I was at school when the Bangladesh crisis erupted. But I remember it as though it was yesterday. Sadly, the generations after ours seem to have forgotten what it was like and look at it from the prism of today's polarised politics.
This was driven home to me when a controversy broke out over the Prime Minister's claims, made in Dhaka, that he had participated in a satyagraha in favour of the creation of Bangladesh. His supporters took the statement to mean that he had played some role in the creation of Bangladesh. And his critics pounced on his remark to point out that he had no role to play during the crisis and that he was trying to appropriate the credit that was due to Indira Gandhi.
This is such a 2021 controversy that it ignores what India was really like in 1971. In fact, it was a very, very, different India.
Here are some things I remember about that period
1) In an age when everything is seen in India-Pakistan terms, it is important to remember that the Bangladesh crisis was not used by the government of the day to mobilise jingoistic anti-Pakistan sentiment.
Yes, the Pakistani army were the murderers of women and children --- there was no getting around that. But Indians were more concerned with the victims than we were with their oppressors.
In 1971, most of India saw the East Pakistan/Bangladesh crisis for what it was: a massive human tragedy, a genocide even. The Bengalis of what was then East Pakistan were raped, murdered, tortured and thrown out of their homes. Entire villages were destroyed. Students had the blood drained out of them to meet the needs of the Pakistani army.
This is what we focussed on. Not on India-Pakistan jingoism.
2) Contrary to how both the BJP and Congress often portray that period, war was not India's preferred option.
Indira Gandhi spent several months contacting world leaders (often travelling to their countries to meet them) to ask them to get Pakistan to end the oppression of its Bengali population. She got vaguely sympathetic responses. But nobody did anything. Basically, the world was content to stand by and let the massacres continue.
3) We had an additional problem. At least 9 million refugees from the terror in East Pakistan crossed the border into India. We gave them food and shelter. The government raised additional taxes and levies to cope with the refugee influx. The Indian people paid them uncomplainingly, not because we were concerned with the politics. But because we knew it was about being human and decent.
4) We know now that a large population of the refugees were Hindus who had been driven out. Apparently, all top politicians (across parties) and civil servants knew this. But a decision was taken not to make this fact public.
You can understand Indira Gandhi's interest in not creating a communally volatile situation in India. But the opposition (even the Jan Sangh of AB Vajpayee) went along with this.
Everyone recognised that when a human tragedy of this magnitude was unfolding on our doorstep, it would be madness to provoke communal tensions in India. Would that happen today? I wonder.
At a time when the Bengal election campaign has become so communally polarised, we tend to forget how all Bengalis --- Hindus and Muslim – reacted as one during the massacres in Bangladesh.
The Concert for Bangladesh, held at Madison Square Garden, New York which brought global attention to the situation was organised by George Harrison at the urging of his friend Ravi Shankar.
Harrison wrote a song about Shankar's feelings. "My friend came to me/with sadness in his eyes/he told me that he wanted help/before his country dies".
His country? Shankar was Indian. But he was also a Bengali. For Bengalis on both sides of the border the terror was an assault on Bengali identity (and Bengali lives). Nobody said that Muslim Bengalis were different from Hindu Bengalis. Nobody called them 'termites'!
That notion of Bengali identity is worth pondering. In 1971 there were many people with memories of the horrors of Partition. But they still identified with Bengalis across the border. Would that happen, say, with Punjabis?
It may be a coincidence of timing but the Prime Minister's visit to Bangladesh to celebrate its creation when elections are being held in Bengal may help the BJP.
5) In that era, the Opposition and the government usually united on matters of foreign policy and defence. When Narendra Modi says he participated in a satyagraha, he is probably telling the truth. There were peaceful demonstrations all over India, organised by all political parties (including the Jan Sangh) to protest the terror in Bangladesh and to encourage India to formally recognise the new country. These were not anti-government demonstrations. Mrs. Gandhi even encouraged the protests to draw attention to the genocide the world was ignoring and to the depth of feeling in India.
6) It was not easy for India to go to war. The United States (which had a Republican President, by the way, for those who claim that Republicans administrations are always good for India!) was bitterly opposed to India. Mrs. Gandhi was snubbed by President Nixon and according to recently released tapes, abused by him behind her back.
The White House ignored the desperate messages sent by the US Ambassador to India and backed Pakistani's military dictatorship. India was told to desist from any military action.
When Mrs Gandhi went ahead anyway, the US sent the Seventh Fleet to the region to intimidate her. Nixon continued in office till August 1974 and his hatred for India cast a shadow over the Simla summit and all the other events that followed the Indian victory.
7) By breaking Pakistan into two, Mrs Gandhi achieved the most important strategic victory in the history of independent India. But two things are worth remembering. That was a very different India. It was completely united. Not just all communities but also the entire political establishment.
And second, though Mrs Gandhi swept the assembly elections that followed in 1972, just a year after that, her mandate had begun to wither and by 1975 she could only survive by declaring the Emergency.
You need peace, unity and harmony within the country to win a war. And even then, war is not enough to make people forget their domestic difficulties.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared in Hindustan Times, and is published by special syndication arrangement.