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 but it was leaked and published in full in The Times, London, on July 13.
Sultan Mohammed Khan, an outstanding Pakistani diplomat who was foreign secretary at that time, has recorded in his memoirs that, along with statements by then Indian foreign minister Swaran Singh and defence minister Jagjivan Ram, he had cited the Subrahmanyam paper to the Soviet foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko, in Moscow and to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in Beijing to drive home the point that India’s objective was to “destroy Pakistan”.
On July 16, a Sunday, the Indian ambassador to the United States, L.K. Jha, returned home after a visit to some bookshops. The security guard told him, in Hindi, that “Dr Kishen Singh had telephoned and left his phone number.” The ambassador thought that the security man had erred and that the phone must have come from Kishen Chand, his Delhi-based colleague in the ICS. When he asked his social secretary to connect him to Dr Kishen Chand immediately, she pointed out that the number she was given was that of Kissinger on the west coast.
Jha returned the call and Kissinger asked him: “LK, where will you be just before eight o’ clock in the evening because I want to talk to you then?” Jha replied that since they were talking already they should dispose of the subject “right now”. Kissinger: “No. I can’t speak to you until then.”
Precisely at five minutes to eight, the telephone rang at the house of Jha’s host for dinner. The butler announced: “Phone for Mista Jaa.” Kissinger told him: “LK, the president is about to make a broadcast. He is announcing that I have already been to Beijing and the president would be going to China in February 1972. We want you to assure your government that this has nothing whatever to do with India.” Jha listened to Nixon’s broadcast, excused himself from dinner, phoned his deputy, M.K. Rasgotra, and asked him to come to the Indian chancery, together with a “competent stenographer”.
What Nixon had announced was a tectonic change in the world order that created a huge sensation across the globe. The two countries that had been bitter enemies for 22 years became virtual allies almost overnight. Japan spoke of “Nixon Shocku”. The Soviet leaders knew that the Americans were exploiting to the hilt the Sino-Soviet split at their expense. Pakistan was in clover because it had been the go-between for Washington and Beijing.
With the Bangladesh crisis at its height, there was alarm in India; the country had to now face a triangular US-China-Pakistan axis. Things worsened two days after Nixon’s broadcast. In a private conversation between them, Kissinger told Jha that if China intervened in a “warlike situation between India and Pakistan”, Delhi should not look to Washington “for assistance”. This was a clear accentuation of threat to Indian security. Worries of the Indian people mounted.
However, one Indian who was perfectly calm and collected was the country’s prime minister. She simply summoned one of her close confidants, D.P. Dhar, who had returned from Moscow only a few weeks earlier after serving as ambassador there and was her advisor on Bangladesh as chairman of the Policy Planning Committee of the ministry of external affairs. She told him to go back to Moscow to conclude a treaty with the Soviet Union because the US move to befriend China required a “countervailing international linkage”.
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator