Was there an Indian plot to break up Pakistan in 1971?

Following the victory of the Awami League, India hoped relations with a new democratic Pakistan would improve. But the Pakistani army's brutal crackdown on March 25 changed everything.

December 17, 2011 02:23 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:42 pm IST

A large crowd at Comilla rejoicing on liberation of town by the Indian forces.

A large crowd at Comilla rejoicing on liberation of town by the Indian forces.

The sweeping victory of Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman's Awami League in the 1970 Pakistani elections was warmly received in India. The Bengalis of East Pakistan had always favoured a more cooperative approach in relations with India. New Delhi hoped for a progressive improvement in bilateral relations with a new democratic Pakistan, in which the eastern wing had its rightful representation. However, some observers questioned the possibility of bridging the vast political divide between the two wings of Pakistan. They felt that the eastern wing was likely to secede.

Secession, objectives

In December, High Commissioner B.K. Acharya expressed a view that was widely accepted in New Delhi. He recognised the possibility of secession but argued that majority control of the Central Pakistan Government by the East Pakistanis offered the only hope of achieving India's policy objectives towards Pakistan and overcoming the stonewall resistance of West Pakistan against better ties. Moreover, a secessionist East Bengal might demand integration with West Bengal and a United Bengal and might pass under the control of pro-Chinese Marxists. Such developments would further complicate India's defence and strategic problems. Foreign Secretary T.N. Kaul agreed that India should do nothing to encourage the separation of East Pakistan from West Pakistan but he added that it did not lie in India's hands to stop it. Much would depend on the rulers of Pakistan and the realisation by West Pakistan of the need to come to an equitable arrangement with East Pakistan.

Indian officials reviewed the situation in early January. MEA Secretary S.K. Banerjee and Acharya observed that the question of a secessionist movement would arise only if the eastern wing failed to secure its six-point autonomy demand through constitutional means. Acharya observed that Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the leader of the Pakistan Peoples' Party, might accept the autonomy demand if he himself could be all-powerful in the western wing, or if each wing was allowed to go its own way. However, a basic point of disagreement was in regard to powers of taxation. The army would not accept an arrangement under which it would have to depend upon subventions from the provinces for its funding.

R.N. Kao, the head of India's Research & Analysis Wing (RAW), said that he had received information that Mujib himself considered secession to be a definite possibility and was preparing for such an eventuality. Kao's assessment was that Mujib's hands were tied. He would either have to adopt an unyielding stand on the six-point demand or be swept aside by popular opinion. He would go through the motions of seeking implementation of the demand through constitutional means but a secessionist movement was a definite possibility. In this case, India could expect appeals for assistance in a variety of fields, including arms, money and military training. He urged that India should position itself to offer the assistance that might be requested.

What the records show

The records show that New Delhi had no prior intention of dismembering Pakistan. However, events moved rapidly in East Pakistan. At the end of January 1971, RAW confirmed that the Awami League leadership was not very optimistic about the outcome of the negotiations on a new constitution and was preparing to launch a mass movement for an independent Bangladesh if the talks proved abortive. In early March, Tajuddin Ahmad met secretly with Deputy High Commissioner K.C. Sen Gupta, on Mujib's instructions, to explore whether India would provide political asylum and other assistance in the event of a liberation war. After consulting Delhi, Sen Gupta gave a response that was insufficiently specific to satisfy Sheikh Mujib. In mid-March, the latter repeated his appeal for assistance at this critical hour for his country, which was left with no alternative but to fight for independence.

India was not taken by surprise by the Pakistani crackdown on the Bengalis on March 25. She was not prepared, however, for the savagery of the onslaught. This drew impassioned condemnation from all sections of the Indian public. It also resulted in a refugee influx on a totally unexpected and unprecedented scale.

Though border inhabitants offered unstinting hospitality to the victims of the barbaric crackdown, it became evident that economic and political stability in the border provinces would be in danger unless conditions were created for the return of the millions of refugees to their homeland.

The plan

By the beginning of April, India's political aims had crystallised. New Delhi entertained deep apprehensions concerning a long-drawn guerrilla war in East Pakistan. It feared that a freedom struggle initially led by the moderate Awami League might eventually be taken over by pro-Chinese extremists if it dragged on for years. Thus the freedom fighters had to be assisted to bring the hostilities to the earliest possible conclusion and open military intervention might be required in the final stage.

Second, conditions had to be created to enable the return of the refugees to their homes as early as possible. In the absence of a political settlement between the Awami League leadership and Islamabad, the refugees would return only to an independent Bangladesh.

These cerebral reasons were powerfully reinforced by the moral outrage caused by Pakistan army atrocities and the strong public support for intervention on behalf of the victims. After March 25, Indian public opinion was unanimous in demanding that the government should extend full assistance to the Bangladesh freedom struggle.

At the beginning of the year, India had hoped for a united Pakistan in which the eastern wing exercised a degree of influence proportionate to its population. The prospect of secession was viewed with some misgiving. It soon became evident, however, that secession was a very real possibility as the dominant forces in Pakistan were not prepared to accept the six-point programme. The brutal crackdown of March 25 sealed the fate of a united Pakistan. The emergence of an independent Bangladesh was inevitable after the massacre. Public sympathy for the people of Bangladesh and India's national interests demanded that full cooperation be extended to the freedom struggle in order to ensure its speedy success.

( The writer is a retired diplomat and author of War and Diplomacy in Kashmir, 1947-48.)

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