By dismembering Pakistan in 1971 and creating the nation of Bangladesh, India gave a wound to Pakistan that will not heal as long as that nation exists on the face of the earth. However, in view of the fact that almost immediately after its birth, Bangladesh went on to metamorphose into a den of hard-core anti-Hindu, anti-India Islamists, the question is, what did we gain in strategic terms from that glorious military operation as well as that brilliant, covert intelligence operation?
Apparently, Indira Gandhi had expected that Bangladesh will be a grateful, docile, and obedient neighbour that would, under its totem of secularism, treat its Hindus so well that Pakistan’s very argument of the communal divide between the two communities being the fundamental reason for Partition will be defeated by another set of Muslims friendly to India. Alas, that was not to be! They have turned out to be as virulent as the Pakistanis, if not more.
Indira Gandhi suffered from three problems. She was blinded by her ambition to secure her place in history, and that made her ignore the disturbing developments that were taking place in Bangladesh right before her eyes. Second, she was naïve in the sense that she overlooked the dark, communal, anti-Hindu record of the very large number of Islamists in that country, including Sheikh Mujibur Rahman himself. Third, she lacked strategic foresight. Though our victory ensured that we would never have to face a military threat from that side; however, she could never foresee the enormity of the socio-economic impact of the unending influx of refugees; the implications of the illegal migrants on national security; and the fact that Pakistan would no longer have to fight on two fronts.
Bangladesh – a hub for Islamic Terror Groups
The JMB (Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh) was founded in 1998 with the avowed objective of establishing a Sharia-ruled Islamic state. It is now affiliated with ISIS and the ban in 2005 and some prosecutions did not have much effect on it. The November 2015 issue of Dabiq, the magazine of ISIS, carried an interview with Sheikh Abu al-Hanif, head of ISIS operations in Bangladesh. It is believed to have over 10,000 members. In India, members of the JMB have been convicted for the 2014 Burdwan blast and the 2018 Bodh Gaya bombing attacks.
Bangladesh’s Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami (HuJI) was formed with Osama bin Laden’s help and one of its leaders had included his signature in Laden’s second declaration of holy war against the US in February 1998. This is significant because the only other non-Arabian signatory to it was Jamiat ul Ulema Pakistan’s Sheikh Mir Hamzah. Incidentally, it was HUJI, which had branded the author Taslima Nasrin as an ‘enemy of Islam’ and issued a death threat to her. Its successor ABT (Ansarullah Bangla Team), founded in 2007, is affiliated with Al Qaeda. It was banned in 2015, but again with little effect.
In January 2020, the NIA charged two Bangladeshis Mahmud Hassan and Mohamad Sa’ad Hussain, members of Ansar al Islam, a proscribed terrorist group in Bangladesh, for having entered India to carry out terrorist attacks. They had done recce for nine months before they were caught. It was reported in June 2020 that the AQIS (Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent) was targeting Bangladeshi men to launch lone-wolf attacks against the Indian government, its security agencies, Hindutva leaders, and a “certain category of persons”. AQIS is learnt to have recruited Bangladeshi Islamic clerics to motivate potential recruits online.
Unlike their Pakistani counterparts, the Bangladeshi Islamist terrorists do not have any stated political objective, or issue like Kashmir with respect to India—it is pure and simple religious bigotry and religion-driven terrorism. If the terrible communal violence during Partition in that region is any guide, the ‘culture of violence’ has always been second nature to the Bangladeshi Muslims.
Bangladesh – a breading ground for fundamentalist Islamic groups
Though terrorist and fundamentalist groups are intimately linked with each other, it is customary to discuss them separately. The oldest of them is the JEI (Jamat e Islami), which exists before the birth of the country and had helped the Pak military against the so-called freedom fighters in 1971. As Swedish journalist Bertil Lintner, who has covered the region for four decades, reminds, the JEI leader Abdul Kader Molla had earned the epithet of ‘the Butcher of Mirpur’. The BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party) reintroduced them in domestic politics in 1979 and they held even cabinet positions. The leaders had fled to Pakistan to escape prosecution as war criminals but were later ‘invited’ to come back by Zia and Ershad. Ironically, the self-declared champion of human rights in the world, the US government granted Molla a visa in 2002! The JEI is now linked with JMB and ISIS. Its notorious student wing is called Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS). Back in 2001 before the 9/11 attack, JEI, ICS and HUJI openly called themselves Bangladeshi Taliban on the streets of Dhaka. The JEI’s support for jihadis was reflected in its slogan, ‘Amra sobai hobo Taliban Bangle hobe Afghanistan’ (we will all become Taliban and we turn Bengal into Afghanistan).
The Hefazat-e-Islam (HeI) is a coalition of about a dozen Islamist groups that was formed in 2010—the JEI supports it. In a demonstration in Dhaka in 2013, they had mustered some five lakh strong mob demanding the death of blasphemers and declaring Ahmadiyas as non-Muslims. They are believed to have a huge influence over some 25,000 madrasas.
The HT (Hizb ut Tahrir) acts like a ‘conveyor belt’ for Islamist violence. It was banned in 2009 for the record but with little effect on the ground. It was implicated in the failed 2011 coup attempt led by Major S.M. Zia ul Haque. In March 2015, they hacked to death a Hindu blogger Avijit Roy.
There are several smaller groups like Jagrata Muslim Janata, Shahadat-e-al Hikma, and BEM (full form not known, but believed to be linked to JMB) also. South Asia Terrorism Portal gives a list of a total of 14 groups.
Bangladesh – atrocities on Hindus
In an obvious attempt to bolster their Islamist credentials, their favourite pastime has been to brutal murder (usually by hacking) religious minorities (in effect, mostly Hindus), activists, secular bloggers and even foreigners, besides rapes and other atrocities upon the Hindus. They were particularly virulent during the period 2013-2016. In fact, in September 2015, the ABT had felt bold enough to put out a hit list! In October 2021, a Deutsche Welle report citing Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), a Bangladeshi human rights organisation, stated that there have been over 3,600 attacks in Bangladesh targeting Hindus since 2013. Not a single day passes in Bangladesh when Hindus have not been targeted by radical Islamists. Anyone who has read Taslima Nasrin’s novel Lajja would have been horrified by the extremely brutal and perverted nature of the abductions and rapes committed upon hapless Hindu women.
Rana Dasgupta, general secretary of the Hindu-Buddhist-Christian Unity Council, had said in an interview in 2017 that Hindus in Bangladesh have been subjected to ethnic cleansing in three distinct phases over the last 70 years—first during Partition; then in 1971 and later after the Islamists gained ascendance in the new country. Through the diabolical device of the Enemy Property Act, the Pakistan government ousted the minorities from their hearth and home and handed over their properties to Muslims. The Hindu population got reduced to 7.85% of the population from 18.5% because they ended up as refugees in India. He reckons that the insecurities amongst the Bangladeshi Hindus are so high that in the next two decades, Bangladesh might not have any minorities at all!
Statistics fall woefully short of reflecting reality because incidents of violence against Hindus largely go unreported in rural areas. Still, some ideas can be had from the figures furnished by the Bangladesh Jatiya Hindu Mahajot. In 2022 alone, 66 Hindu women were raped (27 of them being gang rapes); 154 Hindus were killed in an attempt to murder 424; and 333 Hindus were forced to eat beef. As many as 152 Hindu women and 40 men were forcibly converted to Islam. Islamists vandalized or destroyed 128 temples and 481 idols, whereas they sought to desecrate 179 temples by throwing beef therein. During Durga Puja celebrations, there were 35 attacks and 91 idols were vandalized. Land belonging to 319 temples was grabbed. Celebration of Hindu festivals was obstructed 129 times. Islamists set fire to 519 houses of Hindus and grabbed 8,990 acres of land belonging to Hindus. They threatened as many as 1.96 lakh Hindu families to flee. In fact, more than 1.1 crore Hindus have fled the country since 1964, that is, some 520 every day!
Ineffective action of the Bangladesh Government
Indira Gandhi would have been crestfallen if she were to be told that a day would come when the Bangladesh government would rather charge and jail some of the secularist bloggers for defaming and hurting the religious sentiments of Muslims; and even urge them to flee overseas! As far as atrocities on Hindus are concerned, the police are simply callous.
