National war turns international
Bangladesh’s liberation war, although fought primarily by the Bangladeshis, eventually turned out to be a regional as well as global war, forcing most states of the South Asian region and many states much beyond South Asia, particularly the ‘global super powers’ of the ‘Cold War era’, to take side with the warring parties.
Initially, it was not easy to draw sympathy of the foreign states towards, let alone support for, the cause of Bangladesh’s independence, precisely because, as Abul Maal A Muhith points out, “The concept of the sovereign state and its right to handle internal dissension in any way it pleases was so sacrosanct [those days] that very few governments were prepared to raise their voice for the Bengalis. […] Secession was an unthinkable proposition, freedom movements were not widely recognised at the time. Bifra, struggling for self-determination for 30 long months, at last had to come to terms with Nigeria in 1970.”35 Besides, a prime weakness of conducting Bangladesh’s war of liberation was the unavailability of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the top Bengali politician of the time, for he had courted arrest on the eve of the war. In his absence in the critical process of the political management of Bangladesh’s liberation war, the general secretary of the Awami League, Tajuddin Ahmad, negotiated terms with the Indian government of prime minister Indira Gandhi for the latter’s active supports for the Bangladesh cause in the first week of April 1971. India’s involvement in the Bangladesh war instantly made it a regional phenomenon while Delhi’s active support for Bangladesh’s efforts for independence and Islamabad’s subsequent campaign that India was out to dismember Pakistan eventually transformed the issue to be a complex international event, with the major global powers of the day, particularly the United States and the now-defunct Soviet Union, taking side in the war.
In the process of Bangladesh’s national liberation war getting international, the Bengali expatriates across the continents played a very important role in organizing global public opinion in favour of the just cause of Bangladesh’s independence. It was primarily the result of ceaseless efforts of the expatriate Bangladeshis, side by side with official efforts of Bangladesh’s provisional government that the country’s liberation war attracted many a foreign community of people, especially their intellectuals, journalists, human rights activists, artistes and others who contributed in many ways to the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent state although most of their governments were against the idea of Bangladesh. The public opinion created in different countries against the military massacre of the people of East Bengal by the ruthless military authorities of Pakistan eventually influenced their respective governments to stop aiding Pakistan, if not supporting the cause of Bangladesh. Bangladesh’s national war of liberation, thus, became a regional as well as an international war, which was successfully fought not only by the Bangladeshis in their own geographical territories but also by the conscientious sections of the people much beyond the Bangladesh borders.
However, it was more of realpolitik about their respective strategic interests in the South Asian region than moral and ideological causes that influenced the major powers to be polarised for and against Bangladesh’s liberation war. Besides, the nature and history of the relations of India and Pakistan with the competing superpowers at that particular point of history also shaped the latter’s policies towards the Bangladesh war. The smaller South Asian states took into account the possible change in the balance of power in the region in the case of disintegration of Pakistan, which had so far provided an effective check on ‘hegemonic’ India and decided their respective roles from the point of view of their own ‘nationalist’ interests. Thus, apart from the nationalist struggle for independence, political and military, by the Bangladeshis, the emergence of Bangladesh was, as Srinath Raghavan rightly observes, ‘the product of historical currents and conjectures that ranged far beyond South Asia’.36
India’s was the only supports that the leadership of the Bangladesh war did not require taking much trouble to secure. Given the prolonged political, ideological and strategic enmity between India and Pakistan, the former, after all, got delighted by the surfacing of the ‘East Pakistan crisis’, in the first place. Kuldip Nayar, a Delhi-based Indian journalist, would later write, “[T]he Indians felt happy, that Pakistan, their enemy was in trouble.”37 Some eminent Indians, such as K Subrahmanyam, director of India’s Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, were for exploiting Pakistan’s ‘trouble’ to the advantage of India and publicly persuaded the political establishments in Delhi to get involved, even intervene, in the East Pakistan crisis for the sake of India’s ‘national interest’. Subrahmanyam argued at a meeting of the Indian Council of World Affairs in Delhi on March 31, 1971: “What India must realise is the fact that the break up of Pakistan is in our own interest, an opportunity, the like of which will never come again.”38
