Civil War: Pakistan (1971)

Sahar Shafqat. Civil Wars of the World: Major Conflicts since World War II. Editor: Karl DeRouen Jr. & Uk Heo. Volume 2, ABC-CLIO, 2007.


Pakistan, like most postcolonial societies, has struggled to define its national identity. This struggle and its attendant uncertainties have created structural conditions ripe for civil war. During its independent history, Pakistan has experienced subnational challenges from nearly all of its various major ethnic groups. This article focuses on the most violent instance: the secession of East Pakistan to form the independent nation of Bangladesh. The civil war has been the most violent event in Pakistan’s history, but it is not the only attempt by a subnational group to claim autonomy.

Country Background

Pakistan is a very diverse and multiethnic country. The major groups in the country are as follows:

Bengalis, who constitute most of the population in East Pakistan and a numerical majority in the former federated Pakistan Punjabis, who are concentrated in Punjab province, represent a numerical majority in contemporary Pakistan and are the most dominant group politically. Sindhis, the third-largest group, live in Sindh province and have a fairly active nationalist movement, which was involved in violent conflict with the government in the 1980s.

Pathans, the fourth-largest group, are concentrated in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and have significant representation in the Pakistani military; Pakistani Pathans also have ethnic ties to Pathans in Afghanistan. Muhajirs, the fifth-largest group, consist of Muslims who moved from India to Pakistan after partition; they are concentrated mostly in urban Sindh.

Baluchis, the smallest group numerically, are concentrated in Baluchistan province; Baluchis have a fairly active nationalist movement, which was involved in violent conflict with the government in the mid-1970s and has been active again under the Musharraf military government. At the time of writing, the civil unrest in Baluchistan threatens to become the biggest challenge of General Musharraf’s rule; there are daily reports of attacks by Baluch insurgents and frequent skirmishes between Baluch and government forces.

Conflict Background

The Pakistan civil war lasted from March to December 1971 and claimed very high casualties: an estimated 1 million dead and as many as 10 million displaced refugees. (Estimates of fatalities range from 300,000 to 3 million; Pakistan claims that only 26,000 people died.) The war also witnessed widespread atrocities against women. The war eventually drew Pakistan’s archrival India into the conflict, and India’s intervention played a decisive role in ending the war in favor of the secessionists. Pakistan’s military, which until then had projected a powerful image as national defender and efficient administrative organization and had been in power before the war, suffered a massive blow both militarily as well as in terms of its prestige. Not surprisingly, the humiliation of the Pakistani military allowed a democratic civilian government to be ushered in after war’s end.

The Insurgents

Three main groups resisted the Pakistani central government: political leaders, disaffected soldiers, and guerrilla activists. Eventually, these were joined by Indian military personnel, but this was much later when the war had expanded beyond Pakistani borders.

War: East Pakistan vs. government
Dates: March 25, 1971-December 16, 1971
Casualties: 300,000 to 3 million estimated
Regime type prior to war: Military junta
Regime type after war: Parliamentary democracy
Insurgents: Mukti Bahini-Mitro Bahini
Issue: Secessionist movement for territorial independence
Rebel funding: India
Role of geography: Rebels hid in neighboring India.
Role of resources: Negligible
Immediate outcome: Bangladeshi independence
Outcome after 5 years: Slide toward military rule
Role of UN: Negligible
Role of regional organization: None
Refugees: 10 million, almost all returned within a year
Prospects for peace: Secessionist movement was successful, ending conflict.
Table 1: Civil War in Pakistan

The Bangladeshi independence movement was always guided by the political leadership. Political parties covered the ideological spectrum in East Pakistan and included Communists, Islamic parties, liberals, and conservatives. But the nationalist (and secular) Awami League assumed dominance in the political sphere very early, under the leadership of the populist Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Mujib introduced his Six Points demand on March 23, 1966:

