East Bengal 1971 revisited

Forty years ago last month [16 December 1971] Dhaka fell. The laying down of arms by the Pakistan Army to the Indian Lieutenant-General Jagjit Singh Aurora was the biggest military surrender in post-Second World War history. It was in the period when a revolutionary storm swept across the planet in the years 1967-74.

After 24 years of its creation, Pakistan was in the throes of a revolutionary ferment. At that time it had two wings, West and East Pakistan. This was the first time the Pakistani people had united in a common cause against exploitation and suffering. From Peshawar to Chittagong there was one slogan echoing in the streets: Socialism!

The movement that began with a student revolt in November 1968 and was later joined by workers and peasants not only threatened the military dictatorship of General Ayub Khan but the whole edifice of the capitalist state and socioeconomic system was being challenged. The imperialists and the ruling classes of the subcontinent were in utter disarray. Initially they used the elections as a distraction but when the revolt, especially in East Bengal, refused to subside, they resorted to a mass genocide and another war between India and Pakistan.

However, when the largest Left party in the eastern wing led by Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani abandoned the movement, the masses were diverted from the struggle that had erupted on a class basis into that of national emancipation led by a bourgeois demagogue Sheikh Mujibur Rehman. Ayub had cordial relations with China and hence the leaders of the pro-Peking Left insisted that his regime had “certain anti-imperialist features”. Bhashani had a substantial social base in East Bengal. His boycott of the 1970 elections left the masses devoid of a revolutionary leadership and Mujibur Rehman’s Awami League was given a free rein, resulting in a sweeping victory with 167 out of the total 169 National Assembly seats in East Pakistan. The Awami League was a secular, bourgeois and conservative party with its support mainly in the petty bourgeoisie. It tapped deep into Bengali resentment and alienation at the hands of the Pakistani military and capitalist elite. Mujib successfully raised the rhetoric of Bengali nationalism as a bargaining chip against the West Pakistani ruling elite. The imperialists and the Indian elite kept him on a leash to preserve the rule of capitalism. However, with belligerent military rule, decades of subjugation and an enraged movement, the eastern wing was pushed more and more toward secession. National exploitation played a critical role in this revolt. Between 1948 and 1951, 130 million were sanctioned for development. Of this only 22 percent were allocated to East Pakistan with more than half the population. For more than 20 years West Pakistani capital extracted Rs 3 billion annually from the east. The failure of the army to provide flood relief during the devastating cyclone in 1970 in which more than 200,000 Bengalis perished further stoked the flames of hatred. As the repression increased, the guerrilla outfits emerged as forces of armed resistance going beyond the control of the Awami League. Even in the army cantonments the tension was deeply felt. Bengali cooks, laundrymen and servants left. Vendors refused to sell any food to the soldiers in the markets.

 The military action, code named ‘Operation Searchlight’, began on March 25, 1971. A brutal campaign of mass murder was unleashed. Rape on a massive scale became a weapon of harrowing repression. This massive brutality was conducted in the traditions of the colonial masters who had set up the army. The Pakistani regiments engaged in the Bengal genocide once practised their trade under General Gracey in Vietnam. General Tikka Khan who became notorious as the ‘Butcher of Bengal’ was a veteran of Montgomery’s army in the North African campaign. General ‘Tiger’ Niazi who signed the act of surrender wrote with pride in his memoirs, “Nick name Tiger was given to me by Brigadier Warren, Commander 161 Infantry Brigade, for my exploits in Burma during World War II.” The main force that assisted the Pakistan Army in Operation Searchlight were the vigilantes of the Jamaat-e-Islami organised in semi-fascist organisations, Al-Badar and Al-Shams, bred and sponsored by the CIA. General Hakeem Arshad Qureshi writes in his book, “Maulana Tufail Mohammad (Amir) of the Jamaat-e-Islami visited us after the military action. The Maulana was particularly concerned about the performance of the Razakars (volunteers) belonging to his party.” However, no army — how mighty it may be — can ever defeat a people who have arisen in mass revolt. It is a myth that the Pakistan Army was defeated by the Indian military aggression. It was already paralysed by the mass uprising, general strikes and the armed struggle of the Mukti Bahini and left-wing groups. The Indian invasion was primarily aimed to crush the workers and peasants’ councils or soviets that mushroomed and had taken over the administrative and judicial control in the areas that had been liberated from the Pakistan state.

It soon became clear to Indira Gandhi that a protracted struggle here could have critical repercussions inside India, particularly West Bengal where the Communist Party already had a mass base, with peasants’ struggles and social unrest raging. The Indian ruling classes were horrified. Peter Hazlehurst of the Times commented, “Red Bengal would alarm Delhi even more than Islamabad.” A united Socialist Bengal could have triggered a revolutionary storm throughout the South Asian subcontinent. It was due to this fear of such a revolutionary outcome that the Americans sent the Seventh Fleet into the Bay of Bengal in case the Indians failed to crush the revolt. But it was primarily the absence of a revolutionary party with a bold Leninist leadership that led to the revolution being lost.

Forty years of bourgeois independence in Bangladesh has only given the Bengali masses misery and poverty. In some respects they are even worse off than they were under West Pakistani colonialism. The conditions of the toiling masses in India are appalling. The people of Pakistan are suffering grievously. But the real lessons of 1971 are that a revolution in one part of the region immediately has deep repercussions in the whole region. It is a relationship of a common history, geography, social conditions and culture. The revolutions from Afghanistan to Burma are interconnected. A real SAARC [South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation] can only be created in the form of a voluntary Socialist Federation of South Asia. Yet again mass revolts impend in the whole region. The real problems of poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy, unemployment, price hike, infrastructure, religious bigotry, deprivation, violence and exploitation are the same. How can solutions be any different?

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