In the nine months since March 25, 1971 – as the Mujibur Rahman-led Bangladesh liberation struggle got transformed into a war of independence, ending on December 16, 1971, with the emergence of the former East Pakistan as the sovereign, independent Peoples Republic of Bangladesh – the Pakistani Army’s campaign of massacre and mass rape became the unmarked and un-wept genocide of the 20th century. This grim event is well documented by research scholars and there is no scope for doubting the records.
The other deeply disturbing part was the hostile attitude adopted by the so-called civilised world of western democracies against the people of Bangladesh for the sin of aspiring to be a sovereign independent nation free from the shackles of the repressive Pakistani military dictatorship. Following the Nixon administration’s policy of openly supporting the brutalities of the Pakistan Army by looking the other way when millions of people were being slaughtered, the entire West totally ignored the terrible events of 1971 in Bangladesh.
Faced with the genocide of its people, the Bangladeshi leadership in general and a certain hawkish section among them took more than an unforgiving attitude towards Pakistan. What emerged was the desire for a hard, punishing policy of revenge.
One such leader boiling with rage was Abdus Samad Azad, who was designated as foreign minister by the Bangladesh government in exile operating from Mujibnagar. He happened to be in London on December 16, 1971, the day when the Pakistan army led by General A.A.K. Niazi, General Officer Commanding of the Pakistani armed forces in East Pakistan surrendered before the joint command of the Indian armed forces and the Mukti Bahini – known during the war as Mitro Bahini – in the midst of a milling crowd of a million people at the open spaces of Romna Maidan in Dhaka.
On that very day, Azad called a meeting at the Charing Cross Hotel near Trafalgar Square in London, a closed-door Top Secret conclave, to which were invited the senior leaders of the ethno-sub-nationalities of the minority provinces of what remained of Pakistan after Bangladesh was created. These leaders had been camping in London for about a year in 1970-71 for fear of becoming victims of a military crackdown in their provinces – much like what had happened in East Pakistan.
Now Azad may have been the foreign minister of a nation that had just been born and the leader of what was essentially a one-man delegation but it is unlikely that he called this meeting on his own. In all likelihood, the foreign minister had received instructions to do so from the provisional government back home.
Those invited included:
- Khan Abdul Wali Khan, chief of the National Awami Party of the North West Frontier Province, an iconic Pashtun leader who was the son of the famous Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan – known in India as the Frontier Gandhi.
- Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, the charismatic leader of the Bugti tribe of Balochistan
- Nawabzada Khair Baksh Marri, an defiant guerrilla leader of the Marri tribe of Balochistan
- Ataullah Mengal, leader of the Mengal Tribe of Balochistan, and
- An unnamed representative of G.M. Syed, the uncompromising freedom fighter of Sindh’s Jiye Sindh Mahaz, who was serving a life sentence as a political prisoner in Pakistan.
The subject matter of the discussions was extraordinarily sensitive.
Abdus Samad Azad, his leader Shaikh Mujibur Rahman and their party, the Awami League, were congratulated wholesomely by all those assembled leaders for having successfully led their liberation struggle and created a sovereign independent Bangladesh.
Azad, for his part, extended his fraternal greetings to the assembled leaders and took the opportunity to convey the apprehension of the Awami League – warning them that given the fact that Pakistan had disintegrated so ignominiously, it was likely that the Pakistan Army, in anger and in a spirit of vengeance, could launch incremental phases of violent military crackdown on the ethno-sub-national peoples of the country – namely the Baloch, the Pashtuns and the Sindhis as had happened in Bangladesh.
Political repression of an extreme kind, economic exploitation, social ostracisation, subjugation and deprivation of the minority provinces could become intolerable, he said. Azad wanted to know if the assembled leaders of the minority provinces agreed with his aforesaid analysis. There was a chorus of approval.
Azad next submitted that if he made a suggestion – given the ground realities of the evolving unsavoury political situation in Pakistan – that there was need to forge a joint front of liberation struggle among the ethno-sub-national peoples in Pakistan aimed at breaking away from Pakistan and becoming sovereign independent nation states as Bangladesh had done, would they approve of it. Pakistan in defeat was in disarray, the Indian Army had reached the gates of Lahore, therefore this was the most opportune moment to strike. And if they agreed, Bangladesh was capable of helping them set up the entire infrastructure of struggle and extending wholehearted support and succour including political, diplomatic and most importantly material back up to such an unified movement.
