Allahabad among the oldest cities in India is also, for Hindus, among the most sacred. It is mentioned in the Puranas, or the Hindu scriptures belonging to a period well before the beginning of the Christian era. The Hindus called the city Prayag or the place of a thousand yagnas (ritual fires). Another ancient name by which the city was known was Triveni, from its situation at the confluence of three rivers, the Ganga (or the Ganges), the Jamuna, and the mythical Saraswati. Because the Aryan settlers who gave India its dominant religion and philosophy lived mainly along the river banks, all streams and waterways assumed special importance in Hindu ritual. A point where the three rivers joined together, as they did at Prayag inevitably became sanctified and thousands have visited Allahabad every year for untold years for a dip at the confluence to cleanse themselves of past sins. The city acquired its present name, meaning the abode of Allah, in the fifteenth century, when Akbar, the Moghul emperor built a fort at Triveni to mark what was then the eastern extremity of his empire.

Allahabad is still sacred for millions of Hindus. But no longer is it either the frontier of a medieval empire or, as it was for a long time under the British, the capital of an important province. In 1917, when Indira was born, Allahabad—or at least its Civil Lines—had an air of elegant aloofness. It was the capital of the United Provinces, one of the largest administrative units of British India, and the seat of the provincial High Court (the provincial capital shifted to Lucknow in 1922, but the High Court has stayed in Allahabad). The British had built not only large residences but also numerous beautiful churches. The foreign elite scrupulously avoided fraternizing with almost all Indians, regarding them as socially inferior. It admitted into its small, exclusive, social circle only a few ‘natives’ who, in its estimate, had adequately imbibed Western culture. A contemporary of Indira Gandhi, who is now a judge of Allahabad High Court, recalls how many a time he was chased away by angry guards if he ventured into the park in non-European clothes.

The Nehru family, of course had gained social acceptance in the city’s European community long before Indira’s birth. Anand Bhavan into which Motilal, the hugely successful barrister, had moved in 1900 was not strictly part of the Civil Lines, but it was far enough from Karimganj, the old congested city where the family had lived for many years earlier and where Indira’s father, Jawaharlal Nehru, was born, to be another world.

It was Motilal who built the family fortune and achieved something like social equality with the British—and national prominence. But the Nehrus, Kashmiri Brahmins or Pundits who had left their ancestral homes in the snowy, lake-studded Vale in Northern India, several generations ago and settled down in a few urban centres like Allahabad, had already produced other distinguished lawyers. They also had their share of trials and tribulations usually suffered by people in search of a new place to grow roots.

The Kashmiri pundits constitute what was and still is one of the smallest and culturally closest-knit communities in India, yet its cohesiveness and strong sense of communal belonging may be among the less important of its characteristics. Also typical of the Kashmiri Brahmins are traits as shrewdness, adaptability, an uncanny capacity to judge friends and foes, and a remarkable instinct for survival. (Significantly, these were the very qualities that enabled Indira Gandhi to turn herself from a weak leader of a dilapidated party constantly plagued by ambitious rivals and powerful enemies into a Prime Minister with almost awesome, unchallenged authority.)

It is commonly believed that several centuries ago a number of Brahmins fled from the valley of Kashmir into the plains of the Punjab and beyond to escape the tyranny of the Vale’s Muslim rulers. These Pandits apparently had exercised, as they do in modern Kashmir, political and economic influence far out of proportion to their numerical strength and had thus invited upon themselves the wrath of the Muslim administrators, who were not known for religious tolerance and broadmindedness. On other occasions in the past, many Kashmiri Pandits presumably left their cramped homeland for the big cities and princely courts of India in search of jobs and personal advancement. But the total number of migrants was small. According to one estimate, Kashmiri Brahmins settled outside Kashmir numbered no more than about 5,000 at the beginning of the present century when India’s total population was nearly 300 million. It is a measure of their unusual capacity to adjust themselves to their surroundings and circumstances that once they left their homeland Kashmiri Pandits seldom looked back. When they took up abode in Lahore, Jaipur, Delhi, Agra, or Allahabad, theirs was not a Diaspora that must end in a Return. Jawaharlal often visited Kashmir, but less because Kashmir appealed to some ancestral attachments buried deep in his mind than because he loved mountains and glaciers. He admired the Himalayan ranges of Assam with equal fervor and would probably have visited them oftener had they been more easily accessible from where he lived. His daughter’s attachment to Kashmir was to be even more tenuous and less noticeable.

Like the Nehrus, other Kashmiri Brahmins who migrated to the plains readily came to terms with their new environs, but despite their being a tiny minority and despite a willingness in certain respects to blend with the surrounding scenery, they preserved their distinctive identity. Perhaps the smallness of their community enabled it to maintain its exclusive character. Even in a city of Allahabad’s size, there were no more than a few hundred Kashmiri Pandits. Each of them was known to others. All would be invited to a wedding or any other comparable social event, and most marriages were arranged within the community. Thus, although Motilal had adopted many Western values and practices and his son had studied in Britain, when time came to look for a bride for Jawahar, the search never went beyond the small, restricted circle of Kashmiri Brahmins. (A quarter of a century later, when Indira wanted to marry a Parsi from Bombay, it would require a tremendous intellectual and emotional effort on Nehru’s part to cross the caste barrier involved in the proposed wedding.) That most Kashmiris are fair complexioned, with facial characteristics denoting their Central Asian origin, also helped them retain their separate identity and won them ready social acceptance from the British. Their pale, Occidental complexion prompted many other Indians, with their notorious weakness for fair skin, notwithstanding frequent protestations to the contrary, to regard Kashmiri Pandits with special deference. For their part, most Kashmiris expected to be considered members of a somewhat superior community. As they often justifiably reminded themselves, there was almost no illiteracy among them, their women disdained purdah, and they had produced from amongst them an unusually large number of dewans (prime ministers of former princely states) and distinguished scholars.

Indira’s ancestors left Kashmir in the beginning of the eighteenth century “to seek fame and fortune in the rich plains below,” as Jawaharlal Nehru later wrote. One of them Raj Kaul, was a noted Sanskrit and Persian scholar who had attracted the attention of the then Moghul emperor, Farruksiar, during the latter’s visit to the beauteous valley. It was probably at the invitation of the Moghul ruler that Raj Kaul joined the Delhi court. As a mark of imperial favour he was given a house on the bank of a canal and a jagir, or rights of over lordship, for a number of villages. The location of the house gave the family the name by which it later came to be known—Nehru is a corrupted version of nehar, which means canal. For a long period, Indira’s distant forefathers sported the hyphenated family name of Kaul-Nehru. Later, the Kaul was dropped.

Raj Kaul’s good fortune did not last long. In 1719, when he had barely started enjoying the financial fruits of the jagir, his patron, Farruksiar, was deposed and later put to death by the order of his ministers. The disintegration of the Moghul empire had already started, and in the following century or so its size and authority dwindled steadily under the relentless pressure of the expanding political power of the British East India Company. The decline in the fortunes of the Kaul-Nehrus virtually corresponded with the contraction of the prestige and position of the Moghul court. By the middle of the next century, when Indian soldiers rose in revolt against the company’s control, Indira’s great-grandfather, Ganga Dhar, was Delhi’s kotwal. This post was a senior one in the city’s police hierarchy and probably important, but it was obviously a far cry from the position of feudal nobility that the family had originally occupied.

The so-called Mutiny of 1857 was put down with a firm and bloody hand. In punishment for the Indian soldier’s action in raising the standard of revolt and killing many Europeans residents of Delhi and the nearby city of Meerut, the British deposed and exiled the last of the Moghul emperors, Bahadur Shah, a figure straight out of a Greek tragedy. They also executed by shooting or hanging over twenty princes and allowed their troops to run amuck in Delhi. British soldiers killed able-bodied men indiscriminately as possible rebels and continued looting and plundering shops and private homes for weeks after the uprising had collapsed. Thousands of terror-stricken residents camped temporarily some miles outside the city in the hope of returning when the orgy of killing and looting ended. But many others left the city for good—among them Ganga Dhar and his family. They headed towards Agra, 120 miles to the south of Delhi, and they very nearly lost their lives on the way.

Ganga Dhar died three months before his Motilal was born in Agra in 1861, leaving the responsibility of bringing up the child and looking after the rest of the sizeable family on his two older sons, Bansi Dhar and Nand Lal. The latter studied law and built a big practice first in Agra and later in Allahabad when the provincial High Court moved there. It was he who took young Motilal under his protective wing and established with him a bond of deep affection. Motilal, until he was twelve studied no English, only Arabic and Persian. But once he realized the importance of English in making a successful career under the British Raj, he learned it quickly and well. Influenced apparently by the example of his elder brother and possibly because the bar was the only field in which Indians at the time could expect social advancement and adequate financial rewards, Motilal took to law as a profession. After a three-year apprenticeship in a lower court in Kanpur, he moved to Allahabad, which offered a considerably larger professional pasture. Soon after his arrival in Allahabad, however, he lost his elder brother, Nand Lal, and at twenty-five became the head of and only breadwinner for a large joint family comprising, among others, seven nephews and nieces. He himself was married when he was only eighteen but lost his wife as well as a son born to her. His second wife, Swarup Rani, lost her first son, but in 1889 gave birth to a second who was called Jawaharlal (a name that he, as he confessed many years later, disliked immensely).

Motilal by all accounts, worked exceedingly hard to establish himself as a successful lawyer. It enabled him to fulfill his family obligations–he spent generously on his nephews’ education and the maintenance of numerous other relations—and to live in style that was the envy of many a senior British administrator. His grasp of Indian civil law—he usually disdained briefs involving criminal violations—was stupendous. A strong personal pride was an important trait in Motilal’s characters—a trait that Jawaharlal, and Indira after him, inherited. Another legacy from Motilal was his volatile temper. Jawaharlal could lose his temper almost instantaneously over something as routine and minor as a momentary failure of a loudspeaker system at a political rally he was addressing, just as his father often worked himself into a towering rage over trivial matters.

A relative of Indira’s on her mother’s side once referred to Motilal with a touch of contempt as nouveau riche. Motilal had undoubtedly greatly enlarged the family fortune and some aspects of his life style were rather parvenu, but the suggestion is uncharitable. He lived well, in fact ostentatiously, because he genuinely enjoyed the pleasures of life. Motilal built Anand Bhavan, the house in which Indira was born, large enough to accommodate not only his own family but also numerous guests who came to stay for long periods. Many Indian families, some whose heads were considerably wealthier than Motilal, lived extravagantly. But the Nehrus had a style all their own. They consciously chose to live like sahibs—and yet did not appear to be mindlessly aping the British. The reason for this was simple. When he left Karimganj to live in civil lines, Motilal was not trying to ingratiate himself with the foreign rulers in the hope of personal favours so much as he was escaping from the backward-looking, tradition bound society into which the urban middle class had then grown. But the Nehrus revolted against the narrow-mindedness and insularity of Indian society, not against its fundamental values, and thus, although Anand Bhavan adopted the modern conveniences of a British home, it retained the atmosphere of graciousness and ebullience traditionally associated with Indian families of social standing.

The Nehru family’ first exposure to the west had occurred in 1897, when Motilal’s eldest brother, Bansi Dhar, undertook a round-the-world voyage. Motilal himself visited Europe two years later, invoking as had his brother the wrath of the orthodox community. On his return, he angrily refused to do praiyashchit or religious penitence to ‘purify’ himself after his ‘sinful’ act in crossing the sea and eating with the ‘unclean foreigners.’ When he dismissed the demand as ‘tomfoolery,’ the priests excommunicated him and ordered social boycott of him. That he turned to Britain so often and with such zest was not merely an angry reaction to the tyranny of the foolish and narrow-minded section of the Kashmiri community. His admiration for British culture was genuine and deep-seated. In a speech in 1907 he said of Britain:

England has fed us with the best food that her language, her literature, her science, her art and above all, her free institutions could supply. We have learned and grown on that wholesome food for a century and are fast approaching the age of maturity.

 To those in India who were even then getting impatient with Britain’s niggardliness in responding to the country’s demand for self-government, Motilal spoke reassuringly. He firmly believed, he told them that “John Bull means well — it is not in his nature to mean ill.”

Things were to change and change rapidly. As Allahabad had been built at a confluence of rivers, so Anand Bhavan had been built at a confluence of historical currents. Unlike the waters of the Ganges, the Jamuna and mythical Saraswati, they did not blend—though inside the walls of Motilal’s mansion it had seemed for a time that they might. On that sparkling November day in 1917 when Indira was born to the Nehrus, Anand Bhavan belonged to the Empire. The household had begun to feel faint stirrings of unease about this allegiance, but it belonged. By the time Indu was a bright-eyed, curly-haired little girl of two, her grandfather Motilal had lost faith in the good intentions of John Bull and, led more and more by his son, was turning towards Mahatma Gandhi. The elder Nehru’s love for Britain and its traditions remained unaffected, but his friends among the bureaucrats and senior administrators of the Raj had begun to regret their jovial past associations with the Nehrus.





