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.”
To crown it all, a statement was issued by the presidential office on 28 September to the effect that 20 prosecution witnesses had been heard in the secret trial of Sheikh Mujib and warned against speculation, which would prejudice the case. This was the first official word on the proceedings. The outcome of this rigged and one-sided trial was a foregone conclusion. The trial provoked serious reactions in India, Bangladesh Government circles inflaming passions further among the refugees and in the outside world. India and Pakistan were slowly moving to the point of no return.
It became necessary in September to take precautions to counter Pakistani thrusts into sensitive Indian territory. No responsible government could take chances with Yahya Khan, who might plunge both countries in war to avenge imaginary Indian wrongs. Troops hitherto located in the interior of India were concentrated close to the international borders opposite the eastern and western wings of Pakistan, especially along likely routes of ingress. This was done to reduce the time required in moving troops and material to their tactical positions vis-a-vis Pakistan. By virtue of its cantonments close to the border, Pakistan always had the advantage of quicker reaction over India.
Despite Pakistans accusations, the Indian Army and Air Force barely managed to complete their war deployment in a defensive posture by the third week of October.
Yahya Khan had completed the deployment of his troops in West Pakistan by about 12 October while the Indian formations were still on the move. His propaganda machine accused India of a thinly separated armed confrontation which might ignite into a shooting war any moment. By this propaganda, Pakistan emerged as the aggrieved party and India as a big bully who wanted to cow a weaker neighbour with threats of war. Despite Pakistan’s accusations, the Indian Army and Air Force barely managed to complete their war deployment in a defensive posture by the third week of October.
In an address to the Pakistani people on 12 October, Yahya Khan complained bitterly about India’s attempts at disintegrating Pakistan and the war-like concentration of Indian troops on Pakistan’s borders. He decried what he described as the enhanced belligerency of the Indian leaders. Fully conscious of the fresh accretion of strength India had derived from the Indo-Soviet treaty, he assured the Pakistanis that they were not alone. He was overplaying his American and China cards to achieve this effect.
Once militarily secure, Mrs Gandhi embarked on a final attempt to persuade the international community to persuade Yahya Khan to see reason and create a “favourable situation” for the refugees to return to their homes. She first went to Moscow and voiced India’s concern at events in East Pakistan at an official banquet. She said: “The growing agony of the people of East Bengal does not seem to have moved any governments. Our restraint has been appreciated only in words. The basic issue involved and the real threat to peace and stability in Asia are being largely ignored.” She further pleaded: “We cannot but be perturbed when a fire breaks out in a neighbour’s house.
By virtue of its cantonments close to the border, Pakistan always had the advantage of quicker reaction over India.
What happened in East Bengal can be no longer regarded as Pakistan’s domestic affair. More than 9 million East Bengali’s have come into our country. We cannot be expected to absorb them. We have problems enough of our own and we certainly do not need to add to our vast population.” The message was clear for the world to heed.
On her return to New Delhi, a foreign correspondent asked her at a press conference how she would respond to Yahya Khan’s proposal for a dialogue. She replied: “Nobody can prophesy these things. We can only say that we have been doing, and will continue to do, everything possible to avoid conflict. But the situation is a grave one. All along the border troops have been brought closer to the border on either side. Naturally, we have to look to our interests.” Then she added sardonically: “Everybody admires our restraint. We get verbal praise, but the others are not restrained, and they get arms as well.”
But Yahya Khan was in no mood to negotiate with a rebel.
On 23 October, the Prime Minister proceeded on a three-week tour of several Western countries, including the US, France, West Germany, Britain, Belgium and Australia. She explained that her mission “was necessary in the present situation to put across to the world leaders the reality of the situation in the subcontinent.” When questioned about the wisdom of leaving the country at such a critical juncture, she argued: “The final decision ultimately rests in our hands. But because the situation is so grave it is important that India should not speak or act in haste or anger.” In the Western capitals she visited, she mainly appealed for aid for the refugees, who were proving an unbearable burden on India. She emphasised the need for their early return to their homes, and in this regard she urged that pressure should be applied on Pakistan for an expeditious political settlement in East Pakistan.
She showed her willingness to meet Yahya Khan and discuss the issues facing the two countries, but any settlement in East Pakistan must be negotiated with its people and their elected leaders. That meant negotiating with Sheikh Mujib, then in captivity. Unless he was freed, no negotiations were possible as any settlements otherwise arrived at was likely to be misconstrued as having been contrived under duress. But Yahya Khan was in no mood to negotiate with a rebel. In Paris, repeating her offer to meet him, Mrs Gandhi commented: “But you know his position. How can you shake hands with a clenched first?” She assured the world that India would not assume the role of aggressor. But India was being pushed by Pakistan and its mentors into provocative situations which might force it to war.
