‘Defense of the East lies in the West’, was the strategic concept outlined by Gen. Ayub Khan in the late fifties, as lame as it seems today, also shows the latent inclination of the West to prioritize itself in contrast to the East. Nevertheless, it also shows the impossibility of uniting two lands separated by 1600 km of enemy territory, converging in belief but diverging in historical precedence.
Bengalis are the third largest ethnic group in the world after the Han Chinese and the Arabs. Almost 300 million Bengalis live in Bangladesh, West Bengal, Tripura and Assam, thus forming an ethnicity that surpasses their state boundaries at all sides. This was mismatch with West Pakistan that had over eight major ethnicities that were culturally dissected with each other in spite of living side by side for centuries.
In contrast to the people of West Pakistan, the people of Bengal also had a larger historical conscience as regards to their struggle against the British and the French. Bengal is one of the states of United India that stood in defiance of the aspiring occupiers at a time when the center at Delhi was too weak to confront them. Under the contemplative and daring leadership of Alivardi Khan (1740–56) and later his son Siraj-ud-Daulah, the British and French interests at the Bengali ports at Calcutta and Chandernagore were kept strictly at bay. Later Bengal stamped its mark in the 1857 War of Independence with the Mangal Panday incidence, making it one of the first to incite of revolt against the British Army at Barrackpore, Calcutta.
With all this fervor for freedom in their past was it that the Bengalis come to face their internal Hindu Muslim divide with the 1905 Partition of Bengal. This partition had not been asked for by the Bengali Muslims but Hindu resistance against the divide made a clear two-nation recognition between these two people, in the eyes of the Bengali Muslims.
Thus, when Pakistan came into creation, its eastern flank, Bengal was not just a province, but a state with its own accumulated history, conscience and geography that deserved autonomy. It was unwise of West Pakistan to think, if it did, that the Bengali Muslim did not understand the meaning of subservience, living for centuries under the coercion of the Hindu Zimindars of West Bengal.
The purpose of this essay, therefore, is not to justify any act of West Pakistan that is seen as heavy-handed by the East, nor to try to prove right the wrongs, but rather to bring to light the role of India in the midst of the civil conflict between the two flanks of Pakistan – and what both Pakistan and Bangladesh lost and gained in the forthcomings.
Before proceeding to the war, it would be useful to take a glance on Bangladesh’s geography and how it weighs on India. Bangladesh isolates North East India from mainland India making a broad barrier that is only traversed through the Siliguri chicken-neck – 17miles broad passage entrenched between Bangladesh and Nepal. All the North-Eastern states, Assam, Tripura, Mizoram, Nagaland and Meghalaya have been hotbeds of separatist movements rooted in dissent caused by the incapacity of India to bring economic advancement or political stability for the remote provinces. The largest of these provinces, Assam is a Muslim majority state that had historically been a part of Bengal until 1912, when the Partition of Bengal had been reverted. Assam lines the complete border of India with the disputed land of Arunachal Pradesh and with Bhutan.
In 1962, India lost a war with China, wherein China took control over its claimed Aksai Chin bordering the Kashmir region. China had incorporated Tibet in the Chinese Republic in 1951, and claimed Himalayan territories like Arunachal Pradesh, Bhutan, Sikkim and Nepal to be culturally part of Tibetan culture. To counter this thinking, India supported the Tibetan uprising (1959) and the Dalai Lama of Nepal who had led the uprising; this enraged China, who saw this as India’s covert intervention into Chinese lands. Now with defeat at the hands of the Chinese, India became highly apprehensive of China’s interest in the Himalayan track and started maneuvering to make the Himalayan Kingdom of Sikkim, an Indian protectorate, a part of India. When achieved, this would close any possibility for the Chinese to reach Bangladesh or the North-Eastern States directly in case of war. With Bhutan already in a Treaty of Friendship with India, as it had agreed to let India ‘guide’ its foreign policy and defense affairs, India foresaw a comfortable ‘Himalayan frontier’ security policy.
