The BNP’s Hannan Shah has certainly given people some food for thought. He has been effusive in his praises of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, which is refreshing. He has maintained that Ziaur Rahman declared Bangladesh’s independence, which is half the historical truth. The half that he did not mention was that Zia made his announcement in the name of Bangabandhu, that indeed he referred to the Father of the Nation four times in his radio address. Hannan Shah was quite right to suggest that Bangabandhu’s decision to go for Baksal was a disappointment for the nation, given that the country’s founder had throughout his long and eventful career waged an endless struggle for democracy and, as the former military officer has noted, defeated the likes of Ayub Khan, Monem Khan and Yahya Khan with his political intelligence.
Hannan Shah’s contention that Bangabandhu made a significant contribution to the nation’s history through having the allied forces, meaning the Indian army, go back home in 1972 is another point well taken. One recalls only too well the bold, some would say blunt, manner in which Bangabandhu asked Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi when she would have her soldiers withdrawn from Bangladesh. In the event, the Indian army left Bangladesh within four months of the country’s liberation. One agrees with Hannan Shah that the withdrawal of the Indian soldiers was a testimony to the political acumen of Bangladesh’s undisputed leader. One appreciates too the fact that Hannan Shah was respectful enough, unlike so many others in his party, to refer to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as Bangabandhu.
But where Hannan Shah did cause surprise was fundamentally in three areas.
First, the BNP leader asserts that had Bangabandhu not been around to ensure a withdrawal of Indian troops from Bangladesh, the consequences would have been unimaginable and no one can say how many more people would have died in the country. If the Indians had not gone back home, says he, Bangladesh would have turned into a Kashmir-like status, with Indian forces lording it all over the place.
It is on this score that Hannan Shah is getting his understanding of history wrong. His analogy of placing Bangladesh beside Kashmir is fallacious because of certain incontrovertible reasons. In the first place, Bangladesh’s sovereignty was for India a de facto affair from the moment the provisional government at Mujibnagar was formed in April 1971. In the second, the fact that the Mujibnagar government was permitted to function from Calcutta was a strong sign, if any sign were needed, of India’s acceptance of the truth that the Bengalis of East Bengal were engaged in an armed struggle for national sovereignty.
Hannan Shah missed that point in his reflections on the Indian army question. Having stayed clear of the de facto issue of India’s role vis-à-vis a free Bangladesh, he went on to ignore the de jure matter of India’s formal recognition of the state of Bangladesh on 6 December 1971. The New Delhi authorities were fully cognisant of the need not to send in their soldiers into a country without letting the world know that they meant to treat it as a sovereign nation. The Indian army was thus marching, not into territory it meant to annex as one of its federating states, but into a country whose liberation was around the corner. The BNP leader conveniently did not have his audience recall the truth that prior to the surrender of the Pakistan occupation army in Dhaka, a joint command of Indian and Bangladesh forces was established and it was before this joint command that General Niazi and his men capitulated. In simple terms, there was absolutely no hint at all of any Indian design of replacing Pakistan’s occupation of Bangladesh with its own military presence in the country.
Now comes the second fallacy in Hannan Shah’s analogy. In his attempt to equate a Bangladesh minus the presence of Bangabandhu with Kashmir, the retired brigadier misses the fact that Indian soldiers have been in Kashmir because the place is part of the Indian Union. There is always room for debate on what has come to be known over the decades as the Kashmir question, especially in relation to Pakistan’s obsession with the territory. The fact remains, though, that apart from the segment of the state in the control of Pakistan, Kashmir has since the late 1940s been part of the Indian federal structure.
It is only natural, therefore, that the government of India will ensure its primacy in Kashmir. The state, through Article 370 of the Indian constitution, enjoys a special status compared to all other states of the Indian Union. Even so, it is to all intents and purposes an integral part of India. One might go for an academic argument about the actions of the Indian military in Kashmir, about militancy, surely. But that in no way detracts from the truth, which is that Kashmir, unlike Bangladesh or Pakistan or Nepal, is not an independent country. For Hannan Shah to have therefore equated a post-1971 Bangladesh, at least in its early stages, with Kashmir was an extremely unsound proposition, one that can even be considered as ignorance at best and provocation at worst.
Hannan Shah’s third fallacy is essentially an attempt to undermine the Mujibnagar government of 1971. For all his assertions that the allied forces would have stayed on in Bangladesh had Bangabandhu not been around, he has easily lost sight of the fact that it was the Mujibnagar government which shaped the political and military strategy that would lead Bangladesh to freedom. Of course, the BNP leader could well have been hinting at the possibility of the Young Turks of the Awami League doing everything they could, as they tried to do during the War of Liberation, to create roadblocks for Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmad in a free Bangladesh. There would be much reason in such an assessment were Hannan Shah to voice it without ambiguity. Even so, it is naive to suppose that men like Syed Nazrul Islam, Tajuddin Ahmad, M. Mansoor Ali, A.H.M. Quamruzzaman and General M.A.G. Osmany, having resolutely taken the war to a successful conclusion, would sit by and have foreign forces, even if they were allies, dig roots in Bangladesh.
The Mujibnagar government remains one of the more glorious of chapters in Bangladesh’s history. Hannan Shah appears to have ignored this glaring truth, which is why he hints at what that government, once back home, might not have been able to do what it did so well in the nine months of the war. He is wrong to think so.
We rest our case.