India celebrated the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Bangladesh on December 16, 2021. It was a grand affair — with double-page special features in national newspapers and extended coverage on TV channels. The event, justifiably, marked an important milestone for both India and Bangladesh — 50 years is no small duration.
But one thing was conspicuous by its absence and was a glaring oversight. And that was the complete omission of the mention of Indira Gandhi’s contribution to the liberation of East Pakistan and creation of Bangladesh. It is common knowledge that as the erstwhile Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi played a stellar role in the sequence of events leading upto December 16, 1971.
She visited foreign countries, garnering support for the impending military campaign against Pakistan, she bolstered the efforts of the Mukti Bahini (the guerrilla resistance movement consisting of the Bangladeshi military, paramilitary and civilians during the War of Liberation that transformed East Pakistan into Bangladesh in 1971) and honoured promises made to the people of (then) East Pakistan.
Then came the business of conducting the actual war, involving air strikes, ground assaults and naval mobilisation — all of which was carried out with such exemplary leadership skills that even Atal Bihari Vajpayee (a leader of the Opposition then) is reported to have praised Indira Gandhi.
Yet, Indira Gandhi was completely missing from the discourse, commemorative features and parade of events to celebrate 50 years of the liberation of East Pakistan and the creation of a new nation — Bangladesh.
“Our first and only woman prime minister, Indira Gandhi is being left out of the misogynist BJP government’s Vijay Diwas celebrations. This, on the 50th anniversary of the day that she led India to victory and liberated Bangladesh,” tweeted Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, Congress general secretary. “Narendra Modi ji… women don’t believe your platitudes. Your patronising attitude is unacceptable. It’s about time you started giving women their due,” she added.
Which brings us to the question of whether this omission was misogynistic and is the current government guilty of deliberate negation of Indira Gandhi’s role in the 1971 War, only because she was a woman? There is an easy answer to this. The current political dispensation (RSS-BJP) has a history of making misogynistic comments and of displaying casual sexism and deep-rooted patriarchal parochialism.
In 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, speaking about Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, had said, “Despite being a woman, she has declared zero tolerance for terrorism.” This remark led to international criticism and outrage; people were shocked by its blatant sexism. It implied that being a woman, Sheikh Hasina was incapable of being strong and decisive in dealing with terrorism and leading her country through its quagmire.
Unsurprisingly, this is not the first time that Modi has made such a remark. During election campaigns, he has repeatedly referred to his ‘He-Man’ like qualities, flaunting his ’56-inch chest’, which is meant to convey the impression of toughness and ‘manliness’. He has labelled Rahul Gandhi ‘the hybrid calf of a Jersey Cow’ and called the late Sunanda Pushkar a ’50 crore girlfriend’. Displaying supreme callousness, he once made a speech to promote branding and packaging by small-scale industries and remarked, “If a farmer sells mango, he gets a little money. If he makes pickles, he makes more money. And if that pickle is packed in a nice bottle, he gets much more. If he puts the bottle in the hands of a girl for advertisement, he will get still more money.”
This casual sexism and deep-rooted misogyny is not limited to Modi; it extends seamlessly to the RSS, his ideological and political mentor. A militarized political entity, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has no women members. While its name translates into ‘National Volunteer Corps’, its women’s wing is named Rashtra Sevika Samiti (‘Women Servants of the Nation’); the incongruity between the male ‘Swayamsevak’ (volunteer) and the female ‘Sevika’ (servant) speaks volumes about its orientation and how it views women.
In the name of ‘Indian culture’, the RSS has made attempts in the past to dictate moral codes and dress protocols to women in India, particularly in its diatribe against love marriages, inter-caste and inter-religion marriages.
Whether the omission of Indira Gandhi’s name and contribution to the watershed event of 1971 was deliberate will be up for endless debate. What is clear as day, however, is the fact that women and the uniform in India have had a chequered past. Let’s not forget that it was only in 1972 (25 years after Independence) that Kiran Bedi became the first woman to join the Indian Police Service. It was only in the early 1990s that women were first inducted into various branches of the Indian Army, Air Force and Navy, but only in the Short Service Commission. In 2008, women were first inducted as permanent commissioned officers into the Army Legal and Education corps. In 2020, they were first inducted into eight more corps as permanent commissioned officers. As of 2020, women are not yet allowed as combatants in the Parachute Regiment of Indian Army or other specialist forces. And it was only in October 2021 that the National Defence Academy entrance exam was opened to women cadets.
By this metric, the exclusion of the contribution of a woman to a war (and such a watershed one at that) should not come as a staggering surprise, even though it is admittedly extremely discomforting and regressive.
Indira Gandhi was many things, apart from being a woman and the first (and only) woman Prime Minister of India. She was a leader, a stateswoman, a scholar and a commander. In the 50th year of the liberation of Bangladesh, it is only fitting to remember this and keep reminding ourselves of this.