  1. The Constitution should provide for a Federation of Pakistan in the true sense on the basis of the Lahore Resolution and for a parliamentary form of government based on the supremacy of a directly elected legislature on the basis of universal adult franchise. The representation in the federal legislature shall be on the basis of population.
  2. The federal government shall be responsible only for defence and foreign affairs, and currency subject to the conditions provided in (3) below.
  3. There shall be two separate currencies mutually or freely convertible in each wing for each region, or in the alternative, a single currency, subject to the establishment of a federal reserve system in which there will be regional federal reserve banks, which shall devise measures to prevent the transfer of resources and flight of capital from one region to another.
  4. Fiscal policy shall be the responsibility of the federating units. The federal government shall be provided with requisite revenue resource for meeting the requirements of defence and foreign affairs, which revenue sources would be automatically appropriable by the federal government in the manner provided and on the basis of the ratio to be determined by the procedure laid down in the Constitution. Such constitutional provisions would ensure that the federal government’s revenue requirements are met consistently with the objective of ensuring control over fiscal policy of the governments of the federating units.
  5. Constitutional provisions shall be made to enable separate accounts to be maintained of the foreign exchange earnings of each of the federating units, under the control of the respective governments of the federating units. The foreign exchange requirements of the federal government shall be met by the governments of the federating units on the basis of a ratio to be determined in accordance with the procedure laid down in the Constitution. The regional governments shall have the power under the constitution to negotiate foreign trade and aid within the framework of the foreign policy of the country, which shall be the responsibility of the federal government.
  6. The government of the federating units shall be empowered to maintain a militia or para-military force in order to contribute effectively towards national security (Sisson and Rose 1990, 20).

The Six Points crystallized East Pakistanis’ resentment and sense of exploitation in national affairs and were soon adopted as the battle cry of the Bengali political leadership, which became unified in the face of an increasingly aggressive West Pakistani government.

Pakistan remained under authoritarian rule for most of its independence until December 1970, when the first national competitive elections were held. Not surprisingly, Mujib’s Awami League emerged as the single largest winner in East Pakistan and the overall winner as well; it garnered 167 of 169 seats in East Pakistan (167 out of a total of 313 seats in the combined national parliament). Mujib insisted that his Six Points be accepted as a condition for forming the government.

This was unacceptable to the military ruler, General Yahya Khan, as well as the other civilian politicians. Most notably, the other major contender to power, the Pakistan People’s Party, led by the charismatic Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, refused to accept an Awami League government. Certainly, this had to do with basic power politics, in which every party was pushing for maximum advantage. But the psychological and cultural barriers to West Pakistan’s acceptance of an East Pakistani government cannot be underestimated (Sisson and Rose 1990).

The failure to form a government produced a protracted period of wrangling and negotiation. On March 3, 1971, Mujib and Bhutto, along with Yahya Khan, met in Dhaka to negotiate a settlement of the political impasse. They failed to reach an agreement, and Mujib called for a general strike. This unleashed a period of popular agitation, which was coupled with a buildup of military personnel in the province (most of them non-Bengali). On March 25, 1971, the Pakistani military moved in to begin a campaign of repression called Operation Searchlight. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was arrested, and masses of people were killed, particularly students and professors. This began a period during which numerous massacres were carried out. (Some observers have argued that these massacres constituted genocide; see sidebar, “Was It Genocide?”

Mujib declared Bangladeshi independence, which was announced to the world on March 26, 1971. A number of Awami League leaders had fled to India and formed a Bangladeshi government-in-exile on April 17, 1971.

The first and earliest military actors were Bengali soldiers and officers in the Pakistani military. As noted earlier, Bengalis were severely underrepresented in the military, a fact that was one of the main East Pakistani grievances. This fact, in addition to the West Pakistanis’ racist constructions of Bengalis in general, had already severely strained relations within the military. There was only one Bengali unit in the Pakistani Army, the East Pakistan Rifles. Martial law had been imposed by General Yahya Khan in March 1969, immediately after he took control of the country from the erstwhile dictator, Ayub Khan. Yahya Khan instituted a policy of doubling Bengali representation in the military (which was only seven infantry battalions at the time). But this was probably too little and too late, and the policy was not well received among military leaders in any case.

As early as March 1971, Bengali soldiers refused to heed orders to fire on demonstrators, setting in motion a small-scale mutiny. Therefore, it is not surprising that the first official salvo of the civil war was fired by a Bengali military officer. Major Ziaur Rahman, commander of the East Bengal Regiment, broadcast the first international announcement of Bangladeshi independence. Rahman read the declaration of independence penned by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on March 26, 1971. This is considered the official start of the civil war.

The main rebel force was the Mukti Bahini. It had originally been generated as a sort of para-military-security wing of the Awami League, but it soon grew in size and acquired a guerrilla nature. It was led by a retired Pakistan Army officer, Colonel Muhammad Ataul Gani Osmani. As more and more Bengali soldiers defected, they swelled the ranks of the Mukti Bahini as well as adding to its store of weaponry. In addition, the Mukti Bahini received material support from the government in neighboring West Bengal state in India. West Bengal consists primarily of Bengalis, so the state shared ethnic ties with East Pakistan. It became part of India at partition because a majority of its people were Hindu.

In response, the Pakistani military raised a paramilitary force, the Razakars, who were loyal to the central government. Many of these were from the Bihari community, a small Urdu-speaking minority in East Pakistan. The Razakars, along with military action, were able to keep the revolt in check for the monsoon months of June and July. But Mukti Bahini was constantly regrouping in India. In addition, the Indian government was planning to intervene further in the conflict. As many as 10 million refugees from East Pakistan had fled to India to escape the violence, which gave India a pretext for intervention.


Undoubtedly, geography played a factor in the war; at the very least, the rebels were much more familiar with the lush terrain. The Pakistani army was much better equipped to control urban areas, and rebels were able to retreat relatively safely into the countryside after setbacks. Moreover, the war itself was far away from military and political headquarters in West Pakistan, which presented the most daunting challenge, and made it nearly impossible to move personnel and equipment quickly and efficiently to the theater of war. Movement was especially difficult because Pakistan could not fly over Indian airspace, and its ability to use its ports in Karachi and Dhaka was limited.

East Pakistan’s border with India provided a ready-made site for rebels to regroup and train, and they had considerable Indian support. After refugees began flooding into India, the Indian government set up refugee camps in the states of West Bengal, Bihar, Assam, Meghalaya, and Tripura. These camps became training grounds for the Mukti Bahini.


The Mukti Bahini’s tactics consisted of conventional guerrilla activities, including small strikes in urban and rural settings (especially in Dhaka, the capital of East Pakistan). The Mukti Bahini received considerable resources from the Indian government. In addition, the Indian military provided cover for the Mukti Bahini by shelling Pakistan army positions inside East Pakistan from Indian territory. The Indian government provided weapons to the Mukti Bahini as well, although these are largely considered to have been obsolete; the majority of modern weapons were obtained by guerrilla forces on the international arms markets (Sisson and Rose 1990, 185).

Causes of the War

The Formation of Pakistan

To understand how the secession of East Pakistan came about, it is essential to first examine the historical background of Pakistan. Pakistan was created in 1947 when British India was partitioned into the majority-Hindu state of India and the majority-Muslim state of Pakistan. But Pakistani independence was by no means inevitable. The struggle for independence in British India was initially dominated by Hindus and led by the Indian National Congress, and the movement was focused on the independence of a united India; the division of India never occurred to leaders such as Nehru and Gandhi. But Muslims, who had not been very politically active in British India, especially after the uprising in 1857, began to feel increasingly alienated from the independence movement, fearing that their interests were not being addressed. In 1906, the All-India Muslim League was formed. At the same time, most Muslim members of the independence movement felt increasingly marginalized from the Hindu-dominated congress, which was the organization leading the mainstream independence movement. Most of these Muslim members left congress and joined the Muslim League; eventually the League came to be led by secular and Western-educated activists such as Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who was to eventually become the founder of Pakistan.

The idea of Pakistan as an independent country was first articulated by Muhammad Iqbal in his “two nation” theory, which argued that the Muslim and Hindu communities in India were two separate and distinct nations. It was as late as 1940 when the explicit demand for Pakistan was first made, in the Lahore Resolution. The group at the helm of the Pakistan movement lacked the overtly religious component that one associates with Pakistan today and was committed to a secular state. Indeed, as Hamza Alavi has put it, “the Pakistan movement was not a movement of Islam but of Muslims” (Alavi 1986, 22). And within the Muslim community in India, the groups that were overtly religious (Islamic) were distanced from the Pakistan movement, such as the Jama’at-i-Islami Party, or people associated with the Deobandi movement. Indeed, somewhat ironically, the Islamists in India were fiercely opposed to the division of British India. Thus, the Pakistan movement remained dominated by a group that has been called the “salariat”: secular, urban professionals in the Muslim community (see Alavi 1986). But the movement’s leaders were eager to attract members of the ulema (the ulema are roughly equivalent to the clergy in the Christian context but are much less formalized in the Islamic context), some of whom eventually joined the movement, but the consequence was a struggle over the nature of the new state (i.e., whether it was to be secular or Islamist).

