Bangladesh: An Enslaved Nation? (Part II)
“None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free” said Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, German writer and statesman (1749-1832).
File PTI photo of Home Minister Amit Shah with his Bangladeshi counterpart Asaduzzaman Khan at a meeting in New Delhi
(In Part I, published on November 30, 2019, I tried to explain how Bangladesh was enslaved by an Indo-Bangla clique. In this part, I attempted to study how India cast a greedy eye on East Pakistan since partition in 1947. Also, touched on a few crucial events of the time.)
by R. Chowdhury 5 December 2019
The separation of East Pakistan–today’s Bangladesh–from its western half had been an implied but deep-rooted policy in New Delhi since partition in 1947. Former Indian Foreign Secretary J N Dixit confirms it in one of his writings. Not only could India not reconcile with the creation of Pakistan, it felt uncomfortable with the position of its archenemy in its east and west flanks. Plus, the geographic location of East Pakistan presented a difficult scenario to India’s communication and connectivity with its almost detached northeastern region. This relatively underdeveloped area, collectively known as “Seven Sisters” grouping the states of Arunachal, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura, remains a hotbed of political and social unrest. China and Myanmar, two regional powers, are often accused of providing fuel to more than a hundred groups that seek independence. India also blamed Pakistan for providing training and sanctuary to some of those secessionist groups. On the other hand, China’s claim on parts of Arunachal as belonging to its Tibet kept Indian political and military leaders worrying, if their 1962 debacle with China was any lesson. New Delhi’s attempts to suppress the independence moves by stationing large military units, with Special Powers enjoying immunity, around the troubled spots, have been largely counterproductive. Efforts at seeking political solution, at times engaging in divide-and-rule tactics, brought mixed results.
India Needed a Friendly Eastern Neighbor
India’s land connection with its northeast region is through a 17-mile narrow, hilly and difficult strip in Darjeeling, lying between East Pakistan and Nepal. (This writer traveled that route in 1971 and found how difficult and slow it was). Any hostile force or a natural calamity could easily block it. In a situation of heightened political trouble and open conflicts, India feared its disconnection and ultimate dis-membership of the Seven Sisters. That made New Delhi to cast a greedy eye on its eastern neighbor from its birth in 1947. The regional Big Brother needed not only a friendly but a controlled East Pakistan. If it came easy, fine. If not, it would not hesitate to apply coercion or force, as the strategic stake was high. India looked for the right opportunity to intervene.
The Agartala Conspiracy
The first opportunity came in the mid-1960s when Commander Moazzem Hossain, a Bengali Naval Officer, contacted the Indian Deputy High Commission in Dhaka for help for a secessionist move. Earlier, in mid 1950s, he had floated the idea of forming a Liberation Army to a few junior ranking military and civil officials in Karachi. His absence from the country on training and assignments kept the proposition on hold. Back in East Pakistan a decade later, he picked up the thread and sought Indian assistance through its local mission, which advised him to incorporate political elements in order to have a voice. Most Bengali politicians shunned the idea. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, then a second ranking Awami League leader, reluctantly agreed to provide moral support. As arranged by the Indian mission, two trusted comrades of Moazzem–Mujibur Rahman, a former airline steward, and Ali Reza– went to Agartala for discussion. According to some Awami leaders, Sheikh Mujib also went to Agartala, but it could not be established. Tofael Ahmed and Colonel Shawkat Ali confirmed the validity of the Agartala case but did not give the extent of Mujib’s involvement or if he really went to Agartala.
(Steward Mujibur Rahman died mysteriously in January 1972. An Awami hand was suspected in his death because another Mujibur Rahman needed to be credited for the Agartala trip. Retired Commander Moazzem was gunned down in front of his family on March 26, 1971, by the Pakistan military. These heroes remained unsung.)
