Liberty or death
Earlier this year, Pakistani nuclear black marketeer AQ Khan created a bit of a storm over his observation that ‘the purpose of a nuclear weapon is to deter aggressions, such as the ones Pakistan faced in 1971’ — that’s my translation of what he says in the video below, Urdu is a foreign language to me and I’m happy to be corrected).
The cyberspace is, of course, as close to a free speech utopia as we can get. Notice the hilarious (to me, at least) ape-like chest-thumping of the person who posted the video. That vulgar Pakistani nationalism was matched by equally crude Bangladeshi (and I suspect Indian, haven’t checked) exercise of comparative phallic measurements. In the process, sadly, an interesting discussion was missed.
What follows over the fold is an attempt at that discussion.
Let’s start with Khan’s observation about nuclear weapon being a deterrant. This is rather uncontroversial by itself, in general. But specific to 1971, from a Pakistani army regime perspective, what exactly would a nuclear weapon have deterred?
Surely it wouldn’t have deterred pro-democracy, anti-regime popular uprisings and election victories by parties supporting those uprisings. After all, nuclear weapons didn’t save the Musharraf regime.
Nukes haven’t helped Pakistan army avoid insurgencies in recent years either. So it’s not at all clear that after the genocide of 25 March (even if nuclear weapon was threatened, or even used), how Pakistan would have avoided fighting a war against the Mukti Bahini.
And finally, nukes wouldn’t have prevented India from helping the Mukti Bahini, just like Indian nukes have not deterred Pakistan from aiding and arming Khalistanis, Kashmiris, and various jihadi groups.
However, nuclear weapons arguably prevented full-scale Indian reprisals against Pakistan in 1999 (Kargil), 2001-02 (terrorist attacks in New Delhi) or 2008 (Mumbai attacks). That is, Khan may have a point in that a nuclear Pakistan might have meant no full-scale Indian march to Dhaka.
Assuming that both India and Pakistan had the bomb in 1971, perhaps it is reasonable to assume that neither side would have escalated the crisis into a general India-Pakistan war.
The question then becomes, without direct Indian intervention, how would the war have evolved? Would Bangladesh have attained liberty eventually? If so, how? Or would the Bangladesh movement have died? If so, when?
One can argue both ways about this.
By the end of the monsoon, Pakistan was near bankruptcy. It faced international opprobrium. Pakistani occupation forces were stretched, tired, demoralised. They were hit by Mukti Bahini guerrillas in broad daylight in Dhaka and other urban areas, while much of the countryside was beyond their control. In November, Mukti Bahini formations engaged Pakistanis in co-ordinated, set piece battles. As long as the Indians were providing arms and logistical support — and remember, nukes don’t deter those — could Mukti Bahini have eventually beaten the Pakistanis?
Perhaps. But then again, perhaps not. Biafran leader Emeka Ojukwu was eventually forgiven, and died an old man in Nigeria. Hard to imagine the Yahya regime being so generous with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Without the hope of Mujib’s return, how long could the Mujibnagar government remain united? As it is, Khondoker Mushtaq was plotting against Tajuddin. Mujib Bahini also tried to assassinate Tajuddin. Meanwhile, Ziaur Rahman wanted Osmani to lead a war council, but Taher and other radicals disliked Osmani’s conventional approach. Then there were the leftists / Maoists / Naxals.
Without Indian army installing him in Dhaka, could Tajuddin prevail over the disparate elements? After all, we Bengalis don’t exactly have a reputation for unity.
Pakistan army has faced global opprobrium for as long as I can remember, and its has been a nearly bankrupt country for years. And yet, like the creature in the Alien series, it survives. Autumn, winter and spring are the seasons conducive for warfare in Bangladesh. With West Pakistan secure under a nuclear umbrella, perhaps Yahya would have sent a few more divisions to the east by December. Perhaps that reinforcement would have been enough to crush Bangla Desh forever.
On the other hand, had Mujibnagar and Mukti Bahini survived the winter and spring, surely by the monsoon of 1972 the Pakistan army would have been at the breaking point. Pakistan army’s task would have been made more difficult had Bhutto run out of patience.
Had the army ‘saved’ East Pakistan, Yahya would have had a stronger bargaining position against Bhutto. But if the war continued into a second monsoon, it’s quite likely Bhutto would have launced street agitations for ‘democracy’. What about East Pakistan? Well, didn’t he say the suor ki bachchey could go to jahannam?
Meanwhile, even if India stopped short of a full-scale march to Dhaka, it had strong reason to not allow Pakistan win. It had decided that 10 million mostly Hindu refugees had to return, and that would have been impossible in any East Pakistan. But India had equally strong reasons to avoid a prolonged war. Not only did that increase the risk of intra-Bengali conflict, more importantly, it had the potential destabilise entire eastern India.
If direct intervention was not an option, India probably would have armed its chosen faction lot more seriously. Would that faction have been Mujib Bahini? If so, how would the others — the left as well as the professional soldiers — have responded? Or would India have chosen one of the rebel majors as its favourite?
Perhaps a better trained Mujib Bahini would have captured a part of Khulna and Jessore. Perhaps a better equipped Z-Force would have blockaded Chittagong and prevented any Pakistani reinforcement. Perhaps having forced Yahya to resign, Bhutto would have withdrawn Pakistani troops by mid-1972.
But then what would have happened?
It’s hard to imagine India being able to control the chaos that a liberated Bangladesh would have been.
Almost certainly, various factions — Mujibists, leftists, warlords like Kader Siddiqi, and the remnants of the Razakars and Al Badrs — would have been fighting each other as well as the official forces of Mujibnagar. If Mujibnagar remained that is. Perhaps military commanders would have just pushed Tajuddin and Syed Nazrul aside. The real world November 1975 would have looked like a cricket match compared with the multi-sided, kaleidoscopic civil war that would have ensued the liberty.
Forty years ago this week, Indian and Pakistani armies clashed on both theatres in the final stage of the war that liberated Bangladesh. Had liberty not come in December 1971, it would have been accompanied by death.
(Acknowledgment: UC for the question, RA for the video, EH for the debate.)