Has the world forgotten India’s contribution to Bangladesh’s independence?
The 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War was one of India’s greatest post-independence achievements. It was a military victory, a diplomatic success against all odds, and in some unappreciated but crucial ways more than both.
There is widespread awareness of the victory in India, but how transformative it was – or at least should have been – is still not, in my opinion, fully appreciated outside of a small network of military historians and enthusiasts. India not only won an overwhelming military victory, it stopped humanitarian crimes on a truly massive scale and changed the world map, helping to create the new nation of Bangladesh.
Lessons learned from later conflicts such as Afghanistan and Iraq, India withdrew all its armed forces from the new country within weeks – in contrast to the aftermath of many Western countries’ military successes in the 20th century.
It adhered to this principle of early departure, although a continued Indian presence in the country might have prevented political developments contrary to its interests and reputation – which, in fact, took place less than four years after its overwhelming military victory.
The Liberation War was also the largest conventional conflict the world had seen since World War II – and it reproduced many of the tropes of that earlier war. All dimensions of pre-nuclear and pre-asymmetric warfare were shown: infantry and tank battles; submarines that pursue surface ships, sometimes sinking them and sometimes being sunk; aircraft in whirling dogfights within sight of each other and observers on the ground; daring naval attacks on enemy ships in port; Navy combat swimmers destroy enemy ships at anchor with limpet mines; Mass airdrops from parachute troops to capture key targets ahead of ground forces.
Even more important is a clear David-versus-Goliath, good-versus-evil narrative, described by thoughtful commentators even beyond India as one of the last “just wars” of the twentieth century, in which the side clearly the Good represents, undeniably and decisively triumphed.
Many Indians, of course, remember the names of some of the architects of our victory, notably then-Army Chief General Sam HFJ Manekshaw and Chief of Eastern Command Lt-Gen JS Aurora, featured in the iconic photograph of a dispirited Pakistani General AAK Niazi signed the surrender agreement. But there was a lot more, and there was a lot more to tell the full story.
Beyond military performance, there are insights into governance, history and ethics. Furthermore, like many other wars, this one provides the backdrop for what could be a far greater amount of creative imagination than what currently exists. Imaginative works can make important contributions to collective memory; they can perhaps capture the zeitgeist even more effectively than historical works.
But as a major caveat, in my view, India has not fully incorporated into the national memory its own humanitarian and ethical justifications for starting this war. As a result, the war and India’s victory were allowed to degenerate into the starting point of endless exercises on whatabouts and false equivalences between India and Pakistan.
And less importantly, there were certainly some areas for improvement on the Indian side, especially after the war.
Looking ahead, India sometimes seems to have failed to internalize—or to have begun to forget—some of the key lessons from that war that should have been etched into its mind. The key is the importance of local support to the success of military operations.
Decades after the horrific events that preceded the actual war, the memory of the events of those months is in danger of being forgotten. In any case, it was never fully recognized by the main perpetrator, Pakistan, or by its sponsors at the time – the United States of America (USA, US) and China – let alone the world at large. It remains, in the words of writer KV Bapa Rao, “a karmic millstone around the collective neck of the people of the subcontinent, stretching all the way from Afghanistan to the Chittagong Hill Tracts, from Kashmir to Sri Lanka.”
The issues behind this conflict were so clear, and the outcome so decisive, that this war should have changed the subcontinental narrative forever. In fact, very little has changed. Indeed, in the space of fifteen years, after committing horrific violence against its own people and crimes against self-determination, Pakistan has been busily re-casting itself as a champion of self-determination for the people of Kashmiri, which is astonishing to at least some voters.
Given the scale of the atrocities halted by the Bangladesh Liberation War and the undeniable nature of the victory, many outside observers are puzzled as to why these achievements aren’t better remembered. India’s victory could have been a living global memorial, again in Bapa Rao’s words, to the “triumph of the will of the people over tyranny”.
Instead, it was all but forgotten except for in ill-tempered exchanges between Indian and Pakistani diplomats during United Nations (UN) debates, between politicians in all three countries when points were scored, and in spats on social media in India when the congress party attempted to remind the electorate that they were not always as ineffective as they are today.
In Pakistan, it has mysteriously morphed into a tale of military victory turned into defeat by an underhanded adversary, perfidious politicians and the personal failings of Yahya Khan. This is as false and misses reality as the madness that Germany succumbed to in the 1920s over its defeat in World War I.
In the US, unfortunately for the general worldview, the devastations of the Pakistani army in East Pakistan in the run-up to the Bangladesh Liberation War count for less than the discovery of Osama bin Laden around the corner in 1971, by whatever memory the Pakistan Military Academy in 2011 .
The Bangladesh Liberation War should be remembered better, and I would argue, in some ways, better remembered. World War II is widely accepted as a justified war, and its young participants are idolized as the greatest generation. It strikes me again and again how uncritically the Second World War is remembered, especially in the countries that were its victors – and how seldom other wars are shown a similar respect.
Outside of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, the Bangladesh Liberation War is seen in too many ways, particularly in the settings that define English-language narratives, as just another chapter in the long line of incomprehensible tribal conflicts (Armenia-Azerbaijan, Ethiopia-Eritrea, Iran- Iraq), of little concern to the rest of the world except when its refugees wash up on wealthier shores.
I wish that would change, and in particular I wish the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 would be remembered more like World War II (while acknowledging, of course, the differences in scale, duration and impact – and without glorifying the war).
Excerpt courtesy of December in Dacca: The Indian Forces and the Bangladesh Liberation War 1971KS Nair, HarperCollins India.