The men who created Pakistan believed in the idea that men of different religions are incapable of coexistence. They declared that the Hindus and Muslims of India constituted two separate nations and must live separately. This first led to the creation of Pakistan in 1947 and then to its dismemberment 24 years later.
The second event was triggered by the fact that the rulers who dominated Pakistan refused to accept the numerically superior Bengalis from the eastern half of their nation as their equals.
Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, the Awami League leader, who had secured the most votes in the 1970 Pakistani parliamentary election, was a Bengali. He was not allowed to form a government or become prime minister of his country. Why? Because the exclusivist establishment of West Pakistan did not consider Bengalis their equals.
Pakistan at that time was ruled by the military dictator, General Yahya Khan. He had seized power in 1969 and was promoting an ambitious Sindhi politician named Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Together they hoped that they could somehow ensure West Pakistan retained power and that the eastern wing remained a colonial appendage.
Yet, General Yahya Khan would have no political settlement and sent his somewhat psychotic junior, General Tikka Khan to 'deal' with the Bengalis. This precipitated one of the worst crises in the history of the Indian subcontinent. It also led to genocide in East Pakistan and the exodus of millions of starving Pakistanis into India.
Tikka Khan felt the Bengalis could be cowed down easily by the Pakistani army.
On March 25, 1971, he ordered an army crackdown in East Pakistan. Mujibur Rehman and his family were jailed. The same day, the Pakistani army began airlifting two of its divisions plus a brigade strength formation to East Pakistan.
Attempts to disarm Bengali troops were not entirely successful and within weeks of the March 25 massacres, many former Bengali officers and troops of the Pakistani army had joined Bengali resistance fighters in different parts of East Pakistan. They were supplemented by Mukti Bahini guerrillas.
The Pakistani army conducted several crackdowns, leading to massive loss of civilian life. The details of those horrific massacres, in which defenceless people were trapped and machine-gunned, is part of Bangladeshi history. Survivors compare it to the Nazi extermination of Jews.
Refugees were pouring into India and horrified public opinion in this country wanted an end to the genocide in neighbouring East Pakistan. Appeals to the Pakistani leadership proved futile and ultimately the then prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi, ordered her charismatic army chief, General S H F J Maneckshaw, to prepare for war. The aim was to help the East Pakistani freedom fighters defeat the Pakistani army and declare independence.
Text: Indranil Banerjie, Executive Director, SAPRA India Foundation
Image: Then prime minister Indira Gandhi at the border
Photographs: Courtesy Bharatrakshak.com, Indranil Banerjie and the Ministry of Defence
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