New Delh, Dec 15: Thirty-six years ago, on December 16, a new nation was born in the Indian subcontinent. The event happened after a brief war that lasted twelve days and resulted in the surrender of 93,000 Pakistan soldiers. During the brief war, the Mukti Bahini, or the liberation force, that was born in the then East Pakistan, fought the Pakistani Army.
The Mukti Bahini was supported by the Indian Army, which was engaged in an overall conflict with Pakistan, both on the Western border and in East Pakistan. The formal surrender of the Pakistan Army based in its eastern wing took place at Dacca, with Lt. Gen. AAK Niazi handing over the instrument of surrender to Lt. Gen. Jagjit Singh Arora, who then headed the Eastern Command of the Indian Army.
The formal surrender took place at the Dacca Race Course, the very venue from where Sheikh Mujibur Rehman had made his speech in March 1971, which prompted General Yahya Khan to send General Tikka Khan to crack down on East Pakistani people.
The new nation was represented at the surrender ceremony by Group Captain Khondakar, the Chief of Staff of the Mukti Bahini, as Sheikh Mujibur Rehman was then a prisoner in Rawalpindi.
The creation of Bangladesh happened following the refusal of the dictatorship in Pakistan to honour the results of elections held earlier. In the normal course, Mujibur Rehman should have been the Prime Minister, as the Awami League, which he headed, had secured the majority seats in the national parliament.
But the politicians in West Pakistan, the most important being Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, were unwilling to accept an East Pakistani Bengali. General Yahya Khan decided to silence the people of East Pakistan.
The military crackdown commenced on March 25, and refugees in their thousands crossed the border in West Bengal, Meghalaya, Assam and Tripura in the following months, causing demographic pressures in these States. Their number swelled to nearly ten million.
Initial diplomatic efforts to stop the Pakistan Army committing atrocities in the eastern wing failed to achieve any success. Pakistan felt encouraged in its efforts to put down the struggle by the sympathetic attitude displayed by the United States, headed by President Richard Nixon. The then Indian Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, tried her best to explain the situation to United States, but to no avail.
I was the Public Relations Officer of the Indian Army at New Delhi during the period. The crackdown by General Tikka Khan in East Pakistan made it clear to us that a conflict was a distinct possibility. The Indian Army, then headed by General Sam Manekshaw, prepared for a possible conflict with Pakistan.
The Indian Armed Forces prepared for a war with single mindedly. It received full support from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Defence Minister Jagjivan Ram and the nation as a whole, which took on the task of looking after the refugees from East Pakistan.
I had to opportunity of accompanying General Manekshaw during his visit to troops and enthusing them to be prepared for a war. Also, I covered the visits of Defence Minister Jagjivan Ram to the forward areas and his address to people along the border. He made it clear that the country could not tolerate what he called 'demographic aggression".
Indira Gandhi visited various world capitals to make them aware of the ground realities in East Pakistan. India also entered into an agreement with the then Soviet Union, which assured support in times of a conflict.
When Pakistan attacked Indian airfields on December 3, the war formally broke out. Indian troops crossed the border both in the East and the West. The effort in the West was to ensure that the Pakistan Army did not attack or occupy strategically important areas in Punjab and in Jammu and Kashmir.
The Indian Army crossed the border into East Pakistan, on all three fronts crossing the river obstacles. The Indian Air Force grounded the Pakistan Air Force with swift counter-attacks on December 3 and later. The Indian Navy attacked East Pakistan harbours and established complete control over the waters of the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea.
Even the threat of the United States that it would move its Seventh Fleet to the Bay of Bengal did not deter the Indian Navy. China too made some statements supporting the Pakistani position, but with little impact.
It was the first time that India used psychological warfare to back its military moves. The broadcasts by General Manekshaw, asking the Pakistani soldiers in the East to surrender, in which he assured them of safety and dignified treatment, had dramatic effect. The Pakistan Army in the East, which could have held on for a few months at least, decided to surrender.
The Pakistani solder was an object of hatred in the East. But as assured by General Manekshaw, each one of the 93,000 soldiers was looked after in India after the war. They were housed in Indian Army barracks, while the Indian soldiers spent time out in tents. They were returned to Pakistan after the conclusion of the Shimla Agreement. in 1972.
Sheikh Mujibur Rehman was released by Pakistan and he arrived in Delhi through London on January 8. He left for Dacca after a brief stopover.
Looking back, the Pakistan Army has never forgotten what happened in 1971. There have been attempts to avenge that defeat. The proxy-war against India in Punjab and in Jammu and Kashmir followed. The operation in Kargil in 1999 was a desperate attempt, but it failed miserably.
In recent months questions have been asked whether Pakistan is going through a similar period as it did in 1971. Questions have also been asked, following the crackdown by the Pakistan Army in Baluchistan and in the North Western Frontier, whether the people in those regions would start a separatist movement. India too has had separatist movements, supported from China or Pakistan, but the democratic approach has been able to find solutions.
Even in 1971, Pakistan had the support of the United States. But it did not help the military in putting down legitimate aspirations of the people. Even after three-and-half decades, people in Bangladesh have not forgotten the events of 1971. On December 14, thousands of Bangladeshis gathered at the 1971 war memorial and called for the hanging of war criminals.
One only hopes that the promise of a return of democracy in Pakistan is not similar to the 'restoration" of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1971.