Background to the Conflict

From the very beginning of recorded history, Bengal has passed through turmoil. It has hardly known any peace in its long history. With the advent of Aryan civilisation most of the Indian sub-continent became comparatively peaceful, except Bengal, which was still infected with various groups of outlaws. It was not until 1203 that Bengal came in contact with Islamic culture. Towards the end of the Sena rule in Gauda, the Khalji chief Muhammed bin Bakhtyar invaded Laksmana Sena’s kingdom and by 1206 Khalji’s armies had brought a vast part of it under their control. Successive Afghan, Pathan and Mogul rulers eventually brought most of Bengal under their control.

By the later part of the 17th century the Portuguese established themselves in India. They indulged in a reign of terror on the coastal cities and towns of the Bay of Bengal and Ganges delta. Their main occupation was piracy and slave trade. They ravaged innumerable coastal cities, towns and villages and captured young men and women for their slave trade. Some of the slave traders even experimented with cross-breeding with various groups to produce able-bodied slaves. The then Mogul Emperor made some feeble attempt to stop this outrage in Bengal, but it was all in vain. The slave trade flourished until the later part of the 18th century. From the beginning of the 18th century, Dutch, French and English traders arrived in Bengal in search of fortune. They all plundered the land without any compassion for the native populace. The merciless acts of British indigo cultivators towards the natives of Bengal are well known. They all came with Bible in one hand and a sword in the other.

The British left India, in August, 1947, divided on the basis of religion. The present conflict is a continuation of the one which began with that division. Any serious student of politics could have visualised then that a divided India would never live in peace. A united two-part Pakistan was doomed geographically from the very beginning. When the novelty of independence died down, the East Bengalis realised that they had dislodged British rulers, only to replace them with West Pakistan rulers. Soon they found that their civil service, commerce and landed properties had been taken over by the West Pakistanis who became their new oppressors. Although East Pakistan produced more than half the national revenue the people of East Pakistan starved and suffered from other discomforts like unemployment, bad housing, lack of transport. The intellectual elites of East Pakistan resented West Pakistani rule from the very beginning. Fazlul Haq and Maulana Vasani formed their separate political parties as far back in 1948/49. The present leader of the Awami League, Sheikh Majibur Rahman was then a right hand-man of Fazlul Haq. As the years went by these two parties gathered momentum and brought the great majority of East Bengalis into their fold. The West Pakistani rulers never paid any heed to their grievances.

When Sheikh Majibur Rahman organised several demonstrations in protest in East Pakistan in 1969, the then ruler Ayub Khan, put the Sheikh in prison for a long period without trial and eventually when he was tried he was found not guilty of any crime. Soon after this trial Ayub Khan was thrown out by Yahya Khan who formed a military government after giving the pledge that he would soon bring the country to democratic rule. Accordingly a general election was held in December, 1970 and Sheikh Majibur Rahman and his party captured most of the seats. The East Bengalis were jubilant with the result. They thought that they were going to be their own masters, but they failed to take account of the West Pakistani reaction towards the election result. How could anyone think that the West Pakistan rulers would submit to a Bengali governing party? The first barrage of shells were fired by Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto. He refused to have anything to do with the Sheikh and termed him as a traitor to Pakistan. Yahya Khan from the very beginning, on the advice of his army generals and other West Pakistani leaders, had no intention of handing over power to a Bengal political leader. If he had allowed a Bengali party to take over effective power, these West Pakistanis would never have taken it gracefully. They would have stirred up a violent reaction in West Pakistan. So he started stalling the whole issue. This action just about tried the limit of patience of the East Bengalis and by the end of January, 1971 East Pakistan burst into violent demonstrations of protest against West Pakistani rule, and the people of East Bengal with their leader Sheikh Majib demanded autonomy in East Pakistan. But in those days they never thought of seeking help from India.

As time went by East Pakistan was reduced to a state of anarchy. Eventually, Yahya then decided to talk with Sheikh Majib in Dacca on 22 March, 1971. Bhutto, on the request of Yahya, then followed. It now appears that the whole thing was sham and show. On the fateful night of 25 March, 1971, Yahya Khan ordered his army in the name of “peace and democracy” to suppress the revolt in East Bengal. The unsuspecting Bengalis were not prepared for this ruthless action. Their leader, Sheikh Majib, was arrested and thousands of East Bengalis were massacred. The reign of terror continued with the result that over 10 million East Bengalis crossed the border into India. The Indian government had no means to tackle this problem by itself. It appealed to the world powers, but the response was almost nil. This was the excuse for the Indian government to help the Bangla Desh Mukti Bahini and if necessary to enter into a war with Pakistan.

The world powers stood by and watched these two countries head towards war. Both India and Pakistan pursue the old policy of “we fight a war to establish peace and in peace we prepare for a war”. At the beginning of December the Pakistan Air Force bombed several Indian Air Force bases and Indian tanks rolled into the lush green plain of East Bengal with the object of expelling the West Pakistani army and handing over the power to a dependent Bangla Desh government.

If the Indian government achieves its objective, this will not be the end of confrontation. When the dust of the present conflict settles down, both countries will start replenishing their arsenals for the next war. This will drain much of their national resources, with the result that the big powers which sell them arms — namely America, Britain, China, France and Russia — will benefit. Of course, the world powers at the same time as they rearm both countries, will talk hypocritically in the United Nations about the folly of armed conflict. Soon the world will forget all about this conflict and the poor will go on suffering as before.


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