Celebrating Victory Day
As she secured her territorial victory, Bangladesh’s fate had taken a new turn on December 16, 1971; discusses Lt Gen JBS YADAV.
I led a Delegation of 27 Indian War Veterans and their spouses to Bangladesh to participate in the country's Victory Day celebrations on December 16, 2017. It may be recalled that at the time of Independence in 1947, Bengal was partitioned between India and Pakistan, into West Bengal and East Bengal respectively. Bengal remained a neglected state under British rule since 1757. After partition, the Bengalis of East Pakistan, to their dismay, found that the Pakistani rule was no better. They were still treated as a colony, this time, of Pakistan. Over a period of time, resentment against West Pakistan grew due to several socio-economic reasons that culminated with the skewed elections results of 1970. Sheik Mujibur was denied the Premiership of Pakistan even though his party had secured the majority. This further hurt the Bengali sentiments and a boycott of the government was announced on March 5, 1971. Instead of solving the problem politically, martial law was imposed on March 26 by President, Yahya Khan. A military crackdown was ordered under Lt Gen Tikka Khan, the butcher of Baluchistan, to bring the Bengalis to heel. This was the flashpoint for the revolt by the Bengalis. The military action resulted in the mass murder of intellectuals', innocent people, rape, humiliation of women; and wanton destruction of property. This led to insurrection and the people of East Pakistan declared independence. Relations between India and Pakistan had deteriorated to a new low by March 1971, when an Indian plane was hijacked by Kashmiri terrorists to Lahore and burnt down in full public view with the connivance of Pakistan authorities. The people of East Pakistan sought Indian help during their freedom struggle. Ten million East Bengali refugees had taken shelter in India who refused to return unless their country was free from Pakistan. India had thus, no choice but to help these hapless people. Since Pakistan was now a common enemy of India and East Bengal, it was a good opportunity to settle old scores. The East Pakistan Bengalis set up a Government in Exile in the Indian Territory and designated it as the Government of Bangladesh. India set up training camps for the freedom fighters and provided them material support to wage a war of independence. When India failed in its attempt to find a diplomatic or political solution to the problem facing her and the East Bengal People, she decided to intervene militarily.
The Bengali freedom fighters also known as Mukti Bahini, provided intelligence, carried out sabotage and tied down a substantial number of Pakistani troops in the hinterland. Even though India had mustered the strength of eight divisions against four of Pakistan, the terrain favoured the defender. An early and quick victory would not have been possible had the Mukti Bahini not played an active supportive role. The Indian Army struck into East Pakistan on four thrust lines on December 4, 1971, and secured a resounding victory by December 16. The Pakistani army surrendered unconditionally. A free and independent country was born on December 16. This day is celebrated as Victory Day by Bangladesh.
The government and the people of Bangladesh acknowledge with gratitude the assistance provided by India and her Defence Forces during their freedom struggle. They express the same by inviting a delegation of Indian War Veterans who fought along with the Mukti Bahini now known as Mukti Jhudaas to celebrate the victory together. In a reciprocal gesture, the Indian Government also invites a delegation of Mukti Jhudaas to celebrate Victory Day at Kolkata.
Bangladesh has a Ministry of Liberation War Affairs. They are responsible for the welfare of veterans and all activities related to the Liberation War. The ministry organised a visit to the National Museum for us on December 15. India has contributed several items related to the 1971 war to the Museum, including tanks, guns and aircraft belonging to the war time. The Mukti Jhudaas have also created an association known as the War Course Foundation. These officers were trained in camps established by India to fight the Liberation War.
