July 31st., 2011
M. Serajul Islam
The decision of the Bangladesh Government to award Bangladesh’s highest civilian honour, the “Bangladesh Freedom Honour” to late Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi is an excellent one though taken many decades belatedly. Her leadership in those tumultuous days of 1971 was a major reason for Bangladesh achieving its independence in just nine months. With Bangabandhu incarcerated in Pakistan and the Bangladesh Government in exile too inexperienced in international politics, it could have been quite a different story for Bangladesh without Indira Gandhi on our side.
The crime committed by the Pakistan army on unarmed people of Bangladesh in 1971 was carried out openly for the world to see. The world knew that the Awami League had won a free and fair election that the Pakistani military junta overturned. Nevertheless, those were different times. In the era of the Cold War, brutalities on civilians by the military was quiet acceptable. What was then not acceptable was any move aimed at breaking a country or challenging a government in power. Secession or rebelion was then totally unacceptable. Hence, although at the level of the people, Bangladesh drew world attention, governments everywhere did very little to stop the Bangladesh genocide.
In 1971, people in three countries rose against their respective governments. In Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese People’s Liberation Front rebelled against the Sri Lankan Government. In Nigeria, the Biafrans attempted to secede from Nigeria. In Bangladesh, we rose against the Pakistani military government. The first two were brutally suppressed with the world watching silently to protect Sri Lanka and Nigeria’s sovereign right to deal with its internal problems. The Bangladesh case was different. The minority led by the military junta threw aside the elections that would have allowed the majority in East Pakistan to govern and instead subjected them to genocide with the world looking the other way.
There were other major differences. In India, Bangladesh had a staunch supporter that was ready to go to war against Pakistan as it did eventually to stop Pakistan’s atrocities. In Mrs. Indira Gandhi, there was an Indian leader who was ready to take the world in her stride for the cause of Bangladesh. Her leadership for Bangladesh’s cause in which the United States supported Pakistan earned her the wrath of President Nixon who, in disgust, referred to her as the “witch” but established her as a statesman of world stature.
She deftly but forcefully made the Bangladesh cause known abroad. She addressed the United Nations, toured Europe and even the United States. In Europe and the United States, she failed to motivate the governments because of Cold War politics but established the Bangladesh case for freedom and Pakistan’s genocide, with their peoples. In her interviews given to the TV stations in the United States she was accused of interfering in Pakistan’s internal affairs. Her interviewers and critics were silenced in the manner she explained Pakistan military’s atrocities that caused 10 million Bangladeshis to seek refuge in India for fear of their lives.
Bangladesh thus owes Mrs. Indira Gandhi immense gratitude that it never paid while she was alive. Therefore, the award given to her posthumously was one that the whole nation has welcomed. It was heartening that the BNP also stood behind the Government’s decision. The ceremony to award Mrs. Gandhi the honour was given great respectability by the fact that Mrs. Sonia Gandhi came to Dhaka to accept this honour on behalf of her mother-in-law was a noble one. Mrs. Sonia Gandhi has established herself as a politician of conscience, of wisdom, where she has sacrificed the lures of political power to serve the cause of her party and country.
Mrs. Indira Gandhi is being honoured at a time when Bangladesh and India are at a historical cross road. After decades of un-stable and often un-friendly bilateral relations, the two countries are moving in the direction where they could regain the friendship and camaraderie that brought them together in 1971 that was lost somewhere down the road of history. It is a time when Bangladesh has made the first moves by conceding to two of India’s major foreign policy priorities, namely a land transit from its mainland to the seven northeastern states and its security concerns. India has also shown its willingness to match Bangladesh’s hands.
Bangladesh is now expectantly looking forward to India to meet its legitimate demands on waters sharing, trade and land and maritime boundary related issues when the Indian Prime Minister comes here for his official visit in early September. Indian Foreign Minister’s visit early this month promised a lot. Mrs. Sonia Gandhi during her visit also raised Bangladesh’s hopes by the genuine affection with which she spoke about Bangladesh and its people and the need for India and Bangladesh to regain the friendship of 1971.
However, good words for Bangladesh alone may not rekindle the old friendship. Mrs. Sonia Gandhi would need to put the full weight of her power and position to take on board a bureaucracy and political leadership in India for a new era of Bangladesh-India relationship. She should take note of the warm feelings that the opposition BNP has shown for her visit and for her wisdom and credibility. In this context, she should also bear in mind that the opposition in Bangladesh has still not been taken on board about the future of Bangladesh-India relations. In her brief but highly successful visit, those who arranged it could have helped the cause of bilateral relations if they would have arranged a meeting between her and Begum Khaleda Zia.
Most important of all, Mrs. Sonia Gandhi must remind those in charge in India to win hearts and minds in Bangladesh for sustainable and mutually beneficial bilateral relations. Thus far, India has done little for murder of Felani and hundreds of others by the trigger happy BSF over which Bangladeshis across the political divide are deeply aggrieved. The 1792 mile long fence that India is building on Bangladesh-India border at a cost of US$ 1.4 billion that will be completed next year is another issue with which India is losing hearts and minds in Bangladesh.
In an article on Foreign Affairs’ July/August, 2011 issue titled “Fortress India”, the authors wrote that although India by next year will successfully fence off every available crossing point on Bangladesh-India border, alleged mass migration will nevertheless not stop because of blatant corruption among the Indian agencies that guard the border. The head of Indian human rights organization named Masum has said “entire villages can cross the border with the right pay-offs.” The article thrashes Indian arguments on the fence that it considers as a major hindrance in regaining the spirit of 1971.
The award to Mrs. Gandhi settles a historical debt of the people of Bangladesh to the people of India. With the land transit and security assurances granted to India already, there is little left for Bangladesh to do to make India happy. It is now India’s turn to reciprocate. In this context, Mrs. Sonia Gandhi can make the difference because there are still lingering doubts in Bangladesh whether Indian politicians and less so, its bureaucrats, are going to do the needful unless someone with authority and respect in India interferes on Bangladesh’s behalf. This is where Mrs. Sonia Gandhi can play a historical role in Bangladesh-India relations as Mrs. Indira Gandhi had done in 1971.
The writer is a retired career diplomat and a former Ambassador to Japan