Although, according to several negotiators, most of the Awami League's demands were accepted, the party's leaders had apparently already decided in favour of independence, and negotiations broke down.
Operation Search Light: prelude to civil war
Parallel to the official negotiations, Pakistan's generals had been making plans in secret to suppress the Bengali opposition by force. When the official negotiations failed, Mujibur Rahman announced Bangladesh's independence on 26 March 1971, whereupon the commander-in-chief of the armed forces in East Pakistan gave the horrific order for Operation Search Light, which was the prelude to civil war.
What followed is one of the darkest chapters in Pakistan's history. In East Bengal, hundreds of thousands became victims of torture, execution, rape and displacement. As well as the soldiers, Islamist militias also actively participated in the atrocities.
The American consul in Dhaka, Archer Blood, wrote to Washington in a dramatic appeal: "Here in Dacca we are mute and horrified witnesses to a reign of terror by the PAK military. Evidence continues to mount that the Martial Law Authorities have a list of Awami League supporters whom they are systematically eliminating by seeking them out in their homes and shooting them down."
In other telegrams, diplomats documented systematic massacres and expulsions. Their appeals to their own government to stop the violence fell on deaf ears in Washington. Kissinger reprimanded the diplomats and recalled Blood. For Washington, strategic relations with the Pakistani establishment were more important than the civilian casualties of the war.
On the other hand, India armed and trained Mujibur Rahman's militia, the Mukhti Bahini, to carry out attacks and acts of sabotage against the Pakistani military. In a futile attempt to stop India from interfering further in the civil war, the Pakistan Air Force flew a surprise attack on India's western border in early December 1971. Islamabad's military strategists thereby hoped to reduce the pressure on the eastern front.
But the escalation resulted in an official declaration of war and the invasion of East Pakistan by Indian troops. Only a few weeks later, Pakistani General Niazi signed his country's surrender in Dhaka. In their flush of victory, members of the Mukhti Bahini militia now took action against actual and alleged collaborators of the Pakistani army. Acts of revenge, extrajudicial executions and expulsions were the result. This was particularly felt by the Urdu-speaking Bihari minority, which is still strongly discriminated against in Bangladesh today.
No coming to terms in sight
Pakistan has largely failed to come to terms with the events of the civil war. The Hamoodur Rahman Commission, set up by President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto at the end of 1971, presented a comprehensive report documenting war crimes and identifying those responsible, but the bulk of the report – even after almost 50 years – remains under wraps. Not until 2000 did parts of the report reach the press. In Pakistan, no one responsible has been held seriously accountable or punished.
Even General Niazi, whom all observers blame for the disaster, has never been held accountable for his role, except for a brief imprisonment and later dishonourable discharge from the military. It is perhaps an irony of fate that it was Pakistan's former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, of all people, who took the first step towards Bangladesh in 2002 when he officially commemorated the dead on both sides.
The fateful year of 1971 changed the course of Pakistan's history like none other, and yet the country has a hard time coming to terms with the past. An honest reappraisal of events, however, is essential to healing the traumas of that time.
© Qantara.de 2021
Mohammad Luqman is an Islamic scholar and South Asia expert with a special research focus on Pakistan.