Quick came the poser in a chorus: what would be India’s stand? Azad assured them that if they wanted India’s backing, which he believed from the experience of Bangladesh would be unavoidable and also strategically vital, the Awami League leadership could talk to New Delhi and secure India’s support with utmost urgency. But at that moment, he said, time was of the essence. To win New Delhi’s support, the assembled leaders would have to declare their commitment to the values of democracy and secularism, the fundamental rights of citizens, pluralism, standing up for their respective national aspirations and abjuring religious obscurantism, intolerance and extremism.
All the leaders present in the meeting gave an unstinted commitment that their struggles embraced the values of democracy and secularism, had nothing to do with religious intolerance and extremism and were founded on the aspirations of their respective sense of nationalism.
However, all the leaders present at the secret conclave also said in one voice that this issue should have been addressed much earlier so that they could be ready with an “yes” answer. Now the time was too short and they were not ready at that point of time. The requisite administrative infrastructure to conduct a liberation struggle was not in place.
Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti broke ranks and said with a great amount of passion and regret: “I am afraid India will have to fight another war with Pakistan for our sake to secure our freedom”. Two other leaders, Khan Abdul Wali Khan and Khair Baksh Marri, lent their unqualified support to what Bugti said.
Soon after it ended, Azad presented details of the meeting to myself and a senior Indian government official who happened to be passing through London at the time.
In terms of their specifics, it is obvious the talks failed. It was apparent that the secret plan of action was chalked out in haste. There were no prior consultations. The uncertainty over the outcome of the war was certainly the main reason why the idea was brought up in the secret confabulations so late in the day. The legacy of bitterness that had piled up among the Bangladeshis against the Punjabi elements for their involvement in the horrendous atrocities of the Pakistan war machine during the liberation struggle was the paramount contributing factor to the conceptualisation of this plan. As it turned out, the effort proved itself to be a bit amateurish. It was more like a war game that was fit for the history books.
At the end of the Bangladesh War, Mujib was released from Mianwali Jail in Rawalpindi on January 8, 1972, arriving in London the next day. Because of my long association with him – I first met Shaikh Mujibur Rahman in 1962 – he asked me to accompany him to Dhaka via Delhi on the VIP flight that the British government arranged.
I met him again in London in 1973 when he was the prime minister of Bangladesh. He was in town for a gall bladder operation. During my discussions with him, I asked if he knew about the December 16, 1971 secret meeting that Abdus Samad Azad had called. He confirmed: yes, he was fully aware of it. It was unfortunate, he said, that the Baloch people missed their historic opportunity for freedom because of the hesitation of their leadership.
From what I learnt from Mujibur Rahman himself, the Bangladesh government in exile was kept informed of the inconclusive London conclave of December 16, 1971. News of the meeting reached New Delhi too. But Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had already taken a political decision to unilaterally declare a ceasefire on the western front – on December 17 – thus ending the India-Pakistan war of 1971. For a victorious army that was holding 93,000 POWs, this was a gesture of goodwill that appears, in hindsight, both hasty and uncalled for. It left some of India’s outstanding issues with Pakistan, most importantly Kashmir, unaddressed. The wide ranging view in the country was that while India won the war, it lost the peace. The Simla Agreement of 1972 was a memorial to that failure.
Nonetheless, research scholars in India have acknowledged that Indira Gandhi’s decision to go in for an unilateral ceasefire on the western front – which brought the 1971 Bangladesh War to a close – was certainly not influenced by pressure from the Great Powers.
Could the inconclusive secret London conclave have played a part, news of which would have reached the prime minister even as she was firming up her mind? We shall perhaps never know. Nor will we know what might have happened had Azad’s proposal been accepted by all or even just the Baloch leaders present at that London meeting. Indian military support for the Mukti Bahini was easy to provide because India was sandwiched between the two parts of Pakistan. A Baloch equivalent would likely have been a different affair.
Sashanka S. Banerjee was posted as an Indian diplomat in London at the time of the events described here. He is also the author of India, Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh Liberation, & Pakistan: A Political Treatise, published in 2011. On October 20, 2013 , Prime Minister Shaikh Hasina conferred a state honour, ‘Friend of Bangladesh Liberation War’, on him.