Dawn News

By the end of November, 1971, Mukti Bahini and allied forces had captured major parts of East Pakistan and Pakistani troops were asked to stand guard along borders. In the rural areas Mukti Bahini had attained full control.

As the conflict reached new dimensions, Governor Dr A M Malik rushed to Islamabad on November 26 and briefed Yahya about the situation in a very objective manner. He advised the president that either the UN should be approached to stop the fighting or some agreement with all political parties concerned be reached. To his suggestion, he received no firm answer and Malik returned to Dhaka as a desperate person. Aware of the ground reality he feared war meant losing East Pakistan.

As Mukti Bahini and Indian regulars made advances, Yahya called Bhutto and Noorul Amin on November 30 and held a meeting; perhaps the president had the illusion of creating a civilian setup that could present Pakistan’s case at the world body in anticipation that it would lead to normality in the region. But the reports from the fighting theatres did not support that perception.

However, the trio met and it took another seven days for the president to announce an interim setup with Noorul Amin as Prime Minister, Bhutto as deputy premier and foreign minister, and himself as president. After the meeting Noorul Amin left and Bhutto stayed back and spoke to Yahya at length. Bhutto had no choice but to agree on the position offered.

As the battles in East Pakistan towns and vital points raged on, Yahya still believed that some miracle-like solution would resolve the situation without engaging into fighting. Was it a part of Nixon’s scheme who was secretly talking to Indian and Bangladesh leaders or Yahya thought that Bhutto could save face if the worst came, was unclear. “If Bhutto spoke at the UN Council, it could settle down many things,” he hoped. What he actually had in his mind could not be precisely deduced, but like all his previous prophesies, this also proved hallucinatory.

Among other things India was overplaying the refugee issue which had drawn the world attention. On reports of the refugee influx, the UN was providing food and medical assistance to refugees whose number, according to the Indian claim, had reached about 10 million by the end of October. On November 24, Prince Sadruddin, the representative of Aga Khan and the then president of United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) visited Delhi where Indian officials tried to convince him that India did not want war but sought a political solution in East Pakistan acceptable to Awami League.

When their attention was drawn to the Jessore operation he was told that it was a test case for working with Mukti Bahini. However, in Pakistan Sadruddin insisted that Yahya should start talks with Mujib. To this Yahya said there would be tremendous opposition in West Pakistan — an argument Sadruddin rejected. Although his suggestion was not accepted, Sadruddin emphasised that there could be no military solution for East Pakistan. Though honestly attempted, his effort did not bear fruit.

Disturbed by India’s Jessore-Kushtia incursion, President Nixon sent a second communication to Indira Gandhi on November 27, telling her that her government had confirmed that Indian troops had been engaged in Pakistani territory and warned that “…there is a danger of all-out hostilities”. Recalling his first message, Nixon again told Gandhi that to ease the situation Yahya was prepared to disengage troops from West Pakistan frontier as a fist step towards reducing tension on borders and hoped that she would reciprocate the gesture by nominating a representative to hold talks with Yahya’s nominee.

India again kept silent and a day later Kissinger reported to Nixon that Indian troops continued to fight inside East Pakistan claiming that it was done “to quell Pakistani shelling in self-defence”.

As December began the situation became too serious. The world broadcasting networks started pointing to a very grave situation citing the two forces on the brink of breaking into full scale-war. Mukti Bahini forces had taken control of large areas and was now aiming at towns with the help of the Indian army.

On December 2, only a day before hostilities broke out on western borders, Henry Kissinger reported to Nixon about it, especially about the navy which had been raised by India in aid of Mukti Bahini. Its task was to block any supplies and assistance reaching Dhaka for Pakistani troops. As the situation further aggravated Yahya Khan sent an urgent SOS to Nixon for assistance.

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