By P.K.Balachandran/Ceylon Today
Colombo, December 21: The 16 th.of December this year marked the 49th.anniversary of the end of the war in East Pakistan which led to the emergence of an independent Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi guerilla force, the Mukti Bahini and the Indian armed forces combined to end Pakistani rule over “East Pakistan” through a 14-day military operation.
But in the saga of the Bengalis’ struggle to break free from Pakistan which (under military rule at that time), had unleashed a reign of terror, the world as such was either openly hostile or disdainfully indifferent to the plight of the people.
The fact that the Sunday Times had described Pakistan army’s atrocities as “genocide” and that eight million refugees had poured into India, made no impression on Western governments. Even India’s traditional friends in the Non-Aligned movement were turning a deaf ear to New Delhi’s pleas. Only Russia (which too came in only at the very end) helped the Bengalis cast away the yoke of slavery.
The then Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, desperately needed international support to help the Bengalis’ gain their legitimate rights and also to send back refugees from India. The story of her titanic effort to mobilize global support is told by historian Srinath Raghavan in his book “1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh (Permanent Black 2013).”
Raghavan describes how the world saw the situation in East Pakistan differently from how India did. Each country had its own interests, ideological predilections and world view which ran counter to India’s. The colossal nature of the human rights violations in East Pakistan did not move governments even though human rights organizations, the intelligentsia, and the media in the West understood what was going on in East Pakistan.
The then US President Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, were, as expected, openly hostile to India. They were pro-Pakistan and pro-China to boot, as by then, the US had made up with Communist China. India feared a China-US gang up against it with both aiding Pakistan militarily. Kissinger had also described Indians as “bastards, the most aggressive goddamn people”. He even urged cutting off economic aid to precipitate a “mass famine” in India.
Somewhere along the line, dissensions developed in the Bangladeshi government-in-exile and cracks appeared in the relations between the government-in-exile and India. “Foreign Minister” Kondekar Mushtaque Ahmad tried to break free from Indian control and negotiate a settlement with Pakistan through the US. But this move was quickly thwarted by Indian intelligence.
However, the US refrained from militarily helping Pakistan retain its Eastern wing. Raghavan attributes this to the fact that the State Department and the CIA differed from Kissinger. These organizations felt that the main issues were the huge refugee influx into India and the absence of a political initiative from Pakistan’s military ruler Gen.Yahya Khan to engage the main Bengali party, the Awami League, and its leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Sheikh Mujib was then in a Pakistani jail.
Western European governments were suggesting that India and Pakistan exercise restraint and avoid war. But the coverage of the atrocities in East Pakistan in the Western media and the impact this was having on their human rights-oriented populations, eventually led to a small change in their official stance. But this was not enough to make them participants in efforts to make Yahya Khan see reason and shed his hard line.
The West was trying to make the East Pakistan question an India-Pakistan bilateral problem, while India maintained that it was a West Pakistan-East Pakistan issue which was having an unbearable fallout in India. In India’s view, the only solution was to persuade Islamabad to talk to the Bengali leadership which had popular acceptability, namely, the Awami League headed by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
The USSR feared that China (with which it had fallen out quite badly in the late 1960s) would benefit from a troubled or liberated East Pakistan. Hence the USSR was reluctant to support the Bengalis’ struggle for independence. Moscow felt that China had connections with Bengali leftists who were in the forefront of the Bangladeshi liberation struggle.
The USSR was also interested in weaning Pakistan away from China. Towards this end, Moscow soft pedaled the Pakistani forces’ atrocities in East Pakistan and even sent some military equipment to Pakistan. It also supported the preservation of Pakistan’s territorial integrity. In its dealings with New Delhi, Moscow urged restraint while assuring that it was urging Islamabad to be reasonable on the Bengalis’ demands.
But India objected to Moscow’s equating it with Pakistan and strongly opposed sending weapons to Pakistan. However, eventually, the USSR thought it prudent to cast its lot with India with which it had had mutually beneficial political and economic relations since the mid-1950s. Towards the end, the USSR entered into a broadly-worded treaty which gave room for critical military assistance when war broke out on December 2, 1971.
True to form, China openly endorsed Pakistan’s charge that the problem in East Pakistan was instigated by India. Beijing’s pro-Pakistan utterances created fears in India about a two-front war. However, China also advised Pakistan to find a negotiated solution to the Bengali question which irked Pakistan.
And then suddenly, to everyone’s surprise, Chairman Mao personally sought friendship with India. He also did not militarily aid Pakistan when war broke out. According to Raghavan, Mao wanted a détente with India and refrained from aiding Pakistan militarily because he was facing unrest in the top echelons of the Peoples’ Liberation Army and was busy purging it.
India expected the Non-Aligned countries to support it, but Ceylon, Egypt and Yugoslavia took stands which did not suit India. Ceylon’s Sirima Bandaranaike offered to hold a conference in Colombo to chalk out a solution, but she saw the developments in East Pakistan as being part of India-Pakistan rivalry ignoring the real issue which was the denial of political rights to the Bengalis and the crackdown unleashed on them. Moreover, Sirima allowed Pakistani military planes to land in Colombo en route to East Pakistan. India considered this an unfriendly act especially since it had helped her crush the Left wing Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)’s insurrection in 1971.
Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat was trying to establish himself in the Arab and Islamic worlds as a leader and as such, sided with Islamic Pakistan. All he did was to urge India and Pakistan to be restrained. Iran’s King Reza Shah Pehlavi blew hot and cold but it was clear that he was actually pushing the Pakistani line.
Unable to make headway in the Non-Aligned and Islamic worlds, India turned to Israel which was eager to secure diplomatic recognition from India. Though India dodged the question of recognizing Israel (so as not to annoy the Arab world), it got weapons with Israeli help. Israeli agents helped India acquire weapons from a third party.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s military ruler, Gen.Yahya Khan had made it clear that he would not negotiate with Sheikh Mujib and began preparations for war. India had no option but to respond in kind. The rest is history.