The Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971 was one of India’s finest achievements after Independence. It was a military victory, a diplomatic success against odds, and in some still unappreciated but key ways, more than both.
There is widespread popular awareness of the victory in India, but just how transformational it was – or at least should have been – is, I think, still not fully appreciated, outside of a small network of military historians and enthusiasts. India not only achieved an overwhelming military victory, it put a stop to humanitarian crimes on a truly massive scale and changed the world map by helping to create the new nation of Bangladesh.
Importantly, in view of the lessons from later conflicts such as Afghanistan and Iraq, India withdrew all its military forces from the new country within weeks – in contrast to the aftermath of many Western countries’ military successes throughout the twentieth century.
It held to that principle of early departure, even though a continued Indian presence in the country might have prevented political developments unfavourable to its interests and reputation – which did, in fact, come about less than four years after its resounding military victory.
The Liberation War was also the largest conventional conflict the world had seen since the Second World War – and it reproduced many of the tropes of that earlier war. All dimensions of pre-nuclear era warfighting and pre-asymmetric warfare were on display: infantry and tank battles; submarines stalking surface ships, sometimes sinking them and sometimes being sunk; aircraft in swirling dogfights within visual range of each other and of watchers on the ground; daring naval attacks on enemy ships in harbour; naval frogmen destroying enemy ships at anchor with limpet mines; massed drops of parachute-borne troops to seize key objectives ahead of ground troops.
More importantly, a clear David vs Goliath, good vs evil narrative, described by thoughtful commentators even beyond India as one of the last “just wars” of the twentieth century, in which the side unequivocally representing good triumphed, indisputably and decisively.
Many Indians do, of course, remember the names of some of the architects of our victory, especially the then army chief, General Sam HFJ Manekshaw, and the Eastern Command chief, Lieutenant General JS Aurora, who figures in the iconic photograph of a dispirited Pakistani general AAK Niazi signing the surrender agreement. But there was much more, and there were many more, to the full story.
Beyond the military accomplishment, there are learnings in the areas of governance, history and ethics. In addition, like many other wars, this one provides the background for what could be a much larger body of creative imagination than that which currently exists. Works of imagination can be important contributors to collective memory; they may capture the zeitgeist even more effectively than works of history.
But as a key reservation, in my view, India has not fully incorporated into national memory its own humanitarian and ethical justifications for taking on this war. As a result, the war and India’s victory have been allowed to deteriorate into the starting point of endless exercises in whataboutery and false equivalence between India and Pakistan.
And less importantly, there were certainly some areas for improvement on the Indian side, particularly in the aftermath of the war.
Looking to the future, India sometimes seems not to have internalised – or has started to forget – some of the key learnings from that war, which should have been burned into its consciousness. Key among those is the criticality of local support to the success of military operations.
Decades after the horrifying events which preceded the actual war, the memory of what happened during those months is in danger of being forgotten. It was, in any case, never entirely acknowledged by the primary perpetrator, Pakistan, or by its sponsors at the time – the United States of America (USA, US) and China – much less by the world at large. It remains, in writer KV Bapa Rao’s words, “a karmic millstone around the collective neck of the people of the subcontinent, stretching all the way from Afghanistan to the Chittagong Hill Tracts, from Kashmir to Sri Lanka.”
The issues behind this conflict were so clear, and the result so decisive, that this war should have permanently changed the subcontinental narrative. In fact, very little changed. Indeed, within fifteen years of perpetrating horrific violence on its own people, and crimes against self-determination, Pakistan was assiduously recasting itself, astonishingly at least to some constituencies, as the champion of self-determination for the people of Kashmir.
Given the scale of atrocity that was halted in its tracks by the Bangladesh Liberation War, and the indisputable nature of the victory, many external observers are mystified why these successes are not better remembered. India’s victory could have been a living global memorial, again in Bapa Rao’s words, to the “triumph of the will of the people over tyranny”.
Instead, it has been almost forgotten, except in ill-tempered exchanges between Indian and Pakistani diplomats during United Nations (UN) debates, between politicians in all three countries when point-scoring, and in spats on social media in India when the Congress party attempts to remind the electorate that it was not always as ineffectual as it is today.
In Pakistan, it has mysteriously transmuted into a narrative of military victory turned into defeat by a devious adversary, perfidious politicians and the personal failings of Yahya Khan. This is as mistaken, and as much a failure to face reality, as the delusions that Germany in the 1920s succumbed to regarding their defeat in the First World War.
In the US, sadly for the larger world view, the Pakistan Army’s depredations in East Pakistan during the run-up to the Bangladesh Liberation War count for less, in whatever memory exists of 1971, than the discovery of Osama bin Laden round the corner from the Pakistan Military Academy in 2011.
The Bangladesh Liberation War should be better remembered, and I would argue, in some ways differently remembered. The Second World War is widely accepted as a justifiable war, and its young participants are deified as the greatest generation. It is always striking to me how uncritically the Second World War is remembered, particularly in the countries that were its victors – and how rarely any similar respect is accorded to other wars.
Outside Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, the Bangladesh Liberation War is seen in too many ways, particularly in the environments that define English-speaking narratives, as just another chapter in the long sequence of incomprehensible tribal disputes (Armenia-Azerbaijan, Ethiopia-Eritrea, Iran–Iraq), of little consequence to the rest of the world except when its refugees wash up on wealthier shores.
I wish this would change, and in particular, I wish the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War would be remembered in ways more like the Second World War (while, of course, recognising the differences in scale, duration and impact – and without glamorising war).
Excerpted with permission from December In Dacca: The Indian Armed Forces and the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, KS Nair, HarperCollins India.