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Of Nations And Notions:
The Bangladesh India Forgot

By Farzana Versey

16 December, 2009

On December 16, a nation was cut off from a nation which was formed out of a larger nation. The second, Pakistan, was essentially a notion that took off from the larger idea that was India.

Today, as Indian states decide to lead microcosmic lives and even the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati, believes it will make things more manageable if her state is divided, the need for Bangladesh stands nullified as an ideology. It was protesting the language issue, the cultural dissonance with an Islamic Republic. Neither of these aspects has given it a distinct identity other than a name. In fact, Bangladesh has its own terror networks and the Jama’at-ul-Mujahideen is being examined by the Intelligence Agencies for its role in bomb blasts and its ties with local groups in India. There is a suspicion that it may also have been involved in the Mumbai attacks in November, 2008. Its avowed aim is to replace the current state of Bangladesh with an Islamic state based on Shariah. Things do come full circle.

Those who rue the partition of India do not appear to have the same reservations about the splitting up of Pakistan. It is no secret that India was an active participant in the civil war between East and West Pakistan. It took almost two good decades after the creation of Pakistan for its Bengali population to realise that they were indeed different. Interestingly, those on the Indian side of what is still West Bengal looked down upon their Eastern connections, quite unlike the memories people in Punjab and the northern states of India have for Lahore or other parts of the Punjab belt of Pakistan.

On the face of it, it did appear to be a people’s movement. As writer-activist-politician, Dr. Enver Sajjad, told me, “If I were Mujibur Rehman, I would have said that the country was created with 51 % of our votes, so we have the legitimate right to call ourselves Pakistan.”

Mujibur Rehman, leader of the Awami League, had a different subtext in his mind and went through the Jinnah-Nehru sort of parallel ego trip with Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. He wanted to be Prime Minister. Bhutto, who was the democrat with ostensibly no interest in parochial politics, was the architect of the Language Bill and the confirmation of the nation as an Islamic Republic. While he managed to sneak in Sindh into the national Pathan-Punjabi psyche and made use of the Mohajirs from the Urdu belt of India, the Bengalis did not fit into any scheme.

The simmering discontent got shape and form when a quasi government was formed with a war force of freedom fighters – Mukti Bahini. The Bangladesh Liberation War was an Indian war. Indira Gandhi was moving out of her father’s shadow. There was the background of the 1965 war with Pakistan. This time it had an added halo of concern for the underdog. In a battle that lasted a fortnight, 93,000 Pakistani troops surrendered. Indian prisoners of war were forgotten by their own prime minister. Indira was hailed as Goddess Durga.

K.F.Rustamji who founded the Border security Force has been quoted as saying, “The BSF boys started assisting the Mukti Fauj (later Bahini) in causing subversion and sabotage deep inside East Pakistan and even in district headquarter towns, where cash and weapons were looted and made over to the government of Bangladesh.”

The only instructions Indira Gandhi gave was: “Do what you like, but don’t get caught.”

The espionage had begun much before the actual skirmish on the ground. Could a war have been averted? The American and Russians entered the fray as more than observers. It became a big event primarily because India came into the picture. The call for war came was given by Indira Gandhi. In The British, The Bandits and The Bordermen there are detailed references to how the BSF played a role in not only the formation of the Bangladesh provisional government, but also in framing its constitution and selecting its national flag and national anthem.

What happened to the Bangladesh dream of language, region, democracy and, most important of all, independence? Was freedom merely a territorial dream?

What did Bangladesh get out of this? Thousands dead. Hundreds raped. An exodus of ten million people who sought refuge in the North Eastern Indian states and West Bengal.

Over three decades later, they are still seen as refugees. Many moved out from these border areas. You will find quite a few in Delhi.

Zuleikhabi works as a domestic help in four houses at Chittranjan Park. She does not dwell on home and sees no difference. She has not heard about Taslima Nasreen, although she does remember Tagore.

The Bard of Bengal brooks no territorial boundaries, his golden boat is laden for all who clutch at the stray straws of a life untrammelled, yet pregnant with possibility.

Zuleikha knows she is not wanted by the political parties, she hears about it at street corners where the menfolk congregate in groups, their common destinies binding them together for a few minutes of respite. She displays a rare pragmatism when she says, “Political parties everywhere do not want the poor. We were not wanted back home, too. But the people here do not seem to mind our presence. My memsaabs like my work and since they are Bengalis there is a common culture.”

Isn’t there resentment against them in the already overpopulated slums? “Here also people understand. We share our poverty. And many of them are refugees too – they have come from Bihar, UP…everyone is seeking shelter.”

The middle-class residents of the area support them on humanitarian grounds. As one of them said, “Many of them are staying here for years, and if we start shunting people out, then there are the Tibetans too. We fought the Bangladesh War for political reasons but now these people have come to look upon us as saviours. If the government is so concerned then they must try and stop the influx instead of letting Opposition parties make political capital out of it.”

Apparently, when the BJP was campaigning against them, the local Bengalis came out to protect the outsiders. As one academician put it, “With us, secularism and parochialism are one and the same thing. We will support each other in any part the globe.”

A project called ‘Citizenship, Identity and Residence of Immigrants in Delhi Slums’ by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties had revealed that workers of the BJP and Shiv Sena had been active in identifying Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants in selected slums. “The police conducted frequent late night raids in some bastis (slum localities) where many people suspected of being Bangladeshi nationals were taken to the police station…The active role of selected political parties in the identification and deportation of Bangladeshi immigrants, recognised for their bias against religious minorities, is very disturbing.”

Jaffer is oblivious to these wheels within wheels. He only knows that occasionally an inexplicable fear overtakes him. “Though there is nothing to be afraid of. What do we have that we must fear losing? Clothes? Vessels? Belongings? Nothing. But there is something...that feeling of not having anything to call our own. I came here in 1975 as a child and even today after 30 years I know that we can be thrown out.”

According to Reena Bhadhuri, an expert on Islam, “These are starving people trying to make a meagre living. How can they be connected to Al Qaeda and the Pakistani intelligence agencies?” On the other hand, there is acceptance of Hindu infiltrators in the North East. The deputy minister for national security during the BJP regime had agreed to give them special treatment. “If they have come here illegally, it may be justified because of the hostility they face in Bangladesh. Some distinction will have to be kept in mind.”

It is such doublespeak and double standards on the part of both India and Pakistan that have left Bangladesh as a fractured nation. It has no identity. Societies that are left with too many histories don’t think about the future. The future subjugates them before they can get there.

Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based columnist and author of A Journey Interrupted: Being Indian in Pakistan, Harper Collins, India. She can be reached at



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