The shield that India acquired was the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship concluded in Delhi on August 9, 1971. The treaty, which many Americans and Europeans tended to see as a virtual abandonment of India’s policy of nonalignment, had originally been proposed by Moscow and discussed by the two countries in considerable detail in 1969. That was the year when Soviet leadership was beginning to shed some of its suspicions about Indira’s ideological moorings originally fostered by her swift move to devalue Indian currency in 1966 under seeming World Bank pressure and by the warm welcome that President Johnson had accorded Mrs. Gandhi during her visit to Washington soon after she became Prime Minister. Not only had Brezhnev and Kosygin seen indications of India’s moving closer to the United States under Indira’s leadership, but Indira in her turn had her own reasons to be wary of Soviet intentions. It was about that time Moscow endeavoured to adopt a nonaligned posture in the affairs of the subcontinent and started for the first time supplying arms to Pakistan in the hope of gaining certain political leverage with its military rulers. The quantities of arms given to Pakistan were limited, but they were enough to distress India. Also, during a visit to New Delhi in the beginning of 1968, Kosygin offered Indira advice about affairs in Kashmir and management of various Soviet-collaboration industrial projects that to Indira’s sensitive ears sounded not like friendly counsel but unwarranted interference. By the middle of 1969, however, both sides had overcome much of their suspicion and realized the fruitlessness of drifting apart. Indira’s confrontation with the Congress Party Old Guard and her close association with the Communist Party of India, the Moscow-affiliated section of Indian Communists, in her temporary tacit coalition government, brightened her image in Brezhnev’s eyes. Additionally, Moscow by then had found that its decision to supply arms to Pakistan was yielding no noticeable dividends and, much to India’s satisfaction, had resolved not to make any fresh commitments.

The suggestion that India and the Soviet Union should sign a friendship treaty was, however, greeted by many Indian leaders with hesitation and a marked lack of enthusiasm in 1969. Indira’s advisers were divided among themselves over its political implications. The treaty, some argued, would bind India too closely with the Soviet Union for it to function with complete independence—and would needlessly antagonize its Western friends. If the bear could hug, it could also bite, they pointed out. Others held that fears about impairment of India’s independence and nonalignment were exaggerated and that India had gathered sufficient self-confidence and political stability to be able to join a partnership even with a superior power without limiting its freedom of action. This group among her advisers argued that any misunderstandings the treaty might cause in India’s relations with Western powers would be temporary and outweighed by the enormous political, psychological, and even military gains that the arrangement would offer.

Durga Prashad Dhar, a progressive Kashmiri leader then newly appointed Ambassador to Moscow, suggested a compromise. India, he said, might discuss and even finalize the treaty, but it should be concluded formally only at some future time that both parties might consider opportune. The Prime Minister favoured this approach and, when Moscow signaled its willingness to accept such an arrangement, ordered the discussions to begin. She, however, directed Dhar and others entrusted with the negotiations to bear in mind two points: The treaty, she told them, should contain nothing that might make India look like “a client state of the Soviet Union.” Also, the phrasing of the document should not draw attention unduly to the clause relating to mutual collaboration in the event of a threat to a signatory’s security.

By the beginning of 1970 the draft of the treaty had been finalized. Dhar and others had made it clear that a friendship treaty between India and the Soviet Union would be meaningless if the Russians had any intention of resuming their supply of arms to Pakistan.  The Indian representatives had also balked at the excessive bluntness in the language of the early draft stating each country’s responsibility to come to the military assistance of the other; the language originally favoured by Moscow virtually made it imperative for each party to offer military support to the other in the event of a war. Indira and her colleagues were anxious to keep the commitment somewhat hazy for fear of the friendship treaty’s looking like a mutual defence pact, and Clause 9 of the final draft, which provided for mutual consultations in the event of either party’s being subjected to an attack, or a threat of one, was largely the result of Indian reluctance to enter into an explicit defense commitment.

The decision to quickly dust off the treaty and formally sign it was taken by India only in the beginning of August. By then the number of refugees who had crossed into West Bengal had already risen to over 6 million. The conscience of the world community had remained distressingly unmoved by this tragic uprooting of humanity. The nations and their governments, it was felt in India, were shirking their duty by hiding behind a clause in the U.N. Charter forbidding interference in the “internal affairs” of a member country. Surely, Indira told numerous diplomats, newsmen, and various audiences, those who had drafted the Charter could not have imagined or anticipated the scale on which genocide was being committed in a part of Pakistan. By regarding the military crimes in East Pakistan as a domestic problem of Yahya Khan’s government, the world, she said, was observing the letter of the Charter provision and ignoring the real spirit of the total document. In any case, with millions of Pakistanis crossing into a neighbouring country in an endless stream, the situation she stressed repeatedly had become an international problem. World inaction could not be justified. But her pleas elicited little positive response from abroad. As the weeks passed, India’s grievance over other nation’s indifference rapidly turned into an obsessive sense of isolation. Why was it that no one did anything effective to lessen the enormous burden India was carrying alone? Many in India asked in despair and puzzlement. Legislators as well as newspaper writers wondered why it was that neither of the two superpowers, which regarded themselves as the guardians of world peace, nor various European nations claiming to live by superior political and moral values, nor even any of the Arab countries, which had a refugee problem of their own and whose cause India had steadfastly espoused, had come forward to roundly condemn Pakistan and ask Yahya Khan to desist from mass terror. When Indira remarked that words of praise for India irritated her and noted that Pakistan, instead of being rebuked, was still receiving material help, she was not merely expressing her own very deep-seated exasperation but also a national feeling of being without friends.

Something dramatic was needed to change that mood of frustration and helplessness. It came when Andrei Gromyko arrived suddenly in New Delhi on August 7. Dhar, who had by then left the Moscow post to be a special adviser to the Prime Minister at Indira’s bidding, had hurriedly persuaded the Soviet Government to sign the treaty at that moment. In the earlier stages of the East Pakistan conflict Moscow’s appreciation of the problem had been remarkably like that of the Nixon Administration in Washington. Before his arrest Sheikh had been in touch with Soviet and American diplomats and with what he regarded as consummate skill in playing one power against the other had made all kinds of promises to both in the event of his coming to power. That combined with some double-talk by Yahya Khan had encouraged Moscow to hope that the Soviet Union would be able to persuade both sides to share authority, thus earning good will all around. When the massacre that followed Sheikh Mujib’s arrest at the beginning of March, however, revealed the naiveté of the Soviet assessment. Kosygin wrote Yahya Khan a personal letter protesting the bloodthirstiness of his troops. The Soviet leaders were disturbed, moreover, by the unreserved support that Peking had offered the Pakistan Government. When, therefore, Dhar suggested that the treaty be concluded, they responded with alacrity. (Few reports could be farther off the mark than the one in the New York Times four days after the signing of the treaty, suggesting on the authority of a secret CIA informant in the Indian Government that Indira had extracted the Soviet signatures as the price for deferring formal recognition of Bangladesh. At stake on both sides was much more than the recognition issue.)

The move to resurrect the document and sign it publicly was one of the best-kept secrets in the Indian capital. Besides Indira, not half a dozen persons knew about the last-minute exchanges with Moscow. The Indian Cabinet was informed of the Prime Minister’s decision to enter a treaty arrangement with Moscow just half an hour before the accord was due to be signed by Foreign Minister Gromyko and Swaran Singh. The announcement about the conclusion of the Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty had the expected impact on the morale of the Indian public. A few brief expressions of skepticism apart, people received it exuberantly. In their view, it meant that in the affairs of the subcontinent the Soviet Union at least was no longer sitting on the fence. Through the treaty, the Russians promised India support in the war with Pakistan that by then seemed almost certain to come. The treaty also issued to the United States and China an implicit warning that they would intervene in the conflict on Pakistan’s side only at the risk of elevating it into something bigger than a limited war between two relatively backward countries. Most Indians were grateful for this assurance and praised Indira for her adroitness in securing for them.

