| Welcome to Global Village Space

Friday, February 16, 2024

Forks in the Road: October 1971, political capitulation of Sheikh Mujib

Yahya Khan showed fateful and frightful politico-military inertia during the summer of 1971. All he came up with was a meaning-less plan for constitution-making which wasn’t taken seriously by any of the significant internal and external actors. Apparently, Yahya Khan was too busy at that time with bringing about a US-China rapprochement. Bhutto was ousted from power in a coup and was hanged soon after. Mujib was brutally killed by his own military.

The outbreak of civil war in East Pakistan on 25 March 1971 had all but destroyed any chance of retaining a united Pakistan. Even though Pak Army had gained a significant victory against the rebels in the counter-insurgency campaign by June, our political leadership (comprising the generals of the ruling military junta) had failed to take advantage of this last opportunity to salvage even a symbolic link (like a confederation) between the two wings of Pakistan. Sheikh Mujib was one of the principal organizers behind the formation of the East Pakistan Muslim Students League (est. 1948).

Yahya Khan showed fateful and frightful politico-military inertia during the summer of 1971. All he came up with was a meaning-less plan for constitution-making which wasn’t taken seriously by any of the significant internal and external actors. Apparently, Yahya Khan was too busy at that time with bringing about a US-China rapprochement. When the news of Kissinger’s momentous visit to Beijing was made public in July 1971, it sent shockwaves through both India and the Soviet Union. Unlike Yahya, the leadership of both these countries was alive to the situation, and the opportunities hidden behind the crisis.

Read more: The tragedy of East Pakistan: Sowing of Discord

Both USSR and India dreaded a China-USA alliance

The latter was especially concerned with the possibility of Pakistan getting significant and practical help from the USA and China. These fears brought USSR and India together on the table to conclude a treaty of friendship and cooperation in August 1971. Now India could once again feel secure that its nefarious schemes regarding East Pakistan won’t be upset by foreign powers.

After the initial setback in April/May, Mukti Bahini rejuvenated itself with Indian help. It also launched a monsoon offensive during the summer which miserably failed. Notwithstanding this failure, the Mukti Bahini continued to tire out the Pak Army. India also upped the ante and its forces now started taking an active part in Mukti Bahini operations. Many of these operations were led and executed by Indian military personnel especially from the commando and engineer battalions of the Indian Army. By now, due to the successful Indian propaganda campaign and the exercise of soft power (through events like the “Concert for Bangladesh” in New York in August 1971), the Western public opinion had turned decisively against Pakistan.

Most western governments (United Kingdom, France, and the US Congress) had already concluded that the break-up of Pakistan would be in their strategic interests. In such a climate, Pakistan could not hope for a resumption of foreign aid. As a result, its economy continued to experience immense strain. It was becoming clearer by the day that Pakistan won’t be able to sustain the military effort in East Pakistan infinitely.

In July 1971 Khandekar Moshtaque, the Foreign Minister in the Bangladesh Government in exile at Calcutta contacted the US consulate in Calcutta and communicated his willingness for a political solution through which a united Pakistan could be preserved. He requested that the USA play a mediatory role in negotiations with Yahya Khan and even offered to travel to Pakistan for negotiations. Due to US dilly-dallying and Yahya Khan’s initial inertia regarding the matter, no significant progress could be made until September. In September, Yahya Khan communicated his whole-hearted willingness to US officials regarding negotiations with Moshtaque but the ship had sailed by then.

Khandekar Moshtaque’s activities had been detected by the intelligence services and consequently, he did an about-face and declared on 29 September 1971 that anything less than total independence for Bangladesh was unacceptable. Nevertheless, Moshtaque was removed from his post of the foreign minister on the express directions of Indira Gandhi’s confidant Mr. D. P. Dhar, who was actually running the Bangladesh Government in exile. The Khandekar Moshtaque episode demonstrated beyond doubt that India wouldn’t let the Awami Leaguers at Calcutta reach a political solution without Indian acquiescence. India was only interested in using them as tools for dismembering Pakistan.

Read more: Forks in the Road: The fatal decision that precipitated a revolt in East Pakistan

The events which transpired

By the beginning of October, the Indo-Pak tensions had reached peak levels. Both countries had completed the full mobilization of their armed forces in early October. 366,000 Pakistani soldiers stood face to face against 833,000 Indian soldiers on the borders of East and West Pakistan. India outnumbered Pakistan in both eastern and western theatres (1:4 in the east, 1:1.6 in the west). 290 Pakistani combat aircraft were facing 640 of the Indian air force.

In the eastern wing, it was believed that the Pakistani air force would not survive for more than 24 hours as its sole squadron could be put out of action by destroying the sole runway at Dhaka. India had 11 squadrons in the eastern theatre to establish complete air supremacy over East Pakistan from the very beginning of active hostilities. The weather was also suitable now for major military operations in East Pakistan.

