By Nachiket Midha
The Indian subcontinent represents one of the classic problems of post-colonial state-making—the coexistence of diverse groups. The underlying basis for the partition of the subcontinent was religion. The status quo in 1947 was two Pakistans on the opposite ends of the subcontinent separated by their fiercest enemy, India, by thousands of miles. In essence, the then ‘new’ Pakistan was “…two Wings without a body, sundered by the land-mass of its greatest foe, joined by nothing but God . . .”
This belief in God was tested in the year 1971 when the people of East Pakistan—in response to the increasingly authoritarian and brutal posture of West Pakistan—demanded political autonomy. The solution, not reached amicably or politically, made way for an inevitable military conflict in the subcontinent. Most scholarly works place the Indian Army and its Pakistani counterpart at the helm of the conflict, and more often than not, the Mukti Bahini, or the ‘freedom fighters’ as they are known, were marginalised in the footnotes of popular narrative(s). To that end, this article, first, aims to analyse the character of the Mukti Bahini and consequently, understand its history and origin. At the same time, it also aims to discern the different perceptions about/around the Mukti Bahini. Last, and as a result of the earlier, it aims to formulate a framework to contextualise the role of the Mukti Bahini in the 1971 Bangladesh war.
Contextualising the Mukti Bahini: The Origins and the Structure
The story of the actual conflict starts from the takeover of the reign by Gen. Yahya Khan in (West) Pakistan in 1969. Gen. Yahya took over the control from Gen. Ayub Khan, and interestingly, one of the justifications for this takeover was the ineffectiveness of the state machinery in East Pakistan, paralyzed by various civilian expressions. Though he occupied the highest office in the land, he nevertheless pushed for elections to the National assembly, and thus, gradually towards a civilian government.
The elections were subsequently held in the year 1970. In these elections, the Awami League, led by “…the fiery and hugely ambitious Sheikh Mujib Rahman,” created a formidable victory by winning 160 seats (just two less than the total number of seats contested by the party).
The rejection of this victory by the West Pakistan establishment, in conjunction with its continued policy of imposition of Urdu on the East, added impetus to the popular resistance. In addition to this, when all political negotiations broke down, the consequence was the authorization of Operation Blitz by Gen. Yahya.
Now, both the political and military context favoured the formation of the Mukti Bahini. So, in effect, the creation of the Mukti Bahini is owed to two different sets of reasons, one immediate and one underlying.
The direct/immediate cause was the dispersion of military use through military operations in East Pakistan. Specifically, “…the indiscriminate use of force by the Pakistan Army…[that began] on March 25, 1971,” acted as a watershed point.
The underlying reason was the culmination of a more extensive and rising discontent in the East due to their hegemonic political and socio-cultural suppression—both the language question and political autonomy. Therefore, the formation of the Mukti Bahini has a conscious historical process behind it.
In this context, it seems that the Mukti Bahini was not just a political movement but a movement for broader self-determination for the people of East Pakistan. Thus, it becomes critical to acknowledge that the Mukti Bahini did not emerge out of impulsive frivolity.
Segueing into understanding the character and structure of the Mukti Bahini, one comes across its two components. The first, consisting of the regular forces, was the Niyomito Bahini. The fighters in the Niyomito Bahini consisted of those who were experienced in either the police, military, or paramilitary. More importantly, some of the soldiers were the dissenters from the East Bengal Regiment of the Pakistan Army. The second part of the Mukti Bahini was the Gonobahini. It constituted those volunteers who were not from a military/police background but nevertheless, wished to join the liberation forces.
More often than not, the perceptions of the different stakeholders in a war or war-like situation towards a particular actor/event enable readers of history in the contemporary moment to retrospectively understand how that actor/event might have had a more decisive role than made out to be in actuality.
The Mukti Bahini is an example of this. Here, reflecting on two perceptions—the Indian and the Pakistani—becomes imperative to discern the actuality of the situation as it unfolded, and comprehend the role played by Mukti Bahini in it.
As noted in the previous section, the use of force by the Western establishment against the East prompted resistance by the people in the Eastern unit. However, “it also produced a flood of Bengali refugees into India, so transforming an ‘internal’ Pakistani affair into a regional and humanitarian crisis.” It is due to this refugee situation that India became an active player in the war, and thus, India’s perceptions of the Mukti Bahini become indispensable from an analytical viewpoint.
To begin with, the Indians understood the Mukti Bahini as a resistance force, and for them, it consisted of the ‘Mukti Fouj’ and the “civilian freedom fighters” or the Gono Bahini as noted earlier. It is imperative to understand that India’s intervention in the war, support for the Mukti Bahini, and consequently the perception, could’ve been very well shaped by the refugee crisis.
To bolster this assertion, one must look at how the issue “…touched off outrage among the Indian people and enhanced the domestic pressures weighing on the government…[with the added] deleterious impact on the economy.” Added to all this was also the tension of a more considerable demographic debate regarding Hindu-Muslim composition and the threat it posed to the ruling government in terms of political calculus.
This was how India perceived the situation, and thus, to a certain extent, it seems plausible that India was not hesitant to aid the Mukti Bahini. In other words, a conjunction of the refugee crisis and the military/training needs of the Bangladeshi fighters prepared a context for shaping the Indian perception of the conflict and subsequently, the Mukti Bahini.
Shifting to understand the Pakistani perception towards the Mukti Bahini, an uncomplicated claim can be made, i.e., it was irrefutably hostile.
At another level, however, what influenced the Pakistani view of the Mukti Bahini was the relationship between the latter and the Indian establishment. It has also been pointed out that the Pakistani Army “…looked upon MB merely as Indian stooges, who were no match for the mighty Pakistan army.”
This is not to say that the Pakistani Army and the West Pakistan establishment were unsuccessful in reckoning with the force that Mukti Bahini was. Instead, more importantly, there is an analytical problem as to how we study this perception, viz., as something fixed in time. It is vital to apprehend that this perception, as opposed to being stationary in time, was in a state of constant evolution. For instance, the initial view might have been that the Mukti Bahini was merely an instrument of the Indian establishment (the “stooges” proposition). This perception carried weight since there was a prevalent view regarding the supposed racial superiority of the Pathans and Punjabis—who comprised the majority of the West Pakistani Army—over and above their Bengali counterparts in the East.
The view gained traction because of the general unanimity of this viewpoint ubiquitously that “…ordinary Bengalis were afraid of Pakistani soldiers, whether they were Pathans, Punjabis or Sindhis. If they were not, ten million people would not have fled from occupied Bangladesh and sought shelter in India.” The said perception, however, was not interminable since the Mukti Bahini, trained under the Indian Army, soon turned out to be a formidable force, a force to reckon with.
Navigating the Murky Waters: Politics and Legitimacy
This section deals with understanding the Mukti Bahini as a full-fledged fighting force and its material contributions to the conflict. Simultaneously, the focus here will also be to determine the underlying politics involved in the functioning of the Mukti Bahini.
One of the single most significant contributions of the Mukti Bahini is in the form of its militaristic determination. What I mean by this is their unwavering commitment to the liberation cause through arms.
This assertion becomes more emphatic when one looks at the actual empirical evidence. A trend that bolsters this assertion is that “from the beginning of Pakistani military crackdown on Bangladesh till the end of the war, there was not a single day when the Mukti Bahini did not carry out offensive operations against Pakistan Army.”
Added to this was the professional heft that commanders like Colonel M.A.G Osmany brought to the fore. A leader like Osmany, who effectively headed the liberation forces, played a decisive dual role both as a member of the Awami League and as a retired senior officer.
Furthermore, the Mukti Bahini, with the aid of the Indian Army, not only gained ammunition and skillset but also increased its personnel strength. A point noted in this regard was the presence of “volunteers for the Mukti Bahini [who] were not hard to find in the swelling refugee camps and many were of high calibre, such as well-educated student…”
While moving on to comprehending some broader concerns regarding the landscape of legitimacy and politics vis-a-vis the Mukti Bahini, some natural questions arise: How did Mukti Bahini navigate the political ground? How did it establish its legitimacy? In order to answer these questions efficiently, one must be able to tease the characteristic differences between the Mukti Bahini and the main political force like the Awami League.
The Awami League performed some functions—acting as a government in exile, maintaining diplomatic communications, and more importantly, providing legitimacy to the liberation movement—that stood beyond the scope of Mukti Bahini.
In a similar vein, the Mukti Bahini was what one might label as “the actual fighting” arm of the liberation movement. Unsurprisingly, the political and the ground realities are different, so the experience that the Mukti Bahini had in terms of the ‘on-ground’ reality had far greater military capital.
This experience could partly be the reason for tensions between the Awami League and the Mukti Bahini since the latter thought that the League was nothing but “…a do-nothing-group living in luxury in Calcutta.” A sympathetic posture divorced from the specificities of quotidian politics towards Mukti Bahini will make this fact more cogent.
The Mukti Bahini, thus, appears as the most indispensable facet of the Bangladesh liberation movement. Its strength lies in its character, structure, and its ability to mobilise. The broader historiography generally looks at the 1971 Indo-Pak war as a struggle between two regional powers.
However, it is imperative to analyse the role of supposed non-state actors like the Mukti Bahini for two main reasons. First, they provide a context-specific way of understanding history that fosters relatability for the general audience. Second, in terms of tangible efforts and outcomes, one can confidently conclude that the absence of Mukti Bahini from the 1971 war would have resulted in a consequently different historical moment.
Finally, over and above these, Mukti Bahini represents a praxis of self-determination through resilience and pertinacity.
Nachiket is a second-year undergraduate at Ashoka University studying Political Science and International Relations.