Forty-five year ago on this very day, independent India’s most successful military campaign came to fruition as Bangladesh came into being. The Liberation of Bangladesh wasn’t just a military success for an emerging India, but also an exhibition of India’s strong morals in supporting an oppressed people.
— Reshmi Dasgupta (@ReshmiDG) December 16, 2016
While the decision to support the cause of Bangladesh’s independence left a positive legacy of India in the subcontinent and beyond, there were some repercussions that continue to echo to this day.
The myth of ‘two nation theory’ debunked
The creation of Bangladesh was a tight slap in the face of advocates of partition in 1947, though it came a bit too late.
Religion was the reason that led to the division of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan in 1947, a bloody phase during which arguably the biggest humanitarian crisis of the 20th century unfolded.
While leaders of predominantly Muslim East Bengal(now Bangladesh) opted to join Pakistan in 1947 despite being 1,300 miles away from their parent country, they soon starting experiencing political and cultural condescension on account of speaking Bengali, different language.
Several efforts by East Pakistan-based politicians to get Bengali accepted as one of Pakistan’s official languages were also met with a wall in Urdu and Punjabi speaking leaders of Islamabad.
Tensions peaked between East Pakistan (as Bangladesh was known between 1947 and 1971) and Pakistan after Islamabad refused to accept the political mandate of 1970 national election that saw Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League winning a landslide in Dhaka that would also give him control of the single parliament of two Pakistans.
The refusal of Islamabad-based politicians to accept the popular mandate was seen as cultural snobbery in East Pakistan, which led to spawning of feelings of hostility toward Pakistan.
The chain of events finally led to an indigenous uprising against Islamabad, and the rest, as they say, is history.
December 16, 1971 was not only a victory for Bangladesh, but also vindication of beliefs of historical figures such as Mahatama Gandhi who had always doubted the ‘wisdom’ of dividing India on religious lines.
India’s most successful overseas military campaign
India’s policy of ‘non-alignment’ meant that military interventionism was frowned upon by the ruling elite. However, the long-held principle took a backseat when India was faced with a massive humanitarian crisis unfolded next door in East Pakistan, where a campaign of purging dissent by Islamabad, directed mainly against the Hindu minority, resulted in around 10 million being forced to flee to India.
While India formally entered the war on Dec 3 after its air bases along border with West Pakistan came under attack as payback for supporting East Pakistan’s independence-seeking militia Mukta Bahini, tensions between the archrivals had been simmering since March 1971 when India’s firebrand Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared her support for the cause of Bangladesh’s independence
New Delhi’s 13-day military involvement in the Bangladesh war effort claimed lives of 3,500 to 4,000 Indian soldiers.
India literally paid with blood of its soldiers to liberate the people of Bangladesh.
Birth of an India-Russia axis
Beside having a friendly Bangladesh who India helped liberate, India’s newfound alliance with the former Soviet Union was a major takeaway from this chapter of Indian history.
PM Indira Gandhi, sensing a crisis, signed a mutual defense treaty with the Soviets in August 1971, thus hedging against US’ intervention from Pakistan’s side.
The American government ordered a nuclear naval fleet led by USS Enterprise to be sent to the Bay of Bengal to bolster Pakistan’s military against India. However, Moscow’s counter-move,of sending a fleet of destroyers to Indian waters, to keep the US from interfering is seen by many as saving the day for India.
The Soviets also reportedly deployed 40 divisions along the Soviet-China border, in what was viewed as a show of support to Indian war effort.
The alliance with Russia flourished in coming years, as the bear remained India’s largest defense equipment supplier until being recently overtaken by the US. Successive leaderships in Moscow have continued to cement the legacy of friendship carved during the 1971 war.
India-Pakistan relations would never be the same
The liberation of Bangladesh left a deep scar on Islamabad’s military and civilian leadership, the symptoms of which are still on display in its bilateral relations with India.
For Islamabad, India was responsible for amputating Pakistan and the whole episode etched a deep-seated suspicion in the Islamic leadership for their larger, secular neighbour.
India’s involvement in the war, in the longer run, may be viewed as Pyhrric victory as India’s hostile role in the war was seen as proof of its deep-seated hatred for Islamabad, which as a tale was to used to inspire a whole generation of anti-India jihadis.
An Indian Express article noted that Prime Minister’s Modi’s Independence Day speech in which he mentioned Balochistan touched a raw nerve in Islamabad as it brought back memories of 1971.
The bilateral relations between the nuclear armed neighbours have never been the same.
Birth of a Bengali cultural identity
A population always needs a common set of signs, symbols or language to which it can relate.
At a time when governments of predominately Muslim countries throughout the world are legitimising their authority through Islam, Bangladesh stands out for maintaining its secular credentials and resisting efforts by hardliners and populists to go Islamic. While the present situation is fragile as Islamist forces, apparently backed by the main opposition party, make headway and chase away minorities, Bangladesh’s national character is still underpinned by Bengali language.
India, which faced a similar choice at Independence when it could have adopted a constitution based on religion, followed what it preached as it supported the aspirations of the Bengali speaking people of Bangladesh in 1971.