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In testing circumstances, Indira Gandhi made up her mind to act.
Although argumentative Indians went on screaming at one another about what was at stake in Bangladesh and what must be done about it, in appropriate circles clarity had begun to dawn by the end of June. The first indication was a highly anguished speech by Indira Gandhi after a visit to refugee camps in northeastern states to meet the victims of the Pakistani army’s unspeakable atrocities that were soon documented thoroughly in the book of a London-based Pakistani journalist, Anthony Mascarenhas, The Rape of Bangladesh, for which he was brutally thrashed by a group of Pakistani goons.
On seeing the physical condition of the refugees and hearing their tales of woes, Gandhi was so shaken that on arrival at Raj Bhavan in Calcutta (now Kolkata) she declared grimly and firmly: “The world must know what is happening here and must do something about it. In any case, we cannot allow Pakistan to continue its holocaust, and thus convert its own problem into ours.” She also made it clear that she had absolutely no intention of “absorbing” the luckless refugees in India. “Conditions must be created in their country for them to go back in safety and with dignity.”
A few days later, Pakistan’s military ruler Yahya Khan responded with a dirty trick. Encouraged presumably by American support and by the lack of any pressure on him from either the people of West Pakistan or the international community, he announced a fraudulent plan to “transfer power to civilians in East Pakistan”.
He appointed a handpicked Bengali civilian, A.M. Khan, as governor of East Pakistan with a mandate to hold elections to National Assembly seats “vacated” by members of the banned Awami League who had since “disappeared”. Nothing of the kind happened, of course. But arriving in New Delhi a week later, Henry Kissinger, President Richard Nixon’s national security advisor, dismayed his Indian interlocutors by commending Yahya’s move as a “conciliatory gesture”. He had to be told that as a Jew he should have some revulsion against Pakistan’s Nazi-like barbarities on the people of Bangladesh and some sympathy for the 10 million pitiable refugees.
It was in this atmosphere that a closed-door seminar on Bangladesh, attended by a select group, on July 3 acquired extraordinary importance. For, at it, K. Subrahmanyam, the doyen of the slowly developing Indian strategic community, presented a paper arguing that Pakistan’s military junta would “prefer defeat at India’s hand to a settlement with the Awami League”. The crisis had, therefore, presented India “an opportunity of a lifetime to cut Pakistan to size and liberate the people of Bangladesh”. The paper was strictly confidential continued…