1971 Genocide In East Pakistan & A Refugee Crisis: India Firms Up Response

NEW DELHI: While the world was slow to realise the horrors of the 25–26 March (1971) genocide unleashed by the Pakistani Army in East Pakistan, India was alive to the magnitude of the crisis, since lakhs of refugees started streaming into the bordering states of Assam, West Bengal, Tripura and Meghalaya, putting tremendous strain on local resources, and, of course, creating unprecedented social tension.

As soon as the news of the massacres in East Pakistan was public, Indian political parties demonstrated before the Pakistan High Commission in Delhi, demanding immediate withdrawal of the Pakistani Army since it was committing unspeakable atrocities in East Pakistan. On 31 March, the Indian Parliament passed a unanimous resolution expressing grave concern and deep anguish at the massive attack unleashed by the forces of West Pakistan on the people of East Pakistan.

A tsunami of refugees from East Pakistan had hit India’s border states. A week after the crackdown in East Bengal, less than 300 refugees had trickled into India. However, in the next fortnight, over 100,000 people crossed over into the Indian states along the border. The figure swelled to over 4,300,000 by May end and to a staggering 7,232,000 by July end and then to a mammoth 10 million!

In New Delhi, the Indian Government was alarmed and harassed. Feeding millions of refugees and managing the logistics was a headache but the bigger challenge was to handle different Awami League leaders who had staggered into India at different times travelling incognito for days.

Tajuddin Ahmad and Amirul Islam, two prominent Awami League leaders, reached the Indian border on 31 March. Srinath Raghavan, who interviewed Amirul Islam years later, writes: ‘On the evening of 31 March 1971, having travelled incognito for five days on horseback and foot. Tajuddin Ahmad and Amirul Islam sat anxiously at a culvert in the no-man’s land near an Indian border outpost. Their messenger had gone across to establish contact but had not yet returned. Tajuddin was pensive, but Islam felt strangely energised. ‘The sun is setting,’ he said to Tajuddin, ‘but there will be a new dawn’ As night fell, they heard the thud of the boots heading in their direction. A small group of soldiers stood before them, presented arms, and welcomed them to India.’

Once in India, escorted by men of Border Security Force (BSF), Tajuddin and Amirul were taken to Calcutta where the then Director General of BSF, K.F. Rustamji, met them and discussed the situation in East Pakistan in detail. The next day, the Awami League leaders were flown to Delhi in preparation to meet Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

The leaders had realised that to wage a fight for liberation in East Pakistan, they needed to have an organisation and, perhaps, even a provisional government. Bengalis in different parts of the world—including those working in different Pakistani missions across the world—were willing to support the struggle for independence, but a recognised central authority was needed to lend that support. In addition, leaders like Tajuddin were worried that if they met the Indian leadership merely as representatives of the Awami League, Delhi would offer a sympathetic ear but would have held back from offering any substantial material support or even military backing in any war of liberation.

So on 10 April 1971, elected representatives from East Pakistan, who had made their way into India in different groups, came on one platform and under the leadership of Tajuddin Ahmad, resolved to set up the provisional Government of Bangladesh in order to carry out the massive mandate given by the people.

Their proclamation stated, ‘We the elected representatives of the people of Bangladesh, whose will is supreme, duly constituted ourselves into a constituent assembly, and having held mutual consultations, and in order to ensure for the people of Bangladesh equality, human dignity and social justice, declare and constitute Bangladesh to be a sovereign people’s republic and thereby confirm the declaration of independence already made by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and confirm and resolve that till such time as a constitution is framed, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman shall be the President of the Republic and that Syed Nazrul Islam shall be the Vice-President of the Republic.’ In the interim period, till a constitution was framed, the President was to exercise all the executive and legislative powers, and ‘do all other things that may be necessary to give to the people of Bangladesh an orderly and just government’. In the absence of the President, the Vice-President would exercise all his powers, duties and responsibilities. The proclamation also went on to say that, ‘we further resolve that we undertake to observer and give effect to all duties and obligations devolved upon us as a member of the family of nations and by the charter of the United Nations; we further resolve that this proclamation of Independence shall be deemed to have come into effect since the 26th Day of March 1971.’

