Bijoy Dibos: Reminiscing the birth of a free Bangladesh in its golden jubilee year

Bijoy Dibos means the Day of Victory in Bengali language. In Hindi, this day is known as Vijay Diwas, celebrated on 16 December every year in Bangladesh and India. 2021 marks 50 years since the end of the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 that saw the birth of a free nation of Bangladesh and the biggest surrender of troops since the Second World War, 93,000 in number, as the genocidal state of erstwhile West Pakistan (now Pakistan) was brought to its knees by the combined strength and will of Bengali nationalists of erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and the Indian armed forces.


“When some Pakistani Generals in 1971 foolishly spoke of a jihad against the Hindu unbelievers, they were fighting a country whose army was commanded by a Parsi (Zoroastrian), whose Air Force in the Northern Sector was commanded by a Muslim, whose Eastern Command that marched into East Pakistan was commanded by a Sikh and the General who was helicoptered to negotiate the surrender of the Pakistani forces was Jewish. That’s India. It’s not a country of one religion or one kind of people. It’s always been a country for everybody.” (Dr Shashi Tharoor, Al Jazeera English, 2017)

Last week, on 6 December, India and Bangladesh observed Friendship Day (Maitri Diwas/Moitri Dibos) to commemorate India’s recognition of Bangladesh as a sovereign and independent state in 1971. The story of Bangladesh’s independence is also the story of how the Pakistani military leadership’s systematic persecution, massacre and rape of the Bengalis of erstwhile East Pakistan in 1971, numbering in tens of thousands, was brought to an end by India’s timely military intervention on the side of the Bengali resistance forces (referred to as the Mukti Bahini) during the course of Liberation War against the tyrannical West Pakistani regime.

The political elite of Pakistan were dominated by the Western side that had no respect for East Pakistan’s majority Bengali people or their language and cultural distinctiveness. The roots of discontent of the Bengali people towards the Pakistani government, which eventually metamorphosed into a nationalist movement, can be traced back to the immediate post-independence period in the late 1940s.

The background of Bengali resistance

When the Indian Subcontinent was partitioned in 1947, the Islamic state of Pakistan was formed as a non-contiguous territorial entity on the western and eastern sides of India. On the West lay modern-day Pakistan and in the East lay modern-day Bangladesh. The Pakistani people, despite being largely Islamic in terms of religion, remained divided on ethno-linguistic lines, largely influenced by geo-cultural factors. Nowhere was it more evident than in the East, where the Bengali-speaking population had little in common with their Western counterparts, who were largely of Punjabi and Pashtun descent.

The Bangladeshi people are historically and culturally connected with the eastern region of India, particularly with the states of West Bengal and Tripura. The influence of larger than life literary behemoths such as Rabindranath Tagore, Kazi Nazrul Islam and Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay transcends beyond politically-made boundaries and remains as the common ethno-linguistic heritage of the Bengali people, who were divided into two nationalities with the creation of Pakistan in 1947, and psychologically divided as early as 1905 with Lord Curzon’s first Partition of Bengal that year, as part of the British-era ‘Divide and Rule’ policy, aimed at weakening the cradle of Indian nationalism – the Bengal region.

The Bengali Language Movement as a precursor the rise of Bengali nationalism

In the very next year following the Partition of the Indian Subcontinent, the then Karachi-based Government of Pakistan proclaimed ‘Urdu’ as the sole national language, inviting resentment and mass protests among the Bengali-speaking majority in the East. Sectarian tensions and demonstrations followed, forcing Karachi to outlaw public meetings and rallies.

The students in Dhaka, East Pakistan, and other political activists defied the law and continued with their protests, which ended with the brutal killing of a number of student demonstrators by the police on 21 February 1952, instigating widespread civil unrest in the East. After eight years of struggle, the Pakistani government yielded to the demands of the Bengali people in the East and granted an official status to the Bengali language in 1956.

Later in 1999, UNESCO declared 21 February as International Mother Language Day as a tribute to the Bengali Language Movement and also the ethno-linguistic rights of people around the world. It is a national holiday in Bangladesh. The Indian states of West Bengal, Tripura, and the Bengali diaspora community observe the day by paying tribute to the martyrs of 1952. The Language Movement had a major cultural impact on Bengali society, rejuvenating their national consciousness with the celebration of language, literature and culture in the following years and decades.

