Liberty or death

Posted in history by jrahman on December 5, 2011

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.)

Tagged with: , ,

6 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. উদয়ন said, on December 5, 2011 at 7:02 pm

    1. What if a nuclear Pakistan emboldened Bengali fence-sitters / closet Pakistanis / the “16th December brigade”? There must have been a significant contingent that based its actions on daily calculations of the likely outcome and would this have tipped the scales in any direction? Related to this, would Sheikh Mujib (and Zia – everything is about Mujib and Zia after all) have made the same calculations and taken the same actions?

    2. During Kargil and post Mumbai 26/11, wasn’t one reason for the behind the scenes frantic diplomacy from the great powers the rush to avoid India-Pak nuclear exchanges – an urgency that global diplomacy didn’t seem to have in 1971.

  2. উদয়ন said, on December 5, 2011 at 7:07 pm

    In case anyone needs a reminder of what Bhutto said about the Muslims of Bangladesh (not even getting what he would have thought about the others) …

  3. fugstar said, on December 5, 2011 at 7:34 pm

    bravo for bringing biafra into this. biafrans were helped by south africans and israelis, yet political accomodations were made amongst beastly demagogues and the bloodied.

    i think biafra was very much in the bangladesh war strategists heads, they wanted things to be as irreversible as possible, when in fact its not reversible. these things are transformative.

    I would like to think that fighters for justice would have succeeded in their goals in the absense of indian action, and would have preferred not to hold such an extortionate Liberation Mortgage. But, the younger ardently secularist political leadership had months before taken their ‘lets set up a government in exile in india’ moment.

    another question, maybe not so interesting though.

    What if the 1943-4 or 1974 famine hadnt happened.

    there famines, as well as political separation events have produced our developmentia aas well.

  4. tacit said, on December 6, 2011 at 6:15 am

    Another factor to consider: using nukes, even tactical ones in Baluchistan, would have carried the fallout and the nuclear debris all over Punjab and Sindh. No such problem in nuking a land mass more than a thousand miles away.

  5. jrahman said, on December 6, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    Fug/Tacit/Udayan, let me answer you guys together.

    1. I don’t think the 1974 famine, let alone 1943 one, had as such a lot to do with our developmentia. That was developed as a consequence of the war itself. East Pakistan was already among the poorest parts of the world in 1970. The war destroyed a fifth of the economy, and destroyed much of the physical and human capital. For good or evil, developmentia arose as a consequence of the war.

    2. We can debate his reasons, but it’s pretty clear that Mujib wanted to avoid a military confrontation to the very end even without nukes. I speculate about his reasons here: The relevant point for us is that Mujib didn’t launch the war.

    3. Would the EBR majors have mutinied against a possible tactical nuclear strike? Well, that depends on what we assume about their motivation. At the most cynical reading, one would say their action was motivated by desperation — Zia thought Pakistanis would have killed him, so he struck first — and nationalism or ideology had nothing to do with it. If so, then nukes make no difference. If on the other hand they did what they did because they really believed in Bangladesh nationalism, then again — nukes don’t make any difference. The reality was perhaps a combination, and perhaps the presence of tactical nukes in the territory (as opposed to in West Pakistan) would have altered military tactics.

    4. I think more than the nuke itself, it’s the Indian actions that would have made a huge difference. If Zia and other majors (and other factions) knew that India would not intervene directly, but would choose a ‘winner’, that would definitely have altered their calculations. Given Zia emerged as a strongman in the chaos of 1975, we can easily speculate that he would have risen to dominance in this alternate 1971-72. And the same point holds for the fence-sitters.

    5. During Kargil etc, there was only one power that mattered — the United States. This wasn’t the case in 1971. But the realpolitik logic of Kissinger and his Soviet counterparts would probably have made a full-blown war even less likely. A related point is that even without the nuclear factor, India might have opted to pick a faction instead of invading directly. It was the Indo-Soviet Pact that gave India the insurance against a possible Chinese attack, while China stepped well short of promising Pakistan outright military assistance. Suppose the Chinese took a much harder line. Or suppose the Soviet Pact proved too expensive for India (for example, if the Soviets demanded that CPI be made a formal coalition partner). If any of those things happened, India may well have decided to fight the war through a chosen proxy.

  6. Fugstar said, on December 8, 2011 at 3:57 pm

    i like the story of china’s path to nuclear nationalism, where it sticks two fingers up at the USSR for being a fake freind, turns in on istelf and builds a self reliance that to this day propels it. demonstrates how internal and external are linked though self hood.

    if instead of going pro US in the 50s, we had pursude non aligned and other trajectories we wouldnt be celebrating ‘independance’ with ‘developmentia’.

    Qadeers comment makes sense. india doesn screw so much with pakistan, or as much as it does with us (water treaty) because it commands a threatening military deterrant, the creation of which has been problematic…. and could have been otherwise

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: