Book Review : India And The Bangladesh Liberation War-The Definitive Story By Chandra Shekhar Dasgupta

Chandra Shekhar Dasgupta , a distinguished career diplomat, a policy analyst and commentator of current affairs was awarded in 2008 Padma Bhushan for his service to the nation. His publications before he embarked on his work on Bangladesh liberation war include a well researched book entitled War and diplomacy in Kashmir which demolished many myths about the government of India’s handling of situation in Kashmir arising out of the Pakistan sponsored Tribal invasion of Kashmir and subsequent developments in India’s foreign policy.

The book under review follows the same trajectory as the author states that it is not an account of military campaign but about ” India’s grand strategy in 1971″ meaning in his words ” a comprehensive and co-ordinated plan for employing all the resources available to a state- diplomatic, military and economic- to achieve a defined political objective”, and that was dismemberment of Pakistan by facilitating emergence of Bangladesh as a sovereign independent state.

The first two chapters entitled- Prelude- The alienation of East Bengal and Birth of a nation narrated facts and circumstances known since the partition such as the assertion of the Punjabi and Urdu speaking elite that the West Pakistan formed the core or the ” mainstream” of Pakistan, and East Pakistan,a mere appendage to the core even when 4.5 crores of Pakistan’s population of 7crores were in the eastern wing ,and therefore unfit for any autonomy. what would surprise a reader is the information that two serving Bengali I.C.S. officials
– BKAcharya and S.K.Banerjee holding key positions in the Foreign office of the Government of India in 1971 held the view that ” majority control of the central Pakistani government by East Pakistanis was the only hope for achieving India’s policy objectives towards Pakistan”. Implicit in it was the hope that East Pakistan might gain ascendancy in Pak polity which was ill founded as evidence of the will and determination of the West Pakistani political and military class to retain its dominance in the Pakistani state was overwhelming. It was thus not difficult for R.N.Kaw, RAW Chief to counter it by pointing out the depth of alienation of East Pakistan as well as the impossibility of the West Pakistani elite ever agreeing to a dominant role of the East Bengalis in the Pakistani state. On this, Kaw had the support of P.N. Haksar, Principal Secretary to the PM ,T.N.Kaul, Foreign Secretary and officials of the Ministry of External Affairs who had served in East Pakistan. From this perspective, birth of a nation – the theme of Chapter 2 is a narrative of post 1971 election situation- the first ever election held on the basis of universal adult suffrage in Pakistan when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League won a clear majority and thereby earned the right to be called upon to form the government at the centre. It soon became apparent that the Military- political establishment of West Pakistan would not allow it to happen nor concede a federal polity and even “autonomy “in good measure to the Eastern part. Thus by early Feb 1971 Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was left with the only option of drawing up a ” formal and unilateral declaration of independence of Bangladesh” which he did according to his able colleague Tajuddin Ahmed on March 25, after the Pakistani Army began its crack down and launched “operation search light”to crush the Bengali demand for autonomy within Pakistan summed up in Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s “Six point demand ” . Significantly well before the declaration of independence of Bangladesh, Henry Kissinger, the then US Secretary of State advised President Nixon that ” … there is little material left in the fabric of the unity of Pakistan ” even when he held that the” division of Pakistan would not serve US interests”.

