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  Opinion   Columnists  22 Dec 2021  Sunanda K. Datta-Ray | How the past overwhelms Bangla’s present & future

Sunanda K. Datta-Ray | How the past overwhelms Bangla’s present & future

Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a senior journalist, columnist and author.
Published : Dec 22, 2021, 7:07 am IST
Updated : Dec 22, 2021, 7:07 am IST

Culturally, economically, politically and strategically, the present and future of the 2 countries are too closely entwined to be separated

President Ram Nath Kovind being welcomed as the Guest of Honour by Bangladesh President Md. Abdul Hamid and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to the gala celebrations of Mujib Borsho and Golden Jubilee of Independence of Bangladesh, in Dhaka (PTI Photo)
 President Ram Nath Kovind being welcomed as the Guest of Honour by Bangladesh President Md. Abdul Hamid and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to the gala celebrations of Mujib Borsho and Golden Jubilee of Independence of Bangladesh, in Dhaka (PTI Photo)

The headline of Gen. Shankar Roychowdhury’s article on December 16 “How India cut Pak down to size” might unwittingly touch on a sensitive nerve in India’s relations with a booming Bangladesh. A Bangladeshi writer, R. Chowdhury, revives the controversy in the current issue of South Asia Journal by asking provocatively: “Whose victory was it, for the Mukti Bahini or the Indian forces?” His article is titled: “Victory Day for Mukti Juddho or Indo-Pak War?”

The short answer is that it was a victory for both. The Mukti Bahini’s interests coincided with India’s, just as India’s interests coincide today with those of Bangladesh. Culturally, economically, politically and strategically, the present and future of the two countries are too closely entwined to be separated. That cannot be forgotten even if opposition to the Indo-Bangladesh entente lurks like Banquo’s ghost amidst the celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of Pakistan’s Lt. Gen. A.A.K. Niazi’s surrender to India’s Lt. Gen. J.S. Aurora which preceded East Pakistan’s rebirth as the sovereign republic of Bangladesh.

That is also why any exuberance of Hindutva sentiment in India (or any political developments with a communal dimension) can only alarm not only Bangladeshis but also the majority Muslim populations of two other members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. This inter-dependence demands a serious attempt to understand the misgivings of Bangladeshis who are dubbed anti-Indian. Their leaning towards China, Pakistan and the OIC, and criticism of India’s Citizenship Amendment Act and recent developments in Kashmir are often rooted in their own nervousness.

The SAJ refers to Chowdhury as “a decorated freedom fighter for the independence of Bangladesh” and a well-known author. It is not clear if he is also the Rashed Chowdhury who became a lieutenant-colonel in the Bangladesh Army and was a diplomat in Brazil when Sheikh Hasina Wajed became Prime Minister in 1996. If so, he was one of the 12 men to be tried in absentia, convicted and sentenced to death for alleged complicity in the 1975 coup when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and most of his family were murdered. Disobeying Dhaka’s orders to return in 1996, Rashed Chowdhury took his wife and son to the United States and applied for political asylum there, which the Clinton administration granted. Subsequent Bangladeshi attempts at repatriation have not been successful.

This digression into history explains how the past overwhelms Bangladesh’s present and future. The two Chowdhurys might be totally different men, but the opposition to Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League still lurks like Banquo’s ghost amidst the celebrations today.

That ghost popped out again when historian Sarmila Bose, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s grand-niece and author of Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War, argued in the current issue of Britain’s History Today that “the creation of Bangladesh was a missed opportunity for India to reverse the British partition of Bengal” by “annex[ing] it as the new state of East Bengal within the Union of India”. She believes that Sheikh Mujib would have readily become chief minister of an Indian state. Because of Ms Bose’s antecedents — a link that ensures that the family remains in the public eye — Bangladeshis might see in the suggestion a confirmation of some of their worst suspicions. She may give further offence by blaming this “error of judgment” on “India’s tendency to think in terms of how to damage Pakistan, rather than what might benefit India”. That seems designed to lend further credence to Chowdhury’s view (which he attributes to the “renowned” British-Bangladeshi “political analyst” Zoglul Husain) that “in 1971 the people of Bangladesh fought for independence from Pakistan, but India joined the war to divide Pakistan and turn Bangladesh into its vassal state”.

Muchkund Dubey, a former foreign secretary and India’s high commissioner in Dhaka from 1979 to 1982, attributed such thinking to the “big country, small country” complex. India cannot cut itself down to size but, as Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew had advised Rajiv Gandhi, Indonesia’s Suharto had succeeded in convincing his smaller neighbours that size need not mean hegemony. Only tactful diplomacy can erase rankling memories of the liberation war when some Bangladeshis felt their Gen. M.A.G. Osmani, “Bongobir” to his countrymen, was excluded from the surrender and victory ceremonies. That background may explain why Bangladeshis sometimes play down India’s military role in 1971 although the Mukti Bahini’s valour needs no exaggeration.

It is part of this game also to attribute Indira Gandhi’s military intervention only to rivalry with Pakistan rather than any commitment to Bangladeshi rights and welfare. This is naive because foreign policy is seldom driven by a single factor. Humanitarian concern may be a major consideration but national self-interest and geopolitical realities also count.

Ironically, the Agartala Conspiracy Case (Agartala Shoŗojontro Mamla in Bengali) that Pakistan’s Ayub Khan regime brought in 1968 against Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and 34 other Awami League politicians, who were all accused of conspiring with India, provides the best evidence of the bonding between India and its smaller eastern neighbour.

Although India and Mujib denied all the charges, one of the accused in that case, Shawkat Ali, confessed in the Bangladesh Parliament on February 22, 2011 that far from being false, they were all true. He also confirmed that a Navy steward called Mujibur Rahman (not to be confused with the revered Bangabandhu) and an educationist, Mohammad Ali Reza, had indeed gone to Agartala, capital of the Indian state of Tripura, to seek India’s military support for Bangladesh’s independence. My guess would be that the freedom fighters were not well enough organised then to launch the “Sangram” (Struggle), Sheikh Mujib’s term, that exploded three years later.

Syed Mainul Hossain’s Martyr’s Memorial in Dhaka, where an engraved inscription reads hauntingly — “Tomader ja bolar chhilo, bolchhe ki ta Bangladesh?” (Does Bangladesh speak what you wanted it to say?) — eloquently invokes that struggle. No country can always speak for every single citizen, but in its quest for stability and prosperity in partnership with India, Bangladesh has not failed the dreams of the fervent young fighters in makeshift khaki whom I met in Khulna and Jessore in 1971 and who had taken up arms for a cause that transcended religion. Soaring national and per capita incomes, spiralling food production and exports, and a population that has been contained flesh out their independence beyond the emptiness of political rhetoric.

Tags: bangladesh indepedence war, 1971 war, india bangladesh ties