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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 49, New Delhi, November 20, 2021

Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 - and a hidden episode of the Indian government’s role | Sumanta Banerjee

Friday 19 November 2021, by Sumanta Banerjee


Both Bangladesh and India are celebrating the year 1971, on the occasion of the liberation of a territory known as East Pakistan then, which came to be recognized as Bangladesh at the end of that year. The transformation was brought about through a combination of two main factors among others. First was the valiant resistance put up by Bangladeshi freedom fighters against the Pakistan army within their country, and the next was the external aid that they received from India. The latter aid culminated in a war where the Indian army defeated the Pakistan army and forced Islamabad to relinquish its oppressive control over that territory. This led to the creation of a new state - Bangladesh.

The year 1971 will be remembered in the annals of the Indian sub-continent as a tumultuous year of a long drawn out struggle by the people of the then East Pakistan for independence. The struggle went through various stages. To recapitulate them in brief - the struggle began with Pakistan’s then military dictator Yahya Khan’s refusal to allow the Awami League leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (whose party in the 1970 December general elections to the Pakistan National Assembly, won absolute majority) to form a government that he was entitled to. In protest, Mujibur Rahman on March 7, 1971, at a mass rally in Dhaka’s Ramna Race Course grounds, gave a call for independence from Pakistan. Soon popular demonstrations broke out all over East Pakistan in support of the demand for independence.

The March 25 military crackdown 

In a ruthless attempt to crush them, on March 25 in 1971, Yahya Khan despatched his troops from the Rawalpindi army cantonment to East Pakistan. Known as Operation Searchlight, it targeted a wide spectrum of Bangladeshis, ranging from common villagers to urban students and intellectuals in Dhaka, which ended up in a genocide that drew worldwide condemnation. Mujibur Rahman was captured by the Pak army the same night and taken to West Pakistan.

As the genocide continued for days together, the Awami League leaders, bereft of their leader Mujibur Rahman and unable to frame on their own a strategy to resist the Pak army, decided to escape to the neighbouring Indian state of West Bengal. The Indian government provided them with shelter. At the same time,

thousands of Bangladeshis in order to escape the Pak army atrocities were pouring into   West Bengal, Tripura, Assam and other Indian border states, where they took refuge in temporary camps. Many among them were youth who were eager to help those companions of theirs left behind, who were resisting the Pak military marauders. These young people who had stayed back, had already by April that year, formed guerrilla squads to fight the Pakistan army in places like Narsingdi, Jessore, Chittagong, and other parts of their country. To narrate my personal experience, in April, accompanied by two journalist colleagues of mine I crossed over to Jessore with help of the BSF on the Indian side of the border and the Bangladeshi freedom fighters on the other side - who were collaborating with each other at that time. In the village of Jhikorgachhi, we met a group of young freedom fighters trying to put up a fight against the advancing Pak soldiers who were marching to capture the village. Mainly consisting of rebel soldiers from the East Pakistan Rifles (EPR), East Bengal Regiment (EBR), and the para-military Ansar, assisted by some local villagers, they were armed with the 303. rifles and ammunition that they had taken away from their barracks. Hearing that we were journalists from India, they appealed to us: “Please tell our leaders who are in India now, that we are shedding our blood here fighting for freedom. When will they come back to lead us ?” This was a common refrain that we heard wherever we went during our brief stay there. We visited the local Awami League office in the village and found the only functionary left there packing his belongings to leave, as he feared that the Pak soldiers would arrive soon.

It was in the midst of such happenings and popular discontent within East Bengal, that in April that year, the Awami League leaders in exile under the Indian government’s protection, set up a provisional Bangladesh government in Meherpur in West Bengal (which bordered the then East Pakistan, from where they had escaped). This government in exile, was headed by Syed Nazrul Islam as vice-president, Tajuddin Ahmed as prime minister and Colonel Muhammad Goni Osmani (a Bangladeshi army man who left the Pak army to join the liberation movement) as its Commander in Chief.

