1999 - BANGLADESH
By Philip Bowring
Dhaka: The Indian subcontinent offers some important lessons
for Kosovo\Yugoslavia. So it is a pity that India, with almost
characteristic hypocrisy, has been so quick to criticise NATO
action as interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign
The Delhi statement sounded particularly odd here last week
when Bangladesh was celebrating (March 25) the anniversary of
its independence. The final success of its war of liberation
from Pakistan, achieved in December 1971, was due to India's
massive and direct military intervention in support of the
The creation of Bangladesh -- now the eighth most populous
nation on earth -- was by far the largest incidence since 1945
of one state participating with military force in the
dismemberment of another. It created a precedent which is
India's motives in 1971 were certainly not entirely
idealistic. It had every interest in the dismemberment of its
main enemy, Pakistan, and the creation on its eastern border
of a state which was weak and in its debt.
But mixed motives did not detract from the legitimacy of
Indian intervention in support of a liberation movement which
enjoyed overwhelming popular support. It was against a
Pakistan military not noted for adherence to human rights --
though better behaved than Mr Milosevic's forces in Kosovo.
In 1971, there were numerous warnings -- including from
Chinese premier Chou En-lai -- that the establishment of
Bangladesh would set an appaling precedent for the unity India
itself as well as for the territorial integrity of many newly
independent Afro-Asian states.
But in international opinion, the justice of the Bangladeshi
cause was a stronger force and contributed to Pakistan's
eventual admission of defeat.
Bangladesh was the first, and is still by far the most
important, post-1945 case of recognising that not all the
borders and sovereign states created at the end of empires
were immutable. Further adjustments to the states created by
European empires in Asia and Africa, as well as the successors
to the Ottoman and Habsburg empires in Europe, were likely.
Yugoslavia was a well-intentioned construct intended to bring
an identity to a part of the post-Ottoman/Habsburg world just
as a two-winged Pakistan was an attempt to resolve some of the
contradictions arising from the end of British India. In the
event neither worked.
The necessary re-adjustments may be painful but they do become
the least bad options. Indonesia has learned that lesson in
East Timor. Ethiopia seemed to have learned it in Eritrea.
The other lesson of Bangladesh that may be relevant in Kosovo
is the staying power of well defined communities. Despite the
Kissinger "basket case" taunts, it has established itself as a
viable state with a strong indentity and no likelihood of
breaking up or being invaded. Poor it remains, and not well-
governed. But from wretched beginnings it has made much more
progress than Pakistan in areas from agriculture to education,
womens rights and family planning. Much of this must be
attributable to having the most homogeneous population in
south Asia -- indeed all of Asia outside Japan and Korea.
At the same time, the relative success of Bangladesh has had
no visible negative impact on the Indian Union, which faces no
secessionist problems other than the endless sore of Kashmir,
an issue which long predates 1971. India shows how
heterogeneous societies can work given political commitment to
religious and linguistic pluralism -- clearly long lacking in
As Mr Milosevic has no interest in Indian-style pluralism, the
principles that India applied in Bangladesh in 1971 should be
applied by NATO in Kosovo.
TOP OF THE PAGE