonel Osmani as the Commander-in-Chief of the Mukti Bahini wanted to invite and welcome Gen. Aurora at Dhaka on behalf of the Bangladesh government. This would have established the fact before the world that basically it was due to the liberation war, fought by the people, Bangladesh got its independence. Indian army merely helped as a friendly force. But his proposal was not acceptable to the Indian government. They demanded that instrument of surrender should be signed by the Commander of the Indian army. The intention was very clear. Let the whole world know Bangladesh was the out come of India’s victory over Pakistan. Bangladesh was a gift of India. The spineless provisional government conceded to the Indian demand. Non-compromising Banga Bir Col. Osmani was conveniently side tracked.

On 16 December Dhaka people saw Indian troops as the victors. They were surrounded by the Mujib Bhaini and the ‘Sixteen Division’ which suddenly sprang up like mushrooms from nowhere. These were not the genuine freedom fighters. Actual freedom fighters were not allowed to enter Dhaka and other big cities and towns. The policy was to show that Indian army was the liberator. The freedom fighters lost their initiative and were completely over shadowed by the presence of large Indian force.

Their heroic tells, sacrifice and bravado got lost under the dark shadows of the ‘friendly forces’. The spirit of the liberation war suddenly got a jolt.

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Thus, much like Bangladesh's past, the actual truth around Colonel Osmani's absence may remain a mystery. Ironically, the man fondly called 'Bongobir' (Brave Bengali) by the people of Bangladesh has yet to receive any state recognition in the form of gallantry award. Whilst many working under him have received the Bir Srestho, Bir Uttam or Bir Protik award, Colonel Osmani has yet to be awarded with any of these three by the Government of Bangladesh after 40-plus years of independence.

It pains me to see that very few have written about Bongobir General M.A.G. Osmany. Even those who enjoy the fruits of General Osmany’s role do not remember him.

The name Colonel (later General) Osmany electrified all Bengali officers and former Pakistani troops, and invigorated the Bangladesh Liberation War's freedom fighters. Finding a Bengali officer who was in Rawalpindi but did not enjoy Colonel Osmany’s hospitality was hard. For anyone in any form of distress, Colonel Osmany was always there. These days men like him are rare.

He had all the attributes of a successful leader: discipline, honesty, integrity, punctuality, selflessness, and simplicity. He cared for those under his command, handled crises well, made the right decisions, and was dependable, patriotic, loyal and selfless. He had no political ambitions beyond serving his country to the best of his ability.

M. Azizur Rahman, an officer who worked with Colonel Osmani