Bangladesh Liberation War
The Bangladesh Liberation War<href=”#Nomenclature”>(i) (Bengali: ??????????? Muktijuddho) was an armed conflict pitting East Pakistan and India against West Pakistan. The war resulted in the secession of East Pakistan, which became the independent nation of Bangladesh.
The war broke out on 26 March 1971 as army units directed by West Pakistan launched a military operation in East Pakistan against Bengali civilians, students, intelligentsia, and armed personnel who were demanding separation of the East from West Pakistan. Bengali military, paramilitary, and civilians formed the Mukti Bahini (Bengali: ?????? ?????? “Liberation Army”) and used guerrilla warfare tactics to fight against the West Pakistan army. India provided economic, military and diplomatic support to the Mukti Bahini rebels, leading Pakistan to launch Operation Chengiz Khan, a pre-emptive attack on the western border of India which started the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971.
On 16 December 1971, the allied forces of the Indian army and the Mukti Bahini defeated the West Pakistani forces deployed in the East. The resulting surrender was the largest in number of prisoners of war since World War II.
In August 1947, the Partition of British India gave birth to two new states; a secular state named India and an Islamic state named Pakistan. But Pakistan comprised two geographically and culturally separate areas to the east and the west of India. The western zone was popularly (and for a period of time, also officially) termed West Pakistan and the eastern zone (modern-day Bangladesh) was initially termed East Bengal and later, East Pakistan. Although the population of the two zones was close to equal, political power was concentrated in West Pakistan and it was widely perceived that East Pakistan was being exploited economically, leading to many grievances.
On 25 March 1971, rising political discontent and <href=”#Cultural_nationalism” title=”Nationalism”>cultural nationalism in East Pakistan was met by brutal<href=”#cite_note-genwatch-8″> suppressive force from the ruling elite of the West Pakistan establishment<href=”#cite_note-rule-9″> in what came to be termed Operation Searchlight.<href=”#cite_note-10″>
The violent crackdown by West Pakistan forces<href=”#cite_note-NYT-11″> led to East Pakistan declaring its independence as the state of Bangladesh and to the start of civil war. The war led to a sea of refugees (estimated at the time to be about 10 million)<href=”#cite_note-report-12″><href=”#cite_note-Times13-13″> flooding into the eastern provinces of India.<href=”#cite_note-report-12″> Facing a mounting humanitarian and economic crisis, India started actively aiding and organizing the Bangladeshi resistance army known as the Mukti Bahini.
East Pakistani grievances
|This section needs additional <href=”#Inline_citations” title=”Wikipedia:Citing sources”>citations for verification.|
Although East Pakistan accounted for a slight majority of the country’s population,<href=”#cite_note-pop-14″> political power remained firmly in the hands of West Pakistanis. Since a straightforward system of representation based on population would have concentrated political power in East Pakistan, the West Pakistani establishment came up with the “One Unit” scheme, where all of West Pakistan was considered one province. This was solely to counterbalance the East wing’s votes.
After the assassination of Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s first prime minister, in 1951, political power began to be devolved to the President of Pakistan, and eventually, the military. The nominal elected chief executive, the Prime Minister, was frequently sacked by the establishment, acting through the President.
East Pakistanis noticed that whenever one of them, such as Khawaja Nazimuddin, Muhammad Ali Bogra, or Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy was elected Prime Minister of Pakistan, he were swiftly deposed by the largely West Pakistani establishment. The military dictatorships of Ayub Khan (27 October 1958 – 25 March 1969) and Yahya Khan (25 March 1969 – 20 December 1971), both West Pakistanis, only heightened such feelings.
The situation reached a climax when in 1970 the Awami League, the largest East Pakistani political party, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, won a landslide victory in the national elections. The party won 167 of the 169 seats allotted to East Pakistan, and thus a majority of the 313 seats in the National Assembly. This gave the Awami League the constitutional right to form a government. However, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (a Sindhi), the leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party, refused to allow Rahman to become the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Instead, he proposed the idea of having two Prime Ministers, one for each wing. The proposal elicited outrage in the east wing, already chafing under the other constitutional innovation, the “one unit scheme”. Bhutto also refused to accept Rahman’s Six Points. On 3 March 1971, the two leaders of the two wings along with the President General Yahya Khan met in Dhaka to decide the fate of the country. Talks failed. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman called for a nationwide strike.
