How Indian diplomacy triumphed in 1971 despite Nixon weighing in on Pakistan’s side

It was the sole item of furniture in Chandrasekhar Dasgupta’s smart diplomatic apartment: a mattress flung on the middle of the floor. No chairs. Tables or even curtains. Every night Dasgupta returned home dog-tired and crashed onto the mattress and returned to the Indian mission the next morning

The place: Dhaka. The date: February 1972 onwards. In the immediate aftermath of the Bangladesh war,  the Indian mission was the nerve centre from where the newborn country was largely being run. And the new country, devastated after the Pakistani killing spree and the war, needed just about everything and it all had to come from Calcutta. Chittagong, Bangladesh’s only major port at the time, was still mined and ships couldn’t enter.

As a result, Dasgupta and the rest of the mission whizzed around the city in borrowed Indian army jeeps since there was no question of getting diplomatic staff cars into the country. When they needed to travel outside Dhaka, they largely used helicopters because many bridges and roads had been destroyed during the turbulence of 1971.

Not Scotch, but Indian whiskey

This lack of supplies led to some unusual situations. On the Queen’s birthday, the British high commissioner was obliged to toast his sovereign with Solan No 1 Indian whiskey made in the foothills of the Himalayas. They couldn’t get fresh stocks of Scotch, again because Chittagong was mined, and had to rely on whatever was available in the Calcutta market.  Says Dasgupta: “I think it was the first and only time in the history of British diplomacy that the Queen’s birthday was celebrated with Indian whiskey.”

The first two or three months of 1972 were particularly hectic because Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was arriving in Dhaka in March. She insisted that the Indian army, which had planned its exit for end-March, should be out of the country before she arrived. So the army had to pack up in a hurry but first held a huge parade at a Dhaka stadium which had crowds thronging to it and Mujibur Rehman taking the salute. Says Dasgupta: “We had to fight our way in. The stadium was fully packed and there were huge crowds outside.”

Dasgupta has now told the story of the diplomatic manoeuvres that went on through 1971 as Mrs Gandhi and her team worked to persuade the world that she wasn’t crushing Pakistan but taking part in a true war of liberation.

There will always be competing views of what happened during that era. Dasgupta stresses his book, titled India and the Bangladesh Liberation War, is the story of the diplomatic battles fought through 1971. He says several war historians have dissected how the war unfolded and adds: “What interests me is the interface between defence and foreign policies.” (Dasgupta’s also authored an earlier book, ‘War and Diplomacy in Kashmir, 1947-48’.

What were Mrs Gandhi’s goals in 1971? Was she looking to smash Pakistan by splintering the two halves and pushing deep into West Pakistan? The Americans, or certainly the Nixon White House, believed the worst.

Banking on democracy to triumph

But Dasgupta insists Mrs Gandhi initially hadn’t given a thought to breaking up Pakistan. He says archival records show Mrs Gandhi and her team hoped democracy would triumph and Mujibur Rehman would become prime minister of all Pakistan. “New Delhi believed this (a peaceful democratic transition) held out the only hope for a breakthrough in Indo-Pakistan relations,” he says in the book. But the Pakistani crackdown and killing of thousands ended the possibility of the two parts staying together and that’s when India’s war planning assumed a different complexion.

Dasgupta believes Mrs Gandhi and her team set the scene for the war with enormous skill, marshalling world opinion in support, with the US being one crucial exception.“It was a spectacular success. And I believe the reason for this is for the first and perhaps the only time in the history of independent India, we had a grand strategy, by which I mean a strategy which brought together all the elements of state power — military, diplomatic, economic and other domestic policies.”

Mrs Gandhi had to consider the overall picture before launching into battle. Says Dasgupta: “We had to ensure there was international support for the Bangladesh cause. Then we had to ensure we had the support of at least one superpower. Also, we had to ensure the Security Council did not bring the war to a premature conclusion before the final victory could be achieved. We needed diplomatic initiatives also to ensure a steady and uninterrupted supply of arms, oil and other essential items during the war.”

Pak Army’s brutal killings

One advantage that India had was that the Western media had told the story of the Pakistan Army’s brutal killings. So most of the world felt we had a strong case. There was, of course, one holdout, as we mentioned: the Nixon White House which had just used Pakistan to deliver its back-channel messages to the Chinese that led to the “opening of China” to the US in 1972. Nixon was incensed that India appeared to be interfering with his plans. Even the state department took a more pro-India stand. Only Nixon and Kissinger stood strongly against us. Here was one place where Dasgupta hit lucky. The American records have been released. And Kissinger has written voluminously on his diplomatic career. But Dasgupta had an invaluable trail to follow. The White House tapes that were released during the Nixon impeachment had a sentence-by-sentence record of what Nixon and Kissinger had said at the time. Says Dasgupta:  “One thing I’ve done is to bring out the considerable inaccuracy in Kissinger’s written accounts. I actually went to the tapes of what he said and what Nixon said and say that this is what happened, not the whitewash that he applied to it later.”

Dasgupta enjoyed a storied career in the foreign service. He started in Mexico, then made it to Rome from where he was hurriedly recalled to Bangladesh. Unsurprisingly, he was told he couldn’t take his family along. Was Bangladesh his most exciting posting? He insists not and notes he was ambassador in China during the early 1990s, soon after Tiananmen Square, and that was also a time of frenetic change and achievement. Ànother stint as ambassador to the EU was an enormous learning experience because he had to figure how to cut through the Brussels bureaucratic red tape.

Surprising claims

The book is a tale well-told. It doesn’t have bombshell revelations but it has some surprising claims. Firstly, there’s his insistence that Mrs Gandhi’s preferred option was for Mujibur Rehman to become prime minister of the united country. Then, there’s Gen Manekshaw’s oft-repeated anecdote about how he put the brakes on Mrs Gandhi’s plans for an immediate April invasion, an account Dasgupta says strays far from the truth. Rather, he says, Mrs Gandhi was coming under pressure from the opposition and her cabinet members for immediate action. She knew the pieces of the global chessboard had to be put in place before she could even contemplate military action and she used Manekshaw who handily gave her an excuse for stalling.

The book’s story begins in Pakistan in the 1950s and tells how the two wings of the truncated country drifted apart. Even Jinnah only visited the east once and, once there, delivered a tough message against the demand for Bengali as a state language. The earnings from East Pakistan’s jute exports were spent in the west. Ayub rejected the demand for representation in proportion to population. Instead, he created a National Assembly in which there was parity between the two wings.

By the mid-1960s, according to Dasgupta, Mujib had already begun to contemplate whether the two wings might have to go their separate ways and he introduced his Six-Point Demand which would have left only foreign affairs and defence with the centre. In 1969, Martial Law was declared and the US ambassador at the time recorded the aim was “to prevent East Pakistan from obtaining national political power proportionate to (its) population”.

India’s help to Mukti Bahini

But the breaking point came with the Pakistani crackdown in March 1971. After that, everyone including Mrs Gandhi and her aides realised there was no way of avoiding a split. India then helped to ensure that the Mukti Bahini was organised and didn’t allow internal rivalries to get out of hand.

On the diplomatic front, Indian ministers fanned out across the world. The publicity elicited by the Concert for Bangladesh in August swung public opinion heavily to the Bangladeshis’ side but governments were more cautious. The African nations were freshly freed from colonialism and wary of breaking up nation-states, Dasgupta says.

In June, foreign minister Swaran Singh embarked on a successful whirlwind tour of Washington, London, Paris, Bonn and Ottawa to bring the world’s most influential nations to India’s side. Swaran Singh, according to Dasgupta, succeeded in bringing around British Prime Minister Edward Heath to India’s viewpoint and the French promised to stop supplying arms to Pakistan. By June, a joint IMF-World Bank team also decided to stop aid to Pakistan.

US backchannel talks with China

In Washington, though Singh didn’t know it at the time, he ran up against the fact the US was in the midst of its backchannel talks with the Chinese via Pakistan’s leaders. But Dasgupta insists Pakistan’s backchannel role was only a secondary reason for keeping President Yahya Khan happy. In the book, he writes: “The primary factor was Nixon’s personal dislike of the Indian prime minister and his regard for the Pakistani military dictator.” Dasgupta says even a canny player like Swaran Singh was put off track by Nixon promising help. Other players, like the Agha Khan and the UN secretary-general U Thant, also attempted to play peacemakers.

What followed was months of high-tension back-and-forth. Kissinger arrived in Delhi and had tense negotiations. From there, he flew to Pakistan and thence, using a diplomatic stomach-upset as cover, he flew to Beijing.

Indira Gandhi figured she had to get one of the two superpowers on her side. With Nixon’s lack of support, it became clear she had to turn to the Soviet Union. It helped that the USSR had just had a sharp border skirmish with the Chinese. India needed the USSR to block any Chinese moves in the Security Council. Mrs Gandhi set out to woo the Soviets using go-betweens like D.P. Dhar, known as the man-for-all seasons. Dasgupta outlines the torturous talks that led up to the Indo-Soviet pact. Once that was in place, Mrs Gandhi felt ready to take on Pakistan.

Varying points of view

Is this the last word on 1971? As long as histories are being written, there will be differing points of view. Dasgupta used the archives at the Nehru Memorial Library and also the National Archives. He also talked extensively to people involved in the war and others he knew in Bangladesh. Besides that, he trawled the American records which have now been made public and combed through the transcripts of the White House tapes.

Another account is offered by diplomat Sashanka Banerjee who says Indira Gandhi was worried about Mujib’s fate and finally a meeting was engineered between Laila Hussein, a former close friend of Bhutto’s who met him at a VIP lounge at Heathrow. Laila’s husband, Muzaffar Hussein, had been chief secretary of East Pakistan and he’d become a POW in India (though staying with Mrs Gandhi’s aide D.P.Dhar). She raised the subject of her husband and Pakistan’s 93,000 POWs. Banerjee says Bhutto’s reply was: “You may inform your masters in Delhi that after taking over as CMLA, I will release Mujibur Rahman not long thereafter.”

By contrast, Dasgupta insists under the Geneva Convention India could not have held onto and used the Pakistan POWs as a massive bargaining chip.

Did Mrs Gandhi have a greater aim?

There are other question marks that historians and observers place over the entire operation. Did Mrs Gandhi really have no greater aim than to free Bangladesh and no ambitions whatsoever in the West? Did our stopping hostilities have nothing to do with the US Seventh Fleet’s arrival, even if briefly, in the Bay of Bengal?

Dasgupta says that assembling the book was a Herculean effort. But the result is an eminently readable account of some of the most crucial months in Indian history.






Source:- Telegraph India

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