Witness to history

Witness to history

“Dacca is now the free capital of a free country,” announced then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in her address to Indian Parliament announcing the victory of Indian Forces over the Pakistan Army on December 16, 1971.

In the early seventies, we were schoolgoing children and, with our limited understanding of world affairs, were too young to realise that we were living witnesses to a war that resulted in one of the most convincing victories in the annals of military history. With the abject surrender of Pakistani forces, and with over 93,000 Pakistani soldiers being taken as prisoners of war, Bangladesh, a new nation was born.

I was brimming with pride, when I recently visited Suhrawardy Udyan in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where the national memorial to this war effort is situated. This was where the “Instrument of Surrender” between the two armies was signed on December 16, 1971 and East Pakistan became Bangladesh. Today Bangladesh celebrates this day as “Victory Day” and a 50 metre high tower of light, called the Swadhinata Stambha, composed of stacked glass panels, has been erected at the spot where the ceremony took place. The tower is illuminated at night and is surrounded by a water body.

In the northern end of the park is an eternal flame, the Sikha Chirantan, which burns beneath the Bangladesh national flag with the the tower of light as a back drop. A long terracotta mural runs along the entire length of the complex, depicting the Bangladeshi struggle for independence. A plaque celebrates the historic speech of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman that encouraged the Bangladeshi’s to start their struggle. It was here that he had famously pronounced, “This time the struggle is for our freedom.”

All the same, the epoch-making events are too recent to digest and to come to terms with. It seemed as if it was only yesterday that my school friend’s Army father had gone off, “somewhere” in the Eastern Front to fight the Pakistanis or that each night during the 13-day war period, we switched off our lights and pulled our curtains so that Pakistan Air Force planes could not spot us and drop their bombs — although common sense suggested that Bengaluru was very much out of range!

Today, life goes on at the Suhrawardy Udyan. TV crews use the eternal frame as a back drop for their programme on the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rehman. Children from nearby slums play in the waterbody surrounding the pillar. But the contribution of the Indian people, our government and the armed forces is an unforgettable fact of history. Posterity would remember how we helped our neighbors in distress. The spirit and sacrifices of our gallant armed forces personnel comes alive and one justifiably feels proud of being Indian.

Any visit to Dhaka becomes an overwhelming experience — not just because of the city’s traffic, pollution, congestion or humidity, but because of the circumstance that recent history has thrust upon us — the collective memories of two close neighbours in the Indian subcontinent.