It is one thing to admire Bangabandhu Mujibur Rahman; to applaud the secession of East Pakistan is another, especially so from the viewpoint of India. The late Prime Minister Morarji Desai had complained that we had inherited one Pakistan but Indira has given us two. He evidently did not approve of the popular delight in dividing Pakistan and having two Islamic countries neighbouring India instead of one.
The pros and cons of this issue have not been studied sufficiently. First, Bangladesh’s secession need not have been inevitable had Islamabad made greater use of brains than bullets. One may recall the amalgamation of Punjab, Sindh, NWFP and Balochistan into a single province to become a balance against the populous East Pakistan. Instead, had the East been reorganized into say four provinces for effective governance, there would have been four capitals, four chief ministers and so on.
Whether Sheikh Mujibur Rahman could then have risen as an unquestioned rehnuma-eazam (great leader) of the East is doubtful. If the East was allowed to retain the foreign exchange it earned through jute and its products plus any other exports, a major genuine grouse would have disappeared. It would have gladly paid for its imports then; in other words, one currency, two Reserve Banks. Third, Urdu and Bengali could have both been made official languages.
Pakistan’s generals, whether Field Marshal Ayub Khan or Yahya Khan could not see through Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s game of wanting to get rid of the East so that he could be the Prime Minister. Even as late as 1971, President Yahya Khan could have negotiated with the Bangabandhu for an amicable settlement. Instead, they sent General Tikka Khan to Dhaka to perpetrate one of the biggest pogroms in the annals of history. On the other hand, at the end of it their Foreign Minister Bhutto performed an extraordinarily theatrical performance at the United Nations about fighting India for a thousand years, his eyes flooded with tears to avoid any allegation that he had instigated the pogrom for secession.
Before the 1971 pogrom not many people infiltrated into Assam and Bengal across our eastern borders. This weaponless invasion began when the poor in Bangladesh awoke to the fact that they were on their own. They had no hope of even going to West Pakistan. Hence they began migrating to wherever they could. Some political leaders in Kolkata were actively helpful to them in helping them to obtain ration cards and other documents in exchange for votes. To all this was added the fear spread by environmentalists that in a few decades 17 per cent of Bangladesh’s land area would be submerged by the sea.
A wife of a tea garden manager in the Sylhet district of East Pakistan had written an interesting book on plantation life, including how she and her husband and their two children escaped when fighting began in 1971. Raihana A Hasan while not expressing any hatred, displayed right through an attitude towards the locals that was just short of contempt, repeatedly describing them as short and dark without reason. Nearly all the managers of gardens were from the western wing. Only the few estates owned by locals had Bengali managers. All in all, the East was a millstone around Pakistan’s neck, mostly because of prejudice as well as the majority of the total population which eventually broke the country. In the strategic sense, an undivided Pakistan was advantageous to India.
Our military intervention was no doubt humanitarian, for Bengalis of any faith, understandably also emotional and for many Indians a question of the joy of breaking up an antagonistic neighbour. As events have unfolded recently, proponents of intervention would argue: what about Chinese influence? Would it not have come to our eastern border as it has on our west, had Bangladesh not been separated from Pakistan? Here, one must point to the fact that Bangladesh has rustled up armed forces far in excess of its actual needs and the possibility of its collusion with the Chinese should a war with that country come about in the future cannot be ruled out.
In the immediate aftermath of the 1971 victory, the sheer euphoria and triumphal feeling at having sundered the hated enemy was overpowering. “Saakshat Durga hai” was how Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who would go on to be the nation’s Prime Minister, described Indira Gandhi immediately after India’s lightning decimation of Pakistan in the 1971 war.
India’s intervention has handed itself a serious strategic problem. With the erstwhile East Pakistan as its eastern wing, Pakistan was always unbalanced. With its severance, Pakistan became a more cohesive entity. Pakistan would have wasted itself trying to preserve its eastern territory, but after 1971, began carrying its jihad into India in keeping with its doctrine of bleeding India through a thousand cuts. This fact is not appreciated by peaceniks and those naïve folk who believe that “people to people contact” and mouthing of empty platitudes will solve all problems between India and Pakistan.
Pakistan’s ISI also operates with impunity in Bangladesh, carrying out anti-India activities in collusion with the Islamist terror groups based there. Then there is the ever-present menace of infiltration, which has the twin objective of grabbing living space for Bangladesh’s population and altering the demography of our North Eastern states, which face the alarming prospect of being swamped by Bangladeshis. One should not be surprised if some day Bangladesh claims India’s North East to be an ‘integral part’ of Bangladesh. Sheikh Mujibur had years earlier written that the economy of East Bengal would not be fully viable without Assam being a part of it.
The Hindus in Bangladesh are not treated well. India, the country whose sacrifices made the birth of Bangladesh possible is looked upon with suspicion. Why have things come to this pass? This is so because the political handling of the aftermath of 1971 war was naïve, to say the least. Indira Gandhi left her policy making to the Panch Pyare, i.e., her five advisors, who botched a historic opportunity to settle Pakistan. In Bangladesh, we put all our eggs earlier in Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s basket. With his assassination, we lost all our bargaining power. Fortunately Mujib’s daughter Sheikh Hasina is not anti-India as Begum Khalida Zia was.
Unfortunately, foreign policy in India has hitherto been an exclusive preserve of the Nehru dynasty, with often disastrous results. It is only after 2014 that we are seeing a marked change in this regard with commensurate change in India’s stature in the world. Foreign policy calls for greater transparency and greater debate, both within Parliament as also outside in the media and think tanks.
While designing foreign policy in the context of Bangladesh, I am sure as to what might follow after the current Prime Minister of Bangladesh retires. Sheikh Hasina remembers her father, how her country was liberated, and the importance of pursuing a moderate foreign policy, especially towards India. The reason for sounding this note of caution is that an Islamic country has few policy options. They have to work within the framework of what the Qur’an says. True democracy is not possible, nor is genuine socialism. When Islam was born, there were only kings and sheikhs. Times have changed since, but the scriptures have not. Therefore, when rulers run out of options, they take refuge in militarism or Islamic extremism, as did President Zia-ul-Haq of Pakistan.