On 7 March 1971, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (soon to be the prime minister) delivered a speech at the Racecourse Ground (now called the Suhrawardy Udyan). In this speech he mentioned a further four-point condition to consider the National Assembly Meeting on 25 March:
- The immediate lifting of martial law.
- Immediate withdrawal of all military personnel to their barracks.
- An inquiry into the loss of life.
- Immediate transfer of power to the elected representative of the people before the assembly meeting 25 March.
He urged “his people” to turn every house into a fort of resistance. He closed his speech saying, “Our struggle is for our freedom. Our struggle is for our independence.” This speech is considered the main event that inspired the nation to fight for its independence. General Tikka Khan was flown in to Dhaka to become Governor of East Bengal. East-Pakistani judges, including Justice Siddique, refused to swear him in.
Between 10 and 13 March, Pakistan International Airlines cancelled all their international routes to urgently fly “Government Passengers” to Dhaka. These “Government Passengers” were almost all Pakistani soldiers in civilian dress. MV Swat, a ship of the Pakistani Navy, carrying ammunition and soldiers, was harboured in Chittagong Port and the Bengali workers and sailors at the port refused to unload the ship. A unit of East Pakistan Rifles refused to obey commands to fire on Bengali demonstrators, beginning a mutiny of Bengali soldiers.
Bengalis were underrepresented in the Pakistan military. Officers of Bengali origin in the different wings of the armed forces made up just 5% of overall force by 1965; of these, only a few were in command positions, with the majority in technical or administrative posts.<href=”#cite_note-Library-15″> West Pakistanis believed that Bengalis were not “martially inclined” unlike Pashtuns and Punjabis; the “martial races” notion was dismissed as ridiculous and humiliating by Bengalis.<href=”#cite_note-Library-15″> Moreover, despite huge defence spending, East Pakistan received none of the benefits, such as contracts, purchasing and military support jobs. The Indo-Pakistani War of 1965 over Kashmir also highlighted the sense of military insecurity among Bengalis as only an under-strength infantry division and 15 combat aircraft without tank support were in East Pakistan to thwart any Indian retaliations during the conflict.<href=”#cite_note-16″><href=”#cite_note-17″>
Main article: Bengali Language Movement
In 1948, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s first Governor-General, declared in Dhaka (then usually spelled Dacca in English) that “Urdu, and only Urdu” would be the common language for all of Pakistan.<href=”#cite_note-jinnah-18″> This proved highly controversial, since Urdu was a language that was only spoken in the West by Muhajirs and in the East by Biharis, although the Urdu language had been promoted as the lingua franca of Indian Muslims by political and religious leaders such as Sir Khwaja Salimullah, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Nawab Viqar-ul-Mulk and Maulvi Abdul Haq. The language was considered a vital element of the Islamic culture for Indian Muslims; Hindi and the Devanagari script were seen as fundamentals of Hindu culture. The majority groups in West Pakistan spoke Punjabi, while the Bengali language was spoken by the vast majority of East Pakistanis.<href=”#cite_note-BangLang-19″> The language controversy eventually reached a point where East Pakistan revolted while the other part of Pakistan remained calm even though Punjabi was spoken by the majority groups of West Pakistan. Several students and civilians lost their lives in a police crackdown on 21 February 1952.<href=”#cite_note-BangLang-19″> The day is revered in Bangladesh and in West Bengal as the Language Martyrs’ Day. Later, in memory of the 1952 killings, UNESCO declared 21 February as the International Mother Language Day in 1999.<href=”#cite_note-20″>
