Military & Aerospace

1971: The Gradual Escalation - IV
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Unfortunately, this did not happen as the Russians continued to strive to wean Pakistan away from China.

Yahya Khan had hastened the process by arranging Kissinger’s clandestine flight to Peking in July. The Russians did not view the developing US-China axis connived at by Pakistan with favour, and this possibly hastened the signature of the treaty between India and the Soviet Union. The treaty encouraged India to adopt a stronger stance in relation to Pakistan than possible until then. The Indian Foreign Minister declared that India could count on Soviet aid under the treaty. Although he did not spell it out in so many words, it was construed that he implied aid against Chinese intervention.

The visit of a Soviet military team to assess India’s needs was announced, and this left no doubt among the countries concerned about the scope of the treaty. Throughout this period, till Yahya triggered the war in December 1971, Moscow continued to dissuade New Delhi from intervening militarily in East Pakistan. It is now known that the Russian leaders advised Mrs Gandhi on her Moscow visit the previous October against such a step.

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Reportedly, Brezhnev cautioned her saying: “Remember Vietnam.” What worried the Soviet leaders was perhaps the extent of involvement Indian military action might lead the Soviet Union into if India got bogged down on the battlefield. China might be tempted to intervene to take advantage of India’s military difficulties.

And how would Washington react to Chinese intervention? The US might come to the rescue of Pakistan, its friend and ally, in coalition with China, a newly found friend. In that event, the Soviet Union was expected to come to India’s aid, and this might lead to global war. This was a course Moscow wished to avoid. But after years of waiting the Chinese had recently won the respectability of a place in the UN and its Security Council.

The Russians did not view the developing US-China axis connived at by Pakistan with favour, and this possibly hastened the signature of the treaty between India and the Soviet Union.

They were not likely to risk tarnishing their new image and embarking on a course of collision with the Russians in a hurry, especially when 40-odd Red Army divisions stood on the northern border of China in instant readiness for combat. The very great temptation of an easy military victory was accordingly necessary to make China intervene militarily in the quarrel between India and Pakistan.

It was imperative that military action to solve the Bangladesh issue should be brought to a swift conclusion. The Soviet leaders doubted India’s military as well as political capability to do so till events later belied their fears in this regard. That is why, up to the very end, they went on advising restraint and favoured a political solution short of war. India was in a great predicament for Yahya Khan, abetted by China and the US, was leading India into a war of Pakistan’s making while India’s friend Russia, hoping to retain some influence with Yahya Khan, was holding India back. Eventually, India decided to go it alone, hoping the Soviet Union would intervene if the other big powers came to the aid of Pakistan. India’s self-assurance at this juncture surprised friend and foe alike.

Book_India_wars_sinceAlong with political parleys, military preparations were continuing on both sides of the border to meet any contingency. The aim of Tikka Khan’s toughness had been amply achieved by the end of May 1971. Military repression had flushed out dissidents and terrified the remainder of the population into submission and they were looking forward to normalisation. The time was ripe for a political solution, but Yahya Khan and his advisers preferred to hold East Pakistan in the grip of terror. Actually, he had put himself in an awkward situation politically. By outlawing the Awami League, dubbing Mujibur Rahman a traitor, and generally expelling the insurgent leadership to India, he had created a political vacuum difficult to fill.Yahya Khan’s dilemma was that the longer he delayed a political solution the more fertile ground he provided for guerilla warfare. The absence of a political leadership which could fill the vacuum denied him the opportunity of a viable solution. As generally happens in such situations, he let matters drift, in the hope that they would find their own solutions, till August 1971, when a compromise came his way. Tikka Khan was replaced as governor by Dr A. M. Malik, a retired East Pakistani civil servant, thus giving the impression that civil authority had been restored.

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Tikka Khan, who had after the initial brutalities of the military managed to settle down to dealing with the economic and political problems of East Pakistan, was recalled to West Pakistan for another assignment. It was believed that his transfer was brought about by international pressures backed by adverse public opinion at his atrocities. The prevalent tension in East Pakistan could not be eased while he continued at the helm of affairs.

Before Niazi took over, an operational instruction for the defence of East Pakistan was issued. This was based on a series of war games held at formation levels under the code name Titu Mir.

The choice of Niazi to replace Tikka Khan was unfortunate for Pakistan. Whereas Tikka Khan had a dedicated application to national aims and political vision, Niazi was essentially a battalion commander in a general’s uniform. He inherited a delicate task of great politico-military significance, coupled with fighting insurgency in his command, well away from the hub of the decision-making headquarters in Islamabad. The situation in East Pakistan was out of the usual run and too complex for a conventional soldier. The post Niazi held required a man capable of thinking for himself and taking momentous decisions in a crisis, and then executing them without guidance or supervision as his higher-ups were too far removed physically to be aware of developments.

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