A defining moment in history
Fifty years ago, on this very day, India's Prime Minister Indira Gandhi announced her government's decision to formally accord recognition to Bangladesh as a sovereign and an independent state. She did this while addressing the Indian Parliament. The prime minister's announcement was greeted with thunderous applause by all the members of the Lok Sabha. The very same day, Mrs Gandhi addressed a letter to then Bangladesh prime minister, Tajuddin Ahmed, conveying this momentous decision. The historic letter is as follows:
New Delhi, December 6, 1971
Dear Prime Minister,
My colleagues in the Government of India and I were deeply touched by the message which His Excellency the Acting President Syed Nazrul Islam and you sent to me on December 4. On its receipt, (the) Government of India once again considered your request to accord recognition to the People's Republic of Bangladesh, which you lead with such dedication. I am glad to inform you that in the light of the circumstances which prevail at present, (the) Government of India have decided to grant the recognition. This morning I made a statement on the subject in our Parliament. I enclose a copy.
The people of Bangladesh have gone through much suffering. Your young men are engaged in a self-sacrificing struggle for freedom and democracy. The people of India are also fighting in defence of the same values. I have no doubt that this companionship in endeavour and sacrifice will strengthen our dedication to great causes and the friendship between our two peoples. However long the road and however exacting the sacrifice that our two peoples may be called upon to make in the future, I am certain that we shall emerge triumphant. I take this opportunity to convey to you personally, to your colleagues and to the heroic people of Bangladesh my greetings and best wishes. I should also like to take this opportunity to convey through you to His Excellency Syed Nazrul Islam, Acting President of the People's Republic of Bangladesh, the assurances of my highest esteem.
His Excellency Mr Tajuddin Ahmed,
Prime Minister of the People's Republic of Bangladesh, Mujib Nagar.
The historic significance of this letter lies in the fact that this was the first exchange of official written communication between the heads of governments of Bangladesh and India.
India's formal recognition of Bangladesh followed a similar decision by Bhutan, our friendly neighbour to the north, two days earlier.
In her speech at parliament, which lasted about 20 minutes, Mrs Gandhi explained at length the rationale behind her government's decision to wait until then before according a formal and official recognition to a country that had been fighting for its liberation for almost nine months against the occupying Pakistan Army—a war in which India and its people had played a helping, if not a decisive, role. The timing of the formal recognition by India was held back till December in spite of repeated appeals by the leadership of the then Bangladesh government based in India, especially Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmed and acting President Syed Nazrul Islam.
In her speech, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi indicated that any precipitous move by India to accord a de jure recognition to Bangladesh earlier would have been construed by the international community as India interfering in the internal affairs of a neighbour and supporting a "secessionist" movement, as some chose to see it. This, she believed, would have not only subjected India to criticism by key players in the global arena, but also weakened the rationale of Bangladesh's Liberation War. It is hard to argue with her line of logic on both counts. This was all the more valid when seen in the context that both the Nixon administration in Washington, DC and the Chinese government were making no secret of their support to protect Pakistan's territorial integrity that would ensure that "East Pakistan" remained a part of that entity.
It was, therefore, imperative for her to garner international public opinion before India accorded recognition to Bangladesh. Highlighting the acts of genocide in India's immediate neighbourhood, and the flight of 10 million resulting refugees seeking shelter in India, had to form part of the narrative During her trips to a number of key Western countries, including the Soviet Union and the United States, between September and November in 1971, Mrs Gandhi explained to the heads of states and governments of those countries that the raging war in Bangladesh and the resultant refugee crisis in India were threatening India's own security. This, she underlined, could trigger a war with disastrous consequences that may not remain confined to the subcontinent. In such a fast emerging situation, restraint on India's part may not remain an option for long, she said. She also made it known that there was no India-Pakistan dispute involved; it was a matter for Pakistan to negotiate with the duly elected political leadership of the Awami League, with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman being the key element in any such negotiations. Pakistan's military leadership, with the connivance of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was, of course, in no mood for any meaningful negotiation.
Except for the policymakers in Washington, Mrs Gandhi's potent arguments did make a dent everywhere else. It was a classic case of deft diplomatic handling of an extremely complex international issue with far-reaching ramifications, especially with the possibility of a war looming large in the background. In normal circumstances, the formal recognition of Bangladesh by India—or for that matter, by any other country—would have followed Dhaka coming under the complete control of the Bangladesh government. This actually happened on December 16, when the Pakistan military ignominiously surrendered to the joint forces of the Indian Army and the Bangladesh Mukti Bahini on the soil of a free and liberated country. The Indian move was, therefore, a rare exception and was justified by subsequent events.
India according formal recognition to Bangladesh 10 days before the liberation of Dhaka was prompted by a desperate and short-sighted move by Pakistan, who went into a full-scale military action against India in the western sector on December 3, when the Pakistan Air Force fighter jets carried out a series of bombing raids on a number of Indian cities. Pakistan had, thus, effectively declared a full-scale war on India. The only option left for India under such circumstances was to retaliate, which the Indian military did—and did so with effect—both on the western and the eastern sectors. It was against this backdrop that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's government made the timely and judicious move to accord a formal recognition to the state of Bangladesh. It also came amid a flurry of activities on the floor of the UN Security Council, where hectic manoeuvres by all stakeholders were on at breakneck speed to find an acceptable resolution to the war, including calls for a ceasefire. Mrs Indira Gandhi's timely move to accord formal recognition to Bangladesh on December 6 effectively put all such efforts to rest, and paved the way for the liberation of Bangladesh 10 days later.
In her historic speech on the floor of the Indian Parliament on this day half a century ago, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi heaped praise on the Mukti Bahini, the brave sons and daughters of Bangladesh who had made the supreme sacrifice for the liberation of their motherland. She also warmly lauded the political leadership of Bangladesh at the time for the manner in which they managed the state of affairs under such demanding circumstances. Indeed, she was most gracious in her recognition of Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, for his indomitable courage and his lifelong dedication and struggle for justice and for the rights of the Bengali people. Mrs Gandhi also believed that the values of democracy, pluralism and human liberty had bonded our two nations together, a bonding that was further reinforced through the shedding of blood on the battlefield for a shared cause.
On the 50th anniversary of this historic event, we recall with profound gratitude the supreme sacrifices of our brave freedom fighters. We also commemorate the sacrifices of the members of the Indian Armed Forces and the leadership, and the people of India for all that they did for 75 million people in a most defining moment in history—a moment whose impact was felt all across the globe.
Shamsher M Chowdhury, Bir Bikram, is a former foreign secretary of Bangladesh.