The dirty politics surrounding Bangladesh’s War of Liberation

I go regularly to Bangladesh, but I struggle to understand the country. One thing I’ve learnt is that the 1971 War of Liberation, as the Bangladeshis call it, is still hugely important. So reading The Blood Telegram by Gary J Bass has helped my understanding greatly. It’s primarily a book about the global diplomacy and double dealing that surrounded the conflict. An extremely well written book, it’s full of insights.

The war was precipitated by the Awami League, the main Bangladeshi party, winning almost every seat in what was then East Pakistan in a Pakistan general election in December 1970.  As the population of East Pakistan was bigger than that of West Pakistan the Awami League should have formed the government of the whole country, but this was completely unacceptable to Yayha Khan, the president of Pakistan. Those in West Pakistan, Urdu speakers, looked down on the Bengalis of East Pakistan.

Months of negotiation followed, but in March 1971 a brutal crackdown began. Sheik Mujib-ur-Rahman, the leader of the Awami League, was imprisoned, and the Pakistan army began killing Bengalis. They killed all the intellectuals they could find, and they singled out Hindus. But hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, were killed, including women and children. The Pakistani army also used systematic rape as a weapon of war. Over the next nine months as many as 10 million people fled East Pakistan for India, putting huge strain on refugee camps in West Bengal. This was genocide.

From the moment the killing began Archer Blood, the US consul in Dacca (as it was then), and his team sent back to the US detailed accounts of the killing. They expected that the US, the champions of democracy, would speak out against the killing. The opposite happened.

Richard Nixon was president of the US at the time, and Henry Kissinger his adviser was exercising huge power. Nixon, who was a foul mouthed brute and who liked few people, liked Yayha, whom Bass argues was little more than a moron—and an alcoholic. Nixon also disliked the Indians, strong supporters of the Bengalis of East Pakistan. He also hated (not too strong a word) Indira Gandhi (“That bitch”), the Indian prime minister. She felt the same about him.

Kissinger, who knew more about Metternich’s 19th century Europe than he did about South Asia, felt the same as Nixon but less passionately. Kissinger’s main concern was that Pakistan was the US’s main route to opening up China, his and Nixon’s coup that the world remembers when those in the US and Europe have largely forgotten the genocide in Bangladesh.

Nixon and Kissinger were not willing to sacrifice their chance of reaching  China for the sake of Bengalis, and they saw the whole conflict through the prism of the Cold War: India, the leader of the Non-Aligned Nations, they saw as pro-Russian, whereas Pakistan was on the side of the Americans.

So not only did Nixon and Kissinger turn a blind eye to what their own diplomats were telling them, they actively and illegally armed Pakistan. American arms were used to kill Bengalis. And when Blood and his staff in Dacca sent a telegram (the telegram of the title of the book) saying what was going on and opposing US policy they were not only ignored but punished. Blood was removed from Dacca in March, and his career faltered never to recover.

The Indian government, parliament, media, and people were united in being appalled by what was happening in East Bengal, and Pakistan was anyway a longstanding enemy. Almost from the beginning they recognised the need for an invasion to support the East Bengalis, but they need to wait until at least November to prepare, avoid the monsoon, and be sure that the Himalayas were blocked with snow to stop the Chinese becoming involved. But they did support the Mukti Bahinin, the freedom fighters as they are now known. While doing this the Indians  denied it.

On December 3, presumably knowing that the Indians planned to attack on December4, the Pakistanis struck at Indian airbases and started shelling the Indian lines. The war began, and the Indians supported by the Mukti Bahini raced towards Dacca, knowing that once they controlled it they controlled East Pakistan. The United Nations condemned the Indians, but the Russians used their veto in the Security Council to stop a call for a ceasefire. Nixon and Kissinger illegally supplied weapons to the Pakistanis through Jordan and Syria, tried to get the Chinese to move troops to the Indian border, and sent the world’s largest and nuclear powered aircraft carrier to the Bay of Bengal, something that left a deep scar in India. As well as the war in the East there were battles on the Western border between India and Pakistan, with some thinking that the Indians wanted to wipe Pakistan off the map but the Indians denying it.

On December 16 the Pakistanis surrendered, and Bangladesh was born. It began in a state of chaos with millions refugees in India, most of its intellectuals killed, and much of its infrastructure destroyed. Bangladesh has since made remarkable progress in education and health, but politics remain unstable with the country now being effectively a one party police state. The war still looms large.

Bass argues that Pakistan was deeply traumatised by the loss of East Pakistan, with an overfunded army, nuclear weapons, and political instability being consequences. Indira Gandhi was hugely popular after the victory in Bangladesh, perhaps giving her the hubris to later take emergency powers. The war probably also contributed to Indian’s decision to develop nuclear weapons.

In other words, the 1971 war, although largely forgotten in the US and Europe, remains fundamental in understanding South Asia.

5 thoughts on “The dirty politics surrounding Bangladesh’s War of Liberation

  1. Dear Richard – Thank you. In many ways, the partition of 1947 pretty much would have predicted the events of 1971. Imagine, not just dividing the sub-continent on the irrational basis of “religion” fracturing a large population of people who had evolved together, lived together, in a very syncretic culture, periodic familial religious differences aside, and that too creating a country on two sides of the sub-continent (West and East Pakistan) separated by India in the middle, and splitting the state of Bengal (with common language, culture, history) into two based on religion! You may not know but the National Anthems of India and Bangladesh was written by the same poet, Tagore.

    What is Pakistan today was very much the melting point of all the major faiths of South Asia, origins of Hinduism, major Buddhist civilization, Parsi, Sikh influences, then Islam of various schools – deep down that mixture and commonality is quite evident within Pakistan, as it is in India, just that the partition has created an unfortunate and toxic division. You should read W.H. Auden’s poem “Partition” to understand how dangerously & hastily it was done.

    Also, below is Indira Gandhi being interviewing just prior to the Bangladesh war.



  2. More from Venkat: My “universal theory” is that we can trace almost every one of the contemporary world problems (disputes, intra-country disparity, health differences, etc) pretty much to the odd 2 centuries of closed Western European expansionism. In 1800, the gap between the richest and poorest country was 1: 3 or 3.5 and now is 1:300 (roughly)……..hopefully, this will start closing over the next 50-100 years.


  3. From Zulfi:

    Dear Richard
    Painful reading this, but sadly while the genesis of the Bangladesh independence and related conflict is a lot more nuanced, the human suffering was indeed immense. I remember all of it first hand as I spent 6 months in what was then East Pakistan in 1968 as a young high school student on a Rotary Scholarship (see attached), and witnessed firsthand the enormous inequity that was the genesis of much of the 6 points agenda of the Awami League. We even met Shaikh Mujib and some of his close aides during our stay, and were also exposed to the varied views from the Jamaat i Islami. East Pakistan even then had higher literacy and political awareness than West Pakistan and much less feudal baggage, and are now certainly better off.

    In any event, the major player in the disaster that was to follow the 1971 elections was not Yahya Khan, but Zulfiqar Bhutto who was the one politician who refused to serve under Shaikh Mujib, and principally sacrificed what could have been a future model for the sub-continent to develop a secular confederation of sorts, to just gain power in the Western wing. How have many paid the price for this! I often wonder what if …..


    P.S. Maqsood ul Mannan, my Bengali friend standing on my left, belonged to a military family, was sent with his father to Dhaka in late 1969, and was killed (some say by the Mukti Bahini in 1972).


  4. Pingback: Two prints I long to see | Richard Smith's non-medical blogs

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