1971: Missed Euphoria

Palash Khan

Missed Euphoria

UDAYAN CHATTOPADHYAY ponders over what’s ‘missing’ from December 16th celebrations on both sides of the border.
DAILY STAR, December 2012

Every year, 16th December, known in India as Vijay Divas, is commemorated through low key events in a few select major cities across the country. There is rarely any fanfare; in Delhi, there is a brief and solemn ceremony with sparse attendance; protocol dictates the titles of those who must attend or send a replacement in lieu; a minute’s silence is held by the Eternal Flame by India Gate, and the event is generally very lacklustre.

In the rest of the country, events are piecemeal, depending on initiatives taken by private citizens or local military battalions. In Kolkata, there is perhaps the most extensive observance, as might seem obvious, with a reasonably sized military function. Typically the armed forces demonstrate their skills in events such as horse-riding, synchronised helicopter fly-bys and bagpipe parades while middle class picnic goers camping out on the Maidan wave and cheer. This year, apparently, the central government has announced that due to austerity measures, the function will be more muted. “They” are out to get us, again, cries the local Trinamool Congress government in protest, though its grievance seems more to do with national political equations in the context of the upcoming general election.

Missing in all of this is, though, is acknowledgement of the historical events and bigger picture behind why the day is remembered at all. Hardly any mention is made of the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent country after a bloody liberation war and long political struggle; what little commentary is provided by media covering these events usually refers to the “India-Pakistan war”, and TV will restrict historic evidence to grainy black and white footage of the famed surrender ceremony for a few seconds. While homage is paid to the lost Indian lives — between 5 and 18 thousand soldiers died in the war, depending on what periods and theatres of conflict are included — there is rarely any discussion of the casualties among the Mukti Bahini or as a result of the Pakistani genocide. I am not sure if the Bangladeshi High Commissioner or Consuls across the country are ever invited to any of these functions, or for that matter any representatives of the Bangladesh Armed Forces. Or whether those in attendance — civilians or members of the armed forces — have any real sense of why they are participating.

Victory in 1971 represents, perhaps, the finest hour of India’s military and diplomatic policy since Independence — and putting to rest the pangs of self-doubt that India had around the two-nation theory and what it meant for the pluralist path it had chosen, at least at an official level. It also led to recovery of the national self-esteem following an embarrassing conflict with China just nine years previously. It has always seemed very odd to me that there isn’t more exuberance around commemorating this event given this context.

Across the border in Bangladesh, what is Bijoy Dibosh is of course a grand affair, celebrated with pomp and circumstance by the government, political parties and social organisations across the spectrum of opinion, right down to the village level . Bangladesh has an unfortunate set of internal differences regarding interpretations of crucial periods of its history, but this seems to be one of those days — much like Ekushey February — when there is general agreement over what is being remembered, and why. However, rather like the Indian observance across the border, there is something strangely missing, whether it is the muted references to “mitro bahini” (and conversely “shotru bahini”) without naming India by name, or a general reticence in acknowledging or commemorating Indian military casualties or the vast resources spent during the war in entirety, or the general absence of any Indian dignitaries (other than those in attendance through standard protocol alongside colleagues from the general diplomatic corps).

Part of this may be influenced by political opinion. For some, India’s role in 1971 remains a zero sum equation where any acknowledgement of big brother from across the border detracts from the role of the Mukti Bahini or Bangladeshi civilians. For others, contemporary or historical grievances and prejudices come into play — for every complaint, whether real, exaggerated or imagined, it becomes harder to bring oneself to pay homage to an entity seen as hostile, particularly if the role bestowed on it is so intrinsically entwined in one’s own very existence and identity. Then there are those for whom India’s only purpose was to break-up Pakistan, and therefore, whatever good that came out of its involvement is nothing to be rewarded let alone acknowledged. These analyses are often juxtaposed with tales of the Indian army’s alleged graft and disrespect shown to local people and military counterparts as they retreated a few months after liberation, which again, justifies a narrative where there is little room for praise or commemoration.

Only the most arrogant or insensitive of Indians would claim that without India’s assistance in 1971, liberation would not have come. But given the depth of Indian involvement — the lives lost, the resources spent, the refugees housed, the global diplomacy efforts, and if nothing else relieving pressure on the frontline in face of a genocidal Pakistani army, is the current place of India’s role in the liberation narrative that is presented on 16th December a fair one?

