In a subcontinent where literacy and education are in short supply, it’s not surprising that popular narratives, and even myths, take on a life of their own. Take the case of Bangladesh. We probably have two major versions of how Bangladesh was created in Pakistan, two in Bangladesh and one in India. The Indian account is fairly simple and mostly accurate: geography compelled India to get involved in the Pakistani civil war of 1971. Through the determined leadership of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, it faced down the US, aided the creation of Bangladesh and inflicted a major military defeat on Pakistan. So, as election rhetoric, Rahul Gandhi’s statement listing the “division of Pakistan” as part of his family’s achievements is hardly remarkable since it’s based on how most Indians recall the events of those times anyway.
But the narratives linked to Bangladesh’s two major political parties are more complex. The Awami League believes that Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and the movement that he led single-handedly created Bangladesh. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) prefers to shift the focus to the efforts of the erstwhile East Pakistan Rifles, whose rebellion provided steel to the movement. The leader of this struggle was Major Zia-ur Rehman, the man who later founded the BNP and became President of the country.
The Pakistani version of the events was visible in two successive statements of its official spokesperson, Tasnim Aslam. On Sunday, reacting to Gandhi’s remarks, she said that it “validates” the fact that “India has always been trying to interfere in Pakistan’s internal affairs”. On Monday, she modified it slightly: “Maybe there were some circumstances; India took advantage of those circumstances to dismember Pakistan.” This duality is more striking in President Musharraf’s autobiography, Line of Fire, which pins the blame on the “wily” Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, incompetent generals and politicians, as well as on India, which “stabbed Pakistan in the back by attacking it across the border on several fronts in East Pakistan on November 21, 1971.”
Historians will continue to debate whether the Indian military intervention was good, bad or even necessary. But the fact that Bangladesh firmly established itself as a nation, despite internal turbulence, indicates that the Indian role in its creation, however significant, was secondary. What was central was the circumstances around the emergence of Pakistan, the actions of its leaders in 1947-71, the criminal conduct of the its army in its eastern wing in 1971 and the determination of the Bangla people to safeguard their identity. This judgment is not an ‘Indian’ pronouncement. It was arrived at by the Hamoodur Rehman Commission, appointed by the Pakistan government to inquire into the war. The report was readied by 1972 and declassified only in 2000 after large chunks of it were published in India Today. Though it grossly understated the number of people killed, ignored Bhutto’s role and that of the ‘butcher’ of Dhaka, Lt Gen Tikka Khan, it did not quite whitewash the conduct of the Pakistan army in Bangladesh.
The division of their country, or the creation of Bangladesh, is clearly something Pakistan inflicted on itself. After the pre-emptive atrocities of its army in 1971, the chances of the two wings of Pakistan remaining one were nil. The Bangladesh government estimates that between March 1971 and the surrender in Dhaka in mid-December, the Pakistani military regime was responsible for the death of three million people. The Pakistanis claim that only about 26,000 people died. Scholars who study genocide place the figure at hundreds of thousands and rank it as one of the terrible events of the last century.
Since they are not works of history, popular narratives do sometimes tend to be one-sided over-simplifications. But whether as folklore or history, the events surrounding the Bangladesh war continue to have a powerful bearing on contemporary affairs of South Asia. This is, of course, most manifest in Bangla-desh, where the rival versions of the freedom struggle have led to a political deadlock between Hasina Wajed, daughter of the martyred Mujibur Rehman, and Khaleda Zia, widow of the martyred Zia-ur Rehman.
To an extent, this rivalry is a modern myth. Two days after Sheikh Mujib announced the formation of Bangladesh in Dhaka, Zia endorsed it and called on all Bengalis to fight the West Pakistan army in the name of the motherland. Zia was neither an opponent of Mujib, nor was he implicated in his assassination. He was merely propelled by several coups to assume the presidency of Bangladesh which, unfortunately, remains divided by the imagined history of its own freedom struggle.
Ignorance of history often leads to imagined grievances and imputed motives, which have their own baleful consequences. India’s role in “stabbing Pakistan in the back” has for long been used as a means to justify Pakistani support for terrorist and separatist activity against India. In the case of Bangladesh, the multiple interpretations of its creation lie in the contemporary uses various parties wish to give to an event.
But the myth of Indira Gandhi being hell-bent on war is inaccurate. As the country’s leader, her reaction was essentially defensive. The outbreak of civil war and the massacres in Bangladesh led to a huge exodus of refugees into India. This was when the Naxalbari movement was at its height and Maulana Bhashani, the peasant leader with pro-Chinese inclinations, was a major influence on East Pakistan’s peasantry. A prolonged civil war in East Pakistan, with violence spilling over into parts of India, was seen as a major threat to the stability of the region.
In retrospect, Indira Gandhi’s action may seem faultless, but they were fraught with a great deal of risk. By mid-1971, she knew that Indian policy risked confrontation with the US and China as well, and she carefully prepared for the eventuality. In 1965, India had been forced to call a ceasefire because of a Chinese ultimatum, so a discarded Soviet proposal for an Indo-Soviet treaty was revived to give India some diplomatic-security cushion. This was a period when the Soviets were locked in a near conflict with China.
Indira Gandhi travelled across the world in the face of US opposition to build a climate of opinion against Pakistan. Only when everything was in place, by the end of November, were Indian forces asked to press the Pakistani forces in Bangladesh. Even then nothing was foreordained. Pakistan had the option of making a deal with Sheikh Mujib at any time, but it did not act. Neither did the US. Indian war plans were cautious. They did not initially envisage the capture of Dhaka; their aim was to systematically tighten the ring around it. Some good generalship on the Indian side and a great deal of softening up by the Bangla rebels led to the abrupt collapse of the Pakistan army. No wonder Henry Kissinger’s assessment, uttered at a crisis meeting in Washington at the time, “The lady is cold-blooded and tough,” has become part of a popular historical narrative that rings true to many Indians even today.