Why the idea of a unified struggle with Pakistan’s exiled political leaders failed in 1971
In December 1971, when the Mukti Bahini guerrillas and the Indian army captured large chunks of occupied Bangladesh, the government-in-exile in Kolkata and Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi were having sleepless nights.
At the fag-end of the Liberation War, a senior leader -- Abdus Samad Azad -- took charge of the ministry of foreign affairs from Khondaker Mostaq Ahmad.
In London on December 16, 1971, the Bangladesh foreign minister organized a top-secret meeting of exiled political leaders from Sindh, Balochistan, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly North-West Frontier Province -- NWFP) in Pakistan. Azad was not sure what the outcome of the secret meeting would be. The Pakistani leaders were living in exile to escape the wrath of the military junta in the Rawalpindi military headquarters.
The victims were mostly politicians of ethnic sub-nationalities from the minority provinces in Pakistan, and progressive left intellectuals who dared to raise their voices in favour of handing over power to the Awami League, the unconditional release of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the safe return of refugees from India, and the withdrawal of troops from the eastern front.
Tajuddin Ahmed, prime minister of the provisional government, in conjunction with South Block in New Delhi envisaged opening a crucial dialogue with Pakistan’s exiled political leaders in London. Among the attendees was Khan Abdul Wali Khan (leader of the socialist National Awami Party of the NWFP, an iconic Pashtun leader, and an able son of “Frontier Gandhi” Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan).
All of the progressive leaders of Pakistan were fortunately close allies of Sheikh Mujib and had lent him their political support, which raised alarm bells among military hawks in Rawalpindi.
The agenda of the meeting was sensitive. The leaders expressed their solidarity with the creation of independent Bangladesh and were worried about the safety of Sheikh Mujib. Azad did not hesitate to spell out the exiled government’s plan. He carefully laid down whether there was any possibility to forge a joint front for armed rebellion among the ethnic sub-national people in Pakistan to break away from Pakistan and become sovereign independent nation-states, as Bangladesh had showcased.
The Bangladesh leader in his submission said the Indian army had reached the gates of Lahore and it was an opportune moment to strike. He said confidently that Bangladesh would provide logistics from friendly countries to wage armed struggles and extend political, diplomatic, and military support for a unified movement.
The ethnic leaders at the Charing Cross meeting could not believe that Bangladesh leadership would offer such a radical proposal. They doubted whether Bangladesh could provide political and military support to the ethnic armed struggles already happening in Balochistan and NWFP.
The curious leaders asked Azad about India’s mindset to back the movements of the Sindhi, Baloch, and Pashtuns. Azad quickly assured them that India’s political support could be mustered, citing India’s help for Bangladesh’s Liberation Movement. He said the Awami League leadership was willing to talk to New Delhi to secure India’s support, on the condition that the leaders would have to commit to democracy, secularism, and pluralism, and reject Mhhammad Ali Jinnah’s two-nation theory.
However, the exiled leaders Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, Khan Abdul Wali Khan, and Khair Baksh Marri said the proposal was too little, too late. While the meeting was in progress, news broke in the British media that 93,000 Pakistan troops and civilian officers had unconditionally surrendered in Dhaka.
Several historians conclude that it was obvious the dialogue failed because the secret plan was made in haste with a poor vision and no timeline.
Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He could be reached at [email protected]; Twitter @saleemsamad.