Dissent in the West
When Pakistan was born in 1947, it was born in the laps of a mother-country that was bent on whipping it out of existence from the very first day. West Pakistan, where the central government was formed by Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was much poorer and smaller than India and was to deal with a neighbor that had forcefully snatched away Kashmir from it, dragging it into war in the very first year. Political instability soon gave the military a chance to take over in 1958, with a 13 years long dictatorial era. In all this time the Bengali people felt more and more neglected in both economic and security matters and hence gathered under the Awami Muslim League, founded by Sheikh Mujeeb since 1949. Sheikh Mujeeb who was a socialist, presented his 6-points agenda in 1966, wherein he asked for federation, separate taxing and banking and a separate militia or paramilitary force for the East. These demands that formalized dissent of the Bengalis against the West, were reasonable enough and the West should have foreseen at that time that it was neither fair nor feasible to control the East from such a distance, which was not only spatial but also cultural, linguistic, historic and political and meant dealing with two strategically disparate arenas. Fairness among the two flanks was not a possibility, because the West looked at the East as simply a province, seven times smaller than the West; it saw that the West was responsible for the security of all its provinces including the eastern one; and was also dealing with the Kashmir dilemma – therefore it saw itself as the natural seat for power and administration.
Therefore, when dissent appeared, instead of dealing with East Pakistan with compliance, the West decided to show an iron hand by arresting Sheikh Mujeeb and accusing his party members as conspirators who were scheming to divide Pakistan and threaten its unity and security. In his desperation for freedom the Sheikh had made a dire fault of tying up with the Indians in a bid to secede East Pakistan from the West, at Agartala, Tripura, in 1968. In 2010, doubts about the case were removed when surviving conspirator and Deputy Speaker of Bangladeshi Parliament Shawkat Ali, confessed in the parliament that the charges brought against the accused in the Agartala Case were not false, ‘We formed a Sangram Parishad led by Bangabandhu to free East Pakistan through armed protest’.
Seeking autonomy or even secession was not a moral crime on part of Sheikh Mujeeb considering that he and like-minded Bengalis thought of West Pakistan as their exploiters and that this grievance would only multiply with the years and coming generations – rather the Sheikh’s crime was to collude with an enemy state against own state, the East and West being a single state at that time.
What was needed at that time was for the leaders of both the West and the East to realize their power as a unity. Though distance had brought much issues but the same would bring enormous geopolitical and strategic advantages in the long term. But the two people of this young state were perhaps so exhausted with their struggle for freedoms that they could not see what lay beyond mere freedom; the trials they were to face in the increasingly competitive world of the 21st century. A world in which their twin-born India was not going to be celebrating its newly found freedoms with humility but would rather be engulfing neighbors in its dream of a new era for imperial India.
The War and India
When India saw eminent dissent between the two flanks of Pakistan it maneuvered swiftly in the political and military fronts. Politically India started a campaign of lies regarding 10million Bengali refugees sent off into its states in two months between March and May. Indira Gandhi set herself “on a campaign of personal diplomacy in the European capitals and Moscow to prepare the ground for India’s armed intervention”, briefing the world over the genocide and rape West Pakistan was committing upon the East.
At the time a total of 34,000 combatant troops and 11,000 non-combatants of Pakistan Army were stationed in East Pakistan. These were distributed in 13 brigades around the state, roughly putting 2500 combatants in each spot. The Indian Army and RAW had taken precedence in accepting Bengali dissidents in refugee camps for training and arming perhaps since 1968, when the Agartala understanding had taken place. Mukti Bahini that was fully active in early March 1971, with an approximate force of 150,000 fighters surrounded each of the divisions, which means roughly 11,500 Mukti fighters against each 2500 of Pak Army’s. Moreover, Mukti fighters were trained and equipped by Indian Army and RAW, so they must be capable of engaging militarily with the divisions. On top of that the Indian Army had deployed 4 brigades and 7 divisions (3 on the eastern border and 4 on the western) which would roughly make 6,000 men in the brigades and 90,000 in the divisions at a lower estimate. This amounted in a force of over 7000 men attacking each brigade from cross border as in conventional warfare. The Indian Army had roughly started its action from 10th of April. Anyone with simple math and common sense can say if the Pakistan Army was in a position of attack or was even totally defenseless in its defense!
The Operation Searchlight that went on from 26 March to 25 April and lasted for just 30 days – of which India claimed that 3million Bengalis were killed, can be seen as quite ridiculous. On the grounds that Mukti Bahini was fully operational in early March and the Indian Army in early April, it is most improbable that the Pakistan Army would have had the luxury to set itself on a kill-spree, when its own survival was in question. Moreover, these high numbers would require an average of 100,000 kills every day and it would also mean dragging over 300,000 Bengalis across the border every day! Such a sweep would require dragnet/herding tactics, as used in African genocides, wherein we see broad spread of the forces, relentless fire-power, large scale attacks, arson and rape – a warfare that is always attempted by a very strong military force against a completely defenseless population – not like in the case of West Pakistan’s forces entrenched within hostile population.
In the same context, the massacre of the Bihari community, which they claim to be around 500,000, should also be pondered upon. One should reckon that the main goal of Mukti Bahini was to surround the Pakistan Army and get the liberty they were dreaming of, not to kill the Bihari. So, all in all, massacres did take place but the numbers seem to be highly exaggerated on each side. Excessive killings, on the other hand, would suit the Indian narrative, who needed a grave-Pakistan image in order to legitimize its wholescale intervention.
The bottom line is that this war not just a War of Liberation fought by the Bengalis against West Pakistan so much as it was a war of India against both West and East Pakistan. Because whatever the causes of dissent and however much the magnitude of anger, a united Pakistan would have been much more assertive in the geopolitical front in coming times than a Pakistan and Bangladesh distanced by hate and Indian connivance.
Revisiting the 1971 War has to be of prime importance for those who realize what has been lost in that war. And for them only is the path of a renewed struggle of bridging the severed ties.
What has been lost is immense, both for Pakistan and Bangladesh and for the Muslim of the Subcontinent as a whole. The Muslims of United India had made tireless sacrifices to achieve these free Muslim lands at their flanks – they believed in the Two Nation Theory and their struggle was not for the Bengalis or the Punjabis but for the Muslim creed. The division of this newly born state on the basis of ethnic and linguistic reasons and the widely propagated stories of massacre of one Muslim community at the hands of another not only kills the spirit of the Two Nation Theory – rather it gives a drubbing to the faith that the India Muslims must have had in the state they had reared with blood and passion.
For Bangladesh, the loss was of great consequence. Firstly, India leapt into the war with an understanding that the Sheikh would not go for an Islamistan or an Islamic Republic of Bengal but simply for a secular and ethnic People’s Republic of Bangladesh. Whereas a strong state in Bangladesh, perhaps having strategic and economic partnerships with Pakistan, would have served as a constant threat to India, whose 7 northeastern states can be seen as segregated behind Bangladesh – a militarily and economically weak Bangladesh came to be seen as capsuled between India, relying economically on India and becoming subservient to its foreign policy. As of independence, India has kept border disputes with Bangladesh ongoing. India has also made of shooting-at-sight policy of illegal immigrants trying to cross over into India, which is very distressing. And more than often has accused Bangladesh for supporting insurgent groups form Northeastern states.
India constructed the Farakka Barrage in 1996, by which it controls and obstructs the flow of much needed irrigation water in the lean season, while letting excess flow in the monsoon season, this creates grave economic problems for Bangladesh. Moreover, India in usual imperial lust, improvises miles within Bangladesh’s maritime borders and has even occupied some islands. Bangladesh has a $4billion trade deficit with India because of India’s huge tariffs on products from Bangladesh. India has been compelling Bangladesh to allow rail, road and river transit to connect with its north-eastern states. The tariff that Indian ships pay at Bangladeshi ports is quite low, while the other two options are blocked due to India’s demand that Bangladesh will have to import material for the constructions from India. These irritants define India’s hegemonic stance over Bangladesh, for which reason many at home despise Bangladesh’s government as subservient to that of India’s.
On the other side, Pakistan faces pressure at its three sides with Indian deployment in its east and in its north in Kashmir and Indian intervention in its west in Afghanistan. India’s attempt to strangle Pakistan is accompanied by its longtime psychosis of defaming Pakistan internationally. India also threatens Pakistan in regards to its waters, and covertly instigates terrorism inside the country via its borders at the west and via Afghanistan. Imagine if Bangladesh and Pakistan had a shared foreign policy today, how would that have helped restricting India’s imperial lust over the two sides and beyond. In time, Assam could have become a bargain card for the resolution of Kashmir; the Shiliguri Corridor could have kept India from intervening in China’s matters; and the Chittagong Port would have been under construction as part of CPEC today; and both Pakistan and Bangladesh would have been more fearless and assertive in policies that favor their own states.
The conclusion of this essay is simple – India won all fronts and all aspects of the war and Pakistan and Bangladesh lost much more than the little they may have achieved. Stubbornness and shortsightedness specially of the West and impatience of the East cost us our geostrategic and ideological wars.
Now, it is not the time to lament old wounds that have healed themselves as hideous scars in the decades that followed – rather today is the time to remove the hate, erase the lies, expunge the resents and embrace the brethren with open arms – it is time to reflect over the innate conscience of the two Muslim people, who believe in peace, that they cannot be each other’s killers. Perhaps not today, but a later date may see the two separated flanks endorsing and defending one another in the global arena – God willing.
Author is a geopolitical analyst and tweets at @aneelashahzad.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are exclusively personal and do not necessarily reflect the position or editorial policy of Oracle Opinions.