Delhi’s response to the unfolding Bangladesh crisis mirrored a lack of a tradition of strategic thought.
Indira Gandhi was quick to grasp both the gravity and dimensions of the problems that India would have to face because of the Bangladesh crisis. The US was demonstrably “tilting” towards Pakistan and brazenly ignoring its unspeakable atrocities on the hapless people of Bangladesh struggling for their liberation. China was supporting its “all-weather friend” to the hilt. Other Western powers were appalled by the killings, rapes and torture by the Pakistani army of occupation but weren’t prepared to do anything about it. However, as Gandhi discovered to her dismay, the difficulties she encountered at home were no less daunting.
Nor was this a surprise. For, because of a total lack of any tradition of strategic thought in this country, its response to this grim challenge — whether in the inner recesses of South Block or in open discussions at institutions, such as the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), School of International Studies (SIS) at Jawaharlal Nehru University and so on — was confused, confusing and cacophonic.
So much so that the ministry of rehabilitation blandly advised the prime minister’s secretariat (as the PMO was then called) that the influx of refugees from Bangladesh would be “no more than a couple of million”. The reality, however, was that by May 21, more than three-and-a-half million refugees had already crossed over into West Bengal and other adjoining Indian states. Soon thereafter, this number soared to 10 million. The unending illegal immigration since 1947, particularly into Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura, had caused acute political, economic and social trouble in the region. The sudden and colossal addition to this burden was clearly “too much”. Yet, India could not possibly close its doors to terror-stricken people, whose only choice was fleeing their country or facing almost certain death or torture.
About the open discussions in which politicians, retired bureaucrats and military officers, academics and opinion makers took part, the less said the better. For, incredible though it may seem, at the very first such meeting, Balraj Madhok, president of the Jana Sangh — the forerunner of the BJP — emphatically declared that India “must not support Bangladesh’s separation from Pakistan because that would lead to a break-up of India, too”. At that precise moment in Parliament’s Central Hall — once described by Jawaharlal Nehru as a “vast whispering gallery” — Congress and opposition MPs, including ministers, were clamouring for “immediate Indian military intervention in Bangladesh”. One minister was heard saying that any unwillingness to send the army was a sign of “spinelessness”, not caution.
Gandhi slapped continued…