In his provocative, detailed description of the events that led to the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, author Srinath Ragavan is intent in upending myths and conventional and perceived wisdom.
Early in his narrative of the state India found itself in after the Pakistan army cracked down in East Pakistan in March 1971, Raghavan writes “…most accounts tend to credit Indira Gandhi with exceptional foresight, impeccable timing, and assured touch in handling the crisis….yet her response to the crisis was more tentative and improvisational than is usually assumed….”
He goes on to tackle “the perceived wisdom…that Prime Minister Gandhi wanted to undertake a military intervention in April 1971 and that she was dissuaded by the army chief, General S.H.F.J “Sam” Manekshaw. This is perhaps the most tenacious of all myths about the 1971 crisis….”
The claims of Manekshaw and other generals “hardly comport with reality,” Ragavah writes. “Contrary to the assertions of Manekshaw and his military colleagues, the prime minister did not contemplate such an intervention in the early stages of the crisis….”
Later on in his tale, Ragavan writes:
“Indian historians continue to insist — and they are not alone — that the war of 1971 was triggered by the Pakistani attack of 3 December. This comforting fiction is true only to the extent that wars are begun by defenders….The war of 1971 was begun by India.”
While the reference is to Pakistani pre-emptive air attacks on three Indian airbases on 3 December, Pakistani and Indian forces had been skirmishing along the Indian-East Pakistan border since at least 22 November. And, of course, India had supported Bangladesh forces, both regular and irregular, from the very beginning of the crisis.
Here I must, in full disclosure, mention that I witnessed the events of 1971 as the Associated Press correspondent in Pakistan. Reading this book brought back memories, good and bad, of that incredibly intense year. I recall 22 November because that evening in Rawalpindi, I heard Pakistan ruler General Yahya Khan make a derisive speech about “that woman,” a reference to Indira Gandhi. Afterward, I tried to question him about reports of Indian action on the border, but he drunkenly waved me away, growling, “I know you! I know you!”
As his account reaches a conclusion, Raghavan writes, “The conventional wisdom is that India sought to liberate East Pakistan by launching ‘an all-out offensive to capture Dhaka.’ On the contrary, India’s strategy was more modest. It aimed at capturing maximum possible territory, installing the government of Bangladesh, and, thereafter, securing the withdrawal of Pakistan forces, leading to eventual independence for Bangladesh.”
At any rate, the Indian army ended up occupying Dhaka, where Lt. General Jagjit Singh Aurora took the surrender of Pakistan forces on 16 December.
“The scale and speed of the victory… have led historians and chroniclers to assume that the outcome was a foregone conclusion….Add to this claim that the Indian military had superb leadership while the lions of the Pakistan army were led by donkeys, and the outcome seems inevitable….the eventual outcome was considerably influenced by chance and contingency. It was, in many ways, a strange victory.”
The core of his narrative is the several chapters Ragavan devotes to the diplomatic dances that the events in East Pakistan spawned, principally involving the United States, the Soviet Union, and China. The American president, Richard Nixon, and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, keep popping up like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Tom Stoppard’s absurdist, dark comedy, fantasizing on the basis of faulty intelligence that India planned to invade West Pakistan or that the Chinese would move against India’s northern borders and save a united Pakistan. Ragavan depicts Kissinger congratulating Nixon for saving West Pakistan from the Indian invasion by ordering the U.S. aircraft carrier Enterprise battle group toward the Bay of Bengal as the Pakistan forces crumbled in the east.
“However,” Ragavan concludes, “India never had West Pakistan in its sights,” a remark I support after spending days in December 1971 trekking through Pakistan-held Azad Kashmir without finding a war, much to the disappointment of my foreign editor in New York City.
In his epilogue, Raghavan muses, “there was nothing inevitable about the breakup of united Pakistan or about the emergence of an independent Bangladesh.”
He goes on to discuss a number of factors that “might have been,” including “had (Zulfiqar Ali) Bhutto (leader of the largest party in West Pakistan) joined forces with (Sheikh) Mujib (leader of the largest party in East Pakistan), as several contemporaries expected, the breakdown of Pakistan could have been averted.”
For one precious moment, Bhutto and Mujib seemed to be on the same page. In February of 1971, Bhutto, in a drunken interview, told me he was considering a proposal of two prime ministers to resolve the Pakistan political crisis. In early March, Mujib asked me to recount what Bhutto had told me. Mujib then said, “If that’s what he wants, I agree.” Mujib later denied the story I wrote about their apparent agreement. But that is what transpired — two prime ministers of two independent states, only after months of horror and bloodshed.
What is not examined in 1971 may be subject of another book — why in the world did anyone believe a state of two nations, linked by religion but separated by 1,000 miles of India, could have remained united even with the most delicate and wise leadership of the sort that never existed? The creation of Bangladesh may trace its beginnings to the founding of the All-India Muslim League and the incipient movement toward separation at a meeting in Dacca (sic) in 1906. Bengal was never part of the single state proposed by Muhammed Iqbal. There was no letter B in the Pakistan acronym of Choudhry Rahmat Ali. Some early maps fantasized about a land bridge across northern India connecting independent West and East Pakistan, but that did not survive partition reality. Muhammed Ali Jinnah, the founder, drove the first stake into the heart of a united Pakistan by insisting on imposing Urdu on its Bengali-speaking majority.
The creation of Bangladesh in 1971 may not have been inevitable. However, as outlined by Ragavan, the actions of leaders, female and male, confused and feckless, ambitious and greedy, reckless, and clueless, made the creation unstoppable.