THE French Committee of Solidarity with Bangladesh, a Paris-based civil society group, continuously projected the brutal atrocities committed by the West Pakistan army in the East, which were taking place in clear violation of all international instruments of universal human rights. Besides, it strongly criticised the government of President Georges Pompidou for continuing with providing economic aid for Pakistan. Meanwhile, Andre Malraux (1901–1976), the globally reputed French novelist, influential art theorist and minister for cultural affairs in the Charles de Gaulle’s cabinet, strongly criticised General Yahya’s murderous regime and appeared to be ‘an outspoken supporter of the Bangladesh liberation movement’. 72
An active member of the anti-fascist Popular Front in France who joined the Republican forces in Spain during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, Malraux initially made a move to form an international brigade to join the Bangladesh war in 1971, but was later dissuaded by well-wishers from physically taking part in the armed conflict. He, however, wrote the ‘foreword’, styled as ‘Tragedy of Bangla Desh’, to a report on human rights violation in Bangladesh by Pakistan during the war, in which he unambiguously observed that ‘when the revolt started, the soldiers of Islamabad were no longer, for the East, compatriots or co-religionists; they were occupants’.73 An institution by himself, Malraux substantially contributed to the mobilising of a significant amount of public opinion in favour of the Bangladesh cause, forcing the French government to change its ‘strategic’ neutrality towards the issue. Not surprisingly, the French ambassador in Islamabad confided in Pakistan’s foreign secretary Sultan Khan on October 2 that he was apprehending the ‘worsening of the French public opinion against Pakistan in the coming weeks’, which would be due to ‘accumulated result’ of the publicly pronounced ‘antipathy towards Pakistan’ by the ‘people like Mr Malraux’ who have ‘certain hold on sections of public opinion’.74
There were other French intellectuals, prominent among them Alfred Kastler (1902–1986), who had publicly denounced the French establishment’s indifference towards the suffering humanity in East Bengal, particularly the hapless children of the East waiting to die in the Indian refugees camps. A globally reputed French Nobel laureate, Kastler, publicly criticised on October 8 the ‘general indifference’ of the global community towards ‘a hundred thousand children’ of East Pakistan to be dying ‘within a few days’ in the Indian refugee camps due to want of food. Kastler emphatically argued that such a tragedy should not pass ‘unobserved’ ‘in complete indifference’, and then made the pertinent observation: “If humanity witnesses the tragedy unmoved, is it not ripe to destroy itself?”75 Earlier, a group of well-meaning French journalists jointly appealed to all concerned to stand by East Bengal’s suffering humanity, arguing that ‘one cannot remain a passive observer in front of the tragedy in Bengal’ — an appeal on which a French daily, Combat, editorially said on October 8 that ‘the Bengalis are subject to a real genocide’ and that ‘humanity is collectively responsible for their tragedy, and therefore ‘the complicity of the nations with the tortures of Bengal appears to us more serious than the crime itself’.76
The impact of the collective intellectual activism of the French like Malraux, Kastler and others for the Bangladesh cause was enormous, which would find an extraordinary expression in the attempt of Jean Kay (1943–2012), a 28-year-old French youth, to hijack a Karachi-bound 720B Boeing of Pakistan International Airlines at Orly Airport in Paris with a ‘pistol’ and a ‘bomb’ on December 3, 1971 for helping the Bengali refugees in India.
Kay, otherwise a mercenary soldier, admittedly got influenced by Malraux’s humane concerns for the Bengali refugees, took control of the Boeing and announced that all the passengers excepting Pakistanis would be freed at Beirut and then the aircraft would be taken to India to help the Bengali refugees. Kay ‘demanded that 20 tons of medical supplies and relief material be loaded on the aircraft and flown to India for refugees displaced due to mass genocide and atrocities in East Pakistan’. To Kay’s happiness, the French authorities eventually complied and arranged for the French Red Cross and the Order of Knights Hospitaliers of Malta, two charity organisations, to deliver the medicines to the aircraft. However, while loading the medicines, the French military commandos in the garb of the loading workers pounced on Jean Kay and got him arrested without any violent resistance, for Kay’s was a toy pistol and his bomb had no explosives inside. The hijacking failed and Kay was eventually awarded five years of imprisonment on charge of ‘terrorism’, but the charity organisations concerned honoured their promise to deliver 20 tons of medicine and relief material to the Bangladeshi refugees, which was being immediately flown to India by a Malta Airlines flight.77 Kay served the prison terms while the widespread story of his imprisonment contributed to the raising of national and international public opinion in favour of Bangladesh’s independence.
