The Unfinished Business of the 1971 War

The signing of the Instrument of Surrender

On December 16, 1971, Lieutenant-General A.A.K. Niazi, the Commander of the Pakistan Eastern Command, signed the Instrument of Surrender in Ramna Race Course in Dacca which was signed and accepted by  Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Aurora, the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of India’s Eastern Command. This formally concluded the military conflict that is usually called the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971. However, this nomenclature elides and even eclipses several distinct wars that culminated in Pakistan’s surrender. Oddly, while biographic accounts, which are frequently blatantly self-serving,  there are relatively few empirically robust accounts of this conflict, most of which focus upon the most visible dimension of the war: that between Pakistan and India. 

These lacunae are important because these other battles that culminated in the bilateral conflict continue to cast shadows over the region that are as long as those of the 1971 conflict between India and Pakistan. Notably, Bangladesh has never fulfilled its potential and remains a secular democracy in retreat. Pakistan learned the wrong lessons of the war and concluded that repressing and exploiting disgruntled minorities is a viable tool of domestic statecraft. Despite decisively defeating Pakistan, India was never able to build upon that victory to impose a settlement of the Kashmir issue in line with Delhi’s equities.  In retrospect, while Pakistan may have lost that battle, in many other ways Pakistan and its project of Islamist violence seem to have won the larger and enduring war. Let me explain.

The Wars 

The first conflict was a domestic conflict between Pakistan’s ethnic majority Bengalis, who dominated East Pakistan, and the ruling elite in West Pakistan. This conflict was apparent as early as 1952 when Bengalis began mobilizing to force the state to recognize Bengali as a national language. On February 21 and 22 that year, the Pakistani armed forces murdered several students as well as numerous others in indiscriminate fire. This internal conflict precipitously expanded after the ruling junta of General Yahya Khan refused to convene the parliament following the 1970 elections in which the East Pakistan-based Awami League, led by Mujibur Rahman, decisively defeated Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples’ Party. 

The consequences of these elections were monumental because the victors were tasked with writing Pakistan’s third constitution. Mujibur Rahman’s party, under the banner of the Six Points Agenda, had long advocated for greater federalism; separate convertible currencies; fiscal responsibility to be delegated to the federating units; as well as the right to maintain a separate militia. Each of these demands was in response to the west’s cultural, economic, and linguistic oppression; exclusion from the military and bureaucracy; as well as consistent and calibrated efforts to deprive Bengalis of their legitimate share of political power. The political elites in the west, speer-headed by General Yahya and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, wanted a strong federal government and found the Awami League’s Six-Point Agenda to be a thinly veiled demand for outright cessation. 

Despite winning too few seats to veto any constitution offered by the Awami League, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto refused to let his party participate in any convening of the parliament and made absurd demands for a power-sharing agreement. After Mujibur Rehman refused to cede and insisted upon the Awami League’s right to form the government, General Yahya Khan commenced Operation SearchLight, which was a brutal and thuggish military operation to disarm the Bengalis. 

As refugees began fleeing into India, the second phase of the war began: a proxy war between India and Pakistan. With the monsoons looming, India had few military operations at hand. Given the riverine terrain of Bangladesh, any military operations had to wait until the monsoons’ conclusion. To ensure that China would not intervene on its client’s behalf, India would have to wait until winter when snow would preclude Chinese movements through the mountain passes. In addition to these meteorological and geographical constraints, India was ill-equipped to undertake military action in the spring of 1971. India used the summer to reposition forces from the west to the east and construct necessary infrastructure to support military operations while seeking diplomatic support from Russia and imploring the United States to counsel Pakistan to end what was clearly ethnic cleansing in East Pakistan. 

US President Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, were unmoved by India’s requests even though the United States did provide a significant amount of aid to subsidize in some measure the enormous and growing cost of caring for the refugees who continued to pour into India. While initially, the refugees were both Hindu and Muslim it soon became evident from the fact that the refugees were increasingly Hindu that the West Pakistani forces were cleansing Hindu Bengalis from the country. At independence, about one in four Pakistanis were non-Muslim minorities, most of whom were Bengali Hindus in East Pakistan.

The Nixon administration was unconcerned about the munting atrocities because it was commencing an unprecedented diplomatic overture to China and it chose Yahya Khan to be its mediator. Despite popular opinion otherwise, the Nixon administration had two other European-based alternatives to Yahya Khan. Gary Bass makes a compelling case that Nixon chose Yahya both because he and Kissinger had a deep personal affection for him– and even compared him to General Grant of the American Civil Wa–and because they had a personal, visceral, and deeply misogynistic hatred for India’s Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. However, even after Nixon had secured a personal connection to China and no longer needed Yahya’s intercession, Nixon refused to make the slightest appeals to Yahya to cease what Archer Blood, the American Counsel in Dhaka, and other dissenting state department officials described as a “genocide.” The Nixon administration even beseeched China to feign intervention in the hopes of deterring Indian involvement in the war.

While India prepared for the larger war, the proxy war continued and intensified. Throughout the summer it trained and equipped the Bengali Resistance while also mentoring the shambolic, disorganized and ineffective Bengali political elites. As India supported this rag-tag collection of non-state actors to challenge Pakistan’s formidable armed forces, Pakistan too worked through a number of Islamist militant organizations, including the notoriously violent student wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami. By the end of the summer, India was providing artillery support to the Bengali insurgents who battled Pakistani state and non-state combatants. East Pakistan became a killing field.

While it is unpopular to say so: the Bengalis, in and out of the resistance, also victimized non-Bengali and even Bengali “collaborationist” non-combatants in the East. This fact renders any actual assessment of war’s noncombatant casualties impossible with extant data, which is deeply problematic. The Pakistanis wish to undercount the atrocities.  The Bangladeshis wish to overcount them. India for its part does not declassify documents pertaining to the war at all. While one may disagree with some of Sarmila Bose’s conclusions in her book, Dead Reckoning, her critique of extant data and analytical methodologies are insightful.  

The third, conventional, war officially commenced on 3 December when Pakistan’s Air Force conducted preemptive strikes on forward Indian airbases and radar installations. This too was a formality given the growing intensity of the proxy war before the official onset of the bilateral confrontation. 

When the war ended on 16 December 1971, Pakistan was vivisected with East Pakistan emerging as an independent Bangladesh. Some 93,000 Pakistani soldiers surrendered to the Indian Armed Forces and were taken to India as POWs.  Pakistan lost more than half of its population and about 15% of its territory.  However, 61% of the 54,500 square miles of land lost in the east was arable in contrast to a meager 21 percent of the 310,000 square miles it retained. All said and done, the Pakistan army was reviled for losing the east, which allowed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to ruthlessly rule the west until General Zia ul Haq ousted him in a coup in July 1977.  

Who Won the Forever War?

India successfully snatched defeat from the jaws of victory when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi signed the July 1972 Shimla Accord with Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. This accord formally concluded the political conclusion of the war.  Despite being the clear victor in the war, India bizarrely acquiesced to most of Pakistan’s demands, including India’s relinquishing of the 5,800 square miles of territory it captured in the west, the repatriation of the 93,000 Pakistani prisoners of war, assurance that Bangladesh would not conduct war crimes trials against Pakistani military personal, and the inviolable viability of its long-standing, if baseless, claims on the disputed disposition of Kashmir.  India and Pakistan respectively retained the territory seized in Kashmir and a new Line of Control was defined where once the Cease Fire Line stood. 

India’s aims at Shimla were modest despite vivisecting the country, most notably securing Pakistan’s commitment to resolving outstanding disputes peacefully and bilaterally. Indian participants aver that Bhutto had agreed to make the Line of the Control the de jure border when times were more propitious to do so. He argued that this would require time given the public outrage of the outcome of the war and that to cede Pakistan’s long-nursed position on Kashmir would be political suicide. Some Indian interlocutors justify India’s appeasement of Pakistan as a strategic decision to not impose a “Treaty of Versailles”-like condition upon Pakistan. India also interpreted the accord as a potential victory because Pakistan’s agreement to settle disputes bilaterally obviated any scope for the United Nations or other bilateral or multilateral involvement.