This was not acceptable to India, and so Mrs Gandhi had to return home empty handed except for the vocal sympathy of some Western leaders.
Mrs Gandhi also allayed Western fears about India’s involvement with the Soviet Union. She reiterated that the Indo-Soviet treaty was not directed against any particular country and did not in any way compromise India’s neutrality or freedom of action. She was able to a great extent to internationalise the refugee question, and also succeeded in winning sympathy for the aspirations of the people of East Bengal and India’s interest in a just solution of their cause.
But in Washington Nixon remained unconvinced. Advised by Kissinger, he had his own solution to offer. He proposed that both sides should withdraw their troops from the common border as a pre-requisite to talks between India and Pakistan to settle the East Pakistan and connected problems. Meanwhile, a UN observer group should be posted on both sides of the India-East Pakistan border.
“¦ in a TV interview: “Did the United States suggest some plan of action which you felt you could not accept?” She replied: “No plan of action has been suggested to us.”
Nixon assured Mrs Gandhi that Yahya Khan was moving towards democratisation of East Pakistan and should be given time to find mutually satisfactory solutions. Although the President did not specify the time frame in which Yahya Khan was working, one may assume that his proposals were intended to serve three purposes. Firstly, the Mukti Bahini would be denied the momentum of their guerilla operations in East Pakistan. Secondly, sealed off by the UN observer group from outside interference, the Pakistani Army would be able to come down on the Mukti Bahini with a heavy hand.
Thirdly, India would miss the opportunity of military intervention once the cold season, when the risk of Chinese collusion was at its minimum, was over. India might then have to wait another year, and by that time the situation would be quite different. World opinion, and the international sympathy painstakingly won by the Indian political campaign, was likely to wane with the passage of time.
These proposals were obviously contrived to bail Yahya Khan, a staunch friend of Nixon, out of a crisis of his own making. Their net outcome appeared to be that the refugee burden would continue to be inflicted on India, until Yahya Khan created “favourable conditions” which were never to materialise. The type of phony democratisation he had in mind would never have satisfied the Bangladesh leaders. This was not acceptable to India, and so Mrs Gandhi had to return home empty handed except for the vocal sympathy of some Western leaders.
Nixon justified his decision by saying that the discontinuance of supplies would be construed by Yahya Khan as leverage to influence the domestic policies of Pakistan.
Nixon claimed later in a message to the US Congress that he had projected a timebound programme for a political solution for East Pakistan. On the other hand, Mrs Gandhi was asked in a TV interview: “Did the United States suggest some plan of action which you felt you could not accept?” She replied: “No plan of action has been suggested to us.” This was never contradicted.
In fact, it was rumoured that the Awami League had been financed by the US in the assembly elections in 1970. When Yahya Khan stayed on in East Pakistan against American advice, the official reaction in Washington was unfavourable. But it progressively improved with the initial success of the Pakistani Army’s repressive action.
American public opinion however protested against Tikka Khan’s brutal methods of repression and ruthless genocide, and the onset of the monsoon added to the army’s difficulties against the Mukti Bahini guerillas. From this period, US support on the political front appeared to be in a low key, but as soon as the rains were over and the army asserted itself, Washington’s support once again came to the fore. This fluctuation in American response was noticeable even in the Bangladesh war in December. If Niazi had not given up the struggle when he did, it was likely that the US Seventh Fleet would have intervened to get him out of his difficulties and the conflict would not have ended as swiftly as it did.
President Ayubs border settlement with China in the Karakorams, in the disputed territory in POK, and the subsequent construction of the highway joining Sinkiang in China with Gilgit in Pakistan, had ensured that Pakistan would get favoured treatment from Peking in time of need.
On the other hand, Yahya Khan counted heavily on China’s help for various reasons. From the time of the Chinese showdown with India in 1962, Peking’s foreign policy had always tilted towards Pakistan. To demonstrate this practically, aid in the form of military hardware had been pouring in to equip the Pakistani Army, especially when the US pipeline was blocked after the 1965 conflict. President Ayub’s border settlement with China in the Karakorams, in the disputed territory in the Pakistani-occupied region of Kashmir, and the subsequent construction of the highway joining Sinkiang in China with Gilgit in Pakistan, had ensured that Pakistan would get favoured treatment from Peking in time of need. On 13 April, Chou-En-lai promised to help Pakistan in maintaining its “territorial integrity” against all “external interference” and “the handful of people” in the eastern wing.
In an interview with Columbia Broadcasting System on 9 November Yahya Khan said: “The Chinese would intervene if India attacked Pakistan.” This impression was encouraged by the powerful pro-China lobby in Pakistan led by Bhutto. After acting the honest broker between Nixon and the Chinese rulers, Yahya Khan and his advisers counted on the Chinese adopting a more politically active, if not military, role than they had played in 1965.
The more the pro-Chinese lobby encouraged Yahya Khan in this thought the more heavily Pakistan strategy began to hinge on active Chinese support. The Pakistani, military planners calculated at least on their activating the northern frontiers of India so that the Indian Army would be so involved in holding actions against the Chinese that it would not be able to concentrate superior strength against East Pakistan. Anyhow, planning the potential threat of Chinese intervention was paying dividends to Pakistan. This was sufficient to deter India from pulling out troops facing the Chinese on the Himalayan border.
Lacking an industrial base and other necessary infrastructures, Pakistan knew fully well it would never compete with India in shaping a military machine on its own.
Bhutto, who led a Pakistani delegation to Peking as late as November 1971 to seek a defence pact with China as a counter to the Indo-Soviet treaty, told the press: “China will give any measure of support we need. It depends what we ask.” Pressed further, he elucidated: “China is fully and enthusiastically supporting Pakistan. We can expect the maximum assistance… India should have no illusion on this.” This was empty to talk and in fact if anybody was under an illusion it was Bhutto and his pro-China lobby, as the realities were altogether different. The Chinese were pragmatic to the extent that no joint statement was issued at the end of Bhutto’s negotiations.
Moreover, after the serious border clashes with the Soviet Union in 1969, China had been worried about a possible pre-emptive strike on its northern border, where about 40 Russian divisions were poised for action. With a threat of this magnitude close to its borders, China had to think twice before embarking on an adventure on the Indo-Tibetan border, especially in view of the Indo-Soviet treaty. Foreign correspondents based in Pakistan filed reports saying Bhutto had returned without any specific commitments from China. Answering a newsman, Bhutto said: “The question whether China would take any diversionary action in the north is a superfical matter.”
Pakistan got the full backing of the Western bloc in adopting this stance while India thrived on Soviet and Chinese support, and Nehru assumed leadership of the Third World.
Although the Chinese leaders continued to lead Pakistan on with promises of joint efforts to overcome difficulties, they showed great pragmatism in handling the issue. In his book Pakistani Crisis of Leadership, Fazal Muqeem accuses Yahya Khan of overplaying the “China card.” According to him, one Chinese diplomat, when questioned about the possibility of active Chinese aid to Pakistan, replied: “You know Russia is not afraid of China.” But India could not take a chance, unpredictable as the Chinese had proved earlier.
Where did the Soviet Union stand in the conflict? Ever since the partition of British India into Pakistan and India, these two countries had been antagonistic to each other on the very basis of this partition. Their outstandig disputes, especially Kashmir, had seen them moving in diametrically opposite directions. If one turned to Washington, the other veered towards Moscow and or Peking. The dominant factor for such contrary reactions was the mutual fear of undoing the partition by military action.
Weaker in economic and military potential, and awkwardly divided into two widely separated wings, Pakistan harboured a genuine fear that its bigger neighbour would swallow it. Lacking an industrial base and other necessary infrastructures, Pakistan knew fully well it would never compete with India in shaping a military machine on its own. Thus, in sheer desperation, it welcomed Dulles’ proposal that it should join pacts like SEATO and CENTO contrived to contain the expansion of Soviet and Chinese influence in Southeast Asia in 1950.
Bhutto and other militarist elements in Pakistan had accused Ayub Khan of not exploiting Indias difficulties with China to force a solution of the Kashmir problem by military action.
India had been made the same offer earlier, but Nehru had declined it in pursuance of his policy of non-alignment and thus won the esteem of both communist giants. Moscow and Peking were on the friendliest terms with New Delhi at that time. US military aid poured into Pakistan progressively enhancing its armed might, while India preferred to place its hope in Panchsheel. In the 1950s, military power on the Indian subcontinent tilted gradually but definitely in Pakistan’s favour in qualitative terms and this coupled with the emergency of a military dictatorship, made Pakistan more cocksure and aggressive in international political forums. Pakistan got the full backing of the Western bloc in adopting this stance while India thrived on Soviet and Chinese support, and Nehru assumed leadership of the Third World. This strange power balance between Pakistan’s military strength and Indian diplomacy might have continued without precipitating armed conflict for some time, but the Chinese invasion of India in 1962 upset the political equilibrium of the subcontinent, setting a new course of power polarisation.
Faced with a military debacle of Chinese creation in the Himalayas, Nehru openly appealed for the urgent intervention of US air power against the Chinese, in addition to a request for arms and equipment, on 20 November 1962. The Chinese very prudently extricated themselves the next day by declaring a unilateral ceasefire. Throughout the crisis Moscow remained neutral. Khrushchev termed it a domestic quarrel between a brother, China, and a friend, India. Mention of China as a brother was a significant pointer to where the Soviet preference lay.