How Indira Gandhi initially misunderstood the crisis in East Pakistan.
It was on March 17, 1971 that Indira Gandhi became prime minister for the third consecutive time, which was also the first to occur without even a whiff of dissent. Exactly eight days later, a humongous crisis that had been developing over long years erupted with elemental force in what was then East Pakistan and just nine months later became the republic of Bangladesh.
On March 25, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, generally called Sheikh Mujib, the tallest leader of the Awami League as well as of East Pakistan, made a unilateral declaration of Bangladesh’s independence. This was the culmination of the struggle of the Bengali-speaking East Pakistani people, who constituted a majority of Pakistan’s overall population but were treated by the overwhelmingly Punjabi-dominated military leadership as “second-class” citizens.
The irony of ironies was that the final parting of ways came when the incredibly crude military ruler, General Yahya Khan, who had succeeded the first military dictator Field Marshal Ayub Khan (1958-69), denied Sheikh Mujib the office of prime minister that was duly his. For, Mujib had won a staggering victory in Pakistan’s first elections in December 1970. He had secured a clear majority in the National Assembly, even though his party hadn’t contested a single parliamentary seat in West Pakistan. In the provincial assembly of East Pakistan, he had won 160 seats out of 162.
Yahya’s civilian collaborator in this vicious venture was Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, President Ayub’s foreign minister and protégé, who had later taken a leading part in the movement to overthrow his mentor. His own appetite for power was insatiable. He and Yahya believed that they could intimidate Mujib into agreeing to rule only his native land and leave West Pakistan, as well as the federal government, alone. Bhutto summed up the message in four words: “Idhar hum, udhar tum (We will rule here, and you there)”. The notorious Nixon-Kissinger “tilt” towards Yahya and Pakistan had greatly encouraged the dubious duo.
What happened in March 1971 would have come to pass sometime for reasons that are totally transparent. I will briefly mention them presently, but let me first mention what happened in New Delhi when the balloon went up in Dacca (now Dhaka). Sadly, Gandhi, her government and even the country at large, were taken by surprise. Incredible though it might seem, the Indian army did not have even a contingency plan to cope with this eventuality. As far back as 1967, a British diplomat, Robert Wade Gerry, later high commissioner to India, had told a closed-door meeting in London that Pakistan’s present continued…