In 1971, India had a grand strategy, and it worked
Next month, India and Bangladesh will celebrate the 50th anniversary of their historic victory in the 1971 war. On December 16, 1971, Pakistani occupation forces in Bangladesh surrendered unconditionally to the Indo-Bangladesh joint command and Prime Minister (PM) Indira Gandhi informed Parliament, to thunderous applause, that “Dhaka is now the free capital of a free country”.
Many myths have grown around the 1971 war, based on conjecture or partial information. Today, 50 years later, archival records enable us to conclusively dispel these myths.
A common misperception is that Indian strategists were waiting for an opportunity to break up Pakistan. Documentary evidence disproves this conjecture. Far from wanting to break up Pakistan, New Delhi hoped for a transition to democracy in a united Pakistan right up to March 25, 1971. Indian policymakers hoped that Yahya Khan would allow the Awami League, which had a majority in the National Assembly, to form a government in Islamabad. They believed this offered the only hope of a breakthrough in India-Pakistan relations.
This hope was extinguished on March 25, when the Pakistan army launched a savage crackdown in erstwhile East Pakistan. It was only then that India decided to intervene and help the Bangladesh freedom fighters to bring their struggle to an early conclusion.
A second myth is the late Sam Manekshaw’s claim that he restrained an impatient Indira Gandhi from ordering the Army to march to Dhaka in April. In fact, the PM had no intention of acting in haste. Her principal adviser, PN Haksar, had pointed out that Bangladesh would lose international sympathy and support in what would be seen as just another India-Pakistan war. The principles of territorial integrity and non-intervention in the internal affairs of other states were deeply established in international law and practice. The diplomatic ground had to be prepared for successful military action.
Thus, for the first and only time, India drew up a grand strategy encompassing all the organs of State power — military, diplomatic, economic and administrative. At the military level, India helped train and equip around 100,000 freedom fighters. Plans were formulated for a decisive Indian military intervention towards the end of the year.
On the diplomatic front, Indian embassies worked tirelessly to mobilise international sympathy and support for the Bangladesh cause. When the flood of refugees grew to a tidal wave, India alerted the world that Pakistan was “exporting” its internal problems to India, thereby posing a threat to India’s own security. This implied that if other countries failed to persuade Pakistan to create conditions enabling the refugees to return home, India would have no option but to take unilateral steps. In August, India concluded a friendship treaty with the erstwhile Soviet Union to deter Chinese intervention and to ensure timely and uninterrupted military supplies. Finally, assurance of a Soviet veto was obtained to ensure that the United Nations (UN) Security Council would not impose a ceasefire before military operations produced a decisive victory.
On the home front, a massive effort was made to provide shelter to 10 million refugees. Special care was taken to ensure communal harmony. The finance ministry made a Herculean effort to find the resources required for arms purchases and refugee relief, as well as assistance to post-liberation Bangladesh. It ensured that a foreign exchange crisis did not arise during or immediately after the war.
A persisting myth has it that India won the war but lost the peace, since the Simla Agreement did not convert the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir into an international boundary. This overlooks the fact that the aim of the 1971 war was the liberation of Bangladesh, not a resolution of the Kashmir issue.
Indira Gandhi hoped that the new LoC would evolve into an international boundary, but she did not aim to achieve this at the Simla summit. She feared that she would be accused of “surrendering” Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir if she were to do so. The draft agreements proposed by India at the Simla conference specifically reserve a final settlement on Kashmir for a future date. India’s objective in the conference was to substitute the UN-mandated 1949 ceasefire line in Kashmir by a new, bilaterally agreed LoC and, more generally, to secure Pakistan’s agreement to resolve mutual differences through bilateral discussions.
The credit for our historic success in 1971 does not go to any single individual. Great credit is due to Indira Gandhi for her indomitable spirit and decisive leadership. She ensured national unity by taking Opposition leaders into confidence to the full extent possible. She rose above the temptation of depicting the victory as a personal or party achievement. Addressing Parliament at the end of the war, she thanked the Opposition parties for their support.
The PM was guided by the advice of a stellar group of officials, including PN Haksar, DP Dhar and RN Kao. The service chiefs provided inspirational leadership to the armed forces. The soldiers who made the supreme sacrifice will be remembered forever in India and Bangladesh. Millions of ordinary citizens made an unforgettable contribution by their sense of humanity, by sharing the little they possessed with the hapless refugees.
For Bangladesh, as for India, 1971 shows the heights to which a nation can rise when its unity is unmarred by communal distinctions.
Chandrashekhar Dasgupta is the author of the recently released India and the Bangladesh Liberation War. A veteran diplomat, he is also the author of War and Diplomacy in Kashmir, 1947-48
The views expressed are personal