The 1971 Liberation War was the result of struggle for independence of the Bangalis of East Pakistan for over 20 years which finally established the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. The war witnessed large-scale atrocities – genocide that claimed over 3 million lives, exodus of 10 million refugees, displacement of 30 million people and massive destruction of properties – in only nine months. The war broke out just before the midnight of March 25, 1971, when the Pakistani Army launched a crackdown called “Operation Searchlight” against the Bengali civilians, students, intellectuals and armed personnel, who were demanding that the military junta accept the results of the first democratic elections in Pakistan in 1970 won by the Awami League. Awami League President Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had declared the independence of Bangladesh just before the operation was launched and got arrested.
The Pakistan Army engaged in a systematic genocide and atrocities of Bangali civilians, particularly nationalists, intellectuals, youth and religious minorities. During the Liberation War broadcasting station “Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra” played a crucial role in encouraging the guerrilla fighters and supporters. While the freedom fighters fought against the Pakistani occupation forces in the battle fields, the artistes of the radio station were engaged in another kind of war by keeping the hope of freedom alive among millions.
The international mass media played a vital role in Bangladesh’s War of Independence. The London Times, the Sunday Times, the Guardian, the Sunday Observer, the Daily Mirror and the Daily Telegraph were helping in spreading the news of genocide and expedite cooperation among the international community to support Bangladesh. The concert for Bangladesh which had raised much international awareness was organised by Pandit Ravi Shankar and George Harrison in New York in August 1971. The event was the first-ever benefit concert of such a magnitude and featured a super-group of performers that included Harrison, fellow ex-Beatle Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, Leon Russel and the band Badfinger. In addition, Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan, both of whom had ancestral roots in Bangladesh, performed an opening set of Indian classical music. According to Ravi Shankar, "In one day, the whole world knew the name of Bangladesh.”
The two super powers, the Union of Social Soviet Russia (USSR) and the United States, which dominated a largely bipolar world until the middle of 1980s played a significant role in the 1971 Liberation War. On the other hand the, the United Nations had not taken any action to stop genocide in Bangladesh. The people of Bangladesh fought for their liberation at the height of the cold war. Among the five permanent members of the Security Council, the US and China had directly supported Pakistan, Soviet Union stood for Bangladesh, while United Kingdom and France, despite showing sympathy for Bangladesh, could not openly challenge the US, and hence, abstained from voting. This deep division among the permanent members had completely paralysed the Security Council. The neighbouring country, India, has played a significant role in favour of Bangladesh. When Pakistan declared war against India on November 22, 1971, India directly involved in the war of Bangladesh. India entered the war on December 3, 1971, after Pakistan launched pre-emptive air strikes in northern India. On December 16, the allied forces of Bangladesh and India defeated Pakistan in the East.
The response of Soviet Union to the 1971 crisis in East Pakistan was conditioned by the general Soviet policy with regard to Asia in the 1960s. It was a policy of growing involvement, initially undertaken to contain US influence in Asia, but increasingly directed at stemming the diplomatic and military as well as ideological advance of China which at that time was emerging as the Soviet Union's principal rival in the Third World.
The Soviet Union's close tie with India was vital in shaping the Soviet response towards the East Pakistan crisis in 1971. The relatively high priority given by the Soviet policy makers was the consequence of their perception of the contemporary world and Asia, and the proper Soviet role in both the world and Asian dimensions as a great power. Thus behind all that happened in the sub-continent over the 1971 Bangladesh struggle “was a power struggle between China and the Soviet Union and a strategic conflict between Moscow and Washington.” In South Asia during December 1971 the Soviet Union seemed to have gained most from this three-cornered fight.
The US played a more complex and somewhat negative role in the 1971 war. Nevertheless, it should be noted that the US society's response was one of positive support contradicting the state's negative role. In the pluralist and open society of the US, influential and articulate segments stood solidly behind the cause of Bangladesh. As the crisis developed, the American response went through several discernible phases.
The first phase of quiet non-involvement began on March 25 and lasted roughly until July 8, 1971. During this phase, the US posture was “neutral” and it described the problem in East Bengal as Pakistan's “internal matter.”
The second phase started with the secret trip by President Nixon's National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger to China during July 9-10, 1971. This marked the real beginnings of the Sino-US detente and led indirectly to the formalisation of Indo-Soviet alliance by a treaty in August. During this phase, which lasted until September, the US pursued diplomacy of restraint, counselling India to desist from armed conflict with Pakistan and privately pressing Pakistan to thrash out a “political settlement” of the East Pakistan issue.
