The year 1971 was marked with several ‘big victories’ – in politics, cricket and in war – all of which had long term implications for India. The national mood was buoyant, even if the country continued to struggle with endemic problems.
Fifty years later, we look back at those times and evoke some of that mood. In a series of articles, leading writers recall and analyse key events and processes that left their mark on a young, struggling but hopeful nation.
In June 2015, Bangladesh conferred the prestigious ‘Liberation War Honour’ on Atal Bihari Vajpayee. As the Bharatiya Janata Party veteran, then 90 years old, could not attend the event, the award was received on his behalf by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The citation hailed Vajpayee as a “highly respected political leader” and acknowledged his “active role” in support of the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971.
Vajpayee was the president of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) at that time, and the citation mentioned that as president of BJS and a member of the Lok Sabha, Vajpayee took various steps towards the freedom of Bangladesh. According to the Organiser, “Vajpayee had welcomed Bangabandu Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s historic declaration of independence and called upon the government of India to recognise the government of Bangladesh and provide necessary assistance to the freedom fighters.”
Interestingly, the president of Bangladesh Abdul Hamid in 2015 spoke about how despite being in the opposition, Vajpayee had the political pragmatism to lend his strong support to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi for the cause of Bangladesh.
It is no secret that BJS, founded on October 21, 1951, was one of the strongest votaries of the liberation of what was then East Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh. The BJS had a compelling reason to support the creation of Bangladesh.
An altered political landscape
The split in the Congress in 1969 had posed a serious leadership challenge to Indira Gandhi. The BJS was poised to occupy the space vacated by the right of centre parties like the Swatantra Party and the local leadership of individuals under the ‘Syndicate Congress’ umbrella. The BJS emerged as a worthy challenger to Indira Gandhi’s leadership, (even after the failed attempt by the Jan Sangh to smear her victory through the ‘invisible ink’ allegation).
Vajpayee had by then emerged as the undisputed leader of the BJS and even of the combined opposition to some extent. The RSS resolution, and the direction that it provided through the mobilisation of public opinion on the atrocities by the Pakistan army, gave the much-needed platform for the Jana Sangh to spread its wings.
The massive ‘Recognise Bangladesh’ marches and allied activities supporting the government in handling the situation arising out of refugees pouring into border states actually provided support to Indira Gandhi who was probably determined to do what was part of the RSS agenda to break the back of Pakistan.
Meanwhile, as the Indian political landscape was changing, the RSS too had to traverse a chequered path. In 1947, Partition had imposed a heavy work burden on its cadre, especially in the north, where the RSS was organisationally strong and wielded enormous influence in undivided Punjab and Sindh. Even as its acceptance and popularity grew phenomenally, the developments after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination when the RSS was banned for being guilty, came as a huge setback to the RSS cadre and its immediate activities.
Under the able and strategic leadership of the then Sarsanghachalak Golwalkar ‘Guruji’, the RSS gradually regained lost ground through increased activities and support to the government in the 1962 Chinese aggression, the 1965 misadventure by Pakistan and then the 1971 Bangladesh liberation movement.
The RSS resolution of July 1971 called upon the government to assure the safety and security of the Hindus of (East) Pakistan. Soon it was evident that the target of the Pakistan army was not just Hindus but rather the Bengali intelligentsia that formed the backbone of the resistance and liberation movement.
When Pakistan mounted an attack on India on December 3, 1971, RSS declared, “Our government and the army is capable of meeting the challenge.”
The extent of the ‘close’ relationship between the once-shunned RSS and Jana Sangh’s bête noir Indira Gandhi, especially on the issue of annulling Partition, albeit partially, could be gauged from the letter that the then Sarsanghachalak ‘Guruji’ Golwalkar wrote to Indira Gandhi after the 1971 victory.
The letter reads, “In the creation of the strength of national unity infused with national pride, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is and will always be with you. I have confidence that as the representative of the country you will take all these factors into consideration while determining our domestic and foreign policies. May the prestige of Bharat grow like this under your leadership.”
1971 war and the RSS
The British plan to create a large geography in the eastern part of India consisting of Assam and Bengal as an ‘independent country’, not joining either the Dominion of India or Dominion of Pakistan was mooted by Lord Mountbatten on April 26, 1947, during his discussions with Suhrawardy and later with Jinnah.
Mohammad Ali Jinnah reportedly told Mountbatten, “…what is the use of (divided) Bengal (as East Pakistan) without Calcutta? They had much better remain united and independent; I am sure they would be on friendly terms with us.”
But Hindu leaders including Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, K.C. Neogy and Binoy Kumar Roy strongly opposed the idea of an “independent country of Bengal”. “Hindus will not be safe in a ‘united but independent Bengal’” appeared to be the general consensus, as riots broke out and the communal situation turned volatile. Both Sardar Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru assured these leaders that they were both against “a sovereign Bengal unconnected with the Union”.