***

From the Indian perspective, what remains baffling in these counter-narratives is that, in 1971, Bangladesh didn’t seem to have any other foreign friends at the official level, and those at the personal level from other countries were so rare and random that they certainly did not represent trends of any sort — for every Kennedy and Joan Baez were many more Nixons and Kissingers. From the other major countries that figure prominently today in Bangladeshi foreign affairs — such as China, Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, and the United States — several actually played roles that were hostile to the emergence of the country at a critical stage in its life and death struggle for existence, and none (barring the US) as far as I am aware have formally apologised or acknowledged this. China, for instance, even after independence, initially blocked Bangladeshi entry to the UN and alongside the United States, took positions that may have contributed to the scale of the 1974 famine.

And what of the Indian commemorations? Why is it that the lens through which even the limited and muted remembrance restricted to that of an “India-Pakistan” war? Why can’t the Indian establishment give an equal place at the celebrations to the representatives of the entities that were instrumental in bringing about that victory, and made the greatest sacrifices? Were the reasons for Indian involvement really only strategic, with no concern for the humanitarian disaster that was taking place? Or is it, as many have argued, particularly those who are Bengali, that there was a general disappointment in how things turned out after 1971 and therefore, gradual disengagement with memory — a flawed critique that objective observers may argue reflects unrealistic expectations.

***

The story of India’s involvement in 1971 is rather well known in Bangladesh, and it would be unfair to claim that this is never acknowledged. In recent years, in particular, the government has taken to honouring “1971 Foreign Friends” and Indians, unsurprisingly, have made up the vast majority of the honourees. Though, coming 40 years after the events took place, for many, the recognition is rather belated, if they are at all still with us. Leaders and politicians regularly laud India’s role — “we will always be grateful and we will never forget” we hear. For cynics from the Indian side, however, this usually suggests that someone important from India is in attendance, or that the declaration is made in India itself, and often with a view to behind-the-scenes diplomacy or deals.

There are many anecdotes which feed some of the ill feeling. For instance, the surrender ceremony, where Bangladeshis were only observers and not participants — a frequent complaint made by General Osmani. Indians at the time argued that because Pakistan did not recognise Bangladesh (and would not do so for another three years), that set-up was needed for the sake of legality. Was this then just a misunderstanding, or a situation that could have been handled with greater tact and sensitivity, or a glaring example of big brotherly callousness? How many more examples like this feed into the equation with conflicting and sincerely held viewpoints on both sides?

Whatever problems there may be between the two countries today, one wonders why these cannot be put to one side on this day of all days, to commemorate, on both sides of the border, a hugely significant collaboration and a time when, however briefly, our interests, security, and concerns were aligned. During the height of the Cold War, even as Germany was moving closer to its former enemies and the Soviet Union was close to nuclear war with its former allies, representatives from those who fought together side by side in the Second World War would come together in their respective national capitals on Remembrance Day to lay wreaths, jointly, at sombre ceremonies that paid homage to a time of unity, even if that bond had failed to carry over into peace time. For many, these ceremonies laid out hope of reconciliation and were a reminder that whatever differences there were did not have to be permanent.

***

So, should we shift focus away from bureaucracy and officialdom, to the other, less frequently spoken aspect of India’s contribution in 1971 — that on the very personal level? There were many thousands, particularly in the eastern regions bordering Bangladesh, who contributed in very meaningful ways, but who are also largely forgotten on December 16th, again, on both sides of the border.

There were the prominent civilians. Artistes such as Suchitra Mitra who toured West Bengal boosting morale in the refugee camps and forcing the glitterati of Calcutta to take notice of what was going on, singing just one song: Amar Sonar Bangla, invariably breaking down during her renditions. Or Hemanta Mukherjee, who took a hiatus from the peak of his Bollywood career to spend time training many of the singers and musicians of Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra. And perhaps the most iconic Indian song from 1971, Ganga Amar Maa Padma Amar Maa by Bhupen Hazarika, written as soon as news filtered through to him of the massacre on the night of 25th March, by a man who was not even Bengali. These artists worked without fee and donated proceeds to the refugee camps and Mukti Bahini.

When Indira Gandhi’s government was still lukewarm and watching warily in the early days, fearful of the independence movement being hijacked by leftists or spilling over into nationalist movements in Bengali areas of India, there were journalists who tirelessly started mobilising public opinion creating a swell of interest that forced Delhi to respond, and prepare for the flood of refugees as they started pouring across. News of the massacre of March 25th and genocide was revealed to the rest of India by journalists of papers such as Anandabazar, Amritabazar and The Statesman, even as the rest of the world was talking about minor regional disturbances involving leftists and religious minorities.