In his book Mukti Bahini Wins Victory, Major General Abdul Wahab narrated the contact made with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in New Delhi. Shachindra Lal Singh, Chief Minister of Tripura, acted as the conduit. Nehru was then too preoccupied with India’s relations with China, following its debacle in the 1962, to commit big way to “East Pakistan’s internal matter” at that juncture. However, Agartala, capital of the Indian eastern state of Tripura, assured necessary assistance when needed. It became the Agartala Conspiracy Case (ACC).
In the original charge sheet, Sheikh Mujib was not named. Disturbed by Mujib’s 6-Point program for an autonomous East Pakistan, President Ayub Khan wanted to kill Mujib politically by bringing a sedition charge against him. Within a day, Sheikh Mujib became the Number One accused, pushing Commander Moazzem to the No. 2 slot in the ACC. East Pakistan was ablaze with demand for the dismissal of the “false” case and release of Mujib, by then a popular leader. Elderly Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhasani (the two enjoyed a cordial personal relationship), gave the leadership to the movement that was activated largely by students. The anti-ACC cry grew stronger and even the non Awami leaders joined the demand for Mujib’s release. The movement also fanned in the western half of the country, where it took the shape of an anti-Ayub nature. The President’s plan backfired and his own position became shaky. He had to release Mujib, who became a “fairy-tale hero” overnight, by default. Army Chief General Yahya Khan availed the opportunity to take over in March 1969 in a palace coup.
“The generals in Islamabad and the West Pakistani leaders contended that Six- Point was a recipe for the ultimate breakup of Pakistan. They suspected, not unreasonably, an Indian hand in the formula, which prescribed total provincial autonomy at the cost of central authority. It was generally believed that Mujib had a soft spot for India, Pakistan’s arch-rival. The alternative view was that India had recruited the popular Bengali politician to serve its own agenda of separating Dhaka from Islamabad. India had always provided oxygen to the smoldering anti-Pakistani anger of the Bengalis.”
The 1970 Elections and Mujib’s Conflict with Central Leaders
Riding on the crest of popularity, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman led his Awami League to victory in the December 1970 elections held under Universal Franchise and a Legal Framework Order (LFO). Awami League won 162 out of 300 National Assembly seats, thus becoming the majority. Paradoxically, it did not win any seat in West Pakistan. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party secured 82 seats– all in the western half. That itself was an indication that the two wings were drifting along a political fault-line.
After the victory, Mujib continued to assert that he had received a mandate on his Six Points, which went counter to the principle of the LFO, which demanded the unity of Pakistan, and to which Mujib was a signatory. Islamabad again blamed India behind Mujib’s change of mind, aimed at weakening, even disintegrating, Pakistan. President Yahya and his team met Mujib in Dhaka a few times but failed to arrive at a compromise solution to the constitutional crisis. At the same time, Bhutto kept making noise against reaching a political settlement on the Six Points or with Mujib. He had the support of a few hawkish generals who could not feel comfortable with a Bengali boss. He came up with his weird formula of Udhar tum, idhar hum (You rule East Pakistan, I take care of West Pakistan). The junta found a pretext for military action.
The military action, Operation Searchlight, commenced on March 25, 1971. It was aimed at crushing the Bengalis’ demand for equal rights, freedom and democracy. It was in violation of the democratic process, in which election results were dishonored. According to Robert Payne, the junta had actually made the decision to teach the “Bengalis a lesson” in a meeting in Islamabad on February 22, 1971. “Kill three million of them,” snarled the stocky president in the meeting of the generals, “and the rest will eat out of our hands.” If true, the subsequent attempts to seek a political solution were just a façade, a smoke screen, for the military to be ready.
What surprised the East Pakistanis that after giving the call for Ebarer songram swadhinotar songram ebarer songram amader muktir songram (struggle this time is for independence, for our freedom) on March 7, Mujib went to negotiate with central leaders from March 15 to 25 to chart the future of Pakistan. Yet shocking was Mujib’s surrender to the military when the songram time came. He declined repeated requests of his deputy Tajuddin Ahmad to declare the independence and lead the liberation war on the pretext that it would remain a testimony of treason against him.
