Bangladesh at 50: History of three nations intertwined in lessons from liberation

Even as India congratulates Bangladesh on the 50th anniversary of its liberation, it must reflect on the lessons learned from the events that led to the 1971 war and respect linguistic, ethnic and political pluralism while preserving the core ideas of the Constitution.

Published : Jan 07, 2022 06:00 IST

April 10, 1974:  Prime Minister Indira Gandhi greeting visiting Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman at Delhi airport.

April 10, 1974: Prime Minister Indira Gandhi greeting visiting Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman at Delhi airport.

Celebrations are times of joy; they are also times for individuals and groups to introspect on the past and the future: where we have been and where we ought to go. We must discover the paths untrodden and the lands undiscovered. Like every journey, we begin at the beginning.

In 1998, I travelled to Chittagong, a scenic historic town on the banks of the poetically named river Karnaphuli to trace the footsteps of (Master da) Surya Sen and his intrepid associates, Pritilata, and Kalpana Datta. Kalpana, a revolutionary activist in her own right, who later married P.C. Joshi, the charismatic general secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI), carved out a place for herself in the spheres of social justice and women’s emancipation.

The high point of my travel to Bangladesh was meeting with Binod Bihari Chowdhury, the surviving revolutionary of the Chittagong armoury raid. Choudhury, now no more, lived on 120 Momin Road. I asked him about the situation in Bangladesh against the backdrop of my quest for the secular roots of the Chittagong armoury raid that took place on April 18, 1930 1 . I also had the occasion to meet Robert Kadir, the well-known communist leader who played an active role in the pan-Asian Left movement and had close ties with his Indian and Chinese counterparts. From Choudhury and Kadir (the latter over dinner at the historic Chittagong Club), I learned a great deal about the birth of Bangladesh and its troubled history.

“I met Mujib [Sheik Mujibur Rahman] four to five times,” said Binod Bihari Chowdhury, sitting on a cot in his modest house and reminiscing about a distant past. At 93, the former comrade of Surya Sen looked frail, a shadow of his earlier self as a firebrand revolutionary. “In 1972,” he continued, “there were anti-Hindu riots in many places”. “Accompanied by Fani Majumdar, a Cabinet Minister, I went to Mujib and warned him that he would not remain in power if pro-Pakistan elements were not checked. There was an upsurge of such elements that were not reconciled to the emergence of Bangladesh as a secular nation,” he recalled with poignancy as he paused for breath.

Later, I had fruitful meetings with academics at the Chittagong University.

At the Chittagong Consular Office of the Indian High Commission, the Consul, a career diplomat, asked me about elements at the Chittagong University that were sympathetic to the Indian cause; the office, with sandbags and fortifications all around, looked more like a fortress than a benign diplomatic mission. I was taken aback. Here was a nation created by the blood and sweat of Indian soldiers, fully supported by the Indian people. Despite its modest means, India fed and housed nearly eight million refugees and continued to have goodwill for the new nation after its liberation. And yet, hostility and animosity towards India continued to manifest periodically in many quarters of Bangladesh over many decades. What could explain this paradox and this puzzle, I mused.

Also read: A war and liberation

I got some of my answers from an excellent volume by the late J.N. Dixit, India’s ace diplomat and troubleshooter and the country’s second National Security Adviser. His incisive book Liberation and Beyond: Indo-Bangladesh Relations 1971–1999 , Konark Publishers (1999), is more than the reminiscences of a high-ranking diplomat, who was astute and analytical in his thinking and approach, far-sighted in his vision, and captures the political drama before the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Dixit was Deputy High Commissioner to Bangladesh (1971-1974) after the liberation and was our man in Colombo (Sri Lanka) as well. He should know.

Dixit offers a brilliant profile of Mujib, the man and the political leader. He sums up his strengths and, inevitably, his weaknesses. Mujib was a charismatic leader of the masses, articulate and impassioned; he could galvanise sleeping millions to the cause he believed in. And these causes comprised Bengali self-respect in terms of language, ethnicity and culture, which the ruling elites of West Pakistan, including the founder of ‘the Land of the Pure’, fatally missed out.

Jinnah’s speech

Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the then Governor General of Pakistan, in a famous speech delivered at the Convocation of Dacca University on March 19, 1948, 2 exhorted the Bengalis to embrace Urdu as the language of unity, the symbol of a new nation. Jinnah said: (it is worth quoting it at length):

“We have broken the shackles of slavery; we are now a free people. Our state is our own state. Our government is our own government, of the people, responsible to the people of the state, working for the good of the state.

