Third week of December ought to be celebrated akin to the West’s observance of World War triumphs.
The coming week marks not only the Golden Jubilee of India’s military and diplomatic triumph in acting as the midwife of birth of Bangladesh and demolition of Jinnah’s two-nation theory, which caused the trauma of partition, but also the Diamond Jubilee of the liberation of India from 450 years of European domination of the subcontinent. In a joint action of Army, Navy and Air Force, India liberated Goa, Daman and Diu from Portuguese rule on 19 January 1961. This triumph predates by a decade the 16 December 1971 surrender of Dacca (renamed Dhaka in 1982), after a short war in which all three wings of our armed forces contributed in glorious measure. In both victories, which came 23 centuries after the defeat of Porus in the hands of Alexander in 326 BCE (thereafter many invasions and debacles followed), India confronted the might of Western powers who were openly hostile on both occasions. Russia, then USSR, was a reluctant ally and its reservations led both to delay in 1971 operations and in framing the stance of India at Shimla in 1972—when apparent accommodation was made for Pakistan, unlike the humiliating terms offered by the victors to vanquished Germany in the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. This coming week, which is an appropriate herald to the Amrit Mahotsav of 2022, is an anniversary of India’s assertion of aatmanirbharta (self-assertion; independence).
Unlike the victors of the Second World War, who occupied Germany by proxy till the 1990s, India set a record by withdrawing its troops from Bangladesh once liberation was achieved. India’s honourable treatment of 90,000 Pakistani prisoners, its magnanimity at Shimla 1972 and the complete and quick withdrawal of troops is an unparalleled saga. The 13-day war was the shortest war in the history of mankind which had a decisive end and perhaps left an enduring learning in the annals of peace.
This writer belongs to what may be termed as India’s twilight generation, successors to the “midnight’s generation”. The twilight years were marked by the emergence of a resurgent democracy; India’s tryst with modernisation, both in scientific and social terms. It was marred by the humiliation of 1962. In 1965, India somewhat retrieved its prestige when it thwarted Pakistan’s “Operation Gibraltar” and with the help of Kashmir’s local populace repulsed the attempt to usurp Indian territory. The triumph of 1971, which came amidst a food crisis, was a turning point for the twilight generation. In 1962, not a lamp had been lit on Diwali following Chinese aggression. In 1972 Republic Day parade was turned into a victory march.
On the evening of 16 December, as news of surrender in Dacca boomed in, activists involved in mobilising relief for refugees and garnering support for the war effort gathered on the lawns of New Delhi’s Constitution Club, Vithalbhai Patel House. M. Hossain Ali, who had defected as Pakistan’s Deputy High Commissioner at Calcutta after the war began and had been anointed as Bangladesh’s envoy to India by the caretaker government, announced with a voice filled with emotion: “Bangladesh is free. Joy Bangla.” We rushed back to Delhi University campus to organise celebration. Portable mikes were used to relay Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s broadcast. Thereafter a victory procession ensued. War blackout had not been lifted—but the joy of triumph cut through darkness as students marched on the campus avenues.
During the war days, students of Delhi University organised a protest at the US Embassy against the sailing of US 7th Fleet led by USS Enterprise into Indian Ocean, apparently to contain India. The news that the fleet had crossed the Straits of Malacca made 22 college union presidents issue an appeal—among the signatories was Hardeep Singh Puri (now Cabinet minister; who headed Hindu College union). After demonstrating outside Roosevelt House, a section of the students decided to go to the Soviet Embassy to express gratitude for the solidarity USSR had extended through its treaty of friendship and cooperation. Nikolay Pegov, the Ambassador, threw the chancery gates open and the demonstrators walked up to the Embassy building, where diplomats led by the envoy acknowledged the students’ greetings. A police officer on duty later commented that he had never before seen an angry crowd (as US embassy) turn a joyous lot at another venue.
(Many years later, speaking to Doordarshan on an anniversary of the war, Admiral S.M. Nanda who headed the Navy, recalled that as the US 7th Fleet approached, he sought instructions from Indira Gandhi on the possible reaction of Indian Navy if it came eyeball-to-eyeball with the fleet on the high seas. The Prime Minister coolly replied, “We are not at war with the US. If you sight US ships then instruct the Captain of the ship to send a message of greetings to the US vessel welcoming its presence in India’s territorial waters and invite his counterpart for dinner on board the Indian Naval Ship that night.” At one go, sovereignty and determination were to be showcased in the face of might.)
Recent writings on the war have raised questions on the modalities of planning the war. Stories have been in circulation that General Manekshaw had thumbed his nose at Indira Gandhi. This writer once asked General J.F.R. Jacob, the man who masterminded the Dacca operation and negotiated the surrender of Pakistan troops, if these stories were true. Without wincing he replied that while Manekshaw certainly had a long nose, to the best of his knowledge no man had ever spoken back to Indira Gandhi on her face.
This controversy apart, Indira Gandhi was not the sole architect of 1971. External Affairs Minister Swaran Singh, Defence Minister Jagjivan Ram, Durga Prasad Dhar, P.N. Haksar and the founder chief of RAW, Ram Nath Kao share the glory with the generals, admirals and air marshals who led their men to glory. Each citizen of India contributed—a five paisa cess had been put on all transactions: whenever something was bought a contribution to relief and war effort ensued.
The third week of December, which engulfs 16 December and 19 December, ought to be declared “Vijay Parv” and celebrated in schools, colleges, factories, farms and cantonments akin to the annual celebrations in the western world of the anniversaries of the two World Wars. The clarion call of 1965, coined by Lal Bahadur Shastri, “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan” ought to be the guiding spirit of these anniversaries.