The birth of Bangladesh

Stuart Mole

From the devastation of civil war, a new country was born, which was almost immediately welcomed into the Commonwealth.

The three men waiting in the hotel were exhausted. They had left London at short notice a day before their arrival in Rawalpindi. The Secretary-General’s appointment with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s Prime Minister, was timed for 7pm, and that was still hours away. Arnold Smith, formerly Canada’s Ambassador in Moscow, and now the first Commonwealth Secretary-General, had dashed to Pakistan as a new country, Bangladesh, emerged from the bloody chrysalis of civil war. He hoped to pre-empt a retaliatory response.

Unbeknown to Smith, the die was already cast. That morning, the British High Commissioner in Pakistan, J. L. Pumphrey, had delivered a note advising the Pakistan government that the UK would be shortly recognising Bangladesh. Smith had not been forewarned and the timing could not have been more unhelpful. Just then, there was a knock at the door and Emeka Anyaoku, one of his staff, entered. He had just heard a news bulletin on Radio Pakistan: it was 30 January 1972, and Pakistan had announced its withdrawal from the Commonwealth.

The seeds of the conflict had been planted many years before. Amid the trauma of the hasty division of British India into predominately Hindu and Muslim states, Pakistan and India attained their independence on successive days in August 1947. Around 12.5 million people were displaced by partition, prompting the largest migration in history. Up to a million lives were lost in the accompanying violence. The new state of Pakistan was formed of two halves. In the west of the sub-continent, there were the provinces of Balochistan, Sindh, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, together with the Tribal Areas: in the east, 1,700 km away, was East Bengal. If geography alone made the life of the new state problematic, the death of its charismatic independence leader, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, and conflict with India over Kashmir were among the hindrances preventing a constitutional settlement and effective civil administration. The lapse into martial law and military rule in 1958, under General Ayub Khan, only made matters worse.

By 1968, Ayub Khan was losing control. In West Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a Foreign Minister in the military government had moved into opposition, founding the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). Imprisoned in November 1968, he was released a few months later, as agitation for direct elections reached its climax. The popular revolt was as pronounced in East Pakistan. In 1966, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, heading the Awami League, had set out his Six Points, arguing for substantial autonomy for East Bengal. By 1968, he, too, was imprisoned, but the democratic tide was now unstoppable. In March 1969, Ayub Khan was replaced by General Yahya Khan, who promised national elections (across Pakistan) for a constituent assembly in December 1970.

In East Pakistan, there was deep resentment about unfair treatment from the central government in Islamabad. The Asia Magazine, in 1972, pointed out that in the period 1958-68 East Pakistan’s jute, tea, hides and skins provided 59 percent of all Pakistan’s exports, while East Pakistan was allowed only 30 percent of the country’s foreign exchange earnings. Despite having, in 1968, a population of 71 million (against West Pakistan’s 61 million), East Pakistan received only one-third of foreign aid provided by the USA and less than 10 percent of the development assistance provided by other countries.

In September 1970, Arnold Smith travelled to Karachi, Islamabad, Dhaka and Chittagong. President Yahya Khan assured him that preparations for the elections were proceeding smoothly.

Less than two months later, East Pakistan (and India’s West Bengal) was struck by the Bhola cyclone. The resulting storm surge wiped out villages, destroyed crops and claimed the lives of up to half a million people. It was one of the most devastating natural disasters of modern times. Amid accusations that the response of Yahya Khan’s government in organising relief operations had been tardy and inadequate, the Awami League under Sheikh Mujibur swept to a crushing victory. This was matched by the overwhelming victory of the PPP, led by Bhutto, in the West.

Yahya Khan’s calculation was that, out of the 23 parties contesting the elections, the Awami League (and the PPP) would need to form a multiparty coalition, spanning West and East Pakistan, in order to create strong government. In the event, with East Pakistan’s larger population and with the Awami League winning all but two of the 153 seats, Mujibur was in a commanding position. Controlling 167 of the 313 seats in the National Assembly, he could proceed with drawing up the new constitution without a single vote from West Pakistan. Bhutto, with 81 PPP seats, threatened a boycott of the National Assembly. He would “break the legs” of any elected PPP member attending the inaugural session, he announced.

