Yahya Khan asserted that the genuine refugees from East Pakistan numbered only 2 million, and he was prepared to accept back only this number and no more. This would have left about 8 million as India’s responsibility. As a pre-requisite for their return, he proposed that an observer group under the aegis of the UN should be stationed along the international border between East Pakistan and India, ostensibly to superintend the return of the refugees but actually to observe and report on India’s involvement in the Mukti Bahini movement.
As for a political solution, he promised to call the National Assembly in due course. This was only a pretence as most of the members had either been killed or driven into India. About a hundred of them had been detained unlawfully by presidential decree and the seats thus declared vacant had been filled by uncontested elections under Tikka Khan’s rule.
A puppet had been appointed Prime Minister in Islamabad, and another as Governor of East Pakistan, replacing the unpopular Tikka Khan. Power still remained with Yahya Khan at the centre as President, and in East Pakistan with Tikka Khan, and later with Niazi, as Martial Law Administrator.
But the moment India echoed the voice of the Bangladesh government-in-exile, that nothing less than complete independence would do, these governments recoiled from their earlier conciliatory mood.
These conditions for the return of the refugees were unacceptable to India. According to New Delhi the pre-requisite for their return was the creation of a favourable political atmosphere, which meant handing over power to Mujibur Rahman and the Awami League, the duly elected leaders of the people of Bangladesh, and nothing less. Posting UN observers in India was ridiculous as the international press had free access to the border and their reports were there for the world to see and hear. These conditions could only be created by Yahya Khan. And if he failed to do so on his own it was for the world powers to persuade him to do so.
Hope of a solution through Mukti Bahini action had receded, for it was apparent that it would take such a movement years to unloosen the military stranglehold on Bangladesh. On the other hand, Yahya Khan was threatening total war on India if New Delhi decided to back up the return of the refugees with force. Under the circumstances, restive public opinion forced the Government to contemplate the extreme step of military intervention if other alternatives failed. The service chiefs were given the go ahead to plan and carry out preparations to meet the contingency.
Initially, most foreign governments, including that of the US, had reacted favourably to New Delhi’s diplomatic approaches, but only so long as they sensed that the Indian demands were “moderate,” namely stopping Tikka Khan’s crackdown, releasing Mujibur Rahman and granting some sort of provincial autonomy to East Pakistan. But the moment India echoed the voice of the Bangladesh government-in-exile, that nothing less than complete independence would do, these governments recoiled from their earlier conciliatory mood. Especially so when India turned down the proposal for UN observers, as they suggested that India definitely had something to hide.
The Pakistani military regimes reckless brutality had landed it in a morass. Pakistan must realise that only a settlement with the representatives of Bangladesh would solve the problem.
The more international pressure became ineffective the more India was pushed closer to thinking of war, and the closer thinking got to war the more it alienated international opinion. Yahya Khan fully exploited this in many capitals, actively encouraged by his chief backer President Nixon. He repeated his earlier offer, which on the surface seemed to meet India’s demands. The US openly supported him. The visit of Nixon’s special adviser Henry Kissinger to Islamabad, and going from there on a secret flight to Peking, underlined the understanding between Washington and Islamabad, and to this development India could no longer remain passive.
On 19 July 1971, Yahya Khan declared in an interview with a correspondent of the Financial Times, London, that “if India made any attempt to seize any part of East Pakistan” this would be treated as an attack on Pakistan. “I shall declare war, let the world note. Nor will Pakistan be alone.” Replying to the threat of war, India’s Minister for External Affairs Swaran Singh said Pakistan had been all along trying to mislead world opinion by asserting that Pakistan’s problem was with India and not with the pepole of Bangladesh. The Pakistani military regime’s reckless brutality had landed it in a morass. Pakistan must realise that only a settlement with the representatives of Bangladesh would solve the problem. But so long as it did not realise this, the activities of the Mukti Bahini would increase. And if Pakistan made this an excuse to, launch an attack on India, “we will defend ourselves.”
Friendly diplomatic circles suggested India should seek its own solution rather than wait for others to solve its problems. New Delhi, alienated by the US, turned to the Soviet Union in its difficulties. After a dramatic exchange of visits between D.P. Dhar, and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, signature of an Indo-Soviet treaty of peace and friendship was announced on 9 August 1971. The news was received in India with great acclaim by all sections of political opinion. It was akin to a breath of fresh air in the existing tension-laden atmosphere.
Article 9 of the treaty was particularly significant. It “provided for consultation between the two countries in case of war or threat of war to either of them with a view of removing the threat.” This treaty took care of the threat of Chinese intervention in the event of hostliities between India and Pakistan and ensured better procurement of much-needed weaponry and other equipment for the armed forces. Pakistan and China reacted violently to the treaty.
The Russians offered a similar treaty to Pakistan if it pulled out of SEATO and CENTO, but this was rejected. Considerably emboldened, Mrs Gandhi told the nation on Independence Day from the ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi : “We do not want war. We do not rattle sabres. But India is prepared for any emergency.” The warning was very clear. Meanwhile, the monsoon rains were nearing their end and within a month or so military operations would be possible. Tension was mounting on either side of the India-Pakistan border. In a widely publicised interview with Pierre Bois, special correspondent of Le Figaro of Paris, on 1 September, Yahya Khan declared that “if the Indians imagine that they can take part of my territory without provoking war, they will commit a grave error… Let me warn you and the world that this means war, total war, which I hate. But I will not hesitate for the defence of my country.”
Pakistan Peoples Party chief Z.A. Bhutto, whose party won 85 of the 144 assembly seats from West Pakistan and was the largest party in the country after the ban on the Awami League, warned Yahya Khan that “chaos would result from a delay in the power transfer.”
For international consumption, Yahya Khan made a semblance of handing over the civil administration of Pakistan to the so-called duly elected representatives of the people in a broadcast to the nation on 18 September. He offered to consider proposals from the reconstituted National Assembly of amending the constitution he planned to give Pakistan. He made it clear however that he would retain the right to veto the amendments. His plan envisaged the preparation of a constitution by a committee nominated by him.
This constitution was to be presented to the National Assembly when it met after by-elections to fill the seats of the Awami League members whom he had disqualified. He set the date for these elections between 25 November and 9 December 1971. This was a deliberate attempt on his part to delay the transfer of power to the elected representatives of the people. Pakistan People’s Party chief Z.A. Bhutto, whose party won 85 of the 144 assembly seats from West Pakistan and was the largest party in the country after the ban on the Awami League, warned Yahya Khan that “chaos would result from a delay in the power transfer.”