NEW DELHI: Public memory is very short. Which perhaps explains why Vijay Divas, which marks India’s military victory over Pakistan on December 16, 1971, is celebrated mostly in the cantonments and by veterans’ associations rather than on the streets of India.
“People don’t like to remember wars,” says Major General (retd) Ian Cardozo, who lost a foot in that war after stepping on a mine. Fearing that it would get gangrenous owing to the lack of medical facilities, Cardozo, then a young major with a Gurkha Rifles Batallion, chopped it off himself with a kukri. Eventually rescued, he went on to become the first disabled officer to command a battalion and a brigade.
“What’s to remember?” asks a recently retired foreign ministry official, requesting anonymity on the grounds that his remarks would be seen as politically incorrect. “Yes, we helped the Bengalis of East Pakistan achieve liberation from a brutal, genocidal West Pakistan. But today, though Prime Minister Hasina is seen as pro-India, her country is becoming increasingly radicalised and polarised, and Pakistani spies merrily enter India through our porous border with Bangladesh. And till recently, they were sheltering and helping train anti-India insurgents from our northeastern states.
“We helped them rebuild their infrastructure, their railways, post offices, their systems and processes in almost every village and town. But the Bangladeshis feared this was part of a plan to annex them, and we had to leave,” the official said.
General Cardozo vehemently disagrees. “East Pakistanis never ever felt we were trying to grab their territory. We never ever planned to keep East Pakistan. And they knew this very clearly because we fought shoulder to shoulder with them.”
Brigadier Onkar Singh Goraya, who was one of the first Indian officers to enter Dhaka, concurs. “We eliminated a hostile neighbour forever, a constant pinprick in our side. I don’t agree that Bangladesh is hostile to us, though certain radical groups keep brewing mischief. Bangladesh is forever grateful to India for its creation, especially the present dispensation. This was the first time India acted proactively and made full use of a golden opportunity to cut Pakistan to size. We achieved our aim fully, in just two weeks. Our prestige in the comity of nations got an immense boost while our adversary had to lick the dust. What more did we want?” he asks.
“This is not the only forgotten war. Right from the 1947 war with Pakistan to the Kargil war of 1999, all the wars that we have fought have been forgotten. Sadly, not only the wars, the soldiers who fought those wars have also been forgotten,” says Cardozo, who at 80 remains sprightly and active, serving on several forums for the war wounded and writing books and a comic book series on Param Vir Chakra winners.”
He explains: “The wars of 1947 and 1965 with Pakistan were fought over Kashmir. The 1971 war was forced upon us,” he argues. In April 1971, when then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, furious over the fact that the rest of the world had turned a blind eye to the genocide in the east, asked her Army chief General Sam Manekshaw to “liberate” a part of East Pakistan so that these refugees could go back, he refused, saying the upcoming monsoon would bog down his troops and tanks, and that he needed time to prepare.
“But on December 3, 1971, Pakistan’s military ruler Yahya Khan attacked India on the western front. So it was a war that was forced upon us,” says Cardozo. “As soldiers, we are not involved in politics, although we understand why a country has to go to war. Our men undergo great suffering and tribulations. But they trust their officers who lead from the front. In my battalion alone, out of 18 officers, only seven survived in a 14-day war.”
Citing an inscription at the World War II war memorial at Kohima that says, ‘When you go back, tell them of us and say that for your tomorrow, we gave our today’, Cardozo argues: “People need to take an interest in defence matters. And push the government to ensure that the army is well trained. How can we forget these wars?”