The Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971

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The first thing that comes to mind when we think of the Bangladesh War of 1971 is the surrender of Lt-Gen Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi of Pakistan to Lt-Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora of India, in Dhaka, on 16th December 1971.

A.A.K. Niazi and Jagjit Singh Aurora sign the instrument of surrender in Dhaka | Wikimedia Commons
A.A.K. Niazi and Jagjit Singh Aurora sign the instrument of surrender in Dhaka | Wikimedia Commons

Led by Niazi, over 93,000 Pakistani soldiers (the largest since the WW2) surrendered, bringing an end to the war between India and Pakistan, with Bangladesh emerging as a new nation. Then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a unilateral ceasefire on the western front.

The war had begun on 3rd Dec 1971, when Pakistan launched air strikes along India’s western border. India declared war on Pakistan in response and launched an offensive into East Pakistan, to liberate Bangladesh.

Sheikh Mujibur Rehman | Wikimedia Commons
Sheikh Mujibur Rehman | Wikimedia Commons

The struggle for Bangladeshi independence began in March 1971. Sheikh Mujibur Rehman of the Awami League had won a majority in the elections to Pakistan’s National Assembly but Pakistani President Yahya Khan rejected his claim to become Prime Minister.

The Awami League launched protests against Yahya Khan’s arbitrary and undemocratic decision but the Pakistani army began a brutal crackdown. Millions died and hundreds of thousands of women were raped in a nine-month onslaught called ‘Operation Searchlight’.

After Mujibur Rehman was arrested and sent to West Pakistan, angry Bengali-speaking members of the Pakistani armed forces and police mutinied to fight the government. Camps for Mukti Bahini or the Liberation Army of Bangladesh, were set up along the Indian border.

By May 1971, 3 million refugees had crossed the border to India, and by November that number rose to 10 million, putting a huge economic strain on India. Indira Gandhi asked India’s Army chief Sam Manekshaw to prepare for war. A military conflict looked inevitable.

Military units and troop movements during the war | Wikimedia Commons
Military units and troop movements during the war | Wikimedia Commons

Indira visited European capitals, Moscow and Washington, to apprise world leaders of the atrocities being committed by the Pakistani Army and the risk this posed to India’s security. US President Richard Nixon had warned taking military action would be “dangerous to India”.

Indira emphasised that Pakistan was carrying out a “genocidal punishment of the people for having voted democratically”. Given the hostile stance of the US & China, whose enmity had begun to thaw, India signed a treaty of peace, friendship & cooperation with the then USSR.

Indian troops on the eastern theatre in Bangladesh | Wikimedia Commons
Indian troops on the eastern theatre in Bangladesh | Wikimedia Commons

With the India-Soviet treaty acting as a hedge against US-China’s intervention, India went to war. On 6th Dec 1971, India recognised the provisional government of Bangladesh. Indian forces assisted by the Mukti Bahini ran through East Pakistan - In 13 days, Dhaka fell.

After the war, Mujibur Rahman was released from a Pakistani jail and on 10th Jan 1972, he became the leader of the free and sovereign country of Bangladesh. Therefore, linguistic, cultural and democratic yearnings proved to be more powerful than religious affinity.

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