Bengalis picked up the gun to fight for freedom in 1971? Why didn’t Indian leaders do the same 50 years earlier?
The case for using violence in 1971 is self-evident. The cruel negligence of the cyclone victims in the cold winter of 1970 revealed the true face of Pakistani indifference, indeed contempt, towards Bengalis. When their civil-military leaders prevaricated over the stunning election results in December, there were three paths open: Acquiesence and collaboration, a peaceful People-Power movement, and an armed struggle for freedom. Option three was chosen, as it had to be.
1971 righted the wrongs of 1947, which were themselves a consequence of missed opportunities in 1922 and 1930. The Non-Cooperation Movement of 1920-22 and the Salt Marches in 1930 had been orchestrated by MK Gandhi. These historic challenges against the British Raj mobilized millions, gathering massive momentum. On both occasions, just as London began to panic, Gandhi backed down. Inexplicably, he called off the movements. The decisions made little strategic sense. It gave the colonialists a get-out-of-jail card. Evidently, Gandhi wasn’t planning liberation “by any means necessary.”
The Irish model
Ireland was under brutal English rule too. In 1916, Irish republicans launched the armed Easter Rising. Defeated, they began a guerilla campaign in 1919 and won independence for most of the island in 1922. Dublin is less than 500km from London. Delhi is almost 7,000km away. The British army and navy were literally next door to Ireland.
So why did the Irish rise up in armed revolt while the much more numerous Indians did not? Why did the Irish not rely solely on peaceful protests like the Congress and Gandhi? Turn that around. Why did the Indian freedom movement not take up weapons and wrest liberation like the Irish did (and Bengalis in 1971)?
Nehru v Bose
Viceroy Linlithgow once asked Nehru when he thought India would gain independence. Nehru replied: 1972. How wrong he was. Or, how right he was (unintentionally). Bangladesh’s first leader returned home to take power in 1972. Had it not been for another Bengali leader, then Nehru might well have been correct for the sub-continent.
A one-time leader of Congress, the charismatic Subhas Chandra Bose, represented the radical, rebellious wing of the Independence movement, and was bitterly opposed by the Gandhi-Nehru duopoly.
During World War Two, Subhas Chandra Bose raised an army from Indian POWs and accompanied the Japanese army up through Burma towards Assam and Bengal. The slogans were Cholo Delhi and Jai Hind. The British engineered the Bengal famine (and the death of 3 million) by deliberately interfering in grain movements -- a scorched earth policy to deter INA-Japanese forces.
Ultimately, the Indian National Army (INA) was unable to break through. In 1945, Bose subsequently died in a plane crash in Formosa. He apparently intended to start another front for India’s liberation.
When the British authorities soon put three INA officers on show-trial (a Sikh, Muslim, and Hindu), the official Indian Raj army’s soldiers started to rumble, some threatening mutiny. The Raj realized that without the loyalty of the Indian soldiers, they could not hold down India. They feared another 1857 uprising in 1946. Bose’s armed rebellion had shattered the confidence of the British. The game was up, as the saying goes. Nehru and Jinnah’s messy compromise led to Partition, hurriedly brought forward by the Labour Party from 1948. Jai Hind did not materialize as hoped. Joi Bangla did though, a generation later.
Bengal and Bangladesh
In the 1940s, there was talk about a United Bengal, independent and nothing to do with Pakistan. While Hindu leading lights in Calcutta had opposed the division on Bengal in 1905, they had changed their minds by now. MK Gandhi, partly funded by millionaire Birla, hindered the concept on one Bengal. After all, Marwari business interests saw profit in a divided Bengal. The rest was history.
In the winter of 1971, when Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, sent armoured columns over to surround the Pakistani Army in the Bengali delta, some older heads wondered whether they would return to barracks, across the border, as rapidly as they as they had come to help the Bengali Mukti Bahini freedom fighters.
The Indian military would receive deserved, unreserved gratitude. Their relatively prompt exit meant the sovereignty of Bangladesh would not be in doubt.
In 1974, Bangladesh’s paramount leader recognized the political and military significance of Subhas Chandra Bose’s armed struggle. As prime minister, he invited the Japanese liasion officer and close associate of Bose, Fujiwara Iwaichi, as a distinguished state guest. It was a way of “demostrating his admiration of Netaji and the profound achievement of the Indian National Army.”
Deep down, the inspiration for the Bangladeshi freedom struggle in 1971 was never Gujarat’s Gandhi. It was Bengal’s Bose.
Farid Erkizia Bakht is a political analyst. @liquid_borders