The Birth of Bangla Desh

When the confrontation between India and Pakistan over the future of Pakistan’s Eastern region suddenly became front-page news last December, a common American response was to observe, “Another war has broken out,”and to suggest that the solution was an immediate cease-fire. Americans are committed to “peace,” accustomed to thinking in terms of a world of stable nation-states. We tend to think that wars break out either by accident or by the evil design of an expansionary aggressor; and in either case, once a war has been declared, our highest priority is a cease-fire, since “nothing good is ever gained by a nation’s going to war.”

In reality, wars are never complete accidents, or even within the power of a few evil men (or women) to launch on their own initiative. The recent full-scale conflict beteeen India and Pakistan was, like all wars, the continuation of a deep-rooted struggle. When such a struggle breaks out into the open, the result may be an intensification of the problem, but open conflict can lead on occasion to a resolution of underlying tensions. This is especially likely if, as in the IndiaPakistan war, both sides benefit by the results of the conflict

India won in that she was successful in installing a new friendly government in what had been East Pakistan. India’s motives, of course, were not merely altruistic. The war broke out because the Bengalis were fighting for the independence of their region from Pakistan. India—enemy of Pakistan, neighbor, and sanctuary for fleeing refugees—became a patron of the Bengali cause. As a patron, however, India interpreted the interests of the Bengalis in ways compatible with Indian interests. It might have been in the interest of the Bengalis, for example, to have been permitted to fight their battle by themselves even if this had taken several years. In the course of a protracted guerrilla struggle, organizational capacity and clarity of purpose might have developed which would have made it easier for the liberation movement to govern effectively once in power. In acting to accelerate events, India was helping the rebels gain their objective more rapidly than they could have gained it on their own

In doing so, India was motivated by her own difficulties. The burden of maintaining ten million refugees for what might have been years was more than India was willing to bear to permit the Bengalis to gain freedom on their own. The fact that India took the initiative means that she can exact gratitude because of her sacrifice and make sure that the refugee burden is, in fact, lifted. Since an overwhelming majority of the refugees were Hindus, it was not clear that they would be willing, or welcome, to return to a state with a new government which was still Muslim

If the Hindu refugees had been permitted to stay for any length of time in India, they might have found a satisfactory new life there. In undertaking to shoulder the main burden of liberating Bangla Desh, the Indian government had in mind one condition which it would insist the new government accept: the return of the Hindu refugees

India had reason to fear that a protracted struggle would not only saddle India with gigantic refugee costs but lead to a dangerous radicalization of the guerrilla movement itself. India’s own West Bengal has been the scene of leftist insurrections against the Indian government. India was not eager to have the tables turned; after having given sanctuary to a liberation movement directed at Pakistan’s Bengal, she did not wish to become the object of a liberation movement based in a hostile Bangla Desh. India had been successful in ensuring that the guerrilla movement was friendly, and not too radical; this situation might not have lasted during an extended struggle waged by a hardened, independent guerrilla force

For the moment, the civilian leadership of the liberation movementensconced in comfortable offices in Calcutta—consisted of respectable middle-class professionals, while the guerrilla soldiers were dependent upon the Indian army for supplies and training facilities. For the moment, Indian coordination was welcome and necessary. Since such a state of affairs could not have been expected to last indefinitely, India was encouraged to act while things were still within her firm control

Will this mean that the new government of Bangla Desh will simply be an Indian puppet? While the Bengalis are delighted to accept Indira Gandhi as a midwife, they have no desire for her to stay around in the role of stepmother of the new nation. Bangla Desh was an unusually vigorous infant even at the moment of birth because of the unusual circumstances which led up to it. Fair popular elections had been held in what is now Bangla Desh; and political leaders, military and police officers, prominent educators and lawyers were prepared to return at once to their liberated country to begin the tasks of national reconstruction. India’s insistence on the return of the Hindu refugees is, moreover, a condition which the new government can accept without reluctance. The new nation of Bangla Desh is Muslim but not “Islamic” in the formal manner of the state of Pakistan. The new government proposes to be secular, on the Indian model, and will offer no strong objection to the repatriation of the Hindu refugees. The new Muslim ruling class does not want to see the return of the old Hindu middle class which fled to India in 1947; but the recent wave of Hindu refugees are laborers who pose no threat to the new Muslim elite of Bangla Desh

