Meanwhile, Sisson and Rose claim, and that too referring to ‘several authoritative sources’, that Chou En-lai’s message also included a statement that ‘the question of East Pakistan should be settled according to the wishes of the People of East Pakistan’. But Islamabad conveniently published the text of the message ‘without that sentence’ while Delhi, although aware of the message, ‘carefully refrained from mentioning the missing sentence’, for the omission would justify ‘official Indian position that Beijing supported Pakistan’s repressive policies in East Pakistan’.192 Shibdash Ghosh, a founder of the Socialist Unity Centre of India, publicly claimed at a youth rally in Kolkata on July 11 that China had sent an official ‘protest note’ to India in June, complaining that ‘India is slandering against us that we are supporting the Pakistan regime against the freedom fighters of East Pakistan’.193
Meanwhile, KK Aziz, a reputed Pakistani historian, writes that earlier on April 9, the Chinese government requested Yahya Khan ‘to work through East Pakistan’s leaders towards a political settlement’.194 Besides, when the ‘actual war’ broke out between India and Pakistan over the Bangladesh movement in December 1971, China ‘took no action in practical terms’ to physically support the Pakistani politico-military establishments, ‘but continued her moral, diplomatic and political support to Pakistan’.195
The Soviet Union, on the other hand, did not support West Pakistan’s brutal military action against the people of the East, nor was it sympathetic towards Bangladesh’s armed resistance to achieve national independence at the initial stage. The Soviet leadership initially urged Yahya’s military junta to stop shedding blood in East Pakistan, but pleaded a political settlement of the East-West conflict within the framework of a united Pakistan. The Soviet President, Nikolai Viktorovich Podgorny (1903–1983), sent a mere ‘appeal’ to his Pakistani counterpart, Yahya Khan, on April 2 to ‘stop the bloodshed and repression against the population of East Pakistan’ and to take steps for the ‘complex problems that have arisen in Pakistan of late’ to ‘be solved politically, without the use of force’196
That Soviet Union’s rather initial support for General Yahya’s military regime got evident when, after the military crackdown in East Pakistan, Moscow ‘sent back’ their experts, who were ‘earlier withdrawn’, to West Pakistan.
The Soviet Union’s initial antipathy towards Bangladesh’s liberation war, on the other hand, was similar to that of the United States, which found a clear expression in the treatment of a Bangladesh appeal made on April 24, 1971 to the heads of state of some countries, including the United States of America and the Soviet Union, seeking recognition of the ‘sovereign independent People’s Republic of Bangladesh’. Washington found official acknowledgement of ‘receipt’ of the letter, signed jointly by Syed Nazrul Islam and Khandaker Mushtaque Ahmed, Acting President and Foreign Minister respectively of the Bangladesh government-in-exile, to be of ‘sensitive political implications’ and, therefore, ‘decided not to acknowledge its receipt, but to merely record it with the Records Services Division that routinely logs all communications received’.197 Moscow, on the other hand, ‘returned marked unaccepted the letter from the Bangladesh Acting President to the Soviet President seeking recognition of Bangladesh’.198
Besides, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union clearly told a leader of the pro-Moscow faction of the Communist Party of India (CPI) that the Soviets were not very eager to support the Bangladesh cause. As Rajeshwar Rao, leader of the CPI delegation attending the 24th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party held in Moscow between March 31 and April 10, 1971 sought permission for the East Pakistan delegation to make an official statement on the military massacre in East Pakistan to the communist gathering, Boris Ponomarev, the head of the International Department of the Communist Party of Soviet Union, did not endorse the idea. Ponomarev told Rao in clear terms that ‘although he had some sympathy for the Bengalis’ struggle, he was entirely not in favour of rushing to their aid’.199 The Soviets even refuse to help prepare copies of a statement on the East Bengal situation on the excuse that a particular ‘cyclostyling machine was out of order’. Not surprisingly, as Sisson and Rose point out, “Throughout 1971, the U.S.S.R continued to refer to ‘East Pakistan’ in its statements, refusing to follow the practice adopted by India in mid-1971 of using ‘East Bengal’.”200 Understandably, it was not for no reason that the first issue of the weekly Muktijuddha, published in Kolkata by the pro-Moscow Communist Party of Bangladesh in July 1971, introduced itself as the ‘mouthpiece of East Pakistan Communist Party’. The ‘East Pakistan’ was changed into ‘Bangladesh’ in the second issue of the weekly, but that took place in the face of ‘angry reaction’ from the Awami League quarters.201 The Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev (1906–1982) did not find ‘an element of national liberation’ in the Bangladesh struggle until the end of September 1971.202
The Soviets, however, had initially found their own strategic reasons to remain unmoved by, if not opposed to, Bangladesh’s liberation war, for they were aware of the fact that the pro-Peking leftists were very active in the struggle for ‘national self-expression’ of the people of East Bengal for many years and, therefore, ‘was apprehensive’ that they ‘might snatch’ the liberation war process and, thus, an independent Bangladesh might eventually remain under the influence of China — an ideological enemy of the Soviet Union at the time.
