1971: Of remembrance and forgetting

Noida, Uttar Pradesh, IndiaWritten By: Nishtha GautamUpdated: Dec 16, 2016, 08:36 AM IST

7th March Speech of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, "Our struggle is for our freedom. Our struggle is for our independence." Photograph:(Others)


East Pakistan, aided by India, declared war against Pakistan in 1971. The war culminated into the transformation of East Pakistan into a separate nation - Bangladesh. The liberation war in Bangladesh has left a lasting imprint on the subcontinental history and geopolitics. It has also fashioned national consciousness in the region to a great extent. The narratives of this war have been carefully preserved in war diaries, official histories- which are yet to be declassified- and visual records. Some of the latter have assumed iconic status, like "the surrender" photograph, in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.


Pakistan issued stamps showing Prisoners of War in India to influence world opinion (Others)



Another iconic pictorial representation of the war comes from Pakistan in the form of a postal stamp. After the cease-fire declaration and liberation of Bangladesh on 16 Dec 1971, 90,000 Pakistani soldiers were captured. Pakistan had issued stamps showing Prisoners of War (PoW) in India to influence world opinion.


In the past few years there has been a renewed interest in the 1971 Indo–Pak war, owing to the domestic and international events in the subcontinent. The war crime trials in Bangladesh, growing hostilities between India and Pakistan, rise of identity-based violence in these three countries makes the war relevant even after forty-five years. The war needs to be revisited beyond the annual performative tributes to the martyrs and jingoism. 


In India, the war is rightly remembered for the ethos of the Indian Army that took one of the biggest surrenders of the modern history of mankind and yet stuck to an honourable code of conduct. An army is known for its treatment meted out to the vanquished.


A quaint little town located astride the Tropic of Cancer in the Malwa region of the Deccan Plateau bears testimony to how the Pakistani prisoners of war (PoWs) were treated by their Indian counterparts. Saugor, one of the oldest cantonments in the country housed almost one-fifth of the total PoWs. Soon after the surrender document was signed by Gen AAK Niazi and Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora, Saugor Station was tasked to set up Prisoner of War Camp for around 14,000 Pakistanis.


Col R D Salwan of the Mahar Regiment, which has its regimental centre in Saugor, was the camp commander of one of the seven PoW camps set up in this area. Unlike the other six, his camp had housed the surrendered officers and CUPCs (Civilians Under Protective Custody). He recalls how the camps were managed with strict Geneva Conventions. The camps remained in place till 1974 when the last batch of PoWs, which included Gen Niazi, was repatriated. Gen Niazi stayed in a similar camp in Jabalpur for four years.


Azaadi and Jamhooriyat was the name of Urdu periodicals which was circulated amongst the camp inmates. The English version of the same went around with the name of Democracy and Freedom. Col Salwan says that other reading materials were also made available to the inmates on demand, although after being carefully vetted by an Education corps officer.


When asked whether the inmates were remorseful of their deeds in Bangladesh, the old camp commander quickly replies, “Oh, not at all!” He adds, however, that the senior lot of the officers was more dignified than the juniors. “Most of the junior officers were fanatics,” says Col Salwan. He had spotted some senior officers who were his elder brother’s course-mates in the undivided Indian Army.


During this period, the CUPC inmates were even paid salaries by the Indian government as per the Geneva Conventions. Col Salwan recalls that there were some very high ranking civilian officers in his camp including the president of a bank. “These people were supposed to refund that money to our government after the repatriation but I’m not sure if it happened. Most likely it didn’t,” adds Col Salwan.


Col Salwan shares an interesting demonetisation story from that era. In the aftermath of the loot and plunder in Bangladesh during 1971, the government of Pakistan announced that the Pakistan currency notes of 500 rupees and 100 rupees denominations would cease to be legal tender. During repatriation, a young officer stubbornly demanded to be given back the money seized from him in the same currency. Col Salwan ensured that he got the same, though in the highest denomination possible!


Unlike the camps in other locations, there were no reports of tunneling by the inmates in Saugor. How far could they have possibly gone had they even tried? Surrounded by thick forests and with just one little railway station that could be easily blocked, Saugor was not an easy site.


Letters sent by Pakistan prisoners of war to their family from the camp (Others)




It is rather unfortunate that Saugor rarely gets a mention in the 1971 discourse. A glance through the cantonment’s eventful history tells us how little we care for our past beyond the headlines. Saugor district was ceded by the ruling Peshwas to the British on 10 March 1818 after the third Anglo-Maratha War. Gen Watson took over the command of a division at Saugor and soon the British developed it as one of the most important military establishments in the Central Provinces. During the revolt of 1857, the British were holed up in the Saugor fort for eight months surrounded by the revolutionaries seeking India’s independence. After defeating Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, Sir Hugh Rose brought relief to his compatriots in distress.


Saugor also has an interesting WWII connection. The famous Chindits, which created havoc in Burma, were trained in Dhana. Brig Orde Charles Wingate, DSO, a genius of unconventional warfare, was chosen in May 1942 to form a specialised Jungle Warfare force called ‘The Chindits’ (77 Indian Long Range Penetration Brigade) consisting of 13th Liverpool Regt, 3/2 Gorkha Regt and 2nd Burma Rifles (Burmese Volunteers). Between June-Dec 1942, he trained this force in the forests of Dhana, Patharia, Rehli and Malthone, with his base at Dhana. The airstrip which was used for their Airborne training is now home to the fliers of Chimes aviation Academy. The residence used by Gen Wingate now serves as office building of one of the units in Dhana Military station.


A stone in the old yet grand St Peters Church in Saugor marks the centre of undivided India. This is also a benchmark for the Geographical Survey of India’s annual survey. Yet, we know so little of this town steeped in history. Is it because democracies tend to be uncomfortable about military history? 


Christmas card from British officers back home (Others)




Countries like the USA and Israel have been successful in bringing their respective militaries to the mainstream discourse of nation-building. However, militarisation of culture comes with its own dangers and an incessant peddling of military values often breeds anti-militaristic discourse as observed by scholars like Gal Levy and Orna Sasson-Levy of Israel. They note that "the fusion between the state's political ideology and formal education begins in pre-school settings, where Israeli children are exposed to themes of persecution, heroism, and war". As a result, "An anti-militaristic attitude has arisen, not only in academia but throughout society".


In a functional democracy like India, the society's consent and dissent regarding militarism and peace do not emerge evenly. Some sections of the society see the military as a glorious institution, which not only protects the nation-state in the face of external threats but also lays down rubrics of model conduct worthy of emulation by the civilian counterparts. On the other end of the spectrum are those who see military as the face of draconian "establishment" that crushes ruthlessly any dissent by its own people in the name of national security. Between these two standpoints rest a variety of attitudes towards military ranging from treating it as a necessary evil to ignoring it completely.

Thus, Saugor and many such towns languish in anonymity.