Islam was the primary link between the two regions of Pakistan, but much of the tension between the two wings of the country stemmed from the different way in which Islam was viewed. In the West, Islam is usually a much more powerful component of an individual’s personal identity than is the case in the East; the easygoing Bengali loves his land and his language above all else. Hindus who share these loves, and who do not present an economic threat, will be relatively easy to accept back into the new state. A much larger problem is posed by the Bihari Muslim community, which, in the recent disorders, sided with the Pakistani government and today faces the consequences of that decision

Why did the Bengalis feel compelled to revolt against the nation of which they had been a part for twenty-four years? Why were they willing to greet with elation the liberation of their country by a state which had been continually pictured as their nation’s direst foe? Why did the Bengali movement erupt at this point, and not in 1947 when the nations of India and Pakistan became independent? The movement which led to the creation of Bangla Desh is a delayed consequence of the way in which the state of Pakistan was created. Pakistan was carved out of Muslim-majority regions of the former British Indian Empire. In British Bengal, however, the Muslim majority consisted almost exclusively of peasants; the middle class were almost entirely Hindus. When India and Pakistan were created, the Hindu middle class fled to India, leaving Muslim Bengal with virtually no indigenous leadership. The result was that Muslim Bengalis came to be ruled by a new alien community; they discovered that they had exchanged rule by Hindu Bengalis for rule by Muslims from remote West Pakistan. The Bengalis were told that they were now “free” because they were ruled by men of their own religion

The one real gain which came to Bengali Muslims because of the flight of the Hindu middle class was access to the universities of Bengal. While few opportunities opened up immediately in the military and civil services, controlled from the West, the opportunity for education led in due course to the emergence of a Muslim Bengali intelligentsia. When educated Bengali leaders began to emerge from the universities, the old Bengali pride in their distinctive cultural traditions revived, and resentment of the exploitation of Bengal in the name of Islamic brotherhood began to grate

Pakistan’s frenzy

The West Pakistani leadership, who had devoted their energies to building up the seemingly improbable state of Pakistan into a viable entity, were slow to realize that their initial definition of Pakistan’s priorities might not be acceptable to a new generation of leaders who had not participated in the struggles leading to the initial creation of Pakistan. Pakistan had been created out of Muslim fear of Hindu domination. In Muslim East Pakistan, this fear had no reality for young Bengali Muslims dominated by West Pakistani Muslims. Just as many young Americans cannot understand their parents’ obsession with Hitler, so many young Bengalis simply could not understand the intensity of feeling of older West Pakistani leaders about the threat from Hindu India. Why should an old danger be used as an excuse for refusing to consider new challenges on their own merits? Bengalis especially resented the effort by Pakistani leaders to eradicate all memory of the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore simply because he was a Hindu and also revered in India

While it was the Indian government which, following Mrs. Gandhi’s tour last fall of foreign capitals to canvass support, initiated the actions which brought the military crisis to a head, obviously it was the actions of the military government of Pakistan’s President Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan in the period following the collapse of his negotiations with Bengali leaders which induced India to act. Beginning in March, 1971, the Pakistani army unleashed a reign of terror in East Bengal which forced ten million people to flee from their homes into a foreign country, and which came close to attempted genocide, since it was directed indiscriminately at two classes of people: Hindus and Bengali Muslim intellectuals