Amidst the post-Partition riots and growing anti-Partition sentiments, Nehru visited Kolkata, then Calcutta, to assuage frayed tempers. Hindu Mahasabha leader Ashutosh Lahiri met him along with a team of leading citizens to impress upon him to ‘wage a war’ on East Pakistan to protect the Hindus. Nehru rejected the suggestion, and for dismissing the idea of a war to protect the Hindus, he was ridiculed for his ‘misconceived Gandhian pacifism and perverted democratic secularism’.
A Gallup Poll was held in Calcutta in March 1950 showing that 87% of the respondents favoured military action on East Pakistan. Nehru was heartbroken and returned to Delhi and offered to resign. But, in the meanwhile, Liaquat Ali Khan agreed to come to Delhi and ‘do something about the protection of minorities’ on both sides of the divide (see The Partition in Retrospect by Amrik Singh).
The Nehru-Liaquat pact was strongly opposed in Calcutta as it was seen as an instrument to encourage migration of Hindus from the then East Bengal. No one believed that Hindus would be able to go back to their original homes in what was then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh.
In such a tumultuous political atmosphere, return to normalcy and protecting the interests of Bengal were top priorities for Mukherjee. He was already elected to the Constituent Assembly by the West Bengal Legislature and was the industries minister in Nehru’s Cabinet but resigned on April 15, 1950 in protest against the terms of agreement with Pakistan, popularly known as the Nehru-Liaquat Pact.
Though Mukherjee was the president of the Hindu Mahasabha (1943-1946) and the Mahabodhi Society at the same time, he was determined to keep religion out of politics but give priority to Hindus and Buddhists, especially those who were victims of Partition.
At one stage he even discussed the idea of converting the Hindu Mahasabha into a political party and also open its door to non-Hindus as well. Those from the Savarkar school of thought were not very favourable to this idea. In fact, Savarkar was strongly of the view that Hindu Mahasabha with non-Hindu members (meaning Muslims) would be akin to being the B-team of the Congress.
In fact, Mukherjee’s political thinking was independent of the thought process of the Hindu Mahasabha, of which he was the president, or that of the Congress, of which he was a member. He was unhappy over Nehru’s handling of the Pakistan issue and what he felt was the first cabinet’s callous attitude towards the Hindu minority in Pakistan, especially in the then East Pakistan.
He discussed the idea of floating a political party with some of his colleagues in Hindu Mahasabha, but was firm on his views of a “non-Hindu” party, very much as a parallel to the Congress and not a political party “exclusively for Hindus”.
His original idea was to convert Hindu Mahasabha into a broad-based political party that would include non-Hindus as well, as members and desist from appeasement of Muslims under the garb of protecting the religious minorities. An independent India with a democratic constitution that adopted adult franchise and rejected the idea of a separate electorate has no place for a Hindu party or Minority Commission, he felt. But his own organisation rejected his appeals and as a result, he quit Hindu Mahasabha in 1948.
While Mukherjee could not agree with the Hindu Mahasabha on some issues, B.R. Ambedkar and even the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) had serious differences of opinion on some of Savarkar’s ideas.
Meanwhile, post-Mahatma Gandhi assassination, the need for a political platform was hotly debated within the RSS. Finally, after the death of Sardar Patel in 1950 and the perception that Congress may not any more enjoy the confidence of Hindus post-Partition, West Bengal became the epicentre of a new political party, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh. The Partition of Bengal was still a live issue and the Jana Sangh was avowedly committed to the annulment of the tragic Partition, at least in the eastern part of India.
The 1971 war and the announcement of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, therefore, came as a god-sent opportunity for the Jana Sangh to inch towards its objectives of Akhand Bharat, as Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya had envisaged in his booklet Akhand Bharat Kyon where he wrote “undivided India is not just a political slogan, it is the fundamental ethos of our life”.
The dream that the founders of Jana Sangh and the RSS saw in 1951 was realised 20 years later in 1971. Ironically, in the same year, in the thick of the conflict, the US had threatened to move its Seventh Fleet closer to theatre of war and block the Indian Navy from assisting the ground forces and Mukti Bahini in East Pakistan.
The US even tried to rope in China to open a third front against New Delhi. China strategically refused fearing the entry of the Soviet Union. But, as history is witness, 20 years later in 1991, there was no Soviet Union, and China had all of Bangladesh and Pakistan to itself, enjoying a free entry to the Indian Ocean.
Fifty years after 1971, the eastern front is quiet, the Jana Sangh is no longer in existence, the architect of the ‘Liberation war’ Indira Gandhi had passed away, the Soviet Union is gone, China’s ‘not-so-peaceful’ rise is challenging the supremacy of the US and the dynamics of geopolitics call for a newer and bolder strategy.
Narendra Modi’s foreign policy, akin to that of Indira Gandhi’s, seems to be an ideal mix of soft and hard power diplomacy, strategic outreach, not negotiating out of fear but not afraid to negotiate, making optimum use of the changing dynamics of geopolitics and above all a forceful show of political will power. The RSS would be more than willing to play its part. If 1971 repeats in 2021, well, it may not be ‘all quiet on the Western front’ for long.
Seshadri Chari, a former editor of Organiser, is a political commentator and strategic analyst. He is the Chairman, China Study Centre, MAHE, Manipal.