Besides providing support and refuge to the people of East Pakistan, Indira Gandhi travelled across the world to mobilise support for the Bangladesh Liberation War.

The political and personal role of the former Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, in the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 is inseparable from the country's history. Despite the many ups and downs in Bangladesh politics, Indira Gandhi, who extended unequivocal support to the people of former East Pakistan, has been cherished by its people. But her role was never officially recognised.

With the country celebrating its 40th independence anniversary this year, the Sheikh Hasina government decided to confer the Bangladesh Swadhinata Sammanona on Indira Gandhi posthumously for her “outstanding contribution” to the country's independence from Pakistan. She will, in fact, be the first foreigner to be given the highest state honour. The decision came at a crucial Cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

The honour will be ceremonially handed over to the Indian National Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, also the daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi, by President Zillur Rahman at Bangabhaban on July 25. Ms Gandhi is scheduled to be in Dhaka to attend a conference on autism.

Under Indira Gandhi's able leadership, India provided shelter, food and medicines to about 10 million people who fled their homes to the neighbouring West Bengal, Tripura, Meghalaya and Assam, to escape the marauding Pakistani army and its hoodlums. Despite an adverse international atmosphere — the United States supported Pakistan — India extended full support to the Bangladeshi freedom fighters — providing them arms and training facilities. And, finally, it sent its troops to fight against the Pakistani forces under a Joint Command with Bangladesh — at the fag end of a nine month-long war that put Bangladesh on the world map.

The 1971 war was the culmination of a long-drawn struggle by the people of East Pakistan who were secular despite being religious. The anti-Pakistan sentiment surfaced soon after Partition in 1947.

The Bengali nationalistic resurgence in East Pakistan, formerly East Bengal, began a year after the new country was established with two wings separated by over 1000 miles of foreign territory. Pakistan's founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, declared in Dhaka that ‘Urdu and only Urdu' should be the state language. He was perhaps unaware of the reaction of the country's eastern wing, where a language-based nationality was brewing even as the colonial masters and politicians were striking a deal to divide the sub-continent along communal lines. The situation took a decisive turn when police opened fire at students on February 21, 1952, killing six Dhaka University protesters. About half-a-century later, Ekushe February — February 21 — was proclaimed the International Mother Language Day by the United Nations.

With the Bengali resentment over economic, cultural and political issues growing, Pakistan remained united by a thin bonding of statehood with religion and military dominating the statecraft for 24 years.

In 1970, in the first-ever general election held in Pakistan, people overwhelmingly voted for the Awami League and its leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who has become the symbol of freedom for the Bengalis. The military and a section of the ‘West Pakistani' political leaders under Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto were alarmed by Mujib's stunning poll victory and, in collaboration with the army bosses, decided to crush the Bengali resurgence.

It was again a judgment of error. As the regular Pakistani army launched a brutal crackdown in Dhaka, particularly on students, the Bengali police and paramilitary forces on March 25, 1971, without handing over power to Mujibur Rahman, the leader of the majority party, an unprecedented outburst of popular resistance shook Pakistan's integrity. It finally led to a full-scale war, in which India's support was crucial.

On March 26, 1971, before being arrested by the Pakistan military, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, declared independence of East Pakistan and asked his people to continue the fight ‘till the last Pakistani army' was driven away from Bangladesh.

President Yahya Khan and his military commanders committed atrocities on unarmed civilians, killing them in thousands. Bengali women were raped indiscriminately and their houses set on fire to crush the rebellion, which was termed an “Indian-inspired” conspiracy. The unprecedented atrocities led to a mass exodus to India, where an estimated 10 million people took refuge for nine months.

India, under Indira Gandhi, opened its eastern borders allowing streams of refugees to take shelter. When the elected representatives of people formed a government in exile, with imprisoned Mujib becoming the President and Tajuddin Ahmed Prime Minister, India helped settle the provisional government and finally got involved in the war — first indirectly but later directly, when Pakistan opened another front in India's western region.

Supported by the then Socialist bloc, led by the Soviet Union, Indira Gandhi, despite being the lone voice against the mighty U.S., travelled across the world to mobilise support for the beleaguered people of Bangladesh.

Pakistani troops, aided by their local Islamist collaborators, killed an estimated three million people, raped over 300,000 women, destroyed innumerable homes, and forced millions more to leave their homesteads during the bloody nine-month war, in which the Bengali freedom fighters displayed unparalleled bravery in the war against Pakistan's regular army.

The Sheikh Hasina government has also decided to confer two other state honours — Bangladesh Muktijuddho Sammanona and Muktijuddho Moitree Sammanona — to 47 people and five organisations for their commendable contribution to the country's independence.

The former Indian Foreign Minister, Sardar Swaran Singh, who played a significant role, will be accorded special honour as well, said a government leader. Officials familiar with the award process said the list had names of distinguished foreigners, including former heads of states and governments and organisations. They would be honoured on December 16, 2011, coinciding with the 40th Victory Day.

The history of Bangladesh's Independence has seen calculative distortions by those who have been mostly in power in the last 40 years. Therefore, India's role in the war was deliberately distorted and Indira Gandhi made the main villain. It is praiseworthy that Sheikh Hasina, daughter of Bangladesh's slain founding father, took up the challenge of setting the history straight.

While the Bengali freedom fighters played a major role in the war, the contribution of Indian people, government and armed forces is equally an unforgettable fact of history. While the Hasina government has decided to honour the “friends of 1971,” including Indira Gandhi, it is expected that Bangladesh will build a memorial soon in honour of the Indian soldiers who lost their lives fighting shoulder to shoulder with the Bangladesh freedom fighters.

This, as I see it, is not a mere recognition but a step to let posterity remember those great foreign friends who helped us when we were in distress.

(The writer, a Bangladesh liberation war veteran, is a senior journalist and writer. He can be reached at: hh1971@gmail.com)

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