<i>One person made a big difference</i>
If one single person other than a Bangladeshi had the greatest contribution to the birth of Bangladesh, it is indisputably Indira Gandhi. Forty years down the line, after Bangladesh gained its freedom, the nation yesterday officially recognised her great role in its liberation.
It was probably the biggest challenge for Indira Gandhi, the prime minister of India at the time, to extend her all-out help to Bangladesh's struggle for freedom.
In the very beginning of the Liberation War, Indira on March 27, 1971 expressed her government's full support to Bangladesh soon after the Pakistani invading army embarked on a massacre of the Bangalees. The freedom fighters desperately needed a place to regroup, get armed and launch counter offensive. It was Indira who allowed military training camps to be set up on India's soil for the freedom fighters.
At Indira's directive, the Bangladesh-India border was opened to allow the refugees safe shelter in India as millions escaped from the spectre of genocide being committed by the Pakistani leadership and its army.
Indira herself moved in Indian parliament on March 31, 1971 to adopt a resolution in support of Bangladesh's liberation that said, "This House records its profound conviction that the historic upsurge of the 75 million people of East Bengal [Bangladesh] will triumph. The House wishes to assure them that their struggle and sacrifices will receive the wholehearted sympathy and support of the people of India."
After the birth of Bangladesh and after the release of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Indira was addressing a public meeting in Delhi on January 10, 1971. "We made three promises to the people of India. First, all those who came to India seeking refuge will return home to Bangladesh. Second, we shall provide all-out support to the Mukti Bahini [freedom fighters] and help the people of Bangladesh. And third, we shall free Sheikh Sahab [Bangabandhu] from jail. We have fulfilled our three promises,” she said.
Though it has taken 40 years to pay the highest state honour of Bangladesh to Indira since independence, Mujib himself in the same public meeting expressed his and the nation's gratitude to her, hours before arriving at his newly liberated country.
"Your government, army and people have displayed a level of compassion and assistance which the people of Bangladesh will never forget. Srimati Gandhi has done everything possible all over the world to make sure that I am safe. Personally, I am grateful to her. My seventy-five million people are grateful to her and her government,” Bangabandhu told Indira at that meeting.
Former chief of the Indian army's eastern command Lt Gen JFR Jacob who is credited with making Gen Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi, the then commander of Pakistan army's eastern command, surrender in public on December 16, 1971, termed Indira's historic role in Bangladesh's liberation her "finest hour".
Gen Jacob, who drafted the historic "instrument of surrender", narrated Indira's role in Bangladesh's liberation in his book, "Surrender at Dacca -- Birth of a Nation": "Indira Gandhi was pragmatic, determined and courageous. She stood up to Nixon [US President Richard Nixon] and the pressures from the United Nations.
"To counter American and Chinese support for Pakistan, she had DP Dhar to negotiate a treaty of friendship with the Soviets, thus giving us freedom of action. She led the nation to its greatest military victory, restoring our prestige and raising India's status to that of a regional superpower. The liberation of Bangladesh was Indira Gandhi's finest hour." DP Dhar was Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's adviser for Bangladesh.
INDIA RECOGNISES BANGLADESH
Indira's support culminated in the recognition of Bangladesh on December 6, 1971 when she told Indian parliament, "I am glad to inform the House that in the light of the existing situation and in response to the repeated requests of the Government of Bangladesh, the Government of India have after the most careful consideration, decided to grant recognition to the people's republic of Bangladesh.
"I'm confident that in future the government and the people of India and Bangladesh, who share common ideals and sacrifices, will forge a relationship based on the principles of mutual respect for each other's sovereignty and territorial integrity, non-interference in internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit. Thus working together for freedom and democracy we shall set an example of good neighbourliness which alone can ensure peace, stability and progress in this region. Our good wishes to Bangladesh."
However, between March and December in 1971, she had to manoeuvre through the labyrinth of world politics that was sharply divided in the shadows of the Cold War. Pakistan was an old ally of the USA and China. And India was on the other axis snuggling against the Soviet Union. Naturally, when Bangladesh went to war with Pakistan, it did not get support from the USA and China.
Indira launched a diplomatic offensive despite having many adversities, which was obviously one of her charismatic roles for Bangladesh's liberation. She played a crucial role not only to get Soviet Union's support for Bangladesh but also to make other important western countries understand the cause of Bangladesh's struggle.
In the early autumn of 1971, she toured Europe and was successful in getting both the United Kingdom and France to break with the United States and block any pro-Pakistan directives in the United Nations Security Council.
"Dhaka is now a free capital of a free country," Indira informed parliament on December 16 immediately after the surrender of Pakistani occupation forces in Dhaka. "This House and the entire nation rejoice in this historic event. We hail the people of Bangladesh in their hour of triumph. We hail the brave young men and boys of Mukti Bahini for their valour and dedication."
"It's a victory, but a victory not only of arms but of ideals. The Mukti Bahini could not have fought so daringly but for its passionate urge for freedom and the establishment of a special identity of Bangladesh. Our own forces could not have been so fearless and relentless had they not been convinced of their cause,” Indira told the House on December 17 about Bangladesh.
Indira visited an independent Bangladesh on Bangabandhu's invitation on March 17, 1972 and announced withdrawal of Indian troops from here. The withdrawal of the troops immediately after the war was unprecedented in the world history.
Indira was born on November 19, 1917 in Allahabad, India to Jawaharlal and Kamala Nehru. She became the leader of the Congress Party and prime minister of India in 1966. After ruling the country as the prime minister for three times, she was assassinated by two of her own Sikh security guards on October 31, 1984 and Bangladesh lost its best friend ever.