In West Pakistan, the movement was seen as a sectional uprising against Pakistani national interests<href=”#cite_note-AS-21″> and the founding ideology of Pakistan, the Two-Nation Theory.<href=”#cite_note-B2g-22″> West Pakistani politicians considered Urdu a product of Indian Islamic culture,<href=”#cite_note-JSToldenburg-23″> as Ayub Khan said, as late as 1967, “East Bengalis… still are under considerable Hindu culture and influence.”<href=”#cite_note-JSToldenburg-23″> But, the deaths led to bitter feelings among East Pakistanis, and they were a major factor in the push for independence.<href=”#cite_note-B2g-22″><href=”#cite_note-JSToldenburg-23″>
Response to the 1970 cyclone
The 1970 Bhola cyclone made landfall on the East Pakistan coastline during the evening of 12 November, around the same time as a local high tide,<href=”#cite_note-IMD-24″> killing an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 people. Though the exact death toll is not known, it is considered the deadliest tropical cyclone on record.<href=”#cite_note-IWM-25″> A week after the landfall, President Khan conceded that his government had made “slips” and “mistakes” in its handling of the relief efforts due to a lack of understanding of the magnitude of the disaster.<href=”#cite_note-NYT-6-26″>
A statement released by eleven political leaders in East Pakistan ten days after the cyclone hit charged the government with “gross neglect, callous and utter indifference”. They also accused the president of playing down the magnitude of the problem in news coverage.<href=”#cite_note-NYT-10-27″> On 19 November, students held a march in Dhaka protesting the slowness of the government response.<href=”#cite_note-NYT-13-28″> Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani addressed a rally of 50,000 people on 24 November, where he accused the president of inefficiency and demanded his resignation.
As the conflict between East and West Pakistan developed in March, the Dhaka offices of the two government organisations directly involved in relief efforts were closed for at least two weeks, first by a general strike and then by a ban on government work in East Pakistan by the Awami League. With this increase in tension, foreign personnel were evacuated over fears of violence. Relief work continued in the field, but long-term planning was curtailed.<href=”#cite_note-NYT-12-29″> This conflict widened into the Bangladesh Liberation War in December and concluded with the creation of Bangladesh. This is one of the first times that a natural event helped to trigger a civil war.<href=”#cite_note-USAID-30″>
Main article: Operation Searchlight
A planned military pacification carried out by the Pakistan Army — codenamed Operation Searchlight — started on 25 March to curb the Bengali nationalist movement<href=”#cite_note-31″> by taking control of the major cities on 26 March, and then eliminating all opposition, political or military,<href=”#cite_note-32″> within one month. Before the beginning of the operation, all foreign journalists were systematically deported from East Pakistan.<href=”#cite_note-dbpia-33″>
The main phase of Operation Searchlight ended with the fall of the last major town in Bengali hands in mid-May. The operation also began the 1971 Bangladesh atrocities. These systematic killings served only to enrage the Bengalis, which ultimately resulted in the secession of East Pakistan later in the same year. The international media and reference books in English have published casualty figures which vary greatly, from 5,000–35,000 in Dhaka, and 200,000–3,000,000 for Bangladesh as a whole<href=”#cite_note-MathewWhite-6″><href=”#cite_note-34″>, which therefore can be termed as <href=”#International_law” title=”Genocide”>Genocide.
According to the Asia Times,<href=”#cite_note-35″>
At a meeting of the military top brass, Yahya Khan declared: “Kill 3 million of them and the rest will eat out of our hands.” Accordingly, on the night of 25 March, the Pakistani Army launched Operation Searchlight to “crush” Bengali resistance in which Bengali members of military services were disarmed and killed, students and the intelligentsia systematically liquidated and able-bodied Bengali males just picked up and gunned down.
