The Independence of Bangladesh in 1971

Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 3

Time period: Postwar 1945-present

Curriculum topics: Diverse histories, The British Empire

Suggested inquiry questions: How did the British government respond to the conflicts between East and West Pakistan? Why did the British government keep such a close eye on the situation?

Potential activities: Create a timeline of events leading up to the outbreak of the war, using the sources in this lesson as a guide.

Download: Lesson pack

What can British documents tell us about the creation of Bangladesh?

‘British India’, also referred to as the ‘British Raj’ or ‘Direct rule in India’, was part of the British Empire from 1858 until independence in 1947. This independence process was called ‘partition’, because the colony was divided up into two countries: India and Pakistan.

Partition was not inevitable and happened because of long and complicated talks between the British government and elite Indian figures, each with their own political interests. The final borders of the new nations were created in only six weeks by Sir Cyril Radcliffe and were based on Muslim and non-Muslim majority areas. Learn more about partition here.

The new Pakistan was split into two regions that were more than 1,000 miles away: West Pakistan and East Pakistan (today’s Bangladesh). The distance and difference in culture, language, and identity between the two regions, and the fact that West Pakistan held more political and economic power, led to strong tensions and eventually protest movements in East Pakistan.

In 1971, West and East Pakistan fought in the Bangladesh Liberation War. This led to the creation of Bangladesh on 16 December 1971. How can we trace this road to independence through the British reports in The National Archives?


1. Partition of British India, 1947

This map shows how British India was divided up after the 1947 Partition: into India (majority non-Muslim) and Pakistan (majority Muslim).

  • What do the green areas on the map represent?
  • Find East Bengal (later East Pakistan, today’s Bangladesh).
  • How far away do you think East Bengal is from West Pakistan?
  • What kind of issues do you think might come from a country being made up of two areas so far from each other? Give three suggestions.

2. The Bengali Language Movement, 1950s

Source 2a describes the moment in 1948 when Urdu was confirmed to be the State language of both West and East Pakistan. This meant that all official business would be done in Urdu.

  • Why do you think the leaders of Pakistan thought it was important that everyone spoke the same language? Give three reasons.
  • How do you think people in East Pakistan, who did not speak Urdu and instead spoke Bengali (Bangla), reacted to this?
  • Find out who Jinnah is. You can use our Indian Independence resource to help.

Source 2b is a photograph of the Shaheed Minar (martyrs’ monument) in Altab Ali Park in Whitechapel, London. It is a replica of the same monument in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

  • Just by looking at the photo, what do you think this monument commemorates?
  • Find out what International Mother Language Day is. How is it linked to this monument?
  • This monument is located in Whitechapel, London. Why do you think there is a Shaheed Minar there?

3. Cyclone Bhola, 1970

In 1970, the Bhola cyclone struck East Pakistan, killing an estimated 3-500,000 people. This is a British report on how the Pakistan government responded to the disaster.

  • Why is the Pakistan government being criticised for how they handled this disaster? Which groups are criticising them?
  • Who is the author of this document and what is his view?
  • Read the last paragraph of the source. What does the author think will happen because of the cyclone response?

4. Escalating tensions, 1970-71

West Pakistan did not accept the 1970 election results (in which the Awami League, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, won), leading to escalating protests in East Pakistan. On 7 March 1971, Sheikh Mujibur held a speech, reported on in source 4.

  • Look at a video of this speech. What is the atmosphere like when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is giving the speech? How do you think the crowd is feeling?
  • Why do you think Sheikh Mujibur Rahman has made the demands listed here?
  • What is the tone of this report? How does it compare to the tone of the actual speech in the video?
  • This speech is still played on many streets and national events in Bangladesh. Why do you think it resonated with so many Bengalis?

5. Reactions to the conflict in Britain, 1971-72

Throughout this lesson, you have been reading texts from the British perspective reporting on events in East and West Pakistan. But why did Britain keep such a close eye on the conflict?

