The astute and decisive leadership of Indian premier Indira Gandhi in 1971 is a source of inspiration. Gandhi was Bangladesh’s greatest ally. She wanted a democratic Bangladesh. She envisioned a mature, parliamentary democracy in Bangladesh. She wanted Bangladesh to be a part of the community of democratic nations.
At the National Press Club in Washington, DC in the United States on November 5, 1971, Indira Gandhi told the assembled audience that “if democracy is good for you, it is good for us in India and it is good for the people of East Bengal”. The Indian subcontinent was fortunate to have a politician like Indira Gandhi grace its history. She was dedicated to democratic values, due process, and constitutionalism.
She masterfully conducted civil-military relations in 1971, which resulted in victory for the allied forces of Bangladesh and India. In the summer of 1971, she directed General Sam Maneckshaw to prepare for intervention in East Pakistan.
General Maneckshaw, or Sam Bahadur as he is affectionately known, advised his PM to avoid an operation during the monsoon when the rivers of the Bengal delta would be overflowing and hindering military movements. She heeded the advice of her army chief and embarked on an international tour to raise awareness about the plight of Bangladesh.
She travelled to Europe and North America to highlight the humanitarian crisis in South Asia. When she found the Nixon administration preoccupied in its rapprochement with Communist China, she struck a deal with the Soviets, who, by that time, had become China’s archnemesis due to the Sino-Soviet split.
Her government opened the door to international aid agencies to support relief operations for millions of refugees who sought shelter in Indian states bordering Bangladesh.
Indira Gandhi provided valuable support to the Bangladeshi government-in-exile led by Tajuddin Ahmad and which included the military and guerrilla forces under the command of Bengali defectors from the Pakistan Armed Forces.
In the nine months between March and December 1971, the military and guerilla forces of Bangladesh secured control of the Indo-Bangla border and much of the Bangladeshi countryside while West Pakistani forces were restricted to urban areas and their barracks.
West Pakistan’s pre-emptive strike on North India brought a massive Indian military machine into play. The allied forces achieved the enemy’s surrender within a mere two weeks in December 1971. The Instrument of Surrender also referred to the Geneva Convention to ensure humane treatment for the estimated 91,000 prisoners of war who had surrendered.
In 1971, Indira Gandhi proved that a military machine can work while remaining faithful to the principles of international humanitarian law. Tragically, her use of force in the domestic Sikh crisis led to her assassination in 1984.
Gandhi was first and foremost a democrat. She believed in respecting the choice of electorates at the ballot box. This was true in 1971 when she was aghast at the refusal of the Pakistani military junta to transfer power to elected representatives. It was also true in 1977 when she handed power to a triumphant domestic opposition after a controversial two-year state of emergency.
There is much to learn from her political and wartime leadership. Her economic policies, however, followed the Nehruvian left-wing tradition and were discarded by her own party in the 1990s.
In 2021, as we commemorate the golden jubilee of Bangladesh’s founding, we must cherish the support given by Indira Gandhi in 1971.
The idea of Bangladesh is still taking shape. But she set a precedent in history by demonstrating a responsibility to protect a population from genocide.
This article first appeared in Dhaka Tribune.
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