When news trickled in of the revolt of the Bengali elements in units of the Pakistani Army stationed in East Pakistan and of Tikka Khan’s crackdown on the nationalistic civil population, voices were raised in India for intervention in support of the movement for Bangladesh. K. Subrahmanyam, Director of the Indian Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, aired his much-quoted views at a symposium of the Indian Council of World Affairs organised on 31 March 1971, within six days of the outbreak of the revolt. “What India must realise is the fact that the breakup of Pakistan is in our interest, an opportunity the like of which will never come again,” he declared.
In subsequent discussions at the symposium it was described as “an opportunity of the century.” These views found favour with a considerable section of public opinion and were supported by some retired senior generals as well as one or two ministers of the Union Cabinet holding pivotal positions in the Political Affairs Committee. Perhaps these opinions were inspired by accounts of the easy success of the forays BSF conducted at the commencement of the general uprising in the wave of misplaced enthusiasm of some local commanders. Luckily, the Prime Minister and her military advisers thought otherwise as war, being a serious business, could not be waged just at the dictates of popular demand. A valid excuse, if not a sound reason, was necessary to do so.
“¦the Prime Minister and her military advisers thought otherwise as war, being a serious business, could not be waged just at the dictates of popular demand.
The problem Mrs. Gandhi faced was complex. She had to heed public opinion and, if feasible, satisfy it. At the same time she needed a valid excuse for military intervention which would be international by acceptable, and meanwhile so increase or refurbish the Indian military capability that if she went to war victory was assured. She had the example of her own father’s fall from his pedestal after the NEFA debacle, and she could not take a chance. For her, victory had to be certain, nothing less. Accordingly, she, aided by her advisers, orchestrated the three wings of national policy political, military, and economic-in perfect accord. She planned and executed a step-by-step approach in terms of action and sense of timing, and soon achieved perfection in this.
On 31 March, she reacted in a strong but dignified manner by personally moving a resolution in the Lok Sabha demanding immediate cessation of the use of force and the “massacre of the defenceless people of East Bengal.” In doing so, she said “the tragedy which has overtaken our valiant neighbors in East Bengal so soon after their rejoicing over the electoral victory had united us in grief for their suffering, concern for the wanton destruction of their beautiful land, and anxiety for their future.”
Some quarters argued that Pakistan had actively supported the rebels in Nagaland, which was very much Indias internal affair. So why should India adopt such a correct attitude in a situation which closely affected its national interests?
The resolution read: “This House records its profound conviction that the historic upsurge of 75 million people as East Bengal would triumph. The House wishes to assure them that their struggle and sacrifices will receive the wholehearted sympathy and support of the people of India.” Answering a question, she said: “We are deeply conscious of the historic importance of the movement. . . . I would like to assure the honourable members who asked whether decisions would be taken on time that obviously that is the most important thing to do. There is no point in taking a decision when the time for it is over.”
Thirty-odd foreign correspondents, thrown out from Dacca as part of the crackdown, told harrowing tales of military brutality against unarmed and helpless civilians. Stories of merciless genocide, rape, loot and destruction spread like wildfire, inflaming passions. The militant political opposition, egged on by self appointed experts on strategic matters, started clamouring for immediate intervention. Little did they realise how preposterous this demand was.
Hasty action by India at that time would have meant interference in the internal affairs of a neighbouring country, contrary to the United Nations Charter and against the bilateral agreement arrived at in Tashkent in 1966 pledging abstention from such action. Any violation of this international commitment would have been difficult to justify. Some quarters argued that Pakistan had actively supported the rebels in Nagaland, which was very much India’s internal affair. So why should India adopt such a correct attitude in a situation which closely affected its national interests?
She planned and executed a step-by-step approach in terms of action and sense of timing, and soon achieved perfection in this.
