1971: Some frittered gains
A pragmatic evaluation of the positives and losses of the epic war.
Some symbolisms are so sacred to a country that they are best left untouched. Observed and lauded each year with regality and solemnity. Celebrated with an unquestioning mind for the triumph they brought, and sense of pride they instilled.
While the ghosts of the past are best forgotten, glorious ones can be commemorated but never questioned.
The 1971 War has been a symbol of Indian pride. Its impact had been tremendously positive for two reasons: it vanquished comprehensively an arch enemy and restored shaky confidence in our military after the 1962 defeat at the hands of the Chinese and the ambiguous 1965 episode.
The War had at once created a new nation and established India’s supremacy in South Asia. It also put a seal on a debate that had earlier cleavaged a once vast country into two nations. The creation of Bangladesh settled the deliberation over the two-nation theory in favour of India. Jinnah had asked for Pakistan based on the view that Hindus and Muslims could not live together as one country and that Islam would prove to be the glue of the proposed new Republic.
Bangladesh proved Jinnah wrong. The idea of India was better – unity in diversity outlived a parochial communal notion. Multiple religions and ethnicities can survive and thrive, if only an accommodative attitude is fostered by the citizenry, while forcing supremacy of one over another plants seeds of revolt.
The 1971 victory also unveiled the Shimla Agreement - attested by Indira Gandhi and Zulfiqar Bhutto - which provisioned for all outstanding matters, including Kashmir, to be resolved bilaterally. This clause has been quoted oft and again at international fora by India whenever Pakistan has chosen to play dirty and tried to invite third party intervention.
Another positive was that the demand that Pakistan had pressed for regarding granting of corridor through mainland India to connect East Pakistan and West Pakistan was snuffed. Considering the penchant that Pakistan has to send-in mischief makers into other people’s territory, the cord running through India could have turned into a septic gash.
Unfortunately, we let the rival off too easily. Forty years later, we see more clearly the lost opportunities. Despite warnings from Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, Indira Gandhi gave back strategically placed territory in the North-Western region, which had been captured by the Indian soldiers. We also released over 90,000 prisoners of war without a written guarantee of turning the Line of Control into an international border.
Zulfiqar Bhutto expectedly went back on his word and later promised to eat grass but acquire nuclear weapons, whereas Zia-ul-Haq came upon his favourite brainchild – the policy of bleeding India by a thousand cuts.
We also failed to strike while the iron was hot. After having handed Bangladesh its Independence, India should have insisted on once and for all solutions to the contentious Farakka Barrage, Teesta and Brahmaputra water disputes.
If there was time when we could have claimed back the Chittagong Hill Tract, it was then. The British had been rash when settling this land claim much like most of the border line, and we could have put forth pending arguments and claimed it as a prize for the aid we provided to our eastern neighbour, if for nothing else.
But we did nothing of the sort, relying on never ending goodwill and gratitude from Bangladeshis, which evaporated faster than boiling water.
A long term strategic loss, according to General JFR Jacob, has been the consolidation of the Pakistan Army operations. Jacob, who was one of the main architects of the 1971 victory, feels that by cutting off its East wing, India handed Pakistan the opportunity to concentrate its scattered forces into a single unbroken territory in the West, where it could be buttressed significantly. It would have been a problem for Pakistan to mobilize and upkeep their firepower in two separate regions over a long period to time.
As an extension, Pakistan would also have to deal with a fairly large population that was pathetically poor and restive and would have consumed the Islamic Republic’s attention so completely that it would scarcely be left with time to create problems for others. This may be simplistic view and there can be several counterpoints to it because Pakistan, along with its eastern arm, could have also proved to be doubly problematic.
But it is important to revisit those episodes of our history that have become our holy cows. Not because we doubt the valour or spirit of our soldiers, but because we owe it to them that their sacrifices are not frittered away due to lack of depth and reasoning of our political masters.
More certainly because countries that don’t question history, only tend to repeat their mistakes.