“Our enemies, among whom I regret to say, there are still some Muslims, have set about actively encouraging provincialism in the hope of weakening Pakistan and thereby facilitating the re-absorption of this province into the Indian Dominion. Those who are playing this game are living in a fool’s paradise, but this does not prevent them [from] trying.

“Let me restate my views on the question of a state language for Pakistan. For official use in this province, the people of the province can choose any language they wish.

“There can, however, be one lingua franca, that is, the language for inter-communication between the various provinces of the state, and that language should be Urdu and cannot be any other.

“The state language, therefore, must obviously be Urdu, a language that has been nurtured by a hundred million Muslims of this subcontinent, a language understood throughout the length and breadth of Pakistan and, above all, a language which, more than any other provincial language, embodies the best that is in Islamic culture and Muslim tradition and is nearest to the languages used in other Islamic countries.

“These facts are fully known to the people who are trying to exploit the language controversy in order to stir up trouble. There was no justification for agitation, but it did not suit their purpose to admit this.

“Their sole object in exploiting this controversy is to create a split among the Muslims of this state, as indeed they have made no secret of their efforts to incite hatred against non-Bengali Mussulmans.

“Make no mistake about it. There can be only one state language if the component parts of this state are to march forward in unison and that language, in my opinion, can only be Urdu.

“I have spoken at some length on this subject so as to warn you of the kind of tactics adopted by the enemies of Pakistan and certain opportunist politicians to try to disrupt this state or to discredit this government.

“We have broken the shackles of slavery; we are now a free people. Our state is our own state. Our government is our own government, of the people, responsible to the people of the state, working for the good of the state.”

This was a simplistic message that lacked sensitivity about languages and cultures. It resulted in widespread protests and culminated in due course in the declaration of independence from Pakistan on March 26, 1971.

The blindness to the language and cultures of East Bengal, along with the need to distribute economic and political resources equitably in Pakistan, led in due course to the formation of Bangladesh. Owing to a number of factors, many of which have been underlined here, the early years of the new nation faced problems, including the very safety of its charismatic leader.

Mujib seemed to have absolute faith, however, in his own people, especially renegade elements in the Bangladesh Army, some of whom appeared to be in touch with intelligence agencies of powerful nations hostile to Bangladesh. They were wary of his close ties with India and the Soviet Union.

‘My children will not harm me’

“These are my own children and they will not harm me,” Mujib had told Rameshwar Nath Kao, the legendary founder of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) who met him in December 1974 with the approval of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. 3 The misplaced sense of faith in ‘my people’, the campaigns launched by his detractors in the context of the famine of 1975, and the allegation that the nation was heading towards dynastic politics and absolutism fuelled anti-Mujib sentiments in sections of the disgruntled military. The tragic oversight to notice the looming dangers cost the leader his life, and the nation much avoidable turbulence for decades until Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League assumed power in Bangladesh. It then became possible to hunt down the assassins who had been given shelter in the country and abroad by successive military regimes in Bangladesh.

Intelligence reports and documents unearthed in later years suggest that contrary to the prevalent view that India was taken by surprise at the separatist developments in East Pakistan, people at the highest level in Indira Gandhi’s Cabinet were made aware of the ongoing turmoil in East Pakistan. The views offered by the officials could essentially be divided into two camps: those that came from the intelligence establishment, especially the RAW led by Kao, which proposed a more active and interventionist role for India; others, from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), had an opposite school of thought and rationale. The first saw the inevitability of a break-up of Pakistan in due course, given the unfolding of events; they urged the decision-makers in Delhi to seize the opportunity and hasten the process. Kao wanted India to be ‘prepared for’ this eventuality.

In an April 1969 intelligence cable, Kao outlined the impending crisis across the border:

“The authorities would have to resort to large-scale use of the Army and other paramilitary forces in East Pakistan to curb a movement, which has already gained considerable strength. The use of force is likely, in turn, to lead to a situation where the people of East Pakistan, supported by elements of the East Bengal Rifles (who are known to be sympathetic towards the secessionist movement as evidenced from the recent East Pakistan Conspiracy Case), may rise in revolt against the Central Authority and even declare their independence… although this possibility may not be immediate at present, it would be desirable that the Government of India should think about the policy it should adopt in such an eventuality and keep its options open.”