Although the violence focused on the provincial capital, Dhaka, it also affected all parts of East Pakistan. Residential halls of the University of Dhaka were particularly targeted. The only Hindu residential hall — the Jagannath Hall — was destroyed by the Pakistani armed forces, and an estimated 600 to 700 of its residents were murdered. The Pakistani army denies any cold blooded killings at the university, though the Hamood-ur-Rehman commission in Pakistan concluded that overwhelming force was used at the university. This fact and the massacre at Jagannath Hall and nearby student dormitories of Dhaka University are corroborated by a videotape secretly filmed by Prof. Nurul Ullah of the East Pakistan Engineering University, whose residence was directly opposite the student dormitories.<href=”#cite_note-nurullah-36″>
Hindu areas suffered particularly heavy blows. By midnight, Dhaka was burning, especially the Hindu dominated eastern part of the city. Time magazine reported on 2 August 1971, “The Hindus, who account for three-fourths of the refugees and a majority of the dead, have borne the brunt of the Pakistani military hatred.”
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was arrested by the Pakistani Army. Yahya Khan appointed Brigadier (later General) Rahimuddin Khan to preside over a special tribunal prosecuting Mujib with multiple charges. The tribunal’s sentence was never made public, but Yahya caused the verdict to be held in abeyance in any case. Other Awami League leaders were arrested as well, while a few fled Dhaka to avoid arrest. The Awami League was banned by General Yahya Khan.<href=”#cite_note-37″>
Declaration of independence
The violence unleashed by the Pakistani forces on 25 March 1971, proved the last straw to the efforts to negotiate a settlement. Following these outrages, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman signed an official declaration that read:
Today Bangladesh is a sovereign and independent country. On Thursday night, West Pakistani armed forces suddenly attacked the police barracks at Razarbagh and the EPR headquarters at Pilkhana in Dhaka. Many innocent and unarmed have been killed in Dhaka city and other places of Bangladesh. Violent clashes between E.P.R. and Police on the one hand and the armed forces of Pakistan on the other, are going on. The Bengalis are fighting the enemy with great courage for an independent Bangladesh. May Allah aid us in our fight for freedom. Joy Bangla.<href=”#cite_note-38″><href=”#cite_note-39″>
Sheikh Mujib also called upon the people to resist the occupation forces through a radio message.<href=”#cite_note-40″> Mujib was arrested on the night of 25–26 March 1971 at about 1:30 a.m. (as per Radio Pakistan’s news on 29 March 1971).
A telegram containing the text of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s declaration reached some students in Chittagong. The message was translated to Bangla by Dr. Manjula Anwar. The students failed to secure permission from higher authorities to broadcast the message from the nearby Agrabad Station of Radio Pakistan. They crossed Kalurghat Bridge into an area controlled by an East Bengal Regiment under Major Ziaur Rahman. Bengali soldiers guarded the station as engineers prepared for transmission. At 19:45 hrs on 27 March 1971, Major Ziaur Rahman broadcast the announcement of the declaration of independence on behalf of Sheikh Mujibur. On 28 March Major Ziaur Rahman made another announcement,which was as follows:
This is Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendro. I, Major Ziaur Rahman, at the direction of Bangobondhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, hereby declare that the independent People’s Republic of Bangladesh has been established. At his direction, I have taken command as the temporary Head of the Republic. In the name of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, I call upon all Bengalis to rise against the attack by the West Pakistani Army. We shall fight to the last to free our Motherland. By the grace of Allah, victory is ours. Joy Bangla. Audio of Zia’s announcement (interview – Belal Mohammed)
The Kalurghat Radio Station’s transmission capability was limited. The message was picked up by a Japanese ship in Bay of Bengal. It was then re-transmitted by Radio Australia and later by the British Broadcasting Corporation.
M A Hannan, an Awami League leader from Chittagong, is said to have made the first announcement of the declaration of independence over the radio on 26 March 1971.<href=”#cite_note-41″> There is controversy now as to when Major Zia gave his speech. BNP sources maintain that it was 26 March, and there was no message regarding declaration of independence from Mujibur Rahman. Pakistani sources, like Siddiq Salik in Witness to Surrender had written that he heard about Mujibor Rahman’s message on the Radio while Operation Searchlight was going on, and Maj. Gen. Hakeem A. Qureshi in his book The 1971 Indo-Pak War: A Soldier’s Narrative, gives the date of Zia’s speech as 27 March 1971.<href=”#cite_note-42″>
26 March 1971 is considered the official Independence Day of Bangladesh, and the name Bangladesh was in effect henceforth. In July 1971, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi openly referred to the former East Pakistan as Bangladesh.<href=”#cite_note-43″> Some Pakistani and Indian officials continued to use the name “East Pakistan” until 16 December 1971.
