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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

A Meeting on Christmas Night Dacca, 25 Dec 1962

Prominent TV Anchor & commentator tells us about a little-heard “Meeting on a December night” in Dacca, fifty-five years ago that changed the history of South Asia.

“Mujibur Rahman was now in his elements. He said that the purpose of calling the meeting was to hand over to me a top-secret letter to be forwarded to the Prime Minister of India in a diplomatic bag…I told him that apart from me, more importantly, it would be seen by two other officers in the Indian Diplomatic Mission in Dhaka before it was forwarded to the Prime Minister. Mujib asked who the two officers would be in the High Commission in Dhaka. With some hesitation but only to earn their trust I gave Mujib and Manik Mia the names: Mr Sourja Kumar Choudhury, the Deputy High Commissioner of India who was the Head of Mission in Dhaka and Colonel SC Ghosh, the Station Chief of Indian Intelligence in East Pakistan…” Banerjee, Mr. Sashanka S. India, Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh Liberation & Pakistan (A Political Treatise) Kindle Edition.

Few in Pakistan or for that matter in India, have ever heard the name of Sashanka S. Bannerjee. And they can certainly be forgiven; he was not a Bollywood celebrity, nor a famous politician, nor the kind of intellectual that matters.

His writing is full of self-glorifying pontification, nauseating bigotry, and hatred for Pakistanis, more specifically Punjabi Muslims of Pakistan; he hides his religious and racial prejudices under several confused notions of democracy, secularism, and ambiguous mantras of “shared values” – but he definitely earns a bit of place, a few centimeters maybe, in the intertwined, twisted and painful histories of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Bannerjee deserves these few centimeters, not because his book represents scholarship or great ideas, but because of one strange meeting, he happened to be a part of. It was a cold Christmas night in Dacca, on Dec 25, 1962 – exactly nine years before the fateful surrender of Pakistani garrison in former East Pakistan to Indian forces.

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Meeting with Sheikh Mujib ur Rehman, on that fateful Christmas night, was arranged by Tofazzal Hossain, remembered in Bangladesh’s history as Manik Miah; he was a Bengali journalist and politician, editor of fiery “Ittefaq” in the early 1960’s.

His editorial “Rajnoitik Moncho” or “The political stage” was immensely popular and influential at that time – Manik Mian Avenue of Dacca city was named after him, by a grateful Sheikh Mujib after the creation of Bangladesh.

Sashanka Bannerjee was then a political counselor in Indian consulate of Dacca – and someone known to Manik Miah. Mujib-ur-Rehman was then, in December 1962, not the Bangabandhu, of later years; he was not even the president of Awami League.

And this is two years before his supporting Fatima Jinnah in 1964 elections, three years before the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war, and almost four years before he came up with his famous “Six Points” – but he was an important charismatic Bengali leader, marked for his fiery oratory; someone destined to play a role in South Asian history.

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Bannerjee describes this Mujib, pleading for PM Nehru’s material support to declare the independence of Bangladesh from London at the earliest by 1 February 1963 or latest by 1 March 1963, setting up a Provisional Government of a Sovereign Democratic Republic of Bangladesh in exile in London.

This meeting was followed by series of meetings between Sheikh Mujib, Sourja Kumar Choudhury, the Deputy High Commissioner of India (Head of Mission in Dhaka), Colonel SC Ghosh, the Station Chief of Indian Intelligence in East Pakistan and Bannerjee – all in utmost secrecy.

Mujib’s top-secret letter, addressed by name to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister of India, was forwarded, after some weeks, to Delhi in a triple coded cipher message, delivered to Nehru in his office in South Block on the Raisina Hill.

Nehru, was then, according to Bannerjee, “in a state of personal shock” after Indian humiliation at the hands of Chinese in the Himalayas; hands of Chinese in the Himalayas; yet he saw to it that there was no delay in calling a meeting of his top security advisers including his foreign secretary, his intelligence chiefs and military advisers.

Read more: ‘Let Us Bury the Past, Not the Future’: Pakistan and Bangladesh

In the weeks that followed, Mujib became impatient and in his desperation to reach out to Nehru crossed the border to have series of meetings with Tripura’s Chief Minister, Sachin Singh, in Agartala – what became famous as the “Agartala Conspiracy Case”, since Intelligence Bureau (IB) of then East Pakistan intercepted him on his return journey.

