Against all odds

Indian soldiers fire on Pakistani positions on December 15, 1971. Photo: AFP/Punjab Press

Any bored individual who has nothing better to do than to read the comment threads while listening to some old songs on YouTube must have come across these two ideas: "Who is listening to this in 2020?" Or "So-and-so brought me here". Forced self-isolation has created opportunities for us to go back and forth in time to look at the past, look for uncanny resemblances and find food for future sustenance. The ongoing dystopian desolation, for instance, has made us revisit the Spanish flu pandemic that humanity survived a century ago.

Because of a contagious virus that thrives on crowds, we were forced to celebrate our Independence Day in a subdued manner. Our streets are eerily empty. The army was deployed on March 25; this time around, they were sworn in to protect us from threats and assuage fear in this moment of crisis. On this day in 1971, after the brutal carnage of Operation Searchlight, there must have been an unprecedented fear of not knowing who our allies are. Nearly fifty years ago, on this day, we must have been reeling from the ominous news of the "ides" (a date that divides) of March—a date that had finally set off the timer of our victory signalled earlier by Bangabandhu on March 7. We must have picked ourselves up from the terror and havoc unleashed by the Pakistani army, and made the spirit of freedom go viral. We must have pondered over the momentary setback, and tried to figure out our local situation in a global context.

I chanced upon this idea while reading 1971: A People's History from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India by the Toronto based Pakistani oral historian Anam Zakaria. The book deals with forgotten memories and locates them in the mills of state narratives, providing a rare insight into the way the history of the subcontinent unfolded at a crucial juncture of global history that was suffering from a bipolar disorder due to the Cold War. This ethnographic history brought me to political history—Srinath Raghavan's 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh. Reading these two books side by side made me reflect on the odds that were against us, making our victory—without taking away the slightest of credit from our valiant freedom fighters—nothing short of a man-made miracle.

The national narratives of the three countries involved in the "conflict" prefer to choose a preset line of thought that rests on "insularity" and "determinism". For us, 1971 is the War of Liberation where we realised our national dream of having a country of our own. According to Raghavan, from a Pakistani perspective, 1971 is a defining moment when "East Pakistan" carried out a secessionist uprising instigated by India that "betrayed the idea of Pakistan as the homelands for the Muslims of South Asia". For the Indians, "1971 is the third India-Pakistan war: a continuation and decisive resolution of the long standing military rivalry between the two countries as well as the contest between India's secular nationalism and Pakistan's two-nation-theory that posited Hindus and Muslims as separate nations". The determinist view, on the other hand, holds that the 1947 Partition that drew the bird like map of Pakistan with two wings was a non-starter. Salman Rushdie depicts the idea beautifully in Shame, stating, "the fantastic bird of a place, two Wings without a body, sundered by the land-mass of its greatest foe, joined by nothing but God."

Raghavan, however, dismisses the inevitability of Pakistan's breakup theory by carefully examining the breakdown process in which the Bengalis insisted on autonomy, first by seeking linguistic freedom and then economic parity. For him, "far from being a pre-destined event, the creation of Bangladesh was the product of conjuncture and contingency, choice and chance". Raghavan thus emphasises on the international dimension of our independence, which is often lost in our nationalistic fervour.

At this insular moment of quarantine in which we are forced to reflect on the worldwide lockdown, Raghavan's thesis holds more water than we would like to admit. The huge onrush of refugees from then East Pakistan made India look for international support and aid. The US, still licking its wounds from the Vietnam War, had no appetite for getting involved in a regional dispute. The civil servants present in Dhaka, including Archer Blood, after whom the library at the American Center is named, sent a series of cables highlighting the "selective genocide" carried out by Pakistan. The White House under the Nixon administration, notwithstanding the sympathetic humanitarian stance of many Democratic senators, turned a deaf ear to the Pakistani carnage. On March 29, 1971, Nixon received a call from his foreign and strategic advisor Henry Kissinger and was told, "the use of power against seeming odds pays off. Cause all the experts were saying that 30,000 people can't get control of 75 million." To which, Nixon added, "30,000 well-disciplined people can take 75 million any time…look at what the British did when they came to India …anyway I wish Yahya well". Why such moral bankruptcy? Because the Nixon administration was using Pakistan to open a secret channel of communication with China, and General Yahya was instrumental in coordinating Nixon's visit to Peking.

The British were much more pragmatic. They decidedly did not want to take any side "while recognising the relative importance and strength of India." Britain's core interests in South Asia remained on securing trade, investment and influence, while "limiting Chinese and Soviet influence particularly in the Indian Ocean". Prime Minister Edward Heath took a strong stance against Pakistani military action and told Pakistan's high commissioner in London in April that any aid to Pakistan would be guided by the British public's reaction to Pakistan's handling of the crisis. By mid-April, however, most of the Commonwealth countries sensed that Pakistan would split into two. The Canadian high commissioner informed Ottawa that "the Pakistan of Jinnah is dead" and the emergence of an independent East Bengal was inevitable.

Canada, which supplied nuclear reactors to both India and Pakistan, was a key provider of aid to both countries. It was the second largest contributor of aid to Pakistan and was responsible for making sure that Pakistan remained tied to the western bloc during the Cold War. No wonder, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, father of the incumbent Canadian premier, was among the first to be briefed by Pakistan about the justification of its military action. Trudeau was advised by his civil servants to use its position to convince Pakistan of the futility of its military action. In response, the Liberal government led by Trudeau adopted a public posture of neutrality while providing humanitarian aid to refugees from East Pakistan and urging both India and Pakistan to maintain restraint. The big question is: why didn't Canada use its leverage to help Bangladesh earn its freedom? One possible reason is that Canada was trying to diffuse secessionist movements in its own Quebec province. Only in October 1970 had Trudeau sent the army to tackle the paramilitary group Front de libération du Québec. Canada pursued a self-delusional plan, asking the UN to deploy its personnel to initiate a political process in which Pakistan would be told to accommodate greater autonomy to its eastern province and the refugees would find confidence in going back to their home. An idea that makes one reflect on the Rohingya crisis.

Reflecting on our independence during these days of isolation, one truth grips hold of me: every man for himself. Every country for itself. We must learn to secure our interests before we decide to shake (or not to shake) hands with others. But that learning must involve a thorough understanding of the stories that make our existence possible.


Shamsad Mortuza is a Professor of English, University of Dhaka (now on leave). Currently, he is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of ULAB.

Email: [email protected]


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