From vowing support to diplomatic offensive, how Parliament kept pressure on Indira govt to liberate East Bengal

Parliament was in its Winter Session when Pakistan attacked India on 3 December, 1971. Three days later, Indira would announce the recognition of Bangladesh

Chakshu Roy December 16, 2021 15:23:21 IST
From vowing support to diplomatic offensive, how Parliament kept pressure on Indira govt to liberate East Bengal

A view of the Parliament building in New Delhi. AFP

On 16 December, 1971, Members of Parliament (MPs) were anxiously waiting for news from Dacca (now Dhaka). The liberation of Bangladesh with the support of Indian armed forces was imminent. MPs took different approaches, waiting for more information to come in.

Some were in the Lok Sabha chamber deliberating on new laws that the government was piloting. Others huddled together over endless rounds of tea, coffee and toast, in the Central Hall of Parliament. Lok Sabha was supposed to adjourn for the day at 1 pm, but the House continued functioning. MPs took that as a sign that then prime minister Indira Gandhi was coming to Parliament to make a statement.

The discontent that led to the creation of Bangladesh was 20 years in the making. After Pakistan’s independence, East Pakistan was the more populated part of the country. However, Pakistan ignored the region’s aspirations about language and identity. In 1948, its Constituent Assembly was bitterly critical of adding Bengali (in addition to Urdu) as another national language.

The ruling elite in West Pakistan also exploited the eastern part of their country. Benazir Bhutto, the two-time Prime Minister of Pakistan, summed it up in her autobiography. She wrote, “The majority province of East Pakistan was basically being treated as a colony by the minority West. From revenues of more than thirty-one billion rupees from East Pakistan’s exports, the minority in West Pakistan had built roads, schools, universities and hospitals for themselves, but had developed little in the east. The army, the largest employer in our very poor country, drew 90 percent of its forces from West Pakistan. 80 percent of the government jobs were filled by people from the West.”

Parliament promises support to East Bengal

The year 1971 began similarly for India and Pakistan. Our neighbour held its first general elections in December of 1970, and we had our fifth in March 1971. In Pakistan, military dictator General Yahya Khan held elections for the 300 seats of the Pakistan National Assembly. One hundred sixty two of these seats were in East Pakistan and 138 in the West. Under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Awami League won 160 (all in East Pakistan) of the 300 seats.

Ideally, General Khan should have appointed Mujibur as Prime Minister and asked him to form the national government. But an East Pakistani as Prime Minister was not acceptable to General Khan and other West Pakistani politicians like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (Benazir Bhutto’s father). On 25 March, 1971, General Yahya Khan ordered the Pakistani military to crack down on the people of East Pakistan. The military labelled Mujibur Rahman a traitor, arrested him and flew him to West Pakistan.

Meanwhile, in India, the fifth Lok Sabha started its term in March 1971. Indira Gandhi’s Congress party won 352 seats out of 518 in the general election. The newly-elected House had individuals starting their legislative careers such as Madhavrao Scindia, Tarun Gogoi and Somnath Chatterjee. It also had more experienced ones like Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Hiren Mukherjee, Indrajit Gupta and Madhu Limaye.

On the government side, Babu Jagjivan Ram held the defence portfolio. He had extensive ministerial experience, becoming the youngest minister in Jawaharlal Nehru’s interim cabinet in 1946. Then there was Yashwantrao Balwantrao Chavan, the leader from Maharashtra who had been the state’s first chief minister. He held the finance portfolio. Another senior member of the cabinet was Sardar Swaran Singh, the external affairs minister. He had been a minister since 1952 and had held this position before. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi led the government.

The first session of the newly-elected Lok Sabha was underway when the Pakistani military started the crackdown in East Pakistan on 25 March . The next day Dacca-born MP Samar Guha informed the House about the Pakistani Army killing civilians and urged the government to intervene. Over the next few days, concerns about the life and liberty of the people of East Pakistan would continually resonate in Parliament. Atal Bihari Vajpayee would suggest that Lok Sabha express its solidarity with the people of Bangladesh. Following his suggestion, Indira, on 31 March, 1971, would move a resolution in Lok Sabha.

She started by stating, “The tragedy which has overtaken our valiant neighbours in East Bengal so soon after their rejoicing over their electoral victory has united us all in grief for the destruction of their beautiful land and anxiety for their future.” While MPs had referred to East Pakistan as East Bengal, it would be the first time the government would do so.

The resolution would condemn the atrocities being committed and ask for the immediate cessation of force and the massacre of defenceless people. It would end by stating, “This House records its profound conviction that the historic upsurge of the 75 million people of East Bengal will triumph. The House wishes to assure them that their struggle and sacrifices will receive the whole-hearted sympathy and support of the people of India.”

