An envoy remembers

Print edition : November 21, 1998

Samar Sen was India's Permanent Representative at the United Nations all through the period of the Bangladesh war of liberation. Following his formal retirement from the diplomatic corps, he was posted to Dhaka as India's High Commissioner in June 1974. He remained in Dhaka until November 1976, an eyewitness to a turbulent period in the fledgling nation's history. As a visible symbol of India when relations between the two countries touched a low ebb, he was the target of an assassination attempt in November 1975. He was seriously injured but served at his post for another year before seeking an ambassadorial assignment elsewhere. In the context of the recent conviction of the assassins of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Frontline invited him to reflect upon some of the causes and consequences of the August 1975 coup. His account follows:

WHEN I was appointed India's second High Commissioner in Dhaka (Subimal Dutt was the first person to hold the office), it was by my choice. My impression had been that Bangladesh was settling down to a new regime.

But when I went there, I found three aspects that were extremely disturbing. One was the economic situation, which was far from happy. There had been a succession of natural disasters. The people were in a state of dire poverty as a result of the war, and then came the natural calamities.

ANU PUSHKARNA

The second shock was the political one. While there was admittedly a great deal of affection for India, there was equally a great deal of hostility - for reasons that were only discovered later. The pro-Pakistan elements had propagated the theory that Indian help for the liberation of Bangladesh was motivated by Indian interests rather than Bangladesh's interests. Well, there is nothing wrong with India serving its own interests - that is normal. But my impression was that Indian interests coincided with Bangladesh's interests. I found, however, that the pro-Pakistan elements - which existed all over, in the civil services, the Army and the media - had done this propaganda.

Thirdly, some irritants had begun to crop up in our mutual relations - such as Farakka and the territories which were supposed to be transferred to Bangladesh. There was also the question of the arms that were seized during the war and a certain amount of corruption in business transactions between Bangladesh and India.

All this plus Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's visit to Bangladesh in August 1974 meant that there was, if not a growing hostility, at least disenchantment with India.

On the positive side, Sheikh Mujib and many of his associates were staunch allies of India and were perfectly happy with Indian policies. That there were problems under the surface I knew, but that they were building up to the point which it did, I did not foresee. So August 1975 was a rude awakening.

Clearly in the crisis years, Sheikh Mujib was unable to hold the political elements together. He was at the same time convinced that as the father of the nation, he could do anything he liked. But that was a vain hope. When the economic situation deteriorated, there was growing violence and unrest within the armed forces. He took the line that they are all my children and I shall bring them all together.

As matters worsened, he decided to make a bold move, which was the creation of BAKSAL - one-party rule. As a party, this was not exactly as politically imbued as the Communists, but it was his idea of a national party. But this did not go down well with sections of the political elite.

Coming on top of all this, there was the Cold War element, the hostility between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, which were both trying to gain influence in Bangladesh. I think that in the end the U.S. had more influence at that time, because it was able to pour in more money and its intelligence was more efficient. The pro-Pakistan elements gained support from the U.S.

All this meant that two new tendencies appeared. One was that Bangladesh's attitude towards India became stridently hostile. All the problems, miseries and deficiencies of the country were attributed to India. Meanwhile, Sheikh Mujib's position was being eroded because the political elite was not cooperating with him.

Then came the murderous coup by these Majors in the Army. It was a complete rebuff of Sheikh Mujib's sympathetic attitude towards all Bengalis - it does not matter if they are hostile, he used to think, they are all my family.

WE had been keeping in touch with all elements within Bangladesh. India's intelligence services - whose operations few of us know much about - retained contact with even elements hostile to Sheikh Mujib. He felt that these contacts were uncalled for and asked us to stop them. We did so. As a result, until the time of the coup, we had no idea that things had deteriorated quite so badly.

In retrospect, it is clear that the August coup, apart from being a rude awakening, was perhaps a logical outcome of the situation of chaos that had prevailed for the previous year.

On August 20, 1975, days after the assassination of Mujibur Rahman, India's High Commissioner to Bangladesh Samar Sen (left) calls on President Mostaque Ahmed in Dhaka.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Others too had no clear idea, except perhaps the Americans. I say this with some conviction, because Lawrence Lifschultz, the scholar, has written a book on this subject. He is not particularly sympathetic to India, he does not know our point of view or care to understand it. But when it came to American involvement, Lifschultz was quite determined to prove that there was active support for the coup. His suspicions are well reflected in this book, but they are not proved because such things can never be conclusively proved.

After the assassination, I took the view that we should wait and watch, but at the same time, we should establish contacts with the new regime. We did so, though there were elements in the Indian Government who did not like it. Our attitude then was that we would keep all channels open, we would try to do the fairest and the most practical things. But we would not give up on our vital interests, like Farakka or the territories that were supposed to be ceded to Bangladesh.

Sheikh Mujib's assassination was in a sense a definite setback for our relations with his country, though not a disaster. From a personal point of view, from the viewpoint of civilised norms of politics, the disappearance of the Sheikh from the scene was of course a disaster. Bangladesh itself saw a cycle of political assassinations in the months that followed. This was, in my view, a legacy of the war of liberation, when there was a pervasive air of violence - if you disagree politically with somebody, kill him.

As far as India was concerned, we soon managed to restore a semblance of normality to our relations. From our point of view, there was never a deliberate attempt to interfere in Bangladesh or to undermine political stability there. This sentiment was reciprocated, since Bangladesh also by and large refrained from any effort to foment mischief against India.

As told to Sukumar Muralidharan

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