Homage to a hero

Print edition : July 01, 2005

Lt. Gen. J.S. Arora, who died recently, is fondly remembered in Bangladesh for his role as the commander of the India-Bangladesh joint forces in the country's liberation war.

in Dhaka

Lt. Gen. Jagjit Singh Arora with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who took over as Bangladesh Prime Minister after the liberation war, at his residence in Dhaka on January 13, 1972.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

THE death on May 3 of Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Arora, who as commander of the Indian Army's Eastern Command led the Bangladesh-India joint forces to their historic victory against the Pakistan army in December 1971, rekindled memories of the events that shaped the destiny of Bangladesh.

Arora presided over the historic surrender of the Pakistan army in Dhaka on December 16, 1971, which finally ended the presence of the "occupation forces" in the former East Pakistan. This particular incident elevated Arora to the stature of a rescuer as far as the people of Bangladesh are concerned. Arora's death, at the age of 89, sparked off a series of spontaneous condolence meetings. These, together with the newspaper coverage of the death, gave the impression that the people, despite many ups and downs in Bangladesh politics, keep alive memories of the liberation war.

However, after 34 years of independence, Bangladesh is not united in remembering the Indian general who commanded, in the final stage of the war, both the Mukti Bahini (Bengali liberation fighters) and the Mitra Bahini (allied Indian forces), which forced 93,000 Pakistani troops to surrender in Dhaka along with their local collaborators.

There are many reasons for the disunity. Bangladesh does not have the same philosophical mindset that it had in 1971, thanks to the military rulers who ruled the country directly or indirectly for nearly 15 years and undermined the nation's secular moorings. Following the assassination of the nationalist leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975, the military rulers changed the country's Constitution, grossly undermined secular values and floated political parties which promoted `anti-liberation' and communal elements. The coalition of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Islami Oikya Jote, which is in power now, has added a new environment to Bangladeshi polity by opposing everything that is `pro-liberation'. The Jamaat-e-Islami, the country's best organised fundamentalist outfit, had sided with the Pakistan army to oppose independence.

Many commentators said that the state should have recognised and honoured Lt. Gen. Arora during his lifetime for his historic role. But there are people who have tried to erase the history of the nation's war of independence by distorting it: in fact, the present generation of Bangladeshis seems to be confused about the nation's history. Nonetheless, an overwhelming majority of the nation's independent media took up the issue on Arora's death. Those who participated in the war that left nearly three million people dead commemorated his accomplishments. Dozens of condolence meetings were held across the country, at which the role of the Indian people and the government led by Indira Gandhi, and the sacrifices of soldiers of the Indian armed forces, who fought side by side with Bengali freedom fighters, were recalled. Indian High Commissioner in Dhaka Veena Sikri and Deputy High Commissioner Sarbajit Chakrabarti attended many such meetings, which were organised by various freedom fighters' groups and political and socio-cultural organisations.

But, ironically, the government's response was very different. There were no official condolence messages from President Prof. Iajuddin Ahmed and Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia. While leaders of all secular opposition parties, including the Awami League, which led the war of liberation, paid tributes to Arora with a deep sense of gratitude, leaders of the BNP, the Jamaat-e-Islami and other constituents of the four-party ruling alliance kept away from condolence meetings. The Bangladesh Jatiya Sangsad (Parliament) did not include the name of Lt. Gen. Arora in the obituary references in its last session. However, Speaker Jamiruddin Sircar agreed to include his name when the freedom fighter-turned-parliamentarian, Kader Siddiqui, pointed out the lapse.

The late general was remembered also for his unique style of operation, which minimised civilian casualty at the time of the joint forces' advance towards Dhaka in the first week of December 1971. Sidetracking the Pakistani positions in the countryside, the advancing forces swiftly encircled Dhaka, where Pakistan's eastern headquarters was located. Civilian casualties were at a bare minimum.

The Pakistani soldiers were destroying everything during their retreat thanks to the combined assault by the Mukti Bahini and the Mitra Bahini. The entire civilian population was badly exposed to the Pakistan army's brutality. So, Arora, as the man in charge of subduing the final resistance, had to proceed very carefully. He accomplished the task with remarkable precision. The 93,000 Pakistani troops, led by Lt. Gen. A.A.K. Niazi, had to surrender.

Arora was also praised for the discipline with which he conducted the post-surrender phase. While the Geneva Convention was strictly honoured in protecting the prisoners of war (PoWs), there was no butchery of the Pakistan army's local collaborators, or looting of property.

The chief of the Bangladesh liberation forces, Gen. M.A.G. Osmany, died years ago. Most of the sector commanders of the historic war fondly remember Arora. "He was a great friend of Bangladesh and played his role sincerely," said A.K. Khondoker, deputy chief of the Bangladesh liberation forces during the war. Khondoker, also a former Air Chief, represented the Mukti Bahini at the surrender ceremony at the Race Course (now Suhrawardi Uddyan). "Since my acquaintance with him in 1971, I met him several times and was present with General Osmany at the discussions with him. I saw him always trying to help us in all possible ways," said Khondoker, adding, "We learnt a lot from him." The retired Air Vice-Marshal, who participated in Arora's funeral in Delhi, said: "All those who knew him will miss the great soldier."

One of the leading sector commanders of the liberation war, Major Rafiqul Islam, who wrote the book Tale of Millions, said Gen. Arora was deeply moved by the suffering of the Bangladeshi people. Islam said: "As a professional soldier, he could not imagine the genocide and brutality of Pakistani soldiers to our people. So, he decided to help us. He was sympathetic to us and committed to helping us for our cause."

Recalling the motivation that Bangladeshi forces received from Arora, K.M. Shafiullah, then commander of the S-Force, said: "Gen. Arora was a father figure for us." The former Army chief said: "We got all sorts of help from him during the war.... The role he played during the war makes us heavily indebted... ."

In a message to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Sheikh Hasina, chief of the Awami League, conveyed her deep sympathy to the members of Arora's bereaved family and said the people of Bangladesh would always remember his contribution in their liberation war. She also recalled the supreme sacrifice of Indian soldiers during the war. Foreign Minister M. Morshed Khan, in a message to his Indian counterpart K. Natwar Singh, said: "I am deeply shocked and grieved to learn of the passing away of Lt. Gen. Jagjit Singh Arora." He expressed his sympathy to the bereaved family.

Books written by various Indian generals who took part in the war have essentially highlighted the role of the Indian armed forces, but ignored the heroic role of the Mukti Bahini. Arora was an exception.

He told this writer in an exclusive interview in 1994: "I would like to make a special mention about the Mukti Bahini. I think the organisation, though suffering from many handicaps, rendered valuable service." Niazi, who did not think much of them militarily, had to concede in his own words that it made him "deaf and blind".

Gen. Arora said: "I took personal interest in the training and launching of the Mukti Bahini groups before the active hostilities started. I was greatly impressed with the enthusiasm and devotion of those young people. Considering that they had no previous knowledge or experience of covert and subversive activities they adapted to these roles very quickly."

Distortion of history has been a part of Bangladesh politics ever since the brutal assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the architect of independent Bangladesh, in 1975. The level of distortion has been so acute that school textbooks, re-written during the present regime of Khaleda Zia, have grossly subverted the history of the socio-political and cultural movements against the Pakistani military rulers. The BNP-Jamaat coalition has also promoted Ziaur Rahman, the founder of the BNP, as the main leader of the nation's independence.

Despite the distortions, one particular photograph of the country's history cannot be erased. The historic picture shows Lt. Gen. A.A.K. Niazi signing the instrument of surrender in front of Lt. Gen. J.S. Arora at Dhaka's Ramna Race Course.

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