In a mood of restrained jubilation and cautious hope, Indian, Pakistani and Bangladesh officials settled down last week to tackle the immense logistical problems posed by a new peace settlement that affects the whole subcontinent. After 19 days of hard bargaining in Islamabad and New Delhi, India and Pakistan agreed—with Bangladesh concurrence—that 1) 90,000 Pakistani military and civilian prisoners of war who have been held captive in India since the end of the December 1971 Indo-Pakistani war will be sent home; 2) an estimated 200,000 Bengalis stranded in Pakistan at war's end will be allowed to return to Bangladesh; 3) "a substantial number" of Biharis (non-Bengali Moslems) in Bangladesh will be repatriated to Pakistan.
Although the agreement resolves the most important problems left over from the war, certain key details remain to be ironed out. Under the terms of the agreement, Islamabad and Dacca—after the simultaneous repatriation of detainees is completed—will enter into direct negotiations on the fate of 195 ranking Pakistani P.O.W.s that Bangladesh wants to try for war crimes. The prisoners will remain in Indian custody until the question is settled.
It is also uncertain how many Biharis, many of whom were partisans of the Pakistani forces during the war and as a result face a bleak future in Bangladesh, will be allowed to go to Pakistan. The initial exchange is estimated to involve about 80,000, although Bangladesh has said that as many as 250,000 Biharis have indicated a desire to be repatriated.
Even under the best of circumstances, the mass migration would be no easy task for the three countries to arrange. Indian transport officials estimate that nearly 100 trains will be required to empty the 50 P.O.W. camps.
Complicating the return of the prisoners is the fact that both India and Pakistan in recent weeks have been ravaged by the worst floods in decades. Rail traffic has been disrupted, bridges have been washed away and highways made impassable. Because of the distances involved, the Bengalis and Biharis will have to be transported by sea and airlifts. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, whose office spearheaded the international aid effort for the 10,000,000 Bengali refugees who fled to India during the war, will very likely oversee the exchange. Substantial funds will be required, however, and U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim is expected to make a world appeal for aid.
Some diplomatic critics have pointed out that the agreement contained nothing that could not have been worked out a year ago. But Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who held the weakest cards, felt it necessary to shore up his own political foundations at home before risking domestic disfavor by dealing with his country's enemies. In the end, he acquiesced almost totally to a joint proposal offered last April by India and Bangladesh.
In addition to ending the suffering of countless people, the agreement will have far-reaching political consequences. Pakistan has pledged to recognize the independence of its former eastern wing, thereby clearing the way for Bangladesh to become a member of the U.N. some time this fall. Hopes are high that disputes over national debts incurred before the breakup can now be quickly resolved and that a mutually beneficial economic relationship between the countries can be reestablished. For its part, India is relieved of the $1,000,000-a-month burden of maintaining the prisoners.
The agreement should also go a long way toward balancing the relations of the subcontinent nations with their big-power neighbors. New Delhi, which has a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union, is anxious to upgrade its diplomatic relations with Peking as a counterweight to Russian influence.
As Pakistan's closest ally, China has withheld recognition of Bangladesh, and last year used its veto in the Security Council to deny it U.N. membership. Some sources in Dacca now believe that Peking will recognize Bangladesh even before Pakistan does. That would allow the Chinese to recover a profitable market for their manufactured goods—and offset the favorable impression that Moscow made in Bangladesh by its postwar relief efforts.