Military & Aerospace

1971: The Gradual Escalation - II
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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.

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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.

“¦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 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.”

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.”

Indian concentration on West Pakistans borders, they argued, would have acted as a check on denuding Pakistans military strength in the western wing.

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?

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.

The Government of India therefore hold Pakistan fully responsible for creating such conditions forthwith as would facilitate the return of these refugees

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.

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.

Editor’s Pick

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.

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