In the decades of simmering tension between India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh one story has received undue prominence in recent years: a masterful account of heroes and villains of Partition. Only recently Nisid Hajari’s Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition, came out this year.
But a lesser known event in the subcontinent’s past has yet to receive the prominence it perhaps deserves. The rise of one group in particular, the Mukti Bahini, bears little more than a footnote in South Asia’s history.
In 1968, a paramilitary organization, the Bangladeshi resistance movement, Mukti Bahini—along with India’s intelligence service, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) operatives, as well as regulars from the Indian army—began to operate training camps in the Indian states of West Bengal, Arunachal Pradesh, Bihar, Assam, Nagaland, Mizoram and Tripura. The group’s goal was to rout the Pakistani presence in Bangladesh—then East Pakistan—an affray that reverberates to this day. During the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, the Mukti Bahini became part of the Bangladesh-India Allied Forces, working in close conjunction with India to subvert the takeover of the country by Pakistan.
By late 1970, the Mukti Bahini, armed and trained by India, had begun to target power plants, railways, industries, bridges, fuel depots, looting banks, raiding warehouses, mining ships and killing non-Bengalis. On March 26, 1971, the Pakistani army initiated the notorious Operation Searchlight to establish the writ of the state—up to 500,000 Bangladeshis were said to have been killed as a result. As of March 1971, the total strength of Pakistani troops posted in East Pakistan stood at 12,000, armed only with small weapons.
By late April 1971, the operation—now widely regarded as a genocide on the part of the Pakistanis—had pushed Mukti Bahini across the border back into India. Mukti Bahini’s operation, the Monsoon Offensive, was also held at bay.
On May 15, 1971, the Indian army’s Eastern Command officially initiated Operation Jackpot to reorganize the Mukti Bahini. The army equipped the organization with Italian howitzers, Dakota DC-3 aircraft, Otter DHC-3 fighter planes and Allouette helicopters. Italian howitzers used by the group are now preserved at the Bangladesh Military Museum in Dhaka.
Operation Jackpot began to equip and produce 5,000 trained guerrillas every month. Mukti Bahini fighters, along with their RAW or Indian army counterparts, would enter then East Pakistan through forward bases that were set up in Tripura and West Bengal.
According to Archer Blood, an American career diplomat who served as the last U.S. consul general to Dhaka, “Indian soil was made available for training camps, hospitals and supply depots for the Mukti Bahini” and the organization had a “safe haven to which it could retire for rest, food, medical supplies and weapons….”
In Nagaland, the Indian army established a jungle airstrip for the Mukti Bahini from where the Indian Air Force trained pilots and conducted sorties by Otter DHC-3 aircraft. India’s Eastern Command trained more than 400 naval commandos and frogmen to drown vessels in Chittagong, Chandpur and Narayanganj.
In Dehra Dun, Major General Oban “selected the best personnel from the Mukti Bahini” and gave them political and military training. One Mukti Bahini sector commander, Quazi Nooruzzaman, writes: “Having received the training, political commandos found it embarrassing to identity themselves as products of the Indian authorities. So they gave themselves the name of Bangladesh Liberation Force.”
The wars of the time were bloody and casualties were high. The Mukti Bahini killed anywhere from 1,000 to 150,000 Biharis, according to the Chronology for Biharis in Bangladesh. Qutubuddin Aziz, in Blood and Tears, documented 170 eyewitness accounts of the “atrocities committed on Biharis and other non-Bengalis” across 55 towns, covering “110 places where the slaughter of the innocents took place.”
According to Lawrence Lifschultz, South Asia correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review, Mukti Bahini leader, Abdul Kader Siddiqui, “personally bayoneted” non-Bengalis to death and the entire incident was filmed by foreign film crews invited by Siddiqui to witness the massacre.
For the record, as per the 1951 census there were 671,000 Biharis in East Pakistan. Up to 20 percent of the entire Bihari population was massacred by the Mukti Bahini. According to Yasmin Saikia’s Women, War and the Making of Bangladesh, thousands of Bihari women were raped and tortured by the organization.
As of December 16, 1971, the total strength of the Pakistani army troops posted in East Pakistan stood at 34,000, of which 23,000 were infantry. By December 1971, the total strength of Indian troops around East Pakistan stood at between 150,000 and 400,000 with an additional 100,000 Indian-trained Mukti Bahini fighters. The Indian Air Force deployed four Hunter Squadrons, one Sukhoi Squadron, three Gnat Squadrons and three MiG-21 Squadrons.
The Indian Navy also deployed Aircraft Carrier Vikrant comprising 47 aircraft, eight destroyers, two submarines and three landing ship tanks. That same month, India’s 4th Infantry Division, 9th Infantry Division, 20th Mountain Division, 6th Mountain Division, 8th Mountain Division, 57th Mountain Division and 23rd Division invaded East Pakistan.
The old saying is that “no one has been able to strike terror into others and at the same time enjoy peace of mind.” The Mukti Bahini may have been forgotten, but the terror that they unleashed on innocent Biharis and other non-Bengalis cannot be wiped from history books.