The government action in terms of arrests, prosecutions and sentencing against the fundamentalists/terrorists has been largely ineffective in so far as their hold on the public mind is concerned. The so-called counter-narrative programs of the government have been a farce with absolutely no effect, thereby lending credence to the fact that the real problem lies with a large percentage of the Muslim public of Bangladesh. It is they who are susceptible to Islamist influence and responsible for providing cadres to them. Indira Gandhi had either no idea of the character of the Bangladeshi Muslims or deliberately closed her eyes to the historical facts.
How Indira Gandhi failed to see the ominous Islamist clouds
You may call it an irony of the history of Bangladesh but it is a fact that a country created, at least on paper, on the basis of secular democracy, has ended up getting ruled most of the time by pro-Islamist radical forces.
It was utter political naiveté on Indira Gandhi’s part to even dream that a predominantly Sunni Muslim country (now nearly 89%) and a documented history of violence against the Hindus (18.5% of the population at the time of Partition reduced to just 7.85% in 75 years) since before the Partition, would be secular/tolerant and would look up to India for idealistic inspiration merely because she was instrumental in helping them break free of West Pakistan.
Indira Gandhi failed to appreciate the significance of the fact that Mujib’s immediate successor, Khondkar Mushtaq Ahmed had lost no time in changing the iconic slogan of Joi Bangla with the Persianized Bangladesh Zindabad! Even in foreign policy, as historian M. G. Kabir, the author of ‘Changing Face of Nationalism: The Case of Bangladesh’ notes, Maj. Gen. Zia veered towards Pakistan, China and Saudi Arabia, side-lining India and the USSR. In any case, Ershad’s declaration of Islam as the state religion ended all pretensions.
She was not alarmed even when after the assassination of Mujib, the word ‘secularism’ was dropped from the Constitution. This was done through presidential proclamation No 1 of 1977 of the military dictator Maj. Gen. Zia. Subsequently, in May 1988, by amending article 25 of the 1972 Constitution, Bangladesh was made an Islamic country.
Had Indira Gandhi been not consumed by her delusions of greatness, she could indeed have tightened the screws on the nascent nation of Bangladesh through the lever of trade and commercial relations or deportation of at least the Muslim refugees to stem the tide of Islamism in Bangladesh. The nation of India has paid the price of her megalomania by ending up with a country that, in terms of Islamic fundamentalism, is as bad as Pakistan, if not worse. Bangladesh has not yet become another Pakistan for the simple reason that it is destined to remain militarily weak; however, its Islamist credentials are equally bad and in that sense, it is very much ‘another Pakistan’ in the east. Indian people were misled into believing that they were ‘ghareeb, mazloom, bechara Bengali’ (poor, persecuted, hapless Bengali), victims of the atrocities of the Pak army. We liberated them all alright but it was a terrible folly to ignore their inherently brutal nature and bigotry.
Following the 2001 elections, Hindus had no hope left whatsoever and attacks on their lives and rapes of their women became highly systematized affairs. Fundamentalist extremists and terrorists grew exponentially in the wake of the BNP-JEI-led coalition government during 2001-2006. The Human Rights Congress for Bangladesh Minorities had reported that the ‘scheme of terror on minorities’ was ‘Give Ransom or Girl’. Bike-borne hoodlums used to roar past the huts of minorities in the night to terrorize them—either pay up to 20,000 takas or give your girl. I do not think that this sort of despicable activity took place at that time even in Pakistan!
Indira Gandhi totally failed to judge Mujibur Rahman’s character
All that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had been saying before assuming power actually translated into the fact that he did not want military hostility with India nor did he take a stand on Kashmir. From this, nobody should have jumped the gun and deduced that he meant adopting Indian values too. He did not want military hostility not out of gratitude but because he knew well that Bangladesh would never stand any chance against India at any point of time in future. He was focused on Bangladesh’s economic interests. Meeting him after his ascension, the US Consul had cabled that his priority was the restoration of trade and commercial relations with India. Precisely for this reason, he and his successors were susceptible to India tightening the screws on them through this, an opportunity, which Indira Gandhi gave a miss.
To imagine that Mujib would become a saviour of the Bangladeshi Hindus after liberation, was naiveté of the highest order as it betrayed a singular ignorance of the history of his own dark past. Mujib had harboured anti-Hindu sentiments right from the beginning of his political career and that intensified after he got in touch with Hasan Shaheed Suhrawardy, a fierce champion of the idea of Pakistan, who took him under his wings precisely for these ‘talents’. According to his autobiography ‘The Unfinished Memoirs’ published in 2012 and based supposedly on his jottings made in prison during 1967-69, Mujib was involved in a case of breaking into the house of a Hindu and assaulting the inmates with his gang. He was arrested but Suhrawardy secured him an early release.
