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OP-ED: Turning a blind eye

  • Published at 09:10 pm October 19th, 2020
bangladesh america

America’s political motives further complicated Bangladesh’s Liberation War

Pakistan’s acceptance of Bangladesh’s independence during the height of the Liberation War in 1971 would have shed more bloodletting in the restive region.

The supposedly brokered ceasefire by China and America would have surely collapsed, as the Mukti Bahini, the East Bengal guerrillas, would not have obeyed the call.

By October, the Pakistani junta had deliberately transferred back to Pakistan the amphibian battle tanks, the newly-installed radar at Dhaka was dismantled, as were the squadron of fighter aircraft, which were brought from China.

For many in Karachi, where the military hardware was unloaded in the port, they understood that it was a matter of weeks. The eastern province was to become an independent country, but it was worried about thousands of soldiers and officers, civil administration, business entrepreneurs, and Pakistan civilians in the eastern province.

Henry Kissinger, the double-edge former US secretary of state, in an interview by Jeffrey Goldberg published in The Atlantic, said talks between America and China would have collapsed if the US had publicly condemned human rights violations and atrocities by the Pakistan army against the people of then East Pakistan.

Months before the violent crackdown Operation Searchlight by the Pakistan military, Pakistan emerged as the interlocutor most acceptable to Beijing and Washington, and exchanges were conducted from Islamabad.

Goldberg’s question was whether the opening to China was worth the sacrifices and deaths experienced in the India-Pakistan Bangladesh crisis, to which Kissinger retorted that Bangladesh demonstrates how this issue has been confused in our public debate. There was never a choice between suffering in Bangladesh and the opening to China.

He did not hesitate to state that Pakistan deployed extreme violence and gross human rights violations when Bangladesh was battling to achieve independence.

“The US diplomats witnessing the Bangladesh tragedy were ignorant of the opening to China. Their descriptions were heartfelt and valid, but we could not respond publicly,” he said.

By the time of the Bangladesh crisis in 1971 -- when Pakistan imposed martial law to crush the territory’s bid for independence -- Nixon felt he owed Pakistan’s military dictator, General Yahya Khan, a debt of gratitude for his government’s role in facilitating Kissinger’s secret trip to China, ignoring reports of Pakistan’s military atrocities against Bangladeshi civilians. 

The US actively supported Pakistan, to the extent of violating congressional restrictions on supplying arms to Pakistani troops.

“In November, the Pakistani president agreed with Nixon to grant independence the following March,” Kissinger said.

But the following December, “India, after having made a treaty including military provisions with the Soviet Union, and in order to relieve the strain of refugees, invaded East Pakistan,” he said, adding that the US had to navigate between Soviet pressures, Indian objectives, Chinese suspicions, and Pakistani nationalism.

“By March 1972 -- within less than a year of the commencement of the crisis  -- Bangladesh was independent; the India-Pakistan War ended, and the opening to China completed at a summit in Beijing in February 1972,” said Kissinger.

In his book World Order, Kissinger describes India as “a fulcrum of twenty first century order: An indispensable element, based on its geography, resources, and tradition of sophisticated leadership, in the strategic and ideological evolution of the regions and the concepts of order at whose intersection it stands.”

But in 1971, when Pakistan’s erstwhile eastern wing fought to become Bangladesh, Kissinger made a U-Turn and scorned India as “a Soviet stooge, supported with Soviet arms” over its support for Bangladesh independence.

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, and recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at [email protected] Twitter @saleemsamad.

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