Interview: Dr. Srinath Raghavan

Interview with Dr. Srinath Raghavan on 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh

We are delighted to have with us Dr. Srinath Raghavan. Dr. Raghavan is a professor of international relations and history of Ashoka University. The book that we’ll be discussing in depth today is 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh. 1971 is a critically acclaimed work that frames the emergence of Bangladesh within the wider geopolitical context of that period and questions that claim that its independence was inevitable. Srinath, before we turn to the contents of the book, I have a very basic question. Why write a global history about the creation of Bangladesh? You cover this in the early parts of your book, but if you could shed some more light on this.

Srinath: [1:11 m]
Well the creation of Bangladesh is an very important watershed event in the history of South Asia. And in some ways, you could say that it’s perhaps the most important event which happened in the context of the South Asian region as a whole after partition and independence and creation of India and Pakistan in 1947. Now, much of the historiography such as it is on this particular subject tends to be focused on South Asian perspectives to the emergence of an independent nation. So you have a significant amount of writing by Bangladeshi scholars, participants, observers in the liberation war, who have left behind a reasonably rich body of work, which talks about the emergence of an independent Bangladesh from the vantage point of Bangladesh itself, so about how the original sort of United Pakistan came apart is the kind of question that they are interested in answering. Now, there is another kind of body of literature which comes out of writing by Pakistani and Indian scholars, and to some extent, some Western scholars as well, which looks at it primarily from the perspective of a war on the subcontinent. And Indian accounts of the conflict, not surprisingly, are typically quite triumphalist. They talk about how India was so instrumental in playing a role in creating the independent state of Bangladesh, in helping them liberate themselves by the use of armed force and how Pakistan was effectively cut to size. This kind of a narrative also buttresses all of the kinds of ideological claims about how the conflict of 1971 in some ways disproved the two nation theory on the basis of which the state was created.  Pakistani scholars themselves think of the event as a tragedy, one which was an avoidable internal conflict, but in which, you know, external actors like India, supported by the Soviet Union and others played a precipitating role, thereby fostering the breakup. So my sense was that much of this historically – including things which people outside the subcontinent had written about the topic, was very focused on the subcontinent itself. But of course, the 1971 conflict happens at a very important time in international politics of the second half of the 20th century. It is happening against the backdrop of very significant changes to the structure of the Cold War. 1971 was also the time when the United States reached out to the People’s Republic of China thereby changing the sort of geometry of the Cold War itself. 1971 is also an important kind of moment when new forms of globalization of world economy and world politics are happening. You know, you had the global student movement in 1968, which had a very important knock on effect in the subcontinent. In effect, leading to the trail of events which leads to the creation of a new nation three years later. Similarly, the global economy is coming together in very important ways with the breakup of the Bretton Woods system, which has all kinds of consequences for third world countries like India and Pakistan. And this is also a moment when the whole process of decolonization itself is underway. So in a sense, you could see what happened in the subcontinent as another moment of decolonization effectively playing out across Asia and Africa. So my interest therefore, was to try and make sense of the  emergence of an independent party. When I say make sense in a sense, both provide causal explanations, but also to interpret that event to situate it in these currents of history which were sweeping through the world in the second half of the 20th century, and to try and suggest that the emergence of Bangladesh was not some parochial sort of affairs which was purely of interest to South Asians. In fact, it was, in many ways, one of the first kind of global conflicts in a sense that it attracted a lot of attention in a much more globalized environment. It precipitated [unclear] ideas about humanitarian action, about emerging thoughts of human rights, what is the role of sovereignty versus the use of [unclear] human rights abuses etc. So in a very real sense, I concluded that Bangladesh War was in many ways, a harbinger of conflicts, which became much more common after the end of the Cold War, right. I mean, you had things happening in the Balkans, in places like Kosovo, in Rwanda and others where you had ethnic cleansing, genocide, and similar kinds of conflicts, which raised questions about how legitimate was it to use force in pursuit of enforcing certain types of international norms? And it seemed to me that the Bangladesh War, in that sense, was a harbinger of the world to come. Which is why I felt it should be restored to its position in the global history of the 20th century rather than simply being treated as another important episode in the subcontinent.