Most Hindu Indians (and the British) remained strongly opposed to the idea of partition, but massive civil disobedience campaigns eventually forced the hands of the leaders. It became clear that independence from the British would come only with partition. According to many estimates, approximately 7-8 million people moved across the newly created India-Pakistan border at partition (in both directions). There were violent riots associated with this movement of people, resulting in massive dislocation, injuries, rapes, and the deaths of as many as 1 million people. Today, Pakistan is approximately 95 percent Muslim.

When Pakistan did become independent, it inherited a geographically divided state. West Pakistan, consisting of the Muslim-majority regions of the northwest of British India, and East Pakistan, consisting of the Muslim-majority portion of Bengal, were separated by almost 1,000 miles, with the newly independent India lying between them. The new country was not only difficult to maintain and defend militarily, it faced considerable logistical challenges from the start. And the geographical divide did little to help existing ethnic tensions between East and West Pakistan, which would eventually worsen to lead to a civil war and the secession of East Pakistan to form Bangladesh in 1971. The new nation was born with a sense of being besieged by the larger and more powerful India. Many Pakistanis continue to believe that most Indians have never reconciled themselves to the reality of partition, which leads to even greater suspicion between the two countries (Sathasivam and Shafqat 2003).

The Ethnic Dimension

Although the new nation had successfully gained independence both from the British and from India, it was by no means united. In fact, Pakistan was composed of various ethnic groups that supported the new country in varying degrees. The Muslim salariat, which was the vanguard of the Pakistan movement, was drawn most heavily from two ethnic groups: the Punjabis and Urdu-speaking Muslims in the United Provinces (UP), who were to form the Muhajir group in an independent Pakistan. Additionally, support for Pakistan was strongest in these regions as well. These were the two groups that would come to dominate independent Pakistan, which would lead to increased resentments and tensions between the various ethnic groups that constituted Pakistan. There were six primary ethnic groups in Pakistan: Punjabis, who dominated the political and economic systems as well as the military; Pashtuns (this community is referred to variously as Pashtuns, Pathans, and Pakhtuns), who were also well represented in the military; Baluchis, who were perhaps the least enthusiastic supporters of Pakistan; Sindhis, who were also aligned with a Sindhi nationalist movement; Muhajirs, who were refugees from India who had migrated to Pakistan at partition; and Bengalis, who historically had a very strong sense of Bengali (as opposed to Muslim) nationalism.

The biggest challenge to Pakistani nationhood was from Bengali nationalism. Bengalis dominated East Pakistan and were the biggest ethnic group in terms of population in all of Pakistan. But Punjabis and Muhajirs dominated the administrative, political, and military arms of the country, and Bengalis were marginalized in the new country; their sense of alienation was only underscored by the fact that their region was located on the other end of the subcontinent from West Pakistan, the nucleus of the country. Emblematic of the ethnic tensions were the political struggles over the language issue, namely, declaring a national language for Pakistan. The language chosen was Urdu, which was the native language only for the Muhajir community but was widely spoken by many other Pakistanis. However, Urdu was not spoken widely by the Bengalis, and the conflict over the institution of Urdu as the exclusive national language in 1952 was an early harbinger of the tensions between East and West Pakistan that were to eventually result in civil war.

Although Bengalis in East Pakistan constituted a numerical majority in the country, they were a marginalized group. In addition to cultural and political alienation, Bengalis also experienced a high degree of economic exploitation by the western segment of the country. Central government expenditures in West Pakistan were much higher than in East Pakistan. Moreover, East Pakistan was an important source of export earnings for the country—from its textile mills, jute products, tea, and other agricultural products—but it saw disproportionately little development. This economic relationship is not enough to qualify the East Pakistan revolt as a “sons of the soil” case (Fearon 2004). Economic exploitation in this case really served to reinforce the sense of alienation that Bengalis already felt.

Another important event that complicated the ethnic dimension of Pakistani politics was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The Afghanistan war had tremendous fallout for Pakistan, which continues to the present day. Most notably, Pakistan was faced with a humanitarian crisis as millions of Afghan refugees streamed into Pakistan after the Soviet invasion. This humanitarian crisis was coupled with a more delicate political one, for the presence of the refugees stirred the complicated stew that is Pakistani ethnic politics. The majority of the Afghan refugees were Pashtuns, an ethnic group that is about equally divided across both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border. The border itself is based on the British-era Durand line, which Afghanistan has never officially accepted as the international boundary between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Additionally, Pashtuns are an important ethnic minority group within Pakistan—for example, they are well represented in the military—but there is a strong Pashtun nationalist movement, which has posed threats to the Punjabi-dominated central government. The threat such a nationalist movement poses becomes even greater if the movement spreads across international boundaries, leading to calls for an independent Pashtunistan. Greater ethnic tensions were not the only fallout of the Afghan war. The effort against the Soviets also led to a huge arms buildup within Pakistan, which served to further militarize Pakistani society in what has been called the “Kalashnikov culture.” In addition, the Afghan war led to an increase in the narcotics trade.

