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The end of the rope

A Qayyum Khan | December 16, 2023 00:00:00

Pakistan's Lt Gen Niazi ( R ) signing the instrument of surrender in Dhaka to Indian Lt Gen Arora (L) that sealed the end of Bangladesh's war of independence on December 16, 1971 — Collected Photo

In the third week of October, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) session ended. Fifty five out of one hundred and seventeen nations that made presentations referred to the 'East Pakistan' crisis. The Soviet Union, New Zealand, Mongolia, Sweden and India categorically stated that the settlement of the 'East Pakistan' problem had to be political based on the will of the people. The others only emphasised how to avoid the potential military conflict between India and Pakistan encouraging both countries to tone down the rhetoric and withdraw their military from the border. Pakistan was leading the diplomatic war as most countries did not want the break up of Pakistan, even though Pakistan was conducting a dreadful genocide on its own citizens. The contribution of the Nixon Administration in steering the governments of the world towards Pakistan was significant. However, by then the world had seen images of the genocide and popular opinion was generally against the Pakistani regime.

To bolster the diplomatic campaign, Indira Gandhi set out on a nineteen day world tour to visit major capitals of the world in the last week of October. The purpose of her visit was to explain the catastrophic problem created by the arrival of ten million refugees in India. She received a sympathetic and supportive hearing in Moscow. In Paris, the French President was sympathetic to the human tragedy, but it wasn't clear if the French would tow the American line or if they would have an independent position. Britain's response was non-committal. Mrs. Gandhi, however, made several poignant points in her meeting with the British press. She compared the genocide in 'East Pakistan' with the Nazi genocide and asked her interviewer if Britain could remain in the sidelines when Hitler's marauders were trampling Europe? Even though she was not successful in changing the official position of governments, she made an emphatic and forceful case for Bangladesh to the people of those countries. Her meeting with Nixon was tense and cold. Privately, Nixon even admitted to his aides that in her shoes his position would have been similar but he was not wearing her shoes.

From the last week of October, the Soviet Union started shipping weapons and ammunition to India in anticipation of the impending war with Pakistan. The weapon shipments were made under the arrangements of the Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty. America, on the other hand, had officially suspended all military aid and sales to both India and Pakistan; an outcome of Congressional debates. However, the Nixon Administration secretly arranged military assistance for Pakistan from pro-western Islamic countries. Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Iran had lent warplanes to Pakistan. Afghanistan and Iran allowed the Pakistan Air Force to use their airfields. Nixon's main concern was that India might push Pakistan out of Azad Kashmir in which case the possibility of Pakistan breaking up into its constituent provinces was very high. The break up of Pakistan would upset the geopolitical balance in South Asia.

Before leaving for abroad, Indira Gandhi told Syed Nazrul Islam and Tajuddin that she would decide on the timing of the war after her visit. She had not yet made this revelation to her senior cabinet colleagues. Outside her team of advisors, only the President and Prime Minister of Bangladesh were given this information. In his excitement, Syed Nazrul Islam revealed Indira's plan to several senior Awami League members and from them it was leaked to others, much to the embarrassment of the Indian Prime Minister.

The Pakistani military junta had come to the end of its rope; the harder they tried to dig themselves out of the quagmire, the deeper they sank. They were unable to find a way out. Given the desperate situation on the ground, Lieutenant General Gul Hasan, the Chief of General Staff of the Pakistan Army felt that starting a war with India was the only option to save Pakistan from disintegrating. Gul Hasan was of the view that if Pakistan got entangled in open hostilities with India, UN intervention would result in a cease fire and that would provide the desperate lifeline that the Pakistan Army and Government needed. Furthermore, a war with India would save the Pakistan Army from the ignominy of defeat at the hands of the Mukti Bahini. The situation was so desperate that Yahya Khan had even agreed to hold talks with Sheikh Mujib nominated Awami Leaguers if there were no charges of treason against them.

A Qayyum Khan is a freedom fighter who joined Mukti Bahini in the early days of liberation war when he was a student of the University of Dhaka. The piece is excerpted from his book titled 'Bittersweet Victory: A Freedom Fighter's Tale (Universtiy Press Limited, Dhaka, 2013)

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