Liberation War of Bangladesh: Actions, reactions and inactions of foreign powers – X

by Nurul Kabir | Published: 00:05, Jul 19,2018 | Updated: 14:53, Aug 13,2018


The government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike also used the Indian ‘assistance in overcoming the violent JVP agitation’ against her government. Rohan Gunaratna, a Sri Lankan researcher, writes: “The request for assistance from India reached Delhi on April 13. Promtly the Indians despatched a large quantity of small arms and ammunitions and six helicopters with crew. The helicopters flew combat missions. 150 Gurkha soldiers [of India] guarded the Katunayeke International Airport while four Indian naval frigates with some 2500 personnel threw a protective cordon round the island and patrolled the Sri Lankan shores.151 This was news India’s turn to ask for Lanka’s reciprocity. Hence, the Indian foreign minister Swaran Singh reminded Prime Minister Bandaranaike of Indian help during the former’s visit to Colombo ‘late in August’ and requested her to stop providing Islamabad with the transit facilities to transport troops and military equipment to Dhaka. JN Dixit writes that ‘Bandaranaike was not very responsive initially’, but eventually she was, particularly after Swaran Singh had told her that in case of her non-cooperation, ‘India might be compelled to take interceptive action to prevent Pakistani defence supplies flights from landing at the Kahunaike airport in Colombo’.152

Earlier, a famous Buddhist monk from the Chitttagong, Acharya Jyotipal Mohathero, paid a five-day visit to Colombo between August 7 and 12 to plead Bangladesh’s cause with Sri Lanka’s monks, politicians and intellectuals, when he explained to a good number of well-meaning politicians, intellectuals and rights defenders about the atrocities that the West Pakistan Army was carrying out against the unarmed people in the East. He also appealed to the Sri Lankan political authorities to stop allowing the West Pakistan’s military aircraft to land in the Colombo airport en route to the East with favourable responses from Lanka.153 Meanwhile, a group of Sri Lankan human rights defenders got mobilized under the ‘Ceylon Committee for Human Rights in East Bengal’ and communicated to the Lankan public about the human rights abuses committed by the Army. Thus, a significant section of the Sri Lankan people and the media gradually started mounting pressure on the Bandaranaike administration to support the cause of Bangladesh.

Under the circumstances, the government of Sri Lanka finally resolved in the last week of October to stop allowing Pakistan authorities its ‘air and sea ports’ for the transit of ‘military hardware and personnel’ to East Pakistan.154

KK Aziz, however, writes that ‘Ceylon, or Sri Lanka as it is now, supported Pakistan throughout the crisis’.155 Rohan Gunaratna, a well-known Sri Lankan researcher, also writes in 1993 that ‘Sri Lankan authorities allowed the Pakistani warships to take fuel from Colombo during Indo-Pak war in December 1971 despite strong opposition from India’.156

The fact remains the neighbouring states in question had a common geopolitical concern behind their opposition to the dismembering of Pakistan, for they thought a weaker Pakistan would further strengthen Indian domination in the region, which, in turn, would strengthen Delhi’s hegemonic tendencies vis-à-vis its smaller neighbours. It was, therefore, more of the future concern for their own ‘national interests’ than antipathy to the cause of Bangladesh that generally persuaded most countries of South Asia to support, explicitly or implicitly, the government Pakistan in preserving the country’s unity in 1971.

Burma, now Myanmar, which is a South East Asian country sharing borders with Bangladesh, India and China, also did not support Bangladesh’s war of liberation although Burma would be the fifth country to recognise Bangladesh as a sovereign state after Pakistan’s defeat on the Bangladesh soil on December 16, 1971. It was, again, the realpolitik on part of the Burmese government that kept it from being sympathetic towards Bangladesh’s cause, for Burma those days had warm diplomatic and strategic relations with the United States and China — two important states that were against dismemberment of Pakistan.

