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Bangladesh’s birth pangs

How Indira Gandhi initially misunderstood the crisis in East Pakistan.

Written by Inder Malhotra | Updated: March 2, 2014 11:44 pm
There was no bond between the two wings of Pakistan except religion. And more important, all concerned realised that the newly born country was a geographical monstrosity. c r sasikumar There was no bond between the two wings of Pakistan except religion. And more important, all concerned realised that the newly born country was a geographical monstrosity. c r sasikumar

How Indira Gandhi initially misunderstood the crisis in East Pakistan.

It was on March 17, 1971 that Indira Gandhi became prime minister for the third consecutive time, which was also the first to occur without even a whiff of dissent. Exactly eight days later, a humongous crisis that had been developing over long years erupted with elemental force in what was then East Pakistan and just nine months later became the republic of Bangladesh.

On March 25, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, generally called Sheikh Mujib, the tallest leader of the Awami League as well as of East Pakistan, made a unilateral declaration of Bangladesh’s independence. This was the culmination of the struggle of the Bengali-speaking East Pakistani people, who constituted a majority of Pakistan’s overall population but were treated by the overwhelmingly Punjabi-dominated military leadership as “second-class” citizens.

The irony of ironies was that the final parting of ways came when the incredibly crude military ruler, General Yahya Khan, who had succeeded the first military dictator Field Marshal Ayub Khan (1958-69), denied Sheikh Mujib the office of prime minister that was duly his. For, Mujib had won a staggering victory in Pakistan’s first elections in December 1970. He had secured a clear majority in the National Assembly, even though his party hadn’t contested a single parliamentary seat in West Pakistan. In the provincial assembly of East Pakistan, he had won 160 seats out of 162.

Yahya’s civilian collaborator in this vicious venture was Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, President Ayub’s foreign minister and protégé, who had later taken a leading part in the movement to overthrow his mentor. His own appetite for power was insatiable. He and Yahya believed that they could intimidate Mujib into agreeing to rule only his native land and leave West Pakistan, as well as the federal government, alone. Bhutto summed up the message in four words: “Idhar hum, udhar tum (We will rule here, and you there)”. The notorious Nixon-Kissinger “tilt” towards Yahya and Pakistan had greatly encouraged the dubious duo.

What happened in March 1971 would have come to pass sometime for reasons that are totally transparent. I will briefly mention them presently, but let me first mention what happened in New Delhi when the balloon went up in Dacca (now Dhaka). Sadly, Gandhi, her government and even the country at large, were taken by surprise. Incredible though it might seem, the Indian army did not have even a contingency plan to cope with this eventuality. As far back as 1967, a British diplomat, Robert Wade Gerry, later high commissioner to India, had told a closed-door meeting in London that Pakistan’s present “structure” would not last long. Two Indians in the audience, strategist K. Subrahmanyam and historian S. Gopal, had conveyed this to the appropriate Indian authorities.

Once Gandhi grasped the gravity of the situation and realised that the Bangladesh crisis would inevitably lead to an influx of refugees first and then war, she provided the country with brilliant, indeed admirable leadership. But, as P.N. Dhar, her secretary from 1970 to 1977, admitted in his book

Indira Gandhi, the ‘Emergency’ and Indian Democracy, she and her advisors had earlier misread the signals emanating from Rawalpindi (Islamabad hadn’t been built yet) and Dacca. Even on March 25, when Yahya arrived in Dacca, Indian policymakers believed that he would perhaps arrive at some kind of compromise with Mujib. Only late in the evening did Delhi discover that his real purpose was “diversionary” — to keep Mujib and his colleagues engaged while the army gave finishing touches to its infamous crackdown on the Bengali people.

To revert to the story beginning with Independence and Partition, two things became manifest from the word go. First, that there was no bond between the two wings of Pakistan except religion. Second, and more important, all concerned realised that the newly born country was a geographical monstrosity, as its two wings were separated by a thousand miles of Indian landmass. In a memorable phrase, Salman Rushdie described Pakistan as “a bird with two wings and no body”.

Probably even this unviable arrangement could have been made to last longer if the overwhelmingly Punjabi-dominant military and civilian leadership based in the west had not treated the Bengalis with contempt and exploited them in every possible way. Even worse was the attempt to foist Urdu on a people deeply in love with their own language. The more populous eastern wing was even deprived of the demographic advantage. Ayub merged all four western provinces, each with its own ethnic identity, into “one unit” and decreed that East and West Pakistan would have equal representation in what passed for a national assembly under a constitution written by himself.

What shattered the defenceless people of East Pakistan was the 1965 war. They discovered to their dismay that if they were not occupied by India, it was only because Delhi did not want to provoke Beijing into intervening in the India-Pakistan clash of arms.

Under the circumstances, a movement for greater autonomy was bound to start in the eastern wing. It was led by Mujib, who wrote out a six-point plan. In this, he conceded to the federal government only foreign affairs and communications. Later, he agreed to add defence to the federal list but strictly on the condition that each of the two wings would have equal representation in the army. Enraged military leaders arrested him immediately and tried him for “treason”. To underscore his India connection, they called it the Agartala Conspiracy Case. Ironically, it was Ayub who abruptly released Mujib because he needed the support of all political parties against a powerful and popular upsurge to overthrow him, but to no avail. He was forced to abdicate. But those expecting restoration of democracy were greatly disappointed because martial law returned with a vengeance, and that too under Yahya, who was given to heavy drinking and a dissolute lifestyle. No wonder that, on the day of surrender in Dacca, the chief of the Pakistan Air Force, Air Marshal Abdul Rahim Khan, said publicly: “We have been betrayed by drunken pigs.”

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator.

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