Russia-Ukraine crisis | Russian President Vladimir Putin uses Indira Gandhi’s 1971 tactics

Developments bear uncanny similarities with events in Indian subcontinent half a century ago

Updated - February 22, 2022 10:14 pm IST

Published - February 22, 2022 04:40 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Russian President Vladimir Putin signs documents, including a decree recognising two Russian-backed breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent entities.

Russian President Vladimir Putin signs documents, including a decree recognising two Russian-backed breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent entities. | Photo Credit: Reuters

The developments in eastern Ukraine have highlighted the old tactics of military intervention to create new states. In fact, much before President Putin, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had responded to the suffering of people in East Pakistan where the government of General Yahya Khan tried to scuttle genuine democratic demands.

After the creation of the two-winged Pakistan in 1947, the problem in East Pakistan began on February 21, 1952 when several students protesting against imposition of Urdu were shot dead. This escalated over the years into repression and finally into a massacre in 1971 prompting India’s involvement.

Indira Gandhi however was not the only one to try this formula. President Dwight D. Eisenhower announced the Eisenhower Doctrine in 1957 to stop spread of communism in the Arab world which was first invoked for U.S. military intervention to Lebanon next year. President Putin has stretched this tradition to another level by recognising two states — Peoples Republic of Donetsk and Peoples Republic of Luhansk.

In a dramatic move on February 21, President Vladimir Putin signed a decree recognising the two regions. Denis Pushilin ispresident of the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk and Leonid Pesachnik is the leader of the People’s Republic of Luhansk. 

Both Mr. Pesachnik and Mr. Pushilin have been leading the rebel forces since 2014 in challenging the might of the Ukrainian state in the eastern part of the country. They have alleged that Ukrainian troops violated humanitarian laws and actively sought the involvement of Russia to help them liberate from Kyiv’s control.

With the recognition of Luhansk and Donetsk as independent entities, Russia has effectively divided Ukraine and created legal grounds for stationing of “peacekeeping troops” to prevent alleged human rights violation by the Ukrainian forces. 

Uncanny similarities with 1971 events

The developments of February 21 bear uncanny similarities with events in the subcontinent half a century ago. Angry with a fraudulent election, Bengalis in East Pakistan led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman rose in revolt against Urdu-speaking rulers of Pakistan. As the crackdown against the critics and rebels began on March 25, 1971, leaders of the Awami League left Dhaka for India.

Sheikh Mujib was arrested and taken to west Pakistan. From the safety of Indian soil, Tajuddin Ahmad declared the independence of Bangladesh on April 10. He became the first Prime Minister of Bangladesh. As the PM of the government–in–exile, Ahmad requested Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to send India’s military forces to Bangladesh to liberate the country from Pakistan’s control. 

Like the Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine, Indira Gandhi’s spy chief R.N. Kao created a rebel force called Mukti Bahini to carry out guerilla operations against Pakistani control in East Pakistan. Encouraged by Ahmad’s request and other factors, Indira Gandhi carried out an international tour to convince the world about India’s intervention. 

Replace Ahmad with Mr. Pesachnik and Mr. Pushilin with Syed Nurul Islam, another leader of the government–in—exile of Bangladesh of 1971, and there emerges the similarities between the tactics used by Indira Gandhi and Mr. Putin.

Indira Gandhi was forced to intervene as Pakistan carried out a genocidal campaign to crush the rebellion. The Russian argument for intervention is similarly citing Ukrainian actions against the people of Donetsk and Luhansk. The similarity here is limited to the tactics that President Putin has adopted in dealing with the situation and not in the scale of human suffering which was much greater in case of Bangladesh.

Some of the circumstances are however similar.Indira Gandhi faced strong criticism from the U.S. government, which even sent the Seventh Fleet carrying nuclear weapons to intimidate India as a war broke out between India and Pakistan in December 1971, which led to the birth of Bangladesh. 

The war of 1971 had the potential of spiralling into a greater conflict involving the superpowers — the U.S. and the USSR — but that was prevented by India’s quick military victory sealed on December 16, 1971.

The developments in Donetsk and Luhansk too have a similar potential of turning into a greater conflict. Within hours of President Putin granting recognition, the West condemned the Russian action and is now contemplating strong sanctions against Moscow’s rulers. 

In 1971, Indira Gandhi presented India’s military intervention as a necessary move to protect the people of Bangladesh and to help send back the displaced refugees who had taken shelter in India. Mr. Putin has similarly acted and begun to send “peacekeeping troops” to ‘safeguard’ the people of Luhansk and Donetsk.

The only country that supported Indira Gandhi’s audacious 1971 plans wholeheartedly was the Soviet Union, where President Putin began his career working for the intelligence.

Major difference

The big difference, however, is that Indira Gandhi was criticised by the U.S. government for her involvement but she did receive endorsement from the Western masses and cultural community. President Putin, in comparison, has not received that support from the Western mass media. 

Another major difference is in the scale of atrocities in East Pakistan and in Ukraine’s alleged highhandedness in Donetsk and Luhansk. The Pakistani atrocity involved one of the worst post-World War II mass murders and sexual violence targeting political opponents and critics in Bangladesh whereas the scale of such violence is yet to be investigated in eastern Ukraine. Russia claims it has found a mass grave in the region but that is yet to be verified.

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