Today in 1971 Pakistani Army surrendered to India in Dhaka: it was India’s finest hour  

1971 was the year when India helped liberate Bangladesh and divided Pakistan in the face of a hostile White House and threats from China. It was Indira Gandhi’s finest hour too

Today in 1971 Pakistani Army surrendered to India in Dhaka: it was India’s finest hour  

Arun Sharma

It is said that when Indira Gandhi was born, the Nehru women were not pleased. They wanted a boy. ‘It should have been a son’, her grandmother said. This outraged Motilal Nehru, the Nehru patriarch and Indira’s grandfather.

‘This daughter of Jawahar’, he said, ‘for all we know, may prove better than a thousand sons’. The comment silenced the women. Indira Priyadarshini was to prove that prophesy right over and over again, most notably in the run up to the Bangladesh War. It was certainly Indira’s finest hour.

A political crisis had erupted in East Pakistan in the first quarter of 1971 when the military dictator of Pakistan, General Yahya Khan refused to cede power to Mujib’s Awami League which had won 151 of the 153 seats in East Pakistan and total of 167 of the total 313 seats over the whole of Pakistan. Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party won 82, less than half the number won by the Awamis. Mujib had the mandate. With strikes in Dacca, a civil disobedience movement started.

General Yahya Khan responded by appointing General Tikka Khan as Martial Law Administrator in Dacca. ‘Sort them out’, he is reported to have told Tikka Khan, and left him to do the rest. Tikka Khan unleashed his troops on the people leading to torture, murder and rapes. Mujib was arrested and flown to West Pakistan. The frightened East Pakistanis were now fleeing in thousands towards the Indian borders. By the end of November 1971, nearly 10 million had crossed over to India. They had to be sheltered, clothed and fed. It was now a humanitarian crisis as well.

On 31 March, less than a week after General Yahya Khan had unleashed his reign of terror, Indira stood up in the Lok Sabha to express India’s sympathy and solidarity with the people of ‘East Bengal’. From the very beginning, she made it out to be a human problem.

‘Committed as we are to uphold and defend human rights’ she said, ‘this House demands immediate cessation of the use of force and massacre of defenceless people. This House calls upon all the peoples and governments of the world to take urgent and constructive steps to prevail upon the Government of Pakistan to put an end immediately to the systematic decimation of the people which amounts to genocide.’

The global situation in March 1971 was, however, not particularly in favour of India. The U.S. was openly behind Yahya Khan, the military dictator of Pakistan while Bhutto, the head of Pakistan’s People’s Party had his benefactors in China. Henry Kissinger, President Nixon’s national security advisor, who arrived in Delhi on 7 July 1971 for a brief visit, during his extended tour of Asia is reported to have made clear to Indira and P.N.Haksar ‘that if India and Pakistan went to war over Bangladesh, the United States would not be prepared to help India’.(Katherine Frank, Indira: The Life of Indira Gandhi).

‘While the grumbling guns of the U.S. and China sounded backstage’, writes, Dom Moraes, ‘Mrs Gandhi reflected: then delicate as a deer or a chess player, she moved: on 9 August 1971, India signed a twenty- year treaty of peace, cooperation and friendship with the U.S.S.R. Each country agreed to come to the military defence of the other in case of need. The bear had now come on the scene, watching while the eagle and dragon flapped their wings overhead: a dubious eagle since most liberal opinion in the U.S. was in firm opposition to the support by Nixon and Kissinger of Yahya Khan. She timed her move to perfection.”

In September 1971, Indira, accompanied by PN Haksar, travelled to the Soviet Union. There she highlighted that what was happening in Bangladesh could no longer be regarded a domestic issue. It was not also an India-Pakistan dispute. After talks with Brezhnev and Kosygin, Indira left with a promise of Soviet military aid should India go to war with Pakistan over Bangladesh.

Scarcely a month later, Indira accompanied by Haksar and Foreign Secretary embarked on a tour of Belgium, France, Austria, West Germany, Britain and the United States to draw world attention to the plight of Bangladesh.

Indira Gandhi’s encounter with President Nixon which happened on 4th and 5th November 1971 when the two met at the White House Oval office is often recalled by many of her admirers as a tribute to the Iron Lady. Indira was at her best during the talks while Nixon was at his worst. Katherine Frank mentions that Nixon bore a grudge against Indira for the restrained reception during his visit to India three years before, compared with the rousing welcome given to Eisenhower in 1956. Moreover, she intimidated him. According to Kissinger, writes Frank, Indira brought out all of Nixon’s latent insecurities.

Katherine Frank gives a graphic description of a part of the meeting: After the press photographers left, Indira opened up the discussion by commending Nixon’s policy in Vietnam and China ‘in the manner of a professor praising a slightly backward student’. She did not improve her position by then going on to point out how, with regard to China, ‘Nixon had consummated what India had recommended for more than a decade’. Nixon controlled his anger with ‘glassy-eyed politeness’. Haksar and Kissinger sat ‘dumbly’ on their sofas.

On the second day, ‘when Nixon kept Indira waiting forty-five minutes in the ante-room before arriving at the Oval Office, Indira was livid and repaid his rudeness with finesse, by making no reference to Pakistan at all during the ensuing discussion. Instead, Indira asked Nixon ‘penetrating questions about (American)…. foreign policy elsewhere. Indira rejected Nixon’s idea of giving the Pakistani regime two years to come to terms with the situation in the East. She also told Nixon ‘in no uncertain terms that India would be forced to retaliate if Pakistan continued its provocations across (India’s) border’.

Sensing the liberal opinion in the U.S., Indira appealed directly to the American public over Nixon’s head. In an emotive speech she described how she was ‘haunted by the tormented faces in our overcrowded refugee camps reflecting the grim events which have compelled the exodus of these millions from East Pakistan. I have come here looking for a deeper understanding of the situation in our part of the world.’ Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, she explained why any sort of understanding with General Yahya Khan was out of question. It was impossible, she said, to ‘shake hands with a clenched fist’.

All hopes of peace had now exhausted. The situation could explode any time. Indira, however, decided that India would still not be the aggressor. She needed an opportunity to strike.

That opportunity came when Pakistan on 3 December 1971 bombed nine Indian air-bases in the Western sector. Indira declared war on 4 December. The rest, as the phrase goes, is history. East Pakistan was liberated by Indian troops and Bangladeshi Mukti Bahini. Dhaka fell on December 16.

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