The call for greater autonomy

Along with the discrimination faced by the Bengali people, data from the 1950s and 1960s showed that exports from East Pakistan such as jute were a key contributor to Pakistan’s export income. However, the Bengalis of East Pakistan fell far behind in the distribution of politico-economic power within the state of Pakistan.

Taking up these issues, the would-be Founding Father of Bangladesh, the Awami League party’s leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, fondly referred to as Bongobondhu, meaning “the Friend of Bengal”, kick-started a new movement in the mid-1960s in East Pakistan calling for greater provincial autonomy, which later evolved into the famous ‘six-point demands’. But it was not only rejected by the West Pakistani leadership, Mujibur Rahman was branded as ‘separatist’ too.

The late 1960s: A churn in Pakistan’s domestic politics

Pakistan’s domestic politics was witnessing new transformations in the late 1960s with the rise of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and his Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), a socialist-inclined party formed in 1967 to resist General Ayub Khan’s dictatorial administration and the mounting economic inequalities. Parallelly, the public support for Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his Awami League, a party formed in 1949 as a Bengali counter-weight to the dominance of the Muslim League, was also rising.

Adding to these socio-political churn was the devastating Cyclone Bhola that wreaked havoc in East Pakistan and India’s eastern coast in November 1970. It was the deadliest tropical cyclone ever recorded in modern history, claiming 500,000 lives. Pakistani central leadership based in the West showed an extremely callous attitude to the looming humanitarian crisis as they deliberately delayed and downplayed the much-needed relief efforts, adding to the resentment of the Bengali people in East Pakistan.

Both Bhutto and Rahman emerged as strong political leaders of Pakistan by the end of the decade with a substantial number of people rallying behind on both sides. General Ayub Khan’s decade-long military regime relented to popular sentiments by 1969, forcing the transfer of his Presidency to General Yahya Khan in March that year, who agreed for elections to the Pakistani National Assembly in the following year. Free polls were held in December 1970 for the first time since Pakistan’s independence. Bhutto’s PPP and Rahman’s Awami League strongly took on each other.

Voting took place in 300 general constituencies, of which 162 were in East Pakistan and 138 in West Pakistan. Surprising all, the Awami League emerged victorious by gaining an absolute majority, winning 160 of the 162 general seats and all seven women’s seats in East Pakistan. The PPP won only 81 general seats and five women’s seats, all in the West. In the provincial elections that followed, the Awami League again dominated the East, while the PPP established its dominance in the provinces of Punjab and Sindh in the West.

President Yahya Khan and the PPP Chief Bhutto did not wish to see a party from East Pakistan in the West-based central government. Instead of Mujibur Rahman, General Yahya Khan appointed the veteran Bengali politician Nurul Amin as Prime Minister, asking him to reach a consensus between the PPP and the Awami League. However, this move failed as the delay in inauguration had already caused significant unrest in East Pakistan. All these developments formed a potent recipe for an escalated civil war by the following year.

Genocide of the Bengali people in East Pakistan and the resultant refugee crisis

By the beginning of 1971, ethnic tensions between Bengali nationalists and the pro-Pakistan, Urdu-speaking Bihari Muslims of East Pakistan began to rise. By early March 1971, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman issued a call to the Bengali people of East Pakistan to prepare for an all-out struggle following the imposition of martial law, the indefinite postponement of the scheduled session of the National Assembly that was due to be held on 3 March 1971 in Dhaka and the unwillingness of the Yahya Khan regime to transfer power to the elected representatives.

The Pakistani government responded to the deteriorating law and order situation in the East by launching ‘Operation Searchlight’ by the end of March that continued till mid-May. It was led by a Pakistani General named Tikka Khan, who planned and orchestrated the military action aimed at cracking down on Bengali dissent and to decisively take control of East Pakistan’s major cities by quelling all political and military Bengali opposition forces.