Shreyas: [6:38 m]
Srinath, I think, in addition to the fact that you’ve placed the crisis in the global context that it deserves to be placed. I think another sort of point that comes out forcefully in the book is that this was, and this is to quote you, the creation of Bangladesh “was a product of conjecture and contingency, choice and chance”. Till very late in the game, the Awami League  remained committed to finding a political settlement till the Pakistani army’s crackdown began. The Pakistani army itself wanted to project that talks between the various actors were on well into the crisis and the Indian government sort of adopted a position where it was up to the Pakistanis to figure out a political settlement. But at what point for you does the emergence of a new separate nation sort of become a foregone conclusion?

Srinath: [7:30 m]
Well, you know, it’s an interesting question, right? I mean, so one way of thinking about the argument of the book is that I was trying to push back a little bit against very determinist accounts or accounts that I read as fairly determinist, which explain the emergence of Bangladesh. So these are primarily accounts which say that is in the United Pakistan itself was a very artificial sort of creation. You know, it was kind of two wings of countries separated by so much of Indian Territory, geographic distance apart, you know, there was an sort of a skewed economic relationship where Western Pakistan was in some ways, the areas where there was much more emphasis in terms of public investment, industrialization etc., whereas the East was in effectively a semi-colonial relationship, which is to say that they were exporting commodities which would earn foreign revenues which could be pumped into the West [Pakistan] for various kinds of development projects and so on. And the third aspect was that there was a very significant cultural gulf between the two wings of Pakistan. The Bengalis had a very distinctive cultural identity and in many ways, it was around those questions of language and cultural identity that the first sort of steps towards disenchantment start happening already from the late 1940s and certainly with the language in the early 1950s. So, there was a sense that, you know, in some ways the breakup of Bangladesh is inevitable. Now, my argument in saying that was to say that, you know, this kind of an argument puts too much pressure on the structural facts of the disparity between the two wings. Now these are facts, I do not deny it. But I think they are not enough to explain the breakup of  Pakistan. For that we need to look at other kinds of things, which I believe are oddly conjectural. Conjectural means things which are happening simultaneously, but not necessarily related. By which, I mean, things like [unclear] and 1968 students movement etc. which leads to radicalization of Bengali students and of Awami League’s own program, which I think is a very important turning point. And then it has all kinds of knock on consequences for things. And as I said, there are also things around contingencies, right contingencies of what kinds of choice say the Pakistani leadership made after the elections of 1970 which put the Awami League and the Bengalis in a majority in the United Pakistani parliament, right. So these were choices which people had to make, those choices, perhaps could have been made somewhat differently but there is nothing quite predetermined about the fact that things shouldn’t have gone the way they did. At what point does it become unavoidable? I think it’s an interesting question. I think certainly, from about first week of March, it is becoming quite clear that the pressure even on Mujibur Rahman to try and forge any kind of compromise settlement is, you know, there’s a lot of pressure on him not to go down that route. In fact, on the seventh of March he even makes this very important speech thing saying effectively this is a charter of liberation for Bangladesh and so on. But nevertheless, he continues the discussions because he knows that if there is a breakdown, which happens then that could lead to various forms of bloodshed. As you mentioned, the Pakistanis have their own reason for continuing some of this but certainly, it seems that by about early March 1971 in a sense a breakdown is more or less unavoidable. Right? But again, to say that a breakdown is unavoidable does not necessarily mean that eventually we needed to end up with an outcome of an independent Bangladesh, right. I mean, there have been many countries where there have been civil wars that have been fought, bloody civil wars, but they haven’t necessarily resulted in the secession of territory. Th secession of such a large piece of territory and the creation of a large country with so many people in it is still a remarkable event. It cannot be taken as something that is more or less flowing from the structural facts of a wing. So for me, I can international context is extremely important in helping us understand why we eventually did have the kind of outcome that we had. That is where other countries and other actors like India, Soviet Union, United States, China and everyone else and the kinds of choices, you know, strategies that they adopted were quite salient in deciding what was the shape in which Bangladesh would come on to the international stage.

Shreyas: [12:06 m]
Srinath, we will touch on some of the role that the international players played through the crisis, but just on the idea that the creation of Bangladesh is not predestined. I think one of the points that comes across subtly in the book is I think the one of the points of failures could have been a split within the exile government itself. You highlight some of the tensions that existed between various figures in the exile government and the military officers, for instance, especially when they are received by India right after Pakistani army begins its crackdown. Through this period, figures such as mauddin Ahmad played a key role. Can you talk a little bit more about how difficult it was for the Bangladeshis to sort of have that cohesive front? And India was also sort of helping manoeuvre because it was dealing with a bunch of factions sort of within the exile government. And just how critical was it for the government to project a united face in the context of what was happening in East Pakistan and sort of what some international players were demanding in terms of there being a political process to resolve the crisis.

Srinath: [13:19 m]
See, this is an important question right? Partly because it goes in the heart of what exactly could have been the possible sort of outcomes even out of the civil war in the two wings, even after Indian intervention. Now, I think the most important point for us to remember is that you know, as soon as the Pakistani military crackdown begins on 26th of March 1971. One of their first targets is that they want to scoop up Sheikh Mujibur Rahman himself. And Mujib of course was the unquestioned leader of the Awami League and his disappearance in some ways, without leaving detailed instructions about what needed to be done, meant then that the remaining leadership of the Awami League – to the extent that they were able to escape from the Pakistani military dragnet and make their way to India, had more or less to sort of improvise and decide on a certain course of action. And there Tajuddin Ahmad emerged as a very [unclear] figure and when the exile government is formed, the idea is that you want to project a united front, right? But there are divisions within sort of Bangladesh government itself, which come out as the liberation struggle stretches out over several months in 1971. There are many people, there are young sort of militant leader, including nephews of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who believe that [unclear] are taking a very slow kind of a path. Part of the problem is that Tajuddin is unable to persuade the Indian Government to give recognition to the exile government. The Indians are very clear that there is no point claiming an exile government as a sovereign representative till such time that they do not control enough territory.  Because under international law, you cannot kind of [do so]. So the fact was also that the Indians were initially quite cagey and careful about the extent of military systems and training they were willing to provide to the Mukti Fauj and other sort of  affiliated groups. Now all of this meant that there was a degree of restiveness within the Bangladeshi exile government itself and  there were factions which were starting to build up. We know that the United States of America did sort of a back channel reach out to [unclear] Mushtaq Ahmed, who was a very important leader with a view to sort of getting him to say that you know, he may be willing for some kind of compromise on peace with the West Pakistani leadership at that point of time. When the Indians got wind of all of this, they of course, managed to nip it in the bud quickly. But they knew they had a fractious kind of a situation on one hand. Similarly, the Indian government itself, right, I mean, was on the one hand, supporting the Mukti Fauj which later came to be called the Mukti Bahini and others. But they were also training other kinds of small militia called Mujib Bahini, which was led by you know, one of the nephews of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman himself. And the Mujib Bahini used to be trained by the Indian external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing. While the Mukti Fauj was actually being held up by the Indian [unclear]. So there was also a sense that there were alternative centres, even of military [unclear] in some ways, which could be prepared. So from October 1971, one of the reasons the Indians decide that there is no point waiting any further and that in some ways, they now have to precipitate the conflict and make sure that it goes their way, of course, is precisely because they believe that any further waiting will harm the unity of the provincial government. And that the best way out is to keep all of this up together and ensure that an independent Bangladesh emerges and to now move quickly and over to a military solution. Now, we must remember that India’s interests throughout this was stated quite upfront and remain unchanged, which was that India wanted to see the almost 10 million refugees who had come on to Indian Territory going back to Bangladesh. Conditions have to be created whereby they could go back. And by October, it is clear that those conditions were not just military victory, but also a political leadership was united and which was capable of actually providing governance to the new state of Bangladesh as and when it emerges. So it is from this perspective really, that the, the dynamics of the exile government, the Awami League leadership etc. are quite important in understanding the course of the conflict as it played.

