Meanwhile, the Bengali expatriates had played a very proactive role in sensitising international public opinion to Bangladesh’s freedom movement in the western hemisphere, particularly in the United Kingdom and the United States.
As soon as the news of the West Pakistan Army’s military massacre in the East reached the Bengali communities in the United Kingdom, which was more than a lakh in size, started registering organized protests against the military campaign on the one hand and organising multi-dimensional supports to the liberation war of Bangladesh on the other. The Bengali physicians community in the UK got united under the Bangladesh Medical Association (BDMA), as early as the second week of April to collectively support the cause of Bangladesh.48 Meanwhile, the Bengali communities in the United Kingdom had present among themselves Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury, then vice-chancellor of Dhaka University who, while attending a conference of the International Human Rights Commission in Geneva on March 26 had resigned his position in protest at the killing of his students by the Pakistan army, resolved to work for the independence of Bangladesh from London. Bangladesh’s government-in-exile appointed Justice Chowdhury as its ‘special envoy’ on April 23 with the ‘responsibility of coordinating Bangladesh’s liberation movement aboard’,49 which strengthened his capacities to successfully lobby with many professors, journalists, diplomats and politicians for the cause of Bangladesh across Europe and beyond.
The mainstream Bengali activist groups in London had formed the Action Committee in the United Kingdom for the People’s Republic of Bangladesh on April 24 to coordinate the Bangladesh movements in the United Kingdom and mobilise international public opinion for the independence of Bangladesh. The Action Committee also created a Bangladesh Fund on May 8, primarily under the supervision of Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury, which helped Bangladesh’s government-in-exile to procure some weapons for the freedom fighters.
Meanwhile, under the leadership of Chicago-based famous Bengali architect, Dr FR Khan, the Bangladesh Defence League was organised ‘on a nearly all-America basis’ in June, which worked as an effective ‘lobby group’ for the Bangladesh cause within the United States and beyond.50 Then, in July, Bangladesh’s government-in-exile sent M R Siddiky, an Awami League leader, to Washington DC as an ‘official’ Ambassador to the United States and Canada to lobby for the Bangladesh cause with the influential people in North America. Siddiky set up his unofficial Embassy ‘in an office block on Connecticut Avenue’ and got him registered ‘as a Head of Mission’ to ‘carry on the political lobbying legally’. Recollecting his experience, M R Siddiky writes in a post-independence piece, “Although the Government of the United States was a friend of the Government of Pakistan, we received tremendous support in the US Press, Congress, Senate, Universities and general public because of the universal disapproval of the genocide carried out by Pakistan forces. […] Among the politicians, Senator Church, Senator Kennedy, Senator Percy, Senator Saxbe, Congressman Gallagher took up our cause as a crusade and their offices became our campaign centres. It was Saxbe-Church amendment which stopped [official] military aid to Pakistan.”51
The Bengali expatriates and the foreigners sympathetic to the Bangladesh cause across the world developed innumerable lobby groups, such as the Bangladesh Information Centre and Friends of Bangladesh in Washington, the Bangladesh League of America in New York, the Bangladesh Defence League in Chicago, the Friends of East Bengal in Delware Valley, the Action Bangladesh in the United Kingdom, the Bangladesh Association in Canada, the Bangladesh Solidarity Front and the Japan-Bengal Friendship Association in Japan and so on that ‘created a climate of public opinion which strongly disfavoured Pakistan and sought the victory of Bangladesh in its liberation war’.52 The international public opinion, thus formed through people’s activism across the world, would help gradually change positively the stances of many a government on the Bangladesh cause.
