Indo-Bangladesh ties: The curious case of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman

| Anhad Jakhmola
  • Bangladesh and India do share a close relationship, despite multiple contentious issues related to migration and terrorism which are to be resolved.
  • The BJP government will follow the controversial doctrine that sees the Awami League as an acceptable player or partner compared to the rest of the parties there.
  • Geopolitics changes faster than one can imagine and only time will tell whether the glorification of Mujib Rehman brings fruit in the long run or proves to be a failure.

When Prime Minister visited Bangladesh two years ago, Covid was around us and it was his first-ever trip to a foreign country after the pandemic. His trip was marred with riots where Hindus were targeted as well as others who were naturally opportunistic enough to voice how terrible it was for him to visit and the Bangladeshi authorities naturally took care of the latter but not the former. Nevertheless, it was an important trip for two reasons:

  1. The reinforced strategy of the neighbourhood first continued unabashed. Despite the terrible pandemic that caused havoc. India supplied ambulances and aid to the Sheikh Hasina government.

2. The PM also visited the Matua Sangh, a prominent Hindu organization that has branches both in Bengal and Bangladesh. He expressed his support to them and also visited a Ma Kaali temple that was destroyed during the 1971 war. It was a good, optical gesture.

Another thing that was happening then was the anniversary of ‘Operation Searchlight’. As understood, Operation Searchlight was the codename for a planned military operation carried out by the Pakistan Army to curb the Bengali nationalist movement in former East Pakistan in March 1971. Pakistan retrospectively justified the operation based on anti-Bihari violence carried out en masse by the Bengalis earlier that month. Ordered by the central government in West Pakistan, the original plans envisioned taking control of all of East Pakistan’s major cities on 26 March, and then eliminating all Bengali opposition, whether political or military, within the following month. The operation started on the 26th of March and till the 25th of May.

The operation also directly precipitated the 1971 Bangladesh genocide, in which between 300,000 and 3,000,000 Bengalis were killed while around 10 million fled to neighbouring India as refugees. Bengali intelligentsia, academics and Hindus were widely targeted alongside Muslim Bengali nationalists—with widespread, indiscriminate extrajudicial killings. The nature of these systematic purges enraged the Bengalis, who declared independence from the union of Pakistan to establish the new nation of Bangladesh. the conflict took a decisive turn in the Bengalis’ favour following the ill-fated Operation Chengiz Khan, which resulted in direct Indian military intervention in the civil war, eventually prompting Pakistan’s unconditional surrender to the joint command of Indian forces and the Mukti Bahini on 16 December 1971.

Thus, the new nation of Bangladesh was born. Its leader was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who interestingly had sent his daughter, the current PM of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina to Delhi for safety, something she admitted recently. But the past has its way to come up from time to time. Many accounted for the student days of Mujibur Rahman when he took part in ‘Direct Action Day’ and it made things complicated when the Prime Minister made him a nominee for the Gandhi Peace prize. However, it was two years ago and what I wrote then would make sense even today. While our ties with Bangladesh remain steadfast, a growing China factor, border issues, and religious extremism in Bangladesh continue and perhaps would take time to address.

Nevertheless, here we go. From 26th March 2023 To 26th March 2021.

When the Prime Minister mentioned the name, “Mujibur Rehman” for the Gandhi Peace prize, there was a mixed response from the Indian public. I say this with observation as well as giving in to one particular stance around the “Father of the Nation” of Bangladesh. There is strong opposition, given the fact Mujib was close and at the forefront of the protest for Pakistan during the 40s, especially when he was finishing his BA in Calcutta. For me, this is valid for it shows that people have not yet confirmed or forgiven even a prominent individual like Mujibur Rahman for his obvious role in the riots that followed the call for “Direct Action Day”. His respect for Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy is and will always remain the biggest contest for morals as the former Prime Minister to East Pakistan allowed the massacre of Hindus to take place and did little for peace. While articles will be written to whitewash his prodigy Mujib, realities would always offer its staunch opposition to it.

However, it is with this reality that I write this today. The decision for the Indian Prime Minister to visit Bangladesh as well as praise the former statesman of that nation is of course by no means a step to be kept isolated from geopolitical ramifications as well as criticism. Criticism is essential in any country’s existence, be it a monarchical set-up or a republic. It’s funny as well as important to observe that the segment of the right or the “non-left” jumped to staunchly defend or oppose the PM’s choice and gave many skewed observations for their sentiment.

I see this as a watershed moment, rather than a problem for anyone to fathom that realities of life are not objective but are deeply grey and such instances must be recorded, both the initiative as well as the consequences for it serves a greater purpose than it is imagined to be.

Whether the current Indian Prime Minister or Mrs Gandhi in the past had close relations with the democratic setup of Bangladesh. It was their obvious understanding of the fact that Mujib had grown from an ordinary Muslim student activist to an individual of parallel Bengali cultural icons seen in the eyes of the Bengali Muslims by and large. He was an eyesore in the eyes of the Urdu-loving Punjabi Pakistani establishment which still rules the Western region and much as we hate to admit it, his maturity transpired from just a Muslim to a Muslim Bengali leader in the eyes of his supporters as well as his contemporaries. Moreover, he was always considered a more “acceptable option” at the helm as compared to any army or other political leaders who would happily lay in bed with the radical section of their faith. I stick my neck out to say this despite the criticism his party and his daughter, the current PM Sheikh Hasina has received for trying to, as described by her son, “walk a sensitive line” that keeps them on both ends with the atheists of Bangladesh and the clergyman as well.

In his twenties then, it was during his stay in Calcutta that Rahman was most closely involved in the movement for Pakistan. “At that point in time, Bengali nationalism was not part of the scene for a young Muslim politician like Mujib. What mattered to him was the creation of an independent state for India’s Muslims. It was their shattered dreams which brought him to fight the linguistic and the obvious Punjabi vs Bengali Islamic fight that led to the contentious situation of the events which changed after the 1971 war.

So, what Congress did in 1971, the BJP aims to do in this century. No, it won’t fight another war for them with Pakistan. But it will follow the controversial doctrine that sees the Awami League as an acceptable player or partner than the rest of the parties there. It is necessary to point out that the Left in Bangladesh openly came out against the visit of Modi, with the student wing of the Bangladeshi Nationalist Party (BNP) of Khaleda Zia. The visuals that followed were a sight of fascination as the student wing of the Awami League beat them black and blue and threatened anyone who opposed Modi in Dhaka.

Finally, let us not get ahead of ourselves with this little bit of seldom pleasure of life that allows us to get carried away. Bangladesh and India do share a close relationship, despite multiple contentious issues related to migration and terrorism yet to be resolved. Only time will tell whether the glorification of Mujib Rehman brings diplomatic fruit in the long run or proves to be a failure. Matters of Geopolitics change faster than you can imagine. But as much as we may praise or ignore the stark reality of the man they call “Bangabandhu” and “Jatir Janak”, the voice of opposition against his past must be held in the highest regard and corridors of information for the future.

(Anhad Jakhmola is a postgraduate scholar in international relations. He has his undergraduate degree in history and is pursuing his PhD in Defence and Strategic Studies. He is a columnist for many portals and is a keen public speaker in debates and discussions. Views expressed are author’s own)

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