This resolution would be passed unanimously by the Lok Sabha and would be the first indicator of the Government of India’s position on the liberation of Bangladesh.

India launches diplomatic offensive

Over the next few months, the Pakistani Army would commit unspeakable atrocities and genocide in East Bengal. Parliament would keep pressure on the government, to provide all possible aid to the people. By November 1971, the violence in East Bengal would force an estimated 10 million people to abandon their homes and take shelter in India. For providing food and shelter to them, then finance Minister YB Chavan would start by allocating Rs 60 crore in the budget. Over the year, Parliament would authorise the government to spend Rs 360 crore on refugee relief measures.

In debates in both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, MPs would urge the government to recognise East Bengal as the independent nation of Bangladesh. They would also recommend that the government raise the matter in the United Nations’ Security Council. The government also launched an all-out diplomatic offensive to create international awareness about the humanitarian crisis in East Bengal and how it was no longer an internal matter of Pakistan.

PIndira would travel extensively to shift world opinion on East Bengal. She visited the Soviet Union, which led to the signing of the Indo Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in Delhi. Article 9 of this treaty specified that if either country came under threat, they would “enter into mutual consultations in order to remover such threat and to take appropriate effective measures to ensure peace and the security of their countries”.

When the treaty was signed, Parliament was meeting for its Monsoon Session, and it would get extensively debated in Lok Sabha. In November 1971, the prime minister would travel to Belgium, Austria, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, France and West Germany to rally support for India’s position.

Parliament would also be part of the government’s diplomatic offensive. On his way to the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) Conference in Paris, Lok Sabha Speaker GS Dhillon would stop in Afghanistan and Iran and hold talks with their leaders on East Bengal. For the IPU conference, a delegation of MPs accompanied the Speaker.

Pranab Mukherjee, serving his first term in Rajya Sabha, was part of this delegation. The Indian contingent highlighted the plight of East Bengal refugees and successfully got a resolution passed on the subject. Indian MPs also used other international forums like the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the meeting of the Latin American Parliament to sensitise the world about East Bengal and train world attention on it.

Debate on Maintenance of Internal Security Bill

Parliament stood united on the issue of liberation of East Bengal. But while developments in our neighbourhood brought MPs together, there were other issues where legislators strongly criticized the government. That year the government brought in the Maintenance of Internal Security Bill (MISA). The law gave the government broad powers for preventive detention of individuals and search and seizure of property.

Somnath Chatterjee severely criticized the government’s legal proposal. In a fiery speech in Lok Sabha, the first-term MP said, "... the bill is a scar on any civilized society believing in human freedom and personal liberty.” He went on to say, “In the name of refugee influx, in the name of security of the State, which remained undefined, power has been given in the hands of petty mandarins, who are prone to act at the behest of the party in power.”

His warning would come true when the government misused the law to curb individual freedoms during the Emergency.

Free capital of a free country

Parliament was in its Winter Session when Pakistan attacked India on 3 December, 1971. Three days later, Indira would announce the recognition of Bangladesh. On the floor of Lok Sabha, she said, “The valiant struggle of the people of Bangla Desh in the face of tremendous odds has opened a new chapter of heroism in the history of freedom movements; I am confident that in future the Governments and the peoples of India and Bangla Desh, who share common ideals and sacrifices, will forge a relationship based on the principles of mutual respect for each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, non-interference in internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit.”

MPs cutting across party lines would congratulate the prime minister. One MP would refer to the PM as “as an absolute incarnation of incorporeal and divine India”. Atal Bihari Vajpayee adding to the sentiments of his colleagues said, “The process of change of history is going on before our eyes, and destiny has brought this Parliament and the country to an important moment, when we are not only fighting shoulder to shoulder with those who are sacrificing their lives in this war of liberation but are trying to give a new direction to history as well.”

After the war started on the Eastern and Western front, the daily sitting time of Parliament was cut short. Lok Sabha would begin its deliberations at 10 am and adjourn for the day by lunch. On these days, there was no question hour, and defence minister Babu Jagjivan Ram would update the House about the progress made by Indian Armed Forces in liberating Bangladesh.

With the sun setting on Raisina Hill on 16 December, 1971, Indira reached Parliament. At 5:30 pm, the prime minister stood in the Lok Sabha and made the historic announcement, “Sir, I have an announcement to make, which I think the House has been waiting for, for some time. The West Pakistan forces have unconditionally surrendered in Bangla Desh. The instrument of surrender was signed in Dacca at 16.31 hours I.S.T. today by Lt. Gen. A.A.K. Niazi on behalf of the Pakistan Eastern Command, Lt. Gen. Jagjit Singh Aurora, GOC-in-C of the Indian and Bangla Desh forces in the Eastern Theatre accepted the surrender. Dacca is now the free capital of a free country.”

The author is head of outreach, PRS Legislative Research. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.

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