“The fool has done exactly what one had expected,” remarked Mr. DP Dhar, member of the Prime-Minister’s (PM) core group when Pakistani launched air-strikes on Indian airfields in the Western Sector on December 3, 1971. It was not an off the cuff remark but signified the culmination of India’s decision-making for Bangladesh’s liberation war. India’s historic strategic victory warrants revisiting the decision-making process and unravel some commonly held beliefs in the golden jubilee year.
He (Gen Manekshaw) advocated conducting a military campaign after the monsoons, ideally, late November, to minimize the Chinese threat, and ensure the superior concentration of forces for assured success.
The Pakistan Army’s military crackdown on East-Pakistan’s hapless citizens from March 25 onwards triggered refugees’ influx into India. The continuing deluge of refugees created a severe socio-economic crisis for India, exerting a destabilizing influence on India’s fragile security order in the North-Eastern States. It also prompted an immense political and public clamor for military intervention and recognition of Bangladesh’s Provisional Government(PGB) established in-exile on April 17, 1971.
However, the Government proceeded cautiously on both these interlinked issues, neither recognizing the PGB nor intervening militarily for good reasons. India ignored the formation of the PGB, appreciating its non-recognition by most countries, who considered the developing situation an internal affair of Pakistan.
General (later Field Marshal) SHFJ Manekshaw, the Chief of the Army Staff, highlighted the constraints of immediate military intervention in the Cabinet meeting held on April 25, as he had done a month earlier to the PM. He advocated conducting a military campaign after the monsoons, ideally, late November, to minimize the Chinese threat, and ensure the superior concentration of forces for assured success.
Few analysts, however, favored early military intervention. Dr. K Subramanyam, the well-respected strategic expert, stated: “the breakup of Pakistan is in our interest, and we have an opportunity the like of which will never come again” and suggested, “intervention on a decisive scale sooner than later is to be preferred.” The PM was very cautious of the correlation of East Pakistan’s developing situation to Kashmir, where it had consistently maintained as an internal affair and steadfastly refused any external interference. It feared collective diplomatic isolation. Accordingly, India ruled out the military option in April-May 1971on both politico- diplomatic and military considerations.
However, the narrative built over the years ascribed ‘military consideration’ as the dominant reason as it suited all the stakeholders. The PM asking the COAS to explain the military intervention constraints to the Cabinet directly was misinterpreted as differences between the PM and the COAS. In actuality, both the PM and the COAS held similar views.
While the refugee deluge continued unabated, it was their composition that made India worrisome.
Srinath Raghavan commented aptly, the COAS’s advice suited the PM’s cautious approach, who believed that India had to “tread our path as a state, with a great deal of circumspection, and not allow our feelings to get the better of us.” Instead, India decided to support and calibrate Bangladesh’s indigenous freedom movement led by Mukti Bahini to weaken the Pakistan Army. It preferred its military intervention, when necessary, should be seen as assisting a Muslim-led East Pakistan liberation movement rather than just another Indo- Pakistani conflict. It would also enable India to garner international support for a political solution in East Pakistan.
While the refugee deluge continued unabated, it was their composition that made India worrisome. The change in refugees’ demographic pattern from 20% Bengali Hindus in March 71 to nearly 80% by end-April made it apprehensive that the Hindu refugees would not be taken back even after political settlement. The PM stated in the Parliament on May 24, 1971, “What was claimed to be an internal problem of Pakistan has also become an internal problem for India; Pakistan cannot be allowed to seek a solution of its political or other problems at the expense of India and on Indian soil; if the world does not take heed, we shall be constrained to take all measures as may be necessary to ensure our security.”
This significant statement addressed to multiple audiences reflected the unfolding of the Government’s policy henceforth. The continued influx of refugees compounded by their changing demographic pattern tantamounted to an ‘indirect aggression’ to India’s core values of preserving internal security. The return of refugees, therefore, became the political objective – the stated end-state. Implicit in it was the unstated desired end-state ‘liberation of Bangladesh.’Dr. Subrahmanyam called it “a shift from the diplomacy of persuasion to the threat of force to avoid a compulsive drift into a war later on.” The PM’s discrete threat established the possibility of war.
India undertook an extensive diplomatic campaign to impress the world community to persuade Pakistan to seek a political settlement in East Pakistan. But it did not cut much ice. India failed to elicit support from the USA, which mattered the most. The US policy was guided by its national interest of mending relations with China, being facilitated by Pakistan. Nixon and Kissinger believed that “if they allowed India to humiliate Pakistan, their reputation in the eyes of China would suffer irreparable damage.”
