How the London ‘Times’ jumped the gun in announcing the beginning of the Bangladesh war .
By the time Indira Gandhi finished her extensive tour abroad, everybody knew that the war for the liberation of Bangladesh was inevitable. The question no longer was whether it would take place, but when. Indeed, the prime minister herself had declared at a meeting of the India League during her visit to London: “I am sitting on top of a volcano and I honestly do not know when it is gong to erupt.” By the beginning of November, however, it seemed that the flashpoint was near.
On the one hand, General Yahya Khan and his cohorts — with the full cooperation of religious parties and, even more importantly, of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the founder-chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party — were building up war psychosis in West Pakistan. On the other, the savagery of the Pakistan army in Bangladesh had exceeded all limits. For its part, the 100,000-strong Mukti Bahini — with some Indian backing, which meant that a number of Indian armed personnel in mufti were advising and otherwise helping it — was fighting the army of occupation as best it could. However, given the Pakistan army’s “hot pursuit” of “East Bengali guerrillas”, to allow such a situation to last indefinitely would obviously have been an invitation to disaster.
In the midst of this ominous situation, I was suddenly faced with a professional dilemma. I venture to mention it only because it has relevance to the story of the 1971 war. For an urgent assignment I had to be in London in mid-November. At the same time, I was determined not to be away from the country on D-Day. I was then living in Bombay (now Mumbai), working for The Times of India. I rushed to New Delhi to seek advice from the three service chiefs as well as the civilians with a major say in policy. More by innuendo than explicitly, they told me that I could go abroad on November 12 but should be back before the month’s end.
Imagine my shock and surprise, therefore, when I picked up my copy of The Times (London) on the morning of November 22 and saw the story under a huge headline that the long-expected war between India and Pakistan had begun. Despite the early hour, I rang up the Indian high commissioner, who informed me that he had just finished remonstrating with the paper’s editor for publishing news that was “absolutely false”. What exactly had happened became known fairly soon.
On the pretext continued…