By May 1971, both the Indira Gandhi-led Indian government and the Awami League-led Bangladesh government in exile, had come to an agreement, under which India promised to provide military training facilities and operational support to those Bangladeshi young refugees who were willing to join the liberation movement against the Pak army. The operation was planned and supervised by Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Aurora, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Eastern Command. He recruited those youth from among the Bangladeshi refugees, who were recommended by Colonel Osmani of the provisional Bangladesh government. They were trained by the Indian army at camps located close to their native places near the border so that once trained, they could move easily into their respective areas to fight the Pak army. (Re: Brigadier R.P. Singh (retired) - How the Mukti Bahini was trained in The Daily Star, October 27, 2021)

Experiences of Bangladeshi freedom fighters under India’s patronage 

While the Bangladeshi freedom fighters acknowledged the training that they received from the Indian army and the military aid that helped them to liberate their country, many among them also remembered the bitter cost that they had to pay for such help.

From the beginning, tensions were brewing among these India-trained Bangladeshi freedom fighters. They felt that they were being totally controlled by the Indian army which sent them on operations into East Pakistan, without consulting them regarding the selection of sites and the feasibility of operating there. It is important to remember that a large contingent of these freedom fighters consisted of experienced soldiers of the East Bengal Regiment and other military units of East Pakistan, who had revolted against their West Pakistani commanders in Jessore and other districts after the March 25 massacre and deserted their cantonments to join the liberation movement. The tendency of the Indian army authorities to ignore these brave and experienced soldiers was an affront to the sense of pride of these freedom fighters.

To quote one of them who later wrote about his experiences as a trainee: “At the beginning, after their training, the guerrillas were kept under the control of the Indian army...Our headquarters (i.e. the General Osmani headed military wing of the provisional Bangladesh government in exile) were not even informed of where our guerrillas were being sent. The Indians kept it completely secret.....” According to him, Major General B. N. Sarkar of the Indian army was the director of operations in charge of dispatching the freedom fighters in the eastern sector. He selected the targets (inside East Pakistan) for attacks, but never consulted the freedom fighters (who knew about the ground reality) regarding the military tactics that were required for the operations. The disastrous consequences of such a policy were described by the above-quoted freedom fighter in the following words: “...among our ranks, along with discontent there grew an anti-India sentiment. The guerrillas were being sent to the interiors of Bangladesh and were getting killed as helpless victims, while the Bangladeshi sector commanders were never told about this.” (A.K. Khondakar: 1971 Bhetore Baire. Published by Prothoma, Dhaka. 2014, quoted in Hydar Akbar Khan Rano ed. Muktijuddhe Bamponthira. Tarafdar Prokashoni. Dhaka. 2018)

A well-known Bangladeshi writer, Ahmed Chhafa, observing the course of the freedom struggle in those days, described the situation and the mood of the freedom fighters in the months of April and May of 1971: “The young freedom fighters who underwent training in different parts of India, and entered the interiors of Bangladesh to conduct guerrilla warfare, were never provided with heavy weapons by the Indian army authorities....In most cases, equipped with a few grenades tied up in towels and a few rifles, the freedom fighters could hardly inflict any damage on the Pak army. Most of the time, they were captured and lost their lives... With repetitions of such incidents, the freedom fighters were beset with feelings of distrust and suspicion (about the Indian government’s intentions) . They suspected that India perhaps did not want to get into a war with Pakistan, while they were sacrificing their lives ...” (Re: Ahmad Chhafa: Nirbachito Rajnoitik Probondho. Khan Brothers and Company. 2011. Quoted in Muktijiddhe Bamponthira. Ibid)

Mukti Fauj and Mujib Bahini

The Bangladeshi freedom fighters who took shelter in India and were trained by India, were split by the Indian government into two separate groups - Mukti Fauj and Mujib Bahini. By the end of November 1971, some 83,000 Bangladeshis were trained by the Indian army, from among which about 50,000 were already sent to Bangladesh to operate as fight the Pak army. This trained personnel were known as Mukti Fauj and their headquarters were established at Kalyani in West Bengal.