Main article: Bangladesh War timeline
March to June
Leaflets and pamphlets played an important role in driving public opinion during the war.
See also: Mukti Bahini
At first resistance was spontaneous and disorganized, and was not expected to be prolonged.<href=”#cite_note-44″> But when the Pakistani Army cracked down upon the population, resistance grew. The Mukti Bahini became increasingly active. The Pakistani military sought to quell them, but increasing numbers of Bengali soldiers defected to the underground “Bangladesh army”. These Bengali units slowly merged into the Mukti Bahini and bolstered their weaponry with supplies from India. Pakistan responded by airlifting in two infantry divisions and reorganizing their forces. They also raised paramilitary forces of Razakars, Al-Badrs and Al-Shams (who were mostly members of the Muslim League, the then government party and other Islamist groups), as well as other Bengalis who opposed independence, and Bihari Muslims who had settled during the time of partition.
On 17 April 1971, a provisional government was formed in Meherpur district in western Bangladesh bordering India with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was in prison in Pakistan, as President, Syed Nazrul Islam as Acting President, and Tajuddin Ahmed as Prime Minister. As fighting grew between the army and the Bengali Mukti Bahini an estimated 10 million Bengalis, mainly Hindus, sought refuge in the Indian states of Assam and West Bengal.<href=”#cite_note-45″>
June – September
Bangladesh forces command was set up on 11 July, with Col. M A G Osmani as commander in chief, Lt. Col. Abdur Rab as chief of Army Staff and Group Captain A K Khandker as Deputy Chief of Army Staff and Chief of Air Force. Bangladesh was divided into Eleven Sectors each with a commander chosen from defected officers of the Pakistani army who joined the Mukti Bahini to conduct guerrilla operations and train fighters. Most of their training camps were situated near the border area and were operated with assistance from India. The 10th Sector was directly placed under a Commander in Chief (C-in-C) and included the Naval Commandos and C-in-C’s special force.<href=”#cite_note-46″> Three brigades (11 Battalions) were raised for conventional warfare; a large guerrilla force (estimated at 100,000) was trained.
Guerrilla operations, which slackened during the training phase, picked up after August. Economic and military targets in Dhaka were attacked. The major success story was Operation Jackpot, in which naval commandos mined and blew up berthed ships in Chittagong on 16 August 1971. Pakistani reprisals claimed lives of thousands of civilians. The Indian army took over supplying the Mukti Bahini from the BSF. They organised six sectors for supplying the Bangladesh forces.
October – December
Bangladesh conventional forces attacked border outposts. Kamalpur, Belonia and Battle of Boyra are a few examples. 90 out of 370 BOPs fell to Bengali forces. Guerrilla attacks intensified, as did Pakistani and Razakar reprisals on civilian populations. Pakistani forces were reinforced by eight battalions from West Pakistan. The Bangladeshi independence fighters even managed to temporarily capture airstrips at Lalmonirhat and Shalutikar.<href=”#cite_note-47″> Both of these were used for flying in supplies and arms from India. Pakistan sent 5 battalions from West Pakistan as reinforcements.
Illustration showing military units and troop movements during the war.
See also: Indo-Pakistani War of 1971
Wary of the growing involvement of India, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) launched a pre-emptive strike on India. The attack was modelled on the Israeli Air Force‘s Operation Focus during the Six-Day War. However, the plan failed to achieve the desired success and was seen as an open act of unprovoked aggression against the Indians.
Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi declared war on Pakistan and in aid of the Mukti Bahini, then ordered the immediate mobilisation of troops and launched the full-scale invasion. This marked the official start of the Indo-Pakistani War.
Three Indian corps were involved in the invasion of East Pakistan. They were supported by nearly three brigades of Mukti Bahini fighting alongside them, and many more fighting irregularly. This was far superior to the Pakistani army of three divisions.<href=”#cite_note-48″> The Indians quickly overran the country, bypassing heavily defended strongholds. Pakistani forces were unable to effectively counter the Indian attack, as they had been deployed in small units around the border to counter guerrilla attacks by the Mukti Bahini.<href=”#cite_note-49″> Unable to defend Dhaka, the Pakistanis surrendered on 16 December 1971.
The speed of the Indian strategy can be gauged by the fact that one of the regiments of Indian army (7 Punjab now 8 Mechanised Inf Regiment) fought the liberation war along the Jessore and Khulna axis. They were newly converted to a mechanised regiment and it took them just 1 week to reach Khulna after capturing Jessore. Their losses were limited to just 2 newly acquired APCs (SKOT) from the Russians.
India’s external intelligence agency, the RAW, played a crucial role in providing logistic support to the Mukti Bahini during the initial stages of the war. RAW’s operations, in then-East Pakistan, was the largest covert operation in the history of South Asia.
Pakistan launched a number of armoured thrusts along India’s western front in attempts to force Indian troops away from East Pakistan. Pakistan tried to fight back and boost the sagging morale by incorporating the Special Services Group commandos in sabotage and rescue missions.
The air and naval war
The Indian Air Force carried out several sorties against Pakistan, and within a week, IAF aircraft dominated the skies of East Pakistan. It achieved near-total air supremacy by the end of the first week as the entire Pakistani air contingent in the east, PAF No.14 Squadron, was grounded because of Indian airstrikes at Tejgaon, Kurmitolla, Lal Munir Hat and Shamsher Nagar. Sea Hawks from INS Vikrant also struck Chittagong, Barisal and Cox’s Bazar, destroying the eastern wing of the Pakistan Navy and effectively blockading the East Pakistan ports, thereby cutting off any escape routes for the stranded Pakistani soldiers. The nascent Bangladesh Navy (comprising officers and sailors who defected from the Pakistani Navy) aided the Indians in the marine warfare, carrying out attacks, most notably Operation Jackpot.
Surrender and aftermath
Indian Lt. Gen J.S. Aurora and Pakistani Lt. Gen A.A.K. Niazi’s signatures on the Instrument of Surrender.
On 16 December 1971, Lt. Gen A. A. K. Niazi, CO of Pakistan Army forces located in East Pakistan signed the instrument of surrender. At the time of surrender only a few countries had provided diplomatic recognition to the new nation. Over 90,000 Pakistani troops surrendered to the Indian forces making it the largest surrender since World War II. Bangladesh sought admission in the United Nations with most voting in its favor, but China vetoed this as Pakistan was its key ally.<href=”#cite_note-50″> The United States, also a key ally of Pakistan, was one of the last nations to accord Bangladesh recognition.<href=”#cite_note-51″> To ensure a smooth transition, in 1972 the Simla Agreement was signed between India and Pakistan. The treaty ensured that Pakistan recognized the independence of Bangladesh in exchange for the return of the Pakistani PoWs. India treated all the PoWs in strict accordance with the Geneva Convention, rule 1925.<href=”#cite_note-52″> It released more than 90,000 Pakistani PoWs in five months.<href=”#cite_note-53″>
Further, as a gesture of goodwill, nearly 200 soldiers who were sought for war crimes by Bengalis were also pardoned by India. The accord also gave back more than 13,000 km² of land that Indian troops had seized in West Pakistan during the war, though India retained a few strategic areas;<href=”#cite_note-54″> most notably Kargil (which would in turn again be the focal point for a war between the two nations in 1999). This was done as a measure of promoting “lasting peace” and was acknowledged by many observers as a sign of maturity by India. But some in India felt that the treaty had been too lenient to Bhutto, who had pleaded for leniency, arguing that the fragile democracy in Pakistan would crumble if the accord was perceived as being overly harsh by Pakistanis.