However, West Pakistani leadership failed to anticipate a prolonged Bengali resistance, which later intensified with the intervention of the Indian military, following the influx of about 10 million Bengali refugees to eastern India. The Indian army was already providing active support to the Bengali freedom fighters known as the Mukti Bahini in the form of arms and training. Pakistan’s brutal crackdown on Bengalis in East Pakistan eventually culminated in the genocide of innocent civilian Bengali nationalists, intelligentsia and the minorities.

No definite survey has yet been made to ascertain the exact number of people massacred by the Pakistani army. But, it is estimated to be as high as three million. The killings and genocidal rape of Bengalis committed by the Pakistan army and the Pakistani paramilitary force known as the Razakars remains as one of the worst genocides in modern human history. Sadly, the United States and the West, allied with Pakistan, turned a blind eye on this escalating humanitarian catastrophe, terming it an ‘internal matter’ of Pakistan. In the meantime, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was arrested and taken to West Pakistan.

India and Pakistan goes to war for the third time

While the Bengali population of East Pakistan stared at an existential question on their national self-determination, India was going through a crucial general election in March 1971 that saw Prime Minister Indira Gandhi returning back to power in a landslide victory by overcoming the ruling Indian National Congress (INC) party’s internal splits and power struggles.

Just weeks after taking over as Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi sought the possibility of a military intervention in East Pakistan to Indian Army Chief General Sam Manekshaw, who in turn informed her that the armed forces were not prepared enough for such a highly risky move and needed more time to prepare themselves well, as both the Western powers and China threw their weight behind Pakistan. Notably, it had also been less than a decade since the 1962 debacle with China. India’s military logistics and weaponry were also not favourable for a new war, as many of the defence orders were only being delivered by that time, of which the training and the tactical preparation parts still remained.

While the Indian armed forces were undergoing preparation to intervene and the refugees kept pouring in, PM Gandhi made sure that India won’t be isolated on the diplomatic front or deprived of energy and other crucial supplies by bilaterally engaging all concerned countries. India has been repeatedly appealing to the global community for assistance, but it has failed to receive any solid support of any major power.

Getting closer to the Soviets

PM Gandhi, thus, went a step ahead by setting aside the legacy non-aligned mentality and harnessed support of the other superpower, the Soviet Union, by signing the Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation between the two countries in August 1971. This treaty would turn out to be highly consequential and of great significance for India during the rest of the Cold War years, and particularly during the approaching war with Pakistan in December. It also helped India in the multilateral front as the Soviet Union vetoed all anti-India resolutions at the United Nations. The Soviets also made sure that the Chinese won’t come to the rescue of the West Pakistanis by deploying its troops along the Sino-Soviet border as a political message.

Pakistan’s attack on Indian airbases gives a start to war

By November 1971, General Sam Manekshaw informed PM Gandhi of the army’s state of preparedness to move across the border and to openly side with the Mukti Bahini fighters. These moves by India enhanced the West Pakistani sense of insecurity, which in turn responded by attacking 11 Indian air bases along the western front on December 3 in an Operation code-named ‘Chengiz Khan’. This marked the beginning of a 13-day war between India and Pakistan that continued until 16 December with the fall of Dhaka to the combined forces of India and the Mukti Bahini.

India responds by bombing Pakistan’s port of Karachi

The response to Pakistani air strikes was given by the Indian Navy on the following day in an Operation code-named ‘Trident’, wherein Pakistan’s most important and strategic port of Karachi was bombed using Soviet-supplied anti-ship missiles, thereby inflicting heavy damage upon Western-supplied Pakistani warships and the naval facilities with India suffering no losses at all.

In memory of victory in this operation, India observes Navy Day every year on December 4. In yet another embarrassment to the Pakistani Navy, Operation Trident was followed by another one code-named ‘Python’ on December 8, thereby striking the same port of Karachi twice in less than a week’s time.

The 1971 war witnessed an effective coordination between the ground, naval, and air forces of the Indian military for the first time in a full-scale war since independence. The overall strategy of the Indian armed forces was to keep the war short with minimum loss of lives by treading on unconventional routes with the local knowledge of Mukti Bahini fighters (the Muktijoddhas), thereby approaching and striking through farm fields, by-lanes, alleys, and the rural countryside, rather than moving through main roads and cities. However, the ultimate aim was to reach Dhaka, the capital city of East Pakistan in a rapid advance and to force its surrender.

