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Vijay Diwas Special: Recalling the war that reshaped South Asia

Girish Linganna revisits the significance of Vijay Diwas, commemorating the establishment of the People's Republic of Bangladesh in 1971. 

Vijay Diwas Special: Recalling the war that reshaped South Asia
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First Published Dec 16, 2023, 9:06 AM IST

Every year on December 16, Bangladesh observes ‘Victory Day’, a defining moment in its history that marks the establishment of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh in 1971. As we reflect on this significant occasion, the pride that Indians -- especially ethnic Bengalis of India’s Bengal, known colloquially as ghotis feel in ‘handing over’ that victory to Bangladesh -- finds a deep resonance in the victorious spirit of ethnic Bengalis of erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), known colloquially as ‘bangals.

But this resonance has also manifested itself through the years in another form of mutual denigration in the form of acrimonious ghoti-bangal rivalry. The manifestations took the form of Mohun Bagan (ghoti)-East Bengal (bangal) -- or green/maroon-red/yellow -- competition on the football field; or, the prawn (ghoti)-hilsa (bangal) culinary comparisons; or, even the conch shell (ghoti)-ululation (bangal) forms of celebrating auspicious occasions like a marriage. 

How the expressions, ghoti and bangal, originated, says Sunanda K Datta-Ray, former Editor of The Statesman, is 'lost in the mists of obscurity', but their jaundiced perceptions of each other became bleaker with each new wave of impoverished East Bengali migrants that flowed into 1950s and 1960s Calcutta. It coloured the lens of the well-settled ‘ghotis’ while focusing on the hapless ‘bangal’ refugees, culminating in the biggest migration of East Bengalis to West Bengal following the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War.

Pakistan’s Civil War & East-West Divide

The conflict emerged as a civil war between then East and West Pakistan, driven by the profound division between the Bengali-majority East Pakistan and the Punjabi-dominated West Pakistan. Some protagonists of this civil war were Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto -- leaders of the Awami League and the Pakistan People’s Party, respectively.

They had different visions for the future of Pakistan. Mujibur demanded autonomy for East Pakistan; the latter opposed it. The distance between East and West Pakistan was more than 1,600 kilometres, separated by Indian territory. The cultural difference was palpable: West Pakistanis were influenced by the Middle East and Arab Islamic culture; East Pakistanis had a distinct Bengali identity and culture that incorporated Hindu, Buddhist and British influences.

Mujibur Rahman: Fighting for Autonomy

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, father of current prime minister Sheikh Hasina, leader of the Awami League, championed the cause of greater autonomy and democracy in East Pakistan. Despite his party’s resounding victory in the 1970 general elections, where they won a majority of the seats in the National Assembly, the military regime of General Yahya Khan denied them the right to form a government. 

Operation Searchlight & Escalation of Violence

This led to civil war as East Pakistanis felt betrayed and oppressed by the West Pakistani government. They launched a mass uprising against the regime, which met with brutal repression by the Pakistani Army. On March 25, 1971, the Pakistani military initiated a brutal crackdown, known as ‘Operation Searchlight’. This led to indiscriminate killing of thousands of civilians, intellectuals and minority groups. 

Mukti Bahini And The Bengali Resistance

In response to the atrocities, the Mukti Bahini, comprising of defected soldiers, students and civilians -- often clad shabbily in dhotis and sandals -- united in a formidable resistance movement, engaging in guerrilla warfare against the Pakistani Army. 

Indian Intervention and the Indo-Pak War

As the crisis intensified, India provided support to the Bangladeshi resistance army, eventually leading to a full-scale war with Pakistan in December 1971.

Pakistan's Surrender & the Birth of Bangladesh

On December 16, 1971 -- after 13 days of intense fighting -- the Indian Army, backed by the local Mukti Bahini, surrounded the Pakistani Eastern Command in Dhaka and demanded their unconditional surrender. Lt-Gen. AAK Niazi, the Pakistani Commander, agreed to sign the Instrument of Surrender in the presence of Lt-Gen. 

Jagjit Singh Aurora, the Indian Commander, and AK Khandker, deputy chief of the Bangladesh Forces. This epoch-making event took place at the Ramna Race Course, where thousands of people witnessed the historic moment. 

Human Losses and Atrocities

The war had devastating consequences for the people involved, with estimates suggesting a significant loss of life ranging from hundreds of thousands to millions. Widespread genocide -- recognized by many countries and organizations as one of the most heinous crimes against humanity in the 20th century -- and mass rapes left lasting scars on the affected communities.

According to various sources, the human toll in the 1971 Bangladesh war can be summarized as follows: 

* Number of deaths: Between 300,000 and 3,000,000

* Number of rapes: Between 200,000 and 400,000 Bengali women

* Number of Displaced: Between 8 and 10 million fled the country as refugees and sought shelter in India

Triumph through Sacrifice: Birth of Bangladesh

The birth of Bangladesh in 1971 happened because of the brave efforts of the Indian armed forces, led by General Sam Manekshaw. The military’s smart strategies, aide by Air Chief Marshal Pratap Chandra Lal and Admiral SM Nanda, played an important role in this victory. 

Although India suffered huge losses -- over 2,000 Indian soldiers were killed and around 4,000 wounded -- Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s strong leadership and unwavering support for Bangladesh’s cause mobilized international support and diplomatic efforts, leading to the recognition and independence of Bangladesh. 

Bengal Drowns All Differences on ‘Vijay Diwas’

A delegation of 30 Mukti Joddhas -- veterans of the 1971 war from Bangladesh --are attending the 52nd ‘Vijay Diwas’ celebrations to be hosted by the Indian Army on December 15-16 in Kolkata this year to mark its victory over Pakistan in the 1971 Liberation War. The delegation is accompanied by six serving military officers of their country. 

Bangladesh’s deputy high commissioner, Andalib Elias, said in Kolkata, "The relationship between Bangladesh and India is simply built on blood and sweat."

As we, too, remember ‘Vijay Diwas’, it is important to acknowledge the human cost, sacrifices and incredible victory that changed South Asia’s history forever.

The author of this article is a Defence, Aerospace & Political Analyst based in Bengaluru.

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