The emergence of independent Bangladesh in 1971 was the most significant geopolitical event in the subcontinent since the partition of India. At the time, it was hailed in India as the decisive repudiation of the idea that religion could be the basis of national identity. Fifty years on, this idea is well and alive in the region — above all, in India. Irony, as Reinhold Niebuhr suggested, is perhaps the key to understanding history. Nevertheless, it is important to recall the extent to which an inclusive, progressive nationalism shaped India’s handling of the 1971 crisis.
This book casts into sharp relief this crucial dimension. It brings together the despatches written for All India Radio by the distinguished broadcaster and commentator, U.L. Baruah. As director of the External Services Division, he was responsible for conveying India’s perception of those extraordinary events to audiences outside India — especially in Pakistan. The despatches were broadcast on All India Radio’s services in Urdu, Punjabi, Sindhi, Pushto and Bengali. They provide a fascinating peek into the battle of narratives that unfolded alongside the battles on the ground.
Piercing through censorship
Broadcast from mid-June 1971, Baruah’s despatches sought to pierce the crust of censorship and disinformation laid by the Pakistani military regime. A recurrent theme in these broadcasts was undermining the regime’s claim that the crisis had been stoked by India.
On the contrary, “It almost started with the creation of Pakistan. It was apparent to most sensible Pakistanis that religion could not hold the two disparate wings of a country separated by over a thousand miles of foreign territory, unless a reasonable kind of relationship based on mutual trust was established.” India had “never accepted the two-nation theory... but it never questioned the existence of Pakistan.”
The broadcasts also sought to confute the military regime’s claim that the Bangladeshi fighters were Indian personnel or agents. “The truth of the matter is that there is a war of liberation going on in East Bengal.... Sooner the Pakistani authorities realise this, better it would be for them. Otherwise, the very existence of West Pakistan might be in danger for there are similar movements for autonomy among the Pakhtoons, Baluchis and Sindhis.”
The banning of the National Awami Party was given much prominence — as was the Afghan government’s protests on behalf of the Pashtuns.
No communal spin
Baruah was acutely aware of the problem of credibility in these narratives. His preferred method was to quote extensively from reports in British and American newspapers as well as to amplify dissenting voices in Pakistan. Antony Mascerenhas’ famous report in the Sunday Times on the genocidal tactics of the Pakistan army was not only presented in detail, but emphasised as a report by a Pakistani journalist.
Foreign correspondents were also quoted as stating that “the majority of the refugees now fleeing the country” were Hindus — a point that the Indian government refrained from broadcasting to its domestic audiences, owing to concerns that it might trigger communal violence. Indeed, Indira Gandhi privately requested A.B. Vajpayee of the Jana Sangh not to give a communal spin to the tragedy.
Baruah continued to write these despatches after the war. In his account of the Simla agreement of 1972 — the last of the series — Baruah noted that “the Simla Agreement is only a beginning... a farsighted step forward on the part of both India and Pakistan.... It should be looked upon as a framework by which both countries could work for a durable peace to live in cooperation.” He was emphatic that “the old concept of nationhood for the Muslims of the Indo-Pak subcontinent is long dead”. An inclusive nationalism was the only way forward for Pakistan and the only basis on which peace and good neighbourly relations could be established — a piece of strategic wisdom worth emphasising today.
A Bangladesh War Commentary: 1971 Radio Dispatches ; U.L. Baruah, Pan Macmillan, ₹1,650.
The reviewer is Professor of International Relations and History at Ashoka University.