Yahya Khan’s government was willing to commit such reckless acts of violence to preserve control of a hostile and impoverished country because the Pakistani equivalents of “Hitler” and “the Munich analogy” were still very much alive in the thinking of West Pakistan’s military leaders. For them, the battle against what was patently an internal demand for greater participation seemed to be nothing more nor less than the old battle against the specter of Hindu domination. The determination with which Yahya Khan resisted Bengal’s reasonable demands— and then the frenzy with which he attempted to suppress the Bengali insurrection—can be explained only by the refusal of Pakistan’s leaders to admit that they had a new battle on their hands. They treated it as if it were the same old battle against India; hence, the bizarre tendency to blame Bengali restiveness on “Indian agitators,” as they labeled the hapless, largely illiterate Hindu minority which had remained in East Pakistan after the partition of 1947

Some observers have suggested an economic explanation for West Pakistan’s determination to hold on to her Eastern “colony,” pointing to West Pakistan’s record of economic exploitation of the East, which has earned valuable foreign exchange for Pakistan through sales abroad of jute and tea. Actually, the cause runs much deeper. The Pakistani government felt quite sincerely that it was fighting in self-defense, that it was fighting in the East to guarantee the very existence of the country. Pakistan’s leaders felt that if they lost the East, they would not simply have lost a colony; they would have lost their own home, they would have lost the West as well. The reason for this desperate urgency traces to the founding principle of the state of Pakistan

The name “India” immediately connotes a geographic area; “Pakistan,” on the other hand (which means literally “the Land of the Pure”), has no such obvious geographic connotation. Pakistan was created to provide a home for Muslims living throughout British India who did not wish to live under the newly founded Hindu-majority government of India’s Congress Party. East and West Pakistan were the two regions of British India which had Muslim majorities; these two areas were, however, separated by 1000 miles, and racially and linguistically distinct. They were united in one nation on the assumption that a common religion would serve as the basis for the creation, after the fact, of a common sense of national solidarity. Islam, of course, does provide a strong common bond; but Muslimmajority countries can be found in places as distant as Morocco and Indonesia. In the age of the nationstate, religion is a tenuous bond in the absence of common historical experience. The historical bond of having been part of the British Indian Empire provided only a negative factor: fear of Hindu-majority India

Religion was the sole positive component of the identity of the new state of Pakistan, and the leaders of the new state were forced to try to make the most of it. If non-religious factors were admitted to be relevant, the viability of the entire state, the reasonableness of its having been created in the first place, would be under challenge. If Pakistan’s leaders had to admit that the Muslim-majority region of Bengal had a right to independence, on the basis of economic grievances or linguistic or racial distinctness, they would in effect have been admitting that their nation had no right to exist. They would then have had no right to continue resisting the other significant separatist movement on the country’s opposite flank: the demand for autonomy of the Pathans, who live in Pakistan’s remote Northwest. Just as the East Bengalis have cultural ties with Bengalis in India, so do the Pathans have cultural ties with neighboring Afghanistan

In losing their reason for resisting other separatist movements within Pakistan, Pakistan’s leaders would simultaneously have lost their claim to acquire control of the Vale of Kashmir. The Vale is now part of India; before 1948, it was a princely state. Kashmir has never been a part of Pakistan, but the Pakistanis claim Kashmir on the basis of their assertion to be the proper home of all Muslim-majority regions formerly dominated by the British. If the Muslims of Bengal were conceded to have a right to an independent existence outside of Pakistan, the Muslims of Kashmir might logically have to be conceded the same right

For all these reasons, the Pakistanis held on tenaciously to East Bengal; for the same reasons, the Pakistanis in the end found it easier to accept the loss of Bengal from an Indian invasion than from an indigenous guerrilla insurrection. Losing Bengal following an Indian invasion did not involve an admission that their principles had been refuted. Now that Bengal has been liberated by Indians, Pakistanis can continue to claim from afar the right to control East Bengal in principle—without facing the embarrassment of attempting to enforce this control. And, with a war under way, Pakistan could drive forward to acquire territory in Kashmir in order to demonstrate to the people of West Pakistan that the loss of Bengal had not been totally unrequited

