At the height of the Cold War, 50 years ago, Bangladesh attained independence as a sovereign nation on December 16, ending 23 years of rule by Pakistan. The period was marked by a series of violent incidents of oppression and massacres along with protests and resistance that drew global attention.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the former Prime Minister and ‘Founding Father’ of Bangladesh had, in 1971, called the years under Pakistan as a period of “continual lamentation and repeated bloodshed”. On December 16, the Bangladesh nationalist forces managed to take Dhaka, the last city in the hands of the Pakistani military junta, ending a nine-month-long war. The Pakistani Instrument of Surrender was signed on this day, marking the birth of Bangladesh as a democratic nation.
The day is not just memorable for Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, but also for India. The Bangladesh Liberation War also marks 50 years of the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War. On December 16-17, 1971, over 92,000 West Pakistani soldiers, sailors, airmen, paramilitary personnel, policemen, and civilians surrendered to India in East Pakistan after 13 days of the war. The victory came at a cost. At least 12,189 personnel of India’s armed forces were either killed, reported missing, or wounded with lifelong disabilities.
The Bangladesh Liberation War refers to the armed uprising and revolution driven by Bengali nationalists in 1971 in a bid to gain independence and self-determination for Bangladesh, which was then under then called East Pakistan.
Since the Partition in 1947, Bangladesh presented an anomaly, not just geographically but culturally. Almost 75 million people who lived in East Pakistan included a majority of Bengali Muslims with Hindus, Christians, and Buddhists constituting large minorities. Bengali Muslims looked different and had a different political outlook that leaned toward liberalism. Separated by 1600 km, there was no integration of Bengali and Pakistani culture and racial tensions between Bengali Muslims and Pathans of West Pakistan.
The 1970 elections were a key turning point in the history of Bangladesh as they marked the first democratic elections in the country since the formation of Pakistan. The Awami League led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman swept the elections but his party was not allowed to form the government and West Pakistan under Prime Minister Yahya Khan imposed martial law in Bangladesh.
The Liberation War has also directly triggered by the Bangladesh genocide which started in March 1971 when the military in West Pakistan (Pakistan) decided to crackdown on Bengali nationalism in Bangladesh.
The Bangladesh Liberation war lasted for nine months during which time the West Pakistan military along with pro-Pakistani Islamist groups in Bangladesh such as the Bangladesh Jamat-e-Islam and mercenary armies called ‘Razaksars’ are estimated to have killed between 2 lakh to 3 million Bangladeshis and raped two to four lakh women.
Bangladeshi nationalists fought the Pakistani and Islamist militia with its own guerilla army led by the Mukti Bahini. Throughout the Bangladesh Liberation War, India under the leadership of Prime Minister India Gandhi lent economic, military as well diplomatic support to the Bengali nationalists.
However, it was only after December 3 when the Pakistani Air Force carried out preemptive strikes on eleven Indian Air Force bases that India formally joined the Bangladesh War.
The Pakistani strikes were the beginning of armed hostilities between India and Pakistan which culminated in the fall of Dacca (now Dhaka) on December 16 and the liberation of Bangladesh.
Today, the Bangladesh Liberation War remains a symbol of the power of revolution and democracy as well as the friendship and camaraderie between India and Bangladesh. (Outlook)