Admittedly, Pakistan had actively encouraged insurgency both in Nagaland and Mizoram by providing equipment, cash and training facilities in East Pakistan. In collusion with China, it had permitted the transit of rebels to that country in many ways. A.Z. Phizo, the rebel Naga leader, had travelled to Britain on a Pakistani passport and had been used as a vehicle of anti-Indian propaganda by Pakistani diplomats abroad. Similarly, Pakistan had provided refuge to Laldenga, the Mizo rebel leader, and afforded all facilities to the rebels to perpetuate insurgency. Mizo hostiles had received sanctuary in the Chittagong Hill Tracts whenever hotly pursued by Indian security forces. In short, Pakistan had been aiding and abetting insurgency in federal units of the Republic of India covertly but had not intervened until then openly.
Another limitation the supporters of armed intervention failed to understand was that to undertake military action at such short notice as the situation demanded required a very high degree of preparedness in military capability, especially when there was no warning of such an eventuality. No underdeveloped country, much less India, can have that pushbutton capability which can launch instant operations.
Thirty-odd foreign correspondents, thrown out from Dacca as part of the crackdown, told harrowing tales of military brutality against unarmed and helpless civilians.
The reasons are simple. Paucity of funds forbid purchase of armaments and munitions as part of the planned growth of the country’s military machine. Purchases are made only to meet a contingency whenever it arises. Since the lead period required to equip, refurbish and revamp fighting formations is long, stretching over months, and hard currency is in short supply, a nation’s options are limited to a few monopolist suppliers who take their own time to strike a bargain. Besides, India’s hands were full with the West Bengal elections and the attendant Naxalite threat to wreck them. Indian formations usually allotted for a limited contingency against threats from East Pakistan were totally committed to internal security duties in connection with these elections.
With hindsight, some armchair strategists suggested after the conflict of 1971 that India could have prevented Pakistan’s reinforcement of troops in the eastern wing by moving its forces on the borders against West Pakistan in February 1971 on the plea of retaliating for the hijacking to Pakistan and subsequent destruction of an Indian Airlines Fokker Friendship aircraft. Indian concentration on West Pakistan’s borders, they argued, would have acted as a check on denuding Pakistan’s military strength in the western wing. And they felt that the Bengali elements among the Pakistani forces in the eastern wing could, with active and all-embracing support of the local population, have easily dealt with the beleaguered Pakistani garrison, consisting of no more than a division’s strength of demoralised soldiery.
Because suitable cantonments were lacking close to the border with West Pakistan, our formations earmarked for such contingency plans were located so far from it that it needed three to four weeks to concentrate the strength required to pose a credible threat. By that time Pakistan could have easily transferred two divisions to the east, which they actually did by the end of the first week of March. The fly in of these formations over the circuitous route through Colombo was well known, but there was very little India could do about this under the prevailing conditions. But then who visualised the magnitude of the rebellion brewing in the east?
Hit hard by the brute force of the ruthless military dictatorhip, a terrified mass of humanity poured over the border into India like flood waters from all directions. Starting as a stream, it gradually turned into a river of about 60,000 a day. There was no sign of its abating, and it was estimated that by the end of October the figure would jump to about 10 million. Apart from the administrative and financial strains caused by the maintenance of the refugees, this influx was creating a massive socioeconomic problem in the already troubled region of West Bengal. Financial experts calculated that at the prevailing rate of inflow expenditure on the upkeep of the refugees would mount to about Rs 4,500 million.
- Reported by the Times of India, New Delhi, and the Statesman, Calcutta.
- For the full text of the resolution see Asian Recorder, Vol XVII, No 20, p. 10657-580.
- Reports of British and US correspondents who were flown out, confirmed that Pakistani troops were on the rampage in a mood of revenge. See Asian Recorder, Vol XVII, No 26, p.10229.
- This agreement followed the Indo-Pak conflict of 1965 through the mediation of the Soviet Union.
- A Fokker Friendship aircraft of the Indian Airlines with a crew of four and 28 passengers aboard was hijacked to Lahore on 30 January. On 2 February it was blown up by the hijackers at Lahore airport in full view of Pakistani troops and aviation personnel
- According to figures released on 21 August 1971, the number of refugees from East Bengal to India had reached the 8 million mark as reported by the Hindu, Madras
- The New York Times quoted the World Bank to the effect that the upkeep of the refugees in the fiscal year 1971-72 would be $ 700 million.