Through US Ambassador, he arranged his family’s safety and maintenance by the military, which provided security, free ration and Taka 1500 per month. Sheikh Hasina’s one-time aide, Matiur Rahman, in his book Amar Phansi Chai, quoted Hasina saying General Tikka Khan would regularly visit them and respectfully check their welfare. 70 million Bengalis, who reposed their trust on Mujib, were left at the mercy of marauding soldiers. Mujib followers are totally silent on the issue, even when they shower mountains of praise on their leader. Earlier, the surrender was propagated as arrest. Mujib could not be ready with his suitcase (according to Hasina) if it was an arrest.
After the March 25 crackdown, the initial resistance came from the uniformed elements of Bengalis–military, police, Bangladesh Rifles, Ansars etc.–with whatever weapons they possessed or could snatch from hostile forces. In absence of any coordination, the fights were localized, limited and largely ineffective. Pakistan military had a free hand to commit a genocide, which the Guinness Book records as one of the fifth largest of the century.
. Two days later, the people heard a “Declaration of Independence” made from the Chittagong Radio Station. It was from Major Ziaur Rahman, then Second-in-Command of 8 East Bengal Regiment based at Sholoshohor, Chittagong. On the night of March 25, he revolted, arrested the Pakistani officers, including the Commanding Officer, and gallantly faced the attacking Pakistani forces with about 250 men that could be available. Overwhelmed by superior strength, Zia’s force retreated eastward after giving losing fights and suffering heavy casualties. By March 27, he reached Kalurghat where the Radio Station was situated. There, on March 27, Ziaur Rahman made the landmark but crucial announcement of independence.
In the Declaration of Independence, Zia asked the people to fight the occupied forces of Pakistan till the last man. The first announcement went in his own name as the temporary head of state. Later, upon request by local Awami League leaders, it was changed to have been given on behalf of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The people for the first time got a direction and made a coordinated and intensified fight against the attackers. After an exile government was formed on April 17, 1971, the war zones were divided into 11 Sectors commanded by senior military officers.
India Grabbed the Opportunity
India was a partner in the war efforts of Mukti Bahini (MB), the liberation force of Bangladesh. India gave it a sanctuary and possible assistance. Also, India allowed a Bangladesh Government-in-Exile to be based in Kolkata. Without India’s help, the liberation war would perhaps have dragged on, costing in man and material. Some analysts think that would have been the best course of independence, instead of a hasty liberation precipitated by Indian direct involvement during the closing days.
India also had to cope with about 10 million refugees, mostly Hindus, who crossed the border to escape Pakistan military’s atrocities. The United Nations and other relevant international agencies came forward to provide necessary help. Many friendly countries and organizations also came forward in aid of the refugees, as well as Mukti Bahini’s war efforts, thanks to Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s untiring efforts to internationalize the issue. Overseas assistance, mainly in the form of cash, poured in to relieve the burden on India. Though Bangladesh owes India for all what it did in 1971, it didn’t do all that for nothing.
The Strings Attached
Until August 1971, the Indian support to the Mukti Bahini was limited and channeled through its Border Security Forces (BSF) outlets. Despite repeated requests for additional military help for effective combats and taking the war efforts to the next level, New Delhi was reluctant. It needed a commitment that the future Bangladesh would toe its line. The exiled administration had little choice. The result was the 7-Point Agreement between Indira Gandhi and Tajuddin Ahmad, Prime Minister of the interim Bangladesh government. The agreement was appended in Part I.
The MB high command under Colonel Osmani decided to augment the fighting capability of its forces. Following a conference in July of the Sector Commanders at Mujibnagar, the seat of the government in exile, it was decided to form a few regular army Brigades with superior armament to fight the Pakistan military conventionally. Former military personnel, who defected the Pak army would form the core of those formations. Meanwhile, some officers and men escaped from West Pakistan (including this writer) and joined the MB to give it the much-needed fillip. Simultaneously, commando actions by special groups under the Sectors continued, including some naval and air operations. Upon request India provided limited artillery support when major operations were undertaken, particularly during the closing weeks. By September 1971, Z and K Forces of MB had their own artillery units, each with six 3.7″ Italian Howitzers. In absence of further military cooperation with Italy, Indian Army decided to discontinue these artillery gun and pass them over to the Mukti Bahini.