It is abundantly clear that failure of the Pakistani political society to create a modern democratic state capable of meeting the aspirations of its diverse people and especially those in the eastern part who formed the majority of the population was the basic cause of its dissolution .
The next 4 chapters- 3 to 6 cover how a grand strategy to militarily intervene in East Bengal emerged overcoming two main obstacles: First the ” unalterable” US opposition to the idea of an independent Bangladesh and US strategic interest in keeping Pakistan intact, and second the presence of a group within the Awami League who even after a provisional government of Bangladesh was formed in Calcutta felt that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was not entirely opposed to the Idea of an autonomous East Bengal within the framework of Pakistan- presumably under the influence of the US Consulate in Calcutta . And on top of it, the possibility of a Chinese military intervention in the North East Indian frontier in the event of an India backed Mukti Bahini liberation war, and the clear US stand against the Idea of seperation of East Bengal had to be diplomatically countered . This, according to the author ” necessitated a major adjustment of India’s foreign policy – entering into a Friendship Treaty with the Soviet union”. This was the key element of the grand strategy prepared by the team under Mrs Gandhi backed up by effective measures to help Mukti Bahini emerge as a strike force to play its role in coordination with the Indian forces in the operations against the Pak occupying force . To deal with the unending stream of refugees, the task of providing relief while also providing support to the military to prepare for the war a high degree of policy coordination at the Central government was an imperative need. This was achieved by a Special Committee of Secretaries of the Government of India headed by the Cabinet Secretary which enabled the government to take coordinated military, political and economic measures to achieve this object.In this regard, the Prime Minister’s office played a strategic role in developing the grand strategy to facilitate as the author put it ” the early entry of Bangladesh into the comity of nations”.
During this period ( April to Nov 1971) the provisional government of Bangladesh at Mujib Nagar in Calcutta achieved a break through in building up a guerrilla force – Mukti Bahini, that is a Liberation Army capable of launching guerrilla attacks on the Pakistani forces, drawing them out to the interior, destroying military assets and the morale of the Pak army. Joining of rebel Bengali elements of East Pakistan Rifles and East Bengal Regiment in the ranks of the Mukti Bahini, training and logistics support from the Indian Armed forces vastly improved the Mukti Bahini’s capacity to inflict severe damage to Pak army all along the borders of East Bengal with India ; and more significantly it compelled the Pakistani army to spread out to the border areas from the heavily defended ” Dhaka bowl”- a move that served the Indian strategy as it dented Pak capabilities to continue the war when faced with the Indian offensive from all sides – land,air and sea. The Indian military leadership and especially the Eastern Command displayed remarkable capacity in carrying out military operations in close coordination with the Mukti Bahini apart from training and equipping the guerrilla force ; and more significantly by helping the Mukti Bahini to build its command and control system in tune with the military plans to defeat the Pak occupation army.

The next five chapters – 7-11 deal with stupendous and successful efforts to mobilise world opinion in favour of a free Bangladesh in a volatile geopolitical environment, and a global order unfavourable to the Idea of a part of a nation seceding for whatever reason. The doctrine of non intervention in internal matters enshrined in Article 2 of the UN charter and the fact that the idea of intervention even on humanitarian grounds was not in place compounded India’s problem as none of the Western democracies condemned the Pak crackdown; and even most Third world countries were indifferent to Pak mass murders in Bangladesh. Surprisingly the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Prince Sadruddin was even unwilling to ascertain why the refugees fled from East Pakistan in the first place which reflected a biased mind. The UN Economic and Social Council took a similar narrow view. The US policy was clear: it was a cold war issue at a critical time when US was trying to capitalise on Sino Soviet rift that led to 1969 Usuri river border clashes between the USSR and China in opening up a relationship with China using Pakistan as a spring board for reaching China. US therefore needed Pakistan as Kissinger’s secret visit to China in July 1971 even without the knowledge of the US Secretary of State William Rogers showed Pakistan’s importance in US strategic calculations; and therefore US arms and other aid to Pakistan continued. Kissinger ‘s visit to the subcontinent in July 1971 and his meetings in Delhi with Mrs. Gandhi, foreign minister Sardar Swaran Singh, Foreign Secretary T.N.Kaul and PN. Haksar were covered with meticulous details by the author in narrating how firmly Indian leaders and especially Mrs. Gandhi didn’t concede a point to the US;and affirmed that the emergence of Bangladesh would be in the interest of peace and progress of South Asia.What possibly clinched the issue was a note of Foreign Secretary T.N. Kaul mentioning that Dr Kissinger made it clear after his return from China in Delhi that US would not intervene in any conflict between India and Pakistan even if China did so. This left India with no option but to take the bold decision to enter into a defence treaty with the USSR to attain its strategic objective.

The signing of the Indo Soviet Treaty on 9th August 1971 was a great achievement of Indian diplomacy as its object was to overcome, in author’s words ” an incipient quasi alliance between Pakistan, China and the United States “.It was indeed a geopolitical revolution with many dimensions which include widening rift between the USSR and People’s Republic of China which facilitated the Indo Soviet Treaty. But it was not a smooth affair as it might seem now because in 1968 Soviet union agreed to supply arms to Pakistan on a mistaken premise that it would wean it away from China ; and therefore a treaty that would bind USSR to support India in the event of aggression by China and Pakistan arising out of the Bangladesh crisis in 1971 entailed hard negotiations. The fact that the USSR saw the strength of the Indian position and agreed to the Indian proposal for a treaty owed a lot to the painstaking efforts of T.N.Kaul, then Foreign Secretary. Article 9 of the Indo Soviet Treaty addressed India’s concern as it provided for “mutual consultations in the event of a threat in order to remove such threat” and to take effective measures to ensure peace and security of their countries ” meaning military support as an alliance partner. This was no doubt the” finest hour ” of India’s diplomacy and the nation had reasons to be proud of its leaders – Mrs Indira Gandhi and her able team of Ministers and officials.

The Indo Soviet Treaty not only sealed the fate of Pakistan’s integrity but exposed the hollowness of the US and Chinese positions in regard to the Bangladesh crisis, and paved the way for success of the joint operation of the Indian and Mukti Bahini forces to drive out the Pak occupation army from East Pakistan.

The next three chapters -10,11, and 12 deal with operationalising the Treaty and its strategic fall out tilting the balance in favour of Indian intervention facilitated in good measure by Mrs Gandhi’s visits to Western Capitals in November when she boldly put across the Indian view that mass murders of civilians in East Bengal, exodus of refugees to India and refusal of Pakistani state to go by the verdict of the people of Pakistan in 1971General election and even to consider ” autonomy” leave no scope for any resolution of the problem other than a sovereign independent state of Bangladesh. The author quoted from Kissinger’s White House years to establish the fact that Kissinger’s assessment of the crisis was wholly wrong as it ignored the geographical absurdity of the very idea of Pakistan – a nation state divided by well over a thousand miles of Indian territory and more significantly by ethnicity, language and culture; and the fact that the East Pakistanis formed the overwhelming majority of the population, had access to the sea and greater development potential. These facts – recognised by the global community now were not even considered – possibly because of the” cold war mindset” to look at it as a civil war, an internal problem that could be resolved which coloured the diplomatic vision of the West and even the USSR till November 1971 when the Soviet union started supplying arms to India and coming round to the Indian perspective of resolution of the refugee crisis only by an independent Bangladesh. It is a sad commentary on global governance and the UN system which compelled Mrs. Gandhi to conclude -” we cannot depend on the international community.. to solve our problems for us”.

The stage was set for military intervention to backup the resistance of the Mukti Bahini which began with the Cabinet Secretary’s report on Nov 28 that the situation arising from the refugee crisis had reached a stage when a decisive military intervention in East Bengal was the only way . This paved the way to recognition of the “People’s Republic of Bangladesh”- Gana Prajatantri Bangladesh and announced by Mrs. Gandhi in Parliament on December 6. This was followed by creation of a joint command of India and Bangladesh on the same day to launch coordinated military operations against Pak occupation forces.

In the last three chapters, the author, after making a brief reference to the short and decisive Indian campaign which ended up with the surrender of the Pakistani forces at Dhaka on 16th December 1971, gave his own analysis of war and diplomacy exposing how cynical and negative was the approach of the US, China and the West to the issues of self determination and violation of human rights of people in Bangladesh ; and thereafter a fascinating account of how after the war, the Indo Pak agreement was reached at Simla to treat” the line of control resulting from the ceasefire of December 17,1971 in Jammu and Kashmir as a line of peace” and respected as such by both sides “even when the phrase ” without prejudice to the recognised position of either sides” was inserted in the agreement. These two chapters are therefore ” must read” for all serving and aspiring diplomats and every one interested in the dynamic history of South Asia.

