The Indian Air Force played a crucial role in supporting the valiant struggle of the Mukti Bahini during the 1971 war, including setting up of an airbase in Dimapur. The heroics of our fighter pilots provided some of the most inspiring moments of the war, which are legendary. Having served in Bangladesh, I have heard many brave accounts of the dogfights that IAF pilots engaged in over Dhaka, which greatly inspired the Bangladeshi people watching this from their rooftops. During the war, the IAF dominated the sky, leading the charge by hunting down Pakistani Sabres and giving much-needed support to the Mitro Bahini. Even IAF Caribou transport pilots took up the onerous task of dropping bombs on key targets, without worrying about the risk that they ran in doing so. I am sure today’s discussion will help us refresh our memory of this critical chapter in our history.
Today, I intend to focus on the humanitarian, political and diplomatic aspects of the events that led to the liberation of Bangladesh, and how our shared history of courage and sacrifice has shaped the present-day close and multifaceted partnership between India and Bangladesh.
1971 was as much a moral and political victory as it was a decisive military victory for India. We stood on a high moral and ethical ground and history proved us right as the people of Bangladesh vindicated their self respect and honour and won their fight for freedom and human rights. 1971 was indeed a war for justice over cruel tyranny, a quest for hope in the midst of despair and a catharsis achieved through Dharmayudh.
Never before in the recent history of our region, has humanity ever witnessed an act of calculated genocide. Operation Searchlight, on which I think we do need more contemporary research and attention, unleashed a reign of terror. Innocent women, children, academics and intellectuals were treated as weapons of war. After 25 March, there was never any doubt among the people of East Bengal that independence and not autonomy was the goal. As the senseless pogrom under Pakistan’s General Tikka Khan continued, India faced a massive humanitarian challenge. Millions fled East Bengal to escape persecution and crossed over to India. At one point, the average daily influx into India was over 100,000 and, by the end of 1971, the total number of people seeking refuge reached 10 million.
I consider India’s humanitarian response to the refugee issue to be one of the most sophisticated and empathetic in contemporary history. This may well have represented one of the first instances of the UN’s concept of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’. If judged by today’s standards of human rights and international humanitarian law, the perpetrators would have received a drastically different fate.
All this was unfolding at a time when India had already fought three bloody wars, and was trying to alleviate poverty and economic stagnation. At that time, our per capita income was less than US$ 120 per year. It was evident that India could not afford to support 10 million people. Yet, it marshalled all its resources, government and private, to host those fleeing persecution from Pakistani forces.
This monumental challenge that India was facing was well recognised by the international community. Yet, there was inadequate support from international organizations in real terms. Almost the entire burden of supporting the displaced people fell upon the government and people of India.
While internally we dealt with this issue in the best conceivable manner, Indian diplomats launched an outreach around the world in various capitals highlighting the plight of the people of East Bengal. India made more than 40 interventions at the international level within a span of four months. We also hosted international conferences to draw attention to the situation in Bangladesh. The last such conference was held in September 1971, where 150 representatives from 24 countries participated. World opinion makers, including leaders and media organizations, were engaged extensively and repeatedly. India continued to strongly support the democratic credentials of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the Awami League. As a result, a number of countries came forward to support the cause of the people of Bangladesh.
UN Secretary General U Thant condemned the atrocities and asked the international community to support India in giving refuge to those fleeing persecution by Pakistan in East Bengal. He issued a statement to this effect as early as in May 1971 and also sent a humanitarian mission to assess the situation. Yet, the UN response remained limited due to disagreement among the great powers during the Cold War. The UN Security Council did not discuss the matter till December 1971, and even when it was discussed, no consensus emerged.
In India, the political atmosphere was charged and there was full political consensus on the need to extend support to the people of East Bengal. Some of us would recall Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s 26 March 1971 declaration of independence of Bangladesh broadcast over Akashvani and the massive ‘Recognize Bangladesh’ marches that it spontaneously led to. A few days after the independence declaration, a resolution was moved in Parliament condemning the killings by the Pakistani Army as "genocide”. India had earlier, in March itself, banned PIA aircraft from using Indian air space, thus posing logistical challenges for the PAF.
On 3 December 1971, India was unwittingly drawn into a war that was not of its own making. From our declassified documents, we have the then Foreign Secretary T N Kaul telling the then US Ambassador Keating, that "by launching an Israeli type preemptive strike they had hoped that they would be able to destroy our own fields as they had hoped to see us as sitting ducks. They were gravely disappointed. We have shot two of their bombers in Agra and Halwara. Thanks to the notice that President Yahya Khan had given to us of declaring a war in ten days, we have taken adequate precautions.” The rest is of course history.
We can all now mull over if the situation would have been different if the international community had been able to exert pressure on Pakistan to stop the rampage against its own citizens and if the legitimate aspirations of the people of East Bengal were met. India’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Samar Sen, on 4 December 1971 articulated India’s disappointment with the international community at the UNSC when he said, "They [the refugees] are coming because they are being terrorized, they are being butchered. That is why they are coming. And we cannot take it anymore. We have told the international community time and again that we have come to the end of the tether. The situation is intolerable.”
And this was not the first time that India spoke on behalf of the people of East Bengal. At the World Peace Council held in May 1971, the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi said "I hope that all peace loving people of the world will uphold and defend human rights and demand the restoration to the people of East Bengal of their rightful claim to rule by the elected representatives.”
In the midst of war on December 6, India extended recognition to Bangladesh, prompting and encouraging other countries to follow suit. We made demarches to several countries to recognize the new reality. I need not expound on how important international recognition was for Bangladesh, especially when we look at the troubled Cold War landscape of the time. This year, December 6 will get celebrated across 18 capitals across the world, apart from India and Bangladesh, as Maitree Diwas. I am certain that the IAF is also planning to organize events befitting the significance of this event.
Contemporary India-Bangladesh relations have taken great strides forward, especially in recent years. Two major pillars of Indian diplomacy – Neighborhood First and Act East policies - find expression in our vibrant ties with Bangladesh. This year is of special significance for India-Bangladesh relations. To quote Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi, this year marks a "Triveni” of events of epochal significance - the Golden Jubilee of the Liberation War of Bangladesh; and the birth centenary of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the 50th anniversary of our diplomatic ties. The fact that the Prime Minister’s first foreign visit since the COVID pandemic was to Dhaka in March this year at the invitation of the Prime Minister of Bangladesh to commemorate the Golden Jubilee, is testament to highest priority attached by both sides to this relationship.
During this visit, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina expressed her deep appreciation and gratitude for the wholehearted support extended by the Government and people of India during the freedom struggle of Bangladesh. The Government of Bangladesh’s decision, announced during our Prime Minister’s visit, to establish a memorial at Ashuganj in remembrance of the supreme sacrifices made by the members of the Indian Armed Forces in 1971, is an important step towards preserving the history of shared sacrifices.
India-Bangladesh relations today are in many ways a continuation of the events that defined the course of history fifty years ago. Muktijoddhas still act a bridge between the two countries. We honor their contribution to the liberation of their country by extending support to them and their families through grants, scholarships and medical treatment in India. Regular exchanges between the security forces of our two countries are a reflection of our shared security considerations.
India remains a committed partner in Bangladesh’s socio-economic growth and development. Bangladesh is India’s biggest development partner and India’s largest trading partner in South Asia, contributing to economic prosperity and supply chain resilience in the region and beyond. Comprehensive connectivity is key to this partnership. Both sides have worked together to revive the pre-1965 rail connectivity. Other modes have also been strengthened, especially for enhancing linkages with the Northeastern region of India. New modes like waterways, passenger and cruise shipping, energy and power lines have been added to the connectivity mix.
Both countries share strong people-to-people ties that have been further strengthened through capacity building programmes, scholarships and cultural exchanges. We are taking initiatives such as joint production of a film on the life of Bangabandhu and a documentary on the Liberation War; joint celebration of Maitree Diwas - the day on which India recognized Bangladesh in different capitals; and an exhibition on the life of Bangabandhu and Bapu; to preserve the legacy of liberation of Bangladesh.
Read more: Mobile museum on Liberation War
India-Bangladesh relations today are deeper than any other strategic partnership. It is a role model for relations between two neighbouring countries. The spirit of friendship, understanding and mutual respect engendered during the liberation of Bangladesh continues to permeate different aspects of this relationship. Under the visionary leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, India and Bangladesh share a ‘Sonali Adhyay’ or golden era - a relationship geared towards bringing stability and prosperity to people on both sides of the border. Realizing the full potential of this partnership would require the continued convergence of strategic, economic and political outlook on both sides as was the case fifty years ago.
The writer is Foreign Secretary of India and former Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh