India's eastern neighbour had a difficult birth but there were many who gallantly played midwife, including Indira Gandhi and the Indian Army. They deservedly took the top honours in recent ceremonies in Dhaka.
For many foreigners, it was a trip back to 1971 — the year that saw Bangladesh win freedom, defeating the marauding Pakistan army and its local Islamist cohorts who perpetrated the worst genocide and mass rape in history. And for those who saw the war first-hand or were participants in it, like the writer of this piece, the memorable ceremony on March 27 in Dhaka — when the Sheikh Hasina government honoured the second and the largest batch of its “friends of 1971” — was a vindication of the truth they knew would emerge someday.
There were 561 foreign friends on the list and the government decided to honour them in three main categories in different phases, starting July 2011. The highest national award, the “Bangladesh Freedom honour” was awarded to Indira Gandhi for her stellar role in the country's liberation. Indira's daughter-in-law and president of the Indian National Congress, Sonia Gandhi, received the honour at a ceremony in Dhaka.
India in the limelight
The March 27 ceremony which marked the second phase, saw awards conferred on a total of 83 individuals, institutions and organisations in two categories — the “Bangladesh Liberation War Honour” and the “Friends of Liberation War Honour.” The maximum number of individual awardees, 31, were from India followed by 15 from the United States, seven from the former Soviet Union, five from the United Kingdom, three from Japan, two from Germany and one each from Nepal, Bhutan, the former Yugoslavia, Italy, Sweden, Ireland and Denmark. More than 20 individuals — former politicians, journalists, diplomats, former military officers, singers, artists, professors and social activists — were in Dhaka personally, while spouses, children, grandchildren, relatives and other representatives received the awards for recipients who had passed away or were unable to travel to Dhaka .
India also topped the charts in group honours, bagging awards for the “people of India,” the armed forces of India, Akashbani (All India Radio) and the Kolkata Biswabiddalay Shahayak Samiti.
Forty-one years ago, on March 25, the Pakistani army, disregarding the mandate of the 1970 general election — the first free election held since the formation of Pakistan — launched a brutal crackdown on unarmed civilians to suppress the Bengali resurgence led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The invaders arrested Mujib, who declared independence on March 26. As the army advanced, an estimated 100 million people took shelter in the bordering Indian States of West Bengal, Tripura, Meghalaya and Assam. With India taking the lead, scores of world personalities came forward to condemn the military atrocities.
For India and Indira Gandhi, it was a tough call, handling the refugees on the one hand and facing the ire of Washington, which openly aligned with Pakistan, on the other. China and Saudi Arabia also supported West Pakistan against Sheikh Mujib. The Indian Armed Forces, called the Mitra Bahini, lost a few thousand soldiers while fighting shoulder to shoulder with the Bengali Mukti Bahini. It was fitting therefore that India's High Commissioner to Bangladesh, Pankaj Saran, and Indian Minister of State for Defence, Pallam Raju, received the honours for the “Indian people” and their army respectively from President Zillur Rahman.
Lt.Gen. (retd) J.F.R. Jacob, who played a crucial role as Chief of Staff of the Indian Army's Eastern Command, remarked during the ceremony: “We fought not only as an Indian army, but were emotionally moved to be beside the people of Bangladesh … It is a great honour.” Noted British journalist Simon Dring, who was a correspondent of the Daily Telegraph and first told the world about the brutalities of the Pakistani army seemed overwhelmed by the recognition. Biman Mullick, an Indian now living in the U.K., designed postage stamps for the Bangladesh government in exile; ex-Labour MPs Michael Barnes and Peter Shore, whose daughter Mimi Miles received the award, made the British people aware of the military brutalities; Japanese photographers Takayoshi Suzuki and Naaoaki Usui (the latter's wife Kuniko Usui received the award) campaigned across Japan and raised funds for the refugees. For Rajmata Bibhu Kumari Devi of Tripura, the honour brought back emotional memories of the time when she and her late husband sheltered around 50,000 Bangladeshi families in the Ujjayanta Palace in the tiny State, where refugees overpopulated the existing population. Another recipient, the late Rawshan Ara Begum Sangma, mother of Meghalaya Chief Minister Mukul Sangma, had offered her land in Ampati hamlet in the hilly state, to accommodate an estimated 30,000 refugees.
French philosopher André Malraux and Seán MacBride of Ireland were honoured for their strong pro-Bangladesh position; defying Henry Kissinger's diktats was U.S. consul in Dhaka, Archer K. Blood, who openly pleaded to suspend U.S. arms aid to Pakistan; the late U.S. physician, Joseph Garst, provided invaluable medical treatment to wounded freedom fighters; Richard K. Taylor and Ms Taylor of the U.S organised historic blockades at the Philadelphia and Baltimore ports to stop ammunition-loaded ships to Pakistan. While Brezhnev, Podgorny and Kosygin (all Soviet leaders) wholeheartedly backed Bangladesh, former Soviet militarymen led by Rear Admiral Sergey Pavlovich Zuenko played a commendable role in sweeping Pakistani mines in the Chittagong port to make it fit for use by the new country. Contributions by Prof. Tsuyoshi Nara and Takashi Hayakawa of Japan were also recognised with due honour.
Issue of war crimes
For Bangladesh, honouring her independence friends was vitally important. But it also has to meet a domestic challenge relating to 1971: the trial of war crimes which were committed against unarmed civilians. Eight key suspects have been arrested since the Hasina government facilitated the trial under a domestic law, but already the regime is under pressure from the two major opposition parties — the Jamaat-e-Islami, which even took up arms to oppose Bangladesh's independence from Pakistan, and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, which has turned a staunch ally of the Islamist outfit.
To an extent the Opposition has succeeded in its mission. Indeed, there are critical sections which question the prosecution's commitment to seeing the trial through. The failure to produce witnesses in some cases has already been noted by the tribunal judges. In the coming days, the world will watch the Hasina government to see if it has what it takes to deliver justice to its citizens, and as importantly, guard Bangladesh from Islamic zealots determined to impose their writ on the country.