In chapter 13- War and diplomacy the author noted the sterling role of the Indian Ambassador to the UN, Samar Sen to counter the US and the western view of the crisis as an internal problem of Pakistan and hence protected from any Indian intervention under the UN charter. It completely ignored the root cause of the huge movement of refugees to India; and even when the war began the US was trying to provide in the words of the author an” American security umbrella” to induce China to embark on “a risky military adventure ” by launching an aggression in India’s North East close to Bangladesh. US went even further and arranged to move its Aircraft carrier “Enterprise” led naval task force to Bay of Bengal to put pressure on India – a move which circumstances – chiefly” Indian defiance “and US domestic opposition compelled US to abandon . This enabled India to attain its strategic objects. This only proves that US like other powers pursues ruthlessly her ” perceived national interest of the day”, and should be borne in mind by the Indian policy makers in joining any US led group such as Quad – Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.

The concluding chapter is a masterly analysis of basics of Indian policy to Pakistan – a shift in focus from ” a bilateral to a multilateral approach to the Kashmir issue” which was achieved at the Shimla Summit; and to eliminate the geo strategic advantage Pakistan enjoyed by having control over East Bengal which was achieved with the emergence of Bangladesh. India also dispelled the Western fears that it had any design to cripple the Pak army or occupying Pak territory even in POK -Pak occupied Kashmir. Further, the author has demolished some myths such as Gen Manekshaw ‘s resolute opposition to military intervention in East Bengal soon after the ” crackdown ” which was never even thought of by Mrs Gandhi’s team; and that at the Shimla Summit India lost an opportunity to enter into a final agreement on Kashmir which was not true at all ,because all the Indian drafts presented at the Shimla Summit reserved” final settlement on Kashmir for a future date.
A remarkable feature of this study is the author’s objectivity as seen in his sharp comments on the limitations of the Indian system in that period that allowed little interaction between soldiers and diplomats for want of a body like the National Security Council even when he extolled the success of the ” multidimensional grand strategy “that the government had put in place . Now that India has a National Security Council presumably this systemic weakness has been remedied.

The author has exploded many myths about Western diplomacy and its institutional capabilities to assess complex regional security issues such as the flawed CIA view that India was ” another client state of USSR”, and that the Chinese were ready to militarily intervene in India’s North East border to back up US policy to preserve Pak authority in East Bengal. His exposure of Dr. Kissinger’s gross misjudgement of the Indian strategic objects such as his view that India’s aim was to smash West Pakistan and destroy Pak Army’s “striking power” which was never even thought of by Mrs Gandhi’s team. His conclusion that Kissinger’s geo political model was a caricature of international relations” is supported by Kissinger’s equally wrong assessment of Bangladesh that it would remain a basket case. Implicit in near unconditional support towards Pakistan since the signing of US Pak military pact in the early 1950’s was the US assessment that Pakistan had a future which wasn’t the case at all as summarised below:

As of now Pak economy is on the verge of collapse as inflation is currently ruling at about 21.3%  as per latest estimate , Pak US$ exchange rate is now hovering around  Rs 204 to one US Dollar .  With a meager foreign exchange reserve of US$ 11.36billion and GDP of US$ 347 billions for a population of 23 crores as compared to US$ 411billion GDP of Bangladesh, Pakistan’s perpetual dependence on loans from Saudi Arabia and the IMF for meager amounts of even US $ 3 to 4 billions has been endemic. With her low export base of mainly primary and low value added products which add up only to about US$16-18 billions annually while her annual imports being in the range of US$ 50 billions, Pakistan’s current account deficit and consequent weakening of the Pak Rupee have been a recurring feature of her economy. Her complete dependence on foreign supplies of oil and gas and machinery of all types , falling currency, the huge debt burden caused by the loans it took from China for implementation of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor are clear signs of a collapsing economy : And therefore its strategic implications for Indian security merit a serious study by the Indian think tanks. The continuing failure of the Pakistani political society to construct a modern state right from its inception, and even after secession of Bangladesh has not received the same attention in the West though a similar failure of India’s another eastern neighbour, Myanmar has been getting now as ” a failing state” in the western media. Even in India the fact that the idea of Pakistan as the homeland of the Indian Muslims was abandoned by Pakistan under Z.A.Bhutto and his successors – civil or military by denying the ethnic Bihar/UP origin Muslim Pakistani citizens, and even when they served in the Pak forces their right to citizenship of Pakistan has not been duly noted. The stranded Pakistanis of Bihar UP origin were condemned to remain stateless in Bangladesh for decades as the ” rejected people” of the subcontinent exposed to indignity and hardships.

In conclusion one would agree with the author’s bold claim on the cover page that it is the ” Definitive Story”, that is, to be regarded as final and not subject to revision. Having said that, it may be observed that the author could have given some statistics to support the case of economic discrimination” against East Pakistan – an important cause of demand for ” autonomy “. His reference to the Indian policy makers fears about possible take over of the freedom movement of Bangladesh by the Pro Chinese Naxals and its impact on the Indian part of Bengal was founded more on “apprehension” than on evidence: Because the Naxal movement even in its heydays in West Bengal and elsewhere was never ” insurrectionary” in a real sense as the movement didn’t acquire the capability like the Naga or the Mizo insurgents to launch organised armed attacks on the centres and instruments of state power.

Though the author referred to the ” Grouping” scheme and the idea of United Bengal mooted by Sarat Chandra Bose and HS Suhrawardy on the eve of partition, he could have looked into the larger issues of absurdity of the idea of Pakistan as majority of its population is seperated from the minority Western wing by well over a thousand miles of Indian territory and more significantly East Pakistan enjoyed access to the sea and every geo economic advantage to work out a separate economic destiny for herself. Thus dividing an essentially integrated region on the basis of religion only led to aberrations which are still obstructing progress of Eastern sub region of South Asia. These are- disruption of strategic rail road and economic links, huge obstacles to any coordinated action program to combat climate change and unnatural division of societies and tribes creating avoidable tensions in north east India and Myanmar. It is not realised that the Partition divided not just ethnic Bengalis but also the Garos,Khasi Jaintias, Manipuris Mizos, Koch Rajbangshis Hajongs and Mech people ( as the Bodos are known in West Bengal and Bangladesh) and caused disruption of their societies. It may even be said that the agenda of all subregional initiatives like the Act East and BIMSTEC – Bay of Bengal Multisectoral Technical and economic co-operation and SAARC- South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation are just steps towards undoing the damage caused by the” 1947 political settlement” that destroyed a vibrant integrated Eastern regional economy encompassing Myanmar, Nepal and Tibet as well. It is thus not too late to question the wisdom of the Indian leaders who in their eagerness to acquire state power didn’t extract any real compensation in terms of territories for the huge recurring costs that the people of Tripura, Barak valley, and the North East as a whole are paying for complete disruption of the surface communication, trade and commerce links caused by the hurried partitioning that is now sought to be addressed by the Act East policy. Time cannot bury the damage it caused.

The author made a passing reference to the progress Bangladesh made proving how wrong was Kissinger’s assessment of Bangladesh as a basket case as ironically it is Pakistan which is now regarded as ” a badly governed basket case”. At the time of partition the population of the East Pakistan and West Pakistan was 4.5cr and 2.5 cr respectively and the numbers are now about 22.5cr and 17cr which shows that while Bangladesh has stabilized its population , it is growing unchecked in Pakistan with about 40% of population in the below poverty line category. Right now with the opening of the massive 6.5km bridge rail road connector built at a cost of US$3.6 billions across the river Padma on the 25 th June last which will connect 21 south western districts with the rest of the economy, Bangladesh GDP is expected to go up by about 1.23% , that is about 7.7% in 2022 as compared to the world bank estimate of 6.4% in 2022. This will usher in a vibrant Padma economy reducing the distance between Calcutta and Dhaka to 350 km only and opening it to Asian high way system facilitating thereby prospects of restoration of the vibrant economy that linked Eastern and NE India with Myanmar and south east Asia. From this perspective, Liberation war of Bangladesh is a game changer for geo economics as well as succinctly pointed out by the author.

In conclusion a few points: at page 64 the small border town of Bongaigaon in West Bengal the author mentioned was Bongaon and not Bongaigaon which is in Assam; and I feel that the author could have avoided mentioning the expletives Nixon was fond of uttering as it was enough to say that these were unprintable! This is a must read book for every one- serving diplomats ,members of the IAS and other services and especially the UPSC civil service aspirants, and any one keen to know how foreign policies are made and strategic decisions are taken by the Government of India. Chandra Shekhar Dasgupta will be remembered for this seminal work.

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