The Bangladesh Liberation War: Origins, Events & Outcomes

Instructor: David Wilson

David has taught college history and holds an MA in history.

Bangladesh is one of the newest nations in the world, having come into being after a war for liberation from Pakistan in 1971. Learn about this conflict and its aftermath in this lesson.

Bangladesh Liberation War Origins

There are no shortages of times in history when a group of people decide they've had it with their government and are willing to fight for freedom. It's a very American story, but the United States is just one of dozens of peoples who have fought a war for independence.

One recent conflict was the Bangladesh Liberation War, which took place from March to December in 1971, when the nation of what is now Bangladesh fought to liberate itself from Pakistan, who had controlled the area for the previous 25 years.

Map of Bangladesh. Note that it is bordered on most sides by India.

Prior to being an independent nation, Bangladesh was referred to as 'East Pakistan'. It was created after the British Empire awarded freedom to the former colony, splitting southern Asia between the two nations of India and Pakistan.

While both parts of Pakistan were (and still are) majority Muslim, cultural and ethnic differences meant that many people in East Pakistan desired independence and their own sovereign nation. Pakistan, of course, wanted to remain one country with its traditional power structure.

In March of 1971, Bangladeshi rebels under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman finally declared that they would fight for independence. In response, Pakistan sent a military unit to put down the rebellion, officially beginning the conflict of the Bangladesh Liberation War.

Indian Involvement

One major factor in the Bangladesh Liberation War was the participation of next-door India. India had been fighting directly and indirectly with Pakistan since their own independence, a reflection of their cultural differences (India is majority Hindu, while Pakistan is majority Muslim) as well as questions about their borders. India was quite pleased to see Pakistan weakened by the liberation attempt and provided support and funding to the Bangladeshi freedom fighters, called the Mukti Bahini.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, leader of the Bangladeshi independence movement.
Mujibur Rahman

The Bangladeshi rebels needed this help because Pakistan's army was both strong and fierce. Within the first 24 hours of fighting, the Pakistani military had killed thousands of people, targeting anyone involved in the liberation movement, including teachers, police, and just ordinary people, using tanks, artillery, and rockets against the rebels.

They also encouraged Islamic radical groups to fight against the independence movement, even using terrorism to put it down. Pakistan's use of force not only galvanized more opposition to their rule in Bangladesh, but brought criticism throughout the world for their heavy-handed approach.

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