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1971: Bangladesh’s “Liberation War”

Bangladesh’s “Liberation War” | 1971 |


Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, 1970

The first part of this series, ‘The origins of Bangladesh and Pakistan’s 1968’, was published in December 2021.

“Kill three million and the rest will eat out of our hands.” So Pakistani dictator Yahya Khan is said to have told his top brass in March 1971, as they prepared war against the people of East Bengal. By the time Bangladesh – “Bengal Nation” – gained its independence in December, Pakistan’s army had murdered between 300,000 and three million civilians. These were among the worst atrocities of the 20th century, seeking to suppress one of the biggest anti-colonial struggles.

Conflict over the relationship between Pakistan’s two wings – the East with the majority of the population, the West dominating the state and economic machinery – had simmered and periodically flared for over two decades, ever since independence from Britain. What began as a struggle for recognition of the Bengali language became more and more one for some form of self-determination. In the 1950s and 60s the energy of this rising mass movement flowed into a petty bourgeois-led Bengali nationalist party, the Awami League (AL).

Democracy denied

In 1968-9 a vast uprising of students and workers beginning in the West ousted military dictator Ayub Khan, in power since 1958. Yahya took over and held national elections, Pakistan’s first, in December 1970. The openly right-wing and religious parties were routed. In the East the AL won over 70% of the vote and almost all the seats, enough for a majority across Pakistan. A majority of Western seats went to the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). The PPP’s channelling of the struggle was a tragedy for both East and West.

On paper the PPP was more “socialist” than the AL, though by then the latter was talking socialism too. Many of West Pakistan’s insurgent workers and students supported it. But it was run by Ayub’s former foreign minister, Sindhi landlord Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Even more of an immediate issue than Bhutto’s fake socialism was his false posturing as a democrat. Aggressively (West) Pakistani nationalist, he not only advocated greater militarism against India, but opposed even the AL’s moderate proposals for federalism.

The West Pakistani movement against Ayub had originally included strong autonomy for the East (and for each of the four Western provinces) among its demands. But after Ayub’s fall the movement receded sharply; Bhutto and his friends had the initiative.

Many thought Bhutto would reach an agreement with the AL to push the military from power. They gave him too much credit. Instead he worked with the military to oppose the Bengali movement, sometimes pushing the generals for a harder stance. Without Bhutto they would not have been able to do what they did.

The PPP leaders could dress it up all they wanted, but the fundamental character of this stance was made clear by a Pakistani general who within days of the 1970 election reassured his men: “We will not let these black bastards rule over us”.

In February 1971 Bhutto declared the PPP would boycott the assembly in order to oppose the AL taking office and carrying out its federalist programme, threatening PPP members who wanted to take part. He participated in the decision of the military leaders to cancel the convening of the assembly, without rescheduling – announced on 1 March. The people of the East responded with mass protests, mass civil disobedience and a general strike.

Since the AL would have a majority in the new national assembly, opposition to Bengali self-determination necessitated opposition to democracy at an all-Pakistan level. What the military launched was effectively both a coup against the newly elected government of the whole country and a West Pakistani invasion of East Bengal.

Operation Searchlight: beginning of the genocide

The admiral who was military governor of East Pakistan resigned in protest at the regime’s refusal to seek compromise with the Bengalis; yet the “socialist” Bhutto affirmed to the junta that he would support repression.

Yahya and Bhutto took part in negotiations in Dhaka, presenting a conciliatory face to the AL leaders. Meanwhile preparations for a military assault on the East accelerated.

On 25 March the army launched “Operation Searchlight” to smash the Bengali movement. Returning to Karachi from a burning Dhaka on 26 March, Bhutto beamed as he told journalists: “Thank God, Pakistan has been saved”.

Until the Western revolt of 1968, East Pakistan had in some ways been the part of the country where the people had carved out most democratic space under the military regime. Now that regime was supposedly on the way out; but it drove to subjugate the people of the East with horrific brutality.

All foreign journalists had been deported from East Pakistan – with good reason. Somehow figures for the number of killings don’t seem to do justice to the sheer barbarity of Pakistan’s war. Poor working-class areas of Dhaka were demolished, as thousands of towns and villages would be in the course of the war. Tens of millions would be displaced. The campaign of executions targeted political activists, students and “intellectuals”. In the first day of Operation Searchlight the University of Dhaka was invaded and hundreds of teachers, campus workers and students murdered.