Reaction in West Pakistan to the war
Reaction to the defeat and dismemberment of half the nation was a shocking loss to top military and civilians alike. No one had expected that they would lose the formal war in under a fortnight and there was also anger at what was perceived as a meek surrender of the army in East Pakistan. Yahya Khan‘s dictatorship collapsed and gave way to Bhutto who took the opportunity to rise to power. General Niazi, who surrendered along with 93,000 troops, was viewed with suspicion and hatred upon his return to Pakistan. He was shunned and branded a traitor. The war also exposed the shortcomings of Pakistan’s declared strategic doctrine that the “defence of East Pakistan lay in West Pakistan”.<href=”#cite_note-55″> Pakistan also failed to gather international support, and found itself fighting a lone battle with only the USA providing any external help. This further embittered the Pakistanis who had faced the worst military defeat of an army in decades.
The debacle immediately prompted an enquiry headed by Justice Hamoodur Rahman. Called the Hamoodur Rahman Commission, it was initially suppressed by Bhutto as it put the military in a poor light. When it was declassified, it showed many failings from the strategic to the tactical levels. It also condemned the atrocities and the war crimes committed by the armed forces. It confirmed the looting, rapes and the killings by the Pakistan Army and their local agents although the figures are far lower than the ones quoted by Bangladesh. According to Bangladeshi sources, 200,000 women were raped and over 3 million people were killed, while the Rahman Commission report in Pakistan claimed 26,000 died and the rapes were in the hundreds. However, the army’s role in splintering Pakistan after its greatest military debacle was largely ignored by successive Pakistani governments.
Rayerbazar killing field photographed immediately after the war, showing dead bodies of intellectuals (Image courtesy: Rashid Talukdar, 1971)
Main article: 1971 Bangladesh atrocities
During the war there were widespread killings and other atrocities – including the displacement of civilians in Bangladesh (East Pakistan at the time) and widespread violations of human rights – carried out by the Pakistan Army with support from political and religious militias, beginning with the start of Operation Searchlight on 25 March 1971. Bangladeshi authorities claim that three million people were killed,<href=”#cite_note-MathewWhite-6″> while the Hamoodur Rahman Commission, an official Pakistan Government investigation, put the figure as low as 26,000 civilian casualties.<href=”#cite_note-deathcount-pakistani-56″> The international media and reference books in English have also published figures which vary greatly from 200,000 to 3,000,000 for Bangladesh as a whole.<href=”#cite_note-MathewWhite-6″> A further eight to ten million people fled the country to seek safety in India.<href=”#cite_note-Rummel-8-2-57″>
A large section of the intellectual community of Bangladesh were murdered, mostly by the Al-Shams and Al-Badr forces,<href=”#cite_note-2006-06-18-58″> at the instruction of the Pakistani Army.<href=”#cite_note-2005-12-14-59″> Just 2 days before the surrender, on 14 December 1971, Pakistan Army and Razakar militia (local collaborators) picked up at least 100 physicians, professors, writers and engineers in Dhaka, and murdered them, leaving the dead bodies in a mass grave.<href=”#cite_note-nyt12-19-1971-60″> There are many mass graves in Bangladesh, and as years pass, more are being discovered (such as one in an old well near a mosque in Dhaka, located in the non-Bengali region of the city, which was discovered in August 1999).<href=”#cite_note-61″> The first night of war on Bengalis, which is documented in telegrams from the American Consulate in Dhaka to the United States State Department, saw indiscriminate killings of students of Dhaka University and other civilians.<href=”#cite_note-62″> Numerous women were tortured, raped and killed during the war; the exact numbers are not known and are a subject of debate. Bangladeshi sources cite a figure of 200,000 women raped, giving birth to thousands of war babies. The Pakistan Army also kept numerous Bengali women as sex-slaves inside the Dhaka Cantonment. Most of the girls were captured from Dhaka University and private homes.<href=”#cite_note-time.oct25-1971-63″> There was significant sectarian violence not only perpetrated and encouraged by the Pakistani army,<href=”#cite_note-usconsulate_cable_march31-64″> but also by Bengali nationalists against non-Bengali minorities, especially Biharis.<href=”#cite_note-Bihari_Refugees-65″>
On 16 December 2002, the George Washington University’s National Security Archive published a collection of declassified documents, consisting mostly of communications between US embassy officials and United States Information Service centers in Dhaka and India, and officials in Washington DC.<href=”#cite_note-sajit-gandhi-66″> These documents show that US officials working in diplomatic institutions within Bangladesh used the terms selective genocide<href=”#cite_note-SelectiveGenocide-67″> and genocide (see The Blood Telegram) to describe events they had knowledge of at the time. Genocide is the term that is still used to describe the event in almost every major publication and newspaper in Bangladesh,<href=”#cite_note-bangladeshobserver-68″><href=”#cite_note-Dr._N.Rabbee-69″> although elsewhere, particularly in Pakistan, the actual death toll, motives, extent, and destructive impact of the actions of the Pakistani forces are disputed.