From October onwards, India also greatly stepped up its military activities. In the second week of October, Indian army’s eastern command ordered its formations to carry out offensive operations up to ten miles inside East Pakistan in order to capture important salients in East Pakistan that would assist in the eventual full-fledged military intervention. Mukti Bahini’s activities in the border areas also increased greatly. According to Kamal Matinuddin, Pakistan had lost more than 7000 square kilometers of East Pakistani territory before the end of the month of October.

Despite providing valuable diplomatic services for the USA, Pakistan didn’t receive any US aid (military or economic) after the summer of 1971. The USA also refused military sales to Pakistan. On the other hand, massive economic US aid to India continued uninterrupted. Sisson and Rose are spot-on in saying that in 1971 if there was a “tilt” in US policy it was towards India, not Pakistan. Pakistan’s “iron brother” China was also experiencing a tumult of its own. Mao Zedong’s designated successor and the chief of Chinese armed forces Marshal Lin Biao had tried to mount a coup against Mao.

The coup failed and Lin Biao was killed in an air crash while fleeing towards Russia on 13 September 1971. Lin Biao had packed many significant offices of the Chinese military with his loyalists. Now, Mao Zedong sacked and removed all officials who were believed to be in cahoots with Lin Biao. As a result, China seemed to be in no position to assist Pakistan militarily in the event of an Indo-Pakistan war. China also was very apprehensive about the Soviet threat from the north, and the Soviet Union had assured India that China wouldn’t dare to think of intervening in East Pakistan with dozens of Soviet divisions massed on the Soviet-Chinese frontier.

Read more: The Agartala conspiracy and the resultant deification of Sheikh Mujib in East Pakistan

In sharp contrast to Pakistan’s allies, the USSR came out fully and unabashedly to India’s succor. Not only did it supply India with military and economic aid worth more than a billion US dollars, but it also offered India any and all weapons it desired. Mig-21s, Su-7s, T-55 tanks, helicopters, and hovercrafts to leapfrog East Pakistan’s formidable rivers found their way to India from the USSR.

Thus, not only was India getting way more foreign practical support than Pakistan, but it was also militarily much stronger than Pakistan on both eastern and western fronts. Indian commander General Sam Manekshaw had got the Indian army in shape as he had promised Indira Gandhi in April. The after-monsoon weather was the best time to strike in East Pakistan. To paraphrase Sun Tzu, India had all the advantages derived from heaven and earth. All India required was a suitable excuse for starting a war, and it already had that as well.

Many refugees had crossed into India during the civil war. India had claimed that 10 million refugees had crossed over into India and they were an “intolerable economic burden”. When the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Sadruddin Aga Khan tried to send UN personnel to India-run refugee camps, India flatly refused to grant access. India also barred the return of refugees (Pakistan had established refugee rehabilitation centers along the borders and had announced to accept the return of all refugees in the summer of 1971) and asserted that only after a “political solution” (defined by India) could the refugees return home.

This clearly malevolent Indian stance greatly peeved the UNHCR but the Indian media campaign (aided and abetted by the Western governments in service of their cold strategic interests) had cast such a spell over the world that Sadruddin Aga Khan’s protestations were ignored. In order to avoid a war, UN Secretary-General U Thant had proposed that both India and Pakistan move their forces away from the border and allow the UN to station observers on the border. Pakistan readily agreed but India contemptuously refused.

A detailed analysis

India’s careful manipulation of the refugee issue, its refusal to cooperate with the UN’s efforts for peace, and its aggressive military posture made it quite clear to any intelligent observer that India was bent on war with Pakistan. Henry Kissinger had communicated this assessment to Pakistanis as early as July. In August, Pakistani intelligence services had also reached the same conclusion and had informed the president accordingly. It was known by all Pakistani generals that the best months for conventional large-scale military operations in East Pakistan were from November to March. Hence, it made sense to assume that the Indian attack on East Pakistan would come in November.

Read more: Forks in the Road: The 1965 war’s impact on East Pakistan

If anyone were to analyze the military situation in a calculated manner devoid of emotionalism, he would conclude that Pakistan was doomed to be defeated in the Eastern theatre, and there was no reasonable hope for spectacular success on the western front to offset the debacle in the east. Pakistan couldn’t expect a lot of practical help from either the USA or China, whereas India could count on “total support” from the USSR. The civil war had also taken a heavy toll on the forces of the Pakistani Eastern command where 40000-odd soldiers had been consistently in the field for seven months. Thus, in case of a war situation appeared hopeless for Pakistan.

Logically then, at this stage, the only sane option for Pakistan was to avoid war at any cost. A political solution acceptable to the Bengalis and the Awami League was essential for this. The Khandekar Moshtaque episode had clearly shown that the so-called Bangladesh Government in exile couldn’t move a muscle without Indian permission. Since India was clearly bent on making war, it was unreasonable to expect any meaningful dialogue with the Awami Leaguers in Calcutta. But Pakistan still had one important card in its possession. The undisputed leader of the Awami League, the Bangabandhu, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman still languished in a Pakistani prison facing a trial for treason.

