‘Push them into the Bay of Bengal.’
Kamal Hossain, a former foreign minister of Bangladesh, has published his account of what happened in 1971, the year East Pakistan broke away from Pakistan as a separate sovereign state. He also adds a chapter on what happened after 1971 and after Pakistan recognized Bangladesh, in 1974, following 90 other states that had already done so the year before. It is a story of Pakistan committing to do things under bilateral agreements and then ducking out of it.
Hossain was one of the central figures of the Bangladesh Movement under Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League. He was one of the counsels for Rahman in the Agartala Conspiracy case brought by West Pakistan against him, he accompanied the Awami League team to work on constitutional matters at the Round Table Conference called by Field Marshal Ayub Khan in 1969, and he was chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee of 1972. Today, he is a senior advocate at the Supreme Court of Bangladesh.
In his book Bangladesh: Quest for Freedom and Justice (Oxford University Press, 2013), he narrates how Bangladesh began by announcing that it would try, on the charge of genocide, 195 out of the 93,000 Pakistani troops and others kept in India as prisoners of war. It wanted Pakistan to take a number of non-Bengalis—totaling an estimated 650,000—who wished to be nationals of Pakistan; it asked Pakistan to share half and half the joint assets of united Pakistan, including the gold reserve resting with the International Monetary Fund; and it asked Pakistan to recognize the new state of Bangladesh.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto finessed these demands by first holding the Islamic Summit in Lahore which Rahman would want to attend but not without first being recognized by the state he was visiting. China came in handy at the U.N. Security Council: “Following the Chinese veto on Bangladesh’s application for U.N. membership in the Security Council in August 1972, Pakistan’s attitude seemed to become more negative on the issue of recognition,” writes Hossain.
When Dhaka tried to put on trial a dozen or so POWs for genocide, Pakistan, in May 1973, locked up a large number of Bengali civil servants stranded in Pakistan, and interned their families too. Then Pakistan went to the International Court of Justice on Bangladesh’s misapplication of the genocide charge. (Until 2013, Pakistan has approached the ICJ at least five times and lost on the basis of the “optional clause,” which it never reads.) Hossain, knowing his law, knew Pakistan would lose.
But Pakistan packed an unsettling punch. China vetoed Bangladesh’s entry into the U.N., and the Arabs spearheaded the Islamic bloc advising Bangladesh to “forgive and forget.” Hossain counts the moral “victories” he achieved in his parleys with Pakistani counterparts, foreign secretary Agha Shahi and foreign minister Aziz Ahmed, but is less admitting of the fact that he was floored by the cards Bhutto held against Rahman at the global level despite the romance in the West about a “people’s struggle” that succeeded against Pakistan’s military junta.
In the end Pakistan did nothing. It didn’t divvy the assets although it farmed out its extra PIA aircraft on contracts. Some of them it actually sold. It didn’t take the non-Bengali Pakistanis stranded in Bangladesh, called Biharis; and when it finally took a few thousand, it made a mess of it. It recognized Bangladesh at the time of its choosing, in 1974, much after it got its POWs back from India following the 1972 Simla Agreement, which many regard as a tour de force on the part of Bhutto leading a defeated nation.
Here’s the climax of the book: “When pressed to suggest what should be done to those [Biharis] who were clearly eligible and entitled to go to Pakistan, but whom Pakistan was not willing to accept, Aziz Ahmed turned round and said, ‘Why don’t you push them into India?’ When told that this was hardly feasible, he retorted, ‘Then push them into the Bay of Bengal.’”