The United States supported Pakistan both politically and materially. U.S. President Richard Nixon denied getting involved in the situation, saying that it was an internal matter of Pakistan. But when Pakistan’s defeat seemed certain, Nixon sent the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise to the Bay of Bengal, a move deemed by the Indians as a nuclear threat. Enterprise arrived on station on 11 December 1971. On 6 December and 13 December, the Soviet Navy dispatched two groups of ships, armed with nuclear missiles, from Vladivostok; they trailed U.S. Task Force 74 in the Indian Ocean from 18 December until 7 January 1972.
The Nixon administration provided support to Pakistan President Yahya Khan during the turmoil.
Nixon and Henry Kissinger feared Soviet expansion into South and Southeast Asia. Pakistan was a close ally of the People’s Republic of China, with whom Nixon had been negotiating a <href=”#Rapprochement” title=”Sino-American relations”>rapprochement and which he intended to visit in February 1972. Nixon feared that an Indian invasion of West Pakistan would mean total Soviet domination of the region, and that it would seriously undermine the global position of the United States and the regional position of America’s new tacit ally, China. In order to demonstrate to China the bona fides of the United States as an ally, and in direct violation of the US Congress-imposed sanctions on Pakistan, Nixon sent military supplies to Pakistan and routed them through Jordan and Iran,<href=”#cite_note-Shalom-70″> while also encouraging China to increase its arms supplies to Pakistan.
The Nixon administration also ignored reports it received of the genocidal activities of the Pakistani Army in East Pakistan, most notably the Blood telegram.
The Soviet Union supported Bangladesh and Indian armies, as well as the Mukti Bahini during the war, recognizing that the independence of Bangladesh would weaken the position of its rivals – the United States and China. It gave assurances to India that if a confrontation with the United States or China developed, the USSR would take countermeasures. This was enshrined in the Indo-Soviet friendship treaty signed in August 1971. The Soviets also sent a nuclear submarine to ward off the threat posed by USS Enterprise in the Indian Ocean.
As a long-standing ally of Pakistan, the People’s Republic of China reacted with alarm to the evolving situation in East Pakistan and the prospect of India invading West Pakistan and Pakistani-controlled Kashmir. Believing that just such an Indian attack was imminent, Nixon encouraged China to mobilize its armed forces along its border with India to discourage such an eventuality; the Chinese did not, however, respond in this manner, and instead threw their weight behind demands for an immediate ceasefire.
Though the United Nations condemned the human rights violations, it failed to defuse the situation politically before the start of the war. The Security Council assembled on 4 December to discuss the volatile situation in South Asia. The USSR vetoed the resolution twice. After lengthy discussions on 7 December, the General Assembly promptly adopted by a majority resolution calling for an “immediate cease-fire and withdrawal of troops.” The United States on 12 December requested that the Security Council be reconvened. However, by the time it was reconvened and proposals were finalised, the war had ended, making the measures merely academic.
The inaction of the United Nations in face of the East Pakistan crisis was widely criticized. The conflict also exposed the delay in decision making that failed to address the underlying issues in time.