What should have been done?

India clearly wanted to dismember Pakistan but it was equally important to India that instead of Bengalis/Mukti Bahini, India and only India should be seen and acknowledged as the “liberator of Bangladesh”. India also wanted to humble Pakistan through a military victory. Pakistan’s suicidal politics and policies had bred a civil war and given India a golden opportunity to realize these dreams. Now, the situation had reached a juncture where the separation of East Pakistan had become inevitable. But the manner in which the separation was to occur remained unclear. At this stage, Pakistan could aim to deny India an outright victory in East Pakistan. India recognized this possibility, and that is why it kept a close watch over the Bengali leaders in Calcutta. But Pakistan could check-mate India at this point by utilizing Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

If Pakistan were to capitulate, and it was bound to happen in case of a defeat to India which looked on the cards, then better capitulate to our East Pakistani brothers instead of the sworn enemy. Had Yahya Khan offered Mujib independence for East Pakistan/Bangladesh in exchange for a symbolic confederal link, Mujib might well have accepted it. Had he insisted on removing even the symbolic link, this should have been accepted (after all that’s what happened after 16 December anyway). The important point here is that Pakistan, not India, should have been the one to grant independence to Bangladesh. Yahya should have sacrificed his office in the national interest and transferred power to both majority parties in both wings. Pakistani forces should have been withdrawn from East Pakistani after the announcement of Sheikh Mujib’s release and the transfer of power.

This would have led to significant symbolic and substantive advantages for Pakistan. First, an orderly transfer of power in East Pakistan in October would have immediately stopped the bloodshed. The horrific massacres of Biharis which occurred from December 1971 to March 1972 would have been avoided. The turning of Biharis into “stateless” people, the wholesale theft of their property, and their subsequent removal to refugee camps in Bangladesh would also have been prevented. Second, Pakistan would have avoided the humiliation of military defeat and surrender at the hands of India.

Read more: East Pakistan dead while two-nation theory still alive

Third, Sheikh Mujib and the Awami League wouldn’t have felt any need for creating and propagating the myth of 3 million killed by the Pak army. This myth is even used today to poison mutual relations between Pakistan and Bangladesh. The only beneficiaries of this myth are India (which wants Pakistan and Bangladesh at loggerheads to avoid the nightmare scenario of two fraternal Islamic states on its flanks united in resisting Indian tyranny and hegemony), and the Awami League (which garners political capital by portraying Pakistan as the mythical villain and itself as the mythical hero in the emotionally charged mythical epic of Bangladesh’s liberation). Without the Awami League’s cooperation, it would have been impossible for India to keep this gigantic rumor/humungous lie alive.

The state of affairs after the event

As it happened, Pakistan didn’t make any use of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who remained in jail till December 1971. Instead of trying to avoid the impending disastrous war, Yahya Khan satisfied himself with delusions. He convinced himself (despite all the evidence to the contrary) that India wouldn’t dare attack Pakistan, and even if it did, Pakistan will be preserved by the intervention of the USA and China.

India began the war of 1971 by invading East Pakistan on 21 November 1971. Predictably, Pakistani forces, despite fighting with courage on the Eastern front, collapsed and surrendered on 16 December 1971. Yahya Khan didn’t even bother to launch the planned grand offensive from West Pakistan. In this way, the disastrous doctrine of defending East Pakistan from West Pakistan died with the demise of East Pakistan. Yahya Khan’s criminal negligence of practically abandoning his beleaguered forces in the eastern wing proved to be the last of his disservices to Pakistan. Four days after the surrender, Yahya Khan was ousted from power and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto took over in (West) Pakistan. Sheikh Mujib was released by Bhutto who made a triumphant speech in Dhaka on 10 January 1972.

In a few short years, the trio of unscrupulous men who were chiefly responsible for civil war and the dismemberment of Pakistan met ignoble ends. Yahya died in obscurity, despised by his countrymen. Bhutto was ousted from power in a coup and was hanged soon after. Mujib was brutally killed by his own military. His killers were those “freedom-fighters” who had fought against Pakistan. It is interesting to note that the Pak Army, which was accused of killing millions of people by him, had not harmed a hair on his head during his arrest and incarceration.

Read more: East Pakistan: A National Debacle Owned by None, Forgotten by All

His family was also not touched by the military. In sharp contrast to the “butchers of Pak Army”, when Mujib’s own “humanistic, libertarian and brave freedom fighters” turned against him, they killed their “Bangabandhu” in cold blood. Not only that, but they also mercilessly killed dozens of his family members including women and little children


The writer is a doctor and an avid reader of history. His columns have been published in the Urdu daily “Nawa-e-Waqt”. He also runs a social media channel “Tarikh aur Tajziya” which is dedicated to the study of history and current affairs. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.