1971: When Indira Gandhi outwitted Nixon

An American Gallup poll in 1971 voted Indira Gandhi as the most admired person in the world.

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Ashis Ray

In March 1966, Indira Gandhi undertook her first foreign visit as Prime Minister. The World Bank and the IMF were demanding devaluation of the Rupee, foreign exchange reserves were dwindling and domestic food production was insufficient. But she refused to give an impression of venturing out with a weak hand.

Indeed, she deftly turned on a charm offensive with a bouffant hairstyle, make-up and attractive silk saris. US President Lyndon Johnson was enraptured. A private meeting between the two at the residence of the Indian ambassador — with the incumbent of the White House incessantly gulping glasses of whisky — extended well beyond schedule; and Johnson, breaking protocol, merrily stayed on for dinner.

At the White House banquet, Johnson was desperate to dance with Indira. This she politely declined, explaining to him this would make her unpopular in India. He emotionally remarked to his aides he wanted to see ‘no harm comes to this girl’. During the visit, Indira skillfully stated ‘India understood America’s agony over Vietnam’. Johnson responded by pledging three million tons of food and $9 million in aid to India.

But she was uncompromising on Kashmir. In a speech in New York, she said: ‘It is now too late to talk of a plebiscite. The second invasion of Kashmir by Pakistan last autumn has destroyed whatever marginal or academic value the old United Nations resolution might have had…any plebiscite now would definitely amount to questioning the integrity of India. It would raise the issue of secession — an issue on which the United States fought a civil war… we cannot and will not tolerate a second partition of India on religious grounds.’

In contrast, her meeting with Johnson’s successor Richard Nixon was insipid. When they met in November 1971, he was unsympathetic to her plea that ‘the problem (of millions of people fleeing to India after facing persecution by the Pakistani military in East Pakistan) is an international one’. According to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s comments afterwards ‘were not always printable’.

Indira then, characteristically, appealed directly to the American people. ‘I have come here looking for a deeper understanding of the situation in our part of the world,’ she said in an address.

In any case, she had taken out an insurance. In September 1971, USSR’s President Leonid Brezhnev and Premier Alexei Kosygin had assured her in Moscow of Soviet military aid should India be compelled to go to war. This capped the Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty signed between the two countries the previous month.

On December 3, 1971, the Pakistani air force pre-emptively bombed nine Indian air bases. With this, Pakistan became the official aggressor. Indira was in Kolkata addressing a mammoth rally at the city’s legendary Brigade Parade Grounds when the Pakistanis struck. She was, in a way, relieved, for, though fully prepared, she had been reluctant to attack first. That night she held an emergency meeting of the cabinet and met with opposition leaders. At midnight she broadcast to the nation that this was a ‘war forced on us’.

The next morning, she informed Parliament: ‘For over nine months the military regime of West Pakistan has barbarously trampled upon freedom and basic human rights in Bangladesh. The army of occupation has committed heinous crimes unmatched for their vindictive ferocity. Many millions have been uprooted, ten million have been pushed into our country. We repeatedly drew the attention of the world to this annihilation of a whole people, to this menace to our security. Everywhere the people showed sympathy and understanding for the economic and other burdens and danger to India. But governments seemed morally and politically paralysed…’

That night — 4 December 1971 — timed to take advantage of a full moon, India retaliated with a multi-pronged assault on Dhaka. Two days later, she announced India’s recognition of Bangladesh as an independent nation to thunderous applause in Parliament.

Nixon despatched the US 7th fleet to the Bay of Bengal to try and unnerve India. China indulged in verbal threats. A Soviet fleet tailed the American navy into the Bay of Bengal to checkmate both. Nixon then threateningly described the Indian manoeuvre as ‘aggression’ against Pakistan.

At 5 pm on December 16, General Sam Manekshaw, the Indian chief of army staff, rang Indira to convey that Indian forces guided by the Bengali Mukti Bahini had liberated Dhaka and Pakistani troops had surrendered unconditionally.

Rushing to Parliament, she declared: ‘Dhaka is now the free capital of a free country. This House and the entire nation rejoice in this historic event. We hail the people of Bangladesh in their hour of triumph.’ The military victory apart, it was foreign policy coup d’etat. An American Gallup poll in 1971 voted Indira Gandhi as the most admired person in the world.

(Ashis Ray, the longest serving Indian foreign correspondent, covered several of Indira Gandhi’s foreign tours. November 19 is Indira Gandhi’s birth anniversary).

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