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The Indian Perspective

Tremendous though it was at the time, Indira’s power did not attain its peak with the unexpected and overwhelming electoral victory she won for her party in the beginning of 1971. In the following twelve months, she was to face a challenge much bigger than the one the Congress party “Old Guard” had posed, and her remarkable success in tackling it was to impress the world and turn the substantial but routine political support of her own people into what was for many months real, if sometimes frenzied, adulation. The threat to India’s security came from its neighbour and old adversary, Pakistan, but because of the way the situation developed in the subcontinent the United States and the Soviet Union, particularly the former, also got deeply involved, politically and diplomatically, in the conflict.

About the time Indira and her supporters in India were jubilantly watching the announcement of the parliamentary election results, Yahya Khan, Pakistan’s military dictator, and other leaders in that country were confronted with an unnerving situation that threatened to split their country governmentally as drastically as it was split geographically. Yahya Khan had come to power in Islamabad in March 1969, following a coup against his predecessor Ayub Khan. Yahya Khan had promised to hold elections and restore normal political institutions—some, including free elections and an uncontrolled press, abolished as far back as 1958. The general elections held in fulfillment of that promise gave the majority in the Pakistan National Assembly to the Awami League, the dominant party in the country’s distant eastern wing, 1,000 miles away across the intervening territory belonging to India. This party, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was committed to securing maximum autonomy for East Pakistan. Not surprisingly, the prospects of a national government headed by Sheikh Mujib and autonomy for East Pakistan deeply agitated the ruling groups in West Pakistan, which had until then enjoyed power and economic benefits almost exclusively.

Plainly, Yahya and those who supported the junta had not visualized such a development. (While visiting Islamabad, Henry Kissinger, was asked by a half-drunk Yahya Khan at a banquet, “Do you think I am a dictator?” Reportedly, the U.S. national security adviser quipped, “Mr. President, for a dictator you run a lousy general election.”) Efforts at a compromise between the Awami League and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who had emerged as the principal leader of the western wing, failed. Yahya then sent several divisions of Punjabi troops to Dacca, the capital city of East Pakistan. There ensued a barbaric attempt to put down the largely Bengali, protesting citizenry, Hindu and Muslim alike. As all those who understood the Bengali mind, but as Yahya Khan apparently did not, the brutal use of force by their countrymen, instead of overawing the East Pakistanis, stiffened East Pakistan’s resolve to end the western wing’s dominance.

Mujib and some other Bengali leaders were arrested. Many others eluded Yahya Khan’s police, however, and went underground in East Pakistan or across the border in India. And as a ragged but fiercely determined guerrilla force came into being, the Awami League’s ultimate objective changed from autonomy within Pakistan to complete independence for the 75 million people in a country that now tentatively adopted for itself the name of Bangladesh.

Mrs. Gandhi vehemently denies the Pakistani charge that the Bengali uprising drew its inspiration from and what was later sustained by India. “India had no part in the internal development of Pakistan—West or East,” she says. The sympathy of the Indian Government however, as well as of the public undoubtedly was with Sheikh Mujib. Pakistan’s Western wing leaders had trod on Indian toes so frequently since the partition of the subcontinent that to see them discomfited and to consider the possibility of Pakistan’s breakup as a nation caused widespread satisfaction in India. Furthermore, at a later stage of the liberation movement, the Mukti Bahini, or Freedom Fighters, received considerable help from India in training and equipment. But in March 1971, when the conflict began, India was distinctly not involved in what Indira described as the “battle that Pakistan was waging against its own citizens.” Those close to Indira testify that there was no link—direct or otherwise—at that time between Indira or any of her authorized representatives and Sheikh Mujib—if for no other reason than she was too deeply engrossed in her own political survival to mastermind a revolt in a neighbouring country. She was then still fighting her political opponents at home with grim earnestness, and so complete was her involvement in that battle that she deferred attention to all other matters, however pressing. While the political drama in Dacca was moving to its bloody second act, Indira was engaged in the hectic election campaign during which she travelled over 40,000 miles. On many days, she was at places deep in the interior of the country where news of what was happening in East Pakistan often did not even reach her.

The Pakistani Army’s vicious crackdown in Dacca began as Indira, after celebrating her victory in the elections, was getting her new government in Delhi on the rails. Most of the Western newsmen who congregated in Dacca to watch Pakistan’s constitutional tussle work itself out were forcibly prevented from witnessing the atrocities that the West Pakistani troops were ordered to commit in the hope of terrorizing the Bengali populace into submission. But before the Military Governor of East Pakistan summarily debarred the press—no exception was made even in the case of correspondents from traditionally pro-Pakistani conservative papers in Britain and the United States—many visiting newsmen had seen enough of what was beginning to occur or evidence of the earliest atrocities to write dispatches that made their readers’ stomach turn. In the organized burning of villages, destruction of crops, mass shooting of innocent people (whose bodies were left to be devoured by vultures), and the rape of tens of thousands of Bengali women, many Western reporters saw terror equaling, perhaps surpassing, that which the Jews had suffered in Hitler’s Germany.

It was inevitable that the Indians would be much more deeply affected by the gory developments in and around Dacca than were people living continents away. Dispatches from British and American newspapers were reproduced in the Indian press, but Indians had even more graphic and moving accounts of what was happening from those East Pakistanis who began crossing into India by the thousands before the Pakistani Army’s “campaign” was a month old. Despite the barrier that partition had erected between them, Indian and Pakistani Bengalis had maintained strong cultural and emotional ties over the years. The Hindus in East Pakistan constituted a defenseless minority and were the special target of the Pakistani Army’s venom. Most of those who now fled to India were, therefore, Hindus. Many Hindus believed that the Pakistani Army repression was designed primarily to rid East Pakistan completely of its non-Muslim population, and the anger aroused was widespread. In Parliament and the press there were some who from the start seriously advocated war with Pakistan to stop the terror and influx of refugees. Indira, deeply affected by the tragedy, later wrote in Foreign Affairs:

We would normally have welcomed the attainment of freedom by any victim of colonial oppression but usually it would have little direct impact on us. Bangladesh, however, was a part of our subcontinent. How could we ignore a conflict which took place on our very border and overflowed into our own territory?

