ALMOST exactly a year after its first elections based on universal adult franchise, Pakistan went to war. The unnecessary and unfortunate conflagration could directly be traced back to the nation’s failure to build on the democratic consequences of the electoral results.
The horrendous military crackdown in Dhaka on the night of March 25-26, 1971, had inevitably presaged a full-fledged civil war in East Pakistan. Millions of refugees — initially a representative sample of the territory’s confessional composition, but predominantly Hindus as the conflict wore on — crossed into India.
The decision to support the Mukti Bahini was effectively a no-brainer for New Delhi. A direct military intervention was a somewhat different matter. Indira Gandhi sounded out her generals as early as April, as she was coming under increasing pressure from the opposition to go beyond expressing sympathy for the Bengali nationalist cause.
The army leadership told her it would be ready in six months or so. The terrain was tricky enough without having to navigate the natural challenges regularly thrown up by the region’s monsoons. Nov 15 was deemed an appropriate date for launching an action. Eventually, Dec 4 was picked as D-day.
The crackdown on the night of March 25-26 had presaged a civil war.
Mrs Gandhi evidently heaved a sigh of relief when Pakistan unleashed its air force across India’s western border on Dec 3, assuming that Islamabad could henceforth safely be designated as the aggressor.
It wasn’t that simple. At least three United Nations Security Council resolutions calling for an immediate ceasefire had to be vetoed by the Soviet Union, which had signed a defence pact with India earlier in the year. The United States, generally hostile to the UN, was thrilled by the votes in the Security Council as well as the General Assembly.
President Richard Nixon and his all-powerful national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, were implacably hostile towards not just the government in New Delhi but Indians in general. They were inordinately fond, on the other hand, of Yahya Khan, the pall bearer of Pakistan’s demise as a double-winged entity.
The White House’s desperation involved overtures to the kings of Jordan and Iran to supply the Yahya regime with American arms and ammunition. It became clear that East Pakistan was beyond salvation — even Nixon wondered what his nation was doing in the circumstances.
The US president even wondered whether Kissinger required psychiatric therapy. At that point, they probably both did. Kissinger was prone to rants lamenting inaction in the face of the ‘rape’ of a US protectorate by a Soviet ally, after having more or less ignored the bloodbath unleashed.
Nixon’s delusions were equally grandiose. At one point he said, “If we ever allow the internal problems of one country to be the justification for the right of another country, bigger, more powerful, to invade it, then international order is finished in the world.”
This comment to America’s UN ambassador, future president George H.W. Bush, came while the US was still involved in bombing the bejesus out of North Vietnam. Equally, there was no recognition of the irony when a naval fleet commanded by future presidential candidate John McCain’s dad sailed from the Gulf of Tonkin to the Bay of Bengal as a pointless show of strength.
Simultaneously, secret efforts were under way to cajole China — seen by then as an American ally in the geopolitical contest with the Soviet Union — to mount a show of force on its border with India. Beijing didn’t exactly say no, but also didn’t quite come to the party, notwithstanding its affinity with Yahya, who had personally played a key role in facilitating the breakthrough in relations between the US and China.
Moscow vetoed three US-sponsored Security Council resolutions on halting the war, giving Indian forces time to reach Dhaka, where Gen A.A.K. Niazi, who initially sought to negotiate a ceasefire, realised that the game was up. In the circumstances, his surrender was the most sensible option.
On the western front, where Indian forces were more evenly matched, India announced a unilateral ceasefire. The US saw this as a victory. It had feared that after the more or less inevitable fall of Dhaka, India would attempt to dismember what remained of Pakistan. But Mrs Gandhi had wisely cautioned her generals against the disastrous potential folly of invading West Pakistan.
What followed Pakistani foreign minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s well-rehearsed histrionics in the Security Council chamber cannot be addressed in this comment, but suffice it to say that Pakistan was never quite the same again, nor was Bangladesh an instant success story in the wake of 1971. It’s fortunate that the third Indo-Pakistan war concluded within two weeks. The aftermath is another story.
Published in Dawn, December 1st, 2021