Bangladesh’s Liberation War

In the last couple of years, Bangladesh has constituted an International Crimes Tribunal to investigate some of the offences committed during the 1971 Liberation War. The Tribunal is still in session and there is some coverage of its procedures in the papers here.

This is a potted history of Bangladesh’s birth.

Following Partition in 1947, Pakistan was essentially made up of two parts, West Pakistan, which is today’s Pakistan, and East Pakistan, which equates to today’s Bangladesh.

The name “Pakistan” is an acronym. Punjab, Afghan, Kashmir, Sindh and Baluchistan. Note the distinct lack of Bengal there.

The people of West Pakistan, site of the capital Karachi, generally looked down on the [more numerous] people of East Pakistan and issues related to language and the creation of a Pakistani national identity reinforced the division and distrust between the two lands and an independence movement began to grow. Those who supported the use of Bengali were branded “communists, traitors and enemies of the state”.

Pakistan’s military government declared that political activity would be permitted from early 1970 and that there would be subsequent elections. Since East Pakistan had the most people, it was allotted most seats in the Parliament.

Following terrible floods in the east during the summer and then a powerful cyclone in November which killed an estimated 500,000 people, the elections were delayed. The delay allowed the military government to exhibit its true incompetence in handling the emergencies. East Pakistan’s left wing parties called for immediate independence and decided to boycott the elections. This allowed the Awami League to win pretty much every seat in East Pakistan and therefore a majority in Parliament. The other major party in Parliament was Zulfikar Bhutto’s [father of Benazir Bhutto] Pakistan People’s Party, which was focussed entirely on the electorate in West Pakistan.

Bhutto had, before the elections, already spoken with the military president and explained how they could easily handle the East Pakistan “problem” – “We will have to kill some 20,000 people there and all will be well.”

Bhutto then threatened to boycott the first session of Parliament. The military government then, on Butto’s request, postponed the session and this led to East Pakistan’s politicians to declare that they were involved in a “independence struggle”. There were battles on the streets of East Pakistan between protestors and soldiers.

As the politicians kept talking, the military were planning their intervention. On the 25th March, the Pakistan military were ordered to target all centres of the Bengali nationalist movement. Troops and tanks first attacked and defeated the police and the East Pakistan Rifles and then turned on the Dhaka slums which they attacked with flamethrowers and the proceeded to shoot people running away. They then attacked Dhaka University and arrested Sheikh Rahman [father of Sheikh Hasina, the current prime minister]. Hindus were also a target. The army’s term for killing people during this campaign was “dispatching them to Bangladesh”. The killings and massacres spread across the country.

Although it can be argued that the military “won” in this first phase, the war for independence now began with the formation of the Freedom Fighters who began to become more organised and engage in guerrilla warfare, with support and training from India.

Many people fled East Pakistan for India and it is suggested that as many as ten million people became refugees.

There were of course people in East Pakistan who sided with West Pakistan forces. These became organised into armed groups Al-Badr (“the moon”) and the Al-Shams (“the sun”) and the took part in summary executions and seeking out Freedom Fighters and nationalists. The tribunal is seeking to prosecute many former members of these groups.

Whilst Richard Nixon was, thanks to Cold War realpolitik, siding with West Pakistan and the UK Parliament didn’t find time to debate a well-supported bill, Ravi Shankar and George Harrison organised their concert for Bangladesh which mobilised popular support in favour of Bangladesh.

India had supported the Bengali Freedom Fighters but had not yet become “officially involved”. When Pakistan planes attacked Indian airfields in the North West, they retaliated and war was declared. Indian troops and armour moved into East Pakistan and the war moved from a guerrilla campaign. There was still time for Al-Badr to round up those civilians it considered to be politically dubious or at least more liberal, such as artists, doctors, academics and writers and murdered them.

The numbers who died during the war are, of course, disputed. The official Bangladeshi estimate is 3,000,000 whilst Pakistan’s estimate is the risibly low 26,000.

Independence was declared on December 16th 1971.


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