Home / Opinion / Online Views /  Book Review | Bangladesh 1971: An ambiguous war?

International relations theorist Hans Morgenthau once noted that the struggle for power is universal in time and space…throughout historic time, regardless of social, economic and political conditions, states have met each other in contests for power…

The story of Bangladesh’s creation was one such contest. In 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh, Srinath Raghavan has chronicled in vivid detail the course this contest took and the way global politics shaped it.

Countries across the world have faced or continue to face secessionist movements. Mostly one or a combination of these reasons—economic strife, political dissatisfaction and cultural disparity—fuels secessionist tendencies. The leaders of such movements usually rise to national prominence by latching on to the demand for a separate state. Pakistan faced a similar situation in its eastern wing. It proved singularly inept at handling it. A combination of martial rule, racist attitudes towards Bengalis and clogged channels of feedback prevented any rational addressing of what was by 1970 an explosive situation.

In the December 1970 national elections, Awami League under Sheikh Mujibur Rehman won 160 of the 162 seats in East Pakistan. But even after securing a thumping victory, Mujib remained committed to Pakistan. He was wary of making a bid for independence as he, rightly, feared, a military crackdown. He did not want to give the country’s military ruler Yahya Khan any excuse to start a war. As it turned out Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s collusion did not need a pretext. On 25 March 1971, Operation Searchlight, the attack by the Pakistani army to halt East Pakistan’s independence began. By December, the tables had turned.

Raghavan lists counterfactuals that could have saved a unified Pakistan:

—If the US had halted military and economic aid that encouraged Yahya, the military operation could have been avoided.

—If Yahya had accepted Mujib’s six-point programme he would have been satisfied with autonomy.

—If India had intervened earlier, the scale of the tragedy would have been much less.

Most tantalizing is this question: Even if events had not unfolded the way they did, how could a country, separated by 1,000 miles of hostile territory have been expected to remain united? Perhaps Muhammad Ali Jinnah should have spared a thought to answer that.

If these broad contours are well known and are the substance of rueful rumination in Pakistan, the book incorporates pieces of historical evidence that became available only lately. That not only makes the story of Bangladesh more accurate but also leads to a new interpretation of the episode.

Two such facts merit attention. One, the controversy raised in recent years by J.F.R. Jacob, then chief of staff of the Eastern Command, that the capture of Dhaka was not part of India’s military planning. What this implies is that a “complete victory" in East Pakistan was not contemplated by Indian planners. It was only after considerable period had elapsed in the war that Dhaka became an objective. As Raghavan shows, Indian goals were modest and included capturing just a part of Pakistani territory so that a nascent government of Bangladesh could be created.

Second, it is only in the last decade that details of the US’s dealings with China during that crisis have become available. US national security adviser Henry Kissinger’s attempts to rope in China; his vigorous attempts to do so by impleading with Chinese ambassador Huang Hua and, ultimately, the excessive hopes pinned on the Chinese to take on India proved to be the undoing of US strategy in South Asia.

The result is that the creation of Bangladesh was a much more ambiguous war than what had been thought of until now. The standard work on the subject is Richard Sisson and Leo E. Rose’s War and Secession: Pakistan, India and the Creation of Bangladesh. That book created the image of India as a determined military power that sought and obtained what it wanted in South Asia. 1971 shows the operations in East Pakistan being subject not only to the fog of war but also the fog of diplomatic twists and turns. The path to Dhaka was far from straightforward.

The book ends up demolishing more than one myth. Henry Kissinger has a well-deserved reputation as a clear thinker and a master practitioner of realpolitik. 1971 casts him in a different, weaker, light. How did this admirer of Bismarck, a person who clearly understands the limits of power (his A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace is a masterful account) err so badly in South Asia? Raghavan’s assessment of Kissinger and American strategy is devastating.

Gayatri Chandrasekaran is a copy editor at Mint. Comment at

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