''The Repression of Bengal'' | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, March 16, 2015 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:41 AM, April 01, 2015


''The Repression of Bengal''

Here we publish Reginald Prentice's article titled "The Repression of Bengal" which was published in Sunday Times (London) on July 11, 1971. Mr. Prentice, as a member of the British Parliamentary delegation, visited both East and West Pakistan during the Liberation War.

IN the absence of a political solution the crisis thrown up by the events in East Pakistan can only get worse. This applies to both Pakistan and India. In East Pakistan there is bound to be continuing repression, using the most brutal methods, simply because this is the only way in which a few thousand troops can maintain power over 70 million hostile people. The troops are heavily out-numbered. Their supplies and reinforcements have to travel 3,000 miles round the south of India. Parts of the country are very good territory for guerrilla forces. The guerrillas can take shelter in India and will be reinforced by recruits from among the refugees. More than one observer has predicted an escalation of the fighting into a Vietnam type of situation.

From the Indian side the prospect is equally depressing. In the border states the local officials, doctors and nurses are doing a wonderful job in keeping most of the refugees alive. But this is happening in a country which is desperately poor and most of it is happening in West Bengal, which is one of the poorest and overcrowded areas in the world. The local administration is obsessed with the refugee problem at the expense of other duties; local development projects are postponed; schools are closed to the children because they are packed with refugees. An explosive situation may well develop in the refugee camps as a result of months of enforced idleness. An equally tense situation may develop among the local people, who see the refugees getting more food than themselves and getting it free -- although they do a full week's work. But this cannot be solved by letting the refugees work, because there is already very high unemployment.

The world must take a larger share of this burden. So far the total aid committed from the rest of the world amounts to well under half the estimated cost to India for a six-month period. All countries must commit much larger sums of aid and recognise that this may have to continue for a very long time. But however large the aid contributions, India will inevitably pay an enormous price and this will become much greater as time goes on.

This downward spiral can only be reversed by a political solution acceptable to the people of East Pakistan. In practice, this must mean a solution acceptable to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the Awami League. The pattern is the familiar one of a colonial situation breaking up, in which the only people who can make an effective settlement are the leaders of the political party which has the confidence of the population. Yahya Khan must either accept this, or continue with his policy of suppression -- a policy which is bound to fail sooner or later.

Supposing that Sheikh Mujib were released from prison, the Awami League recognised again and genuine discussions were held, what would be the outcome?' The six-point programme on which the Awami League won the election last autumn provided for East Bengal to be self-governing for most purposes, but with the central government controlling foreign affairs and defence. The idea of one Pakistan would be preserved, but the provincial government in the East would have effective control over its own destiny.

It is very doubtful whether this solution is still possible. There has been too much bloodshed and bitterness in recent months. The essential point is surely this: whether the settlement is to be some kind of loose federation, or whether (more probably) it is to be complete independence for Bangla Desh, will have to be decided by the Awami League, as the only credible representatives of the people of East Bengal. They must make the decision and the military rulers of West Pakistan must accept that decision.

At present the military rulers are in no mood to do anything of the kind. They persist with their threadbare claims. They repeat that the army had to restore “law and order;” that the remaining trouble is caused by a few “miscreants," aided by the Indians; that the refugees would like to return home but are forcibly prevented by the Indians; that life in the east wing is returning to “normalcy;” that the world should not be misled by India's lies, etc., etc.

The real hope of a change must rest on two factors -- their continuous failure to pacify East Bengal and the growing economic cost. Pakistan is a poor country to start with. It is now suffering a heavy loss of export earnings from East Bengal, where the economy is badly disrupted and is showing few signs of recovery, despite the claims about “a return to normalcy.” (East Pakistan, so much poorer than the West, has always earned the larger share of foreign exchange.)

There will be a serious food shortage in the East later this year, perhaps of famine proportions, owing to the disruption in the sowing of the crops due to be harvested in a few months' time. This will be aggravated by the breakdown of the transport system. Meanwhile, drought conditions have caused a poor harvest in the West, which normally makes up part of the grain deficiency in the East.

On top of all these difficulties the consortium of Western aid donors has decided not to make fresh pledges of economic aid to Pakistan for the new financial year which started on July 1. Existing projects will be completed, but this decision, provided the Western powers persist with it, will mean a rundown of overseas aid and a deepening foreign exchange crisis in the coming months. Even in normal circumstances, this would have been a very serious blow to the Pakistan economy. The group of generals who run Pakistan knows very little about economics, but sooner or later the hard facts of the situation may compel them to change course. It is our only hope.

I believe that there are three ways in which pressure can be maintained in favour of a political solution. First, the Western Powers must stand firmly by the decision not to renew economic aid (apart from relief aid, properly supervised by the UN, for the victims of the likely famine in East Pakistan). There are powerful arguments against using aid as a political lever in most cases, but this is a very exceptional situation. Quite apart from the political circumstances, effective development projects could not be carried out in East Pakistan in the foreseeable future, so that any economic aid to the country would be channelled into projects in West Pakistan alone. This would have the effect of easing the economic situation and releasing resources for the suppression of the East. Speaking from my experience as a former Minister of Overseas Development, I believe it is wrong to attach political conditions to aid in 99 cases out of a 100 -- but this is the 100th case. Any power lever must be used which might help to bring about a political settlement.

Second, there should be an immediate end to the shipment of arms from the USA to Pakistan. World opinion should back those senators and congressmen in Washington who have urged the Administration to reverse its policy. That the United States should line up with China in supplying the armed forces of Pakistan at the moment is something that defies any rational explanation.

Third, there should be the most explicit condemnation from governments, parliaments and influential commentators of all kinds. It must be made clear that the governments and peoples of the world identify themselves with the aspirations of the people of Bangla Desh, and that we are united in demanding a shift of policy by the government of West Pakistan.

We may not have decisive power to enforce a peaceful solution, but such power as we have must be used to the full. This is not a time for diplomatic niceties. It is a time to stand up and be counted.

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