The hawks suggested that it would be more economical to fight a war rather than bear this burden, especially when the supplementary budget presented by Finance Minister Y. B. Chavan levied additional taxes, but could not restrain further escalation of the already rising price level. Pressures for a speedy settlement of the refugee problem grew rapidly. As a result, a strong note from the, Ministry of Foreign Affairs went to Islamabad. It said India reserved the right to claim appropriate compensation for the expenditure on refugee relief in these words : “The Government of India therefore hold Pakistan fully responsible for creating such conditions forthwith as would facilitate the return of these refugees.”
Tikka Khan’s sudden and intense crackdown had left East Pakistan shocked and completely benumbed. Its people could act only in humble submission. This atmosphere gave the impression of faked normalcy. The rebellion, which started with great elan, slowly subsided against ruthless repression by superior strength. The rebels had also been flushed out by Pakistani troops manning the border and either went underground in anguish or sought sanctuary on the other side of the border to prepare afresh for the struggle ahead.
Tikka Khans sudden and intense crackdown had left East Pakistan shocked and completely benumbed.
Conditions both on the refugee and insurgency fronts looked grim, and with this the image of Mrs Gandhi as a resolute and decisive leader began to sag. Yahya Khan scored over her for a while by displaying signs of normalcy in East Pakistan rather triumphantly and accusing India of meddling with what he called “the internal affairs of Pakistan.”
On 24 May 1971, Mrs. Gandhi vindicated her position in Parliament, saying “We all felt our country was poised for rapid economic advance and a more determined attack on the age-old poverty of our people. Even as we were settling down to these new tasks, we have been engulfed by a new and ‘gigantic problem, not of our making… so massive a migration in so short a time is unprecedented in history. Three and a half million have come in the last eight weeks. On the present estimates, the cost of relief may exceed Rs 1,800 million for six months.”
“¦so massive a migration in so short a time is unprecedented in history.
Rejecting Yahya Khan’s charge, she added that “it is mischievous to suggest that India has had anything to do with what happened in Bangladesh. This is an insult to the aspirations and spontaneous sacrifices of the people of Bangladesh, and a calculated attempt by the rulers of Pakistan to make India a scapegoat for their own misdeeds. It is also a crude attempt to deceive the world community.”
Over and over again, Mrs Gandhi appealed to the big powers and to other democratic countries to ask the military dictators of Pakistan to stop committing atrocities in East Bengal and keep their population within their borders. Otherwise, she warned that “what began as an internal affair of Pakistan was gradually turning into an internal affair of India, and would soon be turning into an international issue.” Addressing the Lok Sabha, she said : “I must share with the House our disappointment at the improbably long time the world is taking to react to the stark tragedy.”
“¦she warned that “what began as an internal affair of Pakistan was gradually turning into an internal affair of India, and would soon be turning into an international issue.
She added that “not only India but every country has to consider its interests. I think I am expressing the sentiments of this House and of our people when I raise my voice against the wanton destruction of peace, good neighbourliness and elementary principles of humanity by the insensate action of the military rulers of Pakistan.” She further urged that “conditions must be created to stop any further influx of refugees and to ensure their early return under credible guarantees for their future safety and well being. I say with all sense of responsibility that unless this happens there can be no lasting stability or peace on this subcontinent.”
Voicing the thinking of the hawks in New Delhi, Subrahmanyam pleaded vehemently that the breakup of Pakistan was in India’s interest and that the developments in East Pakistan provided India with the unprecedented opportunity to dismember Pakistan. Obviously answering the Prime Minister’s statement, he said : “We must act in a constructive way and not do anything which adds to to the difficulties of the people there.” He added : “The so-called international forum has not deterred any major power from taking action to protect its interests… A bold initiative on our part to help the struggle in Bangladesh to end quickly and victoriously is therefore called for.”
Voicing the thinking of the hawks in New Delhi, Subrahmanyam pleaded vehemently that the breakup of Pakistan was in Indias interest and that the developments in East Pakistan provided India with the unprecedented opportunity to dismember Pakistan.
