International awareness of the mass killings created the conditions for Indian intervention and the end of the war.
by Massimo Introvigne
For those of my generation, “Bangla Desh” was first a song by George Harrison (1943–2001) and a concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden organized in 1971 by the same Harrison and his Indian friend Ravi Shankar (1920–2012), featuring such rock luminaries as Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, and Eric Clapton. Harrison was one of the two key figures who created in 1971 a global awareness of Bangladesh as a humanitarian catastrophe. The other was Anthony Mascarenhas (1928–1986). We all remember Harrison, and few remember Mascarenhas. However, without Mascarenhas, there might not have been Harrison’s concert, and history might have been different.
Mascarenhas was a Catholic from Goa whose family had moved to Karachi when he was a child. He was a journalist who became assistant editor of Karachi’s Morning News. He was sent to East Pakistan to cover the “pacification” of the region. A few days there were enough for him to come to two conclusions. First, the (Western) Pakistani troops were perpetrating a genocide. Second, neither the Morning News nor any other Pakistani newspaper would publish his articles if he would tell the truth.
He asked his wife, who was in Karachi, to book a ticket and go to London with their children as soon as possible. Then, he contacted the London Sunday Times and proposed an article on what was going on in East Pakistan. The article was published on June 13, 1981. It had a simple title, “Genocide.”
Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (1917–1984) later stated that it was Mascarenhas’ article that persuaded her that India should intervene in East Pakistan, and led her to “a campaign of personal diplomacy in the European capitals and Moscow to prepare the ground for India’s armed intervention.” By that time, Mascarenhas himself was safely in London, where he will have a long and distinguished career as a Sunday Times journalist.
Indira Gandhi mentioned Europe and Russia but not United States and China. The latter countries regarded Pakistan as a strategic regional ally, and a necessary balance against Indira’s cooperation with the Soviet Union. Despite the fact that American diplomats had alerted them about the genocide, President Richard Nixon (1913–1994) and his national security advisor Henry Kissinger were not prepared to give India even a silent green light to intervene, threatening on the contrary to support Pakistan.
Nixon and Kissinger believed that the American public opinion did not particularly care about East Pakistan. But as soon as Mascarenhas’ indictment of the (West) Pakistanis was published, Ravi Shankar, a musician who was himself from a Bengali family, went to see George Harrison and showed him the article. Although the event focused on the victims and the refugees more than accusing the perpetrators, who was responsible for the killings was clear.
The concert was held on August 1, and did not change only the history of rock music, of which it was one of the most memorable pages. On August 17, Senator Ted Kennedy (1932–2009), who was sensitive to the protests of his American Hindu constituents in Massachusetts, launched a virulent attack on the U.S. administration’s “support for a genocide,” which made the front pages of the main American newspapers.
Of course, the concert alone might not have changed the attitude of American media and public opinion, but the influence of popular culture should not be under-estimated either. Most American media felt the need to explain to those who had followed the concert what “the Bangladesh crisis” was all about, and published grim reportages about the killings. Although Kissinger, in particular, still wanted to protect Pakistan, by Fall it was clear that any military attempt by the U.S. to prevent India from entering East Pakistan would have been extremely unpopular with U.S. voters.
Historians debate whether India could have intervened before, thus saving hundreds of thousands of lives, since while the Indian government was considering its options, the genocide continued. In fact, we know from the journals of some of those involved that Indira Gandhi would have started war as early as April, but was told by her generals that it was not wise to attack in the monsoon season, and the army needed some months to prepare. Meanwhile, the Indian Army offered weapons, training, and logistic support to the Mukti Bahini, the militia of the Bangladesh independentists.
In November, preparations to strike were nearly completed on the Indian side, but there were still concerns about the United States’ position. In West Pakistan, crowds were gathering calling for a jihad against India that would have also settled the question of Kashmir.
Then, on December 3, Pakistan made a fatal mistake, the same Japan had committed thirty years before, in 1941, when it attacked the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor. At 5:40 p.m. the Pakistani Air Force launched “Operation Chengiz Khan,” whose objective was to destroy the Indian Air Force through a preemptive strike. Eleven Indian air bases were attacked simultaneously, while Pakistani artillery opened fire in Kashmir. Rather than by Pearl Harbor, Pakistanis later said they had been inspired by Israel’s Operation Focus, when the Israelis had destroyed the Egyptian Air Force at the start of the Six-Day War four years before, in 1967. However, Pakistan did not have an air force comparable to Israel’s. Some of the bombs they dropped dated back to World War II and did not even explode, and their planes had limited combat capabilities. In the end, only a few Indian aircrafts were damaged.
However, Operation Chengiz Khan was clearly an act of war, and it was easy for Indira Gandhi to tell the world that India had been attacked by Pakistan and was entitled to react. While the Indian Air Force attacked Pakistani bases in West Pakistan, the Indian Army, who had already entered East Pakistan to support the Mukti Bahini, launched a blitzkrieg that crushed the Western Pakistani troops and their allies in less than two weeks, while the Indian Navy blockaded East Pakistan by sea. Dhaka fell to the Indian Army and the Mukti Bahini on December 15. The following day, Major General Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi (1915–2004), the commander of Pakistani troops in East Pakistan, signed the Instrument of Surrender to Indian Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Aurora (1916–2005).
There were calls in India to continue the war against West Pakistan, but on December 11 the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, which had nuclear capabilities, had appeared in the Bay of Bengal. The Soviet Union, which supported India, answered by sending ships armed with nuclear missiles and a nuclear submarine. China, reportedly encouraged by the United States, moved troops to the Indian border, but they did not cross it and the Indian Army had in turn deployed eight divisions at the border with China, ready to fight. Nobody, however, really wanted to start a world war for Bangladesh, nor did Indira Gandhi really want to continue the war. On July 2, 1972, a peace treaty was signed in Simla, where Pakistan recognized the independence of Bangladesh.
It was the end of the war and the genocide, yet there were aftermaths. Lamentably, entire ethnic groups such as the Bihari Muslims, which had supported Pakistan in the war, were persecuted in Bangladesh, with tens of thousands killed. Several collaborators were executed. However, the Pakistani politicians and officers most responsible for the genocide were never brought to justice.
A legacy of hatred remained, and explosions of sectarian violence in Bangladesh, where Muslim fundamentalists target the Hindu minority, have continued to this day. One contribution to understanding and confronting the situation in Bangladesh is spreading knowledge of what happened in 1971. This has been the purpose of our series.