Unsurprisingly, Pakistan has never honored its commitment to resolve outstanding disputes peacefully nor did it ever move to make the Line of Control the de jure border. In fact, Pakistan now claims that no such agreement was ever considered and continues in an unending effort to change maps in Kashmir through low-intensity conflict, proxy war, and terrorism. 

Not only has Pakistan never abided by this accord, but the Pakistan that emerged from the war ironically was also stronger than it was pre-war despite losing a significant amount of valuable territory and more than half of its population.  The Pakistan that survived was more defensible, more ideologically coherent, had significantly fewer non-Muslim minorities, and strategically positioned to extract rents by collaborating with the United States on occasion while actively furthering its own agenda at the same time. Unfettered by the problematic Bengalis, Pakistan was able to seek financial, diplomatic, and political support from the Gulf State Monarchies which, in turn, enabled Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to fulfill his dream of developing, in his own words, an “Islamic Bomb.”  

Bhutto also began the jihad in Afghanistan in 1973 following the ouster of King Zahir Shah by his cousin, Mohammad Daoud Khan. Khan began an aggressive liberalizing campaign and brutally oppressed any opposition among the Communist and Islamist ranks alike. Bhutto, along with the ISI, deftly organized the Islamists who fled to Pakistan into seven effective guerilla groups. Pakistan did this with its own meager resources because doing so was critical to securing Pakistan’s own enduring interests in Afghanistan. The United States would not become involved in this conflict until many years later, despite Pakistan’s frequent requests for US support.

In fact, in 1979, President Carter sanctioned Pakistan for its progress in nuclear reprocessing thanks in large measure to Bhutto’s perseveration. Once President Reagan was inaugurated in 1981 he began securing waivers for those sanctions, which came through in 1982 after which the United States–along with Saudi Arabia and China–provided massive overt and covert resources to Pakistan. In fact, throughout the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the United States continued funding Pakistan even though US officials understood it was still advancing its nuclear weapons program. While the United States reimposed sanctions in 1990, Pakistan was once again able to resurrect its strategic importance in the wake of 9/11. While ostensibly working with the United States, it received over $34 billion even while actively supporting myriad terrorist organizations such as the Taliban and the Haqqani Network and working to undermine US efforts in Afghanistan. While benefiting from American assistance, Pakistan became the world’s fastest-growing nuclear stockpile and has likely outgrown that of France while also developing battlefield nuclear weapons. Pakistan remains both able and willing to undermine India’s quest for hegemony in South Asia and beyond. 

During the same period, those who struggled to free the Bengalis of East Pakistan from West Pakistan’s project of subordinating ethnic identity to that of an army-sponsored project of political Islam and establish an independent Bangladesh on the principles of secular democracy failed to create a durable democratic state with a broad consensus on secularism. Within a few years, Mujibur Rehman and most of his family were murdered in a bloody coup. He left a legacy of corruption and authoritarianism that resembled that of Pakistan’s own civilian autocrat, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. After a tumultuous power struggle, by 1977 General Ziaur Rahman was in control of the country. He removed secularism from the constitution and began revivifying the Jamaat-e-Islami, which the Awami League had illegalized because of its extensive collaboration with Pakistani forces in committing countless atrocities. By 1988, Bangladesh’s next military leader, General Ershad declared Islam to be the state religion. 

While Bangladesh returned to democracy in 1990, the two main political parties vied for power and the right to rule rather than the privilege of governing. While the right of center Bangladesh National Party, “led” by Khaleda Zia (the widow of Ziaur Rahman) is reviled for its explicit reliance upon the Jamaat-e-Islami among other regressive Islamist parties, the Awami League, “led” by Sheikh Hasina (the daughter of Mujibur) has also courted Islamist parties for the purposes of retaining control. Hasina long ago instituted one-woman rule secured through electoral malfeasance, misuse of legal instruments to harass her opponents, and other oppressive state tactics to silence her growing numbers of increasingly vocal critics across broad swathes of civil society. Even though Bangladesh’s Supreme Court declared the constitutional amendments of previous military dictators illegal and presumably restored the principle of secularism as a fundamental tenant of the Constitution, Hasina has retained Islam as the state religion even as religious minorities continue to suffer persecution under her watch.  India’s desire to create a secular and democratic Bangladesh and forestall an emergence of another “Pakistan on the east,” has not fructified and is unlikely to in any policy-relevant future.  

