The Bangladesh Liberation War that took place in 1971 is an example of a massive conflict leading to territorial and political changes. Despite concerns voiced by Bengali people in East Pakistan, the country’s authorities refused to reconsider its territorial boundaries concerning linguistic and cultural diversity.1 For many years, Bengali people were systematically denied their right to determine themselves as a separate nation and dealt with West Pakistan’s economic domination. Despite having a common religion and the same government, people in the Eastern and Western wings used different languages (Bengali versus Urdu), had dissimilar nutritional habits, and were antagonists in terms of culture.2 In 1970, the Awami League, a political party supporting Bengalis’ autonomy, won the elections in Pakistan and was willing to create its power structure. To prevent the party from fulfilling its political ambitions and suppress popular uprisings, West Pakistan resorted to tactics of terror, including launching Operation Searchlight and attacks on prominent Bengali Leaders, such as Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Despite the absence of the military advantage, East Pakistan formed the guerrilla movement and, with the help of allied forces, became officially recognized as Bangladesh.
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As for the research question, this paper is aimed at studying the key factors that allowed Bangladesh to gain its independence from Pakistan in 1971. In particular, it discusses India’s contributions to the liberation of Bangladesh and the role that natural disasters and violence against people in East Pakistan played in riots’ readiness for political change. The research paper uses a combination of primary and secondary sources to delve into the factors that strengthened Bangladesh on its way to independence. The primary sources include The Proclamation of Independence, in which the Mujibnagar Government expresses the will of the oppressed people in Pakistan. Anthony Mascarenhas’ Genocide is the reportage, in which the journalist attracted worldwide attention to brutal violence against the East Pakistani people. The secondary sources are presented by peer-reviewed articles and books covering different aspects of the Bangladesh Liberation War and India’s role in it. The paper argues that India’s participation in the conflict was the key factor allowing Bangladesh to become independent, whereas the East Pakistani people’s efforts to initiate change were not extremely successful.
Before the future Bangladeshi nation’s first attempts to declare the creation of an autonomous state, the authorities of West Pakistan had made multiple mistakes that exacerbated their relationships that were already strained enough. In November of 1970, East Pakistan was devastated by the Bhola tropical cyclone, one of the deadliest natural disasters ever.3 That day, Yahya Khan, the president of Pakistan, visited Dhaka on his way back from China to give instructions to the authorities. Despite the size of the natural disaster, he did not stay for at least a few days and left East Pakistan right after giving directions, thus causing the discontent of local people. The president’s reaction was recognized as a sign of insensibility to human suffering and, to some extent, became the last straw encouraging people in East Pakistan to stand up and demonstrate their unity and dignity.4 Thus, the Bengali people’s discontent with the central government’s position grew progressively, and the state leader’s perceived indifference towards their losses further increased their willingness to become independent.
Bangladesh embarked on a path of getting independence from West Pakistan due to the East Pakistani leaders’ ability to make use of people’s growing dissatisfaction with the government’s work, thus gaining public support. The previously mentioned natural disaster gave momentum to the growth of the pro-autonomy movement. The situation was effectively used by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who ventured to openly criticize the Pakistani authorities and even accuse them of nonfeasance. Unlike other politicians, such as Bhashani, the leader of the Awami League did not prioritize helping the victims of the cyclone over holding his political campaign.5 Since people in East Pakistan perceived themselves as a suppressed group with limited decision-making power, the Awami League with its liberation and self-determination rhetorics was regarded as the best representative of the nation’s interests. As a result of that massive support, Bangladeshi people “elected 167 out of 169 representatives belonging to the Awami League,” which indicated East Pakistanis’ readiness for political change.6 Based on that, the East Pakistani politicians effectively used the disaster to win common voters’ support and increase pro-separation moods.
The Bangladesh nation paid an enormous price for gaining autonomy and economic independence. It included large-scale human casualties and the proclaimed new state-required outside assistance due to that. Operation Searchlight became a reaction of the West Pakistani military forces to continuous and massive protests against the president and the government’s strategy to resolve domestic issues.7 It was initiated by the Pakistan Army on March 25, 1971, and involved neutralizing as many leaders and members of anti-Pakistan organizations as possible.8 Anthony Mascarenhas describes the Pakistan Army’s unjustified use of violence, including the cases of killed children and women who were raped and “had their breasts torn out with specially fashioned knives.”9 Physical violence against Bengalis was euphemistically referred to as the “cleansing process.”10 The new country’s road to actual, not just desired independence was treacherous as Pakistan’s military forces could destroy riots’ fighting potential by killing thousands of young and strong men. Causing significant losses has always been a popular way of improving one’s competitive advantage, but killing the strongest takes this strategy even further. With its human losses, Bangladesh was unable to repel aggression for some time.