Also read: Of genocide and liberation

On the other hand, influential diplomats such as Krishna Acharya and T.N. Kaul differed from this assessment and believed that a stable Pakistan, with or without the support of the United States, would be relatively easier to deal with; indeed, an undivided Pakistan was India’s best bet. Eventually Kao’s position gained favour with Indira Gandhi. She was won over with this line of argument, given her approach to realpolitik which differed substantially from that of her father, Jawaharlal Nehru.

As Zorawar Daulet Singh insightfully sums up in the book Power and Diplomacy: India’s ForeignPolicies During the Cold War , Oxford University Press (2019):

“By mid-March, the crisis was out in the open. On 18 March, Delhi received a R&AW cable from Dhaka conveying Mujibur Rahman’s message, which repeated a ‘special appeal for help at this critical hour’. Expecting large reinforcements from West Pakistan, the Awami League leader sought Indian advice before deciding his next move. The telegram emphasised that ‘Mujib has no alternative but to fight for independence’. [Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s Secretary P.N.] Haksar quickly reinforced R&AW’s recommendation and advised Indira Gandhi that India should not ‘say anything at all placatory, but be “tough” within reason’. This was ‘not the time to make gestures for friendship to Pakistan. Every such gesture will bring comfort to Yahya Khan and make the position of Mujib correspondingly more difficult … 2½ Divisions of Pak Army is poised to decimate East Bengal.” 4

While India-Bangladesh relationship is perhaps at its best today, economic, strategic and cultural ties are strong, and celebratory messages have poured in from both sides of the border heralding the triumph of the ‘ideology of secularism’ and the rejection of the two-nation theory based on religion as the determinant for nationhood, it is important not to gloss over the historic fault lines that have marked the tragic history of the Indian subcontinent so that we do not repeat the follies of the past stemming from Partition.

A notable volume

Among the plethora of new publications around the Bangladesh Liberation War is the volume under review ( Bangladesh War: Report from Ground Zero , Niyogi Books, New Delhi (2021)). Authored by Manash Ghosh who covered the Bangladesh War in 1971 as an embedded journalist, at “considerable risk to his life”, it is a compelling read. Ghosh offers a gripping and fast-paced narrative captured from the front-lines of the theatre of war with rare vignettes and lessons for contemporary readers. He was a veteran reporter who served as The Statesman’s Chief of the Calcutta Bureau and as its Resident Editor in Delhi. While many lamented their fate during the forced isolation during the ongoing pandemic, Ghosh put to sound use his time and solitude in the company of a supportive daughter and produced an admirable book of history that will have lasting shelf value.

Writing with empathy and objectivity, recalling his experience as a cub reporter for The Statesman of Calcutta during the turbulent times, Ghosh weaves in a fascinating narrative of the liberation war that stages the intermingling of personal history with the history of the three nations.

The novelty of the war memoir by Ghosh is that he was an embedded journalist who had access to inside information, especially of the Mukti Bahini and the Indian Army as they marched into the welcoming hearts of a besieged population desperate for freedom from West Pakistan’s colonial rule. As documented elsewhere and in Ghosh’s book, the Pakistan Army led by Yahya Khan departed from well-respected professional conduct and indulged in serious war crimes, including wanton murders of innocent men and abduction and rape of thousands of women. They also triggered widespread ethnic cleansing of those they termed “inferior races” and who could be subjected to misrule and exploitation of the worst kind. Thousands of Bengali intellectuals and artists were eliminated in Army-sponsored pogroms, aided by collaborators who stood to benefit from the colonial misrule and misadventure.

In a narrative spanning 24 gripping chapters in a linear, chronological manner, easy to read and grasp, Ghosh brings to our attention a personalised account hitherto missing in most chronicles of this kind. In the process he shows with ample evidence that scribes and reporters who are endowed with the mission of justice and ethical motives can make a difference not just to war-time reporting in a neutral manner, but more crucially, they can contribute to a better understanding of issues of crime and punishment, aggression and retribution by occupying forces on innocent civilian populations.

Indeed, while the Western media in many instances preferred to play safe, put out biased and coloured bulletins and news dispatches issued by the occupying forces, Ghosh and his intrepid colleagues were invariably at the scene of action at great risk to their safety and security.

Ghosh unveils the complexity of thought and action that governed the behaviour of the dramatis personae. And thus, the visiting Niyomito Bahini officers were dead against Indian Army personnel training Bangladeshi recruits. They did not want ‘Made in India Mukti Bahini recruits’. The Bengali rebels effectively disproved the slanderous claims of General Hamid Khan that “coward Bengalis will be on the run before the military fired the first shot”.