Almost simultaneously, some 10,000 Bangladeshi freedom fighters were put under the control of the Indian intelligence agency, RAW (Research and Analysis Wing), which trained them in accordance with its own priorities. This group of trainees was named BLF (Bangladesh Liberation Force), popularly known as Mujib Bahini. Mainly composed of Awami League activists, it was supervised by Major General Sujan Singh Uban. He tried to shape this group as a secret military unit, based on his personal experiences in raising up a similar unit way back in November 1962. As the head of the Special Frontier Force (SFF) then, he had recruited Tibetan refugees in India, and sent them to conduct covert operations behind Chinese lines in Tibet, with the help of the American CIA. Major General Suban Singh Uban wanted to replicate that same modus operandi in Bangladesh by recruiting Bangladeshi refugees for such covert operations behind the Pakistan lines. (Re: Praveen Swami: India’s Secret War in Bangladesh. The Hindu, December 26, 2011).

The RAW began to send the Mujib Bahini recruits into Bangladesh from September onwards. But instead of attacking the Pak army, they were instructed to target the Leftist anti-Pak guerrilla bases and destroy them. There are several accounts of such acts by the Mujib Bahini which were to be recounted later by their victims in the collection of essays entitled: Muktijuddhe Bamponthira. Ibid.)

A young Bangladeshi student, Zainal Abedin, who joined the Mujib Bahini, was to narrate later his experiences. “Our Indian handlers,” he said, “treated us not as friends but as agents.” This bitter mood of his was further reinforced by what he witnessed after the entry of the Indian army in his native country. He wrote: “The real Indian face lay bare after the surrender of Pakistani forces, when I saw the large scale loot and plunder by the Indian Army personnel. The soldiers swooped on everything they found and carried them away to India...They lifted everything from ceiling fans to military equipment, utensils to water taps.” He then added the significant observation: “Such a large scale plunder could not have been possible without connivance of higher Indian authorities.” (Zainal Abedin: RAW and Bangladesh. Madina Publications. Dhaka. 1995.)

India trained militia versus indigenous guerillas

Frictions between the India-trained Bangladeshi exiles of Mukti Fauj and Mujib Bahini on the one hand and the indigenous guerrillas of the non-Awami League political parties who remained in Bangladesh to fight the Pak forces on the other marred the course of the liberation war all through 1971. While the Awami League leaders sought refuge in India and conducted the war under Indian patronage, other political parties and organizations of Bangladesh like the National Awami Party (NAP), East Pakistan Communist Party - Marxist-Leninist (EPCP-ML), East Pakistan Students Union, East    Pakistan Workers Federation, and the Coordination Committee of Communist Revolutionaries of East Pakistan, conducted the war independently by forming their own guerrilla squads through the recruitment of local villagers and youth. Between April and October, 1971, these various groups succeeded in driving back the Pak occupation forces from large areas of Jessore, Khulna and Noakhali. But the arrival of the Indian government-sponsored Mukti Fauj and Mujib Bahini in October and November changed the scenario. There began a turf war between the indigenous freedom fighters and the newly arrived armed exiles from India, over the occupation of territory. A report by the EPCP(M-L) described the dilemma faced by its guerrillas now, who had to fight both “the Pakistani army, Razakars (the local pro-Pakistan Bangladeshi armed squads) and the ‘militia’ on the one front and the ’Mukti Bahini’ (sic.) hirelings on the other front”. The party’s “temporary base areas in Jessore and Khulna fell before the vicious and treacherous attacks of the ’Mukti Bahini’ hirelings in October and November. In Noakhali the people suffered a setback after 16 December.” (Re: Liberation. July 1971 — January 1972).

Indian government’s treatment of Maulana Bhasani of NAP and non-Awami League groups 

It was not only the Bangladesh Communist guerrillas who faced the ire of the Indian government. Even the most popular veteran political leader, Maulana Bhasani, the founder of the Left-oriented National Awami Party (NAP) had to undergo the most humiliating treatment at the hands of the Indian security forces, after he entered India in April 1971. He had been forced to leave Bangladesh after his house in Tangail was burnt down in the first week of that month, by the invading Pak forces, who were desperately trying to hunt him down to kill him. The 90-year old Bhasani, with the help of some of his peasant comrades in NAP, managed to cross the border and enter Assam in India. This was his homeland where he was born sometime in 1880, and where he spent the first six decades of his life, during which he organized and led peasants struggles against feudal landlords and the British colonial regime. He left his homeland after the 1947 Partition and settled down in East Pakistan where he continued to follow his lifelong mission of rallying the poor peasants to resist oppression.

