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Bangladesh Liberation War: Factors that made Tripura’s 1971 experience unique

Tripura had virtually become the headquarters of the Bangladeshi liberation activity and was one of the safe havens for refugees, apart from Bengal, in those days.

Written by Debraj Deb | Agartala |
Updated: December 17, 2021 5:09:04 pm
1971 Bangladesh Liberation War (Express Archive)

The 1971 Indo-Pak war and the liberation of Bangladesh had several ramifications for India and South-East Asia at large. While geopolitically, it dramatically shifted the balance against Pakistan, when it came to India’s internal affairs, a change in demography was the most imminent issue at hand. While refugees from East Pakistan were not welcomed with open arms in most northeastern states due to the fear that they would eventually usurp land and employment opportunities, the story in Tripura was quite different.

The small state with a population of 14 lakh sheltered nearly 15 lakh refugees and ran at least eight major Muktijoddha (liberation warrior) training camps, even as the government swooped into action to feed and attend to the refugees for months. Tripura had virtually become the headquarters of the Bangladeshi liberation activity and was one of the safe havens for refugees, apart from Bengal, in those days. A combination of several factors meant that the experience of East Pakistan refugees was different in Tripura.

Victims of Partition

“Where is your deshbaari (home in countryside)” is a common query that one is asked in Tripura when introduced, especially among the older generation. A majority of people in Tripura are from East Bengal, pushed across the border due to the Partition. Many still have relatives in Bangladesh, both Hindus and Muslims.

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A small state of 10,491 sq km, Tripura’s residents were mostly victims of the 1947 Partition in one way or the other. Prior to that, the state’s Manikya monarchs played a dual role – as a king in hilly Tripura, which is part of the Indian state now, and as a zamindar-cum-tax collector in the plains, now under Bangladesh. After 1947, when the plains went to Pakistan, many of the kings’ subjects sought to cross over, but in vain. Parts of the Chittagong Hill Tract (CHT) hoisted the Indian flag for days after Independence, later facing the brunt of the Pakistani forces. In Tripura, the Partition’s victims included peasants rehabilitated by the Tripura kings for wetland cultivation.

After the war, nearly 40 refugee camps were set up across Tripura for 7 lakh refugees, while nearly 8 lakh others took shelter at their relatives’ homes in the state. In 1972, the Indira-Mujib Pact ratified Indian citizenship for refugees who had arrived before March 25, 1971.

Even today, many in Tripura fondly remember their ancestral roots in Bangladesh and those in Bangladesh refer to Tripura as their second home.

Long border and proximity

It is said that Bangladesh begins where Agartala city ends. Tripura shares an 856-km long international border with Bangladesh with several important towns in that country in close proximity. This meant that fleeing refugees could reach India after traversing a few kilometres.

Akhaura in Bangladesh, a strategic point during the Liberation war, is only 15 km from Tripura’s capital Agartala. The Akhaura Integrated Check Post (ICP), which now handles the bulk of immigration between these two countries, is within the city’s limits. Belonia town in South Tripura was divided nearly midway by the barbed-wire fence of the International Border with Parshuram, Tripura’s Sabroom city is only a few kilometres from Ramgarh in Bangladesh and 60 km from Chittagong, a major port in that country. Udaipur, the erstwhile capital of Tripura, is 44 km from Comilla in Bangladesh, while 120 km from Agartala lies Bangladesh’s capital city Dhaka.

Cultural, linguistic affinity

More than anything, perhaps, it was the cultural and linguistic affinity that drew the people closer. Most people in Tripura found that the refugees spoke their own tongue. The folk music from across the border was also largely similar. Dialects of Bangladesh’s Noakhali district were prevalent in Belonia and Sabroom of Tripura, while that spoken in Bangladesh’s Sylhet district was common in Dharmanagar and in large parts of northern Tripura. This is because those were the Indian towns nearest to the border.

So, while other northeastern states felt increasingly uneasy due to the presence of refugees, in Tripura the migrants encountered a population that was more favourably disposed to them.

