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Remember that December

The 1971 war with Pakistan ended 39 years ago yesterday. It was a turning point for India

india Updated: Dec 16, 2010 23:04 IST
Indranil Banerjie
Indranil Banerjie
Hindustan Times

Fourteen years ago, at a time when the internet in India was still young, I had put up a website on the 1971 India-Pakistan War. It was a huge hit. But the site rapidly ran out of bandwidth and I was stuck with a massive bill. I quickly told the server operators to shut down the site, but within hours I was deluged by emails offering monetary assistance. The response was overwhelming and even after all these years I have never had the heart to take down the site.

One of the reasons I have kept it going is a belief that the war should not be forgotten. Over the years, I have received dozens of emails, mostly from Pakistanis, asking me to pull down the site as it is a reminder of troubled times and doesn’t help India-Pakistan relations. To provoke, however, was not my intention.

The motivations were personal. I had grown up in Calcutta and recall the anguish over the fate of East Bengalis being hunted and killed by Pakistani soldiers and Razaakars (paramilitary forces organised by the Pakistani Army). Flickering black and white footage in cinemas captured the exodus of East Pakistani families, most of them skeletal and clutching emaciated children. One day, I watched what looked like fighters chasing each other in the skies. Soon the war was upon us. The entire country looked to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her charismatic general (later field marshal) Sam Maneckshaw. We learnt to observe black-outs, cover our windows with dark paper and paint the top half of our car headlights black.

The war was over before we knew it. Thousands of Pakistani soldiers surrendered with their general. A ceasefire was announced and soon the leader of the newly-independent ‘Bangladesh’, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, returned to head his country. Life for us went back to normal.

The war, however, persisted in another form. As boys, our favourite reading was war comics. These told stories mostly about the two World Wars. I realised then that no country forgets its wars; they become part of folklore. Some even make legend. The 1971 war, in contrast, was hardly acknowledged outside our part of the world.

The years passed and I forgot the war until my researches led me to an intriguing document called the Hamoodur Rahman Commission Report, which had ascertained the reasons for the war and fixed blame for the military fiasco as well as the killings of thousands of Bangladeshi civilians. The report was prepared in 1974 but was not officially released. Over the decades, parts of it landed with the media and the report was finally declassified by the Pakistan Army in 2000. The report, after examining almost 300 military and civilian officers and going through hundreds of classified army signals, had recommended dozens of Pakistan Army officers be tried. But not one officer faced court martial and the army’s role was never questioned in Pakistan.

When I was writing up my website, I came across some voices within Pakistan lamenting the fact that nothing had been learnt from the 1971 debacle. Moonis Ahmar, professor at University of Karachi, pointed out: “The tragedy of 1971 could have created awareness among the people of Pakistan that they cannot be misled by the bureaucratic-military elite in the name of national security. Yet things have not changed if we analyse the role of power in Pakistan... East Pakistan separated from the western wing not because they were unpatriotic but on account of their rejection of a centralised administrative system governed by the bureaucracy and the military from a minority province.”

It occurred to me that everybody was seeking lessons from the 1971 war. Interpretations would differ, but the war itself could not be forgotten. For India, it had been a cathartic moment. After the military defeat of the 1962 war with China and two inconclusive wars (with Pakistan in 1947-48 and 1965), this was a spectacular victory. In many ways, 1971 was a turning point for independent India. The country discovered a new self-confidence. It is for this alone that the war deserves to be remembered.

Indranil Banerjie writes on foreign policy and national security issues The views expressed by the author are personal.

First Published: Dec 16, 2010 23:02 IST