Indian political establishment in Delhi was, therefore, more than willing to actively support Bangladesh’s liberation war in order to achieve its own strategic goal of becoming a ‘regional superpower’ in South Asia by way of dismembering Pakistan. Prime minister Indira Gandhi did not hide it either: She told Kenneth Keating, the United States’ ambassador in New Delhi who saw her to deliver a letter from US president Richard Nixon, written on December 1, 1971 on the South Asian crisis of the time, that ‘every country must first look to its national interest’ and that ‘it was her duty to see what was in her country’s own’.39 India’s immediate ‘strategic interest’ was to dismember Pakistan, its arch-enemy in South Asia, which matched perfectly with the political aspiration of the people of East Pakistan to get liberated from neo-colonialist West Pakistan. JN Dixit, an Indian foreign ministry official who headed a ‘special unit to deal with East Pakistan crisis’ in 1971, also admitted later that it is ‘correct’ that ‘India’s primary motivation for supporting the Bangladesh liberation war was its own strategic interests’.40 Dixit, however, asserts that India’s strategic interest at that point of history was not limited just to the break-up of Pakistan, for the political establishment in Delhi was aware that dismantling of Pakistan would produce additional political and strategic dividends in terms of increasing its influence in entire South Asia, even beyond the South Asian region. Not surprisingly, Indira Gandhi unambiguously told her cabinet on December 10, 1971 that Indian objectives were, ‘to emerge from the [Bangladesh] war as the dominant power in South Asia and the Indian Ocean’, following which ‘China would respect India and might even decide to improve relations with New Delhi’.41
Be that as it may, the fact remains that India’s strategic interests to weaken Pakistan and thus establish its pre-eminence in the region and Bangladesh’s legitimate aspiration for independence from neo-colonialist Pakistan converged at that point of the sub-continental history.
Under the circumstance, soon after West Pakistan’s military crackdown in the East, the Indian prime minister thought of giving ‘immediate recognition’ to Bangladesh and providing ‘full military support’ for the latter’s ‘liberation struggle’. While many of her cabinet colleagues supported the view, her foreign minister Sardar Swaran Singh advised her to go slow arguing that, as JN Dixit recollects, the ‘political correctness’ of the timing to get directly involved in the Bangladesh’s liberation efforts was diplomatically important for India. Dixit writes, “Swaran Singh felt India should not face collective international opposition from the Great Powers as well as from the United Nations on the basis of a possible accusation that India was interfering in the affairs of a neighbouring country with the aim of fragmenting it and destroying its territorial integrity.”42
Indian eagerness to support the cause of Bangladesh, or dismember Pakistan in other words, found the clearest expression when Indira Gandhi had wanted the Chief of Staff of the Indian army, General Sam Hormusji Framji Jamshedji Manekshaw ‘to march in’ to the territories of East Pakistan ‘sometime in April’ 1971 saying, “I don’t mind if it is war.”43 Moreover, she was for successfully finishing the war within the shortest possible time, before the armed conflict becoming internationalised. In this regard, Indira also cautioned Manekshaw: “If there were to be a war, it could not last more than three weeks. Any conflict that went beyond that time frame was certain to become internationalised — and highly costly to India in terms of casualties and material.”44
General Manekshaw (1914–2008) told Indira Gandhi and some of her cabinet colleagues that he was ‘certainly not ready’ for the war so soon. The general argued that the monsoon was approaching to East Pakistan in a few weeks, and ‘in East Pakistan when it rains the rivers become like oceans’, in which circumstance, ‘the [Indian] air force would not be able to support’ the army. He further argued that different divisions of the Indian army remained scattered in different areas of the country, which would take time to move towards East Pakistan’s border. Besides, he informed Indira Gandhi that his armoured division, ‘which is supposed to be my strike force’ in the war had only ‘twelve tanks operational’ at the time. In case of waging an immediate war, General Manekshaw told Indira Gandhi, India would face a ‘100 per cent defeat’. The general sought time and logistic supports for going to the war. Jagan Mohan, a military historian of India, and Samir Chopra, a professor of Philosophy, jointly write, “Manekshaw refused to budge despite pressure from Cabinet members, and the prime minister relented.”45
Before taking his stance about the timing of the war, General Manekshaw had consulted Lieutenant General JFR Jacob (b 1923), then Chief of Staff of the Eastern Command of the Indian army, who found the government idea ‘to move immediately into East Pakistan’ absolutely ‘impractical’ and put forward to General Manekshaw the list of practical limitations, particularly the lack of military preparations, to wage the war as early as April 1971. General Jacob said, “[W]e could be ready earliest by 15 November.”46
However, for a direct involvement in Bangladesh’s war of liberation, India also required a significant amount of international support for the cause of Bangladesh, on the one hand, and diplomatic legitimacy for waging a war against Pakistan, on the other, for Pakistan had loudly been propagating that the political and military events taking place in its eastern wing was an ‘internal affair’ of the country. Initially, there were many takers of Pakistan’s view — the Soviet Union, the United States, China, England, France, Germany and Canada included. Richard Sisson and Leo E Rose rightly observe, “The general reaction in most world capitals had been to remonstrate with Rawalpindi over its excessive use of force in East Pakistan, then to back off by calling these developments an ‘internal affair’.”47 The polarisation of the major powers eventually took shape, basing primarily on their respective political, economic and strategic interests in South Asia.
