As Bangladesh commemorates 50 years of its liberation, our nation proudly recalls the coordinated military and diplomatic moves administered by the Indira Gandhi government that ultimately led to our triumph over Pakistan.
On the day 16 December 1971, the world witnessed India’s formal victory over Pakistan when General Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi surrendered with 93,000 forces to joint forces led by the Indian army and Bangladeshi freedom fighters popularly known as “Mukti Bahini '' in Dhaka. An Instrument of Surrender was signed on that day by General Niazi in the presence of India’s General Jagjit Singh Aurora ending the 13-day war marking the formation of East Pakistan as the new nation of Bangladesh. The prolonged ignorance towards the civil and political rights of the then Bengali Population of East Pakistan by their West Pakistan counterparts resulted in a series of revolutions from March 1971 and ended in a ruthless battle. Over 3 million Bangladeshis were killed and thousands of women were subjected to genocidal rape. However, eventually, Bangladesh was able to attain its long-sought independence with the help of India, and a new government was formed under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Fifty years later down the line, the India-Bangladesh relations, despite some geopolitical challenges and internal discrepancies, are still active and strong. Last year in the month of December, President Ram Nath Kovind paid a three-day visit to Dhaka as the guest of honour to attend the victory day celebrations alongside Bangladesh dignitaries. But across the border, India still faces the problem of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants and the constant struggle between them and local communities in areas like Assam, Tripura, and Manipur which results in violence and death. Many of them also have to grapple with the issue of citizenship which is used today by political parties to mobilise support by othering them during elections. Thus, for understanding India-Bangladesh relations in a deeper context, it is instructive to have a systematic knowledge about the nature of this historical war which altered the ideological map of South Asia.
Analysing the background
The Partition of the Indian subcontinent in August 1947 saw the birth of two states-India and Pakistan. The dominion of Pakistan comprised two geographic sections-West Pakistan and East Pakistan. Although both regions were part of the same country, the population of East Pakistan had a clear distinction in social and linguistic basis as compared to its western side. This disparity between the two regions was also evident on the administrative side as the government showed a biased attitude towards the western side and neglected the majority Bengali population in the east. With West Pakistan’s dominance on political institutions such as Parliament, Judiciary etc, the people of East Pakistan soon started to face and perceive injustice on social, political, and economic levels.
At the social level, the Bengali ethnic identity and language failed miserably to get recognition in various spheres. For example, Urdu was declared as the national language of Pakistan in 1948 by the then Governor-General Muhammad Ali Jinnah and neglected the Bengali-speaking majority which constituted 56% of the country’s population. The government also removed the Bengali script from stamps and currency, which were in place since the British Era. As a result, the language movement began in 1948 and the people of East Pakistan protested to get recognition for their language along with Urdu and English. In the economic sphere, the people of East Pakistan were given low representation in jobs, including military and civil administration, with an almost 400% gap in per capita income of two regions.
At the political level, the nation was mostly ruled by military dictators like Ayub Khan (1958-69) and later by Yahya Khan (1969-71) who were both West Pakistanis. In November 1970, East Pakistan was hit by a cyclone named Bhola which catastrophically resulted in the death of lakhs of people. The Khan govt failed to understand the magnitude of the disaster and also lagged in the relief works. Hurt by neglect, the Bengalis of East Pakistan voted in the December 1970 election which resulted in the victory of the Bangladesh Awami League led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, gaining a majority in the national assembly. But Yahya Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (leader of the Pakistan People’s Party) refused to allow the Awami League to form the government. As the days passed, the situation in East Pakistan turned worse with widespread protest and violence. On 25th March 1971, the Pakistani Army started a military pacification codenamed as- “Operation Searchlight” and conducted the killing of unarmed civilians, mass exodus and genocidal rape all over East Pakistan. Mujibur Rahman was arrested and many other members of the party fled to India as refugees.
The Involvement of India
The Indira Gandhi govt had anticipated the possibility of a liberation war in East Pakistan, through the Intelligence reports submitted by the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) led by R.N. Kao. Since then, the govt had been carefully inspecting the developments of East Pakistan. On 18 March 1971, Delhi received an R&AW cable from Dhaka conveying Mujibur Rahman’s message, which repeated a ‘special appeal for help at this critical hour’. The message also conveyed that he had no other way other than fighting for the independence of East Pakistan. The widespread atrocities by the Pakistan military in East Pakistan was particularly aimed at the minority Bengali Hindu population. As a result, millions of Bengali refugees (nearly 10 million), started to enter India, creating huge socio-economic challenges for the bordering states mainly West Bengal, Tripura, Meghalaya, and Assam. Unable to contain the flow of refugees, the govt tried its maximum to set up temporary refugee camps and to supply food and medicines. It created a huge impact on India's already weakened economy.
Indira Gandhi began travelling to various bordering states and tried to gather support against Pakistan. The govt tried to get the assistance of the international community and repeatedly appealed to them as the External Affairs Minister Swaran Singh met the foreign ministers of other countries. It was necessary for India to get assistance from other countries as Pakistan was supported by US President Richard Nixon. The R&AW along with defected East Pakistan military officers started to recruit people from refugee camps and trained them to fight against Pakistan as foot soldiers of Mukti Bahini. Indira Gandhi along with Swaran Singh travelled to major world capitals and succeeded in persuading the members of western bloc, including France, Australia, and West Germany to stand against America. Even though Indira Gandhi’s meeting with US President Nixon in Washington turned out to be a failure, she succeeded in receiving massive support for India from the Soviet Union. The Soviet supported India’s military and Mukti Bahini soldiers to fight against Pakistan as the liberation of East Pakistan would weaken the position of its rivals-the United States and China. They also agreed on military cooperation which led to the Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty aimed at securing emergency military supplies.
When Pakistan continued their campaign, India gradually started to use Mukti Bahini soldiers to carry out attacks in East Pakistan. India had already prepared the military for war but was waiting for Pakistan to make their first move. On the evening of December 3, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) launched airstrikes on eleven airfields of the northwestern sector of India under operation ‘Chengiz Khan’. Indira Gandhi ordered an all-out tri-service war, immediately mobilised the troops and started a full-scale invasion of Pakistan. Durga Prasad Dhar, the Indian Ambassador to Moscow, successfully managed to establish a local channel with the Soviets who set up an air bridge between Moscow and Delhi for supplying critical military equipment for the Indian Army, led by Gen. Sam Maneckshaw. The Soviet Union acted as a ‘Stabilizing Factor’ and reduced the influence of the USA in the South Asian Region. Finally, on December 16, the war came to an end with the surrender of the Pakistan military before the Indian forces and an independent Bangladesh was born under the presidency of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
By A Amal Nath