Pakistan:The Push toward the Borders

TIME April 26, 1971; pp. 39-40

Radio Pakistan announced last week that Pakistan International Airlines has resumed its internal flight between the East Pakistan capital of Dacca and the town of Jessore, formerly a stronghold of rebel resistance. The broadcast failed to note that the PIA prop jets were carrying only soldiers, and that they were escorted into Jessore airport by air force Sabre jets.

It was true, however, that the army has taken the offensive in Pakistan’s savage civil war. In the early days of fighting, the troops had prudently preferred to remain in their garrison areas, for the most part, until additional men and supplies arrived. Last week they began to push toward the Indian border, hoping to secure the hardtop roads by the time the monsoon rains begin in late May. If they succeed, they will he able to block any sizable imports of arms and other equipment for the Bangla Desh (Bengal State) resistance fighters.

Naxalite Sympathizers. Despite the heavy cost of the operation (estimated at $1.3 million per day) and widespread international criticism, the government of President Agha Mohammed Yahya Khan seems determined to press for a decisive victory. The U.S. and most other Western countries have thus far maintained a careful neutrality. Washington announced that it has furnished no arms to Pakistan since the fighting began March 25. Communist China, on the other hand, has strongly supported the Pakistan government, while India, Pakistan’s traditional adversary, has quietly sympathized with the rebels.

The Indians most deeply involved are the West Bengali insurgents. But West Bengali sympathy is tempered by a fear that a civil war in East Bengal will prove costly to themselves as well. For a generation, West Bengal has received a steady flow of refugees from across the border. Now the flow has greatly increased, with an added burden to the state’s economy. Among West Bengalis, the most enthusiastic supporters of the East Pakistani cause are Calcutta’s urban terrorists, the Maoist Naxalites. Some are said to have slipped across the border with homemade guns and bombs to help the rebels.

Strong Words. Officially, India has tried to maintain calm. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared earlier that India could hardly remain a “silent observer to the carnage in East Pakistan. But last week, when asked if she would describe the fighting as an “imperial war’. she replied sternly. .’the use of strong words will not help.”

From East Pakistan came reports that the destruction was continuing. Estimates of the number of dead ranged to 200,000 or more. In the port city of Chittagong, hundreds of bodies were dumped into the river to be carried away by the tide. Some observers reported a virtual pogrom against East Pakistan’s educated leadership, raising the specter of a region reduced to peasant serfdom. Even the modern jute mills, owned by West Pakistani businessmen, were reported destroyed.

Provisional Government. There was also savagery on the Bengali side. Rebels were reported to be paying off old scores against non-Bengali Moslems who settled in East Pakistan after the 1947 partition of British India into India and Pakistan. At the town of Dinajpur, most male members of this group were killed and the women taken to makeshift internment camps.

Despite the continued absence of their political leader, Sheikh Mlljibur (“Mujib”) Rahman who is thought to be in prison in West Pakistan. the rebels announced the formation of a Bangla Desh provisional government last week. They named Mlljib President. One of his colleagues, Tajuddin Ahmad, who is at large in East Pakistan, became Prime Minister. As their provisional capital, the rebels prudently chose the town of Meherpur, which lies a mere four miles from the Indian border.

The Bangla Desh forces are critically short of gasoline and diesel fuel and lack the field-communication equipment necessary for organized military activity. They have avoided any full-scale engagements, in which they would undoubtedly sustain heavy losses. Some observers believe, in fact, that the long guerrilla phase of the civil war has already begun, with the army holding most of the towns and the rebels controlling much of the countryside. Despite the apparent determination of the Pakistan government to maintain its hold on East Bengal, the sheer human arithmetic of the situation seemed to indicate that the Bengalis would ultimately win freedom or at least some form of regional autonomy. At the present time, the East Bengalis outnumber the West Pakistani soldiers in their midst by about 1,000 to 1.