It was only a short time before the conflict between the two wings of Pakistan spread into India. Since the partition of the two countries in 1947, Pakistan had driven out several million of its Hindu citizens, who had crossed into India in periodic waves. Thus, East Pakistani Hindus seeking refuge in the Indian state of Bengal were by no means an uncommon phenomenon. They arrived, destitute and in a state of shock following sudden, inexplicable outbursts of religious hatred or equally inexplicable acts of official highhandedness in their homeland. In the decade following independence, nearly 4 million Hindus from East Pakistan had been reluctantly absorbed into India—their expulsion viewed as an unfortunate extension of the communal frenzy that had seized people in both countries at the time of partition. But over the years the pace had slowed almost to a trickle and by now, twenty-fours after independence, official as well as public attitudes towards having to offer them permanent refuge had changed. In March 1971 over 10 million Hindus were still in East Pakistan. They were citizens of Pakistan. India considered the lengthy chapter in the subcontinent’s history devoted to exchange of persons finally closed. Not that Indians would shut the door in the face of the terror-stricken. Poor in the world’s terms as their country was, they would look after these new refugees from Pakistan as best as they could—but it had to be understood that the refugees’ stay must be short. They were East Pakistanis and in time they must return home.

Indira Gandhi wondered if Pakistan was trying to solve one of its problems by driving out the 10 million people whose presence as citizens it found “inconvenient.” As April gave way to May and June, another aspect of the steadily rising influx that worried her was its possible impact on the area in India into which refugees were streaming. West Bengal bordering East Pakistan was – and still is—among the most thickly populated and politically restive parts of India. The state had a history of administrative instability, and sizable sections of its volatile people had earlier tried to seek power through Maoist attempts at organized violence. The arrival of many refugees was liable to strain the area’s limited economic resources and the ensuing frustration might well encourage further violence. From the very start, therefore, Indira was quite clear in her mind that irrespective of the fact that many of them were Hindus, the East Pakistani refugees must return home. And in the beginning of October 1971, by which time a staggering 9 million refugees had entered India, she told BBC, “We have no intention of absorbing these people here—no matter what. I am absolutely determined about it.”


When, during that terrible summer and early autumn, Yahya Khan protested that what his army was doing in East Pakistan was the country’s internal matter and many abroad appeared to agree with him, Indira, through Indian and international news media, reacted strongly. The problem in East Pakistan was not of India’s making: “We have never interfered in any way in the politics of Pakistan,” she said. “But Pakistan can no longer pretend that this is its internal problem.” With millions of helpless Pakistani citizens entering India, “it has become an internal problem for us and it has become a major problem of humanity, a question of conscience and of the protection of people’s lives and rights,” she asserted. India’s Foreign Minister Swaran Singh, whom she dispatched that summer to London, Washington, Moscow, and other major capitals to explain the implications of the refugee influx, told various heads of governments that what India was experiencing was a “civilian invasion.” As the verbal battle mounted, Yahya Khan, equally angry but less decorous, told a correspondent of Le Figaro in August that Indira “is neither a woman nor a head of state by wanting to be both at once.” Should he come face to face with her, he would say to her, “Shut up woman; leave me alone and let refugees come back,” he declared.

Not many even among Yahya Khan’s friends abroad seriously believed that India had any interest in deliberately holding back Pakistani refugees from returning home, as Yahya Khan was now claiming. For one thing, the overwhelming nature of the strain on India’s resources was obvious. Several special taxes, including a substantial surcharge on the postal rates, were levied temporarily to raise additional revenue burdening an already weak economy. India was then spending $5 to $6 million daily to feed the refugees and provide them with some improvised shelter and basic medical care (an outbreak of cholera in epidemic form was narrowly averted). When torrential rains hit West Bengal, the refugee camps turned into vast marshy lakes. The more fortunate among the residents were those who had had the initiative to establish squatting rights in large concrete sewer pipes awaiting installation. U.N. observers, volunteers of numerous relief organizations, visiting U.S. senators and congressman, British M.P.s, and scores of reporters from all over the world wrote or spoke of the miserable conditions in which the refugees had to live and the sacrifice that India was required to make to keep them there at all and alive, even if in misery. Despite these reports there were those who sometimes inquired in apparent innocence why India did not “let the refugees return home” as Yahya Khan had suggested. Snappishly, Indira pointed out the absurdity of the return-home “invitation.” How could any refugees be persuaded to go back when tens of thousands more of their countrymen were arriving every day with new horror stories to tell and with evidence in their blank eyes and scarred bodies of the continuance of the terror from which they had fled?

Even those who expressed admiration for India for the way it offered succor to the terror-stricken did not always please Indira. After a while, in fact, such expression of praise became, she said, “a bit of an irritant.” India’s efforts, she believed, were being dismissed with flattering words. Meanwhile Pakistan was continuing to get material help from the United States and China. The world, she often said with exasperation, even bitterness, as the situation steadily worsened, was not doing its moral duty towards the people of Bangladesh. Instead of condemning Pakistan for the “callous, inhuman, and intemperate” butchery that its military apparatus had organized, most countries were merely appeasing their consciences or their isolated groups of outraged citizens by praising India or offering some food, clothing, and medicines for the refugees.

There could be “only one solution,” she told an Italian journalist:

Conditions must be created in East Pakistan, Bangladesh as it is called, in which there is not military terror but normal democratic functioning of the people’s will, so that the refugees are enabled to return to their homes and their safety is guaranteed. The rulers of Pakistan must be made to see that there is no other way. It is the duty of every country which has any influence with Pakistan to impress the truth upon them.

But Indira’s hope that the world community would exert the required pressure on Pakistan’s military junta was, and all along had been, slender. Early in the conflict in East Pakistan, she had come to feel reasonably certain that the Western wing’s repressive hand would not be withdrawn until too late, and that East Pakistanis, particularly Hindus would continue to flee from terror in massive numbers while the world held back from action to end the tragic situation. Armed conflict with Pakistan, she and her advisers had begun to reason, might become unavoidable if her resolve to send back the refugees was to be fulfilled.

As early as the beginning of April 1971, soon after she had formed her new Cabinet, Indira had issued formal directions to India’s army chief, General S.H.F.J. Manekshaw, to prepare for the eventuality of a war. As he told an interviewer, Manekshaw (who had since been promoted to be India’s first field marshal) was impressed by the “clarity of the briefing issued to me by my political command.” The influx of the refugees he was told, was expected to continue and was creating economic, social, and psychological burdens that India could bear for no more than ten months to a year. If the government’s efforts to find a peaceful solution of the problem failed during that period, the armed forces would be ordered to achieve “the specific objective of opening the door” for the refugees to return home. While preparing for the task, he must keep in view the fact the international situation and the political pressures that India would likely to invite upon itself in the event of a war with Pakistan would permit the army only “three to four weeks” to achieve the objective. Besides allowing herself time to search for a peaceful solution, Indira’s ten-month deadline for the refugees’ return presumably considered the time Manekshaw must need to prepare the army for the conflict and the fact that from June until September the monsoon would make any swift military operation impossible.