Source 5a is a photograph of the ‘Recognise Bangla-Desh Rally’ in Trafalgar Square, 8 August 1971.

  • What do the banners and sign say?
  • What do you think is the aim of the gathering?
  • Who do you see in the crowd?
  • Why do you think that there is such a large amount of people supporting Bangladesh in London?

Source 5b is a report about Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s surprise appearance in London after being imprisoned by West Pakistan during the war.

  • Who imprisoned Sheikh Mujibur Rahman? Why has he been released?
  • Why do you think he decided to come to London after his release?
  • Sheikh Mujibur Rahman says that the partition between West and East Pakistan should be “a parting as of brothers”. What do you think he meant by this?

6. Britain’s recognition of Bangladesh, 1972

Britain recognised Bangladesh as an independent country on 4 February 1972. There was a lot of internal discussion before this date on the advantages and disadvantages that might come with recognition. Britain wanted to maintain good relationships with both Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Source 6a is a Telegram on the recognition of Bangladesh.

  • What type of source do you think this is? Who wrote it?
  • Give three reasons for why you think Britain would want to recognise the independence of Bangladesh.
  • What does this source reveal about Britain’s attitude to the conflict between Pakistan and Bangladesh?
  • Why do you think Britain has investments in Pakistan and Bangladesh?
  • A word is missing from the source, can you suggest what it might be?
  • Why is Britain worried about Eastern European and Communist influence in Bangladesh? (Hint: look at the Cold War.)

Source 6b is a letter from the Embassy of Pakistan to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.

  • What does this extract reveal about relations between
    • Pakistan and Britain?
    • Britain and India?
    • India and Bangladesh?
  • What does this document reveal about the attitude of the Pakistan (West Pakistan) government to the independence of Bangladesh?
  • Can you explain the meaning of the last line of the document?
  • Pakistan left the Commonwealth [an association mostly of former British colonies] in 1972, not re-entering it until 1989. Based on this letter, why do you think it did this?
  • What are the UN (United Nations) and the Geneva Convention? Can you find out more about them?


We can start the story of the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War with the poorly planned and tragic ‘Partition’ of British India in 1947, based on religion. The separate north-eastern and north-western areas of the country, which were mostly Muslim, became a ‘united’ Pakistan. The rest of the country, mostly non-Muslim, became known as India. (See source 1: MFQ 1/1145.)

West and East Pakistan shared a religion, but not much else. For decades after Partition, the East Pakistanis (present-day Bangladeshis) were treated unfairly by the West Pakistani government over 1,000 miles away. East Pakistan had more people than West Pakistan but got less money and resources from the government. From the early 1950s, the amount of money earned per person in West Pakistan grew three times as much each year compared to East Pakistan.

In 1948, Urdu became the only state language of both West and East Pakistan (see source 2: DO 142/423). It was imposed on millions of Bengali-speaking people. This led to the rise of the Bengali Language Movement, resulting in mass protests and deaths in Dhaka in 1952.

Bengalis have a rich and proud history and culture focused around language, art, food, fashion, community, family and religion. The 1971 Liberation War can be seen as a struggle to preserve and protect this heritage.

A few key events leading up to 1971 sped up the start of the war:

  • Cyclone Bhola in November 1970 devastated East Pakistan. Around 3-500,000 people were killed and many more made destitute. Relief efforts from West Pakistan were minimal (see source 3: FCO 37/719).
  • Many East Pakistanis were feeling unhappy and resentful. This led to civil disobedience [refusal to obey the government] and the imposition of martial law [temporary rule by the military]. For many, these were uncertain and scary times.
  • There was prejudice and violence between Bengalis and Urdu-speaking minorities (Biharis) in early March 1971.

