Once again it is December, and we are celebrating the Victory Day on the 16th, the day in 1971 when Pakistani occupation forces surrendered to the combined Indo-Bangladesh Forces in Dhaka. The day marked the end of hostilities that started on the night of 25-26 March 1971 when the Pakistani Army launched “Operation Searchlight”, a military operation to crush Bengali nationalist movement. In the early hours of 26 March 1971, a declaration of independence was made by Bangladesh's Supreme Leader, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, urging all Bengalis to rise up in arms to defend Bangladesh from the occupation forces. It would be pertinent to mention here that the Liberation War of Bangladesh was neither a religious or sectarian war nor an ethnic conflict. It was the culmination of more than two decades of struggle of the people of the then East Pakistan to assert their democratic, political, social and economic rights. It was not a secessionist movement, because it was a fight led by the Bengalis who then constituted 56% of the population of Pakistan. It was not a fight against the ordinary people of West Pakistan, rather it was against a small coterie of politico-military elites, mostly belonging to the Western wing of Pakistan, who had usurped power and denied the Bengalis their rightful share in the statecraft. It must, however, be stated that the senior-most Pakistani military officers then posted in East Pakistan, who had knowledge of the ground realities, had opposed the military options and urged a political solution to the crisis. Admiral Ahsan, Governor, East Pakistan, Lt Gen Yaqub Khan, Commander, Eastern Command and Air Cdre Zafar Masud, AOC, Eastern Air Command had all opposed military solutions; they were withdrawn prior to the military crackdown and retired soon thereafter.
As the Pakistan Army unleashed its reign of terror, the Bengali elements of the Pakistani military, para-military forces and Police, along with the youth retaliated by forming a guerilla organization, popularly known as the 'Mukti Bahini' (Freedom Fighters). The military operation that the Pakistani commanders thought would be over in days, quickly snowballed into a nationwide conflict. Within weeks of the military crackdown, it became apparent that the Bangladesh conflict will not remain a domestic issue as claimed by Pakistan; rather it will have global implications involving major powers across the globe. In early April 1971, the Soviet Union, a long-time ally of India, strongly condemned the Pakistani military operations and came out with moral and material support to the Bangladesh cause. On 9 August 1971, an Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation was signed that provided for Soviet military assistance and even intervention in case of war or emergency. The treaty acted as a great confidence builder and guarantor for Indo-Bangladesh forces that were preparing to engage the Pakistani forces in open warfare. Soviet position was supported by other Warsaw Pact countries, especially East Germany and Poland.
As Bangladesh conflict widened, India had to take very cautious steps. India in 1971 was in deep economic crisis – poverty and unemployment was rampant, economy was stagnant for decades. Food shortages, and riots and violence as a consequence, were regular features in many parts of India. Maoist insurgency was raging in West Bengal and Bihar, both states bordering Bangladesh. The north-eastern states of Mizoram, Nagaland, Manipur and Assam were gripped by decades of secessionist insurgency and ethnic violence. Indian security forces were fully committed against these insurgents, besides watching across thousands of miles of disputed borders with Pakistan and China. The added burden of millions of refugees fleeing into India from Bangladesh, and along with them elements of Bengali military personnel, who till the other day were members of the Pakistani military, was a cause of serious concern for the policy planners in Delhi. 'Joy Bangla' the slogan of Bengali nationalism, itself was a cause of headache for many in Delhi who smelled in it the possibility of a call for “Greater Bengal” in future. Another cause of anxiety was the left-wing student organisations within the Mukti Bahini. The Indians were worried lest they might join with the Indian Maoists to form a common operational platform. Indian Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi, appreciated the hydra-headed security threat and human disaster that were emerging on the eastern front, yet she saw in it an opportunity to cut Pakistan down to size. While she prepared for an all-out war in the near future, she kept her options open for a negotiated settlement of the crisis. It was, indeed, a big gamble she was taking with her political future. With all the uncertainties that could affect the outcome of any war, a disaster or even a stalemate would have doomed her political career.
As the war in Bangladesh dragged on and Soviet Union bolstered her ties with India, the United States saw these as attempts by the communist power to penetrate further into an area hitherto belonging to US sphere of influence. The USA had bilateral military pact with Pakistan since 1954. In 1955, Pakistan became a member of the US-led Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) and in 1957 she joined South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). Both the treaties, while apparently aimed at stopping communist incursion into the 'Free World', provided American foothold in Asia. Pakistan, while it received huge American economic and military aid, provided the US basing rights in Peshawar. It was from Peshawar, on 1 May 1960, Gary Power, a CIA pilot, flew in a U-2 spy plane on a reconnaissance mission and was shot down after penetrating 2000 miles into the Soviet air space. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev threatened Pakistan with nuclear retaliation in case of further incursion. Pakistan kept receiving generous economic and military assistance from the US throughout the 1950s and 60s. Although US military aid was suspended after the Indo-Pak in 1965, US military hardware continued to flow in through countries such as Iran, Jordan, Turkey and Germany. Meanwhile, Pakistan developed close military ties with China since the Indo-China border war in 1962. She signed a border treaty with China in 1963 recognizing Chinese suzerainty over nearly 2000 sq km of Pakistani controlled Kashmir. Karokoram Highway, a Sino-Pakistani venture, was constructed to provide direct all-weather land communication from North-eastern China to the Arabian Sea. Even friendship has its price, and Pakistan paid it in full.
In the mid-1960s, as the political and ideological rift between USSR and China widened, USA sought to establish diplomatic relations with China as a first step towards normalising relationship with the most populous country in the world and eventually to build a common axis against USSR, her principal rival in the global supremacy. USA sought Pakistan's assistance in the initial secret rendezvous. Indeed, throughout 1969-71, Pakistan acted as a go between the USA and China. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger took off from Islamabad, Pakistan on 9 July 1971 on his secret trip to China. With this back drop, when the Eastern wing of Pakistan went up in mass upsurge followed by armed conflict, the US interest was to control and calm down the situation and maintain a status quo in the region. While urging the military government in Islamabad to seek political solution in East Pakistan, the USA was strongly supporting Pakistan's national integrity. The US position further tilted towards Pakistan as the Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty was signed. However, there were many liberal, progressive elements within and outside the US administration who lend strong support to Bangladesh's cause, Senator Edward Kennedy being one of them. Other western powers such as UK, France and Canada took a more moderate approach and put considerable pressure on Islamabad to seek a peaceful resolution of Bangladesh conflict.
China, like the USA, saw Bangladesh War as a ploy by the Indo-Soviet axis to further consolidate its position. It viewed the war as a threat to the very existence of Pakistan, her close ally and strategic partner. While urging for a peaceful, political solution to the crisis, China wanted no compromise with the integrity of Pakistan. As the conflict escalated, China increased military assistance to Pakistan, provided strong support to Pakistan in UN and other international forum and projected Pakistan as a victim of external aggression. While China was ready to provide materiel assistance, it had neither the capability nor the desire to get physically involved in a war that it foresaw looming in the horizon. This is one message that the Pakistanis got wrong; Pakistan had assumed that in case of a war with India, the Chinese would open up a new front across the Himalayas, taking the pressure off from Pakistan. But the Chinese, realists as they are, had no reason to get embroiled in an unpopular war with too much at stake with little to gain.
Sometime before December 1971, it was apparent that Pakistani forces were facing imminent defeat in Bangladesh. By then the enormous strain of continuing a guerilla war in a hostile territory, totally cut-off from home (West Pakistan) was telling on the morale of the troops on the ground. The rural Bangladesh was virtually free from November onward, when Pakistani forces were concentrated in fortress-like defensive deployments along the border. They were deployed in penny packets – covered large areas, but remained weak everywhere. With virtually no air force or navy, no reinforcement coming from abroad, with thousands of Mukti Bahini boys looking for an opportunity to take out Pakistani troops, the massive attack in December came almost as a coup de grace. When President Yahya launched an attack on the western front on the afternoon of 3 December 1971, the disaster that was to befall on the Pakistani heartland became all too clear. By about 10-12 December, India had started transferring some of its forces from the eastern theatre to the west. Pakistani forces in the west were already severely strained and retreating in many sectors, these additional Indian forces would have seriously jeopardized the Pakistani defences. There were clear signs that Pakistan would be facing a major defeat not only in Bangladesh, but Pakistan's existence will be threatened. That is when US President Richard Nixon ordered a task force from the 7th Fleet, led by USS Enterprise, into the Bay of Bengal. The aim of the US Task force was not to intervene in the Bangladesh War, but to dissuade India from overrunning the Pakistani defences in the west. The US Task Force arrived in the Bay of Bengal on 12 December 1971, by then elements of combined forces had reached the outskirts of Dhaka, bypassing Pakistani defence positions along the border. As a reaction to the US deployment, elements of the Soviet fleet from the Indian Ocean entered Bay of Bengal to shadow the US Task force. In the end, neither fleets played any active role in the War, although their cat and mouse game raised the stake of the conflict a few degrees higher. In the end, while the hostilities ended with the surrender of the Pakistani forces in the east on 16 December 1971, the guns fell silent in the west the next day when India declared a unilateral cease fire with Pakistan.
16 December 1971 thus came to epitomise the victory of democracy over dictatorship, social justice over economic exploitation and secularism over narrow religious bigotry. It gave the Bengali nation an identity, a space to develop its culture and heritage in a free and unfettered atmosphere. Despite Henry Kissinger's oft quoted warning of a 'basket case', Bangladesh has shown immense resilience and today able to stand on its own ground with pride and dignity. The country has shown steady progress in every field of human development and today considered as a model among the developing nations. Over the years, our relations with the global partners have matured into constructive exchanges. India continues to be our closest neighbor, major trading partner and an ally in the international arena. We have a most fraternal relation with Pakistan and share common views on many international issues. USA is our principal trading and development partner. Our relations with China, Russia, Europe and East Asia are close and harmonious. While our youth of the 1970s produced the heroes in the Liberation War, our post-war heroes are our farmers who transformed a chronic food shortage into food sufficiency, our workers who toil at home and abroad to produce so much for so little, our young entrepreneurs who have turned this once agrarian country into a thriving industrial hub. We salute our heroes on this auspicious day.
The writer is Registrar, Brac University.