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Mainstream, VOL LX No 2, New Delhi, January 1, 2022

Book Review: A Classic on Bangladesh Liberation War | M R Narayan Swamy

Tuesday 28 December 2021, by M R Narayan Swamy



Bangladesh War: Report from Ground Zero

Manas Ghosh

Niyogi Books

Pages: 220; Price: Rs 695

Pakistan’s military carried out a stinking genocide in East Pakistan in 1971, with the Chinese becoming accomplices in the mass murder, rape and torture. But terrible crimes were committed by the Nixon-Kissinger administration. That they actively came out against the Bengalis of East Pakistan and India is known. Former journalist Manas Ghosh reveals that the US even tried to kidnap senior Awami League leader Tajuddin Ahmed from Calcutta to cause an implosion in the Bangladesh government-in-exile. Ahmed, picked by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to lead the liberation struggle if he was arrested (which happened), was very close to Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Indian security services learnt about the plot. The conspirators, including US Marines, escaped at the eleventh hour.

The gripping book by Ghosh, who covered the conflict from the time the guerrilla resistance began and ended in Pakistan’s humiliating surrender, should be classified as perhaps the best work on the tumultuous phase in history. Ghosh is a master story teller; with in-built enterprise, grit and luck, he covered the war so thoroughly – at times putting his life in danger — that the otherwise hierarchical Statesman named him its Dhaka correspondent after Bangladesh became a free nation.

Ghosh was covering the Second Asian Highway Car Rally on November 15, 1970 when he met three Muslim men at the border who unburdened themselves about the plight of Bengalis in Pakistan’s eastern wing. They complained that the Pakistani military junta had denied timely aid to victims of a devastating cyclone that killed 500,000 people days earlier. The 75 million Bengalis were seething with anger, and history was going to be made when the general election would take place soon. “Not even India will escape the fury of that storm,” said one of the three, all of who turned out to be frustrated Pakistani officials eager to talk to an Indian journalist. But they were upset that the average Indian, Ghosh included, seemed blissfully ignorant about the happenings in the country next door.

Back in Calcutta, Ghosh realized that the educated Bengali middle class, especially the post-Partition refugees, were not bothered about the goings on in East Pakistan, which they viewed with disdain. Even the Indian establishment firmly believed that nothing earth-shaking was going to happen. But one man who had his eyes and ears open was Golak Majumdar, Inspector General of the Border Security Force (BSF), Eastern Frontier. BSF field units, who were hearing a lot from Bengalis in Pakistani security forces posted on the border, were bracing themselves for an unexpected turn of events. By them, parliamentary elections in Pakistan had thrown up a stunning result, giving the Awami League a huge majority. Two men who closely monitored the situation for Indira Gandhi were CPI’s Bhupesh Gupta and Planning Commission’s Sukhomoy Chakravarty. Both felt there was a distinct possibility that Islamabad would not transfer power to Mujib since he and his followers were seen as half Muslims and too close to Hindu India.
Although Mujib pretended as if he was taken in by Yahya Khan’s assertions that all was well, Ghosh said the Awami League chief “so successfully camouflaged his strategy that neither the Pakistani generals nor its politicians saw through his masterfully crafted political game plan”. Even many close to him in his own party “did not know Mujib’s secret … which was to decisively win freedom … by gradually mobilizing (people) for a liberation war and secretly seeking Indian help”. After a massive rally in Dacca on January 3, 1971, Mujib quietly formed a government, appointing himself as its President and Tajuddn Ahmed as Prime Minister. In early March, Mujib arranged a secret meeting between Tajuddin and the Indian Deputy High Commissioner in Dacca, K.C. Sengupta. India responded that it would stand by Mujb and his people “in case an emergency-like situation arose in Pakistan”.

That did happen once the Pakistani military cracked down on Bengalis across East Pakistan on March 25 committing terrible atrocities that would have put Hitler to shame. Mujib’s family was wiped out and he was arrested and flown to Islamabad. Tens of thousands of women were raped and butchered; helpless men, women and children were killed for their only crime: they were Bengalis. Even the Bengali contingents in Pakistani security forces were deemed traitors; many were shot dead while asleep. East Pakistan’s Bihari community supported Pakistan, triggering clashes between them and Bengalis. No one in Pakistan showed any remorse. Suddenly, India woke up; so did West Bengal.

