The Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971 was the culmination of a 25-year tumultuous relationship between East and West Pakistan. The British failed to keep a united India as riots started between the Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims in 1946. The riots were so widespread that on August 14, 1947 India was portioned into two separate states.
Thus partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 divided British India into two independent countries of India and Pakistan. Pakistan was composed of two wings–East and West Pakistan. The two wings were united emotionally, but the marriage of the two wings was artificial as they had little in common other than religion. Their speech, thought, food habits, dress, living and generally speaking, their respective way of life, were totally different.
These differences, in course of time, gave rise to a tumultuous relationship that failed to keep the two wings united. The flawed relationship ended in a brutal war in 1971. As such, it is imperative to learn the background of the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971.
Causes of War
Bangladeshis had one language and were proud of their ancestry; their language and literature were older than Urdu, the national language of West Pakistan, used by minority. Yet Mohammad Ali Jinnah stated in a public speech in March 1948 that Urdu would remain the state language of Pakistan. This infuriated all the non-Urdu speaking people of East Pakistan. On February 21, 1952, students and other civilians came out in the streets in protest but the police cracked down on the unarmed civilians. For East Pakistan, the language movement was the first stepping stone to independence.
The first provincial elections were held in East Pakistan in 1954. In this election, Suhrawardy’s newly organized Awami League (Peoples’ League) allied with Fazlul Huq’s Peasants’ and Workers’ Party and a coalition of other Bangladeshi-dominated parties to form the United Front. In this election, the people of East Pakistan voted unilaterally for the alliance. As a result, the United Front had the maximum number of seats. Nurul Amin’s Muslim League, the dominant party in West Pakistan, won just 10 seats in East Pakistan; and thus, the Urdu-speaking people in East Pakistan’s ability to dictate policy was essentially finished. Fazlul Huq also became the chief minister of East Pakistan. The fine showing of the United Front convinced the politicians, civil servants, and the military at the center that they had to constrain Bangladeshi nationalism.
Ayub Khan’s Declaration of Martial Law–1958
In 1957 and 1958 governments rose and fell in Dhaka as the result of both instability in the assembly alignments and of intervention by the central government.43 As a sequel to the uncertainty, the deputy speaker of the house was killed in a riot. In such a dilapidated condition, president Mirza abrogated the constitution and declared martial law. General Ayub Khan remained as the chief martial law administrator. In 1962 Ayub Khan promulgated the new constitution of Pakistan, primarily giving enormous power to the president. Unfortunately, nothing addressed the concerns of East Bengal; and as such, anger, resentment and Bengali nationalism continued to grow.
Awami League’s Six-Point Program–1966
Before the resignation of Ayub Khan, several events took place in the political spectrum. Among those, the Awami League’s Six-Point Program was viewed as a foundational document in Bangladesh’s struggle for independence. This was not an instant memorandum developed within a short time. Rather, it was an outcome of Bangladeshi grievances accumulated for a long time. The initiation of the Six-Point Program started as a sequel to several events. However, the election of 1965 played an important role in formulating the program
As Yahya Khan received the Six-Point Program from the Awami League, he opined that he was not in a position to implement them. He reiterated his prime task was to hold a general election in 1970 and hand over power at that point. However, in the December 1970 elections, the Awami League won 160 of 162 seats from East Pakistan. Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples’ Party was successful in the west, winning 81 of 83 seats. Yahya Khan opened talks with both the leaders but failed to reach a consensus, and thus failed to hand over the power to an elected government.
There is no doubt that the creation of an independent Bangladesh was in India’s interest for many reasons.
- Firstly, the Indo–Pakistan War in 1965 over Kashmir was one of the tipping points in this regard. India spent a huge amount of money to keep armed forces at a constant state of readiness along the border of her hostile neighbor. A warm relationship with an independent Bangladesh would reduce this big expenditure.
- Secondly, India also wanted to start trading with East Pakistan for mutual benefit. But due to several political deadlocks, it was not a foregone conclusion.
- Thirdly, Pakistani rulers created a problem for India by training and militarily equipping the Naga rebels of Assam (northeastern part of India), who claimed a portion of India to establish an independent Nagaland.
- Apart from these issues, millions of East Pakistanis had religious, cultural, and linguistic ties with India. West Pakistani rulers also demeaned the Hindus of East Pakistan; whereas India was a Hindu-dominated country.
For all these reasons and more, India preferred an independent Bangladesh as a tonic to all these problems. The Indian government expected that if Bangladesh became independent, it would cooperate with India in a much wider form.
Course of War
On March 25, 1971, Yahya Khan, Bhutto and other members left for West Pakistan without giving any message or warning to the Awami League leaders. The West Pakistani military launched its sudden attack on March 25, 1917 at 11 p.m.it used automatic rifles, automatic weapons, bayonets and tanks. Yahya Khan appointed General Tikka Khan as the overall commander, and he was given 48 hours to suppress Bangladeshi nationalist movement. Within 34 hours, approximately 10,000 unarmed civilians were killed.
Until November 21, 1971, mostly Bangladeshi regular forces along with the Mukti Bahini operated in different parts of the country. Besides, there were few naval and air assets utilized to complement the war effort. However, on November 21, 1971 all the forces–Bangladesh Army, Navy, Air Force as well as the Mukti Bahini–launched their joint offensive against Pakistani military.
Pakistan launched the war against India on December 3, 1971, the UN took a more vigorous approach to the problem. While Soviet Union was supporting India, the U.S. and Chine stood by Pakistan. On December 5, 1971 Moscow vetoed a U.S. resolution urging the Security Council to call upon India and Pakistan to carry out a cease fire and military withdrawal.
The Russians exercised another veto within 24 hours when on December 7, 1971, the General Assembly voted 104 against 11 to call upon India and Pakistan to cease fire immediately and withdraw their forces to respective territories.
While the UN was debating, the war on the ground was going in favor of India. In the meantime, U.S. dispatched a naval task forces led by the nuclear-powered carrier Enterprise from U.S. seventh fleet. By the time the naval task force was close to Chittagong port of East Pakistan, all Pakistani forces surrendered unconditionally. If the UN espoused cease fire would be in effect, Bangladeshis’ hope for independence was not to be materialized.
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