Jagannath Hall, a residency of mainly Hindu-background students, was destroyed, and about 600 of its residents killed. That set the scene for a core elements of Pakistan’s disgusting campaign, the targeting of East Bengal’s Hindu population. Hindus made up 20% of East Pakistanis, but a big majority of the millions fleeing over the border into India.

Pakistan’s rulers flaunted their anti-Hindu policy, saying they were promoting Islam against a decadent Hindu-influenced Bengali culture.

As well as virulently racist, Pakistan’s war was virulently misogynistic. Hundreds of thousands of Bengali women were raped. A West Pakistani religious leader’s edict declaring that “wealth and women” seized were legitimate “booty of war” was widely circulated. One army officer told an American in East Pakistan that after they won, “each of his soldiers would have a Bengali mistress and that neither dogs nor Bengalis would be allowed in the exclusive Chittagong Club”. In fact women were kept as sex slaves inside the military cantonment in Dhaka.

Shamefully, after the war many of the rape victims faced humiliation and ostracism in independent Bangladesh.

Women served in the Bangladeshi resistance forces, including as fighters. In broad sweep Bengali nationalism was liberatory and progressive; but some Bengali fighters also killed and raped civilians, particularly from Urdu-speaking migrant communities from the Indian state of Bihar, which tended to sympathise with Pakistan. After the war hundreds of thousands of Biharis and others were denied citizenship and forced to live in refugee camps, with the courts overturning this for those born in Bangladesh only in 2008.

The basis for Pakistan’s fascist-style assault on the Bengalis had been laid over many years of a right-wing and militaristic regime that justified an increasingly colonial relationship with the East by presenting its people as alien and inferior. That built on British imperial narratives contrasting the conspiratorial and untrustworthy Bengalis to the “martial races” of north-west India – including the Punjabis, who dominated Pakistan’s officer caste.

Actual fascists, or a close equivalent, played an important part in Pakistan’s war. The army helped establish and train Razakar (volunteer) militias – in particular Al-Badr, dominated by Islamist organisation Jamaat-e-Islami, and Al-Shams, led by other Islamist groups and the conservative Muslim League. Islamists supported Pakistan as an Islamic project and hated the secularism of the Awami League and the left. Their militias, Pakistan’s only active local support, took part in the spectrum of atrocities, but played a particular role in the killing of left-wing students and intellectuals.

In West Pakistan a government-orchestrated wave of anti-Bengali, anti-Indian and Islamist chauvinism swept the country. The most militant working-class and student leaders were imprisoned.

The Bangladeshi struggle

More and more Awami League supporters – particularly the radical students – had been demanding independence from Pakistan, and AL president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman made reference to independence in a landmark speech shortly before the start of the war. However the AL leaders did not straightforwardly demand it until Operation Searchlight began. On 26 March – the official Bangladeshi independence day – Mujib signed a declaration that “today Bangladesh is a sovereign and independent country”.

He was arrested the same day and taken to the West, but on the 27th the declaration made it onto the airwaves, in the voice of future Bangladeshi dictator Major Ziaur Rahman.

Probably believing their own anti-Bengali propaganda, the Pakistanis aimed to end the war within a month. In fact the Bangladeshi forces kept the conflict going over eight months before India intervened in December.

Although the early military resistance was chaotic, it drew strength from many sources, in the context of massive popular support for the independence struggle. Bengali soldiers and police defected in huge numbers. The East Bengal Regiment and the East Pakistan rifles went over en masse and became the core of the “regular” military element of the Mukti Bahini (Liberation Forces) as the Bangladeshi fighters came to be known. The Mukti Bahini also had a “people’s” wing of civilian volunteers, active mainly in guerrilla warfare. There was a proliferation of militias led by sections of the Awami League, student groups and various left organisations.

An AL-run provisional government for the “People’s Republic of Bangladesh” was set up in the west of the country, near the border with India. On 10 April, through the elected Eastern members of the Pakistani assembly, constituted as Bangladesh’s constituent assembly, it issued formal declaration of independence.

As the war dragged on, the AL leadership was concerned about being outflanked on the left. Many of the party’s rank-and-file activists and supporters saw themselves as fighting for what they understood as socialism, and left-wing ideas did spread widely.

The left in East Bengal, completely dominated by Stalinism, found itself wrong-footed by events. By this time the Sino-Soviet split in the Stalinist left internationally was in full swing. In East Pakistan the pro-Russian wing, pursuing an approach of sharply separated historical stages, with distinct socialist struggle downplayed until an unspecified time after independence, made itself hard to distinguish from the AL leadership. The pro-Chinese wing, generally more “radical”, was in disarray in part because of long-running confusion on the question of self-determination.

The Soviet Union was allied with India, an alliance strengthened during this conflict. Mao’s China was allied with Pakistan, praising this closely US-linked regime as “anti-imperialist” and defending its “national unity” against the Bengali struggle. In the early 60s East Bengali Maoists and similar had often been startlingly soft on the Pakistani dictatorship, with the encouragement of the Chinese bureaucracy. (By 1971 some pro-Chinese leftists had come round to supporting independence.)

The international line-up

China provided propagandistic and practical support to Pakistan during the war, but too little and too measuredly for the junta’s satisfaction. The US, Pakistan’s dominant ally since the early 50s, was less restrained. Richard Nixon’s regime went out of its way to funnel aid and weapons to the Pakistanis and protect them from restraining criticism and pressure. Nixon told Pakistani diplomats: “Yahya is a good friend. I understand the anguish of the decisions he has to make.”

So extreme was the US’s stance that American diplomats in East Bengal, including the consul general, wrote in protest to denounce “the suppression of democracy”, “atrocities” and “bending over backwards to placate the West Pakistan-dominated government”.

The personal-psychological inclinations of Nixon and Henry Kissinger – the former described Indians as “slippery, treacherous… bastards” and the latter India’s prime minister Indira Gandhi as “a bitch” – seem to have played a role. More fundamentally, the US government feared a growth in the influence the Soviet Union and India in South Asia, and the possibilities for left-wing radicalisation in an independent Bangladesh.

Nixon and Kissinger were also in the process of attempting to establish relations with China, also opposed to the USSR and India. Pakistan was a conduit to China.

From June 1971 Pakistan’s crimes in East Bengal became widely known, in the first instance due to the reports of a courageous West Pakistani journalist, Anthony Mascarenhas.

A global solidarity movement developed, reaching far beyond the East Pakistani diaspora and the left. Approached by West Bengali-American musician Ravi Shankar, former Beatle George Harrison produced what has been described as the world’s first charity single, Bangla Desh. He and Shankar organised benefits with a remarkable array of famous musicians.

The impact on world opinion was more important than the money. Pakistan was made to stink in the nostrils of many millions worldwide – even as some of the most powerful governments continued to support it, and others (including the UK) equivocated.

By far Bangladesh’s strongest supporter was India. That the Mukti Bahini maintained the resistance for so long is a tribute to their courage and popular support; but they also depended on Indian organisation, training and weapons. A mix of factors seems to driven Indian support for the East Bengalis: public opinion; desire to batter a long-standing military adversary; concern for Hindus being persecuted; fear of the left gaining the upper hand in East Bengal and linking up with comrades over the border; perhaps even some element of democratic principle and humanitarianism…

India had a very immediate reason for intervening which was both humanitarian and self-interested. By the summer of 1971 something like ten million refugees had crossed into the eastern Indian states of West Bengal and Assam, creating a humanitarian and economic crisis and growing political pressure.

In August, as global outrage at the genocide mounted, India signed a co-operation treaty with the Soviet Union. Newly confident of safety from Chinese retaliation if her government intervened in East Bengal, in October Indira Gandhi toured the US and Europe to indict Pakistan. Battle intensified in the UN and other inter-state forums.

On 3 December the desperate Pakistani regime launched pre-emptive airstrikes on Indian air force bases – modelled on Israel’s surprise attack on Egypt during the 1967 Six-Day War. The Indian government had anticipated such action; it was ineffective, but gave India a final excuse for the intervention it wanted. Arguing that Pakistan had declared war, India defended itself in the west while launching an invasion of East Bengal.

At the UN Pakistan and its allies demanded a ceasefire; this was vetoed twice by the USSR. The US detached a ten-ship task force from its fleet off South Vietnam and sent it to the Bay of Bengal; Russian ships from Vladivostok were sent after and trailed it into January 1972.

Outgunned and already demoralised, the Pakistani army surrendered within a fortnight, on 16 December. In addition to more than double India’s casualties before the surrender, Pakistan had 90,000 solders taken as prisoners of war.

A new country of 65 million people was born, with a government that claimed it was committed to secularism, democracy and socialism.

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