When the Chief Reporter of The Statesman rejected Ghosh’s request that he be sent to Petrapole to interview thousands of traumatized Bengalis crossing over from East Pakistan, the young reporter decided to make the trip on his own, with just Rs 50 in his pocket and on a weekly day off. Ghosh was lucky. On the border, he met an Italian, a Falacetti, who had escaped from curfew-bound Dhaka and made it all the way to the Indian border by foot and on ferries after paying $200 to a guide. On his way to Calcutta, Falacetti related all that he saw: bodies of men, women and children, shanty residents shot down by the military, smoke rising from rows of smouldering ruins of burnt down houses. But outside Dhaka, in the countryside, huge numbers of people held Mujib’s portraits and kept shouting ‘Joy Bangla’. Ghosh typed out the story with trepidation, fearing he would be rebuked for going to the border without permission. Lucky again, his immediate senior was so impressed by the gory eyewitness account that he himself took down more notes from Ghosh and made the story longer. The story hit The Statesman’s page 1 – and created a sensation.

Ghosh, now assigned by his paper to cover East Pakistan, began making illegal trips into that country and reported about the growing resistance by the Mukhti Bahini. “Every day I travelled 300 to 400 km from 6 am until midnight and then returned to office to report. I slept for no more than four hours.” Both the policy makers in New Delhi and the Bangladesh government-in-exile began to rely on his reporting to draw up strategies. On one trip to Chuadanga, a sub-divisional town 10 km west of Kushtia, a focal point of the resistance, Ghosh came across a senior BSF officer. He also witnessed elsewhere telltale signs of Pakistani atrocities.

By then Awami League stalwarts Tajuddin Ahmed and Amirul Islam had been flown off to Delhi to meet Indira Gandhi. They reached the West Bengal border dressed like poor peasants after a long march through five districts. Gandhi, under pressure domestically to send the Army into East Pakistan but who played her cards deftly, assured Tajuddin that India would not hesitate to become “an equal partner” in the war of liberation. Unfortunately, their Delhi trip created fissures within the government-in-exile. The BSF had taken the two to Delhi without making contact with Chitta Sutar, whom Mujib had long ago sent to Calcutta to liaise with the Indian government. Sutar, protected by the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), eventually confirmed that Tajuddin enjoyed Mujib’s total confidence. By then, damage had been done.

When the Bengali-speaking diplomats of the Pakistani mission in Calcutta revolted and unfurled the Bangladesh flag, it triggered a chain reaction in many capitals around the world where similar desertions took place. When the well-planned incident happened in Calcutta, the BSF was deployed around the mission to provide security to the defectors; BSF officer Golak Majumdar was on a footpath disguised as a shoe-shiner, armed with brushes, boot polish and more.

Even as Pakistan continued the slaughter, American diplomats in Calcutta contacted some Awami League MNAs (MPs) covertly to persuade them to return to Dacca. Most of them were aligned with Khondokar Mushtaq Ahmed, the “Foreign Minister” who did not see eye to eye with Tajuddin and who would eventually play a counter-revolutionary role leading to the assassination of Mujib in 1975.

Ghosh says the Indian assessment of a possible Chinese involvement impelled Gandhi’s policy planners to provide all out support to the liberation war. It wasn’t easy because 70 percent of the UN members opposed Pakistan’s break-up. India was also under tremendous economic pressure as the refugee population had swelled to 10 million. By mid-May 1971, superior Pakistani firepower had crushed virtually all resistance.

This is when India assigned its military to take over the training of the Mukti Bahini, which never faced any shortage of volunteers thanks to the bloodbath by the Pakistanis. One camp opened in Dehradun and another in nearby Chakrata. More camps sprouted in Uttar Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Assam and Mizoram. The fresh influx of guerrillas gave new life to the fighting, unnerving the Pakistanis who found even control over Dacca slipping away. Unending sabotage derailed the Pakistani military’s supply chain. All India Radio began playing coded songs in Bengali, which were signals to the Mukti Bahini. By September, the guerrilla war had reached a decisive phase. Once Yahya Khan decided to attack India militarily, Pakistan’s game got over. As the Soviets stood firmly by India amid US-Chinese machinations in the UN, the Indian Army and Bangladeshi guerrillas crushed the Pakistani military in less than two weeks. But the Pakistanis (Ghosh saw this in Khulna) refused to surrender to the Mukti Bahini fearing torturous death and instead gave up their weapons to the Indians. In just nine months, East Pakistan became history and Bangladesh was born.

To say this is an excellent book is an understatement. If you want to know what happened in 1971 from just one book, read this. I wish it had an index.

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