India’s Intervention in East Pakistan: A Humanitarian Intervention or an Act of National Interest?

Park, Daniel C. | VOLUME 1, ISSUE 3 (FEBRUARY 2016) | ISSN 2369-8217 (ONLINE)

This map shows the partition of India, West Pakistan, East Pakistan, and Kashmir, including the directions of movements of Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims : Image: Wikimedia Commons

Daniel C. Park is a 3rd Year student studying International Relations and Contemporary Asian Studies at the University of Toronto, Trinity College. Currently, Daniel serves as an Associate Editor-in-Chief for Synergy: The Journal of Contemporary Asian Studies. Outside of Synergy, he also contributes to the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the Parliamentary Division of the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, and the G-20 Research Group.


Abstract

The question of why India declined to rationalize its entrance to the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 as a humanitarian intervention is puzzling. This is because the intervention put an end to the 1971 Bangladesh genocide that killed an estimate of 300,000 to 3,000,000 Bengalis. This paper argues that India intervened in the war to cease the influx of Bengali refugees from entering its own borders. And, more importantly, to expand and pursue its geopolitical interests in South Asia, which included (a) weakening and dismembering its rival state Pakistan, and (b) rising as a regional hegemon in the northeastern South Asia region.

Keywords: Bangladesh Liberation War; Bengali Genocide; Humanitarian Intervention


India’s intervention in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War has been noted as a humanitarian intervention for ending the 1971 Bengali genocide, yet India has never justified its intervention as such.Therefore, an assessment as to whether India had altruistic humanitarian or national interest-driven intentions is vital to comprehend what motivates states to commit their resources in wars reported of mass atrocity crimes. For an intervention to be classified as “humanitarian”, the intervening state’s sole objective must be putting an end to the human rights violations. By definition, the intervention must not be conducted out of national security woes or interests.1 To help readers better understand this topic, the background of both the Bangladesh Liberation War and the Bengali genocide is needed. When British rule over the Indian subcontinent dissolved in 1947, the British Raj was split into two sovereign states: the Union of India and the Dominion of Pakistan. The latter was further divided into two exclaves. West Pakistan bordered the northwestern front of India, while East Pakistan bordered India’s northeastern front. Due to this border arrangement, the two Pakistans were geographically separated by one thousand miles of Indian territory.2 This disunity between the two Pakistans was accentuated by their stark linguistic and ethno-cultural differences. The Punjabis were the ethnic majority in West Pakistan, while the Bengalis were that of the East.3 Their differences were further compounded by the politically dominant West’s discriminatory policies against the Bengalis. The Bengalis were denied their democratic rights to govern and participate in the decision-making processes of Pakistan, and were economically exploited for their labor and natural resources.4 These discriminatory policies collectively sparked a violent upsurge that eventually led to the fall of the then-military dictator, General Ayub Khan in 1969. What followed was a democratic election in 1970, where the Bengali-led Awami League Party (ALP) won, while the Punjabi-led Pakistani Peoples Party (PPP) was elected as the opposition party.5 This was primarily due to the Bengalis having a population larger than that of the Punjabis. A majority of the Bengalis and the Punjabis cast their votes for their own ethnic-affiliated parties. Because of this, neither party embodied any national character to garner the support of both the Bengali and Punjabi electorates. The PPP, who had not yet forfeited its seats in the Pakistani Parliament (Majlis-e-Shoora), took advantage of the polarizing election results to legitimize its refusal to give up its power. Although the refusal left the Bengali population frustrated and helpless, it fueled the Bengali nationalist and self-determination movement to gain considerable momentum. Because such populist movements risked a Bengali secession, the then-President, General Yahya Khan, opted for a military solution: The West Pakistani military launched a systematic campaign of indiscriminate slaughter of the Bengalis on 25 March 1971.6 This was the start of the Bengali genocide, which also simultaneously triggered the Bengali secessionist movement or the Bangladesh Liberation War. The genocide is estimated to have killed between 300,000 to 3,000,000 Bengalis.7 A year after General Khan’s order, on 3 December 1971, India entered the war and pushed Pakistan to defeat on the 16th of that month. {To avoid confusion, this paper refers to the population of West Pakistan as Pakistanis and that of East Pakistan (today’s Bangladesh) as Bengalis.}

This paper argues that while the Indian government did express its concerns about the Bengali genocide of 1971, its intervention in the Bangladesh Liberation War was not justified on humanitarian grounds, but rather by its national interests. Under this premise, the end of the genocide was an unintended by-product of India’s intervention to the war – not a cause. The first argument of this paper looks at the Bengali refugee crisis and the economic burden it placed on India. The following two arguments look at India’s geopolitical interests of entering the war. The former illustrates that India took advantage of the war as a means to weaken Pakistan. The argument also examines the relevance India’s diplomatic alliance with the USSR had on Pakistan’s defeat. Aside from India’s aim to weaken Pakistan, the latter demonstrates that India also had both geopolitical and economic interests in aiding the Bengalis in establishing their own sovereign state. By replacing a foe with a friendly, but weaker state as its neighbour, India would rise as a regional hegemon in the South Asian region. To prove this point, this argument looks at India’s post-war behavior towards Bangladesh and other neighbouring states like Nepal and Bhutan. Collectively, India intervened in the war to pursue its national interests.

