Indira Gandhi’s role in Bangladesh’s creation cannot be downplayed

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The Congress would have a very legitimate grievance against the government if former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s name was not mentioned in any civilian function to mark the 50th anniversary of India’s historic victory over Pakistan in 1971. But since Prime Minister Narendra Modi was attending the National War Memorial on December 16 to honour our defence forces for their role in securing independent India’s most decisive military victory, leading to the formation of Bangladesh, possibly the failure to mention Indira Gandhi’s name in connection with Vijay Diwas was not deliberate.

If Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and other Congresspersons voiced such suspicions, it is because the bitter polarisation of our polity acts as a deterrent for both sides to gracefully give credit to anyone from a rival camp. Mrs Gandhi’s role in combating Pakistan was indeed larger than life and no attempt should be made to downplay it or detract from it by carping that she frittered away her major military gains in post-war negotiations. Noted Bangladeshi writer Haroon Habib acknowledged, “The political and personal role of the former Indian prime minister in Bangladesh’s liberation war of 1971 is inseparable from the country’s history.” Ten years ago, Sheikh Hasina posthumously conferred on Mrs Gandhi the Swadhinata Sammanona, Bangladesh’s highest award. She was the first foreigner to be so honoured. It would be a mistake for any Indian government to not cash in on the goodwill Mrs Gandhi evokes in Bangladesh.

The creation of Bangladesh was perhaps Indira Gandhi’s finest hour as PM. She worked on three fronts — political, diplomatic and military — and executed her grand plan in a shrewd and nuanced manner. In the run-up to the war, Pakistan President Yahya Khan cracked down on the people of East Pakistan with extreme brutality for protesting against his regime’s refusal to honour the election verdict which gave Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League party the majority of seats in the Pakistani parliament. Yahya Khan arrested Rahman, imprisoned thousands of his supporters and let loose a reign of terror. Mrs Gandhi, meanwhile, welcomed international agencies to lend a helping hand in relief work for the millions of East Pakistani migrants who sought refuge in India’s border states. While she did not recognise Bangladesh officially, Indira Gandhi supported the exiled military and guerrilla resistance movement, the Mukti Bahini, which was trained, funded, and equipped by the Indian army.

In April 1971, Mrs Gandhi summoned Sam Manekshaw and ordered him to launch an immediate offensive against Pakistan. Manekshaw advised delay since time was needed to mobilise troops, requisition trains, and build transport networks. The monsoon season, he cautioned, was not the right time to launch an offensive. Mrs Gandhi agreed and meanwhile wrote letters to world leaders highlighting the plight of the refugees fleeing their country to escape unspeakable horrors. Her emissaries abroad spread the message of the immense suffering in India’s neighbourhood. The conscience of the international community was aroused by the genocide in Bangladesh, though the US, a major ally of Pakistan, remained silent. Folk singer Joan Baez wrote the song Bangladesh, which was played at a concert organised by Beatle George Harrison and sitar player Ravi Shankar and became the anthem of pro-Bangladeshi activists all over the world.

Mrs Gandhi herself took a 21-day tour of Germany, France, Britain, Belgium and the US. In America, she braved the wrath of President Nixon and his combative Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to highlight the plight of East Pakistan. Declassified White House documents show that Nixon’s dislike of Ms Gandhi was so visceral that he even remarked, “Undoubtedly the most unattractive women in the world are Indian”. He felt Mrs Gandhi was condescending towards him and was secretly planning to go to war with Pakistan. Kissinger would later describe the conversation between the two leaders as “the dialogue of the deaf”, remarking in his biography that he respected Mrs Gandhi even when her policies were harmful to US national interest.

On December 3, 1971, Pakistan made an ill-planned move to launch preemptive strikes on eight Indian airfields. India now had justification to go to war and march into Bangladesh. The Indian army along with the Mukti Bahini acted with lightning speed. It took just two weeks to win the war with 93,000 Pakistani soldiers taken prisoner. Mrs Gandhi was not cowed even when the US dispatched its mighty Seventh Fleet to the Indian Ocean. To bolster India, the USSR moved its naval fleet from Vladivostok. The whole country rose as one to laud her triumph. In Parliament, Mrs Gandhi received a standing ovation. Opposition leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee hailed her as “Durga”. He later claimed that he had been quoted out of context. But Vajpayee had no reason for embarrassment: Praising a political foe for good work is a sign of maturity.

In Indian politics, there is a regrettable tendency to hog all the glory and build a larger-than-life image often at the expense of others, something the Gandhis also practised when in power. Sycophants like Congress president D K Barooah declared “Indira is India and India is Indira”. Recently, former diplomat Chandrashekhar Dasgupta in his book attributed even the strategic military delay in going to war with Pakistan in 1971 to Mrs Gandhi, though it is well documented that she acted on the advice of her military chief Manekshaw. For decades, Gandhi loyalists felt it necessary to ignore Sardar Patel and Babasaheb Ambedkar’s major role both in pre-and post-Independence India so that the sole focus remained on Nehru and his daughter. It was only after the rise of the BSP and its dogged memorialisation of the iconic Dalit leader and the BJP’s deification of Patel that other political parties recalled these forgotten leaders. Much like in the era of the Gandhis, today’s spin doctors churn out sycophantic advertisements which credit a single individual, be it a chief minister, central minister, or even the prime minister, for multi-dimensional programmes where success is possible only due to the combined efforts of many.

The writer is consulting editor, The Indian Express

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