Did Mujib’s Agartala meetings with Sachin Singh crystallized action in Delhi is not clear, but a comprehensive response from Pundit Nehru was waiting for him in Dhaka.

Our narrator, Bannerjee, was initially disappointed by Nehru’s response to Sheikh Mujib. Shrewd Pundit, Gandhi’s able pupil, and Mountbatten’s trained statesman conveyed to an eager Sheikh, that the “international situation was neither propitious nor opportune” for Mujib to declare independence just at that time.

If Mujib wanted India’s support to be “effective and resolute”, India’s thinking was that he would have to wait for the right moment – Indian PM asserted. But, Nehru clarified: New Delhi stood ready to extend “multi-tiered moral, political, and material support” as needed.

However, for the safety and security of the leadership, the strategic partnership must be run within a framework of utmost secrecy with a right of denial as and when required. Indian PM’s team advised that Bangladesh’s road map to freedom should not be rushed.

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It must be properly calibrated to avoid pitfalls; they argued that Mujib’s heading to London to declare an “Independent Bangladesh” at this stage would not serve any purpose. It was assessed, by South block, that international opinion would side with Pakistan – a receptive atmosphere was to be created.

Mujib was thus advised that he would have to spend a few years building his mass base on a countrywide basis, he had to organize Awami league, on the patterns of Gandhi’s door to door fund raising movement against British; Delhi was prepared to help him train how to conduct “campaigns for enhanced mass membership”- especially in the “rural heartland of East Pakistan”; he had to “create congenial conditions for political action”- an atmosphere in which world would take him seriously and India could act decisively.

The outcome of his efforts was: “India, Mujibur Rehman, Bangladesh Liberation & Pakistan”, published by Amazon, online, as a kindle edition in end 2011 – to coincide with Bangladesh’s 40th anniversary.

Fast forward to March 1971; Pundit Nehru’s daughter and then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, on 27 March 1971, two days after the ill fated Operation Search Light, by Pakistani forces, in Dacca, thundered in her parliament: expressing full support of her government for the independence struggle of the people of East Pakistan and argued that instead of taking in millions of refugees, it was economical to go to war against Pakistan.

Read More: Agartala conspiracy and the creation of Bangladesh

On 28 April 1971, the Gandhi cabinet ordered the Chief of the Army Staff General Sam Manekshaw to “Go into East Pakistan”.Bannerjee, our narrator, who enjoys few centimeters in South Asian history, thus becomes important, not because of his research but, because he was a direct witness to those interactions and correspondences that took place between an aspiring Sheikh Mujib and Nehru’s core team from the December of 1962 till the end of 1963.

His place in history was definitely assured when in early 2011 – while living in London – on 40th anniversary of the creation of Bangladesh, he received a phone call for writing a book; his memoirs. On the other end of the line was Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

“She gave me access to her personal archives as she wanted me to write about the liberation of a nation about which little had been written so far,” Bannerjee told, Smitha Verma of Telegraph.

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University students, across the world – from LUMS in Lahore to London School of Economics or Oxford in the UK – are taught that it was only then that Indian Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) started using the Indian refugee camps for recruitment and training of Mukti Bahini guerrillas that were to be trained against Pakistani army.

But most of the official records of the 1971 war, held at Kolkota, had been destroyed immediately after the war by the Indian Army’s Eastern Command.

The destroyed files, according to army sources, included those on the creation of the Mukti Bahini — the Bangladesh freedom fighters — and all appreciation and assessments made by the Indian army during the war period, the orders issued to fighting formations, and other sensitive operational details.

Times of India discovered that only in 2010, when preparations were being made by Indian army itself to welcome the old Mukti Bahni veterans. Army sources discovered that the destruction may have happened when Lt General Jagjit Singh Aurora, the Indian army’s commanding officer on the eastern front, headed the Eastern Command.

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A narrowcast debate, each year on 16th December, focused on the events, of few months leading up to the fall of Dacca, and centered around the personalities of Bhutto, Mujib and Gen. Yahya Khan has prevented to this day a realization that Bengali Muslims – inheritors to a proud history, distinct culture, fiery political consciousness and a unique geographical situation surrounded by India from three sides- could not have been governed from “West Pakistan”.

Those records, if not systematically shredded, would have revealed when exactly the initial training of Mukti Bahni fighters had started; who trained them, who ordered them, who guided them in the theatre of conflict and how much killing had they done.