The Military in Pakistani Politics

A critical factor in explaining the civil war in Pakistan is the dominant role played by the military in Pakistani politics throughout its history. Pakistan has been under military rule for approximately half of the time it has been independent. As was the case with many postcolonial countries, Pakistan inherited weak civilian political institutions from British colonialism. The military, dominated by the Punjabis and to a lesser extent by the Pashtuns, has styled itself as the only real guarantor of Pakistani national unity. The military has stepped in to take control in response to many crises in Pakistani history, but even when the military has not been in direct control, it has exerted enormous influence on the polity. Consequently, the Pakistani military has seen itself as being charged not only with external security but also with internal security.

Given that the military has assumed the role of national uniter, it has responded most energetically to threats from ethnic nationalist movements. For example, in 1970, when civil unrest in East Pakistan was at its peak, General Yahya Khan declared martial law, which eventually led to civil war. The Pakistani supreme court later declared this imposition of martial law illegal. It should be noted that ethnic unrest is not the only condition that has prompted the Pakistani military to act. For example, in 1977, when Islamist parties were leading the civil unrest in opposition to alleged electoral rigging by the Bhutto administration, General Zia ul Haq declared martial law yet again. But it has been usually (although not exclusively) during periods of military rule that the most brutal repression of ethnic nationalist movements has occurred. For example, the civil war in East Pakistan in 1971 was marked by widespread rape and killing by Pakistani military personnel of the local Bengalis. And during the Zia government in the 1980s, the military was involved in the forceful suppression of uprisings by Baluchi and Sindhi nationalists (Harrison 1981a, 1981b; Rakisits 1988).

The Language Movement

Within Pakistan, ethnic identity revolves around language. Therefore, language has played a critical role in fomenting nationalism. Urdu, the mother tongue of a small minority in Pakistan, had become linked with the Pakistan nationalist movement. The Muslim League had promoted Urdu as a language of unity among Indian Muslims in the run-up to independence. In the newly independent country, Urdu emerged as a front-runner for “official” language status. This was true even though Urdu was spoken as a first language by a small minority, most of whom were refugees from north India (mostly from the UP). Various explanations can be given for this. Perhaps the most convincing theory is that Urdu had acquired the status of an “intellectual” language and had considerable cultural cachet.

It is no surprise, then, that the introduction of Urdu as the national language aroused considerable resentment and animosity among non-Urdu-speaking groups. Among these, the largest group were the Bengalis, who comprised the vast majority in East Pakistan; indeed, they were the majority ethnic group in federated Pakistan as a whole. Even though Bangladeshi independence would not come until 1971, it is accurate to say that the roots of the Bangladeshi nationalist movement lie in the momentous events of 1952, when the Bangla movement first mobilized to oppose Urdu as the national language.

The political center of gravity in the new nation was in the western region, in West Pakistan, even though Bengalis constituted a majority of the population. Culturally, Bengalis had been constructed in the west as somewhat less “pure” Muslims and Pakistanis. This image was linked to language, for Bengali was the only Pakistani language not written in the Persian-Arabic alphabet. It was also linked to a notion of Bengali inferiority that was deemed almost essentialist and was racialized.

The language issue arose soon after independence. In Pakistan, Urdu, although spoken by a small minority, was the language of the cultural and political elite. (However, most of the elite also spoke English, which became a de facto official language.) Elevating Urdu to the status of sole official language (as was suggested as early as 1948 by Jinnah) was bitterly resented by East Pakistanis. The matter came to a head in 1952, as the East Pakistan-based Awami League political party launched a popular campaign to have Bengali recognized as an additional official language along with Urdu. A coalition of political organizations declared February 21, 1952, a general strike day. On that day, police fired on unarmed students protesting outside the Provincial Assembly in Dhaka, killing five. Over the next few days, mass civil unrest took hold in the city. Although this wave of unrest was quickly brought under control through strong repressive measures (including the closing of college campuses), the language movement spread quickly to other parts of East Pakistan. The language riots of 1952 radicalized East Pakistanis more than any other issue. It also allowed a strong nationalist political leadership to emerge in East Pakistan, notably the Awami League. The immediate impact of the riots was that the central government eventually conceded and granted Bengali the status of official language as well as Urdu. But the long-term implications were to unify and politicize Bengalis in East Pakistan.

