Some die for their country, some lie for it

Bangladesh was created fifty years ago when Pakistani forces in Dhaka surrendered to Indian troops on December 16. The official Indian version is that the war began when Pakistan bombed India on December 3 and was concluded in a mere 13 days.

As somebody covering that war in detail, I can testify that the Indian media followed the official propaganda line unhesitatingly despite knowing fully that it contained many  falsehoods. One Army commander came out with the witticism, “It is given to some to die for their country and for others to lie for their country.”

India began the war, not Pakistan. It started with a multi-pronged invasion of East Pakistan on November 21, assisted by the Mukti Bahini (Bangladeshi rebels trained and armed by India). planned the invasion date to coincide with Id, to help catch the Pakistan army by surprise. The Indian government rejected Pakistani complaints that an invasion had begun and said there were merely ongoing border clashes. But foreign correspondents like the New York Times’ Sydney Schanberg sent on-the-spot reports of Indian troops entering across a wide swath. The Economist, London, said it would now be a race between UN Security Council intervention and a Pakistan counter-attack in the West. India had that summer signed a quasi-defence treaty with the USSR, which vetoed any intervention by the UN Security Council. To raise the stakes and increase chances of US intervention, Pakistan counter-attacked by bombing Indian targets in the West on December 3. 

Ultimately it was a 26-day war and not a 13-day one. Pakistan did not start the war and had no motive to do so — it knew it was hopelessly outnumbered in the East and India would have complete military control of the skies. But India had every  motive for a war that would give India a friend rather than foe in the East. Detaching Bangladesh from Pakistan meant India would never again have to fight a two-front war against Pakistan. It also meant China could no longer threaten to militarily link up with East Pakistan by capturing the “chicken’s neck” region that connects West Bengal with Assam. Of course, Indian justified its invasion in high moral terms, as the liberation of a territory devastated by Pakistan army genocide, and to facilitate the return of 10 million refugees who had fled to India.

In March 1971, Pakistan arrested Mujibur Rahman, head of the Awami League, for attempting secession. On hearing of this Mujib’s followers led by Tajuddin Ahmad, who had earlier been ambiguous on secession, declared independence and set up a Provisional Government of Bangladesh at the small town of Chuadanga. The only rationale for choosing Chuadanga was that it was far from Dhaka and close to the Indian border and so they could hope, with Indian assistance, to resist for a long time. Meanwhile the Mukti Bahini and rebel Bangladeshi forces attempted, mostly in vain, to combat the Pakistan army advance.

My assignment in The Times of India was to do a daily column titled ‘Gains and Losses’ summing up the military and political events across East Pakistan. I was instructed to play up all positive stories of heroic Bangladeshi resistance and play down reports of Pakistani advances. The newspaper made no pretence of independence or impartiality: it saw itself as a patriotic propaganda tool. However, the advance of the Pakistan army was so swift that the pretence could not be kept up for long. A sad day quickly came when the Bangladesh Provisional Government had to flee from Chuadanga to India. Naturally, I led my column with that news, but was told to relegate that low down. Instead, I was told to lead with a story of a Mukti Bahini attack on a power station in Ashuganj. I could not see how this helped the Bangladeshi cause, but then patriotism is never very logical.

Tajuddin Ahmad and his provisional government started functioning from Kolkata. But for propaganda purposes the Indian government decided to create a fictional town called Mujibnagar, inside the Bangladesh border, from where the Provisional Government led the resistance. This was supposed to somehow confer greater credibility on Tajuddin. But why? In World War II, governments-in-exile of Poland and France operated from London with no loss of credibility. 

Dozens of Indian newspapers descended on Mujibnagar to take photos of and have interviews with Tajuddin Ahmad and his colleagues. No newspaper denounced or questioned the wisdom of the fiction. After all, the outcome was clearly going to be determined by Indian military action. Whether the Provisional Government was located in Kolkata or Mujibnagar could make no difference. But in the patriotic zeal of those days, as that army man said, it was given to some to die for the country and others to lie for it.

This article was originally published in The Times of India on December 18, 2021

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