East Pakistan

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 14th May 1971.

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Photo of Mr John Osborn Mr John Osborn , Sheffield, Hallam 12:00 am, 14th May 1971

Our dilemma in this debate is that an independent country has taken a certain course. In this House and elsewhere, we feel that we have a moral obligation to do something about the situation, and we are groping to decide among ourselves what we can do. We are asking ourselves what power we have to do anything, because we are no longer an imperial Power and there is a difference between preserving law and order—friendly Governments have had to do this—and suppressing the democratic processes. The extreme differences are obvious, but, sometimes, the borderline is difficult to ascertain.

I have been involved, as other hon. Members have, in the last six months in the discussions about what has really happened in Pakistan. In this House, we are trying to act as judges, trying to find a solution. If this debate were taking place within the Inter-Parliamentary Union, where Members of Parliament from many different countries come together, or within the United Nations, there would be a much bigger divergence of view. That is why the correct line of action by the United Nations in a situation like this is difficult to define.

But there is agreement that there have been serious human tragedies of unprecedented proportions in East Pakistan. If there has been genocide, it must be condemned. It could well be that the Punjabis, the West Pakistanis, have ruled and dominated the Bengalis in East Pakistan to an excessive extent. A series of regimes in Pakistan based on military rule may have lacked that political sensitivity which is so necessary to avoid the strife which we have been discussing. But it would be wrong to condemn President Yahya Khan as it would be wrong completely to condemn Sheikh Mujib Rahman.

We have been made aware of the Awami declaration and the results of the recent elections. I support my hon. Friends in genuinely believing that President Yahya Khan has tried to hand over military government to democratic processes and that he is sincere in his pronouncements on this subject. Those who know him better are even more convinced than I am on this score. I regret that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman did not use his power, having won the elections, to reach some sort of compromise after the discussions of the last two years.

There has been discussion about the so-called "six points". One is that the Federal Government will deal with defence and foreign affairs. Another is that the constitution should provide for a federation. Recently there have been additions to these. The question of the withdrawal of military law and of sending the troops back to barracks has also been discussed in recent months.

It should be remembered that there could have been a misunderstanding on the part of the electorate in the recent elections. The results of those elections do not, therefore, mean that the voters thought they were voting for complete autonomy in the sense of having two separate nations, East Pakistan and West Pakistan. How many of them thought they were only voting for, for example, a separate province as part of a federal system?

Bangla Desh has described this as a war between two nations, and we could argue for a long time about whether this is a civil war or a war of independence. Whatever it is, it is to be regretted and we must condemn what should be condemned. For 25 years since partition there has been discussion of the best solution for Pakistan, both as a whole and separately. Today Bangla Desh has popular sympathy.

Having said that, I agree that Bangla Desh appears now to be the underdog. The hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe) referred to what was happening as a "Liberal revolution". I appreciate what is meant by those who say that the claim of East Pakistan, East Bengal, for independence arouses the same sympathies as were aroused over Biafra. Indeed, these are the very sympathies that have given momentum to the Scottish Nationalist and Independent Welsh causes.

The right hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Michael Stewart) referred to the similarity between this problem and Nigeria. However, we really do not know exactly what has happened. For example, reference was made to an article in the Sunday Times by Anthony Mascarenhas. He undoubtedly implied that the first shots were fired by the rebels, the Bengalis. But the truth is hard to discern from the welter of reports that have reached this country.

The Conservative Government in Britain have taken a similar line to that adopted by the United States Government. The Soviet Union have urged a political settlement and we gather that China has offered support to Pakistan. However, it is India that has the refugee problem on a big scale. Several hon. Members have described the conditions in the refugee camps. They, of course, must seem to be appalling. This always happens in cases of this kind. We learn that if the ranks of refugees continue to swell at their present rate, within a few weeks there will be between 2 million and 3 million refugees. It is interesting to note that they are not all Muslims.

There have been charges and countercharges by India and Pakistan in connection with border incidents. We in Britain must have a clear appreciation of what is our business and where we should mind our own business. Certainly from our personal friendships, directly and indirectly, with leaders in both India and Pakistan we should do all we can to bring about understanding. There is a bond of understanding in the Commonwealth and this may help in this regard. The United Nations may also be of assistance.

The Motion calls for a cease-fire. What can we do to bring it about? It also calls for an end to the strife. We are anxious that that should happen, but what can we do to help? It has been suggested that the West Pakistan Administration should be allowed to go bankrupt, and I have heard appeals from Bangla Desh supporters and spokesmen and others that no further aid should be sent to West Pakistan. It would be nonsense to deny assistance to West Pakistan but give help to East Pakistan. It should not be our task to wreck a nation; our policies should bring about aid and reconstruction.

I welcome the intention of the Government that the aid programme should continue and in particular that it should be concentrated on East Pakistan. Outside pressures, such as the report of the Select Committee and other reports, have pointed out to the administration in Pakistan that much more needs to be done for East Pakistan. Inevitably, continued assistance will be difficult but it is right that the E.C.G.D. should be careful about placing further insurance on exports beyond existing commitments. This will present problems to Pakistan, and is sympathetic of the economic crisis it faces.

In the Sheffield area, as well as in Bradford and London, I have met many who have come from East Pakistan and who do not know what had happened to their families and relatives. This morning I read a letter from one person, enclosing an article from the Sheffield Morning Telegraph by Mort Rosenblum, entitled "Vultures over Bangla Desh". Most of this constituent's family had been left behind in Pakistan and are dead. This is the tragedy that motivates us all.

Can we necessarily put the blame on the West Pakistan regime for this? There has been a failure of communication. The Pakistan regime must put its case to the people of this country. The problem facing the Federal Government of Nigeria was that for weeks and months we heard only the Biafran story. The reporters have brought back tales which concern us all. Some endeavour must be made to let us know the truth, and put to the people the constructive attitude of the Pakistan Government.

Great Britain is no longer a world power, but it can exert a moral influence and can wield moral pressure to achieve a solution. The ultimate solution must rest in Pakistan. A continuing aid programme must be mounted, but it must be properly administered—and that will be difficult, because I can well understand the position of the régime, which will want to administer that programme itself. These are the same problems that we had in Nigeria. The free world has not taken kindly to the situation which has arisen in the Indian continent between East and West Pakistan. We want the right measures to be taken, but this can come about only by an understanding of the problems involved. We have a moral obligation to use our influence to bring about peace between the parties in conflict. I very much hope that as a result of the debate the Government will have some success in bringing about talks and an understanding between those who now do not wish to talk to each other, and in a situation where hatred is replacing understanding.