Shreyas: [18:10 m]
That is really interesting, Srinath, then the exile government had to sort of figure out how to present a united face. Another government that had to sort of make sure that it is presenting a united face was the Indian government. It’s clear like from the book, that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi spends, and her cabinet spends a considerable amount of time dealing with opposition leaders, making sure that they understand what is happening. So that there are there are no attempts at politicizing the crisis, which ends up happening any way. But there was a huge sort of constant interaction between the government in power and opposition leaders to make sure that everyone is sort of up to date. How important was that during a national security crisis like this? And do you think that has sort of, are there any lessons that we can draw from that crisis going forward and in any crisis we may face similarly in the future?

Srinath: [19:14 m]
Well, the first point to remember is that just before the Bangladesh crisis erupts in late March 1971, India has had a general election and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi is voted back with a very strong majority, right. So the previous two years have been rocky for her in government and within her own party. Eventually, she decided to split the party to sort of strike out on her own with a few allies and she performs extremely well, at the hustings. She actually is in a very strong position. But at some level, her domestic position is more or less unassailed. What Indra Gandhi is also cognizant of is that this crisis has to be managed in a way that its domestic blowback is [unclear]. Now that means that the one hand that you don’t want to mismanage the crisis, which leads to certain kinds of, you know, military action, which could boomerang on India. She had the example of the 1962 war when her father as Prime Minister faced a serious setback and she knew what kind of domestic [unclear] that had. Similarly in the context of the 1965 war which was a stalemate, which she had seen as a minister in the Lal Bahadur Shastri cabinet. So she was very clear that you know, this had to be handled extremely carefully and there she had a very good team of senior bureaucrats led by P. N. Haksar, who orchestrated the entire crisis handling. But equally important, was to ensure that the domestic political situation in India did not become, did not get so ahead of what the government was willing, that it should start dictating the pace of crisis management or to force the government’s hand in some ways. Because remember, this was a crisis which impacted on India directly. There were approximately 10 million refugees on Indian soil. Most of them came to parts of eastern India, which were already facing various kinds of economic you know, challenges around food, demographic influx in states like Assam etc. already was a problem. And then you suddenly have so many people coming in. So there is a real challenge, not just of providing, taking care of these people, which puts economic strain on you, but also of ensuring that you know, these people simply do not melt away into India and that leads to further social strains. There is a third problem, which we now know in hindsight, was an important thing for the government, which is that by the government’s own estimate, about 80% of the people who fled Bangladesh and came to India were Hindus. And Mrs. Indira Gandhi was very concerned that if this fact came to public light, you know, parties on the Hindu right, like the Jana Sangh and others,  would go hammer and tongs saying that this is effectively a targeting of the Hindus of Bangladesh and that there should be retaliatory targeting of Muslims in India. Now these kinds of things have happened in the past. They happened in 1950 during the Bengal crisis when Jawaharlal Nehru was the Prime Minister. Eventually it led to the signing of the Nehru-Liaqat pact which [unclear]. But Mrs. Gandhi was more than aware which is why actually she was quite keen that the senior leaders of the opposition should be taken into confidence and that their restraint and support should be requested. Now this did not mean that the opposition did not do their usual politicking. For instance, the Jana Sangh organized various kinds of rallies and you know, satyagrahs, protests and so on, demanding that the exiled government should be recognized [unclear]. So they were basically doing things like that which they knew in some ways were symbolic. Meaning it was not necessarily something that was seen as this thing [unclear]. And in that sense, the leader of the Jana Sangh, Atal Behari Vajpayee, you know, was someone who knew foreign affairs quite well. But there were other leaders like Jayaprakash Narayan who were not in the parliament or in the party-political system whom Mrs. Gandhi co-opted as a way of as an emissary to go and visit other governments to explain India’s case and the humanitarian plight of the Bengalis. So I think the domestic management of this was an important thing, because in some ways this was as much a domestic crisis for the government of India as it was an external crisis.

