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War of 1971 and the Birth of Bangladesh

After the elections of 1970, situation in Pakistan turned into chaos and turmoil. The leaders of the two leading political parties, Pakistan Peoples Party and the Awami League, having earned popularity in their own regions, didn’t seem to compromise with each other at any cost. Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman continued insisting on his specific Six-Point Program while Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto with his reservations asked for some amendments. Thus they couldn’t get to the bottom of the predicament due to their inflexibility. President Yahya Khan was himself too incompetent to instigate them to negotiate and co-operate with each other.

Yahya Khan urged Sheikh Mujib a couple of times to come to West Pakistan, certainly not realizing the growing discontent of the Bengali public because of their deep-rooted mistrust on their western brethren. When Yahya Khan saw that Mujib remained unmoved, he himself called on Mujib and invited him to visit Islamabad. But as again Mujib didn’t respond, Yahya goaded Bhutto to leave for Dacca. Bhutto acceded to his request and had detailed talks with Mujib but both of them couldn’t eliminate the ever-growing gap between the two wings.

In a desperate bid to break the political deadlock, Yahya Khan announced that National Assembly session will be held in Dacca on 3 March 1971 for seeking the solution of constitutional matters. Subsequently the elected MNAs of PPP vowed on Quran that they would remain faithful to their leader. Similarly the MNAs of AL pledged that they would not yield at any cost as far as their Six-Point Formula was concerned. Forthwith Yahya Khan was disappointed and decided for deferment of the session that only added fuel to the fire. On 3 March East Pakistan province went on tremendous strike and mammoth civil disobedience. Thereupon the army was called to curb their civil disobedience. But the conditions further deteriorated and there was a great massacre due to clashes that occurred to and fro between the Mukti Bahini and the Pakistan military.

Later, on 6 March, in order to keep the Bengali protestors at peace, Yahya Khan gave another date for the session but Mujib put forward his demand for immediate lifting of Martial Law and transfer of power to the elected MNAs. The President once again went to Dacca but their talks again remained futile. On 23 March while West Pakistan was celebrating the Independence Day, East Pakistan termed it a Resistance Day all over the roads and streets waving flags of Bangladesh. Even the elected members of AL who had been invited to meet the President for negotiations arrived in cars carrying Bangladeshi flags.

At that stage Yahya Khan was suggested by his close associates to go for direct military action to curb the uprising of the Bengalis once and for all. Accordingly the “Operation Searchlight” was launched at midnight on 25 March 1971 under Lieutenant-General Tikka Khan, the newly appointed Martial Law Administrator and governor of the eastern wing. The army came into swift action and within no time killed hundreds of protesting students. It also raided police headquarters and East Pakistan Rifles to ensure peace in the province. These merely brutal acts remained secret for a long time among the West Pakistanis until report of Hamood-ur-Rehman Commission was partly revealed after several years. The army assault, however, gave rise to an anticlimax and fuelled nothing but repulsion and resistance, and the bloodshed that followed further alienated Bengalis. Their desire to be free from the clutches of their brother “colonialists” intensified. The migration of seven million Bengalis to India paved the way for the Indian government to exploit the whole situation and defame Pakistan on international level. On 17th April a Bangladeshi government-in-exile to be headed by Mujib was formed in Calcutta. Mujib was arrested at the orders of the President while his associates who could not be arrested fled to the government-in-exile.

While Pakistan was being condemned in the world press, Yahya Khan announced amnesty to all the migrants so that they could return to their homes but even this amnesty couldn’t diminish the agitation and the demonstrations going incessantly against the government. In order to gain favor of the Bengalis India blocked West Pakistan air connection with the East Pakistan. The Indian government not only fully supported the “revolutionaries” but also helped them prepare a Liberation Force well known as Mukti Bahini whose training camps were formed on Pak-Indian border areas in mid 1971. In September the total strength of the Mukti Bahini trainees was around 100,000. Mukti Bahini looted arms depots and police stores to acquire weapons but India remained the major supplier of arms. Thus to restore order in the East Pakistan became quite difficult.

The activities of Mukti Bahini started with their attacks on key installations of the army in Dacca and on Chittagong harbor. During July-August they invaded lines of communications, railways and roads and consequently discontinued the link between the two wings of the country. When the army seemed to be inadequate to curb the disturbance the government of Pakistan sought help from the local Bihari, non-Bengali speaking people to fight the Mukti Bahini guerrillas.

The Pakistani government was facing many problems including shortage of goods, inflation mainly because IMF and the World Bank had ceased to support Pakistan’s economy and without their aid and loan it was almost impossible to deal with the clashes. At that crucial time when Pak army was already too down in the dumps, Indian military intervention followed on 3rd December 1971and a full fledged war broke out on the Eastern front of Pakistan. Already from 21 November India had started direct attacks on Pakistan border regions and a plan was previously devised to occupy Dhaka on 6 December. Mukti Bahini and the public in general fully supported intrusion of the Indian army that was duly aided by the Indian Air Force.

Worldwide appeals were made for ceasefire but Indian army continued the war that lasted for nearly two weeks. At length Pakistani commander Lieutenant-General Niazi in East Pakistan had to surrender on the orders of his superiors along with his 93,000 troops at Dacca on 16 December. As soon as Mujib was released, he went to Bangladesh where Mukti Bahini was engaged in taking revenge from the non-Bengali residents.

Indeed, the aftermath was not less than a nightmare. People were drowned in despair and depression. Pakistan had lost half of her navy, third of army and a quarter of air force besides millions of casualties. The biggest setback was disintegration of Pakistan with emergence of Bangladesh. In the “remaining” West Pakistan people came out on the streets declaring Yahya and his fellows as traitors and asked for his resignation. Thus Bhutto, President of the PPP was asked to come back from New York to take over the charge of the country. On 20 December 1971 he assumed the rank of the President of new Pakistan and Civil Martial Law Administrator.

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