While they were helping her make the necessary preparations for a war, the Prime Minister’s advisers also warned her against getting the country involved in battle at a time and place of Pakistan’s choosing. Pakistan could be expected to launch an attack from its Western wing, where its military power was considerable, and to occupy a certain amount of Indian territory before responding to the almost certain Security Council for cease-fire. If that happened, India would find itself in an embarrassing predicament. It would have to pull back its troops from East Pakistan to have its own territory in the western area surrendered by Yahya Khan’s troops. Also, the Bangladesh problem would then be internationalized, which would give Islamabad all the time it would need to put down the Bengali uprising. The Political Affairs Committee of the Cabinet, over which Indira presided, therefore considered that India must be strong enough to deliver a quick, effective blow in the East while defending its borders in the West. It must also acquire a shield against big-power pressure for halting the conflict before the return of the refugees to their homeland was secured.






The Indian Perspective

In sharp contrast to her success with Moscow, Indira’s attempt to persuade Nixon to exert pressure on Yahya Khan to stop the killing and come to terms with Mujib was a singular failure. Yet in the protracted confrontation between them over the issue, Nixon, not Indira, appeared the real loser. In the view of much of the world—and, indeed, of many Americans—the Nixon Administration seemed to be supporting Pakistan and courting Peking at the expense of the freedom seeking people of Bangladesh.

Neither in their assessment of the real nature of the problem in East Pakistan nor over the correct way to resolve it did the U.S. President and Indian Prime Minister see eye to eye. From the time when the military crackdown began in East Pakistan until the end of the war that established the new state of Bangladesh, the two leaders held a lengthy dialogue through public pronouncements as well as private communication. The whole time, however, they seemed to be talking at cross-purposes. The stubbornness with which Nixon refused to take what Indira regarded as effective action in Pakistan puzzled legislators and political writers in both countries. Perhaps, as some reasoned, Nixon felt morally obliged to stand by a friendly country in the time of its crisis and prevent its disintegration. Perhaps he was irked more than his predecessors in the White House had been by India’s continuing policy of nonalignment, its seeming partiality to Moscow, and often arrogant posture in world politics. However, it is reasonably certain that personality factors also counted for much in the lack of rapport between him and Indira.

Between him and Pakistan, Nixon was known to have feelings of much greater warmth towards the latter. When he visited Pakistan soon after his defeat in the 1960 election, Nixon was accorded a hero’s welcome. Pakistanis remembered his role in the conclusion of a mutual security pact in 1954 and the accompanying supply of U.S. arms that had been part of John Foster Dulles’s policy of containing Communism. That Nixon was no longer in the U.S. Government had seemed scarcely to matter to his Pakistani hosts. In the spring of 1967 he had a similarly heartwarming reception when he returned as a private citizen, to the subcontinent. By the summer of 1969, when, as U.S. President, he passed through the region, an element of slight chill had entered the two countries’ relationship owing to Pakistan’s acceptance of arms from Moscow. Yahya Khan, who had by then displaced Ayub Khan as the country’s military dictator, was also personally unknown to Nixon. However, during the single day that the American visitor spent in Lahore—he had expressed his inability to go up to Pakistan’s capital in Islamabad—the two reportedly developed a strong sense of personal affinity. The bond grew in strength and warmth in 1971 when Yahya Khan’s government agreed to provide the line of communication with Peking as the Nixon Administration sought to re-establish relations with the Communist Chinese Government and enabled Henry Kissinger to take off from a Pakistani military airport on his historic secret mission to China’s capital. Earlier that year, when heads of governments from all over the world assembled in New York to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, Yahya Khan was among those who readily responded to Nixon’s invitation to travel to Washington for dinner in the White House. At the dinner, other guests noticed that when a noticeable tipsy Yahya Khan indulged in some buffoonery, Nixon, his own normally puritanical ways notwithstanding, looked with amused indulgence.

Nixon’s experience with India has been totally different. During his 1961 visit to the subcontinent he was almost ignored in New Delhi. The only official function in his honour was lunch by the then Finance Minister Morarji Desai, who served him an indifferently cooked vegetarian meal and some blunt, biting comments about the United States and its alliance with Pakistan. During his 1967 global tour his stop in New Delhi brought him a meeting with Indira, who had just been re-elected Prime Minister. But the meeting held at her house was brief, and Indira had little to say to him. She could, in fact, scarcely conceal her boredom with her visitor. After about twenty minutes or so of desultory chat, she inquired of the Indian Foreign Office official escorting Nixon how much longer the interview would last. The question was asked in Hindi, but its tone indicated its purport. In 1970 Indira, also visiting New York for the U.N. celebrations declined Nixon’s invitation to dinner without offering any plausible reason for her inability to accept.

Perhaps inevitably, therefore, as 1971 progressed and the Bangladesh grew in dimension, the dialogue between Nixon and Indira acquired an increasingly shrill, abrasive character. Both looked at the same happenings. But what each saw was quite different from what appeared important to the other. Both claimed and doubtless believed that they were striving to keep peace on the subcontinent and to minimize human suffering. Both felt and behaved self-righteously about the way they were tackling the problem. As the gulf between them widened steadily with every passing month, their mutual dislike and distrust was evident to all.

At the outset Nixon acted with noticeable promptitude in expressing his disapproval of Yahya Khan’s policy of repression. In the beginning of April, the Administration stopped issuing and renewing licenses for military equipment for Pakistan and suspended the processing of a special $80 million arms sale to Pakistan to which the United States had committed itself the previous autumn over strong Indian protests. Economic aid was also stopped. On May 28, when the suspension of U.S.  arms supplies appeared to have little impact on the Pakistan Government, Nixon wrote to Yahya Khan urging him to end “civil strife and restore peaceful conditions in East Pakistan.” He also expressed his “deep concern” over the possibility that events might lead to “international conflict” in the subcontinent. To avert such an occurrence, he suggested that Yahya Khan create “conditions in East Pakistan conducive to the return of refugees from Indian territory as quickly as possible.”

As the American President analyzed it and explained later in his State-of-the-World Message to the U.S. Congress, the Bangladesh problem had three aspects—the humanitarian, the political, and the threat of war it posed in the subcontinent. Of these, he regarded the humanitarian problem involving the care of refugees who had fled to India as “monumental and immediate.” A political settlement between the Yahya Khan regime and Sheikh Mujib’s followers, he felt, would take time. His Administration, Nixon claimed in the message, had obtained assurances from Yahya Khan that Sheikh Mujib would not be executed and that the military governor of East Pakistan would be replaced by a civilian. He said that:

In August, we established contact with Bengali representatives in Calcutta. By early November, president Yahya told us he was prepared to begin negotiations with any representative of this group not charged with high crimes in Pakistan.

Indira showed no interest in the U.S. efforts. She regarded them as totally inadequate and liable to strengthen Yahya’s brutal hold on East Pakistan. Nixon’s action in suspending military and economic aid to Pakistan seemed to her no expression of a sense of moral outrage at the inhuman way Yahya Khan was “pacifying” East Pakistan but merely the compulsion to respond to pressures from the U.S. Congress, many of whose prominent members were shocked at what was happening. Indira was also irritated by the fact that a few days after William Rogers, then Secretary of State, had solemnly assured her Foreign Minister that no U.S. arms were being supplied to Yahya Khan, the New York Times disclosed that several million dollars’ worth of spare parts, some meant for lethal military equipment, were on their way to Pakistan. She found Nixon’s priorities concerning the Bangladesh problem topsy-turvy. By assigning top priority to refugee, relief, the Administration was merely shifting attention away from the basic malady, she contended. Unless there was a satisfactory political settlement in East Pakistan the flow of refugees into India would not and could not stop—and none of the millions who had already entered India could be induced to return home. In any case it was preposterous, as she saw it, for the U.S. Government to advise Yahya Khan, as it apparently did, to grant amnesty for the refugees, instead of asking him to atone for his army’s crimes against them.

Indira was also unimpressed by Nixon’s claim that as part of his quiet diplomacy U.S. officials had established contact with Bengali leaders in Calcutta and that he was hopeful of useful negotiations beginning soon between Yahya khan and Mujib’s men. From India’s own intelligence sources, she learned that the individuals contacted were of low political status and could neither speak on behalf of their imprisoned leader nor even influence the course of the Bangladesh freedom movement. By insisting on talking only to those Bengali leaders who were not accused of “crimes,” Yahya had debarred from such parleys almost all Bengali leaders of any political consequence. Nixon was seen to be knowingly exaggerating Yahya Khan’s willingness to negotiate with East Pakistani leaders or respond to U.S. initiatives. Despite his close friendship with the Pakistani dictator, the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, Joseph Farland had been refused permission to meet Mujib in jail. While the White House publicly proclaimed that the U.S. Embassy had been allowed to establish contact with Mujib, all that Farland had in fact been permitted was to talk to Mujib’s lawyer. Even that privilege was rendered useless by the lawyer’s refusal to meet any U.S. Embassy official. But Nixon quietly disregarded the lawyer’s curt no and continued to give the impression that a major political break-through had been secured—one that India, he implied, lamentably chose to ignore. Nixon’s own Ambassador in India, Kenneth Keating who knew about the lawyer’s refusal was puzzled by the White House claim and a cable to the State Department protested the seeming distortion of facts.

What distressed Indira and many others in the country more than anything else was Nixon’s attempt to equate India with Pakistan. It was Pakistan’s military rulers who were responsible for tragedy and turmoil in the subcontinent. India was the indirect victim of their tyrannical actions. Why should the U.S. Government treat India as one of the culprits in the situation and deliver it periodic sermons on the importance of keeping peace? It was asked. About the same time Nixon wrote to Yahya, he sent a personal letter to Indira that “the problems involved in this [Bangladesh] situation can and should be solved peacefully.” He said he was deeply concerned that the situation not develop into a war between India and Pakistan “either because of the refugee flow or through actions which might escalate the insurgency which may be developing in East Pakistan.” Rogers was less circumspect in warning India when he met the Indian Ambassador in Washington on August 11. The United States, he bluntly told the envoy, would stop all economic aid to India should India precipitate a war with Pakistan. To Indians such warnings appeared totally unmerited and unjust and a clear indication of the Nixon Administration’s strong bias in favour of Pakistan and its President.

Irritations, exasperation and suspicions apart, Indira’s attitude remained determined by one basic consideration. The East Pakistani refugees must go back. She pressed for Mujib’s release, because she was convinced only he could negotiate a settlement acceptable to Bangladesh and create the climate of peace and confidence essential for the refugees return. She objected to the timetable for the restoration of civilian rule in East Pakistan that Nixon proposed, because it was so slow-moving that it would take years before any solution to the refugee problem could be found. With passage of time the refugees’ inclination to return to East Pakistan would subside, for they would have begun to grow social, cultural, and economic roots in India. Indira Gandhi told a cabinet colleague in the autumn of 1971 that “if the refugees do not go back soon they will never go.”

Having to feed, clothe, and house 9 to 10 million Pakistanis for an indefinite period was a burden heavier than that of going to war to secure their return. India was dedicated to peace, but it was not committed to preserving peace at all costs. Economic and political stability was more precious than peace, and that is precisely what Indira told Nixon when she met him in Washington in the beginning of November in a final effort to persuade him to use his influence with his friend in Pakistan for a quick and effective solution of the East Pakistan problem.

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In Washington 1971

The meeting got off to an inauspicious start. At the customary reception on the White House lawn, Nixon went out of his way to refer to a news report that morning about monsoon floods in the State of Bihar and to offer Prime Minister Gandhi his sympathy over the hardship that must have caused a portion of her countrymen. However, he pointedly omitted any mention of the Pakistani refugees who had endured much deeper suffering for a considerably longer period than the flood victims in Bihar. To Indira, it seemed a calculated political affront combined with a measure of personal callousness to mention a relatively minor and routine calamity—floods in certain parts of India are an annual occurrence—while ignoring the bigger tragedy. Even though the reception was strictly a protocol function, Indira was not about to let her host get away with it. In a speech quickly redrafted minutes before the ceremony, she pointedly admonished Nixon for referring to a natural disaster while ignoring a “man made tragedy of vast proportions.” She had come to Washington, she told him, “in search of some wise impulse, which, as history tells us, has sometimes worked to save humanity from despair.”

 At other public functions in her honour, too, pleasantries and compliments hid an occasional political barb. The private talks, as the Columbia Broadcasting System reported at the end of her visit, “had many tense moments.” Contrary to the impressions given to newsmen at White House briefings, the Indian Prime Minister never gave Nixon an assurance that India would not resort to war if peaceful efforts failed to give the country relief from the refugee problem. If anything, she told the U.S. President that, should a war start, it would not be a limited one, by which she meant hostilities would not be confined to the eastern wing of Pakistan or merely to the use of ground forces. She refused to accept the U.S. plea for withdrawal of forces from India’s borders with Pakistan. That Pakistan had accepted the suggestion did not impress her. Having been attacked thrice by Pakistan since independence, India, she pointed out, had no faith in Islamabad’s promises or in any assurance that its friends might offer on its behalf. India was not interested in Pakistan’s breakup, but it was also not committed to the preservation of Pakistan’s territorial integrity, she said. Nixon was equally firm in expressing his disagreement with her views. He was not convinced that Mujib alone could negotiate a political settlement with Yahya Khan. Much useful ground, he argued, could be conveyed by any of his nominees. He reportedly urged her to order Indian troops to pull back from the border and to use her influence with the Bengali guerillas forces to end their insurgency. On her return home, she was satisfied with her reception in Washington and that she had had a sympathetic hearing. But much of that was just polite talk. Both Indians and Americans who had followed the course of her talks had little doubt about the failure of her mission.

