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THIRTEEN DAYS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD

Published: December 03, 2018 21:07:36 | Updated: December 07, 2018 21:24:59


Lieutenant General AAK Niazi, commander of the Pakistan army in East Pakistan, signs the Instrument of Surrender at the Race Course in Dhaka on December 16, 1971.    

The above title mixes John Reed's well-known description of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Ten days that shook the world and Sushant Singh's article, 13 days that shook the subcontinent, in Indian Express (December 16, 2016). Of course, it cannot rival Robert F. Kennedy's Thirteen Days memoir of the most riveting October 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Yet since Bangladesh's liberation changed the local, national, regional and global architecture, it could not have ended any other way than the decisive India-Pakistan shoot-out that took place. No pragmatist could have vouched for such an outcome at the time. Today, and for many years since, we have been witnessing the consequences steadily unfold.

Critically, India and Pakistan were not planning for war in 1971. West Pakistan's crackdown upon East Pakistan from March was blatant genocide, expelling 9.7 million Bangalees into an economically struggling and politically grudging India. Yet, no matter how dishevelled, India looked a gift horse in the mouth with dignity. Unlike the 1947 and 1965 Indo-Pakistan conflicts, this third showdown pitted stakeholders from across the world, from Bangladesh's paddy-fields, through the Bay of Bengal gateway to the superpower oceanic contest zones, across the Himalayan peaks and beyond into China, and even the sprawling Euroasian heartland whose control had traditionally supplied world leadership.

The root cause was not at all geopolitics, but ironically the results of the freest and fairest election in Pakistan's history. Winning a functional majority in the all-Pakistan national assembly, East Pakistan's Awami League, led by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, automatically faced West Pakistani opposition and resistance, on the civilian front by the maverick Pakistan People's Party (PPP) leader, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and on the military by the then Chief Martial Law Administrator, General Yahya Khan. Much has been written about the National Assembly postponement on March 01 and the subsequent military crackdown from March 25, but how Mujib's election victory was spun as an Indian conspiracy set the stage to the December 1971 war.

If Singh's 13 days truly "shook the subcontinent" in December, the preceding 33 weeks bloodied Bangladesh badly: up to 3.0 million were killed, including unconscionable children, women, and the elderly. With 15 per cent of the population entering India, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi opted to put on her travel boots instead of drumming up the military. Even as she visited world leaders to explain the predicament first-hand, her efforts were still being drowned by the United States publicly de-villainising Pakistan and covertly courting China. Pakistan's murderous role, as vividly portrayed by the Dhaka US Consul General, Archer Blood, in his fruitless telegram, was dismissed to enable Pakistan be the US stepping stone to China.

Pakistan was already a prominent partner of US military alliances: not only the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO), or Baghdad Pact, but also the South East Treaty Organisation (SEATO) from the early 1950s, both as defences against communism, particularly the Soviet brand. Still the Soviet Union shifted from relative military inferiority, particularly in terms of nuclear capabilities, towards 'strategic parity' by the 1970s, forcing the United States to seek new partners. China fitted in, as calculated by US National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, who had carefully noted the 1969 Ussuri River clashes between the two leading communist countries. His 'détente' foreign policy postured ping-pong diplomacy with China. Bangladesh's predicament became 'peanuts' from this angle. Even worse, India's non-alignment legacy and softness towards the Soviet Union actually lubricated the China-US thaw. Given the one-sided 1962 China-India conflict and the US distaste for the 'socialist' brand of which India reeked and Bangladesh had adorned, Bangladesh's liberation war exposed the pantheon of 21st century world leadership for the first time.

Indira Gandhi's astute realpolitik thinking and performance matched Kissinger's and China's Zhou Enlai's. She concluded a 20-year Treaty of Peace, Friendship, and Cooperation with the Soviet Union in August, which committed both sides to go to the other's defence in case of any aggression. If the December war had gone astray, this provision was conveniently available, indicating how close the region was to Armageddon. Gandhi was far too shrewd for that to happen, while Soviet ships in the Bay of Bengal kept the US Seventh Fleet at bay. These helped the Bangladesh-India military partnership to blossom: from training freedom-fighters, the two countries (Bangladesh under a provisional government) shared logistics, prepared plans, and built a liaison that would help both coordinate and conclude the December war.

Decapitating Pakistan was unavoidable. Besieged by Bangladesh freedom-fighters, the Pakistan army mobilised in the west. When air-raids were launched on Indian sites (even as far away as Agra) on December 03, India declared war. Thirteen days later Lt. General Jagjit S. Aurora oversaw the largest surrender after World War II: 93,000 Pakistani soldiers, led by Lt. General A. A. K. 'Tiger' Niazi, laid down their arms on the same ground where Sheikh Mujib defiantly called upon his people to break the Pakistan bondage.

This was the freedom 75 million Bangalees did not get on August 14, 1947. If they could have looked beyond their own joys, grief, and exhaustion after 1971, they might have noticed how the world also began changing. Arguably India's contemporary rise into global contention began on that December 16th day in 1971, at Ramna Racecourse in Dacca. Without a Pakistan, India's only challenge to climb upwards was internal: harnessing resources, overcoming poverty, and mobilising as varied a population as any country has seen. Over half a century, it would conquer almost all of these, such that the only threat remained external.

That threat was not the United States either. China's even faster upward climb also began with its 1971 external socialising: ping-pong diplomacy paved the way to US markets and foreign investment. By unwittingly fuelling China's power-growth, the United States moved from one fatal Indian attraction to another: from the 1971 'can't live with her' instinct to the 'can't live without her' urgency today, all because of China.

Behind this strategic shift, numerous minor changes followed. The Soviet Union, driven by bankruptcy, turned into Russia, but driven again, this time by China's ascendancy, it slipped below China's ranking. Without Cold War concerns, European countries integrated economically; and with the 'hot' war theatres of the Cold War in Southeast Asia and Latin America cooling off (as in Vietnam and Cuba, respectively), economic growth again returned.

Lest it be forgotten, Bangladesh's shift from the 1971 'basket-case' sobriquet to the top-45 list of the world's 200-odd countries today predicts a climb into the top-25 in the visible future. Pakistan's 'Damoclean Sword' 'deep state' predicament, meaning a militarily controlled condition, is not Bangladesh's. True Pakistan can turn Afghanistan into a Rubicon for both the United States and China, as it did the Soviet Union in the 1980s; and it can still summon Arab support in the name of Islam. Yet, what really distinguishes Bangladesh from Pakistan today is something far more profound: Bangladesh's confident and unbounded future probing contrasting Pakistan's inevitably regressive march. What happened between them in 1971 exposed the fault-line between static and dynamic worldviews finally beginning to irrevocably widen.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

imtiaz.hussain@iub.edu.bd

 

 

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