I recently met a couple of Bangladesh intellectuals and during our conversation we got discussing the liberation of Bangladesh by Indian and Mukti Bahini forces in 1971. Understandably, they highlighted the role played by the guerrilla tactics of their freedom fighters which restricted the mobility of Pakistani forces and prevented them from switching and redeploying their forces. India acknowledges the valuable role played by the Mukti Bahini and I mentioned my own experience, not of Bangladesh, but of the Western Front where I participated in the Battle of Longewala. One night on 05, December1971, while the guns of my Regiment were supporting the beleaguered Longewala post, three khaki clad figures staggered into the gun position with their hands above their heads, during a lull in the firing. They kept shouting 'Don't shoot, we are Bengali officers'. They were deserters from the Pakistan Army who had fled their unit and found succor with Indian forces. As a precaution we relieved them of their weapons but took good care of them. They were promptly dispatched to higher HQ from where, after debriefing, they were dispatched to the East to fight with the Mukti Bahini.
The Bangladeshi intellectuals were interested in discussing about several books, written by Indian authors, about the liberation of Bangladesh. I told them that I found Lt Gen Jacob’s Book 'An Odyssey in War and Peace' the most authentic. He had brought out that the pressure to prematurely launch operations in ‘East Pakistan’ in the summer of 1971 was stoutly resisted by the Indian Army authorities. Had it not been for this resistance the Government would have steam rolled its decision to go in for an offensive in the summer of 1971, since the pressure of Bengali refugees was a huge burden on the fragile Indian economy. In the summer of 1971 we were inadequately prepared and the Mountain passes on the Tibetan border were open, making it possible for a possible Chinese intervention in support to Pakistan. Lt Gen Jacob, who was then the Chief of Staff of HQ Eastern Command was responsible for the planning and logistic preparations and undeniably played an important role in ensuring that the Army’s point of view was taken seriously by the national leadership. In his book Lt Gen Jacob has maintained that the initial aim of the Indian offensive was 'salami slicing' of Bangladesh, i.e., capturing terrain in the proximity of the border to enable a declaration of independence. Lt Gen Jacob, a proponent of mobile ‘blitzkrieg’ did not subscribe to this school of thought. He deserves credit for the plan which by-passed towns and penetrated deep to capture Dacca, by-passing pockets of Pakistani resistance. Risk was certainly taken in diverting troops and artillery resources from the Indo China border for the offensive. This was certainly violation of the overall plan but then, in battle, the ends justify the means. The intellectuals acknowledged the valuable role played by Lt Gen Jacob and the honours bestowed on him by the Bangladesh Government were richly deserved.
I discussed other matters of Indian concern. I mentioned that I had served many years in the North East and had found a visible change in the ethnic profile of several districts bordering Bangladesh. Illegal immigration from Bangladesh, across a porous border was also sharply increasing the Muslim proportion of West Bengal’s population.
They acknowledged that this was the case as pre-independence, Bengali labour was in great demand in undivided Assam. After Assam was sub-divided and reduced to half its original size, the Bengali labour in the newly created smaller states felt insecure and migrated to what remained of the truncated state of Assam and West Bengal. They cited the example of ‘Pangals’ (derived from ‘Bengal’) who constitute 7% of Manipur’s population and are the progeny of Bengali migrants and local women. This appeared equipped with a pretty convincing argument to counter my stand of illegal Bangladeshis flooding Assam and Bengal.
The intellectuals also seemed to have come prepared to counter any thrusts on ‘Politics of Influx’ and handed me a copy of an article with the same title in the ‘Pioneer’ of 11 November, written by BZ Khasru. They asserted that Bangladesh is facing a reverse migration triggered by its phenomenal growth rate of 8% and greater employment opportunities since 2009, the reverse of India with a falling growth rate and rising unemployment.
The Hindu population, amongst 163 million Bangladeshis, is now 15 %, a rise by 2.5 per cent despite their much lower birth rate than Muslims of their country. There is also a growing percentage of Hindus in important positions of the Government because of their higher literacy rate and also because the educated elite has not moved to the Gulf like their educated Muslim counterparts. The surge in Hindu high officials, noticeable in Bangladesh, has given credence to the alleged ‘Hindu import’ policy of PM Sheikh Hasina. She is accused of appeasing India and also creating a band of loyalist vote bank from the Hindu minority community.
Bangladesh is India’s most friendly neighbour. It has concerns about several bilateral matters, including a fiercely contentious assertion by Delhi that there are millions of Bangladeshis illegally living in India and that they must be pushed back. This issue became contentious during the bilateral talks in Delhi in August 2019 between the Home Ministers of the two countries with the result that even a customary joint communique was not issued after the talks.
India intends to carry out a nationwide citizenship verification process to detect non-citizens and has already identified nearly two million of its long-term residents as stateless. The Bangladeshi intellectuals pointed out that the majority were non- Muslims and that has contributed to the reverse influx into Bangladesh. India’s Foreign Minister Subramaniam Jaishankar has assured that the citizenship verification process is India’s internal matter; it will not affect Bangladesh. The latter, the most densely populated nation on earth and much smaller than the size of India will resist any attempts to push them into Bangladesh. So the mute question is what will happen to the persons declared stateless? Will they remain in detention centres indefinitely? Or is the aim only to disenfranchise them?
The issue of the alleged Bangladeshi influx is disturbing. It can only harm the often-testy relations between the two countries. If the migration issue festers, talks of bilateral trade and overland passage, through Bangladesh to North East India will take a beating. An economic nosedive will destabilise Bangladesh and India will face an added influx of refugees. Keeping the lines of communication open and understanding compulsions of population is essential to successfully managing the bilateral relationship.
The facts and views expressed in the article are those of the writer.