This is the first post of a four-part series on India-Pakistan 1971 War. The second part is available here
On the night of 31 March 1971, two men huddled under a small culvert somewhere on the India-East Pakistan border. A week ago these men – Tajuddin Ahmad and Amirul Islam – were riding the greatest high of their lives, a landslide victory in the Pakistani elections. And now they were hunted men, escaping from their own country like criminals. Their boss – Sheikh Mujibur Rahman – was already in jail and the Pakistani Army was rounding up thousands of their supporters as of that moment. As the morning came, Ahmad and Islam, cold, hungry and scared for their lives, heard the familiar footsteps of army boots. Soldiers in green uniforms began to appear around them. Islam breathed a sigh of relief. For these were Indian soldiers, here to give them refuge.
It was still hard to see, but the entry of these two men into India was going to set in motion a chain of events leading to perhaps the most significant war in South Asia since the Second World War.
The crisis that had brought Ahmad and Islam to India had its roots in the end of the British Raj. Independence of India and its consequent partition into two countries had left resultant Pakistan as a geographical anomaly unique in the world. Two wings of the nation – West and East Pakistan – were not just separated by a thousand miles of a hostile India, but also by ethnicities and languages. While the west was dominated by Urdu-speaking Punjabis, the east was almost entirely made up of ethnic Bengalis. Further, accidents of history had ensured that the West Pakistan enjoy a certain political dominance over the East. Invariably, this had led to a build-up of resentment that the Bengalis had nursed for decades. The relationship between the two parts of the country was always rocky and periodically worsened over issues like national language. Enter an alcoholic dictator – General Yahya Khan.
In 1970, Yahya had been overseeing the end of yet another bout of military dictatorship in Pakistan, which has a history of swinging between dictatorships and democracies. In the last year, growing agitation had the Pakistani people definitely siding with democracy. And so, Yahya had scheduled general elections in December 1970. In West Pakistan, emerging politician was the firebrand Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and in the East, it was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman or Mujib, an embodiment of Bengali aspirations.
What Yahya and his generals were hoping for was a splintered verdict, something that would let them call the shots from behind the scenes. Instead, they and everyone else was shocked by the results that threw up Mujib with a clear majority by sweeping the entire East Pakistan with 160 out of 162 seats. Meanwhile, military’s own choice Bhutto had limped with only 81 seats out of the 138 in West Pakistan. Not only was the verdict a complete reversal of traditional Pakistani politics, it was also split right down the line between the two wings of the country – perhaps, in itself spelling doom for Pakistan’s unity.
Now the generals had to deal with the possibility of Mujib – a Bengali no less – dictating the terms. This, of course, was unacceptable to them. They began putting their weight behind Bhutto and derailing the political negotiations. Both sides clung to their own agendas and the showdown was not long in coming. After three months of political bickering, Yahya had had enough. On 25 March 1971 he ordered Operation Searchlight – a military crackdown on the entire Bengali leadership and its supporters. Within a week, thousands of students were arrested in Dhaka, Mujib and his colleagues rounded up and shipped to Islamabad, and the Bengali military officers and units disarmed. Overnight East Pakistan turned from a part of the Pakistani nation to an occupied territory.
It was in this chaos that a couple of Mujib’s colleagues – Ahmad and Islam – slipped out of the country to seek refuge in India. New Delhi had been watching the developments in East Pakistan with apprehension for many months. Initially young Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had been reluctant to get involved in what she saw as an internal matter of the Pakistanis. Any attempt to get embroiled in that country would only end up in trouble – both in terms of international scorn and Pakistani revenge. Moreover, this Mujib character did not seem entirely reliable and there was no guarantee that he wouldn’t later turn on India and partner up with someone else like China or United States. Hence, Indian policy had been to wait and watch – so far.
But with the appearance of refugee political leaders of East Pakistan at its doorstep, Mrs. Gandhi was forced to review her policy. Some Indian political leaders like Jayprakash “JP” Narain (who will become Gandhi’s arch-nemesis three years later) had been clamouring for Indian support to the Bengalis. Now with Ahmad and Islam here, the matter had been brought to fore. Finally New Delhi relented and let the escaped politicians form a provisional government on its soil. Additionally, plans were drawn up to provide the Bengalis arms and training to form an insurgency group – eventually called Mukti Bahini – that could harass Pakistanis within their borders. The core of this group was to be formed by the Bengali soldiers of Pakistan Army, who had slipped out of their country after being pre-emptively disarmed by their commanders for the fear of mutiny. Surrounding that core would be the Bengali youths recruited from refugee camps that were beginning to appear on Indian side of the border.