As part of Tikka Khan’s crackdown, Mujibur Rahman had been arrested and his fate was not known. Some other leaders had either been arrested or conveniently done away with. A few went underground in East Pakistan, now in the stranglehold of the Pakistani Army. Of the remainder, most followed the refugee trail and reached India completely bewildered. Senior Edward Kennedy of the US described the tragedy thus: “A story of indiscriminate killings and executions of dissident political leaders, students, citizens and civilians suffering and dying. It was a tale of total disruption of administration machinery, compounding an already difficult situation that threatened millions with starvation, epidemics and disasters.”
These events had left gaping holes in the Awami League leadership, and the directing hand of its founder was now missing. Out of these inheritors of East Pakistan’s destiny, a provisicral government in exile was formed on 17 April 1971. Sheikh Mujib was appointed its president in absentia, and Tajuddin Ahmed was nominated prime minister to carry out the functions of government. This provisional government was afforded all the facilities required to continue the struggle for the liberation of Bangladesh from the oppression of the Pakistani Army. The seat of government was named Mujib Nagar, and a radio station was installed to Project the voice of freedom towards those who had stayed behind to organise the Mukti Bahini.
Correspondingly, diplomatic relations between Pakistan and India deteriorated and Pakistan directed the Indian Deputy High Commission in Dacca to be wound up and closed its own mission in Calcutta. Pressures started building up, especially in eastern India, in favour of India’s recognition of the Bangladesh Government, and of Bangladesh as a separate entity. Backed by Jayaprakash Narayan, other political personalities of some stature derided Indira Gandhi for showing weakness in refusing to recognise what had become a “political reality.” The Prime Minister however remained firm on the issue of recognition and categorically stated: “Not yet. At the appropriate time. Leave that to the Government to decide.”
As part of Tikka Khans crackdown, Mujibur Rahman had been arrested and his fate was not known.
What prevented India from giving recognition at this juncture? Political considerations demanded that the viability of an independent Bangladesh should be established both in domestic and international eyes irrefutably before it could be given official blessing. Otherwise, this was likely to be misconstrued as an Indian machination, especially when Yahya Khan and his diplomatic representatives abroad were clamouring for support against Indian interference in Pakistan’s internal affairs. Recognition could have led to immediate rupture of diplomatic relations between India and Pakistan, and might perhaps have precipitated armed conflict between them, with unpredictable international repercussions.
The country’s mood and military capability did not allow such a hasty step at this juncture. It was considered prudent to keep recognition on a low key on the political front while keeping the insurgency going with increasing intensity so as to sap the fighting capability of the Pakistani Army by prolonged and destructive guerilla operations in the inhospitable environment of monsoon rain, slushy terrain and hostile population. Meanwhile, New Delhi could get the exodus from East Pakistan and the resultant economic burden accepted as an international problem. All relief agencies, both official, and unofficial, were geared to achieve this acceptance.
Pressures started building up, especially in eastern India, in favour of Indias recognition of the Bangladesh Government, and of Bangladesh as a separate entity.
Accordingly, Mrs Gandhi made a significant statement: “We are convinced that there can be no military solution to the problem of East Bengal. A political solution must be brought about by those who have the power to do so. World opinion is a great force. It can influence the most powerful. The great powers have a special responsibility. If they exercise their power rightly and expeditiously, then only can we look forward to durable peace on our subcontinent. But if they fail, and I sincerely hope they will not, then the suppression of human rights, the uprooting of people and the continued homelessness of a vast number of human beings will threaten peace.”
After taking the opposition fully into confidence, the Indian Cabinet declared for the benefit of the international community that India had no intention of allowing the refugees to settle in its territory permanently. The refugees were being accommodated temporarily mainly on human considerations and at a considerable strain on India’s own economy. The responsibility of sending them back rested on the entire international community and not India alone. In this regard, an organised campaign was put into effect all over the world. Indian embassies put across the theme that the refugee problem was so gigantic that it was no longer an internal affair of Pakistan and India.
Other powers must prevail on Pakistan to see reason and create suitable conditions for the refugees to go back. Otherwise, India would have no alternative to taking such steps as necessary to safeguard its interests. Stress was laid on the fact that India could not be expected to bear the crushing burden of expenditure on the refugees on its own. Various official and nonofficial delegations headed by half a dozen ministers and Jayaprakash Narayan in his personal capacity toured world capitals, “putting the world powers in the dock for their apathy towards the East Bengal development.”
At home, several drives were organised to collect funds and relief goods for the refugees, and these actions carried realisation of the plight of the refugees in “a house to house drive” to all corners of the country. On his return from a tour of some 46 countries, JP issued a passionate call for active support to the Freedom Fighters in Bangladesh and deplored the Government’s in action in this regard.Meanwhile, after the initial setback to the Mukti Bahini operations caused by Tikka Khan’s repressive measures, the insurgent movement was organised on a firmer footing by setting up several camps for equipping and training the force properly, as well as for coordination, planning and better command and control of guerilla operations. It took much time to restore momentum to the Mukti Bahini operations.
JP added his powerful voice in its support in ad dressing a two-day Bihar State Conference on Bangladesh on 6 July 1971, declaring that “the country, the Government and the people are unworthy if these are not prepared for a war,” implying that India should be prepared to fight Pakistan to solve the Bangladesh problem. He stressed that the “defeat of Bangladesh will be defeat of India.” It is significant that this call for war to settle the issue was given at the onset of the monsoon, when a major offensive in the western and eastern wings was no longer feasible.
“¦after the initial setback to the Mukti Bahini operations caused by Tikka Khans repressive measures, the insurgent movement was organised on a firmer footing by setting up several camps for equipping and training the force properly, as well as for coordination, planning and better command and control of guerilla operations.
The magnitude of the problem created by the refugee influx was never appreciated correctly by the international community, which viewed developments from a distance and was fed with contradictory facts and figures by India and Pakistan which were utterly confusing. On 6 May, R. K. Khadilkar, Mrs Gandhi’s Minister for Labour and Rehabilitation, told newsmen that about one and a half million refuges had arrived in West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Bihar and had been lodged in about 150 camps.
The Government expected many more millions to come, and “the cost of these relief operations finally will obviously be beyond the capacity of India to bear singlehanded.” Till then, India had spent about Rs 100 million on the refugees, but the costs were ultimately expected to be much more. Accordingly, the Indian Government requested the UN Food and Agriculture organisation (FAO) for emergency assistance in the form of rice, wheat, pulses, milk powder and cooking oil.
India also appealed to the “democratic forces of the world to rise above normal diplomatic and political considerations and help in finding as early and satisfactory solution of this great and tragic human problem.” Various international aid agencies, including the World. Food Programme, the World Congress of Churches and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), contributed generously to meet the urgent needs of the refugees. UN Secretary General U Thant appealed on behalf of all the UN organisations on 19 May to both member-governments and private bodies and other sources and hoped his appeal would have “a positive and generous response.”
He said that while the extent of refugees and their needs could not be assessed with accuracy “in view of the fluid situation,” there was “conclusive evidence of the presence of large numbers of people from East Pakistan in India,” and emergency assistance was required to provide them with food, clothes, shelter, medical relief and other essentials. He added that he fully shared the serious concern of the international community at the plight of these refugees, and expressed the hope that “these unfortunate people will be voluntarily repatriated at the earliest possible time.” Meanwhile, massive external assistance on an emergency basis was warranted.
After the visit, he stated: “I was depressed to see the situation in which the refugees were coming over to India, which despite its difficulties had taken care of the refugees well.
A UN mission, led by Charles Mace, visited the relief camps to assess the refugee problem at firsthand. After the visit, he stated: “I was depressed to see the situation in which the refugees were coming over to India, which despite its difficulties had taken care of the refugees well.” Mrs Gandhi made it absolutely clear to all concerned that the “cruel tragedy” in East Pakistan was damaging India economically, socially and emotionally. This was no propaganda, nor a figment of anybody’s imagination. The Happenings there were no longer only India’s problem but a worldwide one. She appealed to the international community to appreciate the very critical situation that had developed. Any failure to do so would lead to disastrous consequences. She asserted that any foreign help to Pakistan would be used against the people of Bangladesh.
