Looking Back at the Geopolitics Behind Pakistan's Genocidal Split of 1971

What caused the Pakistani state to be so aggressive in 1971?

Lieutenant-General A. A. K. Niazi, the commander of Pakistan Eastern Command, signing the instrument of surrender in Dhaka on 16 Dec 1971, in the presence of India's Lt. Gen. Jagjit Singh Aurora. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Lieutenant General A.A.K. Niazi, the commander of Pakistan Eastern Command, signing the instrument of surrender in Dhaka on December 16, 1971, in the presence of India’s Lt. Gen. Jagjit Singh Aurora. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This month, Bangladesh celebrated its liberation from Pakistan for the 46th time. South Asia’s second partition had much in common with its first a quarter century prior: a gruesome violence smelted in the furnace of religious nationalism and communal antipathy, neighbour turning upon neighbour and an immense scale of human tragedy obscured by the sterilised cartographic change marking it.

And yet, there were crucial differences between 1947 and 1971 too, foremost among them being the direct responsibility of a state’s armed forces in the killings. While violence was hardly disorganised or spontaneous in 1947, and indeed often featured meticulous planning at the neighbourhood or village level, it was not led by a trained and regimented military, as was the case in East Pakistan in 1971.

Pakistan’s aggressive and indiscriminate crackdown

Pakistan’s behaviour during its breakup must be put in a global context. Few countries are shy about using military force to stop nationalists from escaping the clutches of the state. From India to Israel, from Sudan to Sri Lanka, groups demanding self-determination or a state of their own often find their claims violently resisted.

Pakistan shares with other states this inclination to fight for territory, whether the challenge emanates from within or without. Where Pakistan’s behaviour, especially in 1971, departs from the norm is the sheer scale and intensity of the violence.

At the outset, Operation Searchlight entailed extreme repression of the Bengali population. The Awami League party, its supporters and sympathisers were to be treated as rebels, and any resistance was to be met with death. Any Bengali thought to be a rebel or member of the Awami League was to be “sent to Bangladesh” – a euphemistic phrase referring to execution without trial. One commanding officer, Major General Khadim Hussain Raja, captured the prevailing sentiment in his warning: “I will muster all I can – tanks, artillery and machine guns – to kill all the traitors and, if necessary, raze Dacca to the ground. There will be no one to rule; there will be nothing to rule.”

The sheer scale and intensity of the violence in 1971 was unprecedented. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The sheer scale and intensity of the violence in 1971 was unprecedented. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Living up to those words, Pakistani troops entered Dhaka University and student hostels on the first night of the conflict, killing hundreds and filling mass graves. In the first weeks of the war, massacres of villages, and mass rapes of women, were commonplace. Intellectuals and journalists were targeted, and Bengali Hindus, especially, bore the brunt of state violence.

One general later described the army as having gone “berserk,” spraying bullets seemingly at random and destroying whole villages at a time. General Tikka Khan, a commanding general in the theater, was later dubbed the ‘Butcher of Bengal‘. The crackdown, instituted by a Yahya Khan’s military junta but supported by a wide swathe of the public and political class, including Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, led to at least half a million deaths in nine months of war, a harrowing figure.

Where did such an angry, disproportionate and indiscriminate response to Bengali nationalism stem from? What caused the Pakistani state to be so aggressive in 1971?

Identity politics

From the beginning of the crisis, the West Pakistani establishment dismissed Bengali aspirations as being synonymous with Indian plotting. The conventional wisdom held was that the movement in East Pakistan was the joint production of “a few miscreants” and Indian subversion, the entire episode characterised as ‘India’s Trojan horse’. This conflation of Bengali nationalism and the Indian state would have enormous – and ghastly – consequences for the local population, especially Bengali Hindus.

It was certainly true that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the Awami League believed in warmer ties with India than the West Pakistani establishment preferred. After his election victory in December 1970, Mujib publicly announced his desire to see disputes with India resolved peacefully. Referring to Rahman’s ascent, a British diplomat in New Delhi wrote that “for the first time at least since 1965 a political leader has emerged in Pakistan who holds out the promise” of better relations with India, mainly because “he is not committed to the recovery of Kashmir” and “he is not committed to the West Pakistan thesis of massive expenditure on the forces and continued hostility towards India”.

American diplomats similarly predicted that “if he achieves a position of power, Sheikh Mujib. . . would take all possible steps to restore full trade and commercial relations with India,” reporting Rahman’s particular concern with cheap Indian coal as well as cross-border flood management. After meeting the newly-elected Rahman, the US consul in Dhaka cabled that “better relations with India will probably in fact be his most pressing concern since he sees at least partial solution to East Pak problems in expanded trade with neighboring India. Rahman, like many Bengalis, is not (except for record) particularly hard on Kashmir”.

Greater economic cooperation and disaster management with India hardly constituted geopolitical collusion to destroy their country, but that is how Rahman, the Awami League and Bengali nationalists were portrayed. In the words of a contemporary journalist, Rahman’s “theory of ‘Bengali nation’ was against the political conception of Pakistan. His advocacy for establishing trade and economic relations with India without the solution of the Kashmir dispute… was against the national interests of Pakistan”.

Sheikh Mujibur Rehman. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Sheikh Mujibur Rehman. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The ideological scaffolding for the false belief that Bengali nationalists were in cahoots with India to destabilise Pakistan was provided by the “two-nation theory.” This “theory” of religious nationalism claimed that South Asian Muslims formed a distinct community from its Hindus and thus needed a separate political unit; as Mohammad Ali Jinnah put it, Hindus and Muslims “belong to two different religious philosophies, social customs, literatures. They neither intermarry not interdine together, and indeed, they belong to two different civilisations which are based mainly on conflicting ideas and conceptions. Their aspects on life and of life are different”.

This foundational religious nationalism was, upon independence, the ideological glue for the new state, and accelerated, perhaps ironically, by the secular-minded Ayub Khan. The centrality of Islam to the identity of the Pakistani state was contrasted with “Hindu” India, notwithstanding the latter’s claims of being secular. This disjuncture, between Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India, cemented a stark division in Pakistan’s conception of the nationalisms of itself and its neighbour.

Basic demographic facts, however, stood in the way of this neat story of civilisational difference between Pakistan and India. Specifically, Hindus were a sizeable minority (roughly 20%) of East Pakistan’s population. The relatively large share of Hindus in the eastern wing of the country, along with cultural, linguistic and economic links between Bengalis on both sides of the border, ensured that extensive “Hindu” or “Indian” influence in East Pakistan was a constant concern of paranoid West Pakistanis, and manifested itself in their discriminatory views of East Pakistanis well before 1971.

For example, during the 1960s, Bengal governor Monem Khan banned the songs of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore from being played on Radio Pakistan because he felt that Bengali was a “non-Muslim” language. One of Yahya’s ministers admitted that the regime thought of the so-called “nonmartial” Bengalis as “Muslims converted from lower caste Hindus.” According to Ayub Khan’s autobiography, Bengalis, who “probably belong to the very original Indian races” had not known “real freedom or sovereignty” until the creation of Pakistan, before which “they have been in turn ruled either by the caste Hindus, Moghuls, Pathans or the British.” Most importantly, “they have been and still are under considerable Hindu cultural and linguistic influence.” Even the Awami League’s 1970 election win was dismissed as a product of the large Hindu minority in East Pakistan, despite it enjoying strong support from Bengali Muslims too.

The targeting of Hindus

In the aftermath of the Awami League’s December victory being denied by Yahya and Bhutto, then, the West Pakistani establishment’s prism of religious bifurcation between “Muslim Pakistan” and “Hindu India” saw Bengali nationalism as an Indian-sponsored movement. Consequently, Bengali civilians, and especially Bengali Hindus, were treated as a fifth column working at the behest of a dastardly and conniving neighbour.

Fuelled by rage and racism, what followed was, simply put, a genocide. During the early stages of the war, the US consul general in Dhaka, Archer Blood, cabled Washington to report the “mass killing of unarmed civilians, the systematic elimination of the intelligentsia and the annihilation of the Hindu population.” Another US official saw the army lining up people outside their houses and shooting down in lines, “killing close to six hundred” in one go. Pakistani officers testified to the Hamood-ur-Rahman Commission that “Gen. Niazi visited my unit at Thakargaon and Bogra. He asked as to how many Hindus we had killed. In May, there was an order in writing to kill Hindus”.

Soldiers obediently and efficiently followed these orders. On April 16 in Dhaka, troops murdered seven people after querying residents “are you Hindu or Muslim?” Passengers on a train from Mymensingh on May 18 were forced to recite the kalma to ensure their survival. The headmaster of a Catholic school in Nawabganj was instructed in a letter that “Hindus are trouble makers and you are not to give them any help.” In this quasi-religious war, the state was supported by paramilitary outfits staffed by the Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba, the student wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami party; the vestiges of this collaboration continue in Bangladeshi politics today. Even food aid for the largely peasant population stricken by civil war was denied to Hindus.

Uprising of people at Shahbag, Dhaka, Bangladesh demanding death penalty for those accused of serious crimes committed during the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971.

At the time, diplomats, neutral observers and even soldiers themselves were clear about the roots of Pakistani indiscriminate force. Blood cabled that “evidence suggests Pak military unable [to] make distinctions between Indians and Pakistani Hindus, treating both as enemies. West Paks resident here in conversations with us often equate ‘wicked Hindus’ and ‘wicked Indians,’ using both terms interchangeably.” Similarly, a US intelligence memorandum explained that the Pakistani military’s “wrath” turned toward Hindus was “apparently . . . because they were associated with India, which was thought to be responsible for the Bengali ‘uprising.’”

Pakistani soldiers were themselves refreshingly honest about their motivations. In a famously-explosive article published by The Sunday Times in June 1971, one colonel was quoted as saying that:

“The Hindus had completely undermined the Muslim masses with their money… It had reached the point where Bengali culture was in fact Hindu culture, and East Pakistan was virtually under the control of the Marwari businessmen in Calcutta. We have to sort them out to restore the land to the people, and the people to their Faith.” A major was on the same page: “The people here may have Muslim names and call themselves Muslims. But they are Hindus at heart… Those who are left [after the operation] will be real Muslims. We will even teach them Urdu.”

From perceived to actual Indian support

Pakistan’s extreme brutality, especially in the first stage of the war, had its roots in how Bengali nationalists were seen: as acting on behalf, and with the full support, of the Indian state. Both the general slaughter, and the specific targeting of Hindus, can be attributed to the racism of leaders and soldiers that blended external rivalry against India with the internal rights of Bengalis.

However, in a tragic irony, Pakistan’s initially-false belief in India-Bengali cooperation became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The heavy-handed strategy employed in East Pakistan generated a massive refugee crisis, providing India with an excuse to intervene in the conflict.

When the war first broke out, India adopted a wait-and-see attitude. In the words of a British diplomat, the Indian position in early April was “not to intervene militarily in either West or East Pakistan; to give assistance in the form of asylum and to allow supplies, short of war material, to the East Bengalis . . . the Indians are in no position to go further because they lack information of the development of the resistance movement in East Pakistan and of the progress made by the West Pakistan army to secure control over the whole of East Pakistan.”

Within weeks of the war breaking out, however, India verifiably began to provide support to the movement. By early May, India was providing a “substantial quantity” of arms and training, according to British officials. By the summer, with millions of refugees having pored across the border, and training camps set up in West Bengal, Tripura and Assam, India’s Border Security Force had the raw material to corral, train and equip the Mukti Bahini (MB) into an effective guerrilla force. India provided the rebels sanctuary, safe passage to its camps, food, money, small arms, ammunition, explosives, training and intelligence. Journalists who spent time with MB were convinced “that most of their operations masterminded by the Indian intelligence and the Indian army, who frequently gave fire cover to Mukti Bahini activities across the border.”

India’s direct support to the MB came at a crucial juncture in the war, with the insurgency girding itself after the monsoon. At the time, Pakistani military had largely asserted control of major towns, but had little presence in the countryside. Help from India ensured that MB activity escalated after the summer. This increased assertiveness, usually in the form of rebel attacks on security forces or infrastructure, such as bridges, invariably led to vicious reprisals from the military.

Moreover, the high levels of infiltration and coordination with Indian forces from across the border necessitated the military guarding the long border, leaving it thin in the countryside towns and villages where the insurgency was centered. An American diplomat in Dhaka noted in July that “demands on Pak Army to defend border against India and protect its vital lines of communication may be out-running its capability. This gives insurgents who are willing to operate deep in East Pakistan territory opportunity that will be hard to pass up.”

As political scientists have long noted, militaries that are physically stretched will often employ indiscriminate violence, hoping they can sufficiently terrorise the local population in the hopes of subduing them. This was exactly the situation the Pakistan army found itself in after the monsoon. As one British official observed, the problem the army faced was that “it must use its strength to compensate for its lack of numbers. It continues apparently to try to protect essential services against sabotage by instilling fear in the local populace that if the bridge or pylon near their village is damaged their village is going to suffer.”

The aftermath and contemporary implications

India’s transition from covert to overt involvement in December 1971 mercifully led to the end of the war, nine months after it began. The March 1971 decision to violently repress Bengali nationalism, taken by a small coterie of officers but supported by important establishment and anti-establishment elements, saw severe damage to Pakistan’s political, military and diplomatic standing.

All told, Pakistan killed at least half a million of its own citizens and caused the displacement of 20 times as many. It left stranded almost one hundred thousand prisoners of war after signing a surrender that is still commemorated in picture frames in Indian military facilities. Its international image suffered from having conducted one of the 20th century’s most intense genocides. Most of all, it lost half its population, one of the few countries to lose a secessionist war, and put paid to the coherency of the ideology, that of Muslim nationalism, that birthed it.

In the medium term, an inescapable and grim irony is that since its traumatic split in 1971, Pakistan has been better at defending itself. Partly a product of military modernisation, especially including the acquisition of nuclear weapons, this increased security is also a consequence of Pakistan being a more well-defined state, at least territorially speaking, than it was before Bangladesh’s secession. Indeed, one of the fundamental predicaments facing Pakistani military decision makers between 1947 and 1971 was how to adequately guard both borders against India simultaneously; their solution to this problem – leaving the East almost entirely undefended, as in the 1965 war – was an important contributor to Bengali grievances.

On the other hand, the state’s inability to learn valuable lessons from 1971 has limited the extent to which that disaster could serve as a disguised blessing. Pakistan’s heavy reliance on state-led Muslim nationalism as a binding force has not abated, and indeed was catalysed by Zia’s decade in power. Then contributing to Bengali grievances, today complicating and in some cases precluding a fight against Islamist terrorism as well as religious parties’ protests and rallies, the state has paid a heavy price for its reliance on Islam as an ideology.

Similarly, the state’s proclivity to view all security-related questions through an India-centric lens, as it did in 1971, has serious costs today. This emphasis on India means that those threats not directly tied to it, such as Islamist militancy, are treated with too much leniency. To wit, consider that it took Pakistan more than a decade after 9/11 to take seriously the threat of religious terrorism – and even today, serious questions remain about the state’s view of the dangers posed by such groups. Conversely, those threats that have an India angle, however tangential, such as the contemporary Baloch movement, can generate overly vicious, and ultimately counterproductive, strategic choices.

Pakistan’s split was doubtless shaped by geopolitics, but the reverse is also true: important issues in contemporary South Asian relations can be traced directly to 1971. For India and Pakistan, it highlighted a model of external interference in internal rebellion – since put into practice in Kashmir, Punjab and Balochistan – that have fractured the relationship yet further. For Bangladesh, the episode remains a political and academic hot potato, with questions of collaboration (with the army) and counting (of dead), among others, animating contemporary controversies.

For the region as a whole, 1971 was a strangely familiar echo of 1947. In both cases, the split occurred largely against the wishes of the dominant political group, the Indian National Congress in 1947 and the West Pakistani establishment in 1971.

In both the cases, losses of large landmasses and populations left the cleaved country ruing missed geopolitical opportunities. Though relatively muted today, a significant body of opinion in India was frustrated by the creation of Pakistan because such a territorial split ensured India could never compete on the global or regional stage with western great powers or China. Similarly, losing sovereignty over its eastern wing extinguished any realistic possibility of Pakistan being a regional counterweight to India.

Finally, in both cases, the creation of a new country proved to be a brutally violent affair. That new borders were drawn in blood should serve as little surprise; since the Second World War, secessionist wars are the most common and lethal types of conflict in international politics. Consistent with this trend, South Asia’s two partitions cost several million lives between them – an appreciable price that should give pause to the depressingly-common desires of ethnic or religious purity.

Ahsan I. Butt is an assistant professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. This article was adapted from an excerpt of his book, Secession and Security: Explaining State Strategy Against Separatists.