Book review: War and Secession: Pakistan, India and the Creation of Bangladesh

Author: Richard Sisson & Leo E. Rose, University of California Press, Berkeley, California

1990  Paperback, 338 pages, $23.97 on Amazon, ISBN-13: 978-0520076655


Review by: Arnold Zeitlin    27 August 2020

War and Secession remain 30 years after its first publication, the go-to book for a concise, yet comprehensive account of the events that led to Pakistan’s breakup and the independence of Bangladesh. California political scientists, the late Leo E. Rose and Richard Sisson based their account not only on written sources but extensive interviews with principals, from Indira Gandhi and Yahya Khan on down. They missed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto because he was hanged the day they arrived in Pakistan in 1979, and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was murdered in Dhaka in 1975. They also missed U.S. President Richard Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger.

Much of what they reveal can be summed up in the one sentence they use to describe a scheme by the Pakistan leadership to hold provincial elections in East Pakistan in December 1971, which turned out to be when Indian forces were rolling into the province. “It was,” they wrote, “like a scene from the absurd theater.”

Not so absurd is their account of the meetings in March 1971 between Sheikh Mujib and his team and Yahya Khan to negotiate terms for a session of the freshly-elected National Assembly and a constitution that would give East Pakistan substantial autonomy. “The seriousness and the authenticity of the .negotiations,” they wrote, were emphasized by the summoning of the military’s chief economic advisor, M.M. Ahmed, to Dacca (as the city’s name was then spelled) to join the discussions. Eventually, leaders of smaller West Pakistan political parties showed up as did Bhutto, desperate to turn his position as head of the political party with the largest number of seats from West Pakistan into a position of genuine power.

The agreement included establishing two separate committees in Islamabad and Dacca to determine the special needs of East and West Pakistan in a new constitution. The arrangement seemed to recognize Sheikh’s Awami League’s demand for greater provincial autonomy within a federated Pakistan. It also appeared to be an unconscious recognition that the people of Pakistan had voted for some separation, a development that at the time most observers had not grasped..

Missing from their account is an assessment o/f the military’s interest in the negotiations. Were Yahya and his other generals serious? The authors report that the army command approved on March 20, orders for a military strike. For weeks, planeloads of troops, thinly disguised in a civilian dress but ready to attack, had arrived by the planeload from the west to Dacca.

Sisson and Rose go only as far as to describe the military’s “serious concern about the security of the armed forces and by the mistrust of the Awami League’s commitment to a United Pakistan.”
Any pretense at negotiating dissolved on March 23, ostensibly Pakistan Day celebrates the 1940 Lahore Resolution that supposedly called for a Pakistan, but actually, as most people conveniently forgot, demanded two separate Muslim-majority states in northwest India and eastern Bengal. Dacca’s Bengalis turned the day into a celebration of Bangladesh, waving Bangladesh banners and burning Pakistan flags. By tea time, the generals ordered the army to strike.

Bangladesh came into being in the weeks immediately after the army’s March 27 strike, although it wasn’t until December that its independence was secure.
“There was no question of saving East Pakistan.” the authors quote Kissinger as saying. “Both Nixon and I recognized for months that its independence was inevitable….We strove to preserve West Pakistan as an independent state.”

If that was the case, the book leaves to the imagination why Nixon and Kissinger so fiercely backed Yahya Khan throughout the crisis, even to the extent of ordering in December an aircraft carrier battle group to sail from Vietnam to the Bay of Bengal, ostensibly in support of the West Pakistan government. The move came as the Americans were operating based on questionable intelligence that India planned to strike West Pakistan.

However, Nixon and Kissinger were apprehensive also that the East Pakistan conflict would deter plans after Kissinger flew secretly from Pakistan to meet Zhou En-lai in Beijing and set the stage for Nixon’s momentous visit to China. The authors in their discussion of the U.S policy toward the East Pakistan conflict virtually ignore that aspect, devoting a single mention of the China connection. They noted that Nixon and Kissinger justified sending the carrier group “primarily (for) the supposed impact of this symbolic gesture of support for our Pakistan ‘ally’ on China, just at the time when the United States was beginning the process of normalizing relations with the People’s Republic.”

Also left unresolved was Sheikh Mujib’s intention as the majority party leader in the National Assembly to serve as prime minister in a federated Pakistan. Before discussions began, Yahya Khan proclaimed Mujib as the next prime minister. Mujib repeatedly rejected Yahya’s invitations to visit West Pakistan to negotiate after the 1970 election. No reason is given for his reluctance. However, it seems clear that Mujib was haunted by the experience of his political mentor H.S, Suhrawardy, who left the presidency of the Awami League in 1956 to serve in Karachi as Pakistan’s prime minister. After a year, he was out of the job, and three years later was in self-exile in Lebanon. It was likely that had a federated Pakistan emerged, Sheikh Mujib would have remained to lead an autonomous East Pakistan. At the same time, he sent a lesser Awami League light to be prime minister in Islamabad.

But that scenario was not meant to be. Sheikh Mujib did become the prime minister of an independent Bangladesh instead. And Bhutto became what he believed he deserved, the leadership in West Pakistan — all accomplished as tens or hundreds of thousands of innocents shed blood.

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