America’s fretting

Many people were surprised by America’s decision, once the war was declared, to back Pakistan and to denounce in strong terms India’s actions as unacceptable aggression. Actually, America’s role in the immediate crisis was not very significant. America did little beside issuing statements and cutting off aid, an action whose effect would not be felt until long after hostilities were concluded. Henry Kissinger revealed that India had not been impressed by the Nixon Administration’s behind-the-scenes hints that Yahya might be persuaded to restore civilian rule in East Pakistan sometime in the future. Most observers, in turn, were not very impressed by this revelation either. The important thing was that the Nixon Administration did little more than fret; in consequence, India was able to move ahead rapidly to attain her objective. But, while America’s role in the actual war crisis was fortunately ineffectual, American policy does bear a heavier burden of responsibility for the way in which the crisis originally developed, in the preceding eight months and over the past decade and more

Nixon’s admiration for the plainspoken military leaders of Pakistan stretches back to his years as Vice President. He was reluctant to criticize Yahya, or even to cut off military aid altogether, even when it was clear that Yahya was using American aid to terrorize his own countrymen. Nixon’s actions in this situation reveal the ominous ability of the American President to insert his subjective feelings into the formulation of national policy. In a longer perspective, however, something much more basic than Nixon’s sentiments was involved

Many of Yahya’s admirers in Washington terminated their sentimental attachments to his government following the butchery of last spring. But many of these same persons had also unwittingly contributed to the growing crisis by doing nothing more sinister than sincerely advocating America’s conventional postwar strategy of political and economic development for countries receiving American aid. This strategy was designed to prevent revolution; in practice, it served to make revolution more likely

For many years American policymakers have made liberal use of phrases such as “powder keg” and “time bomb" to describe social conditions in Asia and other desperately poor regions of the world. They correctly sensed the revolutionary potential of such conditions but were unable to attach their fears to any concrete analysis of indigenous causes, in large part because of the appeal of the Cold-War-spawned “outside agitator” theory of revolutionary causation. This was linked to an equally unreal theory of remedy: give aid, make people richer, remove objective physical distress, and outside agitators would get nowhere

Of course the real causes of revolutionary insurrection are indigenous leaders who succeed in organizing cadres for revolutionary action. And indigenous leadership is motivated to action by a vision of the relative inequality within their own society, not by resentment at the overall poverty of their society in relation to societies in other parts of the world. Washington was reluctant to recognize this fact because it would have made American economic aid irrelevant, or worse

Aid was rationalized as a way of preventing revolution by increasing a nation’s wealth relative to the West; but it has often resulted in an increase in disparities of wealth within a nation receiving aid (because of the greater ease with which the elite can use and control aid), and consequently intensified the likelihood of revolution

Pakistan for more than a decade was considered a classic success story of the American approach to development. The Pakistani elite took American aid and American advice. The Pakistanis encouraged the profit motive, and in the course of time the West Pakistani elite made sizable contributions to their region’s development and their own wealth. Pakistan became richer, but disparities of wealth became aggravated. Pakistan’s very success encouraged indifference to the seriousness of the challenge presented by the emergence of a political challenge in the East

It will be months before the dust settles again on the subcontinent. Refugees must be resettled, troops and other foreign nationals repatriated, airports, roads, and bridges rebuilt. The Bengalis have nothing, but they are ready to go to work with their bare hands. It would be tragic if the Indians, the Russians, or the Americans felt impelled to take on the responsibility of rebuilding the country on behalf of the Bengalis. The Bengalis were prepared to liberate their country with their own efforts. They are prepared now to undertake the tasks of national reconstruction and do not want this challenge to be similarly pre-empted by massive foreign involvement, however well intentioned. The best thing Washington can do for the new state of Bangla Desh is to leave it alone