The two super powers of the Cold War era, the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the Soviet Union in other words, and a rising Asian power those days, the People’s Republic of China, which was most contiguous with the scene of conflict in South Asia, had played and un-played roles in shaping international polarisations around the Bangladesh war and, thus, directly and indirectly influenced the outcome of the triangular political and military conflicts involving Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. In the process, some powerful states in Europe, such as the United Kingdom and France, both permanent members of the UN Security Council as well as Australia and Canada, two middle-power states in the Commonwealth, played significant roles from the points of views of their respective political and strategic interests. The ‘Muslim’ states in West Asia, Africa and South East Asia, as well as Bangladesh’s neighbouring states in South Asia had also their stakes in the war while all of them had pursued their policies in accordance with their respective national and international interests — political, ideological and strategic. Most of the states in question had initially preferred status quo, a united Pakistan in other words, while some of them eventually changed their original stance either under circumstantial compulsion of the cold-war politics or in the face of growing public opinion in the respective countries against the brutal atrocities of the [West] Pakistan Army in Bangladesh.
To be continued.
Nurul Kabir is editor of New Age.
Notes and References
35 Abul Maal A Muhith, History of Bangladesh: A Subcontinental Civilisation, University Press Limited, Dhaka, 2016, pp 314–315
36 Srinath Raghavan, 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh, Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2013, p 265
37 Kuldip Nayar, Distant Neighbours: A Tale of the Subcontinent, Vikas Publications House, Uttar Pradesh, India, 1972, p 145
38 K Subrahmanyam is quoted by The Hindustan Times, Delhi, April 1, 1971, which is cited in Zaglul Haider, The Changing Pattern of Bangladesh Foreign Policy: A Comparative Study of the Mujib and Zia Regimes, The University Press Limited, Dhaka, 2006, p 31. Also see Mizanur Rahman Shelley, Emergence of a New Nation in a Multi-polar World: Bangladesh, Fourth Revised and Enlarged Edition, Academic Press and Publisher’s Library, Dhaka, 2007, p 60) Subrahmanyam also defends his position in a post-independence interview to a Bangladeshi researcher, saying that ‘it was the chance of a century for India to divide Pakistan’. (K Subrahmanyam’s interview in Afsan Chodhury, Bangladesh: 1971, Volume - 4, Mowla Brothers, Dhaka, 2007, p 663.
39 BZ Khasru, Myths and Facts: Bangladesh Liberation War: How India, U.S., China, and the U.S.S.R. Shaped the Outcome, Rupa Publications, New Delhi, 2010, p 319
40 JN Dixit, Liberation and Beyond: Indo-Bangladesh Relations, University Press Limited, Dhaka, 1999, p 175
41 BZ Khasru, Myths and Facts: Bangladesh Liberation War: How India, U.S., China, and the U.S.S.R. Shaped the Outcome, p 376
42 JN Dixit, Liberation and Beyond: Indo-Bangladesh Relations, p 50
43 General Manekshaw’s interview with Quarterdeck, Directorate of Ex-Servicemen’s Affairs, Naval Headquarters, New Delhi, 1996. The excerpt of the interview is incorporated as Appendix - 6 in Lt Gen JFR Jacob, Surrender at Dacca: Birth of Nation, Third Impression, The University Press Limited, 2004 , pp 181–183
44 Pranay Gupte, Mother India: A political Biography of Indira Gandhi, Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2011, p 394
45 PVS Jagan Mohan and Samir Chopra, Eagles Over Bangladesh: The Indian Air Force in the 1971 Liberation War, HaperCollins Publisher, Noida, India, 2013, p 32
46 Lt Gen JFR Jacob, Surrender at Dacca: Birth of a Nation, Third Impression, The University Press Limited, 2004 , p 36)
47 Richard Sisson and Leo E Rose, War and Secession: Pakistan, India and the Creation of Bangladesh, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1990, p 186)
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