By the end November 1971, the war of attrition crippled the Pakistani forces. Absence of air and naval support made them virtually inactive. For Islamabad, its eastern half was all but gone. With a view to making some quick acquisition for the remaining half (Pakistan had always been mindful of its western half at the expense of the east), it made a few blitzkrieg attacks on India’s western sectors on December 3, 1971. The following day, India declared war against Pakistan and open conflicts between the two archrivals commenced. In East Pakistan, the war was over before it even started. India didn’t have to fight any major battle after December 13. Three days of extensive psychological warfare by General Sam Manekshaw, Chief of the Indian Army, forced the enemy to formally surrender on December 16, 1971. Mukti Bahini could not be a party to the victory even though it fought and bled for nine months, its people faced a genocide, its women were dishonored.
While returning home, Indian forces took away armaments left by over Four Army Divisions of Pakistan, then valued at $2.2 billion. That was the beginning of enslavement of a nation.
Zoglul Husain, a freedom fighter in the independence of Bangladesh and a renown political analyst, said, “In 1971, the people of Bangladesh fought for independence from Pakistan, but India joined the war to divide Pakistan and turn Bangladesh into a subservient state under India.” He clarified the position.
Even so, the ruling regime in Bangladesh today makes the people believe they are free. Are they? Are they free from Indian hegemony? Can the regime cite one of the nearly 50 Agreements and Protocols it signed with India that effectively favors Bangladesh? Were the people free to decide about their destiny in 1972-75? Were they free to select their government on December 29, 2008? Could they vote on January 5, 2014? Why were their votes have been robbed on December 30, 2018? Are they free to make future decision? Can the regime honestly answer these questions?
“None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free” said Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, German writer and statesman (1749-1832).
December 4, 2019
R Chowdhury is a former soldier and a decorated freedom fighter in the war of liberation of Bangladesh. Enjoys retired life in reading, writing and gardening. Writes on contemporary issues of Bangladesh. He published a few books.
[i] In his Bangla blog, Mahfuz Muhom posted on January 1, 2016 a remark from J N Dixit, a former Foreign Secretary.
http://www.newsbybd.net/blog/blogdetail/detail/2601/muhon/73091#.XehwYuhKi72 (As a Deputy Secretary in the Indian External Affairs Ministry in 1971, Mr. Dixit was closely connected with Bangladesh affairs. He wrote a number of important books touching on the independence of Bangladesh, Indo-Pak relationship and Indian Foreign Service). Mr. Dixit reportedly said,” মূলত আমরা পাকিস্তান ভাঙ্গনের ফাইল খুলেছিলাম সেই ১৯৪৭ সালেই এবং পাকিস্তান ভাংগল এবং আমরা সে ফাইল ক্লোজড করলাম ১৯৭১ সালের ১৬ই ডিসেম্বর। (In fact, we opened the file to break Pakistan in 1947. We closed the file on December 16, 1971 after Pakistan broke).
[ii] Major General ATM Abdul Wahab, Mukti Bahini Wins Victory, Columbia Prokashoni, Dhaka, 2004, p 71
[iii] Rashed Chowdhury, A Soldier’s Debt, CreateSpace, Amazon, 2015, p32.
[iv] Robert Payne, Massacre, The Tragedy of Bangladesh and the Phenomenon of Mass Slaughter throughout History, 1973, New York: Macmillan
[v] Sharmin Ahmad Tajuddin Ahmad: Neta O Pita, Oitijjhya, Dhaka, 2014, pp. 59, 60, 148
vi Motiur Rahman Rentu, Amar Phansi Chai, 1999, p. 99.