Around the time Henry Kissinger, US President Richard Nixon’s national security advisor, was trying unsuccessfully to persuade China, through its ambassador to the UN, Huang Hua, to intervene in the India-Pakistan war in Bangladesh, desperate Pakistani generals, especially Major General Rao Farman Ali, were requesting the UN representatives on the spot to arrange for a ceasefire and bring the war to an end. Confused and contradictory directives from Islamabad were a huge roadblock to this objective, while the ground situation for the Pakistani army was becoming worse by the hour.
At the same time, the Nixon-Kissinger duo ordered the Sixth Fleet to send a naval task force, headed by the nuclear aircraft-carrier Enterprise, with marines on board, to the Bay of Bengal, obviously to support those who were morally in the wrong and militarily doomed to defeat. But by the time these warships could reach anywhere near the scene of action, the game was up.
After tersely denouncing the American attempt to “browbeat” India, Indira Gandhi took a profoundly important decision, of which the country became aware much later. She quietly called in Raja Ramanna, then director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and the premier nuclear scientist of his time, and directed him to start preparing for an underground detonation. This became a reality on May 18, 1974, and India joined the world’s exclusive nuclear club.
On December 16, 1971, no fewer than 93,000 officers and men of the Pakistan army surrendered to Lieutenant General J.S. Aurora, the GOC-in-C of the Indo-Bangladeshi Command. Not since World War II had surrender on this scale taken place, nor has it been repeated afterwards.
Of the scene in Islamabad that day, Pakistani foreign secretary, Sultan M. Khan, has recorded in his memoirs: “The fantasy of the prevailing mood was unbelievable. Despite the stark reality that the military situation in Pakistan was near collapse, the president’s broadcast to the nation on December 16, 1971, promised that resistance would be carried on to the bitter end and there would be no surrender… Knowing that the president was aware that our military capability in East Pakistan was almost nil, I was amazed that his speech was full of Churchillian phrases about resisting the enemy…”
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In her office in Parliament House, Gandhi was calmly giving an interview to a Swedish TV crew when her red telephone rang. It was General (later Field Marshal) Sam Manekshaw informing her that the surrender had been signed and sealed. She told the Swedes to wait and walked to the Lok Sabha chamber without any sign of hurry. There her excitement showed when she told the House: “Dhaka is now the free capital of a free country…” The rest of her statement was drowned in wild applause and had to be repeated later.
During the walk back to her office, she told her information advisor, H.Y. Sharada Prasad: “I must order a ceasefire on the western front also because if I don’t do so today, I shall not be able to do so tomorrow.” This was a clear reference to the widespread feeling in the country that West Pakistan should also be “taught a proper lesson” before ending the war. She herself was fully aware that any such attempt after the achievement of India’s basic objective in the east would be both unpopular in the world and dangerous for the country.
Actually, what had happened was that Gandhi’s principal aide, P.N. Haksar, who had drafted her statement on the surrender in Dhaka, had included in it a declaration of ceasefire in the west. But to his surprise and dismay, she had left this portion out. When she reached her office, he asked her why. She gave him no reply, simply told him to ask Manekshaw to see her and summon a meeting of the cabinet’s political affairs committee.
The jubilant chief of army staff came and smartly saluted the prime minister. She asked him what the army thought of a ceasefire in the west. He replied that, as always, the army would “obey the government’s orders whatever they are” but he believed that to announce a unilateral ceasefire would be “the right thing do”.
Hardly had the general left when the members of the cabinet’s PAC trooped in. Not only Manekshaw but also the two other service chiefs — Admiral S.M. Nanda and Air Chief Marshal P.C. Lal — also arrived to be “in attendance”. Gandhi raised the question of what to do on the western border. Only Defence Minister Jagjivan Ram responded to her poser.
There was a time, especially during and after the Congress split in 1969, when Ram was one of her two principal lieutenants. She rewarded him with the defence portfolio and by ignoring several of his lapses, including his failure to file tax returns for 10 years. But he soon fell from grace. She got reports that he was amassing wealth by means that would not bear scrutiny. All through the Bangladesh war she had kept him virtually out of the loop. She had dealt with the service chiefs either directly or through a confidant, D.P. Dhar.
A disgruntled Ram, apparently thinking that he would be causing some difficulty for the prime minister, suggested that the army’s view should first be ascertained. “Well,” said a smiling Gandhi to her defence minister, “let’s ask your army chief”. Manekshaw repeated what he had said to her privately only a few minutes earlier. The meeting dispersed and a unilateral ceasefire on the western front was announced immediately.
The people of India knew nothing about this behind-the-scenes drama. They were too busy celebrating the victory and lionising Gandhi. The “goongi gudiya” of yesteryears suddenly morphed into the invincible goddess Durga. Many Congress party members coined the slogan that she “not only made history but also changed geography”. On behalf of a grateful nation, the president awarded her the Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award. The Economist conferred on her the moniker “Empress of India”. This surely was her finest hour.
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator