Pakistan Divided

Here we publish Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Sydney H. Schanberg's famous article titled "Pakistan Divided". He, as a reporter of The New York Times, covered the Liberation War of Bangladesh. This article was published in Foreign Affairs in its October, 1971 issue.
Sydney Schanberg (L) interviewing Bengali refugees at the Bongam Camp, May 16, 1971.

History, geopolitical forces, power balances and election results all helped shape the crisis in East Pakistan; but only in terms of "the pathology of the subcontinent," as one diplomat described it, can this bloody upheaval be adequately explained. From the night of March 25, when the Pakistani army launched its surprise offensive in East Pakistan in

an attempt to crush the Bengali autonomy movement, normal standards of logic and reason stopped applying. The mindless brutality of the West Pakistani troops demonstrates the military regime's irrational determination to hold on to East Pakistan at

whatever cost and by whatever tactics necessary. In turn, this brutality has fired and fed an increasingly effective and popularly supported guerrilla counteroffensive that keeps East Pakistan in chaos. Every army reprisal against the civilian population produces new Bengali freedom-fighters. The Bengalis now sullen, bitter, hating seem ready for a long fight for full independence. Talk of anything less, such as the old goal of East Pakistani autonomy within Pakistan, is considered heresy.

Most Western diplomats regard Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the jailed leader of East Pakistan, as the key to any real settlement. But Pakistan's President, Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan, has announced that Sheikh Mujib, who headed the now-banned Awami League and who was arrested on the first night of the army attack, will be tried for treason in camera and will face the death penalty. As this is written, no decision has been announced.

By now, more than seven million of East Pakistan's 71 million people have fled across the border to India to escape the army terror, and many more will flee if the chaos produces famine in the late fall. The refugees are not only a crushing economic burden on India, but they present a grim political specter as well--thrusting millions of jobless and homeless people into India's already unstable and disorderly eastern region, which the

national government in Delhi lost effective control over some years ago. And since most of the refugees have been from East Pakistan's Hindu minority -- special target of the Pakistani army-- the crisis has revived among all Indians the memories of the bloody Hindu-Moslem rioting of 1947, when the subcontinent was divided into Pakistan as a Moslem homeland, and India as a secular but predominantly Hindu nation. Indians view the military repression in East Pakistan as nothing less than evil crushing good. Indian and Pakistani leaders rattle sabres at each other, many border clashes have already taken place, and another war between the two countries threatens, a war that would have obvious global implications.

Inexplicably, the responses of many foreign nations -- notably the United States -- have failed to give much weight to the strength of the passions at work. Washington, for example, continues to talk about its hope for a political settlement when no diplomat or other qualified observer in East Pakistan can see any lasting solution but independence. Washington continues military aid to the Pakistani government on the ground that it may thereby maintain its leverage for a moderate settlement. Yet, so far, there is no evidence of any successful leverage. The incompatibility of Washington's so-called pragmatic approach with the inflamed emotions in Pakistan has been obvious to observers for some time.

In their campaign to end military rule, stop the exploitation of their province by West Pakistan and win a large measure of self-rule, the Bengalis had burned the Pakistani flag, destroyed photographs of Pakistan's founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, and taunted army units. They also did more significant and more revolutionary things --such as boycotting the military regime and in March setting up their own government. But to the West

Pakistani military rulers, the emotional, symbolic insults were the more heinous. "It's a religious thing with them about the flag and Islamic unity and Jinnah and their army pride," said an American diplomat. "They can't tolerate insults. It puts them in a rage."


In short the fanatic fury of a holy war seems to have been the overriding reason why the Pakistani government loosed the army on the Bengali population. This is not hard to understand when we recall that Pakistan is a state based on religion where democratic traditions are almost nonexistent and where the popular will has been often frustrated. When the army troops began their rampage that first night, they seemed to be enjoying themselves. As Punjabi patrols emerged from alleys after killing unarmed Bengalis, they came out with their hands upraised, shouting "Narai Takbir!n ("Victory for God!") and "Pakistan Zindabad!" ("Long Live Pakistan!").

Racial hatred is a basic element in this conflagration, for the, peoples of the two wings of Pakistan, separated by over 1,000 miles of Indian territory, are ethnically more different than most enemy nations?which they now, in fact, are. They speak different languages (Urdu in the West, Bengali in the East), eat different foods (meat and grain in the West, fish and rice in the East), and have opposite cultures; the Punjabis are stolid types who prefer soldiering and government, while the Bengalis are volatile and love politics and literature. The lighter-skinned and taller West Pakistanis have their roots in the Middle East; the Bengalis with the lithe, slim brown people of Southeast Asia. The only thing they have in common is their religion, Islam, the shaky reason for the creation of the improbable two-part nation in 1947, when British rule ended on the subcontinent.

All the ethnic differences between the Bengalis and Punjabis, who dominate the Pakistani government, existed in 1947, but they were overshadowed by the euphoria of creating a nation. In the two decades since, these differences have been honed razor-sharp by West Pakistan's systematic exploitation of the Eastern wing--politically, economically and militarily. Though the East is the majority wing-- 71 million people compared to the West's 61 million-- the West, where the government is based, received the overwhelming proportion of development funds, factories, public-works projects, foreign aid, imports and defense facilities.

Prices are higher in the East, but income lower. The jute and other exports from the East brought in more than half of Pakistan's foreign exchange and paid for the raw materials that kept the West's factories going. The East was also the main market for the West's products, including the sleazy cotton fabrics, sold at inflated government-fixed prices, which have no market any where else in the world. Bengali nationalists complained that

the colonial exploitation of their land under the West Pakistanis was worse than under the British a generation before.


Two events catalyzed this bitterness. The first was last November's cyclone and the government's sluggish relief effort, which dramatized for the Bengalis what they considered West Pakistan's indifference and even callousness toward their plight. This reaction gave added votes to the Awami League, campaigning on a platform of more self-rule for East Pakistan, in the national election a month later.

The second catalyst was that very election -- the first full and free vote in Pakistan's history. President Yahya must be credited with making the election possible. Restoration of civilian rule was one of his promises on taking power in March 1969, after bloody rioting and protest in both wings brought about the collapse of the ten-year strong-arm reign of Mohammad Ayub Khan.

Most diplomats credit Yahya with sincerity in this promise, and some still feel that had he been his own master, the army repression would not have been ordered. But major decisions in Pakistan are made by a junta of several generals, most of them tough hard-liners, and though General Yahya is commander in chief he cannot act independently of them. It is widely believed that the generals accepted the idea of an election only because

they expected the results to ensure their continued control. They felt, as did most foreign diplomats, that although the Awami League would make a strong showing in East Pakistan, the army's supporters -- the right-wing religious parties--would do well enough in both wings to command a majority and run the government.

But the cyclone rewrote that scenario. The Awami League won all but two of the National Assembly seats from East Pakistan, which -- because of the population-based apportionment (an other Yahya concession)-- gave it an overall national majority.

Some Bengalis believe that the generals decided on a military solution as soon as the election results were in. This will probably never be known, but in any case storm clouds were not long in appearing.

The leading political group of West Pakistan, the Pakistan People's Party, began demanding that the Awami League scale down its autonomy program. But Sheikh Mujib--under pressure from extremist students and workers in his following and perhaps naive about the risk of a military bloodbath -- would not compromise, fearing that if he did so, the West Pakistani power elite would somehow cheat the Bengalis out of their rightfully won political power.

The leader of the Pakistan People's Party, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, then refused to attend the coming session of the National Assembly, which was to have written a new constitution, and Yahya responded by postponing the session set for March 3. Protests and rioting erupted in East Pakistan, the army fired on Bengalis, killing many, and the Bengalis then answered Sheikh Mujib's call for a nonco?peration movement in defiance of the military. This movement eventually evolved into the creation of a kind of Awami League government. The Pakistani government then began flying troop reinforcements into East Pakistan at night. On March 15, Yahya himself flew to Dacca to negotiate with Sheikh Mujib. Most Bengalis and some foreign observers now believe that the negotiations were merely a smoke screen to buy time until enough troops had been brought in to launch the attack. (The timing of the military decision is not known, but it seems likely from the available evidence that it was not taken at the last minute.)

In any event, on March 25, while the negotiations were still going on, the army struck in Dacca with tanks and rockets and other heavy weapons against a largely unarmed civilian population -- in some cases destroying entire hutment colonies of the poor. In succeeding days and weeks, the West Pakistani troops fanned out throughout East Pakistan, devastating population centers in similar ruthless operations.

At this writing, foreign diplomats estimate that the army has killed at least 200,000 Bengalis. Despite claims that normalcy prevails in the province, the military has not been able as yet to restore law and order or establish even a semblance of governmental administration. On the contrary, the resistance activities of the Mukti Bahini (Liberation Forces) have been mounting, with aid and training and sanctuary provided by India. The economy in East Pakistan remains crippled, that in West Pakistan is shriveling. Army casualties are growing. And except for the small minority of collaborators (mostly non-Bengali Moslems, such as Biharis, and Bengali adherents of right-wing religious parties), the people of East Pakistan are hostile, sullen and unshakeable.

The idea of a united Pakistan clearly is finished. The military regime can hold East Pakistan as a colony only by force and terror and crude police-state tactics. There still is no realization among the Pakistani generals of the futility of continuing the military repression. There exists an impression among some --though this is doubtful-- that President Yahya is not being told what is really happening in East Pakistan. Meanwhile added moves by the regime have seemed designed to increase hatred and distrust there rather than to restore confidence. The Bengali language has been suppressed; street names have been changed; Bengalis have been removed from responsible government jobs and replaced with West Pakistanis; and the shops and homes of Bengalis who fled to the countryside or to India have been given to collaborators.

The longer the conflict drags on, the greater the likelihood that the Bengali independence movement -- a nationalist up surge rather than an ideological one--could alter in character

and fall under the leadership of Maoists or other extremists. Some pro-China freedom-fighters are already active in East Pakistan. The implications for foreign powers are grave. Some Asia analysts foresee the possibility of a belt of chaos and in surgency, stretching from India's already turbulent West Bengal state through East Pakistan to Burma, which could dwarf the Vietnam conflict.


For India, the impact has been grim. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was overwhelmingly reelected last March on a platform of Garibi Hatao--"Remove poverty"--but the cost of supporting the millions of Bengali refugees has forced virtually all development plans into suspension. India, in effect, must now tread water, which is dangerous for a nation with a soaring job less rate, unchecked population growth and severe poverty.

Mrs. Gandhi has so far resisted the clamor by the public and politicians for some decisive action--such as a military move against Pakistan or recognition of Bangla Desh (Bengal Nation), the name the independence movement has given itself to East Pakistan. She and her top advisers apparently fear that the recognition of Bangla Desh, in the prevailing emotional climate, could prompt Pakistan to declare war--this Mrs. Gandhi has seemed eager to avoid. But the pressure for recognition has been intensifying, and she may come to feel such a concession to aroused Indian public opinion is necessary.

Although India has taken defensive measures on its borders with Pakistan, its apparent policy is not to make the first move-- in short, to put the onus for a third Indo-Pak war on Pakistan. But this policy does not preclude continued military aid and sanctuary for the East Pakistani freedom-fighters, and in such conditions war is a persistent risk. President Yahya has warned that if India helps the Bengalis establish a guerrilla base area in East Pakistan, his government would treat that as an attack. "I shall declare a general war and let the world take note of it," he said recently. Moreover, by supporting the insurgency, India in a sense ensures continuing chaos in East Pakistan and therefore a continuing flow of refugees into India compounding the pressures on its economy and social fabric.

One of India's greatest concerns-- and, conversely, one of Pakistan's apparent hopes--is that the rest of the world will come to view the crisis as just another Indo-Pak dispute -- thereby diverting attention from the real issue, the independence struggle in East Pakistan. India views President Yahya's talk of war as this type of diversionary tactic, and also possibly as a nervous reaction to the increasing successes of the Bengali guerrillas.

In this context, however, some Indian analysts think a Pakistani attack on India is entirely possible. To lose East Pakistan in a fight with the guerrillas, they argue, would be an untenable loss of face for Pakistani generals, and could inspire uprisings by autonomy-minded ethnic groups in West Pakistan, such as the Baluchis and Pathans -- many of whom are as resentful of Punjabi domination as the Bengalis of the East. But, this theory

goes, if East Pakistan is lost in a holy war with India, the generals have a better chance of rationalizing their defeat and of holding West Pakistan together with the glue of anti- Indian hatred.

Should an Indo-Pak war erupt, the great powers-- the United States, the Soviet Union and communist China -- could hardly remain disinterested bystanders, though how deeply involved they would get on one side or the other remains an imponderable. In broad terms, the lineup at the time this is written is as follows : China is supporting Pakistan, the Soviet Union is supporting India, and the United States is pursuing an ambiguous policy of providing sizable refugee aid to India while continuing its arms shipments to Pakistan as a means (Washington says) of keeping a dialogue open and exerting some influence on the Islamabad regime.

In the last several years, China--whose relations with India have remained strained since their border war of 1962--has become Pakistan's biggest arms supplier and closest friend among the great powers. Whether China would intervene with troops in the event of an Indo-Pak war is unknown, but diplomats in Islamabad report increasing Chinese aid to Pakistan since the Bengali trouble began, including an agreement to equip at least one new Pakistani division to replace troops sent to the Eastern wing. (These diplomats note, however, that China has not publicly denounced the independence struggle, and do not think that Peking's aid to Pakistan now precludes Chinese support for the Bengali insurgency later on.)

President Yahya was presumably talking about Peking when he said recently that if war came, Pakistan would not "be alone." Indian Foreign Minister Swaran Singh immediately retorted in parliament that India, too, would not be alone -- presumably referring to Russia. Though Moscow has been supplying military assistance to India throughout the sixties, the Russians were also giving arms to the Pakistanis. In the last couple of years,

however, this aid slowed to a trickle, mainly because of Indian objections. Moscow did not want to abandon Pakistan entirely to China, and therefore took no drastic action against Islamabad in the recent crisis, such as stopping economic aid. But the Soviet

stake in Pakistan is not a large one; the signing of the India Russia 20-year friendship treaty showed clearly that the Russians have decided to make India their ally.


The United States has been straddling the fence in the crisis, and the role has drawn worldwide attention and criticism. In India, it is regarded as a betrayal, and U.S.-Indian relations have plunged to a new low. Washington has apparently decided that

it is impossible to separate the East Pakistani upheaval from the emerging Indo-Pakistan confrontation and that such punitive acts as stoppage of aid or public moral denunciation of the military repression would be counterproductive. Washington seems to be still wedded to its view of Pakistan as a "balance" against India on the subcontinent. There is also a reluctance to abandon the huge U.S. financial investment in Pakistan and even more so to concede that the old policy of massive military and economic aid was, on balance, a failure -- that it fostered development only in West Pakistan and thus helped fuel Bengali bitterness. From 1954 to 1965, a decade of idyllic U.S.-Pakistan relations, Washington outfitted and trained the Pakistani armed forces, and Pakistan became a member of CENTO and SE ATO, both pro-Western, anti-communist military alliances. During this period--when Pakistan was having problems with the Russians and Chinese--the Americans gave the Pakistanis what has been estimated at $1.7 billion in military aid alone (although it may be far less). The economic aid was even greater.

Relations cooled dramatically after 1965. This was a product of many factors --China's war with India in 1962, which drew Pakistan closer to Peking; the 1965 U.S. embargo on the supply of arms, on which the Pakistanis were much more dependent than the Indians ; and the willingness of China and Russia to fill the arms vacuum left by the Americans. Washington lifted its embargo partially in 1967 to allow sales of nonlethal equipment and spare parts and also ammunition for previously supplied weapons.