While President Yahya seemed to be pursuing a negotiated solution to the crisis, he was also strengthening his military options. In March, Yahya postponed the opening session of the National Assembly without consulting Mujib. Amid a civil disobedience campaign across East Bengal, the negotiations broke down. On 25 March, Pakistan troops began a military crackdown and, a day later, Mujibur declared Bangladesh’s independence. Arrested shortly afterwards, he told his supporters: “I have given you independence – now go and preserve it”.

Amid repression and resistance, Bangladesh plunged into a bloody war of liberation, which was to last nine months. India provided material and diplomatic support to the Mukti Bahini (The Bangladesh Liberation Army) and bases in India’s West Bengal. On 2 December, Pakistan launched a strike on the western borders of India, prompting the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War. In two weeks, it was all over. On 16 December 1971, Pakistan forces surrendered, with 93,000 taken prisoner. What Smith described as the “caesarean birth” of Bangladesh had finally been achieved.

As the death toll mounted, Arnold Smith had sought a mediation role for the Commonwealth but his efforts had been rebuffed. Attempts by the Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Mrs Bandaranaike, to assist by convening a meeting of foreign ministers in Colombo, drew a stinging rebuke from India, which insisted to the Secretary-General that they were not a party to the original dispute and should not be treated as such.

On 8 January, Mujibur, newly released from jail, passed through London and met with the Secretary-General. Smith began by urging reconciliation and “forgiveness of sins”. Mujibur, while agreeing, said that it would be politically impossible to remain within some form of united Pakistan. “The British, in 200 years of running Bengal,” he exclaimed, “had never done anything like what the West Pakistan army had done in nine months.” In expressing his personal hope that the new state would remain within the Commonwealth, the Secretary General said he would press “for early recognition of reality by other Commonwealth countries” and encourage support for relief and reconstruction.

At the same time, Bhutto warned that diplomatic recognition of Bangladesh by any nation would be seen as “a hostile act”. On 21 January, the UK’s Daily Telegraph reported that Pakistan would quit the Commonwealth if Britain recognised Bangladesh. This prompted the Secretary-General to send an immediate message to Bhutto urging no such step and seeking a meeting. Days later, Smith did indeed make the journey to Pakistan and later met with Bhutto and his Cabinet. But, by then, Pakistan was out of the Commonwealth.

On 1 February, in his return to London, Smith issued a statement deeply regretting Pakistan’s break with the Commonwealth. He added: “It seems to me a neo-colonialist view of the Commonwealth, to see it as a British club, and to sever Commonwealth links with 30 others because you disagree with something one member has done.”

A month later, the language on both sides was less emollient. Visiting Delhi, Smith was reported as saying that Pakistan’s decision to withdraw from Commonwealth membership was “unwise, hasty and silly”.

This drew an angry response from the Pakistan Foreign Office. Smith’s statement, said a spokesman, was “totally absurd” and “Mr Smith should mind his own business”. Pakistan insisted that withdrawal was “final and irrevocable”.

By then, consultations on Bangladesh’s application to join the Commonwealth were at an advanced stage, despite resistance from some African countries.

On 18 April 1972, Smith announced that Bangladesh had become the 32nd member of the Commonwealth. The UK’s Daily Mirror described this as a “major victory” for Smith and “the historic achievement of his seven years as Secretary-General”. Despite Pakistan’s protestations, the door was left open for their future re-admission.

At the height of the crisis, Smith had quoted from the Holy Quran that bitterness and fear must be replaced by ‘Talif ul Qulub’ – reconciliation and a binding together of hearts. But there was to be no early end to the bloodletting. After winning a convincing electoral victory in 1973, Mujibur and most of his family were murdered in August 1975 by junior army officers. Two years later, Bhutto was also overthrown by a military coup, and later hanged. Bhutto’s daughter, Benazir, brought Pakistan back into the Commonwealth in 1989, though she too was killed in 2007. Bangladesh’s current Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, is a daughter of Mujibur and one of only two to survive the family slaughter. She has spent much effort in bringing the perpetrators to justice.

But the young people now rallying in Dhaka’s Shahbagh Square want more. They are outraged that some of those who committed appalling atrocities as allies of Pakistan in the Liberation War are now in prominent political positions in Bangladesh. Even though most were born long after 1971, they demand justice. It seems that the bloody events of more than four decades ago are not so easily forgotten – or forgiven.

About the author:

Stuart Mole is the senior research fellow of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at London University and former Director of the Secretary-General's Office in the Commonwealth Secretariat.


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