Maybe the most important event leading up to the war was the 1970 election. The winning Awami League Party was led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who wanted more freedom and independence for East Pakistan. He won the national elections by a clear majority, as East Pakistan had a much larger population than West Pakistan. However, the centralised government in West Pakistan did not accept Rahman as leader. They declared the election results void. This led to the famous and emotional ‘Joy Bangla’ (‘victory to Bengal’) speech by Rahman on 7 March 1971 at a rally attended by thousands, in which he declared an ‘independent’ Bangladesh (see source 4: PREM 15/567). He was later arrested. There were more and more protests by his supporters.

On 25 March 1971, the West Pakistani army invaded East Pakistan, trying to stop these protests. It launched Operation Searchlight, killing many Bengali civilians, intellectuals, students, politicians, and armed forces.

The brutal war that followed lasted for nine months. Estimates for the total number of civilian and military deaths range from 500,000 to over 3 million. Millions of refugees fled to neighbouring India. Groups of Bengali guerrilla fighters (‘mukti bahini’) and regular soldiers – helped by the Indian military – fought back against the West Pakistani army. West Pakistan eventually surrendered on the 16th of December 1971 (known as ‘Victory Day’), leading to the creation of Bangladesh.

You can see how complex the 1971 war was by looking at the many terms used to describe it: Bangladesh War of Independence, Liberation War, genocide, Civil War, or, by many Bangladeshis, ‘mukti juddho’/‘shongram’ (battle and resistance). The war has been immortalised in the symbolism of the national flag of Bangladesh – a dark green background with a red (bloody) circle in the middle.

Britain played an important role in bringing global attention to the war. During 1971, as members of the Commonwealth, many thousands of Bengalis were living and working in Britain. It was a harrowing time for many, as they were living far away and were worried about family and kin in East Pakistan. Foreign journalists were expelled from the region before the suppression started, so there was little international coverage of the events of 1971 (see Pakistani journalist Anthony Mascarenhas’ article ‘Genocide’ for a rare example). However, Bengalis in the UK raised funds to help the resistance. They organised peaceful campaigns and demonstrations to bring international attention to the war, such as the ‘Recognise Bangla-Desh Rally’ in Trafalgar Square on 8 August 1971, which drew thousands of people (see source 5a). The British government formally recognised Bangladesh as an independent nation on 4 February in 1972.

Background written by Dr Aminul Hoque MBE (Goldsmiths College, University of London)

Teachers' notes

This lesson looks at how Bangladesh became an independent country after the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. It shows one of the many outcomes of the 1947 Partition of British India, and one of the many independence movements that happened in former British colonies in the 20th century. This topic also sheds light on migration patterns into Britain and the large Bangladeshi community here.

To begin with, students examine a map of the 1947 Partition. This shows how British India was divided into India and Pakistan based on religion, and how far away West and East Pakistan were from each other. It can also show why East Pakistan had a better relationship with India, which was just over the border.

Sources 2a and 2b are related to the Bengali Language Movement, which was an early sign of the tensions between West and East Pakistan. Source 2a is a British report on the moment when Urdu was declared the state language of Pakistan. This excluded the majority of East Pakistanis who did not speak Urdu from official business. It sparked the Bengali Language Movement, in which East Pakistanis protested to get official recognition of Bengali as a state language. Source 2b skips ahead to show the eventual outcome of these protests: a contemporary London monument commemorating those killed in 1952 demonstrations by the police. This movement reflects the formation of a Bengali national identity based on language and culture.

Source 3 is a British report on West Pakistan’s response to the cyclone Bhola disaster in November 1970. This disaster is considered the deadliest tropical cyclone ever recorded and killed 300,000-500,000 people in East Pakistan. West Pakistan’s lack of any significant response or aid was widely criticised and increased animosity in the East towards the West right before the first general election.

Source 4 is a British report on Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s famous speech on 7 March 1971. It shows how tensions were rising due to the Pakistan government refusing to accept Sheikh Mujibur’s win.