The influx of Bengali war refugees from East Pakistan placed a burden on India’s economy – which was, at the time, dysfunctional and weak. Because of this, the then-Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, was prompted to intervene in the war to return the refugees back to their motherland. A day after the outbreak of the war and reports of the genocidal killings, Gandhi addressed her concerns to the Indian public. She fully acknowledged the crisis, and urged the Indian Parliament (Bharatiya Sansad) to readily grant refugee status to the Bengalis entering Indian borders.8 This was and had been India’s standard procedure to previous refugee influxes from past regional conflicts. Historically, India had granted refuge to Tibetans in 1959 due to the Tibetan uprising and to the Nepalese in 1960 after King Mahendra of Nepal dissolved the country’s democratic rule.9 However, the rapid rise of Bengali refugees in India forced Gandhi to think otherwise. By the end of May 1971, only two months after the war’s outbreak, nine million refugees had taken shelter in the state of Tripura – a state that held a population of only 1.5 million. Near the war’s end on 15 December 1971, the refugee count climbed to over ten million across Tripura and six other states that took in refugees – both in and outside of the 825 camps that were set up.10

India was not equipped to accommodate ten million refugees. At the same time, both Gandhi and the Parliament had fears over the refugees’ permanent settlement in India. Such an outcome would cripple and exhaust India’s economic aid capacities, and its public infrastructure would be overburdened and fail. There were also worries of India’s own Bengali population uniting with the refugees to spark a secessionist movement within India.11 These scenarios were only feasible in the case of a Bengali defeat – a highly likely outcome since the Bengalis were undertrained and underequipped to fight the stronger Pakistanis. The prospect of these unwanted events prompted Gandhi to publicly threaten Pakistan. On 24 May 1971, Gandhi expressed her intentions to stop the refugee influx into India, and to guarantee their trip back to East Pakistan.12 Shortly after Gandhi’s announcement, the Indian government permitted the establishment of a Bangladeshi government in exile in Calcutta, and started the recruitment and training of Bengalis to fight the Pakistanis.13 Months after back-and-forth provocation between India and Pakistan, Pakistan attacked India on 3 December 1971. This resulted in India’s intervention in East Pakistan. On the 16th of that month, the Pakistanis declared their surrender to the Indian government.

Although Pakistan pre-emptively attacked India first, both countries exchanged multiple provocations with one another prior to the attack. This demonstrates that India, in its commitment to stop the refugee influx, continued to provoke Pakistan even at the risk of another Indo-Pakistani war. For that reason, India was not forced to intervene as to respond to and counter the Pakistani attack. Rather, it intended Pakistan to strike first as to more easily justify its entrance to the war. More critically, it should be emphasized that neither Gandhi nor the Parliament made any significant strives to stop the Bengali genocide: Gandhi did express her concerns, but none of it translated into action. It was only after the refugee crisis exacerbated that Gandhi publicly condemned and threatened Pakistan. Therefore, India’s entrance into the war in December had no intention of ending the Bengali genocide. India’s efforts to return the Bengalis to their motherland simply coincided with the aspirations of the Bengalis – to end the genocide and establish their own sovereign nation-state. As demonstrated, India intervened in the war as to prevent the permanent settlement of the Bengali refugees and the consequences such event could entail.

Although the Indian government sought to enter the war to resolve its refugee crisis, it did so also to weaken Pakistan. This was only possible due to a security pact India had made with the USSR a few months prior to the war’s outbreak in December 1971. It should first be established that India and Pakistan had been rival states since the inception of their statehood. Since the Partition of India in 1947 and until 1971, India had fought two wars with Pakistan: the First Kashmir War in 1947 and the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965. These wars were fought over the contested territories of Kashmir and Jammu. To India, Pakistan was a constant threat, and thus, the Bengali secessionist movement served as a golden opportunity to dismember and weaken its rival state. To elaborate, a defeat meant a loss of unprecedented scale for Pakistan. Pakistan would first most notably be forced to surrender East Pakistan, which meant losing more than half of its population. This would cease all of Pakistan’s labor exploitations of the Bengali population and access to East Pakistan’s natural resources. More importantly, Pakistan would lose multiple strategic fronts. It would no longer have access to the Bay of Bengal. Because of this, Pakistan would (a) lose its ability to threaten India’s eastern coastlines, (b) only be able to access the Indian Ocean via the Arabian Sea, and (c) lose a maritime trade route to Southeast Asia. Therefore, a successful Bengali secession meant that India would have a significantly weaker rival state and two less fronts to be worried about. Aside from the defeat rendering Pakistan weaker, India would also enjoy a reduced Chinese presence in South Asia. China was an ally of Pakistan, and one of the three actors that fought over Kashmir and Jammu. Because of this, a Pakistani defeat meant that China’s access to fronts that border India would cease as well – which only meant a more secure India.14 For these reasons, India had multiple geopolitical interests in helping the Bengalis defeat the Pakistanis. This was a notion shared by Gandhi and the Parliament. Furthermore, their diplomatic alliance with the USSR before their intervention is indicative of their geopolitical interest in defeating the Pakistanis in the war.