The United Kingdom, former colonial master of the sub-continent, ‘regretted’ on March 29, 1971 ‘the loss of life in [East] Pakistan’, but found West Pakistan’s military actions to be an ‘internal matter’ of Pakistan and, therefore, resolved to abstain from making any comment ‘on political matters which are the concern of the Pakistan government’.53
The UK’s minister for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Alec Douglas-Home, even refused to comment when Peter Shore, a Labour Party MP, asked whether the British government would ‘impress upon’ the authorities of Pakistan that ‘their troops should be withdrawn, that the killing should stop, and that Sheikh Mujib and his followers should not be the victims of repression […] and that the people of Bengal have the right to decide their own future, and, if need be, decide on a separate future for themselves’? Douglas-Home did ‘not’ find it ‘helpful’ to ‘comment on those matters at this time’, for he found General Yahya’s military action in East Pakistan rather politically justified! Douglas-Home said, “The President of Pakistan, as we understand it, was faced with a situation in which his country might have been divided in half. We must allow the Pakistan authorities to deal with this matter without our intervention.”54 Again, during another debate on Bangladesh movement in the House of Commons on April 5, the British Foreign Affairs minister said, ‘We are deeply concerned about the division of Pakistan’.55 The government of the United Kingdom maintained this stance till the fag end of Bangladesh’s liberation war although a very significant section of the British public, including a large number of Labour politicians and independent intellectuals, supported the cause of Bangladesh since the beginning to the end of its victorious war.
In fact, a week into the military crackdown, the British high commissioner in Pakistan, Cyril Pickard, realised that the emergence of Bangladesh was inevitable and advised London for the sake of its own future interests to be on the side of the Bangladesh cause. Pickard wrote: “[E]ventual end result is likely to be an independent East Pakistan. In terms of investment and raw material sources, our long-term interests may prove to be with a future regime in the East, rather than with the Western rump. We must not prejudice our long-term interests, and offend the Indians, in seeking unwisely to defend short-term interests in West.”56
But the “British government”, as a Scotland Yard official told Abu Sayeed Chowdhury in April, “neither supports Bangladesh’s freedom movement nor opposes it.”57 The London-based politically conscious sections of the Bengali expatriates, however, fully exploited the British resolve not to oppose Bangladesh’s freedom movement and took the opportunity to mobilise public opinion in favour of the Bangladesh cause in the United Kingdom and beyond. Not surprisingly, a Pakistani historian would later observe, with a sense of a little grievances: “Public opinion in the United Kingdom came out blatantly in favour of the break up of Pakistan […] and London became […] the sole European base for ‘Bangla Desh’ activities.”58 The Bengali activism from the ‘sole European base’, however, succeeded to influence public opinion of many European countries that, in turn, forced the governments of some European countries to neutralise their support for Pakistan. The governments of European countries like Austria, Belgium and Netherlands ‘bowed to public opinion’, grew ‘censorious of Pakistan’ and ‘suspended further economic aid’ to General Yahya’s military regime. Two European states, Italy and Spain, however, continued to provide support, economic and military respectively, for Pakistan, ignoring their public pressures to sympathise with the Bangladesh cause.59
Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, as many as 300 MPs — left, right and liberal — officially demanded that their government made serious efforts to mount effective pressure on Islamabad to stop killing in East Pakistan and subsequently the House of Commons had a full-dress discussion on the issue on May 14. Bruce Douglas-Man (1927–2000), a Labour MP who officially moved the resolution, spoke for the independence of Bangladesh, but the resolution, which was eventually adopted unanimously by the House, stopped at seeking the official British efforts for a ‘political solution’ of the East Pakistan crisis.60 Earlier, Edward Heath’s Conservative government repeatedly argued that they ‘could not interfere with internal affairs of a foreign country’.61 The British foreign office consistently advised Downing Street to ‘avoid taking sides with either party’ in case of an India-Pakistan conflict.
