Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Yahya Khan
Tajuddin Ahmed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto
Indira Gandhi Richard Nixon
Anthony Mascarenhas Henry Kissinger
Alexei Kosygin Sirimavo Bandaranaike
1. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman: The Poet of Politics
Born in Southern Bengal during the British Rule, educated in Kolkata and Dhaka, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman advocated for a homeland for Indian Muslims as a young politician, which eventually materialised in the form of Pakistan. His tireless struggle to gain autonomy and fair treatment for Bangalis from Pakistani government earned him the name 'Bangabandhu' (Friend of Bengal) and turned him into the unequivocal leader of Bangalis in East Pakistan. His unwavering struggle against militarism and exploitation led the American magazine Newsweek to call him the 'Poet of Politics'.
Trying to deny him power after he won a landslide election in 1970, the Pakistani Army arrested him on 25 March, 1971 and cracked down on unarmed Bangali nationalists, which led Bangabandhu to issue a declaration of independence. He was kept in military prisons for the next nine months and was subject to horrendous psychological pressures and threats, as a bloody freedom struggle continued in Bangladesh. The Pakistani authority was forced to release him after the freedom fighters had won the war and he returned to Bangladesh receiving a hero's welcome.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman led the Bangladeshi government for the next years and helped promulgate a constitution based on Nationalism, Socialism, Democracy and Secularism. Eventually, a bloody coup organised by a few mutinous army officers of the military overthrew him. The father of the nation was hit by more than a dozen bullets on the fateful night of 15th August,1975 as the perpetrators gunned down the aged leader along with almost his entire family.
2. Tajuddin Ahmed: The Crown of Bengal
Born in northeast Bengal, Tajuddin Ahmed became a fierce supporter of Bangali rights and autonomy in East Pakistan. He was one of the proponents of 6-point demand that was termed as the Charter of Survival for Bangalis and was considered as the 'brain' of many political strategies that had shaken the Pakistani government in the 60s. Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury once wrote that ZA Bhutto told his colleagues to be wary of Tajuddin uttering "the notorious man with the file behind Mujib will be your main problem".
Tajuddin was a trusted confidante of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and widely considered to be a man of integrity. As instructed by Bangabandhu, he made his way into India after the military crackdown on 25th March. Tajuddin eventually formed a provisional government in April and with the help of the Indians, embarked on a mission to free Bangladesh from an occupying force. Tajuddin Ahmed's service to his nation as the prime minister and his struggle to garner international support for the Liberation struggle earned him the name 'Bangataj' (the crown of Bengal). The determined prime minister led freedom fighters and presented a compelling case for Bangladesh in front of the world which contributed enormously to the success of the freedom struggle.
Tajuddin Ahmed, along with three of his colleagues, got arrested after Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had been killed in a bloody coup in August, 1975. Ironically Khondaker Mostaq, the Awami League leader who was sacked by Tajuddin in the final days of the war because of his liaison with the Pakistani Government, was one of masterminds of the coup who ordered his arrest. During a counter coup in early November that saw Mostaq's government overthrown, perpetrators entered Dhaka Central Jail on Mostaq's order and shot Tajuddin Ahmed dead. Along with him, three prominent leaders of Mujibnagar government, Syed Nazrul Islam (former Vice-President), Captain Mansur Ali (former finance minister) and AHM Qamaruzzaman (former home minister) were also killed in that brutal attack.
3. Indira Gandhi: The Iron Lady
Born in northern India to India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the inexperienced Indira Gandhi's rise to power was initially unwelcome and resisted by many Indian leaders in the '60s. Yet her ironclad will and perseverance turned her into a historic figure who was hailed as 'Goddess Durga' by many after the allied Indo-Bangla forces defeated India's worst enemy Pakistan in '71.
Pakistani Army's crackdown of March, 1971 in East Pakistan caused millions of Bangalis to cross into India turning the volatile border states of India into virtual powder-kegs! West Bengal, the turbulent state on the verge of a communist revolution, was about to blow up and Mrs Gandhi couldn't simply feed the ocean of refugees streaming into India. Then, there were the atrocities. Indira Gandhi was always regarded as a cold and calculating leader who was called the Iron lady of India, yet the horrific details of murder, torture and rapes by Pakistani Army shook the Indian PM to her core. Her appeals to the world turned the global opinion in favour of the Bangalis and with the dry winter approaching, she ordered her Army chief, General Manekshaw, to invade and crush Pakistani Army (already depleted in morale and ammunition) on Dec 3rd. The Allied forces won and Mrs Gandhi was hailed as a great friend of Bangladesh.
In her latter days, she was consumed with secessionist and political challenges from every corner of India. One of her actions against Sikh secessionists in Punjab angered many. Her Sikh bodyguards assassinated the Prime Minister in 1984 with one assailant shooting 30 rounds at the aged Mrs Gandhi in revenge.
4. Anthony Mascarenhas: The Bold Messenger
Very few journalists in history have shaped the outcome of a war like Anthony Mascarenhas. The Pakistani journalist, born in a Christian family in Goa and raised in Karachi, had a lot to lose in 1971. But his honestly and bravery prevailed to shape the global opinion against Pakistan in a way that's truly historic.
Mascarenhas, along with nine other Pakistani journalists, was invited by the Pakistani authority to show 'how well the secessionists were dealt with' and instructed to report the events of the military crackdown in a positive way for army. Everyone complied except one.
Anthony Mascarenhas' article in London's Sunday Times titled "GENOCIDE" shook the world. His painstaking description of how unarmed Bangalis were shot dead for no apparent reason, how hundreds of bodies were piled up and how proudly Pakistani officers 'chewed over their day's kill' stoked the world's conscience like never before. Indira Gandhi and many world leaders, along with most of their populations, concluded that a genocide such as this shouldn't go on without consequence. Support for the freedom fighters poured from all over the world and the international community all but isolated Pakistan in the last days of the war.
Anthony Mascarenhas, however, was regarded as a traitor in his own country and his entire family had to flee to the UK from Pakistan. He himself was forced to leave Pakistan by a perilous path through Afghanistan to save his life. He would go on to leave a considerable mark in international journalism and be honoured by the Bangladesh Government. He passed away in 1986 and as his wife, Yvonne, remembered in a BBC interview that despite losing everything while fleeing Pakistan and enduring indescribable sufferings, they never regretted his decision to expose the genocide of 1971.
Along with Mascarenhas, Sydney Schanberg of The New York Times and Simon Dring of Daily Telegraph played decisive roles in exposing the Pakistani Army's brutality in East Pakistan. Journalists like Cyril John, Michele Roberts, Louris Heren also played significant parts in this regard showing tremendous courage and bravery.
5. Alexei Kosygin: The Cautious Premier
Born in the city of St Petersburg and a veteran of the Red Army, Alexei Kosygin rose through the ranks of Soviet hierarchy before falling from the dictator Joseph Stalin's grace. But after Stalin's demise and his successor Khrushchev's removal, Kosygin emerged as the Premier of the Soviet Union.
Being ideologically closer to India and hostile to the American ally Pakistan, the Soviet Union supported Bangladesh's independence and urged Pakistan to stop their military assault in East Pakistan. The soviet premier pledged support for the Bangali guerillas and promised India military support on July 2,1971.
When the Soviet Union signed 'Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation' in August, President Yahya Khan was informed that Pakistan will continue to receive aid from the Soviets but the Soviet Union would help India in any military conflict with Pakistan. The Soviet Government sent a famous message to Pakistan that "it will be embarking on a suicidal course if it escalates tensions in the subcontinent" which terrified the Pakistani establishment and President Yahya hurried to ask for American help who sent the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise in the Bay of Bengal to end the war in favour of Pakistan. Eventually, Soviet warships deterred the Americans from influencing the outcome of the war. In the final days of the war, Kosygin also called the American proposal regarding withdrawal of India troops from East Pakistan 'scarcely feasible' and the Soviets continued to veto any such proposal at the UN until Bangladesh was liberated.
Kosygin served for years as the Soviet Premier. By the end of 1970s, when the General Secretary of the Communist Party Leonid Brezhnev started consolidating his power, Kosygin became cornered. The aged premier was stripped of almost all his powers. Eventually he had to resign, which led him to lose all government facilities and protection. Alexei Kosygin died a lonely man as none of his colleagues, aides or even security guards came to visit when the former Soviet premier died on a cold December day in 1980.
6) Yahya Khan: The Drunkard General
The stocky, bushy-browed Pathan, as Yahya Khan was described by the Time Magazine, was born in Punjab and rose quickly through Pakistan's Army ranks for his loyalty to General Ayub Khan in the 60s. Yahya, with his attraction to women and alcohol, was quite notorious in the army and his appointment as Army chief in 1966 after his failures in 1965 Indo-Pak war turned many heads.
He eventually rose to Presidency after Ayub got overthrown in '69 mass uprisings and proved to be just as bad an administrator. His refusal to hand over power to the elected representatives triggered the war of independence in East Pakistan causing millions of deaths. His racist views towards the Bangalis and the infamous quote "Kill three million of them, and the rest will eat out of our hands" haunted millions as his army brutalized innocents all across East Pakistan. But he refused to acknowledge his army's genocidal activities when asked by the international media. Yahya's preemptive Israeli-style air strikes on India in December, 1971 had backfired spectacularly when global opinion turned against Pakistan and the allies crushed his army in the East.
Yahya got overthrown after Pakistan's surrender at Dhaka and he was placed under a house arrest where his 'heavy drinking' took a turn for the worse. Yahya's military decorations were withdrawn by the successive government and his detention continued for years. The last president of unified Pakistan eventually died as a disgraced and hated man in 1980.
7) Zulfikar Ali Bhutto: The Ruthless Politician
Born in northern tip of present-day Sindh province and educated at Oxford, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto proved to be a shrewd and ruthless politician from his early days.