During the third phase, lasting from September until December 3, when the Indo-Pakistan war over Bangladesh broke out, the US attempted to promote a constructive political dialogue between the Pakistani military government and the Bengali nationalist leaders in India, but in vain.
The fourth phase covered the period of the Indo-Pak war. During the 14-day sub-continental war, the US backed Pakistan and blamed India for the escalation of hostilities, and tried through the UN and other means to bring about a ceasefire and “save West Pakistan” from possible Indian attempts to destroy it militarily.
President Nixon ordered a task force of eight naval ships, led by the nuclear aircraft carrier Enterprise, to sail into the Bay of Bengal in a “show of force.” In response, On December 13, Russia dispatched a nuclear-armed flotilla, the 10th Operative Battle Group (Pacific Fleet) from Vladivostok. Russia deployed two task groups; in total two cruisers, two destroyers, six submarines, and support vessels. A group of Il-38 ASW aircraft from Aden air base in Yemen provided support.
The Liberation War was fought not only by the brave “Mukti Bahini” within Bangladesh but also supported through the coverage it received in the international media and artists. Journalists brought home to the people of the world the stories of the trials and sacrifices of the heroic people of Bangladesh, and the tribulations they were facing under the insensitive and brutal military administration of the occupying armed forces of Pakistan.
On March 25, 1971, the Pakistani military forcibly confined all foreign reporters to the Hotel Intercontinental (currently the Rupashi Bangla) in Dhaka, the night the military launched its genocide campaign. The reporters were able to see the tank and artillery attacks on civilians through the windows.
Two days later, as Dhaka burned the reporters were expelled from the country – their notes and tapes were confiscated. One of the expelled reporters was Sidney Schanberg of the New York Times. He would return to Dhaka in June 1971 to report on the massacres in towns and villages. He would again be expelled by the Pakistan military at the end of June.
Two foreign reporters escaped the roundup on March 25. One of them was Simon Dring of the Daily Telegraph. He evaded capture by hiding on the roof of the Hotel Intercontinental. Dring was able to extensively tour Dhaka the next day and witness first-hand the slaughter that was taking place. Days later he was able to leave East Pakistan with his reporter’s notes. On March 30, 1971, the Daily Telegraph published Simon Dring’s front page story of the slaughter in Dhaka that the army perpetrated in the name of “God and a united Pakistan.”
In April 1971, the Pakistan Army flew in eight Pakistani reporters from West Pakistan for guided tours with the military. Their mission was to tell the story of normalcy. The reporters went back to West Pakistan after their tour and dutifully filed stories declaring all was normal in East Pakistan. However, one of the reporters had a crisis of conscience. This reporter was Anthony Mascarenhas, the assistant editor of West Pakistani newspaper Morning News.
On May 18, 1971, Mascarenhas flew to London and walked into the offices of the Sunday Times offering to write the true story of what he had witnessed in East Pakistan. After getting agreement from the Sunday Times, he went back to Pakistan to retrieve his family. On June 13, with Mascarenhas and his family safely out of Pakistan, the Sunday Times published a front page and centre page story entitled “Genocide.” It was the first detailed eyewitness account of the genocide published in a western newspaper.
In June 1971, under pressure and in need of economic assistance, Pakistan allowed a World Bank team to visit East Pakistan. The World Bank team reported back that East Pakistan lay in ruins. One member of the team reported that the East Pakistani town of Kushtia looked “like a World War II German town having undergone strategic bombing attacks” as a result of the Pakistani army’s “punitive action” on the town. He also reported that the army “terrorises the population, particularly aiming at the Hindus and suspected members of the Awami League.” The Word Bank president, Robert McNamara, suppressed the public release of the report. The report was leaked to the New York Times.
Despite the Pakistani military’s best efforts at hiding the truth about their genocide campaign against Bangalis, reports filtered out of East Pakistan to the outside world – thanks in part to the efforts of determined foreign news reporters. Following are the foreign newspaper reports from the beginning of the genocide in March 1971 to its end. They chronicle the bloody birth of Bangladesh.The author went through old newspapers and the accounts of other researchers for this article. He expresses his gratitude to Liberation War researcher Omi Rahman Pial. Date and event references are collected from Genocide Archive, Janmojuddho 71 and Kagooj.