December 16— Victory Day, began with a wreath-laying ceremony at the National War Memorial at sunrise. The memorial is an imposing structure, beautifully landscaped across acres of lush green area with flowering trees, water bodies and water channels. I led the delegation accompanied by the Minister of Liberation War Affairs, in jointly laying the wreath after the President and the PM. It was an impressive ceremony. Thousands of people from all political parties and walks of life laid wreaths and paid homage to the fallen heroes. The patriotic fervour among the public was abundantly visible. This was followed by an impressive parade consisting of mounted, marching and mechanised columns. They were followed by tableaus, air display and fly past. Much of it was like our Republic Day Parade. The entire function was conducted with efficiency, eloquence and precision in an environment of patriotic celebration. We felt that the Bangladesh Defence Forces are well prepared to deal with internal disturbances, UN Peace Keeping Operations, Disaster Management and to a large the extent external threats too, which were not specified or discussed. They are the second largest contributors of troops for UN Operations and have an internationally recognised training institution for the same.
From the August 1975 Coup to December 1990, the country was ruled by military men with dummy civilian governments for intermittent short periods. First, it was Lt Gen Ziaur Rehman and then General Hussain Muhammad Ershad. While Bangladeshis want to forget the rule of Ziaur Rehan, they have immense praise for Ershad. Ershad though, captured power illegally but ushered in peace, stability and development in his decade-long rule.
In the evening we paid homage to Bangabandhu, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman at his memorial. After becoming PM, the Sheik did not move to an official residence and continued to function from his private house in Dhanmondi that is now the Old City. In the wake of the euphoria of independence, the Sheik projected himself as a people's PM and his residence was an open house accessible to everyone. The security was minimal and there was almost no restriction on entry. His kitchen served food to hundreds of visitors every day. The reconstruction of Bangladesh was a herculean task. Besieged with multifarious challenges, the Sheik created a unitary system of governance with all powers in his own hands. This left no space for healthy political activities. Soon, instead of redressing grievances of officers, the Sheik dismissed some of them on the grounds of indiscipline. The Sheik was an astute politician but not a good administrator or judge of men. Thus, disenchantment and dissension grew in the party—among people and the armed forces against the Sheik's style of functioning and rule. A conspiracy was hatched by the middle order, restive, dismissed and serving Bangladesh Army Officers and estranged colleagues of the Sheik, aided by the CIA and ISI to topple his regime. This happened on August 15, 1975. 18 close members of the Sheik's family including his wife, all his three sons and two daughters-in-law were murdered at their residences, in three simultaneous operations. Sheik Hasina and her younger sister, who were out, survived the tragedy. The bodies were buried in Tungipara, the Sheik's village, in a remote area so that even in death he did not become a rallying point for a counter coup. His house was sealed without cleaning the splattered blood and disturbing his personal belongings. His surviving daughters took refuge in India for six years until Bangladesh was stable again in 1981. Sheik Hasina was allowed to possess the house on return in 1981. The house had remained in the same condition as it was at the time of the assassination. She cleaned, restored and converted it into a Memorial to her father under a trust. The Memorial houses the personal belongings of Sheik Mujibur Rehman and his deceased family along with artefacts and photographs covering his lifetime. All the rooms are in the same state as they were on that fateful day of August 15, 1975, with blood marks on the floor, walls and staircase; bullets holes in walls, books and furniture.
The last event was a call on the PM Sheik Hasina at her residence. Gifts were exchanged by both sides. She presented a copy of the biography of her father to each member of the delegation. In her speech, she was very effusive about India's role in the Liberation war and thereafter in its reconstruction. She narrated the events of 15 August 1975 with great intensity. She mentioned that Bangladesh was now a stable democracy with an economic growth rate of 7.32 per cent. They had zero tolerance for terrorism.
In conclusion, we saw a resurgent Bangladesh and a country on the move. In spite of numerous difficulties and challenges, they are determined to forget the past and tread the path of a modern, moderate and developed country. The three main political parties and their leaders have matured with time and obstructionist politics are not openly visible. The democracy seems to have stabilised. Bangladesh is wary of Saudi funds, Pakistan's ISI and the ISIS that is radicalising some of her people. She is also wary of China and does not want to fall into the trap like Myanmar, Srilanka and Pakistan. To understand Bangladesh, we must know that the people are very proud of their Bengali culture and Islam religion. They want to be treated as equals and not a subordinate or junior partner in the Liberation War, as also in their current relationship with us.
(The author is former Lieutenant General of the Indian Army. The views expressed are personal.)