Sources 5a and 5b reflect on the duration and end of the war from the perspective of Britain’s relationship to Bangladesh. Source 5a shows how the large Bengali diaspora in the UK rallied in support of Bangladesh, eventually resulting in large-scale international attention being brought to the war (see, for example, George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh). Source 5b describes Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s surprise visit to London after having been imprisoned by West Pakistan during the war. It’s useful for students to reflect on why he chose London as his destination.

Sources 6a and 6b look at the British recognition of Bangladesh in February 1972 and the British interests in the conflict. Source 6a is a telegram describing the British financial interests that may be affected by recognition. Students can use this to infer some of the reasons why Britain has been watching the situation so closely. Source 6b shows a letter to the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office from the Embassy of Pakistan, and shows the (West) Pakistan view of the conflict. Students can use these sources to reflect on why a majority of the sources in this lesson have been British reports. How can this be linked to the colonial past of this region?

Further questions/activities:

  • Create a timeline of events leading up to the outbreak of the war, using the sources in this lesson as a guide.
  • Learn more about the 1947 Partition using our resources – why did it happen? What were some of the the outcomes?
  • What voices are not represented in our documents about this conflict? For example, research to learn more about the role of women in the war.
  • Look at other former British colonies that achieved independence in the 20th How do their roads to independence compare?


1. 1948 Partition Map. Catalogue ref: MFQ 1/1145

2a. Political situation in Pakistan, 1948. Catalogue ref: DO 142/423

2b. Photograph of the Shaheed Minar monument in Altab Ali Park, London. Source: Nicholas Jackson, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

  1. Relief assistance for East Pakistan cyclone disaster, November. Catalogue ref: FCO 37/719
  2. Internal situation: General Election, Dec 1970; uprising in East Pakistan; contingency planning to evacuate UK subjects. Catalogue ref: PREM 15/567

5a. 8 August 1971: Recognise Bangla-Desh Rally in Trafalgar Square. Source: Keystone Press/Alamy

5b. International recognition of Bangladesh, 1971 Jan 01-1972 Dec 31. Catalogue ref: FCO 37/1019

6a. International recognition of Bangladesh, 1971 Jan 01-1972 Dec 31. Catalogue ref: FCO 37/1019

6b. International recognition of Bangladesh, 1972. Catalogue ref: FCO 37/1025

External links

Blog from The National Archives looking at Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s surprise visit to London, published to mark the 50th anniversary of Independence Day on 26 March 2021.

The Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives holds historical records from London’s Borough of Tower Hamlets. This resource looks at the history of the Bengali community in the area.

BBC article looking at the legacy of Pakistani journalist Anthony Mascarenhas’ article ‘Genocide’, published in the British Sunday Times on 13 June 1971. It was a rare look inside the beginning of the war and gave it significant international attention.

The Swadhinata Trust is a London-based community group that promotes Bengali history and heritage.

A showcase by the National Portrait Gallery of Yousuf Choudhury’s photos of British-Bangladeshi demonstrations in 1971, from the book Bangladesh 50 Years.

Video footage from George Harrison and Ravi Shankar’s Concert for Bangladesh in August 1971, reflecting the international attention drawn to the war.

A short and education-friendly BBC resource on the 1947 Partition, including a video and maps of West/East Pakistan.

A BBC ‘Witness History’ podcast (9 minutes) on the Bengali language movement and the 1952 deaths.

Article in Smithsonian Magazine about the American reactions to the war, drawing on former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s defining it as ‘genocide’.

Connections to curriculum


  • Challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world 1901 to the present day
    • Indian independence and end of Empire
    • Britain’s place in the world since 1945
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Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 3

Time period: Postwar 1945-present

Curriculum topics: Diverse histories, The British Empire

Suggested inquiry questions: How did the British government respond to the conflicts between East and West Pakistan? Why did the British government keep such a close eye on the situation?

Potential activities: Create a timeline of events leading up to the outbreak of the war, using the sources in this lesson as a guide.

Download: Lesson pack

Related resources

Partition of British India

What can The National Archives documents reveal about the partition of British India?

Indian Independence

What led to Partition in 1947?