The symphony of our times

Dr Mizanur Rahman Shelley | Published: 00:05, Jul 23,2018


The beacon of hope

THE publication of the Subrahmanyam analysis and recommendations naturally created negative reaction in the Pakistani ruling circle. Pakistani rulers denounced it as a ploy to divide and diminish their country. To the Bengalis stranded in the western wing, the report appeared as a beacon of hope. We had our regular gatherings at the residences of slightly senior officers such as Abul Ahsan, then director in the foreign affairs ministry, or Sirajuddin, chief officer of Azad Kashmir affairs in the interior ministry. Abul Ahsan later became the foreign secretary of the liberated Bangladesh in 1990 and still later the first secretary general of SAARC. He was also ambassador of Bangladesh in the United States. In 1971 in Pakistan he was a bachelor and had the spacious deputy secretary’s residence all to himself. His partner ambassador Humayun Kabir was posted to the then East Pakistan along with Faruque Ahmed Choudhury, who also became foreign secretary of Bangladesh. Abul Ahsan’s place was frequently agog with food and drinks and assemblies of relatively junior Bengali officers. Among the regular members of such gatherings were Choudhury Mahmud Elahi, Rezaur Rahman and Badiuzzaman Khan of the central secretariat service and Md Shafiullah of the central information service. Slightly senior officers such as Sirajuddin and Barrister Harun-Ar-Rashid also joined these informal gatherings. The main subject of discussion was invariably the possible developments of the situation in the eastern wing. Bits and pieces of information of the Bengali guerrillas were enthusiastically discussed. This international situation also came to focus with emphasis on developments favourable to the cause of Bangladesh. Naturally India’s evolving attitudes and actions were brought to bold relief. The Subrahmanyam report gave us basis of robust hopes. Abul Ahsan who worked as director of the Indian desk in the ministry of foreign affairs analysed the situation with sound knowledge, great skills and cool composure. He said that from now on, India would have no practical choice but to support the cause of liberation of Bangladesh to the hilt. No wonder that we returned home recharged with refreshed hopes for a better future.
Nevertheless, there was trepidation in our minds about the adversity that would befall us if Pakistan was sundered in blood and fire leading to the sanguinary birth of Bangladesh.

Indian involvement and shifting international scenario
By the end of July 1971, the Indian authorities seems to have decided that while diplomatic efforts should continue, a definite contingency military plan should also be drawn up to free East Bengal of the Pakistani troops. The international political situation in the first half of July was not favourable to India, for throughout this time, it was under considerable international and United Nations pressure to accept the Pakistan government’s proposal that United Nations observers be stationed along the India-East Bengal border to promote an atmosphere conducive to the return of the East Bengali refugees. India deduced that the acceptance of such a proposal would mean that henceforth it would not be able to render covert military assistance to the East Bengali partisans without being internationally exposed.
The implementation of the proposal would bring about the end of the dominating Indian position of control and influence over East Bengal. Such a change without corresponding political concessions by Pakistan in the form of agreement to hand over power in East Bengal to the Awami League would be a serious setback to Indian ambitions. The postures of the UN Security Council and of the UN agencies concerned did not appear favourable to the Indian stand with regard to East Bengal. On July 15, 1971 came president Nixon’s announcement that he would visit China early in 1972 and that his security adviser, Dr Henry Kissinger, had clandestinely visited Peking and held discussions with the Chinese leaders there in July 9–10, 1971. Like the rest of the world, India was taken by surprise by this dramatic development.
It was perhaps more concerned that its ‘enemy’ Pakistan had an important role to play in the evolving Sino-US detente. Subsequent Indian governmental reaction to the proposal for a UN presence along the Indo-East Bengal border reflected India’s sense of isolation and uncertainty and displayed her determination not to surrender positions for no real return. India realised that she could agree to the proposal only at the cost of giving up its policy of covert military support and assistance to the East Bengali partisans. This could mean the virtual abandonment of the East Bengali cause — a course which any conceivable Indian government would be both unwilling and unable to adopt because of domestic as well as foreign policy considerations. Hence, on August 2, 1971, India resolutely opposed the proposal, stating: ‘The presence of the UN representatives would only provide a facade of action to divert world attention from the root cause of the problem… the continuation of military atrocities in East Pakistan and the absence of a political settlement acceptable to the people of Bangladesh and their already elected leaders.’ On August 3, 1971 the Indian foreign minister told the parliament that any attempt to revive the idea of UN observers along the India-East Bengal border would be an ‘unfriendly act’. India probably deduced that it could not continue indefinitely to withstand international pressure without agreeing to some kind of UN presence on its troubled eastern border unless it could secure some positive diplomatic and moral support from at least one great power. The unfolding of the Sino-US detente appeared to be undermining the very foundations of India’s international position at this critical juncture.
To be continued.

Dr Mizanur Rahman Shelley, founder chairman of the Centre for Development Research, Bangladesh and editor of the quarterly Asian Affairs, is a former teacher of political science at Dhaka University (1964-1967), former member of the erstwhile Civil Service of Pakistan (1967-1980) and former non-partisan technocrat cabinet minister of Bangladesh (1990). 

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