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বাংলা
Dhaka Tribune

Standing together: Viva Bangladesh!

Update : 17 Dec 2021, 10:51 AM

From my perspective, living in India’s smallest state, even in this season of big anniversaries -- 75 years since 1947, and 60 years after the end of Portuguese rule in Goa -- the occasion of 50 years of independence for Bangladesh stands out as a uniquely well-deserved celebration.

That is because, at this point, it is amply clear that the one genuinely significant post-colonial national success story in the subcontinent is being engineered from Dhaka.

For the aspirational Indian, of course, the dominant prism for understanding Bangladesh’s achievements is the economy. Thus, earlier this week in the Indian Express, Udit Mitra outlined those preoccupations, which accompanied the country’s transformation from “a basket case to a case study.”

Mitra notes that “Bangladesh has twice declared Independence -- once as part of Pakistan in 1947 and then again as the current nation in 1971. On both occasions, it was considerably worse off [than the other parties] in economic terms. Yet, it is to its credit that as things stand today -- the past 15 odd years being the key -- an average Bangladeshi’s income is more than that of an average Pakistani or even an average Indian.”

The ingredients of this rise are well known: “Faster annual GDP growth rates, lower overall population, and equally crucially, slower population growth rates -- over the past 15 years, its population growth rate has been lower than India’s (18.7% to India’s 21% from 2005-20) -- have meant that [Bangladesh’s] per capita GDP is now the best among the subcontinental nations.”

But “what has made Bangladesh stand out further are the improvements in social and human development parameters, such as health, sanitation, financial inclusion, and women’s political and economic status. For instance, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report (2021) ranks Bangladesh at 65 among 156 countries, up from its 2006 rank of 91. India ranks at 140, lower than its 2006 rank of 98. Women have played a pivotal role in Bangladesh’s turnaround. The female participation rate in the labour force is close to 40% -- much higher than India’s (at 22.3%).”

There are further important dimensions to this comparison, like malnourishment (India’s numbers are twice as bad as its neighbour), and sanitation (the same disproportion).

But what really matters here is the hope generated across South Asia by what Bangladesh has managed to achieve for the welfare of its citizens. The logic is simple: If you can do it there, maybe all of us can.

When it comes to my own tiny community of Indians from our ancient homeland on the Arabian Sea coastline, there are additional emotional bonds, and some unique shared history between Goans and Bangladesh.

One major chapter was written by Anthony Mascarenhas, the fearless reporter from Karachi, who exposed Pakistan’s brutal suppression in 1971.

As the BBC describes “the article that changed history,” after the Pakistan army launched its campaign of terror in March that year, the generals “decided it would be a good idea to invite some Pakistani reporters to the region to show them how they had successfully dealt with the "freedom fighters," [and] eight journalists, including Mascarenhas, were given a 10-day tour of the province. When they returned home, seven of them duly wrote what they were told to.”

But the Goan did not, confiding to his wife that “if he couldn't write the story of what he'd seen he'd never be able to write another word again.”

At great risk, Mascarenhas pretended to visit an ailing relative in London and walked into the Sunday Times office, where he told veteran editor Harold Evans that “he had been an eyewitness to a huge, systematic killing spree, and had heard army officers describe the killings as a "final solution."”

First, Mascarenhas’s family was evacuated from Pakistan to the UK. Then the story ran on June 13. BBC says, “There is little doubt that Mascarenhas' reportage played its part in ending the war. It helped turn world opinion against Pakistan and encouraged India to play a decisive role.” Indira Gandhi was “shocked so deeply” that she embarked “on a campaign of personal diplomacy in the European capitals and Moscow to prepare the ground for India's armed intervention.”

 When the Indian forces swept into battle later that year, there were many of Mascarenhas’s fellow Goans in the officer corps.

 

The author Valmiki Faleiro -- whose 2010 book, Patriotism in Action surveys Goa’s modern military history -- told me: “The number of Goan officers in action in 1971 is mind-boggling. They were the highest in terms of regional representation, even including the Sikhs.”

 Faleiro recounts that Goan commanders saw action on both western and eastern fronts: Lt General Walter AG Pinto in Punjab, Maj General Eustace D’Souza in the Kashmir valley, Lt General Eric Vaz in Rajasthan, and Maj General Benjamin F Gonsalves closer to Dhaka.

 

Another Indian officer from Goa, Major General Ian Cardozo -- who lost a leg in that campaign, and then became the first war-disabled officer to command a battalion -- dedicated his excellent new 1971: Stories of Grit and Glory from the Indo-Pak War, to “the men and women of the Indian armed forces, the Mukti Bahini, and the peoples of India and Bangladesh, who stood together in this moment of trial, and ultimately savoured victory.” 

 

Cardozo writes very movingly of four fellow amputees who convalesced together at Poona: Major Abu Taher of the Mukti Bahini, Major Kipgen of the Assam Regiment, and Major Raju of the artillery.

 

In his 80s, the sole survivor of that cohort says, “Each of us was dealt with our set of cards, and we played the hands to the best of our individual abilities. Chance, however, intervened in different ways, and took us to our eventual destinations. What is it that we can learn from this story? Maybe it is that each of us should do whatever is right, irrespective of the consequences, and leave the rest to fate or destiny.”

 

Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.

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