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On the evening of 3 December 1971, at about 1730 hours, the Pakistani Air Force carried out a series of preemptive strikes on the forward airbases and radar installations of the Indian Air Force in an operation codenamed “Chengiz Khan”. The air strikes were followed by a massive ground offensive against Indian positions in the Chhamb sector. India’s Prime Minister, Shrimati Indira Gandhi was in Kolkata at that time, addressing a rally at the Calcutta Brigade Grounds. The message of the attack, as received by Eastern Command, was relayed to the Governor of West Bengal, who directed his ADC, Capt DO David to convey the same to the Prime Minister. As the sun was setting, a young aide walked up to the podium and handed her a slip of paper, while she was delivering her address. She quickly wound up the rally, and soon thereafter, flew back to Delhi. She was received by the defence Minister when the plane landed at 10.45 pm, and drove straight to Army Headquarters, where the Army Chief, Gen Sam Manekshaw briefed her. She then met her cabinet colleagues and a decision was taken to declare hostilities with Pakistan and to recognise Bangladesh. The Indian Air Force responded that very night against targets in Pakistan. The War for the Liberation of Bangladesh had begun.
The strain in relations between the two wings of Pakistan had their roots in policies which consistently favoured the West Wing at the expense of the East. Matters came to a head following the elections held in Pakistan in December 1970. The Awami League, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, which went to the elections campaigning for regional autonomy for the Eastern Wing, won all but two seats in East Pakistan, which gave the Awami League a decisive majority in Pakistan’s National Assembly. But General Yahya Khan refused to hand over power to Mujib, as a result of which the Awami League launched a massive civil disobedience movement in East Pakistan.
To crush political dissent, General Yahya Khan, Pakistan’s military dictator, launched Operation Searchlight on 25 March 1971, the code name for the military crackdown on the Eastern Wing. In a conference held a month earlier, President Yahya Khan reportedly said, “Kill three million of them and the rest will eat out of your hands” and that is what the Pakistan army set out to do. Homes were looted and burned, women were raped and innocents in their thousands were slaughtered mercilessly. Anyone suspected of dissidence was hounded down and killed, and the list included students, university lecturers, writers, journalists, professionals and intellectuals. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman too was arrested and flown to prison in West Pakistan. But the slaughter and the inhumanity of the Pakistan army was resisted and the pushback gave birth to the Mukti Bahini.
On 31 March, six days after Yahya unleashed his reign of terror, Indira Gandhi stood up in the Lok Sabha and delivered an impassioned resolution:
This House expresses its profound sympathy for and solidarity with the people of East Bengal in their struggle for a democratic way of life. Bearing in mind the permanent interests which India has in peace, committed as we are to uphold and defend human rights, this House demands immediate cessation of the use of force and the massacre of defenceless people. This House calls upon all peoples and Governments of the world to take urgent and constructive steps to prevail upon the government of Pakistan to put an end immediately to the systematic decimation of the people which amounts to genocide. This House records its profound conviction that the historic upsurge of the 75 million people of East Bengal will triumph. The House wishes to assure them that their struggle and sacrifices will receive the whole-hearted sympathy and support of the people of India.
The next nine months would however witness a genocide which the world’s democracies would largely ignore. A concert held in Madison Avenue in the United States, organised by Pandit Ravi Shankar, the world renowned Sitarist and the Beatle, George Harrison—The Concert for Bangladesh—and a pair of benefit concerts organised on Sunday 1 August 1971, at 2.30 and 8.30 pm, which featured some of the biggest names of the times—George Harrison, fellow ex-Beatle Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, Leon Russell and the band Badfinger, did much to raise the consciousness of the world on the genocide taking place in East Pakistan. But by then a lot of damage had already taken place.
Millions of people fled the country and moved into India where they were put in refugee camps. By the time the Indian Armed Forces moved into Pakistan in support of the Liberation Movement, over three million people had been slaughtered by the Pakistan military. On 4 December, Indira Gandhi told a packed Lok Sabha:
“For over nine months, the military regime of West Pakistan has barbarously trampled upon the freedom and basic human rights in Bangladesh. The army of occupation has committed heinous crimes unmatched for their vindictive ferocity. Many millions have been uprooted, ten million have been pushed into our country. We repeatedly drew the attention of the world to this annihilation of a whole people, to this menace to our security. Everywhere, the people showed sympathy and understanding for the economic and other burdens and danger to India. Bur governments seemed morally and politically paralysed…West Pakistan has escalated and enlarged the aggression against Bangladesh into full war against India…We should be prepared for a long struggle”.
The Indian Armed Forces and the Mukti Bahini brought the war to a swift end in under two weeks, culminating in the surrender of the Pakistan Army on 16 December 1971 and heralding the birth of a new nation. But what must never be forgotten is the genocide that took place during the nine brutal months of repression. A passage from the work of journalist and researcher Afsan Choudhary is especially poignant.
“I came out and saw the army. They wanted to go inside. I put my hands up like this and said there was no one inside. They flung me away into the yard and dragged my husband and son outside. They shot them both right there, there. They killed every male in the village, every male. When the army was gone, there was not a single man left to bury the dead. We had to drag the bodies ourselves and bury them.”
The bestiality of the Pakistan Army crossed all bounds when they used rape as an instrument of coercion. As per Susan Brownmiller:
“Between two to four million women were raped over a period of nine months. Eighty percent of the raped women were Muslims, reflecting the population of Bangladesh, but Hindu and Christian women were not exempt. … Hit-and-run rape of large numbers of Bengali women was brutally simple in terms of logistics as the Pakistani regulars swept through and occupied the tiny, populous land. Girls of eight and grandmothers of seventy-five had been sexually assaulted … Pakistani soldiers had not only violated Bengali women on the spot; they abducted tens of hundreds and held them by force in their military barracks for nightly use. Some women may have been raped as many as eighty times in a night”.
The nine months preceding the war, from the time of the infamous crackdown to the launching of operations by the Indian Armed Forces on 4 December 1971, witnessed hectic political activity, with the Indian Prime Minister meeting world leaders across the globe to sensitise them to the carnage taking place in East Pakistan. Her 21 day tour of Europe and America, beginning on 24 October, gained little more than sympathy from the leaders of Europe. In Britain, Indira Gandhi addressed an audience at the India League and told them that she felt as though she were ‘sitting on top of a volcano, and I honestly do not know when it will erupt’. The US however remained intransigent. The meeting with Nixon took place on 4 and 5 November in the White House Oval Office, but achieved little and the chill in the office was freezing. For Indira Gandhi, war as an option was never ruled out, but it was the option of last resort. That option was exercised on 4 December 1971. And the rest is history.