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Indians, Bangladeshis know the same 1971 events differently. We need a common official history

During the Bangladesh Liberation War, the two countries’ soldiers jointly shed blood. Now, the two governments are poised to fulfil the dreams of war veterans like us.

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Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s four-day visit to India beginning today is not just any trip by a head of government to their neighbouring country. And that’s because India and Bangladesh have a unique relationship.

In 1971, during the Bangladesh Liberation War, the two countries’ soldiers jointly shed blood, in some cases sharing the same enemy artillery shell or a burst of automatic weapons. At times, it was difficult to separate the mutilated/smothered bodies of Indian and Bangladeshi soldiers from each other. The sapling of friendship was planted on 26 March 1971 by ‘Bangabandhu’ Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and irrigated with the blood of both countries’s soldiers until 16 December that year.

A friendship was born 

Fifty-one years ago, the sense of border had disappeared for 75 million Bangladeshis as Indians opened the doors for them. India was a poor country then, but had a heart bigger than the Himalayas. The Indian Army didn’t think Mukti Bhaini (or Bangladesh Forces) belonged to a different country, nor did it consider the 1971 fight to be of another nation. They trained together and the hundred-odd officers became the backbone of the valiant Bangladesh Forces. (I, RP Singh, was part of the team that taught Bangladeshi cadets the art of warfare. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s younger brother, Shaheed Captain Sheikh Kamal, was one of my trainees. Those cadets became India’s lifetime friends.)

By 15 November 1971, the Mukti Bahini had pulverised the Pakistan Army’s defences. Pakistani soldiers wouldn’t venture out of the cantonments because the countryside was completely controlled by Mukti Bahini. On 21 November, the Indian and Bangladeshi (Mujibnagar) governments formed a Joint Command under Lt Gen J.S. Aurora, thus making the two armies “Mitro Bahini.” Mitro Bahini liberated Bangladesh in merely 12 days. It was possible due to the groundwork done by Mukti Bahini and the jointsmanship of both forces.

PM Sheikh Hasina and PM Narendra Modi are poised to fulfil the dreams of Liberation War veterans like us on either side of the Radcliffe Line who fought to develop everlasting relations. A lot has been achieved jointly, particularly since 2014 when Modi assumed the Indian premiership. The Land Boundary Agreement has been implemented, and Bangladesh, according to a former chief of National Security Guard, has immensely helped India control and manage “all the trouble we had in the Northeast”.

The two prime ministers have laid a sound foundation with a seamless transit facility between India and Bangladesh by rail, road, inland water transport, pipelines and electric transmission lines. This was vital for the progress of Bangladesh as well as India’s Northeastern states because their economies are geographically and historically intertwined.

Also read: Bangladesh’s freedom wasn’t all about Indian military. Public diplomacy played a huge role

Still some work to do

Yet there are major and minor irritants. Both leaders should take immediate steps to harness millions of cusecs of water from 54 rivers flowing through Bangladesh into Bay of Bengal, causing havoc by floods in both countries every year. The two countries need to  build mini dams along the foothills of the Himalayas and Mizo Hills. The saved water and electricity generated will meet the requirement of millions of people on both sides of the International Border. Occasional border killings, illegal crossings of IB still remain an obstacle in India-Bangladesh friendly ties. There is a requirement to identify the key areas where both countries can cooperate for ‘Make in India and Bangladesh.’

Biometric identification of all citizens of both countries must be done speedily to eliminate illegal crossing of IB. The Border Security Force (BSF) must maintain its humane face and if any illegal intrusion takes place, they should be tracked with advanced technology—identified, apprehended and deported. The border areas need to be jointly developed fast. Joint mechanism for curbing border crime needs to be honed further. The politicians and media must be cautioned not to use offensive language against each other on thorny issues cropping up occasionally between the two neighbours.

Mukti Bahini’s one lakh cadres were trained in India in seven camps under ‘Op Jackpot’ including Murti Camp in the Jalpaiguri district of West Bengal where First and Second War Course officers, including Shaheed Captain Sheikh Kamal, were cadets. Unfortunately, nobody in India knows about the role played by Murti Camp in the Liberation War whereas it is a household name in Bangladesh. Out of the 61 officers of the First War Course, three were killed in action during the war and Captain Kamal on 15 August 1975. In Bangladesh, several books written in Bangla and English find mentions of this landmark. The latest, The Murti Boys, was released on 3 July 2022, which we attended virtually. A suitable memorial in Murti must be built.

Age is taking its toll on the liberation fighters on either side of the International Border. Almost all of us are in the 70s and 80s. Soon, only memories of Muktijoddhas will be left. Once they are gone, valuable information will be lost forever. Therefore, the correct historical events must be put in black and white and taken to every household of India, Bangladesh and Pakistan through books, TV serials and films. On our part, we have authored numerous books and articles in papers and periodicals of India and Bangladesh. Unfortunately, Indians and Bangladeshis have different stories/versions about the same event/incident from 1971. Both countries should have a common official history.

We are happy that the future of posterity for which we had given our yesterday is bright under the wonderful leaders of both countries. We wish both PMs the best of luck and godspeed for their future ventures.

Brig (Retd) RP Singh, VSM, Indian Army, tweets @rpsingh2008. 

Lt Colonel (Retd) Quazi Sajjad Ali Zahir (Bir Prateek and Padma Shree), Bangladesh Army. 

Views are personal.

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