Is India Any Safer?

Is India safer today than it was before vivisecting Pakistan in December 1971? India now faces a country of uncertain future on the east and a Pakistan that is ever more committed to using violence in pursuit of its policies at home and abroad while enjoying complete immunity from consequences and impunity to continue with its sanguinary tactics to force its will upon Afghans as well as Indians–especially Kashmiris. While British unwillingness to adopt coercive policies towards Pakistan can be explained by the political power of British Pakistanis, the Americans have consistently demonstrated that it has too little political will to consider means of constraining Pakistan even as Pakistan continues to engage in nuclear coercion and proxy warfare under its ever-expanding nuclear umbrella. Thus while India and the United States continue to forge important breakthroughs in their bilateral relationship–inclusive of defense, intelligence, and space cooperation– India has had very little success in weaning the Americans off of its inexplicable belief in Pakistan’s indispensability in managing security in South Asia even though Pakistan is the principal progenitor of this very insecurity.  It seems as if no Pakistani outrage is ever enough to persuade Americans to see Pakistan as the enemy rather than a problematic ally that can be motivated through a magical concoction of inducement. If the discovery of Osama Bin Laden in an Abbattobad safehouse a short distance from the presumably hallowed Pakistan Military Academy wasn’t an adequate motivation, one would have thought that defeating the US-led forces in Afghanistan through its unstinting support for the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network among numerous other terrorist groups should have. Instead of availing of a diminished logical dependence upon Pakistan to maintain the war in Afghanistan and adopting a coercive and punitive approach towards Pakistan–perhaps in line with the US approach to Iran–Washington in fact facilitated the hand over of Afghanistan to Pakistan via its proxies, the Taliban. Moreover, with the American embassy in Kabul closed, the United States seems poised to continue its reliance upon Pakistan’s ostensible expertise in catching the very snakes it continues to farm. 

Pakistan never suffered any punishment of consequence for its relentless persecution of its Bengali population and indeed learned a very important lesson. Namely, it can continue to violently harass, harangue, oppress and even kill its own domestic critics–often with American weaponry. The world is so numb to Pakistan’s barbarism that it no longer registers significant outcry beyond the limited purview of human rights organizations. Moreover, Pakistan long ago learned that not only can it abscond for its domestic bloodshed, but it also continues to enjoy impunity in its brutal interference in the affairs of its neighbors. While Pakistan has learned lessons, the United States has learned nothing. Americans will continue working with Pakistan, motivated by short-term-policy prerogatives. Sadly it will do so even at the expense of long-term American security interests because Pakistan invests the fungible American and international assistance into the very assets its uses to coerce the international community: nuclear weapons and terrorists. 

In turn, India continues to struggle with defense reforms; the deafening silence of nonexistent inter-ministerial debates about what kind of threats India will face; the kinds of defense requirements it needs to manage if not confront those threats; and how to source these systems much less integrate them. China continues its belligerent rise along India’s borders and within India’s near and far strategic environment. Worse yet, China is doing so by working through India’s nemeses: Pakistan and the odious Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

It’s hard to escape the discomfiting conclusion that Pakistan, despite losing the battle for East Pakistan in 1971, continues winning the wars.

A version of this was published in The Print on 14 December 2021.


  1. Has there been a study of why now independent South Asian states (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka) have continued their ‘Colonial’ legacy of divide and subjugate minorities, suppress education, health and basic necessities (clean water, nutrition, civic infrastructure) to a majority of the local population? Also, what role does the missionary inspired education continue to produce leaders (elected or dictators) liking in compassion, steeped in corruption, with no intelligence to adapt to the linguistic, cultural and religious diversity of South Asia?


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