The Indo-Soviet coalition wins over the US-Britain-China-Pakistan coalition

While the US and Britain showed its support to Pakistan by deploying its fleet of warships to the Indian Ocean in a move aimed at intimidating India, the USSR deployed its own strike group from its Pacific port of Vladivostok, including nuclear-armed warships and submarines, in India’s support thereby ensured a balance of power, preventing a direct clash between India on the one side and the US and Britain on the other. Pakistan also has China’s support.

While the Indian Navy effectively blockaded the Bay of Bengal, preventing the entry of Pakistani vessels, an aerial blockade of Pakistani aircraft flying over Indian airspace by the Indian Air Force was already operational since the beginning of the year. Indian soldiers and the Muktijoddhas continued to fight valiantly on the ground and were gaining a decisive upper hand by 14 December.

Pakistan surrenders, the war ends, and a free Bangla nation is born

The head of Pakistani Army’s Eastern Command and Chief Martial Law Administrator of East Pakistan, Lt. Gen. AAK Niazi appealed for a ceasefire. However, India’s negotiator and chief of staff of Indian Army’s Eastern Command, Maj. Gen. JFR Jacob, who worked under General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the combined Indian and Bangladeshi forces in the Eastern Theatre Jagjit Singh Aurora and the Indian Army chief General Sam Manekshaw, demanded a public surrender of Pakistani troops, who were approximately 93,000 in number.

With no options left, General Niazi signed the Instrument of Surrender in the evening of 16 December 1971, thereby bringing the Bangladesh Liberation War to its end, effectively leading to the birth of a free nation of Bangladesh. This was the largest public surrender of a country’s armed forces since the Second World War.

Bangladesh thus gained its much-fought freedom, and India, a nation haunted by the ghosts of 1962, now has a reason to rejoice. India was one of the earliest countries to recognize Bangladesh as a sovereign and independent nation during the course of war itself. Later, Bangladesh adopted a poem titled ‘Amar Shonar Bangla’ (My Golden Bengal) as its national anthem, written by the famous Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, who has also written India’s national anthem.

With this defeat, Pakistan was dismembered due to its own ill-intended policies and the curtains were down for General Yahya Khan’s military rule with the rise of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to power. India and Pakistan signed a peace treaty in the Indian hill station of Shimla in July 1972, wherein Pakistan recognized Bangladesh in exchange for the return of Pakistani prisoners of war. India’s decisive victory in the war has demonstrated its regional power in the Subcontinent and has ensured relative peace in the border areas with Pakistan for the next two decades until Pakistan began to reinvigorate insurgency in Kashmir into a militant form with the launch of Operation Tupac in the late 1980s.

2021, thus, marks 50 years since a free nation of Bangladesh was born, wherein the combined strength and will of India and Bangladesh brought the genocidal state of Pakistan to its knees. Today, Bijoy Dibos/Vijay Diwas symbolizes the long-standing friendship and a shared past between India and Bangladesh that are to be cherished for the posterity.

Bejoy Sebastian
Bejoy Sebastian
Bejoy Sebastian writes on the contemporary geopolitics and regionalism in eastern Asia and the Indo-Pacific. His articles and commentaries have appeared in Delhi Post (India), The Kochi Post (India), The Diplomat (United States), and The Financial Express (India). Some of his articles were re-published by The Asian Age (Bangladesh), The Cambodia Daily, the BRICS Information Portal, and the Peace Economy Project (United States). He is an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), New Delhi, where he acquired a post-graduate diploma in English journalism. He has qualified the Indian University Grants Commission's National Eligibility Test (UGC-NET) for teaching International Relations in Indian higher educational institutions in 2022. He holds a Master's degree in Politics and International Relations with first rank from Mahatma Gandhi University in Kottayam, Kerala, India. He was attached to the headquarters of the Ministry of External Affairs (Government of India) in New Delhi as a research intern in 2021 and has also worked as a Teaching Assistant at FLAME University in Pune, India, for a brief while.