'This woman suckered us', said Nixon of Indira Gandhi
"She suckered us. Suckered us.....this woman suckered us." So said an enraged US president Richard Nixon of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi after learning that war had broken out on the subcontinent on Dec 3, 1971, and Indian forces had made a decisive push towards then East Pakistan that it recognised as Bangladesh three days later.
Nixon, who had met Gandhi just a month earlier in Washington, had sought assurances from her that India would not take any precipitate military action pending efforts by the US to find a political solution that would not "shatter the cohension of West Pakistan" and end up "overthrowing President Yahya (Khan)" who was pivotal to America's China initiative afer 22 years of diplomatic freeze.
Nixon had then made it clear to Mrs Gandhi that "nothing could be served by the disintegration of Pakistan" and even warned darkly that "it would be impossible to calculate with precision the steps which other great powers might take if India were to initiate hostilities".
Nixon's presentations were heard with "aloof indifference" by Mrs Gandhi, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was quoted as telling author Kalyani Shankar in her just published book Nixon, Indira and India - Politics and Beyond (Macmillan/Rs. 445).
Nixon's frustration at not being able to make Mrs Gandhi back off from war reflected in his telephone conversation with Kissinger on Dec 6. Almost fumbling for words without breaking into expletives at the turn of the situation in the subcontinent at a time when Yahya Khan's propping up was imperative for American foreign policy interests, Nixon wondered if he was "too easy on that goddamn woman when she was here".
Even as Kissinger tried to pacify a fuming president by saying he was only following advice to be "gracious" to a visiting dignitary, Nixon agreed at one point with Kissinger that he should have probably "brutalised" her and followed up by threatening: "But let me tell you she is going to pay. She is going to pay."
Nixon even asked Kissinger whether the Chinese would make threatening moves towards India. But the Chinese, much to the chagrin of the Americans did not agree to "intimidate the Indians", as the author points out, because the Chinese thought that "independence for East Pakistan was a foregone conclusion.
"It (China) was prepared to endorse UN proposal for a standstill ceasefire and forgo a demand for mutual troop withdrawal," the book states.
When even the Soviets refused to put presssure on New Delh for a ceasefire, Nixon ordered the Seventh Fleet into the Indian Ocean in a threatening gesture. The Fleet, consisting of an aircraft carrier and four destroyers, was to move towards Karachi with the publicly stated aim that they would stand by for "possible evacuation" of Americans although the intention was to browbeat India in case the government in New Delh did not agree to an immediate ceasefire and withdrawal.
India did finally agree to a ceasefire, but that was only on Dec 17 after Indian forces marched into Dhaka (then Dacca). There was a ceasefire also in the west with India assuring that it had no desire to seize the territory of West Pakistan, an assurance it delivered to Wasington via Moscow.
The book provides a fascinating insight for foreign policy researchers into the Nixon era and his famous tilt towards Pakistan based on now declassified 'top-secret' documents and top-level telephone transcripts pertaining to Nixon's visit to India in 1969 and Mrs Gandhi's visit to Washington in 1971 that were obtained from the United States National Archives and the National Security Archives.