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Birth of a nation

On March 17,1971 Indira Gandhi was sworn in as prime minister for the third time. By then she had established her supremacy in both the Congress...

Written by Inder Malhotra |
December 11, 2009 2:31:50 am

On March 17,1971 Indira Gandhi was sworn in as prime minister for the third time. By then she had established her supremacy in both the Congress and the country after a long,uphill struggle by winning hands down the Parliamentary elections she had called a year ahead of schedule. Exactly eight days later,she had a very difficult problem on her hands. A crisis of formidable magnitude,long in the making,had erupted in what was then East Pakistan and was soon to become the sovereign republic of Bangladesh.

Since its creation,Pakistan had been a geographical monstrosity — “a bird with two wings but no body”,according to Salman Rushdie. To make matters worse there was nothing common between the two wings except religion. On most matters,especially language,their differences were profound. The really shattering blow to unity was delivered by West Pakistan-based,Punjabi-dominated military rulers who treated the more populous East Bengal with contempt and cruelty. No wonder this gave birth to a powerful movement for autonomy in the eastern wing. Its leader was the charismatic Sheikh Mujibur Rahman,better known as Sheikh Mujib,later to be founder-president of Bangladesh and later still to be assassinated by some of his disgruntled followers. Field-Marshal Ayub Khan’s answer to the autonomy movement was to arrest Mujib and charge him with treason under what came to be known as the Agartala Conspiracy Case,Agartala being the capital of the Indian state of Tripura. Ironically,just before his own fall,Ayub had to release Mujib and withdraw the conspiracy case.

Ayub’s successor,swashbuckling General Yahya Khan,refused to give Mujib any quarter even after the latter had won,in Pakistan’s first general election in December 1970,almost all the seats allocated to the eastern wing and thus a clear majority in the National Assembly,entitling him to be PM without having contested a single seat in the west. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto,whose party had won a much less impressive majority in the western wing,was even keener than Yahya to deny Mujib his due. The two indeed prevented the National Assembly from meeting in Dhaka whereupon,on March 25,Mujib declared independence of Bangladesh.

Yahyah’s brutal crackdown,including a virtual massacre of the intelligentsia in the universities of Bangladesh,was so vicious as to put into shade even the war crimes of the Nazis. International public opinion was revolted and a tidal wave of hapless refugees,their number soon reaching 10 million,sought shelter in India.

For India,this cataclysm was unexpected. New Delhi did not have even a contingency plan for this possibility. Even so,the political class,including cabinet ministers and the Gandhian leader Jayaprakash Narayan,started clamouring for Indian military intervention. Indira Gandhi called in her army chief and sought his opinion. General (later Field-Marshal) Sam Manekshaw stated candidly that it was unwise to act militarily without proper preparation and certainly not just before rains that came earlier and were heavier in Bangladesh. The prime minister saw the point,though both knew that at some stage war would be unavoidable. However,Indira Gandhi did not want to act in haste. She also needed time to rouse world opinion. Her extensive tour of numerous countries made a major impact in all of them except the United States where the notorious Nixon-Kissinger “tilt” towards Pakistan was in full blast.

Quite some weeks before the prime minister left for foreign shores,political opinion at home started taking a bizarre turn. The party line was that Indian military intervention was no longer necessary because Bangladesh’s Mukti Bahani (Liberation Army) was capable of defeating the Pakistani army of occupation. K. Subrahmanayam,this country’s pioneering strategist,then director of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses,put a corrective to this by advising the policy maker that the “lifetime opportunity to cut Pakistan to size” must be seized.

In July the global context of the South Asian crisis changed radically and dramatically. Henry Kissinger’s secret flight to Beijing transformed erstwhile enemies,the US and China,into allies. Kissinger bluntly told L.K. Jha,then Indian ambassador to Washington,that should there be an India-Pakistan war over Bangladesh and China intervene in it,India mustn’t expect any American support. Indira Gandhi’s immediate response was to sign the Indo-Soviet treaty that the two countries had been discussing desultorily for two years.

It is generally known that the Soviet Navy had kept a close watch on the US Seventh Fleet when America decided to send a nuclear naval task force into the Bay of Bengal during the Bangladesh War. What is not known is that the USSR sent a very strong message to China and backed it up with the deployment of 40 divisions along the Sino-Soviet border.

At a public meeting in London in September,Indira Gandhi had said: “I am sitting on top of a volcano,and I honestly do not know when it is going to erupt”. The eruption came just after sunset on December 3 when Pakistan attacked a number of Indian air force bases. It is no secret,however,that if Yahya hadn’t acted that evening,India would have started the military action the next day. The lightning campaign lasted barely a fortnight. On December 16,in Indira’s ringing words,Dhaka had become “the free capital of a free country”.

Sadly,one must also record that among nations,as among individuals,gratitude is the least lasting emotion. After the initial warmth and friendliness came a time when Bangladesh started drifting away from India. Eventually a stage was reached,especially under the reign of Khaleda Zia,when Bangladesh became a happy hunting ground for Pakistan’s ISI and thus a source of terrorist attacks on India.

Now,happily,things have changed. Sheikh Hasina,back in power,is combating terrorism and handing over to India insurgents of its Northeastern region that have enjoyed comfortable sanctuaries in Bangladesh for years. (On November 19,Mujib’s killers were given death penalty.) Cooperation in other spheres,hitherto withheld,is also likely. By a coincidence Sheikh Hasina has won the Indira Gandhi Award for International Understanding. This makes the 38th anniversary of the Liberation of Bangladesh only five days away a welcome landmark.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator.

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