The left-wing Bengalis in the United Kingdom, who got organised under the banner of the Swadhin Bangla Sangram Parishad — Action Committee for the Independence of Bangladesh — played a very significant role in mobilising public opinion for Bangladesh’s freedom while reputed leftist leaders like Ziauddin Mahmud, Nikhilesh Chakrabarti and Lutfur Rahman continued to pursue different European governments against providing aid for the Pakistani killer regime, urge them to recognise Bangladesh and to use their influence on the Pakistan authorities to release Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.62
The Bangladesh Newsletter, edited by left-wing Tasadduq Ahmad, was the most vocal of all other expatriate publications for the independence of Bangladesh.63
The Bengali Left in London, understandably, had good ideological relations with the left-leaning Labour Party those days and was in a better position to politically influence many a Labour legislator in favour of Bangladesh’s struggle for national liberation. Not surprisingly, as many as 120 Labour MPs reportedly moved a motion on June 15, calling for a meeting of the UN Security Council to review the situation in East Pakistan in the light of General Yahya’s military action as ‘a threat to international peace’ and ‘a contravention of the [UN] Genocide Convention’. Besides, they demanded that ‘until order is restored under UN supervision, the Provisional Government of Bangladesh should be recognised as the vehicle for the expression of self-determination by the people of East Bengal’.64 But the conservative British government remained unmoved.
Meanwhile, the Bengali expatriate groups in a good number politically important capital cities of the world undertook various kinds of activism, including lobbying with the powerful international bodies, to stop providing military as well as financial aids for the killer politico-military establishments of Pakistan. Before the 11-nation Pakistan Aid-Consortium meeting in Paris, scheduled for June 19, the Bengali expatriates, women and men, staged demonstrations in front of diplomatic missions of the countries concerned, with placards and festoons displaying slogans like ‘Not a penny, not a gun – Yahya, Bhutto, Tikka Khan’.65 Besides, economists like Professor Rehman Sobhan, who was assigned by Bangladesh’s government-in-exile to lobby in the western countries, later in East Europe, particularly for the cessation of financial aid to Yahya’s military junta, was also ‘around to place the Bengali point of view’ before the participants in the consortium meeting.66 The efforts yielded a significant result: The Pakistan Aid-Consortium resolved ‘not only to refrain from making any fresh pledge of aid to [West] Pakistan, but also to postpone any discussion on the issue until East Pakistan crisis is resolved politically’.67 The governments of the aid-giving countries, including that of the United Kingdom, however, still remained non-committal about taking any pro-active role for Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan.
Even when Sri Lankan prime minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike took an initiative in the last week of June, with prior consultation with the Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Arnold Smith, for a Commonwealth move for negotiation between India and Pakistan over the Bangladesh movement, British prime minister Edward Heath opposed the idea, saying that ‘there is a longstanding Commonwealth convention that we do not interfere in each other’s internal affairs’.68
While meeting the Indian Foreign Affairs minister, Swaran Singh, in New York towards the end of September, Douglas-Home, ‘expressed concerns about guerrilla operations’ of the Bangladeshi freedom fighters and ‘mildly broached the possibility of talks between Yahya and Bengali leaders other than Mujib’. Singh ‘dismissed’ the possibility of the hinted talks and said that ‘one had to accept the existence of the [Bangladeshi] freedom fighters; one could not simply wish them away’.
The British foreign office started finding in August that in case of an inevitable conflict between India and Pakistan over the Bangladesh issue, it was in British interest to ‘concentrate on cautiously backing the winners, namely India and Bangladesh’.69 It was not for no reasons that the British government allowed the Bengalis to formally set up and publicly inaugurate the office of Bangladesh High Commission in the United Kingdom on August 27, even in the face of official protest from the Pakistan high commission in London.70
However, the British foreign office continued to think till October that on the Bangladesh issue, Britain’s ‘long term interests’ was ‘still one of restraint and conciliation’ and in case of the inevitability of the ‘breakup of Pakistan’, the ‘British interests would be better served if this came about without a major war’.71 The United Kingdom’s selfish neutrality would found a clear expression at the fag end of Bangladesh’s liberation war, when on December 4, the day after the official war broke out between India and Pakistan on the Bangladesh issue, London, along with Paris, would be abstaining from voting over an American resolution in the UN Security Council seeking ‘withdrawal of the armed forces of India and Pakistan from each other’s territories’ without a prior political settlement of the Bangladesh issue, while at the same time would be voting against a Soviet resolution, seeking ‘a political settlement in East Pakistan’ before the troops withdrawal.