Of course, the language issue has been most prominent in the case of East Pakistan. But language has been an important mobilizing force in other cases as well, including uprisings by Sindhis and Baluchis. The current uprising in Baluchistan, beginning in 2003, demonstrates this well.

Accommodating Regional Autonomy

Another important backdrop to the civil war was the succession of attempts to accommodate regional autonomy for the various provinces of Pakistan. The language movement and other events continued to demonstrate the fragility of the Pakistani federation, and the country was involved in various attempts to fashion a workable constitutional framework that would reasonably represent the interests of different communities. Throughout the 1950s, various constitutional frameworks were proposed, but none was acceptable to the military and bureaucratic establishment. In 1958, martial law was imposed, and General Ayub Khan took control. Ayub Khan’s rule would last until 1969, when he was forced from power by another military junta, that of General Yahya Khan. Ayub Khan was a proponent of the One Unit Scheme, introduced in 1956, and continued to maintain it. This scheme was designed to neutralize the numerical majority of East Pakistan. It merged the existing provinces of Punjab, North-West Frontier Province, Baluchistan, and Sindh, and all federal territories into a single administrative unit to achieve greater parity with East Pakistan. The scheme aroused great suspicion in East Pakistan and was also met with considerable resentment on the part of the smaller provinces in West Pakistan, who feared Punjabi dominance.

Ayub Khan consolidated power after a referendum in 1960 and presidential elections in 1962. These elections were held using the basic democracies structure, which was an indirect form of elections with a limited number of electors (based on regional representation). This framework was viewed with great suspicion by many, including the Bengalis in East Pakistan. Moreover, the election was fraught with irregularities. All this served only to heighten the anxieties and resentment that Bengalis felt. Although Dhaka (East Pakistan’s capital) was designated the legislative capital of the country, the legislature had no power, and this continued to marginalize Bengalis.

After the 1965 war with India, Ayub Khan and the military suffered a blow, as they were perceived to have been weak, especially in the negotiations for the cease-fire agreement. The postwar period was marked with increasing opposition activity and civil unrest in both East and West Pakistan. Ayub Khan was ultimately forced out of power by his military chief, General Yahya Khan, in March 1969. Yahya Khan called for elections in December 1970. The results of this election provided the immediate backdrop to the civil war, as discussed earlier.


Conflict Status

The Pakistan civil war is one of the very few to have resulted in a successful secessionist movement. The rebel forces, supported by India, were successful. The immediate outcome of the war was the creation of a new independent nation, Bangladesh. Pakistan signed an unconditional surrender on December 16, 1971. The surrender was signed by General Niazi (see sidebar, “Instrument of Surrender”), upon which all 93,000 Pakistani soldiers were taken as prisoners of war. At the time, this was the biggest surrender since World War II. Refugees began to be repatriated soon after the surrender.

Duration Tactics

The war was relatively short, lasting approximately nine months. But the war might have been even shorter had several factors not existed. The secessionist nature of the war meant that the central government was even more keen to hold onto East Pakistan. The loss of East Pakistan would directly call into question the identity and existence of Pakistan itself as a homeland for the Muslims of India. It would also mean an implicit victory for Pakistan’s archrival India, which was untenable. External assistance from India was instrumental in prolonging the war. Without Indian assistance, the Mukti Bahini would probably have been defeated in short order.

Following are the major battles of the war.

Battle of Hilli (aka Bogra), November 22, 1971-December 13, 1971
Battle of Garibpur (aka Boyra), November 20, 1971-November 21, 1971
Battle of Longewala, December 5, 1971-December 6, 1971
Battle of Basantar (aka Barapind), December 4, 1971-December 16, 1971

External Military Intervention

The major external military actor was India, whose role was decisive in the war. India played a role in three main ways: as provider of material aid to the rebels, especially Mukti Bahini; as principal military opponent; and as diplomatic actor.

