Bangladesh - Liberation War
In the fall of 1970, a powerful opposition movement emerged in East Pakistan. During the 1971 civil war, a number of factional paramilitary bands, which included communist forces dedicated to a rural-based revolution along Maoist lines, fought against each other and engaged in terrorism. The strongest of the new paramilitary bands, and the one that would have the greatest impact on future events, was organized under the Awami League's military committee headed by Colonel M.A.G. Osmany, a retired Pakistan Army officer. This band was raised as Mujib's action arm and security force. As the political struggle between East Pakistan and West Pakistan intensified, the Awami League's military arm assumed the character of a conventional, albeit illegal, armed force.
At first, Osmany recruited his force from three main sources: the East Pakistan Students League (the Awami League's youth branch); the security militia called Ansars (ansar is Arabic for helper) and Mujahids (mujahid is Arabic for holy warrior), who were trained, respectively, by the police and the army; and urban toughs known throughout the subcontinent as goondas. Osmany's group collected arms and ammunition and conspired with Bengali-origin officers and troops in the regular Pakistani forces and the East Pakistan Rifles. Initially, Osmany's band was called Sevak Bahini (Service Force); after its expansion, it became known as the Mukti Fauj (Liberation Force; more loosely, freedom fighters), a name that evolved into Mukti Bahini, a term of more common Bengali usage having the same meaning as Mukti Fauj. The very existence of an underground army responsive to Awami League directives convinced West Pakistani leaders that Mujib was intent on leading the secession of East Pakistan.
On March 25, the Pakistan Army launched a terror campaign calculated to suppress the resistance movement and intimidate the Bengalis into submission. Within hours a wholesale slaughter had commenced in Dhaka, with the heaviest attacks concentrated on the University of Dhaka and the Hindu area of the old town. Bangladeshis remember the date as a day of infamy and liberation. The Pakistan Army came with hit lists and systematically killed several hundred Bengalis. Mujib was captured and flown to West Pakistan for incarceration.
To conceal what they were doing, the Pakistan Army corralled the corps of foreign journalists at the International Hotel in Dhaka, seized their notes, and expelled them the next day. One reporter who escaped the censor net estimated that three battalions of troops--one armored, one artillery, and one infantry--had attacked the virtually defenseless city.
After the tragic events of March, India became vocal in its condemnation of Pakistan. An immense flood of East Pakistani refugees, between 8 and 10 million according to various estimates, fled across the border into the Indian state of West Bengal. In April an Indian parliamentary resolution demanded that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi supply aid to the rebels in East Pakistan. She complied but declined to recognize the provisional government of independent Bangladesh.
During the ensuing month, military operations spread throughout East Pakistan. The East Bengal Regiment, the East Pakistan Rifles, and most of the East Pakistani police and their auxiliaries joined the revolt. They seized West Pakistani officers serving with these units and killed some of them. The wholesale, planned defection of the Bengalis from the Pakistan Army in the early weeks of the war came as a surprise to the Pakistani command and was of supreme importance to the Bangladesh cause. The Bengali units, after fighting numerous actions against West Pakistani regulars, gradually withdrew and merged with the Mukti Bahini, providing the essential core of leadership and organizational basis for the rest of the war.
The West Pakistani press waged a vigorous but ultimately futile campaign to counteract newspaper and radio accounts of wholesale atrocities. One paper, the Morning News, even editorialized that the armed forces were saving East Pakistanis from eventual Hindu enslavement. The civil war was played down by the government-controlled press as a minor insurrection quickly being brought under control.
Gradually this amalgamation of forces grew into a unified military as it confronted the Pakistanis. Retired officers and troops helped train the revolutionary forces. On April 14, Osmany officially became the commander in chief of the Mukti Bahini. Although most of this force, estimated at over 100,000 strong at the height of the conflict, maintained unswerving allegiance to Mujib and the Awami League, many partisan bands operated independently. East Pakistani civilian members of the resistance operated out of Calcutta. The high command divided the country into eight military sectors, each commanded by a Pakistan Army major who had defected. India granted sanctuary to the Mukti Bahini and provided bases and substantial matériel and training.