The proclamation came a week after Tajuddin and other top leaders had met Indira Gandhi in Delhi. No one was clear whether he presented himself as the prime minister of the government-in-exile but the Indian Government knew that after Mujib’s arrest, he was effectively the man in-charge of the provisional government.

The formal installation of the Provisional Government of Bangladesh took place on 17 April at Bhaberpura village in the Kustia district of East Bengal near the India-East Pakistan border. A small hamlet—Baidyanath Tala—was renamed as Mujibnagar. Hundreds of Indian and foreign journalists were present at the ceremony when Nazrul Islam took the Guard of Honour as acting President. He appealed to the world for immediate assistance. That evening, Tajuddin, as Prime Minister of the Provisional Government of Bangladesh appealed to the world to recognise the new nation and extend as much material and moral help as possible. He declared, ‘Pakistan is now dead and buried under a mountain of corpses. The hundreds and thousands of people murdered by the Army in Bangladesh will act as an impenetrable barrier between West Pakistan and Bangladesh.’ He, however, made it clear that any help rendered by any country must be ‘free from any desire to control our destinies. We have struggled for too long for our self-determination to permit ourselves to become anybody’s satellite.’

The proclamation had a cascading effect. The Deputy High Commissioner of Pakistan in Calcutta, M. Hossain Ali, was the first one to switch his loyalties to the new government. All the 70 members of the Consulate’s staff, including the five officers, also transferred their allegiance to the government-in-exile. Two Bengali diplomats in the Pakistani High Commission in New Delhi also defected and were given asylum in India. By the end of the year, about 126 Bengali officials in Pak missions abroad, including Ambassadors posted in Iraq, the Philippines and Argentina, had declared their allegiance to Bangladesh.

In New Delhi, the R&AW was busy processing a flood of inputs coming from Calcutta through different sources but mainly through ‘Nath Babu’ (P.N. Banerjee) (https://stratnewsglobal.com/premium/prelude-to-the-1971-war-unrest-in-pakistan-and-a-cautious-india/). RNK (RN Kao) had already drafted Maj Gen S.S. Uban, the then Inspector General of the Special Frontier Force (SFF) (the ultra-secret, highly specialised, guerrilla force, mainly comprising Tibetans, which was raised in the midst of the 1962 war with China), to organise Bengali resistance fighters into a cohesive force. While Army Chief, Gen S.H.F.J. ‘Sam’ Manekshaw was to get the Army HQ to prepare a blueprint for a training programme, the on-ground coordination was to be handled by Maj Gen Uban.

Thanks to Banerjee’s knowledge of East Pakistan, and particularly the internal dynamics of the Awami League, the R&AW knew exactly who to support in a bid to get the underground armed movement going, even as it fell on RNK to coordinate the activities of diverse groups within the Bangladesh leadership.

One internal order also formally appointed Banerjee, ‘Nath Babu’, as the pointsperson for liaison with the political leadership of the provisional government of Bangladesh. In addition, he was to coordinate between the R&AW and the operational headquarters for providing intelligence related to Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Haksar and Kao had decided to expand the Committee on East Pakistan to now include Defence Secretary K.B. Lall, since sooner or later, the involvement of the Indian armed forces would become inevitable. The Committee was entrusted with the task of overseeing multiple requirements—ranging from decision on giving shelter to important political leaders to installing a radio transmitter and organising armed training to arranging publicity in the media.

Kao’s calm and meticulous approach, acquired after years of practicing it as a leader and institution builder, was to prove an invaluable asset in the crucial months ahead as the Indian subcontinent hurtled towards a major crisis.

(Excerpted from the book ‘RN Kao: Gentleman Spymaster’ (Bloomsbury; 2019) with the author’s permission)