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 down those of her colleagues and partymen who looked upon themselves as modern-day Napoleons. She firmly told them that she fully agreed with the sound advice of her army chief, General (later Field-Marshal) Sam Manekshaw, that to start a war on the eve of the monsoon, and that too in a land criss-crossed by too many rivers, would be disastrous. If necessary, the armed forces would act only after full preparations and at an appropriate time. But there was no stemming the tide of puerile ideas from all kinds of sources. Some armchair strategists advocated that a united Pakistan, rather than a bifurcated one, would be in India’s best interest. Others said that any war with Pakistan, if started, would last for a very long time and must therefore be avoided. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s military dictator Yahya Khan’s closest civilian collaborator, declared that it would be a “thousand-year war”.
Meanwhile, after Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was arrested and flown to a dingy jail in West Pakistan to be put in solitary confinement while being tried for treason, Bangladeshi freedom fighters had organised an army of their own, called Mukti Bahini. Gandhi decided to give it all possible help, as clandestinely as possible. The main instrument for this was the Border Security Force (BSF) and a few very senior army officers in mufti, whose function was to train the Mukti Bahini to enable it to take on Pakistan’s well-trained and battle-tested soldiers. She also played host to a Bangladesh government-in-exile at Mujib Nagar, near Calcutta (now Kolkata).
As was perhaps to be expected, the US, through CIA agents functioning under diplomatic cover at the American consulate-general in Calcutta, established contact with one of the ministers in the government-in-exile, Khondaker Mushtaq Ahmed, behind the back of the prime minister, Tajuddin Ahmad. Mujib loyalists, headed by his brother, Sheikh Moni, became alarmed. To safeguard their positions, they formed another Bahini named after Mujib. This led to a bizarre situation: one lieutenant-general of the Indian army trained the Mukti Bahini, and another played the same role in relation to the rival Mujib Bahini.
Even more curious was the 180-degree change in the stand of those ersatz strategists who had earlier been crying hoarse for immediate military action against Pakistan. Now they pontificated that there was no longer any need for Indian military intervention because the Mukti Bahini was quite capable of dealing with the Pakistani army. Obviously, none of them knew that there were now two Bahinis, not one.
Seven weeks before the eruption of the Bangladesh crisis, an Indian Airlines Fokker Friendship aircraft was hijacked by two Kashmiri extremists while flying from Srinagar to Lahore, where it was blown up in Bhutto’s presence amidst great jubilation. India instantly banned all Pakistani flights over its territory, causing a great handicap to Pakistan, which was engaged in reinforcing its troops and special forces in Dacca. It had to send its soldiers, sailors and airmen in civilian clothes in civilian aircraft that had to take a tortuously longer route around India and needed refuelling in Colombo. The Sri Lankan government informed New Delhi that a civilian aircraft could not be denied refuelling, whoever be the passengers on board. But as the crisis grew, Pakistan persuaded Sri Lanka to refuel its military aircraft also. Gandhi sent her foreign minister, Swaran Singh, to Colombo with a terse message for Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike: “Please stop refuelling Pakistani warplanes. Or do you want someone else to do it?” This had the desired effect.
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator