1st January 2012
M. Serajul Islam
December is a month that brings a flood of memories in the minds of all Bangladeshis about 1971. On 16th of December, 1971, the country was freed from a murderous military whose only objective was to keep the territory of what was then the eastern wing of Pakistan as a part of that country. The Pakistan military could not care less how many Bengalis they killed. In fact, in those 9 months they ended killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people of Bangladesh whose only fault was to have voted for the Awami League in an election that even the military Pakistan government of the time agreed was free and fair.
In the murderous spree, 10 million Bangladeshis fled to India for fear of their lives. In a historic documentary of the time, Bangladesh’s great film director Zahir Raihan, in his immortal documentary Stop Genocide, had captured an old lady who could walk only on her legs with support of her hands, fleeing to India walking the way she could, “walking” many a miles to safety in India. That one shot showed the world the nature of the murderous genocide that the Pakistanis had embarked upon us in 1971.
India did something unique. It opened its borders to accept those 10 million refugees and gave them food and shelter for 9 long months. India those days was in economic terms just managing to feed its huge population and was not in a position to look after such a large number of people. Yet our people were invited with open arms and looked after them. No one complained about their lives in the refugee camps because Indian hospitality was overwhelming.
The Indian government did much more. It took up Bangladesh’s cause in the field of battle where the people had risen to respond to the call of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to fight a guerilla war against Pakistan’s occupation force by helping the Mukti Bahini with fire power; training and other support. It also formed a joint command with Bangladeshi soldiers to fight the Pakistanis in frontal war. Most importantly, under the leadership of Indira Gandhi, India championed the cause of Bangladesh’s independence in the international arena where those days a people’s fight for their freedom by secession was unacceptable.
India’s efforts helped Bangladesh earn its independence in quick time. Ever since, all governments in Bangladesh and the people have unquestionably accepted India’s role in our independence and have shown gratitude for what they did for us. This year, the show of our gratitude for Indian assistance was there like every year; in fact a little more because this year marked the 40th year of our liberation.
This year, there were visitors from India; visitors invited by the government to show our gratitude for India’s assistance in 1971. I had an interesting conversation with one of them, a senior retired Indian general who played a role in training young Bangladeshis for fighting the Pakistani army in the battle field. I felt proud to have met him because it gave me the opportunity to convey to him my own personal gratitude for his role and that of his country for our independence. My meeting with him was held in the week when we were again witness to killings of Bangladeshis in the Bangladesh-India border at the hands of the BSF coming in the heels of the Teesta and Tippaimukh disappointments.
I therefore could not check my temptation to convey to the retired general the frustrations in Bangladesh over India’s failure of giving us an agreement on sharing of the waters of Teesta and going ahead with the Tippaimukh without taking Bangladesh into confidence over and above all, the continued killings on the Bangladesh-India border. I told him that we are now in a position where we cannot feel the same gratitude for India for its role in 1971 because India has accepted favours after favours from us but has so far failed to show its heart or good intent in reciprocating.
I told the general that our Prime Minister has risked her political career to give India security commitment and land transit in the hope that India would respond on issues of water that for us is the most important bilateral issue with India. I also told him that the concessions India made on issues of trade and land boundary settlement are in jeopardy as major groups within India have started opposing these agreements.
Finally, I had to tell him that people of Bangladesh are starting to look seriously on the issue of gratitude for India for their help in 1971. The question coming up in many people’s mind is should we now not ask India how much we have contributed to it by our independence. I asked the General to spare a moment and consider a hypothetical scenario where Bangladesh had not come into being and India had on its eastern border, East Pakistan instead. To refresh the General’s mind, I asked him not to forget that meantime Pakistan had become nuclear and more formidable a foe than it was in the pre-1971 period. I told him that quite naturally; Pakistan’s eastern province would also be armed to the teeth to fight India and would also have nuclear capabilities.
In such a hypothetical scenario, I asked the General to consider how much India must have saved knowing that on its eastern border it has a friendly Bangladesh that at present is willing to do simply anything to make it happy. I said that as a consequence of the emergence of Bangladesh, the savings for India on defense expenses that it would have had otherwise spent if Pakistan was still present on in its eastern front would have been in hundreds of billions of US dollars.
Then there is the psychological comfort for India of a friendly government in its eastern front because even a BNP Government in Bangladesh with its anti-Indian stance is no threat to that country. There is also the issue of India’s fragile northeast where the insurgencies would have by now perhaps severed the northeastern states from India for good. It is not just the Indian break of promises on Teesta, Tippaimukh and the killings in the border that is agitating the minds of Bangladeshis at present. The “trial run” for land transit is also doing its fair share in making India not such a popular country in Bangladesh. Recent TV footages have shown heavy Indian trucks destroying one of our rivers to carry goods to the Indian province of Tripura.
It is indeed very sad that the Indians have failed to realize the great political risks Sheikh Hasina took to move Bangladesh-India relations out of the negative state to a positive one. In doing so, they have closed a door that she had opened for the first time in many decades to build up mutually beneficial relations between two neighbours who need each other for their mutual benefit. Gratitude cannot tie relations. The irony is that even in gratitude; Bangladesh has done more for the Indians than they have done for us.
In fact, there is also a lot of merit in what many now say that even had the Indians not intervened, there was no way that Bangladesh would not have become independent for no nation had ever united for independence as the Bangladeshis had done in 1971. In fact, without Indian intervention, Bangladesh would have had a natural birth that would have taken care of many of the issues of history from which Bangladesh is still suffering as a nation.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.