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The war that still defines India-Pakistan relations

The creation of Bangladesh was the ultimate repudiation of the two-nation theory.

Written by Sushant Singh | Updated: December 16, 2016 9:01:47 am
India, Pakistan, India-Pakistan War, Bangladesh, Indira Gandhi. 1971 indo-pak war, indo-pak war, india prisoner of war, pakistan prisoner of war, 1971 indo-pak pow, india news Military attaches from various countries meet with people in Jessore on December 14, two days before Pakistan’s formal surrender. (Source: PIB)

Is 1947 the year that really defines India-Pakistan relations? Or is it 1971? The arguments for 1947 are well-established in writings on the subject, and perhaps hold true from an Indian viewpoint. But seen from a Pakistani angle, 1971 ought to be a more important year. It was in 1971 that Pakistan lost half its country, and its forces in the Eastern theatre had to publicly surrender to the Indians at Dhaka. More than the ideological foundations of Pakistan established in 1947, the events of 1971 actually define Pakistan’s attitude towards India better since.

India’s decisive military victory leading to creation of Bangladesh is seen as the ultimate repudiation of the two-nation theory. After all, a single religion, the fundamental rationale of Partition was unable to keep that country together. While Bangladesh attempted to become a secular country – which has flirted with an Islamic identity since – the trajectory taken by Pakistan after 1971 was opposite. Almost as if in an attempt to deny the Indian argument, Pakistani society and polity doubled down on building up Islam in public life. As prime minister, Z A Bhutto first declared Ahmedis non-Muslims, announced prohibition and took steps which laid the foundation for General Zia ul-Haq to build the whole edifice of Islamisation of Pakistan. The consequences of the path chosen then are being borne in the form of Islamist terror by Pakistan and the region.

In 1971, India midwifed the birth of Bangladesh by dismembering Pakistan, which created a psychological and moral justification within Pakistan to meddle in India, whether in Punjab or in Kashmir. Pakistani establishment believed that it was paying India back in the same coin by fostering and supporting an insurgency in these states. Kashmir, of course, is a far more historically complex situation but bleeding Indian army in Kashmir as a revenge for 1971 was certainly a part of Pakistani motivations at some level. Kargil was another manifestation of Pakistan army’s desire to revenge the humiliation of 1971. Musharraf, who masterminded Kargil, has written about the military defeat of 1971 that affected him personally. Although that generation of officers who served during the 1971 war have all retired, the impact of that defeat on the psyche of the army as an institution even today cannot be denied.

Visit of Giani Zail Singh to see 1971 war destruction at village Chinna Bidhi Chand.  (EXPRESS PHOTO BY RANA SIMRANJIT SINGH) Visit of Giani Zail Singh to see 1971 war destruction at village Chinna Bidhi Chand.
(EXPRESS PHOTO BY RANA SIMRANJIT SINGH)

The military defeat of 1971 also made Pakistan more insecure. When an Indian prime minister mentions Balochistan during his Independence Day speech now, it carries a certain potency because of what India was able to do with East Pakistan 45 years ago. This post-1971 insecurity also manifested itself in another, more strategic way. It impressed upon Bhutto the need to actively pursue the development of nuclear weapons to secure Pakistan against a bigger and stronger India. Even before India did the 1974 peaceful nuclear explosion in Pokharan, Bhutto had started serious work on Pakistan becoming a nuclear power. With both India and Pakistan as nuclear weapon states, the threshold for a conventional military conflict has gone very high, almost impossibly high. Despite India’s conventional military superiority, Pakistan has been able to successfully conduct sub-conventional operations – using terror as an instrument of state policy – under the threat of nuclear umbrella.

Indira Gandhi, in fact, wanted to avoid these consequences when it signed the Simla Agreement with Bhutto in 1972. Despite having more than 93,000 Pakistani prisoners of war, India did not go for a punitive settlement on Kashmir. Wary of making the mistake the winners of the First World War made at Versailles, India treated Pakistan as an equal, with dignity, honour and respect. The ceasefire line in Jammu and Kashmir was designated as the Line of Control, with the assumption that it would eventually assume the characteristics of an international border. That was to form the basis for solving the Kashmir dispute, a path explored in the first decade of this century between General Musharraf and Dr Manmohan Singh. Even though both sides may still publicly expound their respective maximalist positions on Kashmir, the realists know that a final solution will have to be crafted around the Line of Control. It was established by the manner in which Pakistan was admonished globally for violating the sanctity of the Line of Control at Kargil in 1999.

A Sea Hawk jet fighter taking off from the deck of INS Vikrant to pound Military installations in enemy held ports of Bangladesh during Indo-Pak 1971 war. Express archive photo on 14.09.1971 A Sea Hawk jet fighter taking off from the deck of INS Vikrant to pound Military installations in enemy held ports of Bangladesh during Indo-Pak 1971 war. Express archive photo on 14.09.1971

The wounds of 1971 continue to fester not only in Pakistan but also in Bangladesh. More than a dozen Jamaat-e-Islami leaders, who collaborated with the Pakistan Army in acts of genocide then, have been convicted and sentenced to varying terms of imprisonment and death in recent years. Creating a controversy in Pakistan, Bangladesh’s attempts to seek a final closure for the trauma of 1971 continue to remain a source of tension between Dhaka and Islamabad. That the Awami League government is seen to be close to Delhi hasn’t helped matters but 1971 casts a shadow over the two countries which were one just 45 years ago.

Lasting 13 days, 1971 War covered infinitesimally short span of history but it is an event that has had lasting consequences, for India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and their inter-se relations. The events of that time still resonate today.

sushant.singh@expressindia.com

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