The Liberation War of Bangladesh was approaching its inevitable climax by November 1971. The Mukti Fouj – initially considered a band of "mere troublemakers" by the Pakistanis – was now getting bolder and stronger, often engaging the Pakistan Army in frontal assaults.
India, unwavering in its support to Bangladesh, was also pounding Pakistani military positions with artillery. But a very different kind of battle was raging among the giants at the United Nations, because not all wars are fought with soldiers and bullets.
In the days leading up to Bangladesh's independence, the US and its allies ignored a Pakistan-perpetrated genocide that killed three million Bangladeshis, and tried to pass a Security Council motion against India for starting a war.
But against the overwhelming odds, Moscow's support for its ally New Delhi and the cause of an independent Bangladesh remained steadfast.
During the discussions of the conflict between India and Pakistan, Soviet Union was the only superpower who vetoed a series of resolutions sponsored by the United States, China and other big players at the UN.
These UN resolutions artificially divided the issues of ceasefire in the Indian subcontinent and political resolution in East Pakistan, thus ignoring the real reasons behind the military conflict.
'A grave situation'
The situation in East Pakistan in 1971 had become a matter of concern at the UN for quite some time, months before the Soviet Union had to take on the world to safeguard Bangladesh's bloody struggle for independence.
The UN secretary general on 17 September, 1971 introduced the annual report on the work of the UN on the situation in East Pakistan to the General Assembly. The report mentioned "loss of life and destruction," but avoided any mention of genocide, killings, or rapes.
About a month later, on 20 October, the UN Secretary General wrote to the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Pakistani President Yahya Khan, saying that the hostilities between India and Pakistan might jeopardise world peace.
Standing near the abyss, Yahya quickly responded on 22 October, blaming India squarely for killing civilians in his country by "shelling border villages."
He also recommended that the UN observers on both sides of the border should "oversee the withdrawal and supervise the maintenance of peace."
Had the UN acted on Yahya's proposal and deployed its observers on the border, the hit and run operations across the border by the Mukti Fouj would have been seriously affected. This was Yahya's true intention behind his crafty request to the UN to send its observers.
Indira Gandhi, however, delayed answering the Secretary General's letter for almost a month because she was on a whirlwind tour to drum up support for her country. She replied on 16 November.
Her bold response publicised what the UN reports had suppressed. She clearly described how the Pakistan army had ravaged fundamental freedom and human rights in East Pakistan, driving millions of Bangalis into India.
She asserted in clear terms that the problem could only be resolved through peaceful negotiations between the military rulers of West Pakistan and accepted leaders of Bangladesh. Indira Gandhi also said the release of Mujib was the first step towards such negotiations.
Growing even more desperate for UN intervention, Yahya wrote again to the Secretary General on 29 November, "A grave situation prevails at present on the borders of East Pakistan as a result of unprovoked and large-scale attacks by the Indian armed forces."
"In order to obviate a threat to peace and to arrest the deteriorating situation, I now request Your Excellency to consider stationing a force of UN observers on our side of the East Pakistan border immediately, to observe and report upon violations of our territory," the letter read.
However, before this proposal could be discussed at the UN, India declared war on Pakistan on 3 December after Pakistan launched an attack on India on the Western front.
A diplomatic flurry
By December 1971, the situation further deteriorated for Pakistan. The Indian forces and Mukti Bahini had pushed beyond General AAK Niazi's "line of no penetration," basically bypassing the Pakistani positions.
With East Pakistan slipping out of its grip, Pakistan fell back on utilising whatever diplomatic clout it had at the UN. One battle after another was being fought out at the UN between the big powers such as the US, China and the Soviet Union.
It was a diplomatic flurry of unpresented intensity.
Pakistan managed to mobilise its allies at the UN to bring on resolution after resolution, all aimed at enforcing a ceasefire in East Pakistan, brushing aside the question of political settlement.
On 4 December, just a day after India was dragged into the war, George HW Bush, who was then the US ambassador to the UN, placed a resolution for an immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of Indian troops in East Pakistan.
Gary J Bass, an American journalist, in his book "The Blood Telegram" wrote, Bush, without condemning Pakistan for its genocide, rather attacked India for war on Pakistan in violation of the UN Charter.
The UN resolution won eleven votes with only the Soviet Union casting a veto. The atmosphere was tense, and at one stage, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger warned the Soviet Union that "We are at a watershed in our relationship."
The same day, two draft resolutions, one by Argentina, Nicaragua, Sierra Leone and Somalia, and the other by Belgium, Italy and Japan were brought to the Security Council calling upon India and Pakistan to agree on an immediate ceasefire.
A day later, two more draft resolutions were tabled, one by Argentina, Belgium, Burundi, Italy, Japan, Nicaragua, Sierra Leone and Somalia, and the other by Belgium, Italy, Japan, Nicaragua, Sierra Leone and Tunisia. Both resolutions called for a ceasefire.
As the Security Council was bogged down over the issue, it was sent to the General Assembly on 6 December.
The next day, 7 December, was a defining moment for the birth of Bangladesh as 104 countries voted for a resolution placed at the General Assembly by Argentina for ceasefire and withdrawal of Indian troops.
In this war at the UN, India was a forlorn fighter with support only from the Soviet Union, a few Soviet allies and Bhutan totaling just 11 votes, a fraction of what the US and China had together.
Fortunately, General Assembly resolutions are not binding on UN members, otherwise it would have rendered Bangladesh's independence a pipe dream.
Meanwhile, with the USS Enterprise carrier group sailing towards the Bay of Bengal in a blatant show of force against the India-Soviet Union alliance, the world was on edge over the flashpoint of Bangladesh.
Diplomatic actions at the UN entered another crucial phase from 12 December as the US insisted that the Security Council act according to the General Assembly's resolution passed on 7 December calling for a ceasefire and withdrawal of troops in East Pakistan.
The proposal was again vetoed by the Soviet Union the next day.
The Americans brought another resolution with the same demand on 13 December. The Soviets were steadfast in their support to India and Bangladesh and they vetoed this resolution too, following which Italy and Japan brought a resolution in the Security Council the same day.
This time, they called for immediate steps aimed at achieving a comprehensive political settlement along with a ceasefire. The Soviet Union came through again and applied its power to veto the proposal.
When the debate started at the Security Council, the Soviet Union vetoed thrice on the motion for ceasefire, shooting down the Pakistani move to avert surrender. A US resolution was also vetoed by the Soviets.
On 15 December, just a day before Bangladesh won its freedom, a Polish resolution called for an immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of troops. Such a resolution, if adopted, would have been disastrous for India and Bangladesh.
But fortunately, Pakistan's Foreign Minister Zulfikar All Bhutto tore up his copy of the resolution, denounced the UN for "legalising aggression," and stormed out of the session with tearful eyes.
This was a crucial moment, as the Soviets, weary of intense international pressure, had indicated that they might not be able to veto again in future and that India must finish its work in East Pakistan before there were any more moves at the UN.
The council met twice again that evening, where the Chinese and Soviets bitterly accused each other of playing power politics.
In the second session, Britain and France introduced a joint proposal calling for a ceasefire and a comprehensive political settlement between Pakistan and Bangladesh. The Soviet Union also introduced a resolution calling for a ceasefire and a "simultaneous" political settlement.
It was evident that Dhaka's fall was imminent, and the Soviets were buying time on India's behalf. The council adjourned around midnight without a vote until the next day.
But "tomorrow," 16 December, 1971, turned out to be a very different story.
On that day, Pakistan's strength crumbled before the onslaught of Bangladesh's Mukti Fouj and Indian forces, and "Tiger" Niazi surrendered unconditionally on behalf of his 93,000 Pakistani troops at a public ceremony at Dhaka's Ramna Race Course.
[This article is based on the book "Genocide They Wrote," by veteran journalists Inam Ahmed and Shakhawat Liton.]