The Bangladesh Liberation War: 1971


It was not only geographical distance that divided West and East Pakistan. It was like a colonial empire, with the West Pakistani elite exploiting the East like a ‘predatory foreign ruling class’, most recently by imposing the Urdu language on the Bengali-speaking East. Aggravating disparities in economic development and West Pakistani opposition to opening the border between East Pakistan and Indian West Bengal had further deepened the crisis. Elections led to an overwhelming victory of the populist Awami League in the East, winning 167 out of 169 seats. This result even took Awami Leader Sheikh Mujib’ur Rahman by surprise and shocked President Yahya Khan. Mujib’ur’s main demand was a federal constitution with equal power-sharing between East and West. He called a general strike, which the Yahya military regime decided to break by brutal military force. Sheikh Mujib’ur Rahman was arrested and flown to a secret location in West Pakistan. Soon, millions of East Pakistanis fled to Indian West Bengal. 

On 17 April 1971 a new East Bengali state of Bangladesh was proclaimed, which India welcomed, but which West Pakistan was ready to crush if necessary by indiscriminate army violence against civilians. Confronted with an ever-escalating flow of refugees and pressed by West Bengali public opinion to support their East Bengali brethren and to recognize Bangladesh diplomatically, the Indian government, led by Indira Gandhi, had no alternative but to intervene. But since the self-proclaimed Bangladeshi government did not control any substantial chunk of territory, the basis for this in international law was shaky. The conflict was legally Pakistan’s internal affair and large-scale interference by India could lead to a major war with the risk of Chinese intervention.  
It is noteworthy that the Soviet Union was the only power that acted in a principled and consistent way in this particular conflict. Since its mediation in Tashkent, Moscow had kept close contact with Islamabad without alienating New Delhi, and during the new crisis it urged the Pakistani military to stop immediately its bloody repression in the East and to negotiate peacefully with representatives of the East Pakistani people. 

The United States, meanwhile, took the contradictory line of condemning India, while sending aid for an estimated 10 million East Bengali refugees, and at the same time continuing arms supplies to West Pakistan’s military dictatorship so as to keep the dialogue going and to exercise some influence on the regime in Islamabad. ‘We were in the process of trying to convince the Chinese that we were worthy friends, who stood by their ally’ said Walter Andersen, a former US State Department South Asia specialist, now Associate Director for South Asia Studies at the Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University in Washington DC. Credibility with China was suddenly an important consideration, because American diplomats were busy preparing President Nixon’s historical visit to China in February 1972.  
China faced the same dilemma as the Americans. It had the option of supporting a national liberation movement with strong radical leftist elements against neo-imperialism by fellow Asians. However, it opted for traditional state interests and identified completely with West Pakistan’s military regime, while scolding India as ‘reactionary expansionists’ and referring to Czechoslovakia in 1968 – the Soviet Union as ‘shameless hypocrites’.  
The Nixon administration’s policy of ignoring large scale Pakistani atrocities was based on fear that India, after eliminating Pakistani rule in East Bengal, would invade West Pakistan, install a pro-Indian/pro-Soviet regime there and thus severely damage American and Chinese interests and pave the way for full Soviet domination of South Asia. Nixon and Kissinger not only dismissed Indian and international concerns about Pakistani genocide in the East, they also ignored what went down in the annals of diplomatic history as perhaps the most strongly worded protest of a diplomat against the indefensible behavior of his own government. US Consul-General in Dhaka Archer Blood protested in April 1971 in a diplomatic telegram:

Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy. Our government has failed to denounce atrocities. Our government has failed to take forceful measures to protect its citizens while at the same time bending over backwards to placate the West Pakistan-dominated government and to lessen any deservedly negative international public relations impact against them. Our government has evidenced what many will consider moral bankruptcy But we have chosen not to intervene, even morally, on the grounds that the Awami conflict, in which unfortunately the overworked term genocide is applicable, is purely an internal matter of a sovereign state. Private Americans have expressed disgust. We, as professional civil servants, express our dissent with current policy and fervently hope that our true and lasting interests here can be defined and our policies redirected.

There was another, more immediate, reason for the United States to refrain from taking a critical attitude towards Pakistani abuses in the East. In April 1971 ‘ping-pong diplomacy’ had started between the United States and China, and Henry Kissinger’s secret July 1971 visit to China was being prepared through Pakistani channels. President Richard Nixon’s opening to China was  in part  a ploy to end the doomed Vietnam War without admitting defeat.

