The year 1971 is something that can always work to India’s advantage — unless there is a thoughtless mess-up. The break-up of Pakistan and the emergence of an independent Bangladesh that year was a vindication of the hollowness of the two-nation theory that led to India’s Partition. The rise of Bangladesh as a confident nation, its economy getting stronger by the day, its youth rising to protect the country’s secularism with great resolve, do much to further expose the artificiality of Pakistan and the way it was conceived.
The Bangladesh experience knocks the wind out of the sails of those in Kashmir who seek to merge with Pakistan. If Bengali Muslims, who were the clear majority in undivided Pakistan, got only blood and bullets when they asked for autonomy, what could Kashmiris expect from Pakistan? 1971 leaves Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s dream — and those who still feel it makes sense — in tatters.
India’s role in backing the Bengali war of liberation is vital to our building bridges with a country that is crucial to the security and stability of this country’s eastern flank. Bangladesh’s present government, in an unusual show of gratitude to those who backed the freedom struggle and worked strongly for it, have given out hundreds of ‘Liberation War’ medals to Indians who played a major role in 1971. The former prime minister, Indira Gandhi, not only leads that list, but a road in Dhaka has been named after her too. From Bhupen Hazarika to President Pranab Mukherjee, there is hardly an Indian with some role in 1971 who has not received the muktijuddho padak (liberation war medal).
So, the controversy created by Gunday, a Bollywood film, is unfortunate because it comes at such a wrong time. Public opinion in Bangladesh is understandably incensed with Gunday for portraying the 1971 war as an India-Pakistan war alone — and for portraying the birth of Bangladesh as its result. They argue, and with much justification, that the India-Pakistan war erupted as a result of the war of liberation, surely supported by India but fought over eight long months by tens of thousands of freedom fighters whose ranks comprised people from all sections of society, ranging from poor peasants and students to Bengali soldiers of the Pakistan army who had rebelled. Bangladesh’s official statement is that between 2.5 to three million freedom fighters died in those eight months. It is understandable that those who have sacrificed so much are touchy over what 1971 means to them.
So a small background sequel of the guerrilla struggle leading to the India-Pakistan war would have left Gunday controversy free. Properly done, this would enhance the appeal of the film in Bangladesh. Instead, we now have the Bangladesh foreign ministry lodging a strong protest with India. Its foreign ministry’s spokesperson, Mohammed Shameem Ahsan, put on record Bangladesh’s “deep sense of hurt and disappointment” about the clearing of the film by India’s Central Board of Film Certification and said his ministry has requested the Indian authorities to take appropriate action to stop the screening of the film in its present form with immediate effect.
So, Gunday is now a diplomatic issue between two otherwise friendly neighbours. The film has added salt to wounds over the Indian government’s failure to keep promises — be it the failure to sign the Teesta water-sharing agreement or implementation of the land boundary agreement. And look at who are most upset with Gunday. The very people who gratefully remember Indian support during the liberation war and who feel most passionately about 1971.
Shahbagh’s Gana Jagaran Mancha, which has spearheaded the powerful movement for hanging pro-Pakistani war criminals and banning the Jamaat-e-Islami for supporting Pakistan’s war effort in 1971, has now threatened boycott of Indian goods and television channels if Gunday is not redone with a proper historical context. It is tragic, not just unfortunate, that the Gana Jagaran Mancha, the powerful secular force which came out boldly to protect Hindus after hate attacks during the January 5 parliament elections, should now be upset enough to call for a boycott of Indian goods and TV channels, some of them immensely popular in Bangladesh, within a few months of a similar call for a ban on Pakistani goods when the Pakistan national assembly adopted a resolution against the execution of the Jamaat leader, Abdul Quader Mollah. Some Gana Jagaran Mancha leaders appeared deeply upset over Gunday. Lucky Akhter, who has become some kind of an icon leading the sloganeering at Shahbagh, said it hurt deeply to find India, like Pakistan, ignoring 1971 as ‘our war’. So Gunday is seen as something done by India, not just by Bollywood. That is where the danger is.
Interestingly, the Gunday furore in Bangladesh comes within a month of a historical court judgment on the 2004 Chittagong arms haul cases. The judge has awarded death sentences to not only India’s leading separatist leader, Paresh Barua, of the United Liberation Front of Asom, but also to two former ministers (the Jamaat chief, Motiur Rahman Nizami, and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s Lutfozzaman Babar) and two former intelligence chiefs (retired Major-General Rezakul Haider Chowdhury and Brigadier-General Abdur Rahim). Nine others, including a former secretary and several senior intelligence officials, have been awarded death sentences for their involvement in trying to smuggle the huge quantity of weapons that were seized at a jetty in Chittagong on April 1, 2004.
Following up on the government’s firm crackdown on Indian separatists from the Northeast since 2009, this judgment underscored Bangladesh’s zero-tolerance for terrorism. For India, which is always worried by a possible second front of terror in the east, the judgment at Chittagong would be music to the ears of Delhi’s security planners.
India’s United Progressive Alliance II government can look back at its initiatives to develop relations with Bangladesh which did not work, and make one last effort to leave the right impression. The least it can do is to take up the issue with the censors, ensure a fresh edit of the film which includes an appropriate insertion of the Bengali liberation war in the rundown to the one that erupts between India and Pakistan. South Block has to realize that this is no more just a film from Bollywood but has become an emotive issue involving what the senior diplomat, Rajiv Sikri, describes as “India’s most important neighbour”.
Bollywood has upset its fans in Nepal several times. Hrithik Roshan became a villain in Kathmandu for his reported comments on Nepal which he later denied firmly. Two years after the Bollywood action comedy, Chandni Chowk to China, was banned in Nepal, Aamir Khan’s Delhi Belly generated a huge controversy that led to its screening being stopped. As had happened with a Dharmendra film 30 years ago.
Bollywood is seen as one of the key elements of India’s soft power. I can remember a tall Indian tourist in Egypt being called Amitabh Bachchan wherever he went. The chef offered him free food, the sales girl came up with huge discounts. It is no different in our neighbourhood in South Asia. That is precisely why India governments must be so much more careful with what Bollywood does. The censors have got to be more sensitive as to which sequence in a film can hurt sentiments in our neighbourhood — and they surely need to insist that the film makers get their history right. 1971 was as great a moment for India as it was for Bangladesh. It provides the steel to build bridges with our eastern neighbour — something too important to be frittered away by a Bollywood fling.