Most people think that Bangladesh’s independence/liberation movement was connected with language aspirations of the Bangladeshi people and one that was aided by the Indian military. But that is too simplistic. Public diplomacy involving journalists, artists, diplomats and other civil society members has not received adequate attention. Economist Rehman Sobhan has written that the economic deprivation of the people of East Bengal and their alienation from political power contributed to their discontent. The war of secession is viewed as an attempt by the ethnic Bengalis, who felt mistreated at the hands of non-bengali Muslims in Pakistan, to create a separate homeland for themselves on India’s instigation.
While these factors contributed to the events that led to the creation of Bangladesh, the role played by the civil society in the country’s freedom is less known. The article titled “Genocide” by Anthony Mascarenhas in The Sunday Times did singe-handedly bring the question of genocide into focus, but we still need to examine at length how public diplomacy created an impact in the minds of millions and led to many favouring the Bangladeshi cause.
Use of public diplomacy during Bangladesh crisis
Public diplomacy and conventional diplomatic activity ran parallel to each other during the Cold War, and it was used by both the Russians and the Americans to further their vested interests. The East Pakistan crisis was a small part of this larger global war for supremacy.
Public diplomacy was also used by Indira Gandhi to garner international support during the Bangladesh crisis. Indians were keen to highlight the plight of the refugees and ensure that they returned home safely. Until July 1971, 7.23 million people had taken shelter in India. By December 1971, an additional 2.67 million people entered Indian territory as refugees. It was known to the government of India that 82.3 per cent of the refugees were Hindus. New Delhi was worried about not just the refugee population that was entering the country but also about the prospect of their melting into the population of eastern India and providing cannon fodder for the Maoists.
Indira Gandhi decided to take a bold stand. On seeing the physical condition of the refugees and hearing their woes, she became determined to find a political solution.
On her arrival at Raj Bhavan in Calcutta (now Kolkata) she declared firmly: “The world must know what is happening here and must do something about it. In any case, we cannot allow Pakistan to continue its holocaust, and thus convert its own problem into ours… Conditions must be created in their country for them to go back in safety and with dignity.”
Indira Gandhi was able to muster the courage and help the refugees. Her visits to the Soviet Union and the United States are prime examples of her conviction to work for the benefit of the refugees. The Soviets eventually took a more sympathetic stand favouring India and signed the 1971 Peace and Friendship Treaty. The Americans took a contrarian view and Henry Kissinger “tilted” towards Pakistan in 1971 and consciously supported them. Pakistan received US support also because the US wanted to use Pakistan to establish relations with the Chinese.
The nascent Bangladeshi state was not far behind. Fazreen Huda argues that Bangladesh used public diplomacy to influence world opinion in her favour to get more support. Public diplomacy was also effectively used by the East Pakistanis who were students in different universities abroad. Nobel Laureate and Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus was one of them. He writes in his memoirs that he garnered support for the Bangladesh cause through an interview with a local TV channel in Tennessee in the US. He also talks about the role played by Enayat Karim, the second-highest ranking diplomat in the embassy of Pakistan in the US who was instrumental in bringing the Bengalis together on the same platform by organising demonstrations against the Pakistani establishments.
In this regard, it is necessary to remember that several Bengali diplomats faced tough challenges. Connections to family, heritage and geography made it exceptionally difficult for them to remain with Pakistan. Muhammad Yunus talks about the crucial role played by the Indian embassy as a facilitator and ally in Bangladesh’s struggle for independence.
Muhammad Yunus wrote at length about the Indian Embassy in the United States role in the Bangladesh struggle. He said, “In the Indian embassy, we were treated like highly placed diplomats. They wanted to know about Bengali diplomats in the Pakistan embassy, about the whereabouts of our leaders, whether we had established any contact with them, whether we had a U.S. based organisation. We wanted them to open their border to refugees, to provide free access to Calcutta for expatriate Bangladeshis to be able to visit the city any time they wanted; and a total relaxation of the rules surrounding Indian visas for Bengalis with Pakistani passports.” (p.55)
Throughout this period, public diplomacy was used to raise the Bangladesh issue on the global stage through different means. The ‘Concert for Bangladesh’ was an event organised by George Harrison and Ravi Shankar that made the outside world aware of the Bangladeshis overnight. Films like ‘Jebon Theke Neya’ were instrumental in igniting the flames of patriotism in countless people.
Public diplomacy translated into action
Great Britain, East and West Germany, France, Russia, and Poland were sympathetic to the Bangladesh cause while Spain and Egypt continued to dilly-dally and never came out in total support. Indira Gandhi toured the various capitals of the world to mobilise support. Her efforts yielded positive results as countries agreed to remain neutral during the crisis. Her statesmanship and strategic insight paved the way for the resolution of the conflict. India led the struggle from the forefront and even provided material aid and training to the Bangladeshi Mukti Bahini.
The ‘rise of transnational humanitarianism in the 1970s’ led to many changes in the thought process of individuals who now felt connected to the cause. The explosion of radio and television made a significant difference because individuals now could learn about events across the world with unprecedented speed and accuracy.
The international efforts to mobilise support for the cause received a major bonus when Action Bangladesh was created by young, international and active Britons. This organisation wanted to provide relief to the victims of the war. Similarly, Oxfam, which was the first European NGO to aid humanitarian causes, provided relief and aid during the crisis in Bangladesh.
The Time magazine covered the crisis sensitively with a cover story titled ‘The Bloody Birth of Bangladesh’, which showed a young boy holding a rifle with an intent ‘to do something for his motherland or die’. Images showcasing malnourished children with no food available made people sit up and take note. They were left with feelings of shame and empathy as more people felt concerned about the women and children affected during the crisis.
The women were subjected to brutal rape and exploitation on a regular basis. Bangladesh used diplomatic channels to have the babies born out of war crimes adopted. Then-Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman repeatedly referred to these birangona (valiant) women as his “daughters”, and asked the nation to welcome them back into their communities and families. However, he also declared that “none of the babies who carry the blood of the Pakistanis will be allowed to remain in Bangladesh”.
Nilima Ibrahim, a social worker and feminist author, recalls her meeting with Sheikh Mujibur, in her book titled Ami Birangona Bolchi. When questioned about the status of the war babies, the prime minister said, “Please send away the children who do not have their father’s identity. They should be raised as human beings with honour. Besides, I do not want to keep those polluted blood in this country.” Different governments of the world helped in this process after people learnt about the war crimes. One notable example is Bonnie Cappuccino who adopted several babies. Diplomatic channels were used in 1971 to send these babies to their new homes.
The Bangladesh conflict has left an indelible impression on the hearts and minds of thousands of survivors who are constantly reminded of the trauma that they underwent during the course of the war. The atrocities committed by the Pakistanis have led to thousands of survivors calling for a trial of those responsible for the violence.
Initiatives carried out by the Indian government were primarily for the benefit of the victims, who were tortured and suffered greatly at the hands of ruthless barbarians. A cursory look at the literature on the subject serves as an eye-opener.
Faiz Ahmed Faiz wrote in 1971 in his poem, “Hum Ke Thehre Ajnabee” :
“Kab nazar mein aayegi baidaagh sabzey ki bahar
Khoon ke dhabbey dhulain gain kinti barsaatoon ke baad”
(When will we see the unsullied green of spring?
After how many monsoons will the stains of blood be washed?)
These words continue to echo in our minds. The poet lamented the loss of a part of his motherland and the atrocities his men committed on helpless people.
Today, the act of bringing an end to the 1971 Bangladesh crisis is remembered as India’s greatest strategic and diplomatic triumph. It occurred during the Cold War but was a harbinger of the world that came in its wake. Diplomatic tactics of negotiation were used by all parties to the conflict but it was public diplomacy that enabled individuals to look at the conflict in a more humane way.
Anuttama Banerji is a Research Associate with the Council for Strategic and Defense Research, New Delhi. She did her Masters in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)