Even though the Pakistan Army attempted to exclude the presence of foreign journalists in the disputed territory, it did not prevent the spread of information on the details of violence against people in Bangladesh. Due to a complicated network of economic links, the victims could not count on the global community’s concerted efforts to resolve the unfavorable situation.11 Despite the global recognition of all nations’ right to determine themselves, different countries’ reactions to Pakistani forces’ attempts to keep territorial unity by all costs depended on those states’ economic interests. For instance, for the United States, Pakistan’s economic partner, it would be disadvantageous to criticize the strategy of Pakistan or openly recognize the right of Bangladesh to exist as an autonomous state. Thus, despite the facts of violence, people in Bangladesh did not receive the multiple offers of military assistance that they needed, which probably impacted the total number of victims.
India’s awareness of military atrocities against the Bengali people and their effects on Indians was a critical factor that facilitated the creation of the state of Bangladesh that would be independent. West Pakistan’s plan could be reduced to intimidating the population to destroy people’s will to resist, and India’s interests also played a part in the further development of the conflict.12 Even though people in Bangladesh could engage in self-defense practices, it is reasonable to think that India’s help was necessary. Information about the ongoing violence caused major discontent of the Indian authorities, encouraging the country to engage in the issue to manage aggression and reduce excessive migration from Bangladesh.13 Predictably, many people in Bangladesh saw moving to India as the best way to avoid being tortured or raped.14 Changes in migration patterns typically affect any country’s economy and political life. For instance, excessive migration to developing countries can contribute to increases in labor market competition and even lead to ethnic conflicts. The changing patterns of migration and the resulting economic burden further expanded the conflict between the two wings of Pakistan to make it India’s domestic problem.
The Bangladesh nation and its chosen representatives were strongly motivated to end unequal political relationships with West Pakistan. However, that willingness and the East Pakistanis’ initial numerical superiority were not enough to repel aggression.15 Based on Mascarenhas’ reportage, the agriculture authorities of Pakistan were quite explicit in their readiness to starve people in Bangladesh to death, thus punishing them “for the acts of sabotage.”16 There were strong links between the Mujibnagar government in exile and the authorities of India. As an example, India was ready to provide different types of support, including finance, to contribute to the separation of Pakistan into two independent countries.17 As people in Bangladesh were separated from their elected representatives and faced famine and disease resulting from poor access to food, their position in the first months of the war was extremely far from independence. Moreover, constant coercion to recognize themselves as the citizens of Pakistan to avoid violence, for instance, by hanging Pakistani flags on their houses, can also be a valid indicator of unequal forces. Finally, it would be problematic for the Bangladesh nation to respond to West Pakistan’s aggression without help.
India’s intervention and the provision of military and financial assistance encouraged the gradual stabilization of the situation in Bangladesh, thus initiating the birth of a newly independent country. Violent acts committed by the military forces of West Pakistan had an enormous impact on people in Bangladesh and their decision-making power. India expanded its help to Bangladesh in October 1971 after Indira Gandhi declared the country’s readiness to hold the territory of East Pakistan.18 The country was widely criticized for engaging in another state’s internal conflicts, but India managed to help Bangladesh and pursue its interests simultaneously. India’s assistance, as is clear from statistical data, was extremely helpful in stabilizing the situation. In May 1971, the number of East Pakistanis fleeing to India exceeded 100.000 people every day, but then started to decrease and became comparatively low by October.19 The number of refugees stopped growing when India reacted to the conflict between West Pakistan and Bangladesh. This effect is likely to indicate increases in Bangladesh’s power to resist the military forces of West Pakistan, but it was also beneficial to India.
Foreign help was an essential component of Bangladesh’s ability to gain independence from Pakistan. Just like any state, Bangladesh had its military organizations, including the Mukti Bahini, which united the efforts of military/paramilitary units and civilian volunteers. However, their activity did not help to curtail the growth of West Pakistan’s military presence in the disputed region.20 India was unwilling to enter the war in spring due to the unpreparedness of its armed forces.21 When fighting alone, the Mukti Bahini had scarce resources to resist those willing to protect “national unity”. For instance, in April and May, the West Pakistani forces were extremely active in East Pakistan and encouraged thousands and thousands of people to flee from the country, whereas the others were intimidated.22 It points at the ineffectiveness of Bangladesh’s autonomous self-defense efforts and further justifies that the country would not succeed without external help. The Mukti Bahini’s weak performance could be related to different reasons, for instance, problems in its internal organization and the quality of military training. Regardless of the central cause, the military potential of Bangladesh was not large enough to allow it to gain a victory.