Shreyas: [23:56 m]
Srinath, on the section on India’s role in the crisis – in addition to the fact that you know, that the domestic scene was maneuvered in a certain way, you also, due to the extensive archival work you’ve done, you also bust some myths that exist around the whole crisis. You talk about how one of the myths that you burst is that Prime Minister Gandhi actually wanted to undertake military intervention in April 1971 and that the army chief General Manekshaw actually dissuaded her. Another myth that was sort of busted was the claim that some Indians protested for the freedom of Bangladesh and were arrested for it. Are there still some misunderstandings or myths that persist around the crisis or that exist in popular imagination that is just completely not in line with facts on the ground?

Srinath: [24:48 m]
Well, I think the only conclusion that I have reached is that historians are never up to the task of, you know, taking care of myths. Myths have their own life and ways of propagating themselves. You know, just last year, there was another important book on the Bangladesh crisis written by Ambassador Chandrashekar Dasgupta. Ambassador Dasgupta effectively confirmed the account that I gave in my book of the fact that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi did not actually contemplate an early intervention. In fact, she was very cautious. I mean, that’s the interesting thing, which comes out of the, you know, the archival record, which is now available, is the degree to which she and her immediate advisors were very cautious. In fact, D. P. Dhar who was the ambassador in Moscow in the early stages of the crisis and then later on became the main point person for the management of the entire crisis from October 1971 onwards, was even suggesting to Haksar and to her that India should plan for long insurgency, running over a couple of years to sap the morale of the Pakistan army and so on. So the idea that there was going to be a, you know, quick short intervention in April 1971 was never something which was really on the cards. But yes, there were people within the Congress party who [unclear]. Which is why Mrs. Gandhi then invites the Army chief to come and present this to the cabinet right and of course General Manekshaw then has spun it out in different kinds of ways. In each retelling, you know, the episode seems to have been embellished. When Ambassador Dasgupta pointed out the same thing there was actually quite a curious discussion in the Indian newspapers etc. with other military historians and former military officers saying that this amounts to a denigration of the army chief and so on. So these kinds of myths remained tenacious. I don’t think historians can at one stroke conjure these out of existence, they have their own kind of life. The other point which you pointed out, I think was relating to the fact that the Prime Minister said that you know, he had gone to jail protesting for the freedom of Bangladesh, right. And yeah, you know, he may well have gone to jail because as I said, the Jana Sangh did organize various kinds of protests and we do know that people were imprisoned for short periods – just taken to custody and then released. But this was not – this was for demanding recognition of the Bangladesh independent government in exile. It was for that particular thing not necessarily to say that the government of India has to move towards liberating Bangladesh. The government of India was very actively engaged in working towards the liberation of Bangladesh. So once again, these kinds of nuances tend to get missed out in the public debate. But as I said, you know, it’s not very clear to me that writing history books is necessarily the best antidote to all of these things.

Shreyas: [27:50 m]
Srinath, you mentioned that, you know, while handling sort of the domestic scene in India, Prime Minister Gandhi also used several political leaders or ministers as emissaries to go and visit other countries that sort of had to be informed of India’s position on the whole crisis and what needs to be done to ensure that the refugees actually do go back. But as you clearly lay out in your book – a lot of these emissaries did not receive the kind of support that that the Indian government was hoping from their governments. But there was a huge outpouring of support from the masses. You capture sort of the public opinion reaction across various countries where the government itself was not taking a line that the government of India would have preferred, but the public opinion was pushing that those respective governments in their nations towards a tougher line towards Pakistan. So what role does you know, public campaigning by NGOs, events such as Concert for Bangladesh play in sort of conjuring what is actually happening in East Pakistan? And do you think that that significantly helped India’s case in the sense that it pushed other governments to sort of recognize, or at least adopt a public stance where they are critical of – not even critical – but in private, they’re critical of Pakistan’s actions.