Moreover, side by side with maintaining close ties with China, the military rulers of Pakistan had started developing a better relation with the Soviet Union in the mid-1960s, particularly since the United States had imposed an ‘arms embargo’ equally on India and Pakistan, despite the latter being a member of more than one pro-American military alliance, during its war with India in September 1965. Then, again, following a Pakistani request to resume military assistance being turned down by the US in April 1967, Pakistan’s military regime of General Ayub Khan resolved, as Altaf Gauhar, the Information Secretary of the government of General Ayub Khan, writes, ‘to look toward the Soviet Union for military aid and to expand Pakistan’s relations with China’.203 In order to secure Soviet military assistance, President Ayub Khan resolved in 1967 to terminate a military agreement signed with the United States in 1959 for maintaining an American military base in Badaber of Pakistan to conduct regular ‘electronic surveillance of strategic Soviet locations’, which was a major source of Moscow’s distrust in Pakistan. Pakistan served the United States with the notice of terminating the agreement, obviously ‘to the great disappointment’ of the latter in April 1968, which was due to expire in 1969 and supposed to ‘stand automatically renewed unless notice of termination was given twelve months in advance’.204 Besides, in order ‘to avoid any further misunderstanding’ with the Soviet Union, General Ayub Khan, as Altaf Gauhar writes, also ‘confided to the Soviet leaders’ that Pakistan would cooperate with China to have ‘an all-weather road’ constructed, linking Chinese Sinkiang with Kashmir on the Pakistan side.
The developments marked a significant improvement in Islamabad’s relations with Moscow. Subsequently, the military regime of General Yahya Khan was enjoying a comfortable relation with Soviet leadership when Bangladesh crisis erupted in the sub-continent. Not surprisingly, although ‘Moscow informed New Delhi in April 1970 that Soviet military aid to Pakistan was being suspended’, Indian politician Jaswant Singh still asserts, ‘in fact some arms shipment to Pakistan from the Soviet continued through 1970 and into 1971’.205
Under such a friendly relation with Pakistan in the early 1971, the Soviet Union initially wanted a peaceful settlement of the East Pakistan crisis by the West Pakistan authorities by way of transferring power to the majority party, Awami League in the present case, which was also communicated to Yahya Khan by Soviet President Nikolai Podgorny during an Iran-brokered meeting between the two in the ‘summer of 1971’. In this regard, Mohammad Yunus, a senior official of Pakistan’s ministry of foreign affairs in the 1970s, writes that the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, while celebrating the 2,500th anniversary of Iranian monarchy with foreign heads of state in the plains of Shiraz in the summer of 1971, ‘had prevailed on Nikolai Podgorny, the Soviet head of state, to call on Yahya to forge an understanding between the two about the prevailing situation in East Pakistan’. The Shah’s interest was to avert the possible danger for Iran and Pakistan in case of the Soviet Union breaching in South Asia, while the Soviet’s interest was to ‘pre-empt China’ to enter into a South Asian affair. But Yahya visibly disliked the Soviet suggestion for a political solution and the meeting ended without any consensus.
Following the abortive meeting between Podgorny and Yahya in the latter’s tent, “Yahya had cut short his visit to Iran and left without even saying good-bye to the Shah. That Yahya was in rage was beyond doubt because he had proceeded immediately after the meeting with Podgorny to the parked special aircraft that had brought Yahya to Iran. Yahya had to wait for several hours until it could be prepared to fly along with his entourage who had to be immediately called back from wherever they were.”206 Yunus believes, ‘Podgorny told Yahya that power should be handed over to [Sheikh] Mujibur Rahman’. In the backdrop of his catalytic role behind the emerging US-China rapprochement, General Yahya Khan must have been too optimistic about Sino-American supports for his regime to militarily address the Bangladesh issue.