On April 15-16, 1971, as soon as Bhasani entered Assam, he was apprehended by the Indian army which kept him as an internee for the rest of the period of the liberation war. He was moved from one place to another all over India - from Meghalaya to Kolkata to Dehradun, housed in bungalows, or hotels, under the constant surveillance of Indian army officers, who politely told him that all that was necessary to protect him! He was denied permission to attend a meeting of the Bangladesh Leftist exiles in Jalpaiguri in India on April 30, where he was invited. During his eight-month stay in India, Maulana Bhasani was literally under house arrest. It was only after the liberation, that on January 22, 1972, Bhasani was put in a jeep of the Indian government and dropped at the bordering Haluaghat in Bangladesh. (The above accounts relating to Maulana Bhasani’s life and activities are available from (i) Soumitra Dastidar’s book AMI O AMAAR MOULANA VASANI. Kolkata. 2021; and (ii) Haidar Akbar Khan Rano edited Muktijudhhey Bamponthira. Dhaka. 2018).

Meanwhile, following the announcement of the formation of the Awami League-led provisional Bangladesh government based in India in April, other political parties and groups who were fighting within Bangladesh tried to approach the ministers of that government in a bid for cooperation so as to coordinate their domestic guerrilla activities with those sponsored by the Awami League government from India. In furtherance of their plan, in May, representatives of the various Bangladesh-based Leftist parties and freedom fighter groups decided to visit Calcutta, where the prime minister of the provisional Bangladesh government, Tajuddin Ahmed was camping. Once arriving at Calcutta, they got together and formed the `Jatiyo Muktisangram Samannoy Committee’ (Coordination Committee for National Liberation Struggle). They issued a statement assuring the Awami League government of their full cooperation in the liberation struggle and appealing for a united resistance against the Pakistan army. Before going back to their guerrilla bases in their homeland, three representatives of this committee, Kazi Jafar Ahmad, Rashed Khan Menon and Haidar Akbar Khan Rono (Communist leaders of the then East Pakistan students and trade union movements), on June 1, 1971, in Calcutta, met Tajuddin Ahmed, the prime minister of the provisional Bangladesh government. After listening to their pleas for the inclusion of the Bangladeshi Leftist guerillas in the Awami-led liberation movement, Tajuddin rejected their request, saying that he would have to first check their credentials by collecting reports about them by intelligence agencies. But since the Bangladeshi intelligence agency reports were not available here in India, he would have to depend on reports supplied by the Indian intelligence agencies. (Re: Interview with Kazi Jafar Ahmad in Muktijudhdhey Bamponthira. Ibid).

How did the Indian intelligence agencies prepare reports about these Bangladeshi Leftist leaders?

Here is an instance. After the failure of talks with the Awami League provisional government, Kazi Jafar Ahmad decided to return to his homeland in Bangladesh. As he was going back in the middle of June 1971, he was intercepted at Agartala on the border by the Indian intelligence agency RAW and kept in custody for a week in a bungalow in Shillong. After his release and return to Bangladesh, Kazi Jafar was generous enough when writing about his plight: “ I wouldn’t describe it as an arrest, since they didn’t misbehave (meaning torture ?) with me. But all through those seven days, they kept me harassed by incessant interrogations. The person who questioned me was Mr Subramaniam, the head of the Eastern wing of RAW.” (Re: Interview with Kazi Jafar Ahmad. Ibid.)

Indian government’s dilly-dallying in recognizing Bangladesh government

Although the Indira Gandhi-led government sheltered the Awami League leaders and allowed them to form a government in exile, it kept on delaying a public official recognition of an independent Bangladesh. On May 4, 1971, the CPI(M) MP Jyotirmoy Bose moved an adjournment motion in Parliament demanding that India must recognize Bangladesh. But the Speaker (a member of the ruling Congress party) refused it. In protest, all the Opposition MPs staged a walkout.

Even as late as October 2, 1971, the Indian government remained ambivalent as to the status of an independent Bangladesh. On that date, in a joint statement with the Soviet Union, the Indian foreign ministry expressed the opinion that favoured a solution within the framework of Pakistan.

It was only on December 6, 1971 - after repeated Pakistani attacks on India on both its western and eastern sectors - that India recognized Bangladesh as an independent entity. Faced with an aggressive Pakistan, the Indira Gandhi government then set up a combined command of the Indian Army and Bangladesh Mukti Bahini, to launch an assault on the Pakistani occupation army in Bangladesh. This led to the war that ended with the surrender of the Pakistani forces on December 16 that year. Soon after, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was released from jail by Pakistan, and he reached Dhaka on January 10, 1972.

Tensions in Bangladesh after liberation

But even after Mujibur Rahman’s arrival and his taking over the reins of the newly liberated Bangladesh, the old conflicts among the various groups of the liberation movement resurfaced and continued to plague Bangladesh. The way the Bhasani-led NAP and other Leftist groups were rejected by the Awami League government in exile, and the treatment meted out to them by the Indian army and its intelligence agencies, left a bitter taste in their mouths.

It often led to sporadic outbursts of protest against the increasing trend of corruption and criminal activities by some Awami League leaders and cadres, that dented Mujibur Rahman’s image. The image of India as their saviour was also getting eroded among the people. Their disillusionment with India began with the bitter experience of their homes being looted by the occupying Indian army jawans, and the entry of Indian black marketers - although for a brief period. This was further reinforced by the narration of the humiliating treatment that the freedom fighters had to suffer at the hands of the Indian army during their training in India. Given this popular mood, it was no wonder that within a few months, in May 1972, anti-India demonstrations broke out in Dhaka, protesting against the visit of the Indian diplomat D. P. Dhar. They targeted him as a symbol of Indian authoritarianism over Bangladesh. It was an ironical twist of history. It was this same D.P. Dhar, who as Indira Gandhi’s special envoy helped to negotiate the Indo-Soviet Treaty in 1971 - the protective pact that empowered the Indira Gandhi government to launch a full-scale offensive against the Pak army which finally led to the liberation of Bangladesh.

I could detect this growing popular disenchantment with India, and the Awami League government, when I visited Bangladesh sometime late in 1972. In Dhaka, I saw slogans written on walls screaming at the ruling party: “Bhat de, haramjada !” (Give us rice, haramzada). In Tangail, I saw people poring over the anti-India commentaries in the weekly ‘Hak Katha’ (literally meaning ‘Blunt Truth’), brought out by Maulana Bhasani, who was to lead a series of movements against price rise and other issues from 1973 till 1976.

The simmering discontent against India blew up in March 1976, over the Farakka barrage dispute. 1975, India commissioned the barrage (upstream of the India-Bangladesh border) on the Ganges. This choked the free flow of the river during the dry season into Bangladesh, affecting its agriculture and other irrigational needs. The farmers and peasants faced an uncertain future. Maulana Bhasani, as was his wont, immediately came to their support. On March 20 in 1976, he made a call for a non-violent, non-cooperation movement against the Indian government, unless it acceded to the needs of water of his people. He then organized and led a march from May 16 to 17 - known as the Farakka Micchil - which started from Rajshahi in north Bangladesh, demanding that India should release water.

Lessons from history

These anti-India popular outbursts in Bangladesh, soon after the liberation of the
country (that was brought about through the military intervention of the same India), can be looked down upon by Indians as a shameful sign of ingratitude.

This brings us to the complicated relationship between the liberators and the liberated. It involves the larger issue of national resistance/partisan struggles which achieve liberation from one foreign power, with the aid of another foreign power. We can recall the experience of Poland and other East European countries which freed themselves from Nazi German occupation with the help of the Soviet Red Army. Such foreign-aided liberation often left a sense of humiliation among the liberated people. Whenever they had a chance, they always tried to assert their independence by shaking off memories of their past dependence on the foreign liberator. Manifestations of anti-Soviet dissent in Poland, and defiance of Soviet tanks in Czechoslovakia were expressions of such efforts to break away from that humiliating episode of the past.

When we Indians today celebrate the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Bangladesh, we should be self-introspective and humble enough to acknowledge India’s mistakes in those difficult times. The patronizing behaviour and arrogant attitude that were displayed by our army and intelligence agencies in their relationship with the exiled Bangladesh freedom fighters in India (as evident from their narratives quoted above), provoked an anti-India backlash in post-Liberation Bangladesh.

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