Chapter 2: How British Politicians responded

Chapter 2: How British Politicians responded

British government policies

Between 26 March and 16 December 1971, a bloody war raged across East Pakistan.  It was caused by the Pakistani army's violent intervention to put down a Bengali rebellion. The East Pakistanis were demanding the transfer of power based on the December 1970 general election result.

Throughout the war, Britain maintained a neutral position. Members of the government at the same time expressed deep concerns about the conflict and called for an end to the bloodshed in East Pakistan.

On 6 April 1971 the Daily Mirror reported an example of the British neutrality policy. Sir Alec Douglas-Home, the Foreign Secretary, said that Britain had ‘no intention of interfering in Pakistan’s internal affairs’, but that they were making a ‘strong diplomatic effort to end the bloodshed in East Pakistan’.

The paper pointed out the efforts of the Prime Minister, Edward Heath, who had expressed his deep concerns' to President Yahya Khan. The Pakistan ruler was advised to settle the differences through negotiations.

Many British politicians demanded actions to end the carnage. Some visited war-torn East Pakistan and the border areas in India and reported on what that they had observed.

On 16 April 1971, the Kensington Post reported that Bruce Douglas-Mann, Labour MP for North Kensington, had tabled a House of Commons motion, signed by 186 MPs from all parties. It requested the British government to use its influence to end the fighting.

This initiative was undertaken directly in response to ‘members of the small Pakistani community in North Kensington’ calling on the MPs’ support. Bruce Douglas-Mann opposed the neutral position of the British Government, considering it unjustified.

British local newspapers reported three visits to Pakistan by delegations of MPs, who wanted to see for themselves the reality on the ground and how things were unfolding.

British MPs Visits to East Pakistan

Visit No.1

The Daily Mirror and the Birmingham Daily Post reported on 28 and 29 April 1971 respectively, that four British MPs had just returned from a week-long visit to East Pakistan.

Bruce Douglas-Mann MP, the delegation’s spokesperson, said that, based on his observations and what people on the ground had told him, he ‘would like to see Britain recognise Bangla Desh’.

He claimed that there was a genocide taking place in East Pakistan. The Pakistani army was committing ‘indiscriminate killing of men, women and children’. People on the ground had told the visitors that the Pakistanis had a ‘deliberate plan to cut the population’ of East Pakistan as they wanted 'the land and not the people.’

On 15 May 1971, the Belfast Telegraph reported that Rev. Ian Paisley, MP for North Antrim, had made a ‘strong plea on behalf of the people of East Pakistan’. He supported a ‘private member’s motion calling on the Government to use its influence to end the strife'. The motion was also called to 'achieve a political settlement that will respect the democratic rights of the people of East Pakistan’.

Rev. Paisley thought that the apathy about what was happening in East Pakistan shown by those in many circles was a tragedy. He thought that it 'ought to be utterly and totally condemned’. But he rejected drawing any similarities between the conflicts in Northern Ireland and East Pakistan. He thought that ‘no such parallel existed’.

Visit No.2

On 28 June 1971 the Birmingham Daily Post reported that Mrs. Jill Knight, Conservative MP for Edgbaston, Birmingham, had just returned from a nine day ‘unrestricted visit’ to Pakistan. On 31 May 1971 the Belfast Telegraph added that the visit, which left Britain for Pakistan on 11 June 1971, was led by Jill Knight and included James Kilfedder (Unionist, North Down, James Tinn (Labour. Cleveland) and Ernest Armstrong (Labour. North West Durham).

She claimed that ‘there was no evidence of continuing oppression and bloodshed’ and that ‘atrocities had been committed on both sides in the civil war’. The ‘ten thousand Bangla Desh supporters at a mass rally in Birmingham yesterday’, denounced the MP for her report on their ‘on-the-spot investigation in Pakistan’.

But in response to questions by the newspaper, she said, ‘Surely anyone who really cares for the millions who have suffered so much in East Pakistan must recognise that the top priority now for these people is a return to normality’. Her intention was to report objectively, which she believes, she had done.

The crowd passed a resolution “regretting” Mrs. Jill Knight's report. It urged ‘governments throughout the world to recognise Bangla Desh as a sovereign independent State’.

The speakers at the rally included: ‘Mr Justice Abu Chowdhury, special representative of Bangla Desh and city Labour MPs, Mr. Julius Silverman (Aston), Mr. Denis Howell (Small Heath), and Mrs. Doris Fisher (Ladywood).’

Visit No.3

On 1 July 1971 the Coventry Telegraph reported the views of Mr. Toby Jessel, Tory MP for Twickenham, who had just returned from visiting East Pakistan.  He was part of an all-party delegation of four MPs led by Mr Arthur Bottomley (former Commonwealth Secretary) that included Mr Reginal Prentice (Labour) and Mr. James Ramsden (Labour).

He said ‘that the Pakistani Army in East Pakistan has gone far beyond what was necessary to maintain law and order’ and was being ‘uncivilized’. The delegation ‘had seen about 80 children with bullet wounds’. He thought that President Yahya Khan may not be fully aware of the atrocities being committed in the East. During their five days visit the MPs had also visited refugee camps and hospitals in India and met the Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, and the foreign minister. Mr. Swaran Singh.

On 5 July 1971 the Birmingham Daily Post pointed out that Jill Knight and Toby Jessel differed in their assessments of the situation. The safety of East Pakistani refugees returning from camps in India was an example of such a difference.

Jill Knight ‘deplored the constant statements that it was not safe for refugees to return because the authorities were doing all they could to make it safe’. She justified her view on the ground that she was being objective. She said she had ‘deliberately sought out British people’ when she was there because she felt that she could ‘rely on their evidence’.

Toby Jessel differed on this by 180 degrees and said in the House of Commons that ‘it would be wrong to advise refugees to return’.

The next day, the Birmingham Daily Post reported that Jill Knight had ‘written to President Yahya Khan asking for an investigation into the latest allegations about the persecution of civilians in East Pakistan’. She also said that she “could find no evidence that the killing or wounding of innocent people was continuing’.

On 4 August 1971 the Birmingham Daily Post reported that more than 130 MPs from all parties had signed a motion by Mr. John Stonehouse, Labour MP for Wednesbury. It urged that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman should be released from detention in Pakistan. This was a pre-requisite to ensuring an early political settlement “to the massive human disaster in East Pakistan.”

The Birmingham Daily Post reported on 6 May 1971, that Mr. John Stonehouse had been to the region previously. And this was ‘his first assignment’ as ‘the Director of Development for War on Want’ – he visited refugee camps in India, near Calcutta, in April 1971, ‘to assess the needs of refugees’.

Relief Work and The Danger of Famine 

 On 5 May 1971 the Birmingham Daily Post reported that the British Government was planning to use a DC-8 aircraft to fly in supplies to East Pakistan, collected by Oxfam, War on Want, Christian Aid and the Red Cross.

In total, these amounted to ‘three tons of milk powder, a quarter of a ton of vitamin tablets and as many tents as can be packed into the aircraft for people living in camps in East Pakistan'. The government estimated that supplies collected would feed a ‘quarter of a million refugees’ in East Pakistan and a smaller number in India.

The British Government and aid agencies expressed concerns about a possible famine. They thought that it ‘could follow in about four months unless planting takes place quickly before monsoons begin’.

The Prime Minister, Edward Heath, said that Britain should use its influence to find a political solution. He also said that Britain would continue to be involved in providing aid regardless of the ‘political aspects of a country’s national life’. ‘The Prime Minister agreed with another MP about the need for observers'. He said that 'If there were allegations and misrepresentations, the healthiest way of dealing with it was to allow in observers to see for themselves’. 

On 1 July 1971 Coventry Telegraph reported that Mr. Arther Bottomley (Labour, Middlesbrough East) would like to hear some condemnation of the army’s excesses. He was the leader of the delegations of four MPs that visited the conflict region in late June 1971.

Mr. Bottomley said that there was a danger of famine in East Pakistan later in the year. He suggested that the United Nations should act now and take food stocks to the area, under UN supervision, rather than wait until the situation became serious. 

Mr. Reg. Prentice (Labour, East Ham North) described East Pakistan as being “in the grip of fear”. The refugee situation was one of the most terrible of the century. A political solution was imperative. But he thought that this must involve Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He thought that President Yahya Khan's proposal for a solution in a recent broadcast was inadequate. 

On 9 September 1971, the Birmingham Daily Post reported the arrest of British relief workers who entered East Pakistan. ‘Four members of the London-based relief team known as Operation Omega’, were ‘detained as they crossed into East Pakistan'. They are 'to be tried by the Pakistan Army for entering the country illegally'. The individuals were Miss Christiane Pratt, Miss Joyce Keniwell, Mr Ben Crow (all British) and Mr Dane Due, an American. 

