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Explained: How strategy, diplomacy set up India’s famous victory in Bangladesh Liberation War

Former diplomat Chandrashekhar Dasgupta recalls the story of 1971, when India turned crisis into a historic triumph

Written by Shubhajit Roy | New Delhi |
Updated: December 16, 2021 9:28:01 am
Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora, GOC-in-C Eastern Command, talks to jawans and officers at Comilla in Bangladesh during the war on December 8, 1971 (Source: PIB)

As a young diplomat, Chandrashekhar Dasgupta was sent to newly-liberated Bangladesh in 1972, and he lived and worked at the Indian High Commission in Dhaka for two years. On the occasion of 50 years of the birth of Bangladesh, Dasgupta has published India and the Bangladesh Liberation War: The Definitive Story (Juggernaut), based on years of research into the P N Haksar papers, the T N Kaul papers, and files and records in the Ministry of External Affairs.

The book offers a comprehensive view of the political, military, and diplomatic strategy adopted by the Indian government during one of the biggest challenges it has faced in the last seven decades — to turn a monumental crisis into an unparalleled opportunity.

Decision to intervene

It was not until March end-early April in 1971 that “the Indian government decided to intervene in the liberation struggle to bring it to an early conclusion”, Dasgupta, now 81, and who went on to become India’s ambassador to China and the European Union, recounted.

“I cite in my book an extremely prescient 1969 R&AW report, which noted the strength of popular feelings. It said this was going to get out of hand and the military was going to be brought in to crush the movement. At that time (1969), the East Bengal rifles would take up arms on behalf of Sheikh Mujib (Mujibur Rahman) and demand autonomy for Bangladesh.”

What India was hoping for “was a transition to democracy in Pakistan”, Dasgupta said. “The Awami League won an absolute majority of seats in the Pakistan National Assembly in the December 1970 elections. New Delhi hoped to see the Awami League-led government installed in power in Islamabad, because we believed that that was the only hope for a breakthrough in Indo-Pakistan relations as a whole.”

However, hopes of a democratic transition were smashed on March 25, when the Pakistani military began a brutal crackdown that resulted in the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Bengalis and a massive refugee crisis, he said. “Then, we (India) decided to intervene.”

The question of timing

But India knew that immediate military intervention would be counterproductive. “It would result in loss of all international sympathy and support for the Bangladesh cause. It would be viewed simply as another India-Pakistan conflict, a case of Indian intervention in the domestic affairs of Pakistan, and an attempt to promote a secessionist movement.”

Even before General Sam Manekshaw had conveyed the Army’s position that entering the war would have to wait until after the monsoon, “the government was quite clear that…the diplomatic and political ground would have to be prepared before the military intervention”, he said.

Records from the Prime Minister’s Office show that “Mrs (Indira) Gandhi had decided against an immediate early intervention even before that famous sort-of-briefing session with Manekshaw.” Also, the “very careful record” by then Deputy Director of Military Operations Maj Gen Sukhwant Singh states that “political compulsions clinched the issue (of timing)”.

“If the creation of an independent Bangladesh was achieved by Indian military action, how was its domestic and external viability to be assured without its recognition by the international forum, the United Nations? If India intervened without clearly justifying the action in foreign eyes, the charge that it was engineering the break-up of Pakistan would be established and Bangladesh would be refused recognition by the majority of nations,” Dasgupta said.

The diplomatic strategy

So “the first task of the foreign ministry was to promote international sympathy and support for Bangladesh,” Dasgupta said. “Of course, the Bangladeshis were doing this very effectively themselves, but we assisted them in a major way.”

The second task was to “explain to the international community that the problem in East Bengal was not simply an internal problem of Pakistan — that by driving out millions of refugees into India, Pakistan was exporting a domestic problem to India. And, this threatened to destabilise the political situation in the neighbouring states.”

Third, “we had to ensure uninterrupted and timely supply of military equipment”, Dasgupta said. “For this, we turned to the Soviet Union. We had to take diplomatic measures to deter possible Chinese intervention and the Soviet Union Treaty achieved this purpose. We also had to ensure the UN Security Council veto did not halt operations before a decisive conclusion could be reached.”

It was not until November 30 that New Delhi received the final assurance of the Soviet support in the UN Security Council, and an understanding that the objective was the emergence of an independent Bangladesh, Dasgupta said.

Architects of victory

The common criticism that India won the war but lost peace with Pakistan is “totally misplaced”, Dasgupta said. “The principal aim of the war had nothing to do with Kashmir; it was to speed up the emergence of an independent state of Bangladesh… We won the peace at the (1972) Simla Agreement, which was meant to seek solutions bilaterally with Pakistan rather than in international fora.”

India’s achievement was all the more remarkable in the absence of supporting institutional structures — it had no equivalent of the US National Security Council, nor even an integrated structure for the three defence services, Dasgupta said.

The credit for formulating the grand strategy and overseeing its implementation goes to a small circle of officials who enjoyed Indira’s trust and confidence — Principal Secretary Haksar, Foreign Secretary Kaul, Ambassador to the USSR D P Dhar, and R&AW chief R N Kao. “Haksar derived his authority from the PM, and his leading role was never questioned…the core group met frequently, often in the presence of Gen Manekshaw, who, in turn, kept the other service chiefs in the picture.” The members of this quintet were on easy and informal terms, and were able to work together in harmony.

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