The initial operations by the Pakistan Army failed to destroy the Mukti Bahini or to prevent its expansion and development, but by late May 1971 Pakistani authority had been widely reasserted. Rebel forces were largely confined to the areas near the Indian border states of West Bengal, Assam, and Tripura. Pakistani forces received reinforcements and the assistance of an internal security force called Razakars (Keepers of Public Order) and other collaborators that had been raised in East Pakistan by the Pakistani administration. Denounced by the resistance for collaborating with Pakistani authorities, most Razakars were Urdu-speaking Muslims who had emigrated from the Indian state of Bihar at the time of partition. The weary Pakistani regulars, however, were able to contain a July monsoon offensive by the Mukti Bahini.
Various informants, including missionaries and foreign journalists who clandestinely returned to East Pakistan during the war, estimated that by March 28 the loss of life reached 15,000. By the end of summer of 1971 as many as 300,000 people were thought to have lost their lives.
A propaganda war between Pakistan and India ensued in which Yahya threatened war against India if that country made an attempt to seize any part of Pakistan. Yahya also asserted that Pakistan could count on its American and Chinese friends. At the same time, Pakistan tried to ease the situation in the East Wing. Belatedly, on 7 April it replaced Tikka, whose military tactics had caused such havoc and human loss of life, with the more restrained Lieutenant General A.A.K. Niazi. At the end of August a moderate Bengali, Abdul Malik, was installed as the civilian governor of East Pakistan. These belated gestures of appeasement did not yield results or change world opinion.
Despite the setback, the Mukti Bahini had gained valuable experience and shown increased capability. Back in their border base area, they regrouped. Recruitment was never a serious problem, and numerical losses were easily replaced. Indian aid and participation materially increased, and the tempo of fighting again picked up by October, when Pakistan had raised its army troop strength to about 80,000. Border clashes between the Indian and Pakistani armies became frequent.
In response to Indian military incursions into East Pakistan in late November, Pakistan launched a series of preemptive air strikes against Indian airfields on December 3, 1971. Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi then ordered national mobilization, and Indian forces launched a full-scale invasion of East Pakistan the next day.
The initial Pakistani air strikes had been ineffective, and the Indian Air Force attained air superiority within the next twenty-four hours and held it. The Pakistan Air Force detachment in East Pakistan was destroyed, and supply and escape routes were cut off; in West Pakistan the Indian Air Force systematically struck aircraft and airfields, base installations, communication centers, and troop concentrations. At sea an Indian Navy task force immobilized East Pakistani port facilities and landed an amphibious force to cut off escape routes to Burma. At the same time, an Indian task force contained Pakistan's fleet and bombarded port installations at Karachi, West Pakistan.
On December 4, 1971, the Indian Army, far superior in numbers and equipment to that of Pakistan, executed a 3-pronged pincer movement on Dhaka launched from the Indian states of West Bengal, Assam, and Tripura, taking only 12 days to defeat the 90,000 Pakistani defenders. The Pakistan Army was weakened by having to operate so far away from its source of supply. The Indian Army, on the other hand, was aided by East Pakistan's Mukti Bahini (Liberation Force), the freedom fighters who managed to keep the Pakistan Army at bay in many areas.
On the ground the Indian strategic plan was aimed at East Pakistan as first priority, while simultaneously containing West Pakistan. The Indian force that invaded East Pakistan consisted of nine infantry divisions with attached armor units and supporting arms. Separated into five invasion columns, Indian forces advanced rapidly, bypassing intermediate cities and obstacles and pressing relentlessly toward the capital at Dhaka. At the same time, guerrilla attacks intensified, and at least three brigades of the Mukti Bahini fought in conventional formations with the Indian forces.
Overwhelmed by the speed and power of the Indian advance, Pakistan's four divisions and smaller separate units fought a number of hard actions but soon had their escape routes cut off and were without air support. On 16 December 1971 Dhaka fell, and Pakistan's commander, Lieutenant General A.A.K. Niazi, with about 75,000 troops, surrendered to Lieutenant General J.S. Aurora, the Indian commander of the combined Indian and Mukti Bahini forces. On the western front, India's forces had effectively contained Pakistani attacks and had made limited advances into West Pakistan.
Anthony Mascarenhas in Bangladesh: A Legacy of Blood estimates that during the entire nine-month liberation struggle more than 1 million Bengalis may have died at the hands of the Pakistan Army.
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