Bangladesh is among the world’s most isolated countries as well as one of its most overpopulated. Enclosed on three sides by India and on its fourth by the sea, only a slim frontier with Burma’s Arakan prevents it from being a sort of Asian Portugal.
Yet its isolation is fairly recent. Until 1905 it formed the eastern part of British India’s Bengal, an enormous province of 78 million people, a figure that was then slightly larger than the population of the United States and almost double that of Great Britain. In that year the viceroy, Lord Curzon, earned his legendary status in the demonology of Bengali nationalism (a position he has not since lost) by dividing the province into a Hindu-dominated west, ruled from Calcutta, and an eastern region with a Muslim majority administered from Dacca. The impulse to reform was administrative efficiency – the province was simply too large to manage – but Curzon soon realised that partition might have the desirable effect of weakening the ‘frothy orators’ of the Bengali-dominated Congress Party.
Six years later, the British decided to move their Indian capital from Calcutta to Delhi and to compensate the Bengalis for this transfer by reversing Curzon’s policy. Bengal thereafter remained united until 1947, when Indians themselves divided it along Lord Curzon’s lines. Religious differences being deemed more important than shared culture, history and ethnicity, East Bengal was detached from India and joined to Pakistan, which was being formed a thousand miles to the west and with which it had almost nothing in common except Islam. People over there spoke different languages and led different lives; they even played cricket in different styles.
In this absorbing and very detailed account of the creation of Bangladesh, Srinath Raghavan cites Anatol Lieven’s view that the union of East and West Pakistan was a ‘freak of history’ that could not have lasted, and he quotes Salman Rushdie’s description in his novel Shame of ‘that
fantastic bird of a place, two Wings without a body, sundered by the land-mass of its greatest Foe, joined by nothing but God’. Yet Raghavan insistently disagrees. A talented historian who was once an officer in the Indian Army, he claims that there was nothing predestined about the break-up of Pakistan and the creation of an independent Bangladesh in 1971. This development was ‘the product of conjuncture and contingency, choice and chance’, a consequence of events that ‘ranged far beyond south Asia’. Under different circumstances, united Pakistan could have survived with a federal structure.
Political unrest in both sections of Pakistan was sparked by rebellious students, inspired by the protests of their international contemporaries, in the late 1960s. These led to the downfall of the regime of Ayub Khan and the holding of general elections under the presidency of General Yahya Khan in December 1970. When the victors at the polls, East Pakistan’s Awami League, demanded democracy and federalism, Yahya and the politicians in the west refused to recognise the result. The army then moved against the League, arrested its leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and so terrorised the population that millions of people ran for their lives (by May 1971 over 100,000 refugees were crossing the Indian border every day). News of the atrocities provoked international outrage and in August 1971 George Harrison organised the famous Bangladesh concert at Madison Square Garden.
Despite his background, Raghavan’s history of the conflict concentrates on the diplomatic rather than the military dimension. Following some prodigious research in foreign archives, he has produced an impressive analysis of the way the international community reacted to events. We learn how Franco’s Spain sympathised with Pakistan, what communist East Germany hoped to gain by being pro-Indian and why Canada (with its Quebec problem) was wary of secessionism in Pakistan. Most influential leaders, notably Zhou Enlai in China, Alexei Kosygin in Russia and Ted Heath in Britain, seem to have behaved responsibly. The chief exceptions were Nixon and Kissinger in the US, who could have used their clout to persuade their Pakistani allies to compromise. Instead the behaviour of that monstrous pair was inept, muddle-headed, coarse and hysterical: while envisaging (absurdly) that the conflict might develop into a Third World War, they spent their time raging against Indians as ‘bastards’ and their leader, Indira Gandhi, as alternately a ‘bitch’ and a ‘witch’.
When dealing with India’s role in the crisis, Raghavan is adept at puncturing historical myths. He demonstrates that Gandhi was not initially eager to fight Pakistan over the Bengal issue, and he also shows that the Pakistanis did not begin the third Indo-Pakistan war with their attack on Indian airfields in the Punjab in December 1971; their adversary’s support for the Bengali rebels from the summer of that year was effectively an act of aggression. More controversially he concludes with the assertion that the creation of Bangladesh was not inevitable until the day of the Indian Army’s unexpectedly easy victory within two weeks of its invasion of East Pakistan. He advances a number of ‘what if?’ conjectures, and of course it is possible that, without all the ‘conjunctures and contingencies’ that he describes, a new state in East Bengal would not have emerged at that time. Yet looking back now at the original Pakistan, and reminding ourselves of its diversities of culture and history, it is difficult to believe that even if dissolution had not happened then, it would not have happened later. Autonomy can encourage separatism in Asia as well as in Europe.