It was these refugees, who quickly became the crux of the whole matter. For the Pakistani Military had moved from a political crackdown to outright genocide. It is unclear whether Yahya ordered a full-scale genocide on his own people or whether things got out of control on the ground. Either way, the Pakistani Army turned its guns on the unarmed Bengali people. A diplomat in Dacca noted that military was systematically killing Awami League supporters “by seeking them out in their homes and shooting them down.” Another reported that there was a “veritable bloodbath taking place in East Pakistan with literally thousands already slain.” And these reports were only within a week of the beginning of the operation. The number of deaths climbed much higher as the massacre continued non-stop for the next seven months. Even today, we don’t know exactly how many were killed but the number was definitely somewhere in hundreds of thousands.
As the killings increased, so did the refugees fleeing to India for their lives. People from all walks of lives left their homes to escape the horrors unleashed upon them by their own government. What was a trickle in March, became a stream in April and by the end of the month it was a flood. By the end of May, 102,000 refugees were coming into India daily. That is 71 refugees per minute! Worse, this figure was only going to go further up. In June alone, close to 30 lakh refugees or 3 million were going to come into India. Eventually, this figure will reach the staggering figure of 10 million. The magnitude of this figure is so astounding that it quickly stops seeming real. But it was. The sheer scale of atrocities being carried out in East Pakistan was becoming comparable to Stalin’s Great Terror.
The Indian border states were quickly overwhelmed by the size of refugee influx. By July, India’s small state of Tripura had a million refugees, when its own population was only 1.5 million. Unsurprisingly, the refugee camps quickly became infested with disease, crime and destitution. Indian Government was running out of resources to even guard the refugees, let alone help them. The cost of refugees was beginning to strain the Indian economy.
Moreover, there was an even more sinister trend emerging. The composition of refugees was changing. By April end refugees coming were 80% Hindus and 20% Muslims, the inverse of East Pakistan’s population demographic. Clearly the Hindus were being targeted by the Pakistan Army. It seemed as if a political genocide had slowly metamorphosed into a communal one, without any real reason for it. To the Indian Government, this was so disturbing that it was quickly hushed up, lest it flare up revenge communal riots in India.
Until now, India had been hesitant in getting involved in the war. This was not due to the Chief of Indian Army Staff Sam Manekshaws refusal to Indira Gandhi, as is often mythologized, but due to the concern over international reaction. Even after India had given Tajuddin Ahmad space for setting up a provisional Government of Bangladesh, it hadn’t really extended much support beyond that. The plans to train and arm Mukti Bahini had largely remained plans, with only some help trickling in. But, by the end of May, New Delhi had had enough. Along with the mounting logical reasons for intervening, there were personal ones as well. Reportedly, Indira Gandhi’s visit to refugee camp in mid-May had left her “so overwhelmed by the scale of human misery that she could hardly speak.” And so India had decided to shift its goal to getting the genocide stopped. Refugees must go back – became Delhi’s top priority.
This, of course, did not mean going to war. “We do not want war,” Indian foreign minister explained to his diplomats. Instead the strategy was to build international pressure on the Yahya regime to stop the atrocities and restore democracy.”Our ultimate objective is that this military regime must give way to a regime which is truly representative of the Awami League [Mujib’s party].” What New Delhi needed was to get other countries together in condemning Yahya. India began sending its emissaries to world capitals – Moscow, Bonn, Paris, Ottawa, London, Tokyo, Canberra, Colombo, Tehran, Belgrade, Warsaw, Cairo and, of course, Washington.
It seemed an obvious enough line – Pakistan is carrying out genocide of its own people of horrific proportions. India is bearing massive economic and human costs for it. All this must be stopped, and can be, bloodlessly, should all countries in the world unite to pressurise Yahya Khan. To anyone alive today – in the aftermath of Mubarak, Qaddafi and Milosevic – it would seem like a possible task. Today, even the dictators like Assad and Kim Jong-il, who do get away massacring their own people, have to pay a terrible price of it in terms of international scorn and sanctions, something that Yahya could not afford.
But getting the world to sanction Pakistan was going to prove an impossible task for Mrs. Gandhi. Because Yahya Khan had the backing of the most powerful man in the world – the President of the United States.
1971 India-Pakistan War Series
Sources: This post is primarily based upon two recent books – Srinath Raghavan’s 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh (2013) and Gary J Bass’s, The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide (2013). These books tap into the treasure trove of declassified material on this topic now available on both Indian and American sides. Other sources used are: Afzal, M. Rafique. Pakistan, History & Politics, 1947-1971. Oxford University Press, 2001; Bundy, William P. A tangled web: the making of foreign policy in the Nixon presidency. Macmillan, 1998; Nihal Singh, S. The yogi and the bear: story of Indo-Soviet relations. Mansell Pub.(London and New York), 1986. I have also used a couple of declassified files from the National Archives of India to get my statistics straight.