Bangladesh- India relations: 1971 Dec- 1974
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The Bangladesh Liberation War came to a triumphal conclusion on Dec 16, 1971, when the Pakistani forces in the Eastern Theatre surrendered unconditionally to the India-Bangladesh Joint Command. This was the finale of a spectacular feat of arms, one without parallel in the recent history of South Asia. In January 1972, India opened an embassy in Dhaka, becoming the first country to establish diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. The embassy was redesignated as a high commission later in the year when Bangladesh became a member of the Commonwealth.
I had the privilege of serving in this mission in the early years of independent Bangladesh, from March 1972 to mid-1974. Officers selected for the new embassy were instructed to rush to Dhaka as soon as possible, leaving their families behind in India. We were informed that we would be unable to find any time for them.
Bangladesh was just beginning to recover from the devastation it had suffered during the liberation war. We assisted the Bangladesh authorities in rehabilitating ports and railways, repairing roads and bridges, assuring them supplies of basic food items, medicines and other essential commodities. We also helped them resettle the millions of refugees who had taken shelter in India during the Pakistani crackdown in Bangladesh. We worked from morning to night, seven days a week. It was only after the first six months that we were allowed to take the afternoon off on Sundays.
These were exciting and eventful times. Within days of my arrival in Dhaka, I witnessed two historic events. On March 12, 1972, the Indian army staged a spectacular, impeccably choreographed farewell parade at the Dhaka stadium. The stadium was packed to capacity long before the event, and a vast overflow surged outside the gates. We had to fight our way through the crowd to reach our seats. Taking the salute at the farewell parade, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman paid homage to the valiant officers and jawans of the Indian army who had sacrificed their lives in the liberation war. Five days after the farewell parade, Indira Gandhi arrived in Dhaka to an unforgettable welcome.
Tens of thousands had poured into the capital from the outlying districts to catch a glimpse of the Indian prime minister and hear her speak at the Suhrawardy Udayan. The streets of the city were festooned with posters bearing her portrait alongside effusive expressions of gratitude and admiration.
To enable the embassy to meet the unprecedented challenges it faced, exceptional powers were delegated to it, dispensing with time-consuming bureaucratic procedures. It was assumed that formal financial sanction would follow automatically in all cases of expenditure approved by Ambassador Subimal Dutt.
I recall, for example, that we received an appeal for assistance from the Bangladesh government to deal with a major cholera epidemic. A massive inoculation campaign was urgently required to deal with this public health emergency, but the proportionately massive requirements of vaccines were not available in war-devastated Bangladesh. Under Dutt’s instructions, I rang up the concerned desk officer in the ministry of external affairs (MEA) and informed him that the ambassador had asked for the requisite quantity of cholera vaccine to be airlifted to Dhaka within forty-eight hours.
The task involved coordination between the ministries of external affairs, health, defence and finance, as well as between these civilian agencies and the air force. In normal times this would have taken weeks, if not months, with each organization raising its own issues at every step. In the event, in April 1972, two Indian Air Force planes delivered the urgently needed vaccines in Dhaka in thirty-six hours!
This is only a small example of the way the Government of India functioned during and after the 1971 war. The contrast with the stately pace at which the government normally moved could not have been more startling. It was possible to execute tasks so speedily only because everyone involved was inspired by a common, clearly defined, overarching national aim.
This period of frenetic activity drew to a close as normalcy was restored and an increasing number of countries, including the principal western aid donors, accorded diplomatic recognition to Bangladesh. This enabled Bangladesh to diversify its sources of assistance, relieving India in the process of a massive economic burden that it could not have borne beyond a few months. The embassy gradually settled down to more normal working hours and, at long last, our families were allowed to join us in Dhaka.
During these eventful years in Dhaka, I had no detailed knowledge of the historical background of our association with the Bangladesh freedom struggle. We received only a cursory briefing before we took up our posts in Dhaka. This was intended to prepare us for addressing the urgent tasks in hand, not for historical inquiry. Some of my colleagues in the Dhaka mission provided fascinating accounts of our links with the Bangladesh freedom fighters.
I learned a great deal about our 1971 operations from a dear friend and foreign service colleague, Arundhati (‘Chuku’) Ghose, who had been posted in Kolkata in our liaison office with Bangladesh government-in-exile. Our military attaché, Maj Gen (later Lt Gen.) BN Sarkar was the principal link between the Indian Army and the Mukti Bahini before the war. He was the source of many valuable insights concerning our military operations.
Another guide to these operations was the naval attaché, Cdr MN Samant, who had helped establish the naval branch of the Mukti Bahini and had led many daring covert operations. Samant was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra for conspicuous gallantry in the 1971 war. Quite a few of our Bangladeshi friends told us about their clandestine contacts with our authorities before the war.
All of these were fascinating anecdotes, but they did not add up to a complete picture. Many basic questions remained unanswered. When and why did India decide to involve itself in the Bangladesh freedom struggle? Did India have a prior plan to break up Pakistan? What was the impact of the massive influx of refugees fleeing from Pakistani oppression? What conclusions did India draw from the dramatic geopolitical transformation signalled by Kissinger’s secret trip to China midway through the Bangladesh liberation struggle? Above all, did India react in a piecemeal manner to challenges as they arose, or did it have a comprehensive grand strategy early in the day?
Three decades later, after my retirement from the foreign service, I sought answers to these questions in the archival records.
The archives throw new light on many perplexing questions. They show that far from planning to break up Pakistan, Indian policymakers hoped, right up to March 25, 1971, for a peaceful transition to democracy in Pakistan and the installation of an Awami League-led government in Islamabad. New Delhi believed that this held out the only hope for a breakthrough in Indo-Pakistan relations. These hopes were belied when President Yahya Khan decided to crush the aspirations of the eastern province through a murderous terror campaign, thereby triggering off an armed independence struggle.
Only then did India decide to actively assist the Bangladesh freedom fighters in order to bring their struggle to an early conclusion. This decision was based on New Delhi’s concerns about the spillover effects of an extended guerrilla war across India’s porous eastern borders; it also reflected deep public sympathy in India for the people of Bangladesh. The records conclusively disprove the story popularized by Field Marshal Manekshaw that he had dissuaded Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in April from sending an unprepared Indian army into East Pakistan. They reveal that the prime minister and her principal advisers had already decided against premature intervention on political and diplomatic grounds, fearing this would result in loss of international support for the Bangladesh cause.
Most importantly, the archives indicate that as early as April-May 1971 India had formulated a comprehensive outline plan or grand strategy encompassing military, diplomatic and domestic initiatives, with the aim of bringing the liberation war to a successful conclusion before the year-end. They throw new light on how these decisions were made and executed amidst dramatic changes in the international environment. They throw new light on the close coordination of military and diplomatic moves by India during the December war, and on how Indian diplomacy thwarted US and Chinese moves in the UN Security Council to abort the freedom struggle by imposing on India a premature ceasefire. Finally, they dispel the widespread belief that India ‘won the war but lost the peace’ in the Simla summit by giving up its intention of converting the Line of Control into an international boundary.
The records prove that at every stage in the Simla conference India specifically reserved a final settlement of the Kashmir issue for future meetings. India did, indeed, push for an eventual settlement on the basis of the Line of Control, but Indira Gandhi feared that an immediate agreement on these lines would expose her to the charge that she had ‘surrendered’ Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
Excerpted with permission from India and the Bangladesh Liberation War (published by Juggernaut Books)