Also Read: India Bangladesh relations – the way forward
Suhrawardy was such a deeply bigoted, communal man that, even as the prime minister of Bengal, he purposefully declared August 16, 1946, as a public holiday so as to facilitate the rioting and communal violence by the Muslim League, which had announced it as the Direct Action Day. Mujib, as a 26-year-old young man, was a part of the Muslim League’s rampaging mobs. In his autobiography, he mentions his having raised the Muslim League flag at Calcutta university at seven a.m. itself.
I expect readers to be aware of the horrors that were unleashed by the Muslim League that day. Still, for the benefit of those whose memory might have dimmed, I must remind you what Rabindranath Dutta, a 92-year-old survivor of the ‘Great Calcutta Killings’ had told journalist Abhijit Majumder, on video recording on August 16, 2022, the 75th anniversary of that Black Day. Fully prepared and organized mobs of sword-wielding Islamists killed nearly 10,000 Hindus in three days and wounded some 15,000. Dutta told that naked, butchered bodies of Hindu women were hung from hooks at beef shops in Raja Bazar, Calcutta. Amongst the hundreds of Hindu women raped, Victoria College girls were raped and killed, and their bodies were tied to hostel windows. You would not expect Mujib to write such gory details in his memoirs but even in the ‘sanitized version’, he admits to having raised the slogan of ‘Pakistan zindabad’ and having led a mob that attacked Hindus with bricks and stones—as if swords were unknown to them!
Despite the fake aura of ‘Bangabandhu’, the fact remains that Mujib was a Muslim first and a Bengali later—the Bengali language was merely ‘used’ by him to gain power. On January 10, 1972, as Dr Syed Anwar Husain reveals, he reminded everyone of the Islamic/Muslim quotient of the new state of Bangladesh with the statement, “Let everyone be informed that now Bangladesh stands as the world’s second-largest Muslim State and Pakistan’s position is the fourth.”
Most importantly, he continued the most-hated Enemy Property Act against the Hindus by changing its name to Vested Property Act in 1974. This law empowers the government to confiscate property from individuals it deems enemies of the state. It was historically used against the Hindus. It is difficult to understand how Indira Gandhi could have remained oblivious to such steps of Mujib. (Incidentally, the Reclamation Act of 2011 is fraught with loopholes and nobody has benefited from it.)
Creation of Bangladesh actually solved Pakisatn’s strategic problems
In fact, the dismemberment of Pakistan solved a great strategic problem of theirs in that they have to fight on only one front now. It was a great loss of face alright but in hindsight, they would probably thank us. Now they have to man only one front and there, the numerical disparity is not going to be great. They are no longer bothered with the concerns of provisioning an army stranded thousands of miles away across the seas, staring in the face of a naval blockade to boot. Now they have to fight on only one front with the supply lines being as short as less than a couple of hundred kilometres. We should not forget that on the Western Front in 1971, Pakistan was able to halt India from overrunning them even as their Eastern Command had been forced to surrender.
Although the exact details of military deployments are state secrets but a rough idea of the state of affairs can be had from what defence journalists and analysts have been writing in the public domain. A former military officer and now a journalist Ajai Shukla wrote in January 2023 that 20 of our army divisions face Pakistan and 16 divisions face China. In May 2021, Arzan Tarapore, South Asia Research Scholar Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University had written that 22 Indian divisions faced Pakistan. The reduction must be taken note of. In July 2015, Walter C. Ladwig III, assistant professor of international relations in the department of war studies at King’s College; London had written that Pakistan had deployed 18 of its 22 divisions on the Indian border.
It is vital to keep these figures in mind because as conventional military wisdom goes and which Joshua M. Epstein, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution also attests to in his book ‘Conventional Force Reductions: A Dynamic Assessment’, if defensive preparations are in order and if the defenders are not taken in by complete surprise, even a 3:1 ratio of combat power may not be sufficient for the success of the offensive. With Pakistan freed from the worry of maintaining two fronts, they have now drastically reduced our numerical advantage.