Bangabandhu was the chief architect of the enduring bilateral relationship between Bangladesh and India
If anyone could be credited with providing a direction and purpose to the India-Bangladesh relationship, it was Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the main architect of the bilateral relationship and the founding father of independent Bangladesh.
As the two countries celebrate the Mujib Borsho, which is the celebration of the birth centenary of Mujib, it is time to recall the spirit of the Liberation War and Bangabandhu’s keen desire to forge a close relationship with India, based on shared ideals and joint sacrifices made during the War of Liberation resulting in the death of countless Bengalis and nearly 3,900 Indian soldiers.
The struggle for liberation and the establishment of Bangladesh was one of the exceptional historical developments of the century, where the majority seceded from the minority in Pakistan in search of freedom, liberty, and a desire to carve out a democratic country for themselves.
What the two Bengals shared
It would be important to recall the history and the relation that the two Bengals shared, which shaped the socio-cultural contours of bilateral relations and bound the people of the two countries. India’s relationship with the former East Pakistan was part of the larger India-Pakistan relationship, mainly framed by West Pakistan political elites.
Since 1947, after the creation of Pakistan, Islamabad had tried to disrupt the natural socio-cultural and linguistic ties that historically existed between the people of the two Bengals. Those who demanded recognition of Bengali language, the mother tongue of the Bengalis, as one of the national languages in Pakistan, were termed as “enemy saboteurs and Indian agents.”
There were efforts to Islamize the Bengali language and culture during the Ayub Khan period by inserting Arabic and Persian words. There was also a suggestion to write Bengali in Arabic script, which was rejected by the Bengalis of East Pakistan.
As an assertive Bengali nationalism crystallized around language and culture in former East Pakistan, Tagore songs were banned and Nazrul songs, which were made appropriate for the Islamic Republic of Pakistan by the insertion of Urdu words, were promoted as a symbol of Bengali language and culture, notwithstanding the fact that these two — Tagore and Nazrul — were worthy sons of Bengal and invoked the same emotions on both sides, even after partition.
Pakistan’s effort to undermine Bengali culture backfired. Tagore and Nazrul songs inspired the Bengalis in their liberation struggle. Not surprisingly, the Bangladesh government in exile adopted Tagore’s “Amar Shonar Bangla” which had become a battle-cry during the Liberation War, as the national anthem of Bangladesh.
As Pakistani atrocities and genocidal killing mounted, India not only provided refuge to millions of refugees who fled the country in search of safety, but also supported their struggle for liberation.
Pakistan’s underhanded tactics
Throughout the Pakistani period, there was effort to give a conspiratorial colour to the genuine demands of the Bengalis. This was evident when Bangabandhu was arrested in the Agartala Conspiracy Case. The Pakistani regime cooked up a sedition case against him, and to delegitimize his leadership, spread the word that he was conspiring with India to break Pakistan.
Not surprisingly, he was later exonerated from the trumped-up charges that were brought against him by Yahya Khan’s military regime. Mujib was aware how the Bengali language and culture were denigrated by the rulers of Pakistan.
The enactment of the Enemy Property Act, essentially targeting the Hindu minorities, was not only to intimidate them but also to cut off all the linkages and familial ties that existed between epar Bangla (Bangla on this side) shared with opar Bangla (Bangla on the other side). Cultural subjugation was also part of the larger strategy to undermine Bengali language and literature that bound the two Bengals.
After Bangladesh’s independence and surrender of the Pakistan army in Dhaka, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the elected leader and the main force and spirit behind the Liberation War, was finally freed from the Mianwali jail in Pakistan. Mujib made a very short visit to Delhi en route to Dhaka and had a brief meeting with the Indian Prime Minister and the President.
Recognising that the two countries “fought together in defense of human liberty” he said at the Palam airport in Delhi that he came, “to pay personal tribute to the best friends of my people, the people of India … You all have worked so untiringly and sacrificed so gallantly in making this journey possible — this journey from darkness to light; from captivity to freedom; from desolation to hope.”
In a press conference on January 14, after taking oath as the prime minister of Bangladesh, referring to the newly independent Bangladesh’s relations with India, he said, “We have a very special relationship. The relationship is the friendliest. Our treaty of friendship is in our hearts.”
He was given a rousing welcome in then Calcutta (now Kolkata) when he made his first state visit in February 1972, after taking over as the prime minister of Bangladesh. His public meeting at the parade ground in Calcutta was attended by a million who cheered him. He used this occasion to declare that Bangladesh would be based on the four pillars of nationalism, socialism, democracy, and secularism.
In the same speech, quoting Tagore, he said that Bangladeshi people can only give love to the people of India and said that the two countries would share an eternal relationship of trust and friendship. The joint statement issued after the conclusion of the visit emphasized “geography of the region provided a natural basis for co-operation”.
He was very clear about the relationship that Bangladesh needed to have with India. As the main architect of India-Bangladesh relationship based on the sacrifices made during the Liberation War, he wanted to shrug off the Pakistani construction of an enemy image of India.
After landing in the Dumdum airport, he said, “Why would Hindustan be our enemy? They are our brothers. We will live like brothers.” Therefore, it is not surprising that the two countries signed a 25 year “treaty of peace and friendship” in 1972.
India extended all kinds of help in the post-war reconstruction work in Bangladesh and a high-level economic task force was created to oversee an extensive cooperation program that ensued post-liberation. The relations, however, received a set-back after the assassination of Bangabandhu in a military putsch in August 1975.
Recalling Bangabandhu’s ideals
Through ups and downs, ever since, India-Bangladesh relations continue to be guided by the strong foundational principle laid by Bangabandhu. Both the countries are working hard with conviction and interest to restore the connectivity that existed prior to 1965 with a nearly $ 10 billion line of credit, the largest, extended by India.
Close collaboration is marked by cooperation between the security forces of the two countries, joint-patrol and joint-management of the border, and coordinated patrol between the coast-guards and joint-anti-terror exercises have been initiated.
In the Mujib borsho, the two countries need to recall the ideals of Bangladesh’s founding father and the spirit of the Liberation War. As Prime Minister Modi, addressing Bangladeshis via video conference on the occasion of Mujib Borsho said, “Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was one of the greatest personalities of the last century. His entire life is a tremendous inspiration for all of us.”
The two countries need to be guided by Bangabandhu’s wish as he expressed in his public speech in the parade ground in Calcutta in 1972, that the relations between the two would remain “enduring and eternal” and work towards building a strong bond. This, perhaps, would be the greatest tribute to Bangabandhu and enliven the spirit of the celebration of Mujib Borsho.
Smruti S Pattanaik is Research Fellow, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses (MP-IDSA).