It is commonly believed that the Indo-Soviet Treaty emboldened India for military intervention, as it had achieved the requisite deterrence against China.
India rightly rejected the United Nations’ (UN) proposal to establish the High Commission of Refugees and deploy observers on the borders. It addressed only the consequence and not the root cause of the political problem that India wanted. The rejection hardened the international community’s stance against India and softened for Pakistan. It made the world believe in Pakistan’s accusations of India instigating the rebellion in East Pakistan. India signed the Treaty of Peace, Friendship, and Cooperation with the USSR in New Delhi on August 9, 1971, under negotiation for nearly six years.
It is commonly believed that the Indo-Soviet Treaty emboldened India for military intervention, as it had achieved the requisite deterrence against China. This inference isn’t correct. The treaty intended to solicit USSR support in the UN and neutralize the growing US-Pakistan-China relationship. India was also concerned about the USSR’s ambivalence to keep Pakistan in its sphere of influence to counter the dominant Chinese influence through its military aid programme, which began in 1968. The treaty intended to pre-empt Soviet military support to Pakistan during the war. It stipulated both sides to abstain from assisting any third party that engages in armed conflict with the other party. Against China, it specified to take appropriate measures if either party was subjected to an attack or a threat by the third party.
By July 1971, the Indian Government had owned secret letters exchanged between Beijing and Rawalpindi. China had not committed to Pakistan to protect its territorial integrity, implying non-military intervention in the India-Pakistan war. Sure of the inevitability of Bangladesh’s secession, China assiduously re-calibrated its policies vis-à-vis Pakistan and India. It intended to keep Bangladesh on its creation in its sphere of influence and did not want to push India further closer to the Soviet Union.
By end-August 1971, several factors increased India’s propensity towards the military option. The international community’s unwillingness to persuade Pakistan to seek a political solution encouraged it to continue the atrocities. Pakistan published a White Paper on August 5, 1971, blaming the Awami League for the crisis and ordered Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s trial for treason in camera. It also disqualified nearly fifty percent of the National Assembly’s elected members, charging some of them with treason. The possibility of any political solution further receded.
The Bangladesh liberation movement leaders were getting disenchanted with India for neither recognizing the PGB nor intervening militarily. The possibility of war began to become a probability.
The district-wise tally of refugees published by Pakistan was just over 2 million, closely resembling the number of Muslims among the Bengali Hindu refugees. It further reinforced India’s apprehension that only the Muslim refugees would be taken back. The economic burden mounted on India. The number of refugees by December 1971 was expected to reach nearly 10 million, costing 525 Crores per annum, while the one-time cost of the war was estimated to be Rs. 500 Crore.
In July 1971, an economic assessment prepared by Mr. PN Dhar, economist and Secretary to the PM, underlined that India was not vulnerable to foreign exchange reserves until March 1972, even if international trade was adversely affected due to war. The Bangladesh liberation movement leaders were getting disenchanted with India for neither recognizing the PGB nor intervening militarily. The possibility of war began to become a probability.
India accelerated the momentum to the liberation movement, up-scaling the qualitative and quantitative support. The regular Army intensified the border-skirmishes, compelling the Pakistan Army to move away from Dacca and build up defences around major towns. It enabled the Mukti Bahini to expand its geographical footprint in the interior. Pakistan also ordered mobilization in the West to deter India from initiating war in the East.
Indian troops, after November 21, 1971, began positioning themselves within East Pakistan, though officially it denied the same. Incensed by India’s occupation of East Pakistan territory, Pakistan’s President intensified efforts to install a civilian government in Dacca and hoped the UN Security Council would intervene in its favor, but it was too late. Instead, he came under intense pressure from its officers to declare war on India as its territory’s occupation gravely hurt their pride and prestige with their leadership issuing only empty statements.
Bhutto added fuel to the fire. He declared in a meeting with Yahya that if he did not react forcefully to India’s aggression, he would be “lynched by the people.” Yahya ordered air-strikes on December 3, 1971. India naturally welcomed the pre-emptive air-strikes, facilitating its decision for war, which anyway it had decided to launch the invasion on December 4, 1971, but preferred not to be seen as an aggressor by the world.
The rest is history.