The contemporary resonance of 1971 War

Was the 1971 Bangladesh crisis not only the moment of India’s greatest military triumph but also a grievous strategic error?

1971In the meantime, India and Bangladesh signed a treaty of friendship in 1972, and the two countries began to negotiate outstanding problems over territorial enclaves and sharing of river waters. But Dhaka’s attention was increasingly turned inward. The economy was a shambles, and reconstruction proved demanding. The overall economic productivity lagged well behind the prewar level, and the real income of agricultural and industrial workers sank to a lower level than in 1970. Economic management at all levels was rife with inefficiency and corruption. The global oil shock of 1973 sent the economy spiraling downward.

Further, Mujib’s government was challenged by a plethora of left- leaning political groups—particularly after the elections of 1973, which they claimed had been heavily rigged. During these years, Bangladesh teemed with militias formed by the freedom fighters and was awash with weapons. In an attempt to put down these insurrectionary trends, Mujib arrogated to himself emergency powers that undermined democratic rights and civil liberties.

Finally, sections of the Bangladesh army were disgruntled by the government’s creation and patronage of a paramilitary guard called the National Security Force. They were also peeved that their contribution to the liberation struggle was being downplayed. These perceptions were overlaid on an already problematic relationship between the army and the Awami League dating back to 1971. On 15 August 1975, a group of midranking army officers assassinated Mujib and several of his family members. A week later, four other members of the original Awami League high command—Tajuddin Ahmad, Syed Nazrul Islam, A. H. M. Kamruzzaman, and Mansoor Ali—were gunned down in their prison cells. The new president of Bangladesh, Khandakar Moshtaque Ahmad, granted amnesty to the killers. Soon, he was deposed in another coup by Major Ziaur Rahman. Bangladesh might have parted ways with Pakistan, but it continued to bear the mark of Cain in the form of military rule.

II

The tragic turn taken by Bangladesh soon after independence prompts a final counterfactual question. What if India had intervened early in the crisis of 1971? In his first meeting with D. P. Dhar in January 1972, Mujibur Rahman asked, “Why did India not intervene soon after the army crackdown in Bangla Desh?” Such an intervention, he observed “would have saved so much of suffering and valuable life.” Such an intervention had indeed been proposed, most forcefully by K. Subrahmanyam, and discussed. The reasons for India’s reluctance have already been examined, but in retrospect the case for an early intervention—in May 1971—seems strong.

For one thing, the Pakistani military deployment in the eastern wing had not yet reached the levels that it eventually would. For another, the Pakistanis were still tied down and distracted by their operations against the Bengali units. In consequence, a swift intervention would not have been as arduous as the Indian political and military leadership assumed. Further, such an intervention could have presented a fait accompli to the great powers before they activated the UN machinery. Retrospective measures taken by the UN Security Council would not have undermined India’s position a great deal.

Had such an intervention been successfully undertaken, it would have mitigated the brutalities visited upon the Bengalis, and the incalculable loss of life and violation of human dignity. It would also have limited the flow of refugees to India and the ensuing travails of displacement.

The obverse of this humanitarian tragedy was the cost imposed on Bangladesh by India’s decision to support a liberation movement over many months. The strategy adopted by the Indian and Bengali forces of targeting roads and bridges, railroads and waterways, ports and power plants, dealt a deep blow to the economic prospects of independent Bangladesh—prospects that were already being undermined by Pakistani military operations. The prolonged liberation war also created the cauldron in which the witches’ brew of post-independence politics came to a boil. The tensions between the army and the civilian leaders, between the Awami League and the leftist parties, between the variety of militias, and between the various factions of the Awami League all germinated during those nine months in 1971. In effect, the liberation war created the back- ground conditions for the collapse of democracy in Bangladesh.

From this vantage point, the 1971 crisis seems to be not only the moment of India’s greatest military triumph but also a grievous strategic error.

III

Four decades on, the history and memory of 1971 continue to shape the structure and texture of Bangladesh’s politics and society. As of 2013, the government led by Mujibur Rahman’s daughter Sheikh Hasina has commenced trials of those implicated in acts during the conflict that amount to crimes against humanity. Many of those standing trial were associated with the Jamaat-e-Islami (which opposed independence) and its affiliated paramilitary forces that aided the Pakistan army. The outcome of these trials remains uncertain, but it is clear that they are as much, if not more, about the present and future of Bangladesh as its past.

The 1971 crisis also has a contemporary resonance well beyond the confines of South Asia. For it proved to be a precursor of more recent conflicts in the Balkans, Africa, and the Middle East. The Bangladesh crisis prefigured many characteristic features of contemporary conflicts: the tension between the principles of sovereignty and human rights; the competing considerations of interests and norms; the virtues of unilateralism versus multilateralism; national lineups that blur the international divides of West and East, North and South; and the importance of international media and NGOs, diasporas and transnational public opinion. The Bangladesh crisis may have occurred during a watershed moment in the Cold War, but it was a harbinger of the post–Cold War world. Inasmuch as it turns the spotlight on these dilemmas and debates, this history of the 1971 crisis is not merely a narrative of the past but a tract for our times.

Extracted from 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh by Srinath Raghavan (2013, Permanent Black)