His careful steps in politics earned him the good graces of dictators such as Iskander Mirza and Ayub Khan. Eventually, he abandoned Ayub Khan during the final days of the aged dictator. Bhutto's hard stance against India and socialist policies were genuinely popular in West Pakistan, which turned his party into the largest one in the West after the 1970 general election. Sensing a Awami League-led government at Islamabad would destroy his own ambitions, he urged President Yahya Khan to refuse Sheikh Mujib power and branded him a secessionist. This incited the bloody war which resulted in Pakistan's humiliating defeat in East Pakistan which brought down Yahya's government, leaving Bhutto to take up the reins.
Secure in his power, Bhutto eventually recognised Bangladesh as an independent state and moved to suppress his political adversaries at home. He appointed General Zia-ul-Haq as the army chief depriving a few generals of the post in the process, as he feared a military coup against his government. Zia returned the favour by being a Bhutto loyalist for which Bhutto awarded him the prestigious Hilal-i-imtiaz medal.
But in a cruel turn of events for Bhutto, General Zia, the obedient and loyal army chief, overthrew him in 1977 and imprisoned him for years. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto outmaneuvered and outwitted many opponents in his life, yet he stood helpless when judges appointed by General Zia sentenced him to death in a sham trial. The court proceedings were kept secret and Bhutto was hanged soon after.
8) Richard Nixon: The Authoritarian Ideologue
Author Gary Bass opined in his book, "Richard Nixon liked very few people, but he did like Yahya Khan". When Richard Milhouse Nixon, the conservative politician from California, ascended to the American Presidency he made it clear that he would go to any lengths to defeat communist Soviet Union. And in his fight against communism, President Yahya Khan of Pakistan proved to be a reliable ally. The military dictator also helped Nixon to befriend the Chinese to contain the Soviet Union. In return, Nixon provided Yahya with the weaponry and diplomatic support to commit a genocide in East Pakistan.
Nixon, the ideologue who firmly believed the end result justifies the means, went against the embargo set by the US congress and popular discontent to support Yahya's genocide, all for the simple goal to stop Soviet influence in South Asia. His racist views of the "dark skinned" Bangalis helped him do this as well. Nixon's racism went far beyond the Bangalis, in fact he infamously called the Indians "the most sexless and pathetic people", not to mention his address of the Indian PM as the " Old Witch" in private conversations.
Eventually, he was terribly disheartened when his diplomatic, financial and even military help couldn't halt the collapse of Pakistan Army's eastern command. Nixon would later go on to resign from presidency after the famous 'Watergate Scandal' which implicated him in wiretapping opposition politicians. Though initially popular, Richard Nixon eventually became one of most despised presidents in US history as his illegal political activities as well as bombings and illegal wars in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos came fully into light.
9) Henry Kissinger: The Merchant of Death
Born in Weimer Germany and forced to flee to the US during the Nazi takeover, Henry Alfred Kissinger became the National Security Adviser of President Nixon in the late 60s. His hawkish foreign policy caused millions of death in Southeast Asia and Middle East as he sought to consolidate US influence in those regions. Kissinger's persuasion kept the US government firmly in support of the Pakistani side during 1971, allowing the killings to go on for months. He even urged the Chinese ambassador Huang Hua to deploy Chinese troops in East Pakistan in the final days of the war.
In one of his conversations with the President about American liberals' condemnation of the Pakistani Genocide, Kissinger sneered at people who "bleed for the dying Bangalis". At times, his racist views mirrored that of Nixon's. Kissinger would later go on to win a controversial " Nobel Peace Prize" in 1973 for his contribution to end the war in Vietnam (which led two members of the Nobel Committee to resign in protest). His long involvement with US foreign policy sucked the US in many other conflicts.
Out of all the people who profoundly and directly influenced the 1971 war, Kissinger is the only one still alive. The former National Security Adviser and Secretary of State still remains unapologetic for his roles in countless wars to this day.
10. Sirimavo Bandaranaike: The Ambivalent Adversary
Sirimavo Badaranaike, the wife of famous Sri Lankan politician SWRD Bandaranaike and eventual Prime minister of Sri Lanka, was consumed with fear when Pakistan started to face fierce Indian opposition and a civil war in East Pakistan.
The Sri Lankan PM became convinced of Indian intention to dominate South Asia when Indira Gandhi declared Indian airspace restricted to Pakistani planes. Pakistan, facing the threat of being cut off from her Eastern wing, turned to Sirimavo Bandaranaike who readily helped the Pakistanis to refuel in Sri Lanka on the way to East Pakistan.
This allowed the Pakistani Government to supply arms and food items, therefore to continue the war for months before the end. Bandaranaike's government eventually recognised Bangladesh in 1972 after the war was won by the freedom fighters. In later years, Bandaranaike would go on to lead an eventful life being in power and opposition (even being convicted for abusing power) before passing away in 2000.