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The build-up to flashpoint

How the London ‘Times’ jumped the gun in announcing the beginning of the Bangladesh war.

On the night of November 21, a Pakistani infantry brigade, supported by artillery and air force, had launched a major attack on a Mukti Bahini base  at Belonia, on the border. On the night of November 21, a Pakistani infantry brigade, supported by artillery and air force, had launched a major attack on a Mukti Bahini base
at Belonia, on the border.

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 of the so-called hot pursuit, on the night of November 21, a Pakistani infantry brigade, supported by artillery and air force, had launched a major attack on a Mukti Bahini base at a place called Belonia, in an area generally known as Byra, very close to Jessore, on the border. Brazenly, Pakistani troops attacked several Indian villages. The Indian defence forces brought down three Pakistan Air Force aircraft in Indian air space and arrested the three pilots that had bailed out. As wild rumours about this incident began to spread, the Indian authorities wisely did something they had failed to do in 1962 and even in 1965. They flew representatives of the world press to Belonia late at night to see the state of affairs. Most foreign correspondents managed to correct the despatches they had sent earlier. Why the Times man didn’t do so has never been explained. Back in Bombay on the morning of November 25, I caught up with all that had happened during my absence.

A day before the Belonia episode, Yahya had suddenly extended his “hand of friendship” and asked India to “grab it” so that the two countries could “begin a new era of good neighbourly relations”. But, as usual, the inebriated general changed his mind in next to no time. On November 23, he declared a “national emergency”, asserting that Pakistan was “gravely threatened by external aggression”. The Pakistani press screamed that India was about to invade both East and West Pakistan. Gandhi’s repudiation of these claims was prompt. Yahya’s declaration of a state of emergency, she declared, was a “climax of his efforts to put the blame on us for a situation he himself had created”.

Giving an interview to Newsweek, at times, he was somewhat unclear. On one point, however, there was no lack of clarity. He told the interviewer: “I have no reason to tell you that the war is not imminent because it is. In ten days time I might not be in Rawalpindi (Pakistan’s military dictators live in the Army House in the garrison city, not in the presidential palace in Islamabad); I shall be fighting a war”.

Sure enough, he kept his word. For it was exactly 10 days after he gave the interview to the American magazine that Yahya launched what later came to be known as his “Unlucky Strike”. Bombers of the PAF attacked a number of Indian advanced air bases at sunset on December 3. It was a clumsy and unproductive operation that achieved little besides triggering the Bangladesh war. Had he waited another 24 hours, the responsibility for starting the unavoidable clash of arms would have been ours. Indira Gandhi’s preference all through was not to be the first to start the hostilities. But, after Belonia, she and her military planners had decided that if Pakistan did not act by December 3, Indian forces would march into Bangladesh the next day. The fixed deadline made sense because December 3 was a full-moon night.

Someone who was a major in the Indian army then, and later became a distinguished lieutenant-general, said to me after the victory: “Until the morning of December 4, my colleagues and I inside Bangladesh had worn lungis and kurtas. On that morning, we doffed them and donned our uniforms.”

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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