Nurul Islam, a researcher on the history of liberation war in Cox’s Bazar, writes that a group of Awami League leader of the region, such as Ataur Rahman Kaiser, Advocate Noor Ahmed and Dr BM Fayezur Rahman, crossed over to Burma on April 20, 1971 with a view to seeking Burmese assistance for Bangladesh’s war of liberation. But the Burmese authorities refused to provide any assistance to that effect. Islam writes: “A Burmese government official at Balibazar clearly told the Bengali delegation that they could provide shelter to the Bengalis, but would neither arrange for their foods nor would allow any activities from within Burma against the Pakistan forces. Moreover, the Burmese official also told the League leaders that the Burmese authorities would have nothing to do with protecting the refugees in case the Pakistan forces launch any attack on them [in Burmese territories].”157 Utterly disappointed, the League leaders concerned returned to Bangladesh and some of them later managed to cross over to India while the rest engaged themselves with locally developed groups of freedom fighters.158 Nevertheless, the Burmese provided shelters for some 50,000 Bangladeshis,159 escaping, however, its own moral responsibility under certain international laws and covenants that obligate the host country to provide food and medical facilities to the foreign refugees.

The Arakanese Muslims, a religious minority community in the Buddhist-majority Burma, like the Muslims of Hindu-majority India, also did not like the Bengali Muslims to fight for independence from the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. In their political imagination, Pakistan was the ultimate destination for the Muslims of the region in case of dangers coming from the majority non-Muslim population of their respective countries! Some groups of Arakanese Muslim ‘Mujahids’ crossed over to Bangladesh to join the Razakars to fight against the Bengali Freedom Fighters160 while ‘the Imams of the mosques in the Arakan state of Burma used to pray for the protection of Pakistan’.161

That the Burmese regime was rather sympathetic towards Islamabad got evident in the friendly gesture that it displayed to a group of West Pakistani military officers, including Major General Rahim Khan, which was desperate to leave Dhaka on the eve of final defeat on December 16, 1971. The Burmese authorities had allowed three escaping helicopters of Pakistan’s Army Aviation Squadron — two ‘in the small hours of 16 December’ and the third ‘in the broad day light’ — to land safely in Burma and from there to fly back to Rawalpindi the same evening.162 Earlier, on December 9, following the Indian bombings of the runways of Tejgaon and Kurmitolta airports in Dhaka, as many as 12 Pakistani pilots were evacuated from there to Burma, who were then sent back to Pakistan by the Burmese authorities.163 Besides, ‘a total of 10 [naval] officers and 111 CPOs/sailors [of the Pakistan Navy] escaped from Chittagong in the early hours of 17th December and arrived in Burma in patrol crafts, launches and country crafts’,164 whom the Burmese authorities safely repatriated to Pakistan.

The superpower polarisation
THE global superpowers of the Cold-War period, the United States and the Soviet Union, and the emerging Asian power of the time, People’s Republic of China, got seriously involved in the Bangladesh war and they took sides and fought diplomatic battles against each other, again, in accordance with their respective strategic interests in the South Asian region and beyond.

In the wake of the deepening post-election crisis in Pakistan over the transfer of power, the United States started rightly sensing that Pakistan might no longer continue to remain one country. The US ambassador in Pakistan, Josheph Farland, in a ‘policy appraisal’ sent to Washington as early as February 2, 1971 wrote that ‘Pakistan is now in a period of transition’ and apprehended that the country might ‘split into two independent wings, East and West’ and informed his bosses in Washington that they ‘are preparing a contingency study regarding the emergence of independent East and West Pakistan.165 Then on March 15, Joseph J. Sisco, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, sent a confidential memorandum to the US Secretary of State, William P. Rogers, analysing that ‘East Pakistan will be engulfed in a struggle between the military and Bengali nationalists, the outcome of which can only be eventual independence of Bengal and the breaking of all ties with West Pakistan’.166 The next day, on February 16, the National Security Council of the United States at a meeting in Washington observed that an independence movement was gaining momentum in East Pakistan. Since then, the US policymakers concerned started analysing its policy options. Subsequently, following a meeting of the United States’ National Security Council, Henry Kissinger, National Security adviser to US president, Richard Nixon, wrote to the latter on February 22 that the ‘internal situation in Pakistan’ was ‘highly uncertain’ and that ‘we might before long be faced with an internal crisis in Pakistan that could over time have far-reaching implications for our interests in South Asia’. Then, Kissinger observed: “A realistic assessment would seem to recognize that there is little material left in the fabric of the unity of Pakistan. This would argue for adjusting our posture, but against that is the fact that the division of Pakistan would not serve US interests.”167