Srinath: [29:21 m]
Well, I don’t think it particularly helped India’s case but it did help Bangladesh. Because I think why these various kinds of individuals from East Pakistan went out, organised campaigns with Bengali communities in various parts of the world, the United States, Europe, Britain and others. And the fact that, you know, there were nongovernmental organizations, which were relatively new actors in this kind of humanitarian you know, sort of game, so to speak became quite vocal about it. You know, there were newspapers, influential newspaper like the Sunday Times in London which were calling it a genocide. You know, the fact that you had, you know, leading musical figures like George Harrison and Ravi Shankar putting a concert together called the Concert for Bangladesh, which rose to number one in the charts very quickly and, you know, who’s [unclear] of what was actually happening in Bangladesh was a genocide etcetera, meant that there is a much greater awareness of what could otherwise have been simply seen as another conflict in some remote part. And I think that was a very important activity which was of raising public consciousness, of at least getting some parts of their Parliaments, Senates, Congress and other agencies of the government to realize that [unclear]. Now, did this have a significant impact on particular governments? I’m not so sure because you know, even when Mrs. Indira Gandhi finally goes out for a tour to many capitals in October-November 1971. You know, she does have difficulty in persuading people that you know, if necessary, this may sort of get out of hand. And, even when the war begins, it is interesting to note that India’s position is not that there was an ethnic cleansing of people of East Pakistan or that, you know, there were so many people who were killed and others forced to leave their homes and so on. Instead India said that this is basically an act of self-defence. They said 10 million refugees have landed up in our territory. This is a planned act of refugee aggression by Pakistan and we’re acting in self-defence. So what does that you? That tells you that there was hardly any uptake for making a case for a humanitarian intervention. Even in the face of such a grave threat, right. And even the United Nations itself? I think the UN Secretary General is very focused on this as a problem of international peace and security. What he wants to do is to prevent a war between India  and Pakistan. But, the fact that there were these many refugees and that there was a serious internal conflict which had precipitated all of this was seen as not open to discussion within the fora of the UN because it was a matter of a sovereign state. So the whole tension between sovereignty and human rights etc., you know, which becomes much more prominent later on, in subsequent decades, at that point in time had very little purchase. So in a very real sense, as much as there was a degree of consciousness-raising around the whole sort of, you know, problem of Bangladeshis and the treatment at the hands of Pakistan Army and so on. I don’t think it made a material difference to India’s own position.

Shreyas: [32:56 m]
The emergence of Bangladesh has had sort of simple significant implications for the subcontinent. For instance, you know that the nuclearization of the subcontinent can be traced back to sort of this period. Are there any other significant consequences for South Asia, for which emergence can be traced directly back to this crisis that you want to sort of talk about?