Meanwhile, the White House and the State Department of the United States got sharply divided in June over the US policy to be pursued on the Bangladesh cause, which continued to exist until the country was liberated on December 16, 1971. Kissinger told Kenneth Keating, US ambassador to India, on June 3, “East Pakistan would eventually become independent’ while the White House was to ‘give the facts time to assert themselves’.207 Nixon-Kissinger duo was for helping Pakistan vis-à-vis India. Evidently, Kissinger and the likes did not care about another fact that the innocent lives would continue to be lost in East Bengal in the hands of Yahya’s killer regime with the passage of every day. But a conscientious section of the US citizens did.
In solidarity with the people of East Bengal, the rationally thinking sections of American people had undertaken many kinds of activism, ranging from lobbying the senators, posting advertisements in newspapers, holding concerts for helping the Bengali refugees in India, staging demonstrations in front of the White House and the United Nations to the blockading of arms-carrying [West] Pakistani ships at the American ports and raising funds for purchasing weapons for the Freedom Fighters of Bangladesh, et cetera. Many such political activisms hit the headlines of the global media, contributing to the mobilisation of international public opinion against Yahya’s military junta and its patrons, particularly the government of the United States — the ‘raiding’ of the Padma, a Pakistani ship picking up military cargoes at the Baltimore port in Maryland on July 14, 1971 being an extraordinary one.
The Movement for a New Society, a Philadelphia-based group of peace and justice activists, led by Richard K Tailor, came to know in the first week of July 1971 that West Pakistani ships were secretly picking up military cargoes in American ports and that one such ship, the Padma, was en route to Baltimore to load US military goods the next week. Upset about the fact that American weapons were killing innocent East Pakistanis, the MNS, together with another Philadelphia-based group, Friends of East Bengal, comprising some Bengalis and Americans, resolved on July 7 to actively put up non-violent resistance against the loading up of weapons at Baltimore port. They chalked up an elaborate programme, a really unique one, to do the job: raiding the Pakistani ship with some small boats — canoes and kayaks — and paddle them in front of the ship to prevent it from anchoring at the port.
They knew well that a few little boats would not be able to stop a big ocean-going freighter, but they also knew well that the exercise would serve a few politically significant purposes — shaming the US government for providing a killer military junta with arms and ammunition to massacre East Pakistanis striving for freedom and justice and attracting media attention about the fact that the US people do not support their government policy in question and, thus, mobilising global public opinion in favour of East Bengal’s legitimate struggle for independence.
To be continued.
Nurul Kabir is editor of New Age
Notes and References
192 Richard Sisson and Leo E Rose, War and Secession: Pakistan, India and the Creation of Bangladesh, pp 203–204.
193 Shibdash Ghosh, Bangladesher Muktijuddha Prasange, SUCI, Kolkata, September 1971. Also see https://www.marxists.org/archive/shibdas-ghosh/1971/04/24.htm , accessed on May 8, 2018)
194 KK Aziz, World Powers and the 1971 Breakup of Pakistan, p 275
195 Ibid, p 276
196 See the text of ‘Podgorny’s Message to Yahya Khan’, in GP Deshpande, “Soviet and Chinese Stakes”, in Mohammad Ayoob and others, Bangla Desh: A Struggle for Nationhood, Vikas Publications, Delhi, 1971, pp 128–129
197 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 160
198 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 91
199 Boris Ponomarev is cited in Srinath Raghavan, 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh, p 118
200 Richard Sisson and Leo E Rose, War and Secession: Pakistan, India and the Creation of Bangladesh, p 241
201 Belal Muhammad, Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra, Second reprint, Fourth edition, Anupam Prokashni, Dhaka, 2012, pp. 157-158. While the pro-Moscow Communist Party in question actively fought for Bangladesh’s liberation from the beginning of the war, it officially changed its name after the country was liberated in December 1971
202 DP Dhar revealed to Muyeedul Hassan that Brezhnev, while talking about the Bangladesh issue with Indira Gandhi in Moscow, observed as late as September 28 that ‘there is an element of national liberation present in the situation’. See Muyeedul Hassan, Muldhara: ’71, Footnote number 117, p 111
203 Altaf Gauhar, Ayub Khan: Pakistan’s First Military Ruler, p 418
205 Jaswant Singh, India at Risk: Mistakes, Misconceptions and Misadventures of Security Policy, Rupa Publications, New Delhi, 2013, p 109
206 Mohammad Yunus, Bhutto and the Breakup of Pakistan, Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2011, pp 13–14
207 Henry Kissinger, White House Years, p 858
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