France’s initial official reaction to Bangladesh’s war of liberation was similar to that of the United Kingdom while its policy would start changing towards Bangladesh and that too under tremendous pressure from the French public, a few weeks before Pakistan’s military defeat to the joint forces of India and Bangladesh. Initially, in the month of April, the French foreign affairs minister told his Indian counterpart that that the problem of the East Pakistani refugee influx into India needed to be addressed by the international community while the ‘political crisis’ around East Pakistan was an ‘internal affair’ to be addressed solely by the Pakistan authorities. The French political establishment would eventually change its position under growing pressure of national and international public opinion against Yahya’s brutal martial law regime and would seek ‘political solution’ to the East Pakistan crisis by way of accommodating the views of the Bengalis vis-à-vis West Pakistan’s resolve to suppress the ‘rebellious East’ by military means. Intellectual activism of some French rights groups, conscientious sections of the media and a section of the influential French intelligentsia had played a decisive role in creating the required public opinion to change the original stance of the French government on the Bangladesh cause.
To be continued.
Nurul Kabir is editor of New Age.
Notes and References
48 Dr. Zafrullah Chowdhury, “Muktijuddher Koyekti Khanda Chitra”, in Serajul Islam Chowdhury (ed), Natun Diganta, Apri-June 2018 number, Samaj-Rupantar Adhyan Kendra, Dhaka, 2018, p. 47. The organizers of the Medical Association managed substantial amount of medicine and related supports for the freedom fighters while some of them, such as Dr. M A Mubin, Dr. Zafrullah Chowdhury and Dr Quazi Qumruzzaman, later rushed to India to take active part in the liberation war. Dr. M A Mubin, along with Dr. Captain Akhter Ahmed, successfully set up and ran the 400-bed Bangladesh Hospital in the Sector-2 of the Liberation War to treat the wounded freedom fighters.
49 Abu Sayeed Chowdhury, Prabase Muktijuddher Dinguli, Seventh Print University Press Limited, Dhaka, 2016 , pp 23–24
50 AMA Muhith, Bangladesh: Emergence of a Nation, Bangladesh Books International Limited, Dhaka, 1978, p 267
51 M R Siddiqi in BSJD), Volume-15, pp.126-127
53 The statement of the UK’s Minister for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Alec Douglas-Home, made in the House of Commons on March 29, 1971, BSJD, Volume - 13, p1
54 Ibid, p 2
55 Ibid, p 6
56 Srinath Raghavan, 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh, p 164
57 Abu Sayeed Chowdhury, Prabase Muktijuddher Dinguli, p 20
58 KK Aziz, World Powers and the 1971 Breakup of Pakistan, Vanguard Books Pvt Ltd., Lahore, 2016, p 111
59 Srinath Raghavan, 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh, p 162
60 Abu Sayeed Chowdhury, Prabase Muktijuddher Dinguli, p 35
61 Ibid, p 31
62 Tajul Mohammad, Muktijuddha O Prabasi Bangali Samaj, Sahitya Prakash, Dhaka, 2001, p 42
63 Ibid, p 84
64 Advocate Muhammad Nurul Quadir, Independence of Bangladesh in 266 Days: History and Documentary Evidence, Mukta Publishers, Dhaka, 2004, p 92
65 Tajul Mohammad, Muktijuddha O Prabasi Bangali Samaj, p 53
66 AMA Muhit, Bangladesh: Emergence of a Nation, p 270
67 Tajul Mohammad, Muktijuddha O Prabasi Bangali Samaj, pp 53–54
68 Srinath Raghavan, 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh, p 177
69 Ibid, p 168
70 Abu Sayeed Chowdhury, Prabase Muktijuddher Dinguli, pp 100–101
71 Srinath Raghavan, 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh, p 169
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