India’s concern, prior to the war in East Pakistan, was to hedge against Chinese intervention. India and the Soviet Union thus decided to make a counter move against what was perceived as an emerging US-China-Pakistani triangle. On 9 August 1971 India’s Foreign Secretary Swaran Singh signed a Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation, a nice euphemism for a military pact, with his Soviet colleague Andrei Gromyko. The diplomatic prelude to war had now clearly started. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi traveled to Moscow first, then to the major European capitals and finally to Washington.  The Europeans told Gandhi that they would make a last effort to persuade Pakistan’s President Yahya Khan to release Sheikh Mujib’ur Rahman from incarceration; and the Americans on 8 November 1971 pledged to cut off arms’ supplies to the Pakistanis. Bhutto, reappointed as foreign minister, visited Beijing from 5-8 November 1971 to seek ‘reassurance’. Behind the scenes, the Chinese tried to persuade the Pakistanis to make a settlement with the leaders of East Pakistan, but in vain.  The Chinese were non-committal, but what they did offer the public was a bewildering outburst of Orwellian doublespeak. They lamented that the Indians had done the same thing to China (in Tibet) as they were now doing to Pakistan in the East:
They fomented a rebellion in the Tibet Region of our country and engaged in all kinds of subversive activities. When the rebellion was crushed by the Chinese people, they [the Indian reactionaries] coerced tens of thousands of Chinese [Tibetan] residents to their country, thus fabricating the question of the so-called ‘Tibetan refugees’
Full-scale war between the armed forces of India’s 980,000 troops and Pakistan’s 392,000 started on two fronts on 3 December 1971, with a massive Indian air campaign against all airports and bases in East Pakistan, destroying all of the aeroplanes that were grounded. The Pakistanis attacked in Kashmir and in the Indian Punjab, where they made some gains, but these were unsustainable after India took Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital, on 13 December. The Pakistani commander, General A.A. Khan Niazi had vowed to fight until the last man, but on 16 December 1971 he surrendered to his Indian counterpart, General Jagjit Singh Aurora. The Chinese had, as usual, refrained from any activity on any front.
The war had been simultaneously conducted at the United Nations, where a Chinese ambassador had just two months before taken the seat that had been occupied by Chiang Kai-shek’s representative until October 1971.
On the second day of the war on 4 December 1971, the Russian ambassador to the UN, Jacob Malik, submitted a draft resolution in which Pakistan was ordered to find a political settlement within Pakistan that should lead to a ceasefire. Malik also proposed inviting a representative of Bangladesh to the United Nations’ session. The draft was immediately vetoed by China: the first Chinese veto. The Chinese ambassador, Huang Hua, engaged in mind-boggling rhetoric and wondered whether India would now use the presence of Tibetan ‘counter-revolutionary refugees’ in India as a pretext for aggression against China. He extended this logic even to the Soviet Union and asked his Soviet counterpart:
Is the Soviet Union going to use the tens of thousands of Chinese citizens, which it abducted by force from China’s Xinjiang in 1962 and of whom it uses some for anti-China subversive activities, as a pretext for aggression against China? And are you going to use this kind of people in the United Nations to justify your aggression and subversion?
Huang was referring to Muslim Uygur people who had escaped the famine in China, caused by Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward in 1959, and had fled to Kazakhstan during the following years. During a third debate Huang Hua went as far as comparing Bangladesh with Manchukuo and the government of Bangladesh with a Quisling clique.
When the defeat of Pakistan was imminent, President Nixon sent the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Enterprise to the Bay of Bengal, not as long has been assumed to intimidate India, but according to Walter Andersen:
Again to show China that we were steadfast in our support to Pakistan, an ally of both China and the United States. In fact fighting had ended before the Enterprise entered the Indian Ocean. The American nuclear carrier was faced by the Indian light aircraft carrier Vikrant. The Soviet Navy sent two task forces from Vladivostok including nuclear submarines, which trailed the American carrier group at a distance of a few hundred miles. It was all show.
The US Navy backed off after the Pakistani surrender in the East when India refrained from a new campaign for the dismemberment of West Pakistan. American policy was deeply flawed and led to a freeze in US-India relations until the end of the Cold War. The architect of the failed policy was no less than Dr Kissinger.

An official statement of the Chinese government in Beijing on 16 December 1971 took a more serious line than the outbursts of its UN ambassador. It asked the question: if the Indian government was so concerned about the national aspirations of the people of East Pakistan, why was it so indifferent about the national aspirations of the people of Kashmir? US proposals were vetoed by the Russians and Russian proposals were vetoed by China. It was a novel spectacle in world politics: the United States, for the first time, inadvertently found itself in partnership with China in condemning Soviet expansionism and its client-state India, and conniving at Pakistan’s indiscriminate terror against the civilian people of East Pakistan (Bangladesh). On 16 December 1971, the day of the Pakistani surrender, China accused India of new border violations near Sikkim in the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA – in 1985 renamed Arunachal Pradesh) and demanded that India immediately cease its incursions. What the Chinese wanted to achieve with this diversion was unclear, because it was too late to have any impact. Bangladesh was a fait accompli. Pakistan as a pair of pincers around the Indian subcontinent had ceased to exist. The third and thus far most important military phase of the Indo-Pakistani conflict had ended with far less potent input from China than India had feared and Pakistan had hoped. According to Andersen, the Indians had not taken China’s posturing and its diplomatic harangues at all seriously. The Indo-Soviet Treaty and possible Soviet military build-up on the Chinese north-eastern and Central Asian borders were enough deterrent for the Chinese not to get involved in the war militarily. It later transpired that Kissinger had met on 10 December 1971 with the new Chinese UN ambassador Huang Hua, who assured him that China would continue fighting in support of Pakistan as long as it had a rifle in its armoury, but apart from supplying arms it did nothing. A few months later, Zhou Enlai complained to the visiting Nixon and Kissinger in Beijing that Pakistan’s military ruler, General Yahya Khan, did not really lead his troops in East Pakistan. Peking’s central goal had not been that Pakistan remained united, but that West Pakistan remained independent of India and friendly towards China. After the conflict, Chinese civilian and military aid to Pakistan increased in leaps and bounds. For instance, Pakistan reportedly received nearly one-third of its arms from abroad from the PRC in the period from 1966-1980, amounting to approximately US$ 1.5 billion.

US-China relaxed after the Kissinger and Nixon visits to Beijing in 1971-1972 had a multiple impact on the China-Pakistan axis. It relaxed the American encirclement of China, reduced China’s apprehension about the India-Soviet alliance and encouraged it to have a broader view of South Asia than the one through Pakistani lenses. Until the Bangladesh Independence War, China had been the main backer – with Pakistan – of the right to self-determination for the Kashmiri people. However, in July 1972 the Simla Agreement was signed by Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Pakistani President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, binding the two countries ‘to settle their differences by peaceful means through bilateral negotiations’. It also cemented the Line of Control as something close to a permanent border. The agreement has been the basis of all subsequent bilateral talks between India and Pakistan, and equally important to all Chinese official pronouncements on the conflict.

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