Then, at a meeting with the Senior Review Group on March 6, Kissinger reached ‘consensus’ with members of the Senior Review Group that ‘Pakistan would not be able to hold the East by force’.168 Finally, the day after the [West] Pakistan army launched its crackdown in the East on March 25, Kissinger found the military action to be a ‘reckless step’, and observed that the ‘civil war’ would ‘lead to’ East Pakistan’s ‘independence fairly quickly’. Kissinger analysed: “There was no likelihood that a small military force [comprising some 40,000 troops] owing loyalty to the one wing of the country could indefinitely hold down a population of 75 million of the other. Once indigenous Bengali support for a united Pakistan evaporated, the integrity of Pakistan was finished. An independent Bengali state was certain to emerge, even without Indian intervention. The only question was how the change would come about.”169

The Nixon-Kissinger duo, which was known as ‘Nixinger’ those days for their unusual unanimity of views on almost everything on earth, found it important for the United State’s strategic interests in South Asia as well as West Asia to maintain a friendly relation with Pakistan, particularly given the latter’s membership in the pro-American military alliance, Central Treaty Organisation, in West Asia, on the one hand, and, on the other, America’s strained relation with Arab states following the Arab-Israel war in 1967 in which the United States visibly supported Israel vis-à-vis the Arab Muslim countries.

The United States, therefore, officially ‘announced’ in the second week of April that ‘the conflict in East Pakistan’ was ‘an internal affair’ of Pakistan. Professors Richard Sisson and Leo E Rose, two American researchers of the Bangladesh war, write: “Washington’s public position from 25 March and throughout 1971 was that the conflict in East Pakistan was an internal affair in which direct intervention by foreign powers should be avoided. The stated objectives of the United States were, (1) to prevent another Indo-Pakistan war; (2) to provide the humanitarian relief required in East Pakistan; and (3) to encourage a political settlement of the Pakistani civil war — preferably one that would maintain at least the façade of a united Pakistan. If that were impossible, then the United States wanted to help arrange a peaceful separation of the country into two sovereign states.”170

The timing of the Bangladesh crisis, incidentally, coincided with that of the American clandestine efforts for rapprochement with China, which was being faithfully mediated by [West] Pakistan, more particularly by President Yahya Khan — the General who was officially presiding over the genocidal military campaign in East Pakistan. The United States, particularly the Nixon-Kissinger duo, was eager for the ‘normalisation’ of the hitherto strained relation with China, for it would not only help the United States to have Peking on its side against the Soviet Union in those days of the Cold-War era, but would also help the United States to come out of its embarrassing Vietnam War. The White House believed, as Kissinger would admit later, ‘the hostility between China and the Soviet Union served our purposes best if we maintained closer relations with each side than they did with each other’.171 Moreover, Nixon thought that it would not be wise for the capitalist west to leave the Chinese ‘isolated in their rage’, rather ‘the west should try to get to know China, to have contacts, and to penetrate it’. Nixon got an additional support to his thoughts about China in 1969 from French President Charles de Gaulle (1890–1970), who told him, “It would be better for you to recognize China before you are obliged to do so by the growth of China.”172 Nixon made up his mind to ‘penetrate’ China.

But the Americans ‘had no contact of any sort with the Chinese leadership’ those days to ‘establish a confidential means of communication, unencumbered by vested bureaucratic interests and traditional liturgy, which could be trusted by both sides’.173 Approached by President Nixon to mediate, General Yahya had happily accepted the assignment, subtly contacted Peking and received positive signals from the Chinese leadership.
To be continued.

Nurul Kabir is editor of New Age.

