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Business News/ Opinion / Views/  The liberation of Bangladesh and the arc of its history since then
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The liberation of Bangladesh and the arc of its history since then

Its development path has been impressive but it must restrain rising fundamentalism and focus on what the country needs

Fifty years ago this week, Indian armed forces marched into Dhaka in what was then known as East PakistanPremium
Fifty years ago this week, Indian armed forces marched into Dhaka in what was then known as East Pakistan

Fifty years ago this week, Indian armed forces marched into Dhaka in what was then known as East Pakistan. Well-armed and more numerous Pakistani troops were demoralized, as they were surrounded by the Indian Army and, importantly, also by the Mukti Bahini, as Bangladesh’s freedom fighters were called.

On 16 December, Pakistani forces surrendered to Indian forces and Bangladesh was liberated. That was back in 1971.

This December, the Pakistani cricket team was in Bangladesh, playing five matches, including two Tests, winning each match. To see Bangladesh in a face-off on the playing field with Pakistan, against which it had fought a blood-soaked war for freedom, was an affirming sign; it is possible to move on from the past.

Bangladeshi leaders have periodically complained that Pakistan hasn’t apologized for its army’s atrocities, although several Pakistani leaders have at different times expressed contrition (the first apology coming as early as in 1974). The Pakistani writer Ahmad Salim has edited a volume, We Owe an Apology to Bangladesh, bringing together liberal Pakistani voices.

This week, Indian and Bangladeshi diplomats have jointly celebrated the 50th anniversary, and Indian leaders have praised Bangladesh’s development record. And it is an impressive one indeed. At independence, a pessimistic Ural Alexis Johnson, then the US undersecretary of state for political affairs, had called the new country “an international basket case", a remark often ascribed to Henry Kissinger, the secretary of state. (At that meeting, Kissinger had replied saying yes it was, but not America’s basket case).

Bangladesh has proved them wrong. By many indicators, Bangladesh has left India and Pakistan behind. Life expectancy in Bangladesh is 72.6 years, a leap from 46.6 at independence. According to World Bank data, Bangladesh’s female literacy rate (72%) is higher than that of India (66%) and Pakistan (46%). At 26 deaths per 1,000 births, its infant mortality rate is lower than India’s (28) and Pakistan’s (56). At 36%, Bangladesh’s female participation rate in the labour force is low by global standards, but is superior to Pakistan’s 22% and India’s 21%. And at two births per woman, Bangladesh’s fertility rate has fallen below India’s and Pakistan’s.

But India is polarized and numbers don’t matter. Many Indians want Bangladesh’s eternal gratitude, and many think that it is another Pakistan where minorities are unsafe. To be sure, there have been several attacks on Hindus in Bangladesh, but Indian hand-wringing would hold more weight if minorities felt safe in India. Rather, an extravagant manifestation of Hindu nationalism, petty humiliations inflicted on minorities, such as preventing Muslims from praying in public spaces, cracking down on egg or meat sellers, marginalizing Urdu by assuming that only Muslims speak the language, and the country’s narrow-minded refusal to include Muslims among groups of asylum seekers prioritized for fast-track citizenship as if Muslim-majority nations don’t persecute some Muslims, the demonization of undocumented Bangladeshis as “termites", and killings of undocumented Bangladeshis at the border have all tarnished India’s secular or friendly credentials.

The distance has widened. While researching my book on the Bangladesh War and its aftermath, I recall a man in Chittagong telling me how as a young boy in 1971, he had crossed the border, and an Indian jawan lifted him and took him to safety. Decades later, Bangladeshis crossing the border are shot, the man said, and he asked me: “What happened?"

In a 2010 report titled Trigger Happy, Human Rights Watch said some 900 Bangladeshis had been killed in firing by India’s Border Security Force, which guards the border to prevent smuggling, infiltration and trafficking. Since the early 1990s, India has been building a fence of concrete and barbed wire at the border. The Bangladeshi human rights group Odhikar has documented 334 deaths at the border since 2011, 51 of them in 2020.

To rebuild good ties with Bangladesh, India needs to understand two unique aspects of Bangladeshi society.

One, Bangladeshis are grateful for Indian support and sacrifices in 1971. Indians see that conflict as the third war with Pakistan, as if the birth of Bangladesh was an unanticipated consequence. The fact is that many Bangladeshis were killed during those nine months of Pakistani repression. Pakistan claims “only" 26,000 died; some estimates say between 170,000 and 300,000 died; and Bangladesh says 3 million died. Pakistan disputes the Bangladeshi claim of 200,000 women being raped. Given the stigma associated with rape and the fact that records of that period are not available, it is difficult to get an accurate number, but a very large number of women were taken to camps and raped repeatedly. Those wounds aren’t forgotten; the emotional and mental scars have not healed.

Two, many Indians fail to see that Muslims in Bangladesh live with two cultural identities: Bengali and Muslim. Devout Bangladeshi Muslims may pray five times a day, but many also adore Rabindranath Tagore. Many fast during Ramzan, but many also celebrate Pujo. This is not to romanticize Bangladesh as in a schmaltzy Manmohan Desai film, but such is the lived reality of many Bangladeshis. While many of its people are naturally syncretic, Bangladesh has a political party like the Jamaat- e-Islami and a fundamentalist group like Hefazot- e-Islam seeking a different Bangladesh.

Its politics remains infected by the South Asian disease of dynasties. And its government remains too insecure, passing draconian laws to curb dissent; some 138 people are in jail for criticizing the prime minister. Political opponents ‘disappear’; at least 11 bloggers, writers and intellectuals have been murdered in the past decade; and journalists and photographers have been arrested on spurious charges.

To stay on the development path, Bangladesh will need to restrain rising fundamentalism, protect minorities, continue to invest in health and education, and prepare for climate change. Political repression will not enable economic progress, and nor will respect for civil rights hinder development.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at

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Published: 15 Dec 2021, 11:58 PM IST
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