Senator Kennedy had already warned the Americans that “it is our military hardware, our guns, tanks and aircraft which are contributing to the sufferings, and this is being done in violation of negotiated agreements on the use of US military aid.” Mrs Gandhi made it known that unlike in the past India would not suffer the burden of the deliberate expulsion of such a large number of people by Pakistan without demanding a price for it. She also demanded that Pakistan should halt the terrorism of its army. In a note to Pakistan on compensation, India referred to the relevant provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which guaranteed the right of persons to return to their country. Pakistan was reminded that it had shown utter indifference to the fate of the refugees, who were after all Pakistani nationals.
Exasperated by the inaction displayed by the international community, and having gained a breathing space from the onset of the monsoon, Mrs Gandhi assumed a militant tone in her speeches. She rebutted Yahya Khan’s allegation of Indian interference in Pakistan’s internal affairs and affirmed India’s right to retaliate, adding that she was not deterred by threats. She said “if a situation is thrust upon us, then we are fully prepared to fight.” She challenged Yahya Khan’s claim that normalcy was returning to East Pakistan and said “if that is so, Pakistan should immediately call back the refugees.”
Mrs Gandhi made it known that unlike in the past India would not suffer the burden of the deliberate expulsion of such a large number of people by Pakistan without demanding a price for it.
Meanwhile, the flow of refugees into India went on unabated, further burdening the country’s sagging economy and inflaming popular passions. Impartial foreign dignitaries like Kennedy and Mace appreciated India’s concern and attempted to invoke world opinion to make Yahya Khan see reason. A notable contribution, albeit a little partisan towards Pakistan, was made by Prince Sadruddin Agha Khan, then United Nations Commissioner for Refugee Relief, who visited Pakistan immediately after a tour of the refugee camps in India and persuaded Yahya Khan to move in the matter.
On 30 June 1971, Prince Sadruddin rebutted the Pakistani allegation that India was obstructing the return of refugees to East Bengal. This was in answer to Tikka Khan’s allegation, made to a group of visiting members of Parliament from Britain, that left to themselves, 99 per cent of the refugees would come back. A British MP had reported earlier that fear and lack of confidence pervaded the refugees, and that there were no signs that the situation would improve significantly or rapidly. He favoured a political settlement in East Bengal, and felt that this would be the only real incentive to the refugees to return to their homes.
Meanwhile, the flow of refugees into India went on unabated, further burdening the countrys sagging economy and inflaming popular passions.
The Pakistani side of the story is summed up by Fazal Muqeem thus : “As far as the armed forces were concerned, till the end of May 1971 there was a purpose behind the operations—the establishment of the government authority. After that a political solution should have followed, but unfortunately it was not forthcoming. Therefore, from June onwards there was no purpose in a military action and the futility of the fight was becoming obvious. The use of force without the backing of political and diplomatic action was achieving nothing. East and West Pakistan could not be kept together with force alone. If there was any misunderstanding that Bengali nationalism was still confined to a minority of extremists, it should have been cleared by the happenings of the preceding few months.” The President and his advisers were however adamant in keeping East Pakistan under the heel of the military boot.
Fazal Muqeem further describes Yahya Khan’s dilemma thus: “The President had placed himself in an extremely difficult political position. After having declared Mujibur Rahman a traitor, and having dispersed the Awami League higher command, he could not easily fill the vacuum. Whatever the difficulties, he had to move fast to produce a political solution… However, the urgency of the situation seemed to escape the President. Later, he did make a half-hearted attempt to recreate the central authority in the province, but only with the rejected people, and that too when it was too late.”
In response to the Prime Minister’s call, and also in deference to international and humanitarian pressures, Yahya Khan offered to take back the refugees, but with certain stipulations. He said that bona fide Pakistani citizens who had left their homes “owing to disturbed conditions and for other reasons” were welcome to return to their homes in East Pakistan, where, according to him, law and order had been restored and “life was fast returning to normal.” He charged India with circulating highly exaggerated and distorted accounts of events, and this had led to the refugee influx. The number of refugees had been inflated by adding to them the unemployed and homeless in West Bengal.