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In 1972, when I lived in Allahabad (now, Prayagraj), we would often find spectators outside the military cantonment at Rasulabad. They would come there daily to see Pakistani prisoners of war (PoWs) in high-security barracks. The PoWs, in civilian clothes, would play basketball under the watchful eye of the soldiers guarding them. Some spectators would abuse the PoWs or try to throw things at them. The soldiers had to deal sternly with such people and ensure the protection of the PoWs. The Indian Army had been doing this since 16 December 1971, when the Pakistani Army in East Pakistan (now, Bangladesh) surrendered. In total, 93,000 soldiers surrendered in the first and last example of such an exercise in the post-World Warmilitary history.

In his book, The Pakistan Garrison State: Origins, Evolution and Consequences, Swedish professor of Pakistani origin Ishtiaq Ahmed says that despite the surrender of so many soldiers, all the Pakistani Army’s arms were not confiscated. Why?

The reason was that Pakistani soldiers had been engaged in vile atrocities against their own people for months. Women were molested, children were tortured. India’s lieutenant-general Jagjit Singh Arora feared that public anger in the newly formed country would be directed against unarmed Pakistani soldiers. The PoWs were brought to different parts of India. And this was despite the fact that 2,307 Indian soldiers were killed in this battle and 6,163 had suffered mild to severe injuries. The Indian Army showed exemplary professionalism in protecting these PoWs.

This year, we are observing the 50th anniversary of that war. It is necessary to understand why Pakistan was partitioned in 1971. The seeds of this break-up were actually sown in 1947.

In the first cabinet formed by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, only one Muslim minister, Fazlur Rehman, was included from the eastern part of the country. Jogendra Nath Mandal, from the same region, also became part of the cabinet, though he was a Dalit. Mandal later left Pakistan under tragic circumstances and died in anonymity in what is now Kolkata.

Rehman was not a political heavyweight. He was not in the league of stalwarts such as H.S. Suhrawardy or Fazlul Haque. This was the reason behind the perception among Bengali Muslims that they were being discriminated against from the beginning.

Moreover, government employees, politicians, businessmen and students from the east who migrated to the west faced discrimination. Pakistani journalist Hassan Nisar has written about a number of students from the East Pakistan quota who were his college mates. They were different in their ways of life, language and culture. The students from the Punjab area, which dominates West Pakistan, were far less sophisticated than the soft-spoken Bengali students. Students from East Pakistan often returned home without completing their education. All this fomented a sense of hostility in the east towards the west.

In the 1970 general election, the Awami League led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman got a majority. Initially, the then president, Gen Yahya Khan, addressed Rahman as his Wazir-e-Azam. In response, Mujib accepted him as his president. But, the leaders of some political parties in West Pakistan, including Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto of the Pakistan People’s Party, started playing dirty politics. Rahman was deprived of his right to become the prime minister and from this began the struggle for a separate nation.

In New Delhi, Indira Gandhi was at the helm. She handled the issue in a timely and appropriate manner. She had no option since she was faced with a continuous influx of refugees from East Pakistan. This was creating various problems for India. On the one hand, she created diplomatic obstacles for Pakistan, and on the other, India’s defence establishment provided weapons and training to the Mukti Bahini formed by the people of Bangladesh.

The Mukti Bahini fighters would return and engage in guerrilla warfare against the Pakistani Army; every day, their exploits were broadcast around the world. This is why, when the Indian Army entered East Pakistan, people were eager to welcome it.

India won an unprecedented victory in the war, but did we achieve our objectives after that? The rise of Bangladesh was necessary, but it was not enough to blunt the edge of Pakistan’s bitter hostility and resentment. Indira Gandhi won a stupendous victory, but the objective of a peaceful subcontinent eluded her. What were the reasons for this? This can be discussed later. For now, let us pay tribute to our brave soldiers on the 50th anniversary of that historic victory. A grateful nation salutes them.

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan. The views expressed are personal.

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