Bangladesh honoured its biggest benefactor Indira Gandhi in 2011, 40 years after liberation
The Indian Army, actively assisted by the Mukti Bahini, reached Dacca within 11 days. A defeated and demoralised 93,000-strong Pakistan Army was made to surrender on December 16.
Fifty years ago on March 26, 1971 Sheikh Mujibur Rahman declared Bangladesh an independent country. The Awami League under his leadership had won a massive majority in the provincial legislature and in all but two of East Pakistan’s quota of seats in the new National Assembly, thus gaining a clear majority.
The largest party in West Pakistan was the Pakistan Peoples’ Party headed by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who threatened to boycott the assembly and oppose the government if Mujib was invited by Gen. Yahya Khan, then President of Pakistan, to become Pakistan’s Prime Minister despite the fact that he had won an overall majority. Mujib was left with no option but to start a civil disobedience movement; he was soon arrested.
Dark clouds started gathering over India’s eastern border. On March 25, 1971, the Pakistani military junta began a crackdown on the people of East Pakistan. It soon turned into a large-scale genocide. The atrocities committed by the Pakistan Army gave rise to the birth of Mukti Bahini, a potent guerrilla force and the face of Bengali resistance.
By November 1971, the number of refugees from East Bengal in India had reached 10 million. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi rose to the challenge with determination and a renewed confidence acquired after having won a massive mandate in the Lok Sabha elections. Throughout the crisis, she acted not only with immense courage but also abundant caution. She did not want to strengthen the Pakistani propaganda that the movement for autonomy in East Pakistan was nothing but an Indian conspiracy, neither did she want to do anything which would lead to India being accused of violating international law and norms.
In following a policy of restraint, Mrs. Gandhi had two other major considerations. First, if it was to be war, it should come at a time of India’s choosing. She agreed with Army chief Sam Manekshaw that military operations in East Pakistan could not be undertaken during the monsoon. The Himalayan passes too would get snowbound only in winter making it impossible for China to send troops to the aid of Pakistan. Complementing the Army chief’s view was Foreign Minister Swaran Singh, who advised restraint till all diplomatic options were exhausted.
A strategic and military success
The Prime Minister followed a multi-pronged strategy. She realised that international opinion had to be won over to the cause of Bangladesh and the world made aware of India’s unbearable burden of refugees. From July to November 1971, Mrs. Gandhi and Swaran Singh globetrotted across the Western world, attempting to build a consensus to force a UN resolution condemning Pakistani atrocities in Bangladesh. India not only gave sanctuary to the Bangladeshi government-in-exile but also trained and equipped the Mukti Bahini.
To secure itself against a possible U.S.-China intervention in case events led to war, India signed on August 9, a 20-year Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation. The treaty provided for immediate mutual consultations and appropriate effective measures in case of either country being subjected to a military threat.
Mrs. Gandhi, who prepared for the war by November-end, was reluctant to take action first, even though December 4, 1971, had been designated as the day the Indian armed forces would directly undertake the liberation of Bangladesh. At this stage, however, Yahya Khan obliged: Pakistan’s Air Force launched a surprise attack on December 3 on eight military airfields in western India, hoping to inflict serious damage on the Indian Air Force and also internationalise the Bangladesh issue. The bid failed in both its objectives.
India immediately recognised Bangladesh and backed it with strong military action. The Indian strategy was to hold the Pakistani forces in the western sector through strong defensive action, while waging a short, swift and decisive war in the east. The U.S. government moved two resolutions in the UN Security Council proposing a ceasefire and mutual troop withdrawal, but these were vetoed by the Soviet Union.
In desperation President Richard Nixon ordered the American Seventh Fleet to set sail for the Bay of Bengal. But India’s ‘Iron Lady’ was not to be cowed down by any threat. She asked Manekshaw to direct the Eastern Command to speed up operations. The Indian Army, actively assisted by the Mukti Bahini, virtually ran through East Bengal and reached Dacca within 11 days. A defeated and demoralised 93,000-strong Pakistan Army led by Lt. Gen. A.A.K. Niazi was made to surrender on December 16. The following day, the Indian government announced a unilateral ceasefire on the western front.
Pakistan was reported to have lost half its navy, a quarter of its air force and a third of its army. The war stripped the nation of more than half of its population. Bangladesh was founded, and 10 million refugees returned to their homeland with cries of ‘Joy Indira Gandhi, Joy Bangladesh’. While A.B. Vajpayee, then a 47-year-old parliamentarian, likened Indira Gandhi to “Durga”, The Economist dubbed her “Empress of India”. It was Indira’s, and India’s, finest hour.
It is also worthwhile to recall with gratitude the names of other eminent heroes of the 1971 war. With General (later Field Marshal) S.H.F.J. “Sam” Manekshaw as Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), who brilliantly led and planned the overall war strategy, the three Army commanders were Lt. Generals J.S. Arora (Eastern Command), K.P. Candeth (Western Command) and G.G. Bewoor (Southern Command). Lt. Generals T.N. Raina, M.M. Thapan and Sagat Singh were affiliated to the Eastern Command with Maj. Gen. J.F.R. Jacob as chief of staff.
The Western Command also had three corps commanders — Lt. Generals Sartaj Singh, N.C. Rawlley and K.K. Singh. The Navy, headed by Adm. S.M. Nanda, Chief of Naval Staff, had two distinguished FOCs-in-C in Vice-Admirals S.N. Kohli (Western Naval Command) and N. Krishnan (Eastern Naval Command). Similarly, the IAF led by Air Chief Marshal P.C. Lal had two AOCs-in-C — Air Marshal M.M. Engineer (Western Air Command) and H.C. Dewan (Eastern Air Command), whose pilots dominated the skies with their outstanding skills and valour.
Like Y.B. Chavan in 1965, Jagjivan Ram as defence minister was a great asset and was popular with the troops. A morale-raising phrase from his speech to sailors soon after the war is worth quoting: “Ghazi ko tabah kiya, Niyazi ko sabak diya” (You have destroyed the Ghazi and taught Niazi a lesson). The Lightning Campaign, by Maj. Gen. D.K, Palit, VrC, reflects the views of many historians, military and civil: “The firm and confident political handling of the problem by Mrs Gandhi and her government was matched by the sophisticated management, direction and leadership of the Indian armed forces.”
In recognition of his exemplary military leadership in the war, Gen Manekshaw was promoted to the rank of India’s first Field Marshal and also bestowed with a Padma Vibushan on Republic Day 1972, the day when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was honoured with a Bharat Ratna. That was India’s, and Indira’s greatest moment.
The highest Bangladesh award – the Bangladesh Swadhinata Samman (Bangladesh Freedom Honour) – was conferred on the late PM for her outstanding contributions to the Bangladesh Liberation war in 2011, 40 years after the historic event. It was received by Congress President Sonia Gandhi from Bangladesh President Zillur Rahman in Dacca on July 25, 2011.
(The writer is a political analyst and columnist. Views are personal)