Military & Aerospace

1971: The Gradual Escalation - III
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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.

Book_India_wars_sinceMore stories poured in from East Pakistan through Senator Turney, who charged the martial law authorities with misuse of American aid. On 4 October, he said in the House of Representatives that US relief funds were apparently being used to bribe people to conform or starve them into submission. “Too much of our present effort is being converted by the Government and the army into their own use rather than being used to assist the starving people,” he said, adding that the US had made “the mistake of allowing its food supplies to be distributed by the Martial Law Administration.” He asked: “How can one possibly expect that an army which has spent the last several months murdering, raping, ravaging and torturing people of East Bengal will suddenly distribute food in a humanitarian manner?”Official US policy was “counter-productive,” he said, and “has not produced peace. It had not produced a realistic promise of heading off the impending starvation. All that it has produced is cruelty, bloodshed, and horror. American military equipment has been used to transport troops, and American arms have been used to kill Bengalis, and drive them out of their country.” This was a poor reflection on the Nixon Administration’s pro-Pakistan policies.

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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.

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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.

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