India’s involvement in the provision of military training and the planning of operations played a crucial part in the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent country. As the Mukti Bahini fighters were not extremely experienced and educated in terms of the conduct of combat and war planning, India initiated efforts to fill their knowledge gaps and weaken West Pakistan. In the middle of April, the Government of India started designing the so-called Operation Jackpot.23 The operation involved strengthening the forces of Bangladesh by implementing training efforts and providing fighters with access to weapons. Due to the strategy implemented by India, thousands of “freedom fighters” received proper training and weapons to participate in the final stage of the war armed at all points.24 To be put in other words, the operation was aimed at solving the major problems of the Mukti Bahini, such as a lack of experience and knowledge. For a liberation movement that did not have many professional soldiers, getting new training opportunities was a huge achievement contributing to the surrender of West Pakistan’s forces.
Apart from the use of military resources and training, India increased Bangladesh’s ability to become independent by encouraging the international community to recognize its autonomy. The surrender of the Pakistani armed forces due to the concerted efforts of Mukti Bahini and the Indian army was not followed by the immediate global recognition of Bangladesh. The official representatives of India argued for the nation’s right to autonomy in the international arena. The first attempt to do it took place in September, even before the defeat of the Pakistan Army.25 Later, in December, India’s Prime Minister made another official statement to encourage the recognition of Bangladesh despite Pakistan’s threats to break diplomatic relationships with those who would do it.26 To some extent, India’s partnership relations with other countries contributed to Bangladesh’s becoming independent. For instance, the Soviet Union, India’s strategic partner, recognized Bangladesh shortly after the end of the Bangladesh Liberation War. Thus, India’s efforts to encourage the world to accept the Bengali nation’s decision were beneficial to Bangladesh in terms of gaining independence.
To sum it up, the East Pakistani people’s political activity, motivation, and willingness to gain independence were not enough to encourage actual geopolitical changes. At the same time, India’s support resulted in the strengthening of the armed forces of Bangladesh, refugees’ increased chances to survive, and the recognition of Bangladesh by influential states. Taking the listed effects into account, it is possible to say that India played a central role in the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent country.
Mascarenhas, Anthony. “Genocide.” The Sunday Times, 1971.
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Mujibnagar Government. “The Proclamation of Independence.” 1971.
Biberman, Yelena, and Rachel Castellano. “Genocidal Violence, Nation-Building, and the Bloody Birth of Bangladesh.” Asian Security 14, no. 2 (2018): 106-118.
Dasgupta, Chandrashekhar. “The Decision to Intervene: First Steps in India’s Grand Strategy in the 1971 War.” Strategic Analysis 40, no. 4 (2016): 321-333.
Dowlah, Caf. The Bangladesh Liberation War, the Sheikh Mujib Regime, and Contemporary Controversies. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2016.
Drong, Andrio. “India’s Role in the Emergence of Bangladesh as an Independent State.” Vestnik RUDN. International Relations 16, no. 4 (2016): 736-744.
O’Mahoney, Joseph. “Making the Real: Rhetorical Adduction and the Bangladesh Liberation War.” International Organization 71, no. 2 (2017): 317-348.
Ranjan, Amit. “Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971: Narratives, Impacts and the Actors.” India Quarterly 72, no. 2 (2016): 132-145.
Saikia, Yasmin. Women, War, and the Making of Bangladesh: Remembering 1971. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.
- Caf Dowlah. The Bangladesh Liberation War, the Sheikh Mujib Regime, and Contemporary Controversies (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2016), 4.
- Dowlah, The Bangladesh Liberation War, 5.
- Ibid., 28.
- Mujibnagar Government, “The Proclamation of Independence,” April 10, 1971, 1.
- Dowlah, The Bangladesh Liberation War, 53.
- Amit Ranjan, “Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971: Narratives, Impacts and the Actors,” India Quarterly 72, no. 2 (2016): 135.
- Anthony Mascarenhas, “Genocide,” The Sunday Times, June 13, 1971, 2.
- Mascarenhas, “Genocide,” 4.
- Ranjan, “Bangladesh Liberation War,” 139.
- Yasmin Saikia, Women, War, and the Making of Bangladesh: Remembering 1971 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 83.
- Mascarenhas, “Genocide,” 2.
- Ibid., 13.
- Ranjan, “Bangladesh Liberation War,” 139.
- Joseph O’Mahoney, “Making the Real: Rhetorical Adduction and the Bangladesh Liberation War,” International Organization 71, no. 2 (2017): 331.
- Yelena Biberman and Rachel Castellano, “Genocidal Violence, Nation-Building, and the Bloody Birth of Bangladesh,” Asian Security 14, no. 2 (2018): 114.
- Biberman and Castellano, “Genocidal Violence,” 112.
- Chandrashekhar Dasgupta, “The Decision to Intervene: First Steps in India’s Grand Strategy in the 1971 War,” Strategic Analysis 40, no. 4 (2016): 321.
- O’Mahoney, “Making the Real,” 331.
- Dasgupta, “The Decision to Intervene,” 330.
- Andrio Drong, “India’s Role in the Emergence of Bangladesh as an Independent State,” Vestnik RUDN. International Relations 16, no. 4 (2016): 740.
- Drong, “India’s Role,” 740.