Indira Gandhi’s role in Bangladesh liberation war

M Serajul Islam | Published: 00:00, Jan 22,2020 | Updated: 00:30, Jan 22,2020


INDIRA Gandhi’s role and India’s in the liberation war of Bangladesh and its emergence as an independent and sovereign country have been talked about in Bangladesh across all divides but mainly in private spheres, not public ones, and seldom in any details. There appears to be a taboo in the country about giving Indira Gandhi and India too much credit for reasons never explained satisfactorily.

A senior political official at the Prime Minister’s Office broke the taboo while speaking at the Victory Day celebrations of the Bangladesh deputy high commission, Talkathon, on December 17, 2019. He doubted whether Bangladesh would be independent today without Indira Gandhi and her decision to support the freedom-loving people of Bangladesh with the might of the Indian armed forces. He further said that since that decision, Bangladesh-India relations have been between two soul mates and not just between two friendly neighbours. He believed that Indira Gandhi and India’s roles were the reasons Bangladesh’s liberation war was successful while some of the wars of national liberation in Africa undertaken in more or less the same time were unsuccessful.

The official went over the moon with the credit that he gave Indira Gandhi and India for the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent and sovereign country. He also went over the top while describing the bilateral relations between the two countries as those between soul mates. The credit to Indira Gandhi was in denial of Bangabandhu’s leadership in uniting 75 million people as a monolith and in preparing them to make any sacrifice for their freedom and independence. No leader in modern history came close to the way he had united the people of Bangladesh to overcome the fear of death for fighting for their independence. The official’s reference to Bangladesh-India relations as those between soul mates was in denial of reality.

Notwithstanding the above, Indira Gandhi and India played significant roles in the independence of Bangladesh. After the Pakistani military attack on unarmed Bengalis on March 25, 2917, India kept its border open that allowed the Bangladesh refugees in millions to take shelter inside India.

In retrospect, Indira Gandhi’s decision to keep the India-Bangladesh border open was a masterstroke because it ensured that the Bangladesh liberation war would succeed unlike those in Africa that had failed. One such war still fresh in memories of many that had failed was the attempt of Biafra. Lieutenant-Colonel Ojukwu had led the people of Biafra, a province of Nigeria, to war for national liberation between May 1967 to January 1970. Between 500,000 to two million people died of starvation in that war and 100,000 military personnel were killed. Gabon, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Zambia, and Tanzania recognised the independence of Biafra. Israel, Spain, Portugal, Norway, Rhodesia, and the Vatican provided Biafra with support and assistance.

The Biafran attempt for liberation failed nevertheless not because only a few countries recognised it or the superior military might of Nigeria. It failed for quite different reasons. The Biafran liberation war was fought during the cold war when many countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America became independent as a consequence of the process of decolonisation following the end of the Second World War. The colonising powers left their former colonies in a hurry. In many of the newly independent countries, they drew international boundaries and internal ones arbitrarily. Thus once the colonial powers left, many of the newly independent countries faced tremendous pressure of secession from sections within their national boundaries and from across their borders.

Ironically, these secessionist movements in the newly independent countries to which the senior political official at the PMO alluded in his Kolkata speech used the principle under international law, namely the right of self-determination that the newly independent states themselves used to fight for their freedom from colonial powers. The right to self-determination in the international law had been well established before the decolonisation process started and was eventually codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

At the time of the cold war, particularly when Bangladesh was fighting its war of independence, both the right to self-determination and sovereignty and territorial integrity of a UN member nation were part of the international law. However, the newly independent countries were not the only ones that faced the pressure of secession during the cold war; some of the major powers faced similar predicament as well. Thus, although no nation opposed national liberation movements based on the right to self-determination during the cold war when it came to choosing between the right to self-determination and the territorial integrity and sovereignty of a member nation of the United Natons, it was without question that the preference of states everywhere was for the latter, not the former.

That was why the Biafran war of liberation failed and to this day, Biafra is a part of Nigeria together with all other secessionist movements during the cold war. Bangladesh’s war of liberation ended successfully because Indira Gandhi used the presence of 10 million Bangladeshi refugees on the Indian soil to set aside Pakistan’s argument like that of Nigeria in case of Biafra that what was happening in Bangladesh was its internal matter under the primacy of the international law related to sovereignty and territorial integrity of a member nation of the United Nations over the right to self determination. Indira Gandhi argued on her state visits to France, Belgium, Austria and the United Kingdom that Pakistan by sending 10 million refugees fleeing to its soil had committed an act of war and that India had the right to retaliate.

The European nations did not openly support the Indian argument. They did not reject the argument either. The Indians took advantage of the ambivalence of the European nations. India had been giving active support to the Bangladesh freedom fighters from the very beginning when the latter took up arms against the occupation Pakistan army. On November 21, 1971, India formally formed the joint command composed of the Indian Armed Forces and the Bangladesh freedom fighters, also called the Mukti Bahini, and placed it under Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Aurora shortly after Indira Gandhi’s trip to Europe had encouraged no doubt by the reactions of the European leaders.

The war of liberation was on an irreversible track when the joint command was formed. Bangabandhu’s confidence in his people was in full evidence. The Mukti Bahini with the people behind them successfully cornered the 93,000-strong Pakistan military into a hole where defeat stared them in the face. The formation of the joint command sent out the signal to Pakistan that India was preparing a military strike. Ironically, it also provided Pakistan with the opportunity of an exit out of the deep hole its military was in Bangladesh. The Pakistanis thus made the first move on December 3, 1971 and attacked positions on the western front to start the third Pakistan-India war hoping to take the conflict to the UN Security Council and get a ceasefire.

India spoiled Pakistan’s strategy by a surgical military action in Bangladesh. The ease with which it forced the Pakistan military to surrender in just 14 days on December 16, 1971 was, of course, due to reasons stated above that Bangabandhu united the nation to make any sacrifice and the armed Bangladesh freedom fighters fought, weakened and demoralised the Pakistan military with the total support of the people. Therefore, the senior political official at the PMO’s contention that without Indira Gandhi and India, Bangladesh would perhaps still not have become independent was one that gave too much credit to India and Indira Gandhi and undermined Bangladesh’s glorious war of liberation, easily one of the best liberation wars fought in modern history.

There had never been for a moment any doubt during the war of liberation that the Pakistan military would not be defeated and Bangladesh would not be liberated. If India and Indira Gandhi had allowed Bangladesh’s glorious war of liberation to run its natural course and not intervened militarily, the people of Bangladesh would have suffered Pakistan’s occupation longer but the country would have achieved its independence united as a monolith without being tied in eternal gratitude to India and, in retrospect, without sowing many of the seeds of dissension that the country is facing today.


M Serajul Islam is a former career ambassador

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