When Pakistan gained independence from the British Empire in 1947, it consisted of two dissimilar and discontiguous Muslim-majority territories, separated by a thousand miles of Hindu-dominated India. West Pakistan, made up of Sindh, Baluchistan, western Punjab, the Northwest Frontier Provinces, and part of the disputed region of Kashmir, dominated Pakistani politics. East Pakistan was much smaller but had a larger population than the West; it consisted of the Muslim-majority districts of Bengal, as well as the Assamese district of Sylhet. The two “wings” of Pakistan were united as one country solely on the basis of religion. By all other considerations—linguistic, ethnic, cultural—East and West Pakistan were separate nations.

The West Pakistanis maintained control of their country by curtailing popular sovereignty; the government in Rawalpindi refused to hold popular elections for twenty-three years. In 1970, the first fully democratic elections in Pakistan favored the East Pakistani Awami League, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Pakistani president Yahya Khan rejected the election results, jailed Mujib, and took full control of the government.

Mujib’s imprisonment set off a revolt in East Pakistan. Yahya Khan sent West Pakistani troops to the eastern wing to crush the revolt. These troops and the local police forces carried out a systematic extermination of any suspected rebels. Over the course of 1971, hundreds of thousands or possibly even millions of Bengalis died in this genocide. To escape the killings, millions of refugees poured into the Indian states of West Bengal and Assam.

The Indian government, led by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, hoped to detach East Pakistan as an independent state, Bangladesh (Land of Bengal), thereby weakening Pakistan. In border regions, the Indian government secretly trained and equipped a Bengali insurgent army, the Mukti Bahini (Liberation Army). India waited for Pakistan to make its first military move, which it did on December 3, 1971, launching preemptive attacks on Indian airfields. Using this as a pretense for intervening in East Pakistan, the Indian Army moved into Bengal. Ignoring United Nations ceasefire arbitration, the Indians overwhelmed the West Pakistani troops. On December 16, Lieutenant-General Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi surrendered the West Pakistan army forces in Dacca1 to the Indian Army. When the Indian forces under Lieutenant-General Jagjit Singh Aurora entered Dacca on that same day, the local Bengali population cheered and offered flowers and embraces to the soldiers.

The most important outcome of the 1971 conflicts was birth of Bangladesh, which as a nation celebrates forty years of independence this month. In the past forty years, Bangladesh has made strides toward modernization and development, but the country still struggles to overcome poverty, disease, high infant mortality, and other problems common to the postcolonial world. The Indo-Pakistani War also had strategic implications for South Asia. Just nine years after its humiliating defeat by the Chinese, India’s decisive victory over Pakistan established India as the major military power of the region.

The effects of the Indo-Pakistani War were felt as far away as the United States. Throughout the conflict, the President Richard Nixon staunchly supported the United States’ strategic ally, Pakistan. At the same time, the American public grew steadily more alarmed by the genocide in East Pakistan and the refugee problem in India. This was a demonstration of the increasingly visible divergence between public will and government action in American politics. Watergate and Nixon’s resignation were yet to come, but by the end of 1971, the era of the “perception gap” in American politics had already begun.

  1. Then the capital of East Pakistan; now Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. []