Similarly, Ghosh demonstrates the internal divisions among the freedom fighters that prevented speedy progress at times. The difference between Tajuddin [Ahmad, who led the provisional government] and [his Minister] Khondokar Moshtaque is a case in point. The issue was whether the eastern province would snap all its ties with Pakistan or remain part of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

Nixon’s role

Likewise, Ghosh brings to bear on his understanding the declassified Congressional documents regarding the role of President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in the whole crisis vis-a-vis Kissinger’s travel to China as a special envoy of the U.S. President, with the logistical support of the government of Pakistan. Kissinger’s ‘tilt’ towards Pakistan and Nixon’s deployment of the American Sixth Fleet have been well documented in earlier chronicles.

The chapter ‘Ravi Shankar and Bangladesh’ is evocative of the climate of international concern raised by the sitar maestro to the plight of Bangladesh’s agony, leading to widespread protests in London by concerned citizens in the United Kingdom.

Also read: United on border

For Ghosh, the ultimate satisfaction lay in a job well done. He was overtaken by a “sense of fulfilment”. He recalls the words of Peter Hazlehurst, the South Asia correspondent of The Times (London), who commented to C.R. Irani, then the managing director of TheStatesman : “Your Manash Ghosh has become a journalist turned Muktijoddha .” N.J. Nanporia, then Editor of The Statesman , was immensely pleased and posted Ghosh as the Bureau Chief of TheStatesman in Dhaka.

As for India, the lessons seemed to have been learnt well. From the Enfield rifles of the First and Second World Wars and poorly equipped soldiers who fought against superior weaponry in the campaigns of Kashmir in 1948 and Ladakh and the North-East Frontier Agency, or NEFA [Arunachal] in 1962, the Indian Army and Air Force had come a long way. From vintage fighter bombers such as Vampires, Hunters and Canberra and interceptors such as Gnats deployed in the 1965 operation in the western theatres, Indian air power had graduated to the new generation of the Soviet-supplied MIGs. At sea, India had an edge with the aircraft carrier Vikrant , with carrier fighters that caused havoc in Chittagong, Dhaka and Cox’s Bazar in East Pakistan.

Encircled by a rebellious population, outflanked and cut off from its western part, forced to operate in the rainy season in a land mass criss-crossed by endless streams, rivers and marshlands, the Pakistan Army had no option but to surrender; a stupendously large number of 90,000 soldiers were taken as prisoners of war (POWs), one of the largest in the history of modern warfare. It was a lasting lesson for a regime that believed in ethnic, linguistic and racial supremacy and had to abdicate completely.

India emerged victorious under the leadership of Indira Gandhi, who showed extraordinary leadership during trying circumstances. The Indian people, across the length and breadth of the country, showed a remarkable sense of fortitude and resilience in the face of adversity. India was magnanimous in victory and extended a hand of friendship to Pakistan and the newly created Republic of Bangladesh.

Lasting lessons

While we rejoice in celebrating the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh and congratulate our eastern neighbour, we ourselves need to ponder over the lessons learned and unlearned. On the whole, India has done well as a functioning democracy in many crucial aspects of its national life. It remains a beacon of hope in South Asia and in many parts of the world. And yet, the state appears to be pitted against its own people in parts of the country.

There is a need for greater dialogue; we must reach out to those that feel alienated within the country in a spirit of and mutual self-respect, goodwill and understanding. We must respect linguistic, ethnic and political pluralism while preserving the core ideas of the Indian Constitution. We must remain vigilant and guard ourselves against external aggression in a spirit of firm resolve without national chauvinism or jingoism. In the long run, we will do well to promote dialogue and engagement among conflicting nations as this alone can provide lasting answers among warring nations.

Sachidananda Mohanty is former Professor and Head, Department of English, University of Hyderabad, and former Vice Chancellor of the Central University of Odisha. Winner of many national and international awards, he has published a landmark volume on Indo-American Cultural Diplomacy, New Delhi: Vision Books, 1997.



1.See ‘ Requiem for a Revolutionary ,’ by Sachidananda Mohanty in The Hindu, April 20, 2013: Accessed on December 17, 2021.

2. See (‘ When Mr. Jinnah Came to Dhaka ,’ in Dhaka Tribune, December 19, 2021). Accessed on December 19, 2021.

3.See Accessed on December 17, 2021.

4. See Accessed on December 17, 2021.

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