It should first be highlighted that Pakistan historically had been an ally of the US and regularly received the US’ diplomatic support and military aid since 1954 and had multiple alliances in the Arab world – as it was an Islamic Republic. This was not the case for India; it remained a non-aligned state in the Cold War and had no alliances with powerful countries. Because of this, if India did intervene, it ran the risk of fighting the US and Pakistan’s Arab allies. These prospects rendered an Indian victory highly difficult. This prompted Gandhi to ally with the Soviets on August 1971 – five months into the war and four months before India’s intervention. The Soviets promised a full military support in the case of a US or a Chinese intervention.15

This treaty proved extremely helpful for India, as only a few days after India’s entry to the war, Pakistan was on the brink of defeat. As a result, the Pakistanis sought help from the US to draft an appeal to the United Nations Security Council on 7 December 1971. The draft pleaded for an immediate ceasefire and the withdrawal of both Indian and Pakistani troops from East Pakistan. Because the Soviets held a permanent seat in the Council, the Soviets vetoed the resolution and shut it down.16 Out of fear of a Pakistani defeat and a Soviet expansion in South and Southeast Asia, the then-US President, Richard Nixon, dispatched a fleet of battleships led by a nuclear weapon armed aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, to the Bay of Bengal. The arrival of the US fleet on 11 December 1971 prompted the Soviets to dispatch their own fleet armed with nuclear weapons two days after.17 The Soviet presence in the Bay prevented the US from taking any combat roles. India, as a result, was able to successfully defeat Pakistan on 16 December 1971 without interference from Pakistan’s allies.

As demonstrated, India developed an alliance with the USSR as a means to counter the US-backed Pakistan, ultimately, to pursue its geopolitical interests of dismembering and weakening Pakistan. Had India not formed an alliance with the Soviets, its military campaign against Pakistan would have been put to a halt by either the United Nations or the US’s military presence in the Bay of Bengal. This would have left Pakistan undefeated. More critically, while India’s pact with the USSR did help end the Bengali genocide, India’s intervention in East Pakistan cannot be considered a humanitarian intervention. By definition, the intervening state must have no ulterior interests in its intervention. However, as demonstrated, the strategic advantages India would gain from a Pakistani defeat were multiple and too clear to ignore. For the reasons explained above, it is clear that India intervened in East Pakistan out of its own national interests.

The previous argument addressed that India had multiple geopolitical interests in a Pakistani defeat in the Bangladesh Liberation War. However, India also had an interest in helping the Bengalis establish their own nation-state. This was because, instead of having a rival state in its northeastern front, India would have an ally – a weak ally that it could easily exploit. And clearly, post-war India’s diplomatic behavior towards Bangladesh was characterized by political dominance and economic exploitation. Furthermore, India capitalized on the absence of a Pakistani presence in northeast South Asia to dominate weaker states like Bhutan and Nepal and rise as a regional hegemon in that region.

Shortly after the establishment of an independent Bangladesh, India set up a subservient government to exert influence over Bangladeshi politics. And, to increase Bangladesh’s security dependency on India, the Indian government actively funded the Shanti Bahini rebels of the Chittagong Hill to destabilize the new state. Furthermore, India’s influence over Bangladesh also extended to the control of its economy. The Bangladeshi taka (currency of Bangladesh) was only to be printed in India, and the taka was devalued whenever it was favorable to India’s economic climate.18 India’s autonomy-violating behavior towards Bangladesh was similar to how India treated its other neighbor states. Specifically, Bhutan and Nepal, along with Bangladesh, were forced by India to sign and agree to the terms of the Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Peace (1972). Under the terms of this 25-year security treaty, neither Bangladesh, Bhutan, nor Nepal were allowed to actively support or participate in any armed conflict – without India’s permission to do so. These states were also obligated to militarily respond if any of its treaty members were attacked. They were also barred from signing other treaties incompatible with the Treaty of Friendship.19

Critically, post-war India’s behavior towards Bangladesh and its neighbour states indicates that India desired to rise as a hegemon in northeast South Asia. To sum, India had two visible geopolitical goals in the war: (a) dismembering and weakening Pakistan, and (b) rising as a hegemon in the region. Considering these two interests, India’s entrance to the war should only be interpreted as a pursuit of national interest – not as a humanitarian intervention. The end of the Bengali genocide was an inevitable by-product of India’s intervention and victory in the war.

