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Lightning campaign in Bangladesh

The spectre of Chinese military action hovered even as India embarked on the 14-day war

Later disclosures by  the unashamedly pro-Pakistan US administration underscored how necessary the Indian caution about China was. Later disclosures by
the unashamedly pro-Pakistan US administration underscored how necessary the Indian caution about China was.

When the war began with General Yahya Khan’s “unlucky strike” on the evening of December 3, 1971, Indira Gandhi was in Calcutta, now Kolkata. She returned to Delhi late at night. After consulting her cabinet colleagues and leaders of opposition parties, who all concurred with her war plans, she addressed the nation at midnight. She appealed to all Indians valiantly to fight the war “forced on us”, and told the world that the Indian army and the Mukti Bahini were fighting under the joint Indo-Bangladeshi command.

It is pointless to give a detailed account of the war because it has already been described, discussed and analysed threadbare. The overall verdict was best summed up by The Sunday Times, London, on December 22, 1971: “It was an achievement reminiscent of the German blitzkrieg across France in 1940.” Even so, a few flaws in the lightning campaign, which lasted only 14 days, need to be noted. The most serious of these was that the occupation of Dacca (now Dhaka) was not even mentioned in the war plans. The directive was to “occupy as much of the Bangladesh territory as possible”. Major General J.F.R. Jacob, chief of staff to Lieutenant General J.S. Aurora, the GOC-in-C of Eastern Army Command and overall field commander, claims that he had included this objective in the plans later. It would perhaps be more accurate to say that local commanders, conscious of the critical importance of taking Dacca, collectively did so.

Capturing Dacca was absolutely necessary. But to get there in an eastward thrust was not easy, because Bangladesh is crisscrossed by many north-south rivers. The dropping of paratroopers helped. It was easier to get to Dacca from the north, where two divisions were deployed, because there are no east-west rivers in Bangladesh. No wonder, then, that Major General Gandharv Nagra, GOC of one of the two northern divisions, was the first to reach the Bangladesh capital. He had even sent a note about his imminent arrival to General A.A.K. Niazi, Pakistan’s overall commander, addressing him as “My dear Abdullah”. The two knew each other well when Nagra was the military attaché at the Indian High Commission in Islamabad.

This, however, is no reason to be critical of the higher military leadership for not unleashing both divisions in the north to march southwards. The Indo-Soviet treaty was doubtless a major deterrent to China. The Soviet Union had deployed mechanised troops along the Chinese frontier, especially in Kazakhstan, and the Soviet submarines were keeping a close watch on the movement of American warships in the Indian Ocean. Yet, who could be certain that China would not act irrationally, particularly when there were frequent reports of Chinese troop movements along the disputed border with this country? Therefore, General (later field marshal) Sam Manekshaw was right to order that of the two divisions in the north, one must always stay on the China border. I have a vivid memory of a daily briefing on the war situation at which an American correspondent asked what exactly was happening at India-China border. The then defence secretary, K.B. Lall, had replied: “Both sides are praying for snow.”

Later disclosures by the unashamedly pro-Pakistan US administration underscored how necessary the Indian caution about China was. For, as late as on December 10, President Richard Nixon’s national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, was trying to persuade Beijing to intervene in the Indo-Pakistan war on Pakistan’s side. He did so at a secret meeting with the Chinese ambassador to the UN, Huang Hua (then the highest ranking Chinese dignitary on American soil) in New York at a CIA “safe house”. He told the Chinese diplomat, who later became China’s foreign minister, “the president wants you to know that it is, of course, for the People’s Republic to decide its course of action… but if the People’s Republic were to consider the situation on the Indian subcontinent a threat to its security and if it took measures to protect its security, the US would oppose efforts of others (read the Soviet Union) to interfere with the People’s Republic.” Not content with this, Kissinger went on to say: “We are afraid that if nothing is done to stop it (Indian advance in Bangladesh), East Pakistan will become Bhutan and West Pakistan will become Nepal. And India, with Soviet help, would be free to turn its energies elsewhere.” (Source: The Kissinger Transcripts, New York, 1998).

The commentary on the Kissinger-Huang meeting by the book’s editor, William Burr, is revealing. “Huang’s rhetoric in the conversation,” he says on page 48, “was militant; Kissinger incorrectly concluded that the Chinese were about to join the fighting. Beijing had as little interest in intervening as India had in escalating the fighting.”

Gandhi had no knowledge of the Kissinger-Huang secret meeting. But given the time differential between the US east coast and India, at roughly the same time she decided to address a public meeting in the heart of Delhi in broad daylight to shore up the people’s confidence and morale. The audience was close to a million. After patriotic songs by Lata Mangeshkar, the prime minister spoke. She indulged in no oratorical flourishes, but clearly conveyed her resolute defiance of the US’s attempts to intimidate India. She avoided any reference to the Soviet Union because she knew that it was standing by India fully. At the same time, however, it was urging her to end the war as quickly as possible. For, Moscow was under intense pressure from Washington. Nixon was bombarding President Leonid Brezhnev with daily messages to “restrain” India and, at one stage, the Nixon-Kissinger duo ordered a “global red alert”.

Quietly, the prime minister had sent D.P. Dhar, former ambassador to Moscow and one of her main advisors on Bangladesh, to the Soviet capital to reassure the Soviet leadership. He came back accompanied by V. V. Kuznetsov, whose clout in his country exceeded his rank of deputy foreign minister. He camped in Delhi, monitoring the war until the liberation of Bangladesh.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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