After the army crackdown began in East Pakistan on March 25, the State Department announced a new embargo on arms to Pakistan and said no military supplies were in the pipeline. But in late June, a newspaper report disclosed that arms shipments were continuing from American ports on Pakistani ships. The  State Department at first ascribed this to bureaucratic bungling, but later dropped this explanation and announced that the shipments were legitimate, that they had all been contracted for before March 25 and that they would continue. Congressional demands for halting these shipments were unsuccessful; authoritative sources in Washington reported that the policy decision

was made by President Nixon personally. Meanwhile, US economic aid has been temporarily suspended ("under review," is the State Department's phrase). But the State Department has said it will not deny aid as an instrument of applying pressure on Pakistan and analysts view the suspension largely as a reflection of Washington's reluctance to go it alone against the hard line of other members of the World Bank's 11-nation aid-to-Pakistan consortium. A special World Bank report in June concluded that the military crackdown had so ravaged East Pakistan that international development assistance "would serve little purpose" and "will have to remain in a state of suspension for at least the next year or so." Pakistan is heavily dependent on the consortium's aid, which amounts to about $450 million a year (the United States provides about $200 million of it). Desperate to repair its world image and bring about resumption of foreign aid (its foreign-exchange reserves are dipping toward zero), the government of President

Yahya agreed to the posting of over 100 UN observers in East Pakistan. Their ostensible job would be to help normalise conditions and thus facilitate the return of refugees from India.

The United Nations also asked India to accept a similar team on its soil, but the Indians angrily refused, pointing out that the refugee exodus would not stop until the army terror stopped in East Pakistan and that this could not be achieved by putting observers in India. New Delhi dismissed as baseless propaganda the Pakistani charge that India has been obstructing the refugees' return. (And indeed India has every reason to want them to return.) Indians see in the observer proposal their old bugaboo the treatment of the crisis as simply an Indo-Pak dispute, and the assigning of equal responsibility for the resolution of the problem to India and Pakistan. India also noted that President Yahya's acceptance of the observers came only after a marked increase in guerrilla activity and effectiveness in East Pakistan.

The presence of the UN team may force the Pakistani army to curb its reprisals and terror and thus may induce some refugees to return. As such it is a positive development. But judging from extensive interview tours of the refugee camps by this correspondent and other foreign observers one feels that the vast majority of the refugees will probably never return. For one thing, their homes and other property have been destroyed and their land given to collaborators. For another, the Hindus -- who make up the bulk of the refugees -- naturally feel safer in predominantly Hindu India than they can ever feel again in East Pakistan after the army pogrom.

Moreover, the presence of UN observers will not stop the guerrilla activity, which will keep the region in chaos unless the army pulls out. But it may lead to criticism in the United Nations of Indian aid to the guerrillas. This of course Pakistan would welcome.

India was apparently concerned that UN observers on its side of the border could interfere with its support programme -- arms, training and sanctuary -- for the resistance fighters. Since the move for posting observers in both India and Pakistan was reportedly initiated by Washington, it has further estranged India from the United States. Most Asia analysts feel that in clinging to its notion of maintaining a balance between India and Pakistan and in treating the current crisis as an Indo-Pak dispute, Washington is pursuing an unrealistic and shortsighted policy. They believe that Pakistan cannot be treated as equal to India -- in size, importance, democratic traditions or stability -- and that the realistic course for Washington would be to try to persuade Pakistan to adjust to a secondary role instead of inflating its delusions.

Washington's apparent desire to separate the refugee and humanitarian issues from the basic political problem in East Pakistan seems equally unrealistic. To many familiar with affairs on the subcontinent, the proposal to send UN observers, like other US moves, seems an attempt to paper over the real conflict and produce a temporary standoff that can at best only postpone the inevitable division of Pakistan.


Source: Foreign Affairs,Vol. 50, No. 1 (Oct., 1971), pp. 125-135Published by: Council on Foreign Relations


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