Politics in Pakistan, Bangladesh and India has prevented a finer understanding of the nature and direction of political change in former East Pakistan – and Delhi’s role in it – that ultimately led to its emergence as an independent state, supported by India.

In Pakistan’s peculiar civil-military divide politicians and liberals used widely exaggerated narratives of “genocide” and “rapes” and “surrender” -often referring to Army as if it’s not an institution but a race – to shift blame to their favorite punching bags: generals.

This disrespect to the disciplines of political science and geography, and inability to learn lessons of history, also fails politicians, civil servants, academics, civil society and media pundits to grasp that Pakistan today needs effective devolution in the form of smaller provinces, (3 million massacre & 3 million rapes) independent city governments like London and meaningful local governments to take its diverse population of 210 million into 21st century. William Drummond, Prof of Journalism at University of California, had also served as Associate Press Secretary to President Jimmy Carter.

Read More: Bangladesh’s independence: a history marked with India’s tirade against Pakistan

A lifelong awarded journalist, he was Los Angeles Times, Bureau Chief in New Delhi, in 1971-72. In his piece, “The Missing Millions” that appeared in June 1972, (also in The Guardian) he described the frustration of Sheikh Mujib’s government when it repeatedly failed to find any evidence to substantiate “genocide” which Sheikh, Indian politicians, and media had been claiming for the past several months.

Office of the Inspector General in Bangladesh’s Home Ministry had started its field enquiries in third week of March 1972; till June only around 2000 people came forward with any credible claims of killings of relatives or near ones at the hands of Pakistani Army. A commission set up by Sheikh Mujib, ended up similarly and realizing that it was only creating embarrassment, it was wound up before the end of 1972.

No wonder that Pakistan army’s discipline broke down at several places and ugly incidents of soldiers killing young men treating them as “Mukti Bahni” happened – to institution’s lasting shame to this day. But the narratives of “genocide” Indian political establishment was as true as the story of “Weapons of Mass Destruction” Bush and Blair weaved to justify their attack on Saddam’s Iraq.

Pakistan and Bangladesh started to overcome the agonies of civil war and separation even in Sheikh Mujib’s time, before his painful end. And in the period 1980-1990’s both states together created and pushed the forum of “SAARC” to balance India’s hegemonic position in the region.

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When Dr. Sharmilla Bose’s authoritative research, “Dead Reckoning” appeared in 2011, many in Bangladesh and India described that as “revisionist history” and “Blood Telegram” came as a sort of rejoinder in 2013– from some one (Gary Bass) who had no direct relation or ability to judge the events of 1971.

On the contrary, Sarmilla Bose, University of Oxford Fellow, grand niece of Bengal’s famous son, Subhas Chnadra Bose, (nick named Neta Ji), President of Congress in 1930’s, had deep roots in the region – and Bengal. Few have realized that “Shahbag movement” was in reality the “quintessential revisionist effort” that purposefully reenacted a narrative that had died, for want of evidence, even in the life of Sheikh Mujib.

But, prime minister, Hasina, backed by an establishment in Delhi, forcefully reconfigured Bangladesh’s politics; by targeting Jammat-e-Islami through witch hunt, sham trials and hangings forty years after the civil war of 1971. The political field was ruthlessly shifted turning Bangladesh effectively into a one-party state.

At the beginning of the 21st century, both Muslim nations– progenies of the vision of the Lahore Declaration of 1940 – await the visions of a new generation of politicians, academics and media to heal the wounds and exorcise demons created by the politics, and strategic goals, of a difficult region.

Sashanka Bannerjee tells us that Pundit Nehru’s team had told Mujib in 1963, that India would be ready to come forward to offer a “wholesome strategic support when a critical mass was achieved”.

He, who was initially disappointed by Pundit’s strategic plan, in 1963, argues, while reflecting back after 40 years, that it “was amazing that the road map laid on the table by India and agreed to by Mujib happened to tick like clockwork. From conceptualization to completion of the mission, both sides worked smartly and with dedication, which helped the liberation struggle take a little over seven short years, beginning in 1963 and ending in 1971, to complete its mission”

Moeed Pirzada is a prominent TV Anchor & commentator; he studied international relations at Columbia Univ, New York and law at the London School of Economics. Twitter: MoeedNj. This well-researched piece has appeared in the December 2017 issue of Magazine “Global Village Space”