Srinath: [33:31 m]
Well, let me you know, obviously, you know, you can make all kinds of claims about things which begin when such a big event as the emergence of an independent nation of this size happens. I think one of the things which it does end up sort of doing is to make sure that in some ways, India and Pakistan, then adopt an approach to resolving their issues post the Shimla conference of 1972. Whereby most of these issues which were seen previously as international issues to be decided and discussed in forums, such as the United Nations Security Council, etc, are now seen as bilateral disputes. This does not mean that India Pakistan relations suddenly you know, get cooled down or anything like that, but what you do see is that for several years after this conflict, there is a sense that these are issues which are best picked up bilaterally and you will not have to deal with it. The other thing which happens, of course, is the whole question, as I said, of the ideological sort of claims which were made on behalf of nationalism in South Asia. Now, in India, one of the reasons the liberation of Bangladesh was welcomes and this was kind of, you know, prominent in both the government’s own messaging but also in the writings and expression of many people at that point of time, was that in some ways, this was a vindication of the fact that religion cannot be the basis of nationalism. So many people in India at that point of time, [unclear], appear to have felt that in some ways that India’s decision not to have a religious based nationalism, like what Pakistan had, in some ways proved to be this thing, right. So the fact that India was not a Hindu Pakistan had been – that choice had been mitigated and that religion could not afford to make a strong enough basis for any kind of nationality was the kind of less than strong. Ironically, of course, you know, 50 years down the line, I think, exactly the opposite tendency is dominant in India, where there is a very clear sense that we need a new form of nationalism and national identity which will be sort of very unabashedly and emphatically Hindu in its origins. So, this only goes to tell you that the manner in which the implications of these events tend to be processed across time also depends on the context of your time, right. I mean, at that point of time, there was a certain kind of ideological project of Indian nationalism, which thought that this very successful, sort of crisis management and war had in fact enhanced and bolstered its legitimacy. Whereas today, a very different form of nationalism is vying for supremacy in India which it believes that you know, it can still take claim for various kinds of things which are happening, you know, which happened fifty years ago. So, I think it’s an interesting thing, therefore, to think about what has been the, you know, reception of ideological sort of this particular conflict across time. The third thing, of course, is, you know, just the sheer sort of fact of what Bangladesh itself has achieved in fifty years since its independence, right. Now, at the time when Bangladesh was created, you know, for a couple of years, Bangladesh was not even recognized by the United Nations. There were hardly any countries which were providing aid, it was primarily India, which itself is a very impoverished country at that point of time, and the Soviet Union. Only later once the Chinese stop vetoing the entry of Bangladesh at Pakistan’s behest does Bangladesh become a UN – this thing, right. And even then, you know, you had people like Henry Kissinger, who, you know, famously or infamously said that Bangladesh was basically a basket case. It was seen as an economically totally backward sort of country and in fact, was the ground for all kinds of developmental projects, ideas, in the years after its liberation. But today, you know, you have an example of a country which has, after a lot of trials and tribulations, recovered you know, it’s democratic functioning after long spells of military rule. It’s not a perfect democracy, very far from that. It’s quite imperfect, we know that. The Awami League, you know, in some ways, is brooking no opposition and has curbed all kinds of dissent. And you know, familiar tactics of criminalizing dissent etc. are happening in Bangladesh itself. But nevertheless, I think it is interesting that Bangladesh today has a situation where the military does not play, say quite the same role the military plays in Pakistan. Bangladesh’s economic and social progress in the same period, I think has been another extremely sort of heartening development in the context of South Asia itself as a region. On many social indicators Bangladesh is ahead even of India. I think it should be a matter of, you know, great interest that a country which came out of another state under extremely difficult and traumatic circumstances of ethnic cleansing, violence, you know, large scale sexual violence against people. And then went through other kinds of trauma of further bouts of instability, military rule etc. is today actually a country which has shown that, you know, democracy and development can still go together. And I think, as South Asians, we should all rejoice the fact that Bangladesh has proved so many of the naysayers wrong, and let’s hope that it will continue to do so for years to come.

Shreyas: [39:30 m]
Srinath, thank you. I have one follow up question. Just on the point of sort of, one of the major implications that you spoke about was the understanding that India and Pakistan eventually came to the idea that issues need to be resolved bilaterally. I think that was a stance, it can be argued that this was a stance that India held for a significant period of time even before the crisis because of its experiences with what happened with the UN around the first India Pakistan war. But does it also have something to do with the fact that Pakistan did not receive the international support that it expected to in terms of military aid rather than just sort of, you know, token words of appreciation . Was it disillusioned by the international community’s response and then realized that, you know, crises with India need to be resolved bilaterally because it can expect little from players outside except maybe for China?