Many families — like my own — have stories of contributions, of which some were heroic, and some life-changing for those involved. I have heard, for instance, of an elderly Brahmin relative, who hitherto was obsessed with dietary restrictions and caste rules, but, in a fit of nationalist fervour and humanitarian sympathy, opened up her sprawling flat to four Muslim Mukti Bahini members, who came and went without question for the duration of the war, often bringing comrades with them. There was the newly-wed bride who sold pieces of her wedding jewellery to donate to the relief effort. The engineer who worked evenings and weekends to assist in the technical set-up of the clandestine radio station and named his new born son “Biplab”. The civil servant who risked losing his job by providing appointments to qualified refugees so that they could take up regular jobs at schools and hospitals and bring their families out of the squalor of the relief camps. The medical student who accompanied Mother Theresa in the refugee camps every weekend for the duration of the war tending to those infected with cholera and malaria, becoming severely sick herself. These individuals weren’t working to strategically enable geopolitical supremacy on the subcontinent, or siphon off aid from the UN or Red Cross. In most cases, they saw no reward — not even honourable mentions from either government after the war was over. My family is nothing special; there are countless stories such as this across Calcutta if one scratches a little beneath the surface.

***

There are indeed many irritants as well as long-standing and deep-rooted problems in the India-Bangladesh relationship. Some are easy to address if both sides really wish. Others will require longer negotiation and confidence building. Some perhaps require the passage of time and new generations to come on the scene who do not carry the baggage of generations hitherto which includes the pain of partition. And the conversation must be between equals.

With Sheikh Hasina’s historic visit to India in 2010, and Begum Zia’s call to “forget the past” (whatever she means by that) perhaps there is scope for optimism at the official level. But till that comes, how can we bypass an environment where guests from the other country observing commemorations of Vijay and Bijoy won’t raise eyebrows at glaring omissions or insensitive narratives? Clichéd as it sounds, perhaps the route is to think about these personal stories, and build more people-to-people contact. Time is running out though. No one remains from the list of examples I gave of my family members. But other than on these pages, there are no memorials to any of them that I am aware of.

Udayan Chattopadhyay is a blogger with AlalODulal.org.

3 thoughts on “1971: Missed Euphoria

  1. Udayanc – in your last paragraph you call Hasina’s visit “historic” and Khaleda’s visit as “whatever she means by that” ! In fact just the opposite would probably be how I would describe their visits, and THAT may summarize the difference between the interest of our 2 nations !!

    • Khaleda Zia’s visit to India was indeed hsitoric, and I sincerely hope that it enables a new era between both the BNP-India, and Bangladesh-India more generally.

      The “let’s forget the past” thing is somewhat vague – perhaps deliberately. Most Indians following Bangladesh would interpret that as an apology from her (without, for now, getting into whether the perceptions are accurate, fair, based on actions without provocation etc) for past support for terrorism, anti-Hindu rhetoric, anti India statements that are not policy/event based etc. Was the vagueness intentional so that she killed two birds with one stone – so that Bangladeshis hearing that statement would see it as a call to forget the past about issues such as water sharing, border deaths etc?

      But I see Sheikh Hasina’s visit as historic in a far broader sense. I am aware that many (including bloggers present here who followed the trip closely at the time and since, with frustration) expected more concrete steps from India, and interpreted the immediate outcomes as lacking in substance. However, I would say there was a signficant change in the perception of Bangladesh at the country (not political party) level as a result of that trip – some of which has taken (and will continue to take) time to trickle down and be visible. Media interest is greater and broader, there is less talk of illegal immigration / terrorism from our eastern neighbors (even during events such as the recent Assam disturbances), and silly little things – Runa Laila and James popping up as reality show judges in non-Bangla programs, Bangladesh cultural show sponsored by Indian corporate entity (not Indian govt) in Bangalore (not Kolkata) for instance – reflect greater warmth at the people-to-people level. Bangladesh is seen as more of a trade partner than a destination to dump goods and so forth (especially by policy makers and business in the North-East states, where BD will have a signficant comparative advantage if things move forward). Early days. But ironically, I think even the very invitation itself to Khaleda Zia to visit and the huge attention paid to her publicly and behind-the-scenes – came out of this (however gradual and limited) change in the mindset that followed Sheikh Hasina’s visit in 2010.

    • @kgazi, also please note as well that my comment “whatever she means by that” referring to Khaleda Zia was about her call to forget the past, not her visit itself (which is what is implied in your description of my point).

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