Has India's role in the creation of Bangladesh 40 years ago benefited this country strategically? The poser, at a seminar here Wednesday, produced a rather iffy answer: The strategic environment will flow from the geopolitics of the region.
"Can (Bangladesh Prime Minister) Sheikh Hasina carry the people and the army for another term? On this will depend the geopolitics of the region. An improved strategic environment would flow from this," noted security expert Maj. Gen. (retd) Ashok Mehta said.
He was participating in the question-nswer session at the seminar "1971 War: India's Greatest Victory" organised by the Indian Army funded think tank Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS).
Mehta had earlier spoken on "Military Lessons Learnt" from the Indian Army operation that ended Dec 16, 1971, with the surrender of 93,000 troops in what was then East Pakistan and the creation of an independent Bangladesh.
"There was the question of 10 million refugees (who had poured into India after the military crackdown in East Pakistan in March 1971). What was the option? Initially it was a limited military solution of creating enclaves along the border with India to house the refugees and an interim Bangladesh government," Mehta said.
"But, as other elements began to coalesce, it was hoped the creation of Bangladesh would secure India's eastern flank from the hotbed of sanctuaries (that existed along India's northeastern states). That did not happen for several years. Sheikh Mujib (who mentored the Bangladesh freedom movement) left the scene early (being assassinated in 1975). Frequent regime changes compounded the problem," Mehta said.
"Now, the situation has changed. Our commandos are conducting joint exercises. The Bangladesh Army chief took the salute at the NDA (National Defence Academy) passing out parade. ULFA (United Liberation Front of Asom) insurgents are being deported. What was originally envisaged can happen if Sheikh Hasina can carry the people and the army for another term," Mehta maintained.
In all this, what was left unsaid was that the government has studiously refrained from celebrating the 40th anniversary of the end of the war, the last full-blown conflict the Indian Army has been involved in.
There was, however, a reference to the 25th anniversary of the surrender in 1996 and former Indian Army chief Gen. V.P. Malik, who chaired the seminar, lamented that it too had not been celebrated.
"The raksha mantri (defence minister) had agreed that the 25th anniversary would be celebrated but then there was nothing from the government. At a meeting with the three service chiefs, the cabinet secretary asked: 'Why do you want to celebrate? What do you wish to achieve?' He was told: 'Because India has never won such a victory for centuries. Strategy will change but military history will not.' All this cut no ice," Malik said.
So, what were the lessons learnt from the war and where do we stand today?
Mehta painted a rather horrific picture.
"The civil-military relations, which were at their peak in 1971, are down in the dumps. Inter-services cooperation was at its peak. Today, there is no integration despite the (creation of the) IDS (Headquarters, Integrated Defence Staff. I can't get the three chiefs to sit for one (TV programme). So much for integration," he noted.
"The modernisation process is pathetic. The measures suggested in 1986-87 by the Defence Planning Staff (created for the first time) are only now being implemented. Of the 114 recommendations in the Kargil report, only 67 have been implemented, partly implemented or are likely to be implemented. The key recommendations are not even being considered," Mehta added.
The report was formulated after the 1999 Kargil conflict when the Indian Army went into action to evict Pakistani Army intruders who had occupied the icy heights in Jammu and Kashmir. At the centre of the report is the recommendation for creating a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) to serve as a single point of reference between the three services and the defence ministry.
Eleven years after the report was submitted in 2000, the government says the CDS can be created only after consensus on this is built among all political parties.