In retrospect, India’s intervention in East Pakistan had no humanitarian goals. India instead entered the Bangladesh Liberation War to stop the influx of refugees, and took advantage of the war to expand its geopolitical influence over the northeastern South Asian region. India’s pre-intervention and post-war behavior clearly demonstrates that the state had no altruistic humanitarian goals of ending the Bengali genocide. Cases of interventions that produces humanitarian successes should always be subject to question to determine whether the intervening state had any ulterior motives.

References

Choudhury, G. W. The Last Days of United Pakistan. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1974. Print.

Haider, Z. “A Revisit to the Indian Role in the Bangladesh Liberation War.” Journal of Asian and African Studies 44.5 (2009): 537-51. Print.

Khan, Yasmin. The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan. New Haven: Yale UP, 2007. Print.

Scheffer, D. J. (1992). Towards a Modern Doctrine of Humanitarian Intervention. University of Toledo Law Review, 23, 253-274.

Sisson, Richard, and Leo E. Rose. War and Secession: Pakistan, India, and the Creation of Bangladesh. Berkeley: U of California, 1990. Print.

Singhvi, L. M. Bangladesh: Background and Perspectives (Stakes in Bangladesh). New Delhi: Institute of Constitutional and Parliamentary Studies, 1971. Print.

Totten, Samuel, William S. Parsons, and Israel W. Charny. Century of Genocide: Critical Essays and Eyewitness Accounts. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Orton, Anna. “Border Disputes with Pakistan.” India’s Borderland Disputes: China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal. New Delhi: Epitome, 2010. 116. Print.

Weekes, Richard V. Muslim Peoples: A World Ethnographic Survey. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1978. Print.

The content of this article does not represent the positions, research methods, or opinions of the Synergy Editorial Committee. We are solely responsible for reviewing and editing submissions. Please address all scholarly concerns directly to the contributor(s) of the article.


Daniel C. Park is a 3rd Year student studying International Relations and Contemporary Asian Studies at the University of Toronto, Trinity College. Currently, Daniel serves as an Associate Editor-in-Chief for Synergy: The Journal of Contemporary Asian Studies. Outside of Synergy, he also contributes to the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the Parliamentary Division of the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, and the G-20 Research Group.

Endnotes

  1. Scheffer, D. J. (1992). Towards a Modern Doctrine of Humanitarian Intervention. University of Toledo Law Review, 23, 266.
  2. Khan, Yasmin. The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan. New Haven: Yale UP, 2007. Print.
  3. Weekes, Richard V. Muslim Peoples: A World Ethnographic Survey. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1978. Print.
  4. Ahmed, Moudud. South Asia: Crisis of Development: The Case of Bangladesh. Dhaka: U, 2002. Print.
  5. The ALP won 160 seats, while the PPP won 81 seats in the 1970 National Assembly election.
  6. Choudhury, G. W. The Last Days of United Pakistan. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1974. Print.
  7. Totten, Samuel, William S. Parsons, and Israel W. Charny. Century of Genocide: Critical Essays and Eyewitness Accounts. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.
  8. Haider, Z. “A Revisit to the Indian Role in the Bangladesh Liberation War.” Journal of Asian and African Studies 44.5 (2009): 539. Print.
  9. Sisson, Richard, and Leo E. Rose. War and Secession: Pakistan, India, and the Creation of Bangladesh. Berkeley: U of California, 1990. Print.
  10. Haider, Z. 540.
  11. Ibid. 541-542.
  12. Ibid. 541.
  13. Ibid. 540.
  14. Singhvi, L. M. Bangladesh: Background and Perspectives (Stakes in Bangladesh). New Delhi: Institute of Constitutional and Parliamentary Studies, 1971. Print.
  15. Orton, Anna. “Border Disputes with Pakistan.” India’s Borderland Disputes: China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal. New Delhi: Epitome, 2010. 116. Print.
  16. Ibid. 110.
  17. Ibid. 115.
  18. Haider, Z. 545.
  19. Ibid. 544.
Daniel C. Park
About Daniel C. Park 2 Articles
Daniel C. Park is a 3rd Year student studying International Relations and Contemporary Asian Studies at the University of Toronto, Trinity College. Currently, Daniel serves as an Associate Editor-in-Chief for Synergy: The Journal of Contemporary Asian Studies. He is interested in the relations of ASEAN (+3) countries, the arms race/trade in East Asia, and the future of North Korea. Outside of Synergy, he also contributes to the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the Parliamentary Division of the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, and the G-20 Research Group.

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