However, while the French government had already started changing its policy of maintaining the mechanical neutrality towards the Bangladesh cause, and began to engage with India against Pakistan in late October, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s conversation with President Pompidou in the last week of the month also contributed to the changing of France’s policy. The joint declaration of the two leaders recognised on October 30 the ‘difficulties facing the Indian government’ over East Pakistan crisis and did ‘hope for a rapid political settlements of the problems which have arisen in East Pakistan’. Nevertheless, following the official breakout of war between India and Pakistan on December 3, France would vote against a Soviet resolution in the UN Security Council the next day, which sought a ‘political settlement’ of the Bangladesh cause before the withdrawal of troops of India and Pakistan from each other’s territories.
The Federal Republic of Germany, popularly known as West Germany those days, also remained almost mechanically ‘neutral’ in the political and military conflicts in the sub-continent over Bangladesh movement in 1971. The Foreign Affairs minister of West Germany, Walter Scheel, clearly told his Indian counterpart Swaran Singh in Bonn on June 11 that the Bangladesh crisis ‘is an internal matter of the Pakistanis’ while ‘a politically sound solution should be arrived at by all the participants in Pakistan’.78 The conscientious sections of the Germans, however, raised their voice against the mass murders of the people of East Bengal. Subsequently, in the face of growing public opinion in the German cities against Islamabad’s military brutalities in East Bengal, the German government, along with other member states of the Pakistan Aid-Consortium, resolved in June to stop disbursing any economic assistance to Islamabad, but it imposed arms embargo on both India and Pakistan in September. Even during Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s visit to West Germany in the second week of November 1971, Chancellor Willy Brandt did not go beyond saying anything but making an ‘urgent appeal to all those in positions of responsibility’ in the sub-continent on November 10 ‘to quell the dangers of military conflict and seek ways and means of reaching understanding, both internally and externally’.79 He did not even mention the name of East Bengal, or East Pakistan, let alone Bangladesh. Nevertheless, a social democrat who had fought against Nazi fascism and witnessed sufferings of the German refugees during the Second World War, Brandt displayed active sympathy towards the Bengali refugees in India.
Meanwhile, the official British stance on the Bangladesh movement influenced the ‘middle powers’ in Commonwealth, such as Australia, which had started assessing the ‘implications for Australia of the disintegration of Pakistan’ right after General Yahya had abruptly postponed the assembly session on March 1 and concluded in ‘two weeks’ of the West Pakistani military operations in the East beginning on March 25 that ‘Pakistan will split into two’. The Australian high commissioner in Islamabad, however, wrote to Canberra on April 8 that ‘an independent Bangladesh’ might not prove to be a useful thing to Australia’, for Bangladesh might turn into a ‘magnet for all dissident forces in the region and a dangerous catalyst for extremist forces in South East Asia’.80 The assessment continued to reflect on Australia’s policy towards the Bangladesh war.
The prime minister of Australia, William McMahon, who was for a ‘political solution’ to the East Pakistan crisis ‘based on the transfer of power to the elected representatives’, pleaded with Yahya for the release of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He, however, refused to be a party to any ‘Commonwealth mediation’, because, as Australian foreign affairs ministry argued on July 2,‘it would not be in Australia’s interest to get caught up in mediation efforts’, for in case of a failure of the ‘mediation efforts’, Australia’s ‘relations’ with both India and Pakistan ‘would suffer’. The Australian political establishment was not willing to risk its national interests for the Bangladesh cause. The foreign affairs minister of Australia, Nigel H Bowen, would announce its ‘neutrality’ a day after the breaking of the official Bangladesh war between Pakistan and India on December 3 and publicly state that ‘Australia had good relations with India and Pakistan’ and therefore ‘would not supply arms or warlike stores to either party’.81
The government of Canada, another ‘middle-power Commonwealth state’, took the path of silently pursuing Pakistan for a negotiated settlement of the ‘East Pakistan crisis’, obviously without risking Ottawa’s own political, economic and strategic interests, while the Canadian high commissioners posted to Delhi and Islamabad in 1971 were divided over the cause of Bangladesh.
Following the military action in East Bengal, the Canadian high commissioner in Islamabad, George Small, informed Ottawa that ‘Pakistan is dead’ and the birth of ‘an independent’ Bangladesh was inevitable, but he advised his government ‘to stand aloof from the sub-continental quarrels’. George Small’s counterpart in Delhi had, however, found the suggestion ‘immoral’ and observed that Ottawa should stood by the ‘suppressed majority’ of East Pakistan. But George Small insisted that Canada should safeguard its ‘genuine interest’, which lay in ‘the continuation of Canadian development aid to West Pakistan while holding in abeyance any aid to the east’, for that would secure the ‘preservation of Canada’s investment and influence in Pakistan’. The Canadian foreign minister, Mitchell Sharp, ‘concurred with this assessment’.82
However, Canada was constrained by its own history to support the cause of Bangladesh’s liberation struggle, particularly when the Pakistan authorities had projected the Bangladesh movement as a ‘secessionist’ attempt, sponsored by a foreign power, against the territorial integrity of Pakistan, a member state of the United Nations, which the fellow members cannot support under international law. The Canadian government of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had, after all, sent the Canadian army to its ‘secessionist province of Quebec’ to tackle the latter’s independence efforts led by the Front de Liberation du Quebec only the other day in October 1970. The Canadian government, therefore, maintained a ‘neutral public posture’ over Bangladesh’s liberation war while ‘privately’ advocating to Islamabad, albeit unsuccessfully, for ‘a political settlement’ of the contentious issue.
Nevertheless, the Bengali expatriates in Canada, organised under different banners such as Bangladesh Association, worked hard to sensitise the Canadian public opinion in favour of the Bangladesh movement, which produced positive results. The democratically-oriented sections of the Canadian media, some of its voluntary organisations, certain church groups and a large number of parliament members consistently voiced protests against genocidal military atrocities of the (West) Pakistan Army in the East and displayed sympathy towards Bangladesh’s struggle for independence. Besides, a three-member Canadian parliamentary group visited India and Bangladesh in 1971 and ‘their report’, as Abul Maal A Muhith rightly points out, ‘supported the cause of Bangladesh’.83 The concerted efforts by all these groups created a lot of impact on the Canadian public mind and subsequent public pressure played a substantive role behind Ottawa’s resolve to suspend economic aid and military supplies to Pakistan in July.
Meanwhile, Asian power like Japan, for most part, remained ‘ambivalent’ about Bangladesh’s liberation war. The Japanese government of Prime Minister Eisaku Sato resolved to remain ‘neutral’ about the Bangladesh movement and continue to maintain ‘normal’ relation with the Pakistan authorities for obvious strategic reasons: Japan was an important strategic partner of the United States in the Asia-Pacific region, which was, again, maintaining a military base in the country. Under the circumstance, it was, indeed, difficult for Japan to support the cause of Bangladesh when the government of the United States was actively supporting Islamabad. The country, on the other hand, had hardly any reason to be interested in any conflict in South Asia that would draw a rising China, not that friendly a neighbour, in making military intervention in the region, nor had it any reason to be enthusiastic about gratifying Pakistan, which was a key strategic ally of China.
To be continued.
Nurul Kabir is editor of New Age.
Notes and References
73 For the full text of Malraux’s ‘foreword’, see Sheelendra Kumar Singh and others (ed.), Bangladesh Documents (Henceforth Bangladesh Documents), Volume Two, Bangladesh edition, University Press Limited, 1999, Dhaka, pp 7-8
74 Srinath Raghavan, A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh, p 161
75 Bangladesh Documents, Volume Two, p 123–124
76 Ibid, p 124
77 For details, see Lt Col Quazi Sazzad Ali Zahir, Bir Pratik, “Salute to Jean Kay”, in Maj Gen Druv C Katoch and Lt Col Quazi Sazzad Ali Zahir (ed), Liberation: Bangladesh - 1971, Bloomsbury Publishing India Ltd, New Delhi, 2015, pp 32-35
78 Srinath Raghavan, 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh, p 159
79 For Chancellor Willy Brandt’s full statement, see Bangladesh Documents, Vol II, pp 172–173
80 Srinath Raghavan, A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh, p 170
81 Bangladesh Documents, Volume Two, p 212
82 Srinath Raghavan, 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh, p 172
83 Abul Maal A Muhith, History of Bangladesh: A Subcontinental Civilisation, University Press Limited, Dhaka, 2016, p 324
Want stories like this in your inbox?
Sign up to exclusive daily email
More Stories from Opinion