By inviting Prime Minister Narendra Modi as chief guest for Bangladesh’s golden jubilee celebrations to mark the call for independence from Pakistan – that was made on 26th March 26, 1971, though its liberation from Pakistani rulers came with the surrender at Dacca on 16 December ’71 – and for the centenary of the birth of its founder Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman – his daughter and the current prime minister, Begum Sheikh Hasina – has conveyed messages on multiple fronts.
That India matters most to New Delhi’s fast-developing neighbour, whatever the negative assertions of the anti-India hardliners within Bangladesh and those in perpetual denial in Pakistan – as the anti-Modi twitter messaging has shown – and that India did play a decisive role in Bangladesh’s independence. It also reaffirms Sheikh Hasina’s stand that a ‘trade and transit’ partnership with India is very important for Bangladesh to achieve its objectives to move out of the world’s list of least developed countries by 2026.
On India’s part, that Mr Modi has chosen to make Bangladesh the destination of his first visit outside the country also carries a strong signal: that India takes its relationship with Bangladesh seriously and that Pakistan would do well to abandon its decades of hostility against India and engage in all sincerity with New Delhi. History has shown that the threat of a neighbour does allow nations to rally their people together by building up fears of an invasion – as Pakistan has done – but this has its limits.
Lessons for Pakistan
If there is one lesson that Pakistan can learn from Bangladesh then it must look ahead and not into the past, whose birth in 1971 was a traumatic experience, brutalised as it was by the Pakistan army. This led to a cry for independence with a mass movement across East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) after the ruthless clampdown by the Pakistan army, from March 1971, following the instructions of Gen. Yahya Khan Pakistan’s military dictator, to Lt. Gen Tikka Khan, to ‘sort them out.
If there is one lesson that Pakistan can learn from Bangladesh then it must look ahead and not into the past, whose birth in 1971 was a traumatic experience, brutalised as it was by the Pakistan army
The rift between the Bengalis and the West Pakistanis had become public with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s ‘Six Point’ programme for autonomy for East Pakistan. It was first raised in 1966, and for which he was jailed and tried for conspiracy, and with India being blamed for allegedly aiding and abetting treason. Pakistan’s rulers were ill-informed rulers – with the ISI also having no clue of Bengali resentments – had no idea that the revolts that were to follow in East Pakistan were a manifestation of their own arrogance and greed. By the late 1960s, the Bengalis in East Pakistan were sick of being treated as second class citizens and of being economically exploited.
All the jute and tea grown in East Pakistan earned most of Pakistan’s foreign exchange. And this was used to develop the western wing. The more populous East Pakistan was even denied protection from floods and cyclones which brought periodic devastation of life and property in their wake. Besides their differences in language and cultural habits from that of the West Pakistanis, the Bengalis wanted autonomy for the eastern wing of Pakistan.
The results of an otherwise free and fair election – delayed due to cyclones – were announced on 7th December 1970. This left the military ruler Yahya Khan and his advisors stunned. It gave an outright victory to the Awami League of Sheikh Mujib who ended up winning 160 of the 162 seats allocated for East Pakistan. This gave him a clear majority in the 300 seat National Assembly. The Pakistan People’s Party of ZA Bhutto emerged as the second-largest party with 88 seats. Neither Bhutto nor the military leaders were willing to allow a Bengali to become Pakistan’s Prime Minister. The hypocrisy of the ruling elite was now out in the open and this riled the Bengalis in East Pakistan to revolt against the established order.
However, the rapid unfolding of events in March 1971 across East Pakistan, took the Pakistani leadership by total surprise. First protests erupted as Sheikh Mujib launched a non-violent non-cooperation movement, followed by the hoisting of a flag of ‘independent’ Bangladesh at the university campus and then the firing at an Awami League procession in Rangpur, by pro-Pakistan Biharis, encouraged by the local administration, and matters soon went out of control. Added to that was the arrival of Lt General Tikka Khan- earlier known notoriously as the ‘Butcher of Baluchistan’- to be appointed governor of East Pakistan.
By the time the President, General Yahya Khan arrived in Dhaka on 15th March – for what became his last visit – much of East Pakistan was under Mujib’s absolute sway.
It led to tensions at the highest levels. He couldn’t initially be sworn in as the new Governor as the Chief Justice of East Pakistan Badruddin Ahmed Siddiki, refused to swear him in. Hence, the chief justice of West Pakistan is flown in to swear him in. Thereafter, the administration of East Pakistan – including the police – refused to obey orders of the establishment of Pakistan, and instead, they chose to report to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who had declared the start of the liberation struggle.
By the time the President, General Yahya Khan arrived in Dhaka on 15th March – for what became his last visit – much of East Pakistan was under Mujib’s absolute sway. Gen Yahya and Sheikh Mujib did meet along with their aides, over the next few days to thrash out a solution to the crisis, nothing came out of it. On 21 March, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto – who was following his own ambitions – also arrived in Dhaka after getting a green signal from Yahya Khan.
These tripartite negotiations involving the Awami League and Pakistan People’s Party and the army brass went on till 23 March, when the Bengalis observed Pakistan Day by hoisting Bangladesh flags atop homes and offices. Thereafter, there seemed to be no turning back for Sheikh Mujib and their movement for freedom from Pakistan.
And once Yahya left Dacca on the night of 25th March 1971, the Pakistan army launched ‘Operation Searchlight’ in East Pakistan. They went on a killing spree across East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), after which at least 7000 people were found dead the next day in Dacca. Residential areas, local Police lines, Dacca University’s halls of residence and girls hostels on campus, were all targeted. But Zulfikar Bhutto, who had stayed back, to see Dacca burn, left on 26th March.
And before leaving he had patted General Tikka Khan on his back and assured him and his partners in the genocide that he’d reward them someday! So when Bhutto manoeuvred his way to the top of Pakistan’s political heap, Tikka Khan was made Pakistan’s army chief and his colleague Gen Farman, the head of Fauji Foundation, Pakistan’s biggest business entity.
Why March 26 matters to Bangladesh
The significance of 26th March 1971, for Bangladesh, is also because, minutes after midnight of 25/26 March, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman declared the independence of Bangladesh. He was soon thereafter arrested by the Pakistan army, taken to Dhaka cantonment, and a few days later flown to West Pakistan, where he was threatened with treason and death, but he held on. And on 27th March 1971, Major Ziaur Rahman, a Bengali officer in the Pakistan army – and one who later emerged as the Sheikh’s rival- also announced the independence of Bangladesh over Kalurghat radio in Chittagong.
By May 1971, a campaign was launched by the Mukti Bahini, that divided the country into eleven sectors and waged a guerrilla war across what was East Pakistan, against the Pakistan army. This would put them at a big disadvantage when India intervened.
But the atrocities of the Pakistan army continued and led to a large exodus of bewildered refugees into India. By the end of May, India had about 10 million Bengali refugees, and the financial burden of this refugee relief effort was estimated by the World Bank, (as quoted in the New York Times), at about $700 million in a full year. This was roughly half of India’s defence budget in 1970. This financial drain was the primary reason why India intervened, formally from the end of November 1971 – and not 03 Dec’71, when war was declared – as also to provide humanitarian assistance to the Bengalis.
Indian army’s role
There were refugee camps all across eastern India with a Bangladeshi government in exile in Calcutta. After six months a well planned military blitzkrieg was launched by the Indian army. A total of about 80,000 Pakistani army regulars in East Pakistan with local recruits were no match for India’s eastern army, who outmanoeuvred them with their well trained professional force.
En route to Dacca, the Indian army heard many accounts of the atrocities of the Pakistan army, and of the massacre of thousands of Bengalis. The evidence of that was unearthed in the nearly 40 mass graves, and also there were reports of the rape of about 200,000 Bengali women, shockingly encouraged by the generals’ Tikka Khan, his successor, Niazi and his senior officers.
En route to Dacca, the Indian army heard many accounts of the atrocities of the Pakistan army, and of the massacre of thousands of Bengalis.
No wonder, Lt Gen Niazi had set a pre-condition when he surrendered on 16 December 1971, with 93,000 Pakistani military officers and soldiers and allied elements at the Race Course in Dacca that Pakistani soldiers be allowed to keep their weapons even after the surrender – something which isn’t done once a soldier surrenders – fearing that he and his men would be lynched to death by the angry mobs of Bengali men and women!
But they were allowed to do so, to prevent an additional crisis and perhaps because Niazi and his Indian counterpart – Lt Gen JS Arora – were batchmates from the IMA, Dehradun! Moreover, India wanted the end of an end to the bloodshed, not more of it, and the return to normalcy.
On 20th December 1971, Pakistan’s bumbling President Yahya Khan resigned and handed over power in the truncated country to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who it is said, had orchestrated the delays at the UN for a ‘ceasefire order’ that Yahya had hoped would prevent the fall of Dacca. Bhutto was the eternal political chameleon, and thus on 8th January 1972, when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was freed to fly to London from Rawalpindi to return to a free Bangladesh, he was seen off by ZA Bhutto (the new leader of a truncated Pakistan) to take over as the leader of Bangladesh.
But in the fifty years that have followed, India’s relationship with Bangladesh has been inconsistent. Sadly, domestic politics have often dominated the opportunities that good bi-lateral ties could offer. But now, Mr Modi’s two-day trip could ensure that the relationship between Delhi and Dhaka becomes the benchmark for good bilateral relations in South Asia.
–The story earlier appeared on timesnownews.com