The Birmingham Daily Post reported on 13 October 1971 that two 20-year-old relief workers have been jailed for two years by the Pakistani Authorities. They were Mr Gordon Slaven, a Londoner and Ellen Connect, from Philadelphia.

The British government stated that ‘the UN was best able to co-ordinate the international relief effort. It was only through the UN that international relief could be made available on the scale required to avert “a further major human tragedy.” 

The opposition spokesman on foreign affairs, Mr Healey, said: “there is widespread concern at the possibility that millions of human beings and possibly tens of millions may die before Christmas, unless more effective action is taken by the UN”. 

Alec Douglas-Home, the Foreign Secretary, said that he would discuss the matter with the Indian Foreign Minister in New York and thought that it was ‘necessary for both India and Pakistan to co-operate with the UN”. Mr John Stonehouse (Labour. Wednesbury) pointed out that a political solution was impossible unless Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was released. 

On 19 October 1971 the Birmingham Daily Post reported that Britain defended its record of the aid that it had provided to the ‘victims of the East Pakistan tragedy’. On 18 October 1971, the Foreign Secretary announced that a further £8.5m would be ‘made available for relief work among Pakistani refugees in India’. Furthermore, Britain would play its 'full part in preventing the deaths through starvation or disease of hundreds of thousands of people'. He pointed out that this would bring the total contribution of Britain to £16.75m. 

Christian Aid criticized both the British government’s reluctance to respond earlier and the poor responses from wealthy countries around the world. 

On 5 November 1971, the Birmingham Daily Post reported that an ‘appeal went out from the Commons last night for other nations to match British aid to India for refugees from East Bengal’. This was during the ‘third days debate on the Queen’s Speech, when Mr. Godber, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, said that ‘Britain had contributed one-fifth of the total aid so far given to India’. 

He also said that Britain was exploring with the UN the ‘possibility of providing 100 Land Rovers, 50 three-ton trucks and a number of dumper trucks each of which could carry two tons of food’ within East Pakistan. But Mr John Stonehouse, Labour MP for Wednesbury, expressed concerns that the ‘vehicles’ could be ‘requisitioned for the Pakistan forces’. If that were to happen then, assured Mr. Godbar, the ‘British Government would make a very strong protest’. 

It was also pointed out that, if needed, the British Government was ready to ‘provide supplies of the cholera vaccine’. 

The opposition spokesperson, ‘Shadow Minister of Overseas Development, Mrs. Judith Hart, said that ‘Britain had special responsibility for the British Commonwealth’. As such, 'without a public exercising of its role by Britain - as private pressure was not enough - other countries could not be expected to respond to the urgent situation in East Pakistan'.

International focus

On 2 August 1971 the Birmingham Daily Post reported that there was a rally by 20,000 Bengalis in Trafalgar Square. It took place the day before under the banner “Recognise Bangla Desh”.

At the event, “Lord Brockway called on the Government' to 'demand an immediate meeting of the United Nations Security Council to end the tragedy of East Pakistan”. He pointed out that there was a ‘real danger of war between Pakistan and India’, which might ‘involve Russia, China, America and Britain’.

Mr. John Stonehouse, Labour MP, who had visited ‘Bangla Desh and refugee camps in India', said that millions could face starvation as ‘the rice crop had not been planted’.  He asked for direct UN action to deal with the situation in what he described as “the worst man-made disaster since Hitler”.

He said that ‘Bangla Desh should be recognized as a sovereign state, and there should be a massive aid programme to save the people and return the seven million refugees to their homes’. At the end of the rally, he ‘led a delegation which handed in a petition at No 10 Downing Street calling on Britain to bring the East Pakistan question before the Security Council’. 

The Birmingham Daily Post reported on 3 August 1971 that the Pakistan government had threatened to quit the Commonwealth. This was in response to ‘protest against Britain’s attitude over the East Pakistan situation’.

A few days later, the Daily Mirror reported, on 5 August 1971, that fifteen Bengali diplomats stationed at the Pakistan Embassy in Washington left their jobs. They ‘asked for political asylum’. The newspaper described seven of them as being top envoys. They claimed that President Yahya Khan’s Government was turning the eastern wing of Pakistan into a “land of death and terror”. 

On 9 September 1971, Birmingham Daily Post reported that the foreign secretary, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, informed the House of Commons that he would have talks with the United Nations. He would be meeting U Thant, UN Secretary-General, in New York the following week to discuss the situation in East Bengal. He also ‘welcomed President Yahya Khan’s proposals for the return of a civilian administration’ and thought that this was a “step towards the development of the restoration of an elected civilian government”. 

On 26 November 1971, the Daily Mirror reported that President Yahya Khan had asked 'Britain to step in’. This was the time that things were moving towards the final showdown, which is clear from the perspectives of hindsight. Border clashes between Pakistan and India were increasing along the eastern wing. The President of Pakistan ‘called on Britain to intervene in his country’s dispute with India’. He requested Britain to use ‘its influence to restrain India' from its “aggressive course”. 

The Daily Mirror pointed out that the call for British help was in response to ‘a series of major incidents along the Bengal border yesterday’. There were no reports on this from the Indian side in the Daily Mirror. According to the Pakistani account that the paper reported, their ‘troops killed 330 Indian soldiers in the attacks, and then followed up with a major counter-offensive’. President Yahya Khan stated that they "wish to avoid conflagration but the situation is leading the two countries to the point of no return”. 

The Daily Mirror also reported that President Nixon had phoned the British Prime Minister, Edward Heath, to discuss the situation. They focused on the ‘border fighting and the crisis brought about by the Bengali rebellion in East Pakistan’. 

On 5 December 1971 the Sunday Mirror reported that there was 'widespread fear in India that China’ was ‘planning to enter the war with Pakistan'. Lieutenant-General Jagjit Singh Aurora, the chief of Indian’s Eastern Command, said that ‘we cannot let our guard down in the North’. 

India claimed that they had used ‘British-made Hunter fighter-bombers' to shoot 'down Pakistani Sabre fighters near Dacca’. 

The Birmingham Daily Post reported on 6 December 1971, that Russia had cast ‘its second veto within 24 hours today to paralyse the United Nations Security Council’s efforts to bring about a ceasefire and troop withdrawals in the Indian sub-continent’. 

The resolution had called for ‘measures for an immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of their armed forces on the territory of the other side to their own side of the India-Pakistan order’. It was submitted by Argentina, Belgium, Burundi, Italy, Japan, Nicaragua, Sierra Leone and Somali. As an ally of Pakistan ‘China voted for the resolution, along with the U.S. and nine other members’, but Britain and France abstained. 

On 7 December 1971 the Birmingham Daily Post reported that Indian troops were pushing deep into ‘East Pakistan from 15 points’, penetrating as much as 40 miles into the country, and that Mrs Indira Gandhi had recognised ‘Bangla Desh’. The US administration suspended ‘economic aid worth £33 million to India because of its continued military actions against Pakistan. 

The Belfast Telegraph reported on 10 December 1971, that ‘China warned India that it would suffer a shameful defeat if it failed to heed a United Nations call for a ceasefire with Pakistan’. This was made in response to Pakistan’s readiness to ‘accept a UN General Assembly call for a ceasefire with India and mutual withdrawal of troops’. Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, however, rejected Pakistan’s new offer. She ‘declared that India would “take all steps” to establish an independent Bangla Desh in East Pakistan’. 

On 14 December 1971 the Birmingham Daily Post reported that a ‘new initiative by Britain to achieve a ceasefire could take place within the next few days’. However, the British Government would not ‘act hastily’ in this regard due to various uncertainties. 

Earlier, Britain did not want to support any peace move at the UN that did not have the support of Russia. But now, it was making ‘efforts to seek “practical means” of bringing the fighting to an end'. They were seeking to achieve this through discussion with other members of the Security Council’.

The paper pointed out that ‘Russia will not pressure India into accepting a ceasefire until Pakistan’s military effectiveness in East Pakistan has been destroyed’. This could follow ‘after the fall of Dacca’. 

The British Prime Minister was able to arrange a ‘temporary ceasefire around Dacca airport' to enable the 'evacuation of British subjects and other foreign nationals’. This showed that ‘Edward Heath was ‘in close touch with both Mrs. Indira Gandhi and President Yahya Khan’.

The Foreign Secretary, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, congratulated the ‘skill of the Services in airlifting 1,300 people from Dacca, Karachi and Islamabad airports’, which was echoed by the Shadow Foreign Secretary, Denis Healy.