Modi’s 1971 satyagraha for Bangladesh

by M Serajul Islam | Published: 00:00, Apr 11,2021


Narendra Modi

THE Indian prime minister Narendra Modi stirred excitement among a section of the pro-liberation leaders in Bangladesh with his statement in Dhaka on March 26 that he went to jail and did satyagraha for Bangladesh’s liberation. The statement came in the backdrop of major opposition in the country to his state visit to Bangladesh that according to the BBC resulted in at least 12 deaths. Well-known pro-liberation leaders demanded ‘exemplary punishment’ for the opponents of the visit.

Hundreds of thousands embraced martyrdom in 1971 to liberate Bangladesh from the Pakistan military’s occupation and establish it as a country based on secularism, democracy and human rights. Therefore, the demand that people should be punished and that too in an ‘exemplary way’ for exercising their democratic right of protest is contrary to the spirit of 1971 and contradicted the reasons Bangladesh fought one of the finest liberation wars in modern history.

The demand of the well-known pro-liberation leaders reflected their one-dimensional approach to Bangladesh’s glorious liberation war; that any group in Bangladesh that opposed India on any major issue was anti-liberation, and worse still, pro-Pakistan. These pro-liberation leaders were further angered by the fact that those who opposed the visit had the impudence of opposing it at a time when Sheikh Hasina invited the Indian prime minister to Bangladesh to jointly celebrate the historic 50th year of the independence of Bangladesh.

The pro-liberation leaders were hasty for several reasons. Shuddhabrata Sengupta in his article ‘A Satyagraha and Asatyagraha: Narendra Modi and the Liberation War of Bangladesh’ published by the Indian web portal the Wire on March 27 explained why the pro-liberation forces were hasty in their reaction to Modi’s attempt to ‘insert himself into the history of the struggle for Bangladesh.’ Sengupta based his article on the Indian government’s authorised Official History of the 1971 War. Briefly, he explained why the pro-liberation forces were hasty in greeting Modi’s 1971 satyagraha with admiration as follows.

Indira Gandhi was in power during our war of liberation. She also emerged by then as one of the most powerful political leaders of the time. She was quick to react when the Pakistan military began its genocide on the night of March 25—26 under the code name of ‘Operation Searchlight’. Her Congress-led government adopted a resolution in the Lok Sabha on March 30 expressing ‘wholehearted sympathy and support for the people of East Bengal.’ The resolution stopped short of endorsing ‘the declaration of independence of Bangladesh… made on the radio by Zia Ur Rahman just four days before.’

The Indian government’s decision not to endorse the declaration of independence was deliberate. It was taken in the context of the realpolitik of the time that determined the parameters of what India could and not do to assist Bangladesh’s liberation war. First, the United States and China were firmly behind Pakistan’s military government that was the conduit in the ongoing historic USA-China rapprochement. Second, It was a time when the territorial integrity and sovereignty of a UN member-state was of paramount importance to the international community. Nigeria quashed Biafra’s attempt to become independent brutally between July 1967 and January 1970 and the international community did not lift a finger.

Third, India also fell short of recognising Bangladesh because the Bangladesh government-in-exile that took oath in Mujibnagar inside Bangladesh on April 10, 1971, shortly thereafter shifted its headquarters to Theatre Road in Calcutta. Finally, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman allowed himself to be arrested by the Pakistan military on the night of March 25–26. Therefore, New Delhi was aware that any pre-emptive recognition of the Bangladesh government-in-exile would give Pakistan’s military the excuse to convict Mujib on charges of collaboration with India and impose on him capital punishment.

The United States and China eagerly watched the developments, in particular, what India and the USSR were doing or were expected to do in the context of cold war politics. And the Indian army chief General (yet to become field marshal) Sam Manekshaw also requested India Gandhi to be cautious of provoking an India-Pakistan war without giving India’s armed forces adequate time for preparation. He also informed Indira Gandhi that Pakistan wanted the war because both the United States and China had promised to back it which would have made it impossible for India to break Pakistan and help Bangladesh become independent by going to war against it hastily.

Indira Gandhi and her strategic planners had other steps that they needed to take before entering into a war with Pakistan. First, they needed the Soviet Union firmly behind India like the way the United States and China promised to back Pakistan. Second, they had to convince the major European powers to accept that Pakistan had indirectly declared war on India by pushing nearly 10 million refugees into its territory. Indira Gandhi achieved the first objective on August 8, 1971 by signing the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship.

Meanwhile, the Mukti Bahini backed by the people of Bangladesh and supported by the Indian military successfully weakened the Pakistan military. By October 1971, the Pakistan military was on the run. Indira Gandhi and her strategic planners had Pakistan exactly where they wanted them without giving the United States and China an excuse to intervene on Pakistan’s behalf to save Pakistan’s unity, integrity and sovereignty. Europe’s silent approval to war with Pakistan in December remained the only part of the jigsaw puzzle that Indira Gandhi had to resolve by end of October 1971 for liberation of Bangladesh with the Mukti Bahini and the Indian military fighting together to defeat the Pakistan military.

Indira Gandhi visited France, Belgium, Austria and the United Kingdom in early November 1971. The leaders of these countries did not promise support for India if it attacked Pakistan but they did not tell Mrs Gandhi that if India went to war with Pakistan, they would stand with Pakistan if the United States and China came in its support. That encouraged Indira Gandhi to form the India-Bangladesh Joint Command or the Mitra Bahini on November 21, 1971, under Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Arora for the surgical operation to defeat Pakistan in a quick war without Pakistan and its supporters notably the United States and China able to save Pakistan’s integrity.

Narendra Modi was a young man of 21 in 1971, an activist of the right-wing and communal Jan Sangh, that wanted India to go to war with Pakistan immediately after the Bangladesh liberation war started. Jan Sangh also opposed the India-USSR Friendship Treaty because it was convinced that it would be a betrayal of the Bangladesh cause as it believed that the USSR was opposed to recognising Bangladesh. Modi thus courted arrest while protesting for Jan Sangh to annul the Treaty that was a crucial part of India’s successful strategy to defeat Pakistan and help the Mukti Bahini to liberate Bangladesh.

Therefore, while Modi supported the Bangladesh Liberation War fully, he nevertheless went to jail in opposition, unwittingly no doubt, to Indian military-Mukti Bahini’s successful master plan that eventually defeated Pakistan and liberated Bangladesh in 1971. His satyagraha to back the Jan Sangh would have therefore derailed the eventually successful Bangladesh war of liberation. There were also other issues that the pro-liberation forces failed to consider before condemning the opponents of the Indian prime minister’s visit.

Bangladeshis are not ungrateful people. They nevertheless had other genuine reasons to oppose the visit that was their democratic right and ironically, based on the very reasons why they fought their liberation war. They fought that war for establishing a democratic, secular Bangladesh. Modi, on the contrary, visited Hindu temples during his visit to Bangladesh for energizing voters with Hindutva ideology to defeat the Trinamool in the West Bengal elections.

A major focus of Modi in Bangladesh was upon the Mautas, a community of scheduled caste Hindus or Namasudras, 30 millions of whom now live in West Bengal who migrated from Bangladesh where many of their fellow Matuas still live. Modi visited their main temples in Orakandi in Faridpur and the Jessoreshwari temple in Satkhira. The Matuas could determine the outcome of nearly 50 of the 294 West Bengal Assembly seats. Modi visited these Matua temples to placate the Matua voters in the ongoing West Bengal elections.

Modi’s visits to the Hindu temples in Bangladesh may help the BJP win the Matua votes. The visits nevertheless were communal. Modi’s 1971 Satyagraha was directed, unwittingly, against the Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty that had played a major role in Bangladesh’s glorious war of liberation while his visits to the temples in Bangladesh were for communal politics that directly contradicted the spirit of that liberation war.


M Serajul Islam is a retired career ambassador.

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