Srinath: [40:29 m]
I think we need to make a distinction between what the Simla agreement and the context in which Pakistan signed the agreement and subsequently what happened, right. So in the first instance, I think, you’re right, the Indians did want bilateralization of many of these problems for a while, but the Pakistanis would not be willing to play ball. It took the military outcome of the 1971 war and the fact that there were the Pakistani prisoners of war etc. with Indian and Bangladeshi custody, that eventually led Bhutto to sort of sign a peace agreement which put some of these things. Now you could say that this is simply talk but I don’t think it was as simple as that. I think the fact that you know, Simla conference and the Simla declaration actually called for bilateral discussions etc. meant that the issues ceased to have the kind of international traction that it used to have say even a decade ago. So that’s definitely an important point. Now, what happened subsequently was I think more to be explained by the internal dynamics of Pakistan itself, right? Because Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s task is not just to pull his country together after a devastating military defeat  but also to provide it elected political leadership after a fairly long spell of authoritarian military rule, right. And so in a real sense, Bhutto a bit like Indra Gandhi is also confronting a series of domestic problems starting with the high inflation from 1973 onwards, that period of global oil shocks etc. and has to deal with a range of things and of course, eventually he falls out with the military and is kind of imprisoned and executed by the Pakistan army itself. So in a very real sense, I think more than just the text of the Simla agreement, the fact was that Pakistan itself was caught up in a series of internal problems and was trying to recover a sense of national identit. For instance, one of the things that Bhutto is trying to do is to give Pakistan a much more West Asia focused national identity, and he says that we are actually part more of that region rather than the subcontinent and so on. So all of these things are being attempted. And this not a time where I think Bhutto thinks that it is useful to sort of take on India one way or the other, the Indian government doesn’t have any desire. In fact, they are hoping that the status quo in Kashmir will kind of continue along this line as Bhutto and Indira Gandhi had informally agreed on. So I think there were a range of reasons why you see that there is a bit of a pacification happening. Of course, things do start picking up you know, we have the whole story of the Siachen glacier, which starts kind of becoming active from the late 1970s. There is a Khalistan movement in the 80s, and then of course there is the whole Kashmir thing that happens. So, the peace and stability which came out as a result of the 1971 conflict was short-lived but it did still change the terms of engagement between the two countries.

Shreyas: [43:33 m]
Srinath, thank you so much. There’s so much sort of content in this book that we haven’t even touched upon. We have the role that the Americans played and also the sort of some very interesting archival work that you’ve done, including the role played by the R&AW but I think we are out of time. I’m going to sort of end this conversation with one last question –  recommendations of South Asian scholarship, any books that you’ve read on or about South Asia recently that you want to recommend to our listeners?

Srinath: [44:11 m]
So the one book which I will recommend as a book that made, which seemed to me to be an extremely powerful contribution to the history of South Asia, it is not on a subject which actually, you know, in some ways, speaks to my research. But then, you know, that’s never the way to think about the broader field. But a book which I read, you know, a couple of years ago, which I think is an extremely powerful and very important contribution to South Asian historiography is Neeladri Bhattacharya’s book The Great Agrarian Conquest. It is really a study of the making of a certain kind of rural economy and society in colonial Punjab. But in many ways, it goes so much beyond just the questions of what we think of as agrarian history, and becomes in a very real sense of history of how colonial power operated in the countryside. I think it’s an exemplary book, in the way that it brings together a diverse set of theoretical sort of arguments and resources, and combines that with very extensive and deep archival work. It is also very wonderfully written. It almost feels like every line of the book has been thought through time and time again. It’s very rare to come across a work which is so thoughtful, and also thought provoking. So I would say that, you know, anyone who’s interested in the history of South Asia, modern South Asia should be reading Neeladri’s book.

Shreyas: [45:59 m]
Thank you so much Srinath for giving us your time and talking us through this amazing book.

The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of COSAS or any entities they represent.