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Cold facts about the Bangladesh war

Devangshu Datta  |  New Delhi 

Bangladesh celebrates its 39th birthday in two weeks. This year also marks the 19th anniversary of the end of the Cold War (1945-1991). Those long decades of US-USSR rivalry now seem like science fiction for those inured to a more complex unipolar world.

The Cold War could be mapped to a simple analytical matrix: it was a ritualised dance of dominance featuring the USSR versus the US. Both nations had arsenals that could destroy Earth multiple times; they fought proxy wars (Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Middle East) while creating elaborate safeguards to ensure that things never reached nuclear flashpoint.

Bangladesh could have been such a flashpoint. Subcontinentals who have written about it tend to view 1971 purely from nationalistic contexts. It had larger implications and it is sobering to understand how easily it might have escalated.

This book consists of essays that present a Cold War perspective on the secession of East Pakistan (EP). It is based on declassified US documents and other sources like the Mitrokhin Archives. Since none of the principal actors is likely to declassify its own archives, this may be as good as data dumps get.

In 1914, a Serbian terrorist shot two Austrian royals in Sarajevo. As a direct consequence, due to various treaties, Germany, Austria and Turkey ended locked into a four-year war against France, the UK, Russia and eventually the US. In 1971, the US and the USSR along with China could have easily been enmeshed by similar interlocking treaties.

Pakistan was a US ally, ruled by President General Yahya Khan. India tilted increasingly towards the Soviets in seeking protection from China. The Chinese humiliated India in 1962. The Soviets brutalised China in the late 1960s in a “border conflict” that may have been the biggest undeclared war ever. The US was wooing Yahya to act as via media to establish diplomatic relations with China on the basis of “enemy of my enemy” equations.

In December 1970, general elections were held in East Pakistan (162 seats: 76 million population) and West Pakistan (138 seats: 63 million). The Bengali nationalist Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman’s Awami League won every EP seat and claimed a simple majority while Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (103 seats) was the second-largest party.

Handing over to Mujib would have meant Bengali politicians taking charge of a structure built and run by Punjabi generals. Instead, on March 26, 1971, the army launched a crackdown across EP. That rapidly transformed into genocide.

India ended up hosting 10 million refugees, a majority of whom were Hindus (EP was 12 per cent Hindu). Mujib was arrested and tried in-camera for treason in West Pakistan (WP). Other Awami Leaguers, who escaped, formed a government-in-exile in Calcutta. Indira Gandhi (Mrs G) embarked on a global diplomatic campaign seeking peaceful resolution, while privately instructing General Maneckshaw to prepare for war and offering training and arms to the Bangladeshi Mukti Bahini guerrillas.

By November, regular army units were exchanging artillery fire. On December 3, Pakistan made a pre-emptive strike on several western Indian airfields. Mrs G peeled off the kid gloves and went to war. On December 16, General Niazi surrendered in Dhaka and 90,000 Pakistani armymen became PoWs. On December 20, Yahya handed over power to Bhutto and Bangabandhu Mujib returned to Dhaka in triumph.

One must read between the lines of that bald narrative to understand the motives and actions of the Americans, the Soviets, and the Chinese. Narratives by General Jacob and Niazi and Yahya’s dying affidavit contain important details. But none of those conveys the ambience of broader global realpolitik. Richard Sisson and Leo Rose’s War and Secession does more in that respect but this book incorporates new, previously unavailable material.

Khasru’s contentions are that the US was unwilling to “squeeze Yahya” (Nixon’s expression) since he was their conduit to China. But the Americans did talk to the government-in-exile, off the record, and may have helped ensure Mujib was not shot out of hand. After war was joined, Nixon flouted his own laws to route arms to Pakistan through Jordan. The US also brought pressure to bear for a ceasefire through the Security Council (where it was blocked by Soviet veto) and more directly, by deploying the Seventh Fleet in subcontinental waters.

Mrs G was stampeded into the Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty when she learnt from Kissinger that the US was pursuing diplomatic initiatives with China. The Chinese refrained from military action because the Soviets threatened to respond in kind.

There are other little titbits. Mrs G toyed with reclaiming Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and “balkanising” WP, according to information passed on by a member of her 1971 Cabinet, who was a CIA source. (Morarji Desai sued Seymour Hersh in 1990 for suggesting he was that CIA agent). In another revelation, courtesy Mitrokhin, a KGB operative said India’s contingency plans were leaked by a senior Indian general.

The US made several glaring misjudgements, including an assumption India would permanently occupy Bangladesh. Personal animosity between Nixon and Mrs G and the US administration’s contempt for “cowardly and devious” Indians blind-sided them.

The book offers a new perspective, though there’s nothing earth-shattering. Unfortunately, it has some structural flaws, quite apart from spelling and grammar that wander between US, UK and outlandish. The same sections of the same documents are repeatedly quoted. Timelines wander randomly between essays. The lack of temporal linearity in particular makes it inaccessible without detailed prior knowledge of events. Nonetheless, it is worth reading just for the new perspective.


How India, US, China, and the USSR Shaped the Outcome
B Z Khasru
Rupa hardback
477 pages; Rs 595

First Published: Thu, December 02 2010. 00:26 IST