India announced full support of the Bangladeshi struggle on March 27, 1971; indeed, it had been actively arming and training members of the Mukti Bahini from the very start of the war. For example, in June 1971 the Indian army started a program to train Mukti Bahini recruits. Recruits were sorted by their education—science graduates were given two months’ technical training, undergraduates were given training in small arms, and others were trained in sabotage techniques, such as the use of explosives. Estimates suggest that approximately 70,000 recruits had been trained (Sisson and Rose 1990, 184-85).

As the civil war stretched into the summer of 1971, refugees from East Pakistan began flooding into India. This not only presented an urgent humanitarian crisis for India, it also provided legal and diplomatic cover for India’s intervention in the war. Pakistan, realizing that formal Indian military intervention was imminent, launched preemptive air strikes in India on December 3, 1971. The Mukti Bahini now joined forces with the Indian army to form the Mitro Bahini. At this point, the war took a decisive turn in favor of the rebels. India was far superior to Pakistan militarily and played its hand cleverly. In particular, India had a larger, better-armed army and superior naval forces.

In addition, India had the advantage of being able to attack Pakistan on both its eastern and western fronts. The portion of the war in which India was formally engaged with Pakistan was mostly conducted on the western front. Of the major battles in the war, perhaps the most decisive one was the Battle of Longewala (Shorey 2005). This battle lasted from December 5 to December 6, 1971. The Pakistan army launched an attack inside India in Rajasthan state (on the western front in the war). The Pakistan army had the advantage in number of troops; it fielded approximately 2,000 soldiers, whereas India only had about 120 soldiers defending the position. But Pakistan failed to provide air cover for the attack, and the battle was ultimately a humiliating defeat for the Pakistani forces. India was also able to blockade the Pakistani navy, headquartered in Karachi in West Pakistan, which made the navy a nonfactor in the war.

India also played a critical role as a diplomatic actor. Pakistan could expect to depend on two countries for support: China and the United States. Pakistan had developed a close alliance with China, which was greatly strengthened after the Indo-China war of 1962. The United States, too, was an important ally in the Cold War, as it was able to depend on the Pakistani military to fight communism. Pakistan also provided a useful regional counterweight to India, which was allied with the Soviet Union. Pakistan and the United States were members of CENTO (Central Treaty Organization) along with Iran, Turkey, and Britain. This organization was modeled along the lines of NATO and provided for mutual defense and cooperation. The goal of the treaty was to contain the Soviet Union by establishing a strong line of defense along the Soviet Union’s southern perimeter. Although CENTO was relatively weak, it did establish a formal military link between the United States and Pakistan.

But India was able to skillfully manipulate international actors to limit the extent of support from Pakistan’s allies, as a result of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s diplomatic efforts. Gandhi signed a twenty-year friendship treaty with the Soviet Union, which ensured that China would play a limited role in the conflict. As a result, China continued to support Pakistan through the civil war but provided little material aid and did not move its troops to the Indian border to engage Indian forces away from the civil war.

Gandhi also undertook a tour of Europe during the fall of 1971 in which she was able to persuade France and the United Kingdom to break with the United States and block any pro-Pakistan actions in the United Nations Security Council. (Gandhi also visited the United States in November 1971 and rejected U.S. advice on the conflict.) As a result, the United Nations played little role in the conflict, and the United States was able to provide only limited unilateral support to Pakistan. As a symbolic gesture, the United States dispatched a task force headed by the nuclear-armed carrier Enterprise from the Gulf of Tonkin to the Bay of Bengal on September 10, 1971. But U.S. forces never entered the war. The Soviet Union responded by sending two groups of ships from Vladivostock on December 6, 1971; these remained in the area until January 7, 1972.

Conflict Management Efforts

As mentioned previously, outside actors were limited in their influence on the conflict (except for India). Therefore, it remained essentially a trilateral affair between Pakistan, the Bangladeshi rebels, and India. No other parties were involved in the surrender.

Pakistan and India held a bilateral summit, the Shimla Summit, from June 28 to July 3, 1972. Representing Pakistan was its new leader, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Bhutto and Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi were able to fashion a permanent cease-fire as well as a political resolution of some of the war’s issues. The main political issues were recognition of Bangladesh as an independent nation, the return of Pakistani POWs, and the Kashmir issue. The last was the most intransigent issue. India wanted the cease-fire line in Kashmir to be a permanent international border, but Pakistan was understandably reluctant to concede this point. The two nations did agree, however, to withdraw all forces to pre-1971 borders. The Shimla Summit agreement has been controversial because India has interpreted it to mean that all issues, including that of the status of Kashmir, will be settled in a bilateral manner. Pakistan disagrees with this interpretation, because it has historically been keener to involve international actors in the dispute, as it perceives such involvement to favor Pakistan’s position. India agreed to release Pakistani POWs, but only after a period of three months. Pakistan eventually recognized Bangladesh on February 22, 1974.