After the Liberation War, many chose to settle in India instead of returning to war-ravaged Bangladesh whose economy was shattered. “Though Bangladesh was formed on secular terms, many refugees could not trust their gut to go back and resettle. They chose to stay here permanently,” said veteran Bangladesh Liberation War historian Swapan Bhattacharya.

Liberation War headquarters

In more ways than one, Tripura virtually became the headquarters of the Bangladeshi liberation activities. While Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman himself visited Agartala in 1968, after the War was declared, prominent Awami League leaders including Abdul Malek Ukil, Nurul Haque, Mizanur Rahman Choudhury, Professor Muzaffar Ahmed, Dewan Mehboob Ali and others sought shelter in Agartala.

The then National Assembly member Abdullah Al Harun and other prominent Awami leaders like Abdul Hannan, Abdul Mannan, M R Siddiqui were sheltered in Udaipur and Agartala. Officials of the Pakistani Army who supported Mujibur Rahman, including Major Hooda and Major Dalim (who later murdered Mujib), were all in Agartala in 1971.

Speaking to indianexpress.com, Bangladesh researcher Jayanta Bhattacharya said, “Tripura was the epicentre of all planning of the liberation in those days. M R Siddiqui and Abdul Malek Ukil left Agartala to visit Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in New Delhi on April 2. Hectic political activity happened in Agartala. The Bangladesh government-in-exile was first formed in the Agartala Circuit House on April 10, 1971. Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra was first formed in Agartala. It was all here”.

Medical support and supplies

For all the wounded refugees, liberation warriors and Indian armed forces personnel who returned from East Pakistan, a special surgical board was urgently formed under the late Dr Rathin Dutta. The England-returned surgeon was a fierce patriot and humanist and oversaw countless surgeries of bullet-ridden personnel and refugees, along with others like Dr H S Roy Chowdhury and Dr Kar at Govind Ballabh Pant (GBP) Hospital, which was turned into a war hospital overnight. Makeshift health centres erected using bamboo and wood were set up across the state soon after. Nearly the entire state administration focused on providing relief to the refugees.

Swapan Bhattacharya said soon after the refugees arrived, people cooked khichuri and other dishes for them and distributed clothes. “It was after two days that the government relief supplies poured in. But right after the refugees came in, there was hardly any family in Tripura which hadn’t sheltered a refugee for at least one or two days or didn’t extend support,” he said. Bhattacharya, a 19-year-old college student at the time, helped to distribute medicines and other supplies to the refugees along with his friends.

Secular approach

The Bangladesh Liberation War was fought on the basis of secularism. While the Partition of India was based on the two-nation theory, the secular approach of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s call for liberation brought the refugees and liberation warriors closer and they were welcomed by the people of Tripura.

Remembering with gratitude

Bangladesh continues to fondly remember the love shown by Tripura to its freedom fighters. While Delhi maintains friendly relations with Dhaka, the latter has extended courtesies over the years including resolving issues over enclaves through land border agreement, providing transit for heavy equipment for power stations in Tripura, opening bilateral passenger bus routes, border haats, and so on.

While the Indo-Pak War continued for 13 days in December 1971, the liberation warriors fought for nine months from March, with Bangladeshi visitors often recollecting how India played the role of a second mother.

In 2012, when Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited a convocation programme at Tripura University in Agartala, she said, “In those days, Tripura was flooded with refugees, more than its own population. It was a unique situation but people of this state and India have stood with us, helped our people, provided them food, shelter and other necessities through nine months of our Liberation War,” adding, “how can we not remember with gratitude our friends in need in Tripura and India?”

Though Tripura proved crucial to the Liberation War due to its strategic location and favourable demographic composition, the relations soured from time to time. Anti-India sentiments were spread among Bangladesh’s youths by various elements post 1975 during the tenure of Khondokar Mushtaq Ahmed, Ziaur Rahman, H M Ershad and Begum Khaleda Zia.

On the Indian side, illegal immigration from Bangladesh remains a contentious issue that many argue would potentially disrupt the demographic balance and lead to further deprivation among tribals in Tripura who have turned into a minority in their own state.

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First published on: 17-12-2021 at 03:20:13 pm

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