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

by Nurul Kabir | Updated at 02:54pm on August 13, 2018

Earlier, during his visit to New York between May 26 and 28, Justice Abu Sayed Chowdhury, special envoy of Bangladesh’s government-in-exile, extensively lobbied ambassadors and high commissioners of Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia in the United States101 to provide the diplomats concerned with a clear understanding of the legitimate reasons that forced the people of Bangladesh to wage their liberation war against the Pakistan Army and urged them to pursue their respective governments to support the Bangladesh cause.
Moreover, in efforts to remove any misgiving generated out of Pakistani propaganda that the Bangladesh movement was an anti-Islamic phenomenon, the Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra, the famous clandestine radio centre of the Bangladesh authorities during the war, used to begin its broadcasting session every morning by recitation from the Quran and air a seven-minute ‘religious talk’, styled as ‘In the eyes of Islam’ six days a week.102 Again, in order to give the political message that the Bangladesh movement did not have any prejudice against Urdu as such, the Betar Kendra not only ran a five-minute news session in the Urdu language everyday, but also broadcast a 15-minute Urdu programme styled as ‘writing in blood’ twice a week.103 The Urdu-programmes were also meant for persuading Indian Muslims to support Bangladesh’s Liberation efforts, for a significantly large section of the Indian Muslims, particularly the Urdu-speaking Muslims, was opposed to the break-up of Pakistan. Besides, the Betar Kendra broadcasted many a programme highlighting the Islamic principles of equality as a driving force of Bangladesh’s liberation war on the one hand and critically questioning the Islamic values of the (West) Pakistan authorities killing the innocent Muslims of the East on the other.
The Bangladeshi efforts were of no avail. The OIC rather adopted a unanimous resolution on the opening day of its conference on June 25, ‘supporting Pakistan’s legitimate efforts to protect national solidarity and territorial integrity’. Moreover, in the joint communiqué released on the concluding day of the conference, on July 1, the 22-nation body of ‘Muslim’ states ‘strongly condemned the foreign powers interfering with the internal affairs of Pakistan’.104
While Saudi-sponsored pan-Islamism played an important role behind the supports of the ‘Muslim’ states for Pakistan, there were other political and strategic interests of those states that influenced them to take side with the Pakistan authorities.
The Arab-Israel war in October 1967 and the humiliating military defeat of the Arab states to Israel drew Pakistan closer to the Muslim states of the Arab region. Pakistan had expressed all-out support for and sympathy towards the Muslim states concerned in the war against the Zionist Israel. The Pakistani gesture earned it so much of confidence of the Arab Muslim states that after the defeat in the war, a large number of them, particularly Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, Iraq and Iran, entrusted the Pakistan Army with the responsibility of modernising as well as training their respective armies. Delwar Hossain points out that ‘some 4,000 officers and soldiers of the Pakistani Army and Air Force were there in Saudi Arabia to train Saudi Army in 1971’.105
Moreover, the contemporary strategic global polarisation of the states, irrespective of the Bangladesh war, helped Pakistan authorities find many uncritical friends among the powerful countries of the world.
Pakistan, particularly its army, on the other hand, developed a very good relation with the United States by the late 1960s. Pakistani historian KK Aziz writes: “The Pakistan military establishment was not only a protégé and adopted child of the United States but had been brought up and blessed by the Americans. The most respectable and influential voices in the United States have long sung the praises of military rule and prescribed it as the ideal solution of the difficulties and problems of the Third World countries in general and Pakistan in particular.”106 The United States, not surprisingly, finally approached Pakistan’s top military officer, General Yahya Khan, to mediate the process of a US-China rapprochement that would radically change the Cold-War era political polarisations of the states for the decades to come.
China and Pakistan had already been on friendly strategic terms, given their unfriendly relations with bordering India, with whom both the states fought wars — China in 1962 and Pakistan in 1965. Moreover, Pakistan and China had, meanwhile, proved their unfailing mutual friendship — China by openly supporting Pakistan in the latter’s war against India and Pakistan by influencing the Arab and African ‘Muslim’ states to ‘recognise’ China — a step that the Muslim states had not taken for 22 years since the Chinese Communist Party seized power in 1949.
The ‘Muslim’ states in question, as noted earlier, had developed friendly political relations with, and some military dependency on, Pakistan after the Arab-Israel war in October 1967 while by 1971 Pakistan’s relations with those ‘Muslim’ states were founded on firm footings based on strategic interests and mutual trust. Under the circumstance, this was not a mere coincidence that a good number of the ‘Muslim’ states, such as Kuwait, Turkey, Iran, Lebanon and Cyprus, recognised China in 1971 and some other Muslim states such as Egypt, Syria, Iraq and South Yemen that did not yet officially recognise China but established diplomatic relations with the latter in 1971. Again, it was also not a coincidence that following Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to China in July 1971, the People’s Republic of China earned the UN membership, along with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, in October the same year, which was also supported by many Arab ‘Muslim’ states that had been opposing Chinese membership since 1949.
Evidently, by the time Bangladesh’s liberation war broke out in March 1971, the process of international alignment of the United States, China, Pakistan and most ‘Muslim’ states of West Asia and Africa was almost completed. Later, India’s active supports for the Bangladesh movement since April and the defence treaty signed with the Soviet Union in August would solidify the pro-Pakistan alignment of the said countries, resulting in their unfair opposition to Bangladesh’s liberation war efforts.
Besides, the perpetual propaganda by the pro-Islamic political parties like Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan and Nezam-e-Islami Pakistan, particularly including the East Pakistan chapters of the parties, that India was out to dismember Pakistan to weaken the ‘Muslim ummah’ in the sub-continent also influenced other ‘Muslim’ states to oppose Bangladesh’s liberation war. On top of this all, authoritarian governments of the Arab and African Muslim states must have found it politically suicidal to support, and thus encourage, the Bangladesh movement that arose out of the democratic aspirations of a people at large.
The result was obvious: the ‘Muslim’ world in question displayed enormous political sympathy towards, and diplomatic support for, General Yahya’s military regime. KK Aziz, however, observes that ‘almost the entire Muslim world supported Pakistan’s case during the crisis; but this support was limited to speeches and statements’.107
Nevertheless, of the Muslim world, some states such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Libya and their government-controlled press proactively supported Pakistan authorities in 1971.
The government of Saudi Arabia supported General Yahya Khan’s repressive military regime and the latter’s atrocious military campaign against the people of East Bengal from the beginning to the end. The Saudi media toed the government line without any hesitation; they did not criticise (West) Pakistan Army’s military atrocities in the East, even though some West Pakistani journalists criticised the military massacre, braving punishments by the military tribunals.108
Four days after the West Pakistan Army had unleashed its genocidal campaign in the East, Al Bilad, a Saudi newspaper, tried to justify General Yahya’s military actions against the Bengalis and banning of the Awami League — the prime political party of the Bengalis those days. The newspaper wrote on March 29 that ‘the situation in East Pakistan had left no alternative to the Government of Pakistan but to dissolve the Awami League and take other necessary steps’.109
The government of Saudi Arabia had supported Yahya’s brutal regime so desperately that the country’s representative at the United Nations, Jameel Baroody, joined his Pakistani counterpart, Aga Shahi, at the United Nations in disrupting Indian foreign minister Swaran Singh’s speech on a resolution in the UN General Assembly on September 27 that sought the ‘fulfilment of the aspirations of the people of East Pakistan’.110 Later, while addressing in the UN General Assembly on December 7, the Saudi foreign affairs minister said that ‘what is happening in Pakistan is strictly […] the affairs of the Pakistanis themselves, and therefore any outside interference in the internal affairs of Pakistan will surely constitute a violation of our [UN] Charter’.111
The Turkish government had been supportive of the Pakistan authorities throughout Bangladesh’s liberation war and a section of the Turkish media was very critical of India for the latter’s support for Bangladesh’s liberation efforts. The Zafer, a Turkish daily, wrote on May 5 that ‘while the government of Pakistan was engaged in the national talk of safeguarding the integrity of the country, India had taken concrete actions to harm Pakistan’. The Tasvir, another Turkish newspaper, rejected outright on September 29 Delhi’s allegation about the ‘exodus of Hindus and other minorities from East Pakistan’ to India.112
While paying a visit to Islamabad between November 28 and December 1, the Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister ‘explained’ to the government of Pakistan ‘the various diplomatic initiatives that Turkey had taken’ to help Pakistan maintain its territorial integrity. The same minister, while addressing the UN General Assembly on the Bangladesh issue on December 7, categorically expressed his government’s ‘earnest hope that friendly Pakistan, in its wisdom, will succeed in its endeavours to solve this internal problem’.113 Some Turkish newspapers such as Aksham, however, found it reasonable for the people of East Pakistan to fight for its ‘national independence’. The Aksham wrote on April 7 that a ‘colonialist’ relation kept East Pakistan bound with West Pakistan while there was ‘no similarity’ between the peoples of the two regions ‘without religion’, and that East Pakistanis were fighting against the ‘colonialist’ West for ‘national independence’.114
Libya also stood firmly by the military authorities of Pakistan in the name of upholding the latter’s ‘unity and territorial integrity’. Muammar al Qaddafi (1942–2011), the Chairman of the Libyan Arab Republic, termed the idea of Bangladesh’s ‘so-called liberation’ a meaningless proposition. Besides, he displayed bitter reaction to India’s involvement in Bangladesh’s efforts to get liberated from the neo-colonialist chains of Pakistan. Qaddafi, rather in violation of the established diplomatic norms of the day, sent a telegraphic message to Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi on October 18, critiquing India’s ‘interference’ with the internal affairs of Pakistan. Qaddafi’s telegraphic message read: “Whatever the situation in East Pakistan politically or socially, and whether we endorse it or not, there is no justification at all to occupy a country and divide it by force, because that is the sole responsibility of the Pakistan Government. In spite of the measures taken by the Pakistan Government and even the bloody consequences, there is no law in the world which permits others to interfere with force in order to rectify the internal situation of another country. The so-called liberation has no meaning at all.’115 Qaddafi also cautioned Indira Gandhi in the message that ‘India has taken a serious step which will affect herself as a precedent in future.’
The Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (1919–1980), in an interview with a Paris-based newspaper, Le Figaro, said on September 28, as was reproduced by the Karachi-based Dawn the next day, “Iran is 100 per cent behind Pakistan in East Bengal crisis. It is normal. We (Shah and Yahya) are very close personally and without trying to be racist our two people are of Aryan origin united by Islam.” An Iranian newspaper, The Tehran Journal accused Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on March 27 of ‘whipping up narrow nationalism’ in the ‘eastern wing’ of Pakistan and remarked that ‘no government, obliged to maintain the integrity of the nation, would tolerate this’.116
Iraq also stood for the territorial integrity of Pakistan. In a message to General Yahya Khan in late April, the president of Iraq, Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr (1914–1982), expressed his ‘complete understanding of the measures’ taken in East Pakistan ‘to safeguard the unity and territorial integrity of the country’. The Baghdad Observer, a state-controlled Iraqi daily, even justified the military massacre of the Bengalis by way of commenting on April 29 that ‘when all avenues of conciliation had been exhausted, naturally a tougher line had to be taken’.117
Meanwhile, Egypt, the African ‘Muslim’ state that signed a ‘peace and friendship treaty’ with the Soviet Union on May 27, 1971, did not display any enthusiastic support for Pakistan. It, rather, often expressed ‘sympathy towards Bangladesh’s liberation efforts’.118 In this regard, Robert V Jackson, a British politician, writes that despite President Anwar Sadaat’s professed support for ‘Pakistan’s integrity’, his government ‘continued to express sympathy towards its Indian partner in non-alignment and friendship with the Soviet Union’.119 KK Aziz points out that a senior editor of an Egyptian daily, Al Ahram, wrote in late April that it was ‘wrong to say’ that ‘the bloody incidents in Bengal were activated or even encouraged by India’.
Notably, there was no scopes of the Bengalis working in the authoritarian ‘Muslim’ states of West Asia to make any efforts to mobilize public opinion in favour of the Bangladesh cause in those societies.
The East Asian ‘Muslim’ states like Indonesia and Malaysia, particularly Indonesia, which hosted the first Afro-Asian conference of the non-alignment movement in 1955 and was all for a superpower-free Indian Ocean for the sake of its own national security, was opposed to any armed conflict between two South Asian countries that could attract either Soviet Union or the United States in the maritime zone in question.
The governments of both the countries, therefore, projected the ‘East Pakistan crisis’ to be an ‘internal affair’ of Pakistan and argued that no foreign country should interfere with the country’s internal matters. They, however, did not obstruct their opposition political camps, some sections of the intelligentsia and the media to support the just cause of the Bangladesh struggle.
To be continued.

Nurul Kabir is editor of New Age.

Notes and References
101 Abu Sayeed Chowdhury, Prabase Muktijuddher Dinguli, p 41
102 See the list of ‘fixed point programmes’ of the Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra in Belal Muhammad, Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra, Second reprint, Fourth edition, Anupam Prokashni, Dhaka, 2012, pp. 114, 118
103 Ibid., p.115
104 Abu Mohammad Delwar Hossain, Bangladesher Muktijuddha O Muslim Biswa, p 54
105 Ibid, p 52
106 KK Aziz, World Powers and the 1971 Breakup of Pakistan, p 102
107 Ibid, p 278
108 See Muntassir Mamoon, Sei Sab Pakistani, Fourth Print, University Press Limited, Dhaka, 2010 [1999],
pp 97, 151
109 Al Bilad is cited in KK Aziz, World Powers and the 1971 Breakup of Pakistan, p 279
110 JN Dixit, Liberation and Beyond: Indo-Bangladesh Relations, pp 72–73
111 The Saudi foreign affairs minister is cited in KK Aziz, World Powers and the 1971 Breakup of Pakistan, p 281
112 Both Zafer and Tasvir are cited in KK Aziz, World Powers and the 1971 Breakup of Pakistan, p 292
113 Ibid, pp 292–293
114 Afsan Chowdhury, Bangladesh: 1971, Volume-III, p 506
115 The text of Muammar al Qaddafi’s telegraphic message to Indira Gandhi is cited in KK Aziz, World Powers and the 1971 Breakup of Pakistan, p 289
116 The Tehran Journal is cited in KK Aziz, World Powers and the 1971 Breakup of Pakistan, p 285
117 Ibid, pp 286–287
118 Abu Mohammad Delwar Hossain, Bangladesher Muktijuddha O Muslim Biswa, p 96
119 Robert Jackson, South Asian Crisis, 1971: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Chatto & Windus, London, 1975, p 39