The Pakistan civil war resulted in the creation of Bangladesh. It also had lasting effects on regional dynamics as well as domestic politics within Pakistan. In the region, the war deepened the rivalry and animosity between Pakistan and India, a conflict that dominates the regional dynamic. Interestingly, although there is still considerable tension between Pakistan and Bangladesh, the two countries have been able to develop a fairly amicable relationship.

In some ways, there is little possibility of the recurrence of a civil war like the Bangladesh war because it was such a unique case, owing both to geography and to the strong nature of Bengali nationalism from a very early stage. However, other cases of subnational nationalism have continued to confront the Pakistani state: Baluchistan in the 1970s (and currently), Sindh in the 1980s, and many other cases of demands for autonomy. These challenges are fairly common in most postcolonial societies and to some extent may be considered “natural” by-products of colonialism. But the Pakistani state may be considered responsible to some extent as well. By repressing all demands for regional autonomy, often very brutally, the Pakistani state has been unable to accommodate the interests of all its various ethnic groups.

The secession of Bangladesh led to greater anxiety on the part of the the Pakistani establishment about subnational challenges. One consequence has been to strengthen the military (after a short period of national disgrace in the early to mid-1970s). The military, always distrustful of civilian politicians, has stepped in twice since the 1971 war to safeguard what it sees as national interests, including protecting the national integrity of the country.

Another consequence has been the growing Islamization of Pakistani society. The trend toward using Islam for political expediency reached a new high under the government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. His main constituency consisted of the landed rural classes, peasants, and the laboring classes, and he had to find a way to reach out to other groups. According to Anita Weiss,

Bhutto adopted Islamic slogans, particularly those stressing egalitarianism and social justice as a means of legitimating his economic policies, thereby increasing his popularity. There was no attempt to include specific Islamic laws in the legal system until it became politically expedient to do so in early 1977 when drinking, gambling, and night clubs were banned. This was soon followed by the replacement of Friday for Sunday as the weekly holiday (Weiss 1986, 9).

Besides trying to appeal to a broader cross-section of society, Bhutto and others introduced such measures in response to Islamist activists. One of the truisms of Pakistani politics has been that Islamist parties control no more than 10 to 15 percent of popular support. Although that is true, it is also true that Islamists have generally been very successful and efficient at mobilizing popular support and organizing civil unrest. This was very much the case during the Bhutto administration, and in fact it was the civil unrest generated by the Islamists (and others) that became the pretext for the military to move in again in 1977 under General Zia. The most dramatic imposition of Islam on public life occurred under Zia with the Islamization program.

With the Bhutto administration, Pakistan first began to seek closer relations and cooperation with actors in the Muslim and Arab world, a trend that has continued to the present day. After the humiliating defeat of Pakistani forces in 1971 and the nuclear test by India in 1974, Pakistan’s security establishment was in a major crisis, and the Middle East connection was perceived to be an extremely useful counterforce to India, one that could be more dependable than the United States. W. Howard Wriggins (1984) writes that many in the Pakistani foreign policy establishment felt that the United States had “let them down” in the 1965 and 1971 wars with India and could not be considered a reliable ally (Sathasivam and Shafqat 2003).

The loss of Bangladesh and India’s nuclear test in 1974 gave urgency to Pakistan’s plans for a nuclear weapons program. Bhutto endeavored to acquire assistance from the Middle East for this project, and certainly emphasizing common religious and cultural ties helped the effort. In particular, Saudi Arabia emerged as a crucial ally in terms of material support (Rizvi 1983 ; Tahir-Kheli and Staudenmaier 1982). Pakistan became an official nuclear nation in 1998 when it tested as many as six nuclear devices. In some circles, the proposed product of a Pakistani nuclear program even came to be known as the Islamic bomb.

The lasting lesson of Bangladesh for the Pakistani establishment should have been that violent secession can only be avoided by peacefully accommodating regional demands. But, unfortunately, that has not been the pattern in post-1971 Pakistan. A diverse, multiethnic society such as Pakistan requires a genuine federal framework. Unless such a framework is implemented, with meaningful power for the various provinces of Pakistan, true peaceful coexistence of Pakistan’s ethnic groups will be impossible.