Notes and References
151 Rohan Gunaratna, A Lost Revolution?:The Inside Story of the JVP, Institute of Fundamental Studies, Kandy, Sri Lanka, 1990, p. 108
152 JN Dixit, Liberation and Beyond: Indo-Bangladesh Relations, pp 54–55
153 Pranab Kumar Barua, Muktijuddhe Bangali Boudhya Sampradai, Bangla Academy, Dhaka, 1988, pp. 64-65
154 Advocate Muhammad Nurul Quadir, Independence of Bangladesh in 266 Days: History and Documentary Evidence, Mukta Publishers, Dhaka, 2004, p 305
155 KK Aziz, World Powers and the 1971 Breakup of Pakistan, p 297
156 Rohan Gunaratna, Indian Intervention in Sri Lanka: The Role of Indian Intellegence Agencies, South Asian Network on Conflict Research, Colombo, 1993. For the present work, Rohan Gunaratna has been quoted from a Bangla translation of his book published in Bangladesh. See Rohan Gunaratna, Srilankai Bharatiya Agrasan, (Trans.) Lieutenant Colonel (Retd) Mohammad Abdul Latif, Ahmad Publishing House, Dhaka, 1996, p. 5
157 Muhammad Nurul Islam, Cox’s Bazare Muktijuddha, Shabdarup, Dhaka, 2017, p 117
158 Of the Bangladeshi refugees in Burma, some members of the East Bengal Regiment, led by Habilder Abdus Sobhan, secretly provided armed training for a group of students, peasants and workers in the deep Arakan forest in July who had entered Bangladesh to fight the enemy forces at the end of the month. The group of freedom fighters, which finally set up its camps in the deep forest of the hilly Lama thana, fought a battle against the enemy forces on November 25, resulting in 17 casualties on the Pakistani side and martyrdom of a freedom fighter. See Muhammad Nurul Islam, Cox’s Bazare Muktijuddha, Shabdarup, Dhaka, 2017, p 133
159 That some 50,000 Bangladeshis took refuge in Burma got evident from a press statement of Syed Nazrul Islam, the acting president of the Bangladesh’s government-in-exile, issued in June 1971, thanking the government of Burma for providing shelters for 50,000 people from Bangladesh), a significant section of which was Buddhists mostly from Cox’s Bazar and its adjacent areas who fled their homeland in the face of Pakistan Army’s brutal atrocities in the bordering Arakan state of Burma. The Burmese authorities, however, ‘denied’ the helpless Bangladeshis ‘any official status of refugees.’ See Muhammad Nurul Islam, Cox’s Bazare Muktijuddha, p 125
160 Ibid, p 118
161 Ibid, p 119
162 Junaid Ahmad, Creation of Bangladesh: Myths Exploded, AJA Publishers, Karachi, 2016, p 179; Siddiq Salik, Witness to Surrender, p 209
163 The Report of the Hamoodur Rehman Commission of the Inquiry into the 1971 War, Vanguard, Lahore, Undated, p 237
164 Ibid, p 242
165 Roedad Khan (ed.), The American Papers: Secret and Confidential India-Pakistan-Bangladesh Documents, 1965-1973, University Press Limited, Dhaka, 1999, p. 467
166 Ibid., p. 522
167 Memorandum from Dr Kissinger for President Nixon, 22 February 1971, in FS Aijazuddin (ed.), The White House and Pakistan: Secret Declassified Documents, 1969–1974, Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2002, pp 231–232
168 Henry Kissinger, White House Years, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, New York, 2011 [1979], pp 851–852
169 Ibid, pp 852–853
170 Richard Sisson and Leo E Rose, War and Secession: Pakistan, India and the Creation of Bangladesh, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1990, p 258
171 Henry Kissinger, White House Years, p 712
172 De Gaulle is cited in Richard Nixon, The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, Touchstone Edition, Simon & Schuster Inc, New York, 1990, p 374
173 Henry Kissinger, White House Years, p 725, 698
The Nixon-Kissinger duo had earlier secretly tried Romanian and French channels for establishing ‘clandestine’ contact with Peking, but without any effective results. Under the circumstance, during a short visit to Pakistan on August 1, 1969, Nixon ‘encouraged’ Yahya Khan, still C-in-C of the Pakistan Army who had ‘contact with Chinese Premier’ Chou En-lai, ‘to act as an intermediary on his behalf’. See FS Aizajuddin, From A Head, Through A Head, To A Head: The Secret Channel between the US and China through Pakistan, Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2000, p 3

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