In London, Bonn, and Paris, cities she visited as part of the same mission that had taken her to Washington, Indira received much greater sympathy and understanding. But in these capitals, too, she sensed little desire to exert any pressure on Yahya Khan. She returned home convinced that a major conflict with Pakistan was unavoidable and that should that war come the Nixon Administration would try its utmost to prevent India from attaining its objective. Those who met her at that juncture noticed little evidence of trepidation or sense of despair on her part. Some recall even an air of buoyancy around her, as if she had been rid of the enormous burden of making a difficult decision. Militarily, the situation had changed in India’s favour in the preceding months. Manekshaw had finalized his plans and had received all he had asked for to prepare his men for the war. The monsoon had ended and a quick and decisive action was possible. India had collected extensive intelligence about deployment of Pakistani troops and the Mukti Bahini, the Bengali freedom fighters, had attained some measure of strength, training and confidence. The West Pakistani troops, conversely, were physically fatigued by their own excesses and demoralized by the sea of venom and hatred that surrounded them. Pakistani aircraft and naval ships had to travel 3,000 miles to bring supplies and replacements from West to East Pakistan. An Indian plan for Bengali insurgency had been in operation for some months, and guerillas trained and equipped on Indian soil—Indira had made no secret of her government’s support for them—had been committing increasingly daring acts of sabotage. Harassed Pakistani soldiers would often cross the border into India chasing them or shell their hide-outs and camps, only to invite upon themselves sharp Indian reprisals. There was no better time for the inevitable trial of strength.

The question, however, remained, and the one over which Indira and her four Cabinet colleagues on the Political Affairs Committee agonized almost daily was: How and at what point should India intervene militarily in the Bangladesh situation? Manekshaw, who was usually invited to attend the committee’s meetings, was quite sanguine. He told them, “Do not worry. . . Yahya Khan will give us what we want without his knowing it . . . He would at any moment commit an obvious folly. Then we would move.”

Yahya Khan committed the expected act of foolishness on December 3, nearly three weeks after the Prime Minister’s return home following her unsuccessful diplomatic endeavour. Pakistani Air Force planes suddenly struck at Indian Air Force stations at Srinagar, Amritsar, Agra, Ambala, Pathankot, and three other points near the western border. Pakistani artillery also began heavy shelling of several strategically important points along the Indian border. Yahya khan had not only offered the justification India needed for its military intervention but had even given a warning of his action. On November 23, he had publicly announced that war with India would begin in ten days.

Though all precautions had been taken against sudden Pakistani attack—the damage to Indian Air Force stations was negligible—Indira apparently had not regarded Yahya Khan’s war timetable too seriously. On the day of the Pakistani air attack she was nearly 1,000 miles away from the capital delivering a speech in Calcutta. The Defense Minister and almost all other members of the Political Affairs Committee, the body supposed to deal with emergency situations, were either abroad or touring different parts of the country. Indira was in the midst of her speech when the news of the Pakistani air attack was conveyed to her. She wound up her address rather abruptly and returned to Delhi by then shrouded in total darkness as a precaution against further Pakistani air raids. When someone in her party expressed concern about her security and pointed out that the Pakistani Air Force might attack her aircraft, she reportedly snapped back, “Well, if it does, what is the Indian Air Force for?” At about ten o’clock that night she went on the air to announce to the country that it was at war with Pakistan and that a state of emergency had been declared. During her brief broadcast she said:

Since last March, we have borne the heaviest burden and withstood the greatest pressure in a tremendous effort to urge the world to help to bringing about a peaceful solution and preventing the annihilation of an entire people . . . But the world ignored the basic causes and concerned itself only with certain repercussions . . . Today the war in Bangladesh has become a war on India. . .. We have no other option but to put our country on a war footing.

The war, as Manekshaw had predicted, was “short and bloody—quick and decisive.” It ended in India’s victory. Pakistani soldiers fought stubbornly, almost ferociously, but the superiority of Indian strength and diverse advantages Manekshaw had over his adversary overwhelmed them. The Indian Army chief knew the terrain in East Pakistan like the palm of his hand. Before his appointment as the head of the Indian Army, Manekshaw had held the Eastern Command. There he was entrusted with the task of watching over security of the entire eastern region from West Bengal and Sikkim to Assam and the region bordering with Tibet and Burma. In that post “I had nothing to do except read maps,” he said, and he never ceased to think of what might need to be done in the event of a war between India and Pakistan. “Sometimes I used to shut my eyes and recall, even in the dark, the map of East Pakistan—its plains, rivers, and cities. The picture was vivid in my mind all the time and in full detail,” he told a visiting editor. He also knew and understood the person against whom he was pitched. Two years before India’s partition Yahya had been a major in the British Indian Army unit that Manekshaw commanded. He knew the Pakistani dictator to be “a very stupid man” who could “not control his nerves.” What was more, his study of the power structure in Pakistan convinced him that at the top “the Pakistani political and military mind was confused.” As a result, their armed forces’ faith in it was shaken. The control of the political and military leadership “was weak and its lines [of communication] were feeble,” he said.

On the Indian side, there was no evidence of confusion in thinking or inadequacy of communication between the political leaders and military commanders. Indira claims that her relations with the chiefs of the Indian Army, Air Force, and Navy were marked by complete mutual trust. She respected their judgment and advice in tactical and technical matters, and they retained confidence in her assessment of the political aspects of the situation. Manekshaw, for example, decided to avoid capturing big cities as the Indian Army moved into East Pakistan, for he felt the control of big urban areas placed an unusually heavy strain on the army’s resources; Indira promptly accepted his reasoning, even though the psychological and political advantages of capturing well-known towns and cities was tremendous. Similarly, when it was decided to deploy the air force to attack targets not only in the East, but also in the West, and that the Navy should shell the Karachi harbour; the service chiefs readily accepted her directive against “terror bombing” or hitting civilian population. In any event, the Indian forces moved forward so steadily and the war ended so quickly that there was scarcely a situation that might require extraordinary “control over nerves” or bring to the surface elements of “confusion in the political and military mind” in New Delhi.

Curiously, it was left to President Nixon to introduce into the conflict the only element of high drama. Four days after the beginning of the war he ordered part of the U.S. Seventh Fleet to sail into the Bay of Bengal. For many this was a startling development, immediately raising the specter of a wider and protracted war. Indian officials and the press angrily denounced the U.S. Government for employing gunboat techniques of a bygone era. The public was in an uproar. But Indira says the news that the U.S.S. Enterprise was heading towards Dacca caused her “amusement,” not worry. What was it that the fleet could have done? She asks. All that its dispatch demonstrated, she recalls, was how little Nixon understood the situation in the subcontinent. She did not give this assessment at the meeting of the Political Affairs Committee summoned urgently late that evening to study the development, but, as those present remember, she was cool and unfluttered. At the meeting Manekshaw said the most that the Seventh Fleet would attempt would be to establish a beachhead to evacuate some of the top Pakistani civilians. Some argued that the U.S. act was nothing but sabre-rattling on Nixon’s part. There was, however, a touch of nervousness and worry in their demeanor even as they said that. Despite the widespread indignation in the country, Indira adjourned the meeting (“we have a busy day ahead of us”) after directing that the conduct of war should remain unaffected by the impending arrival of the U.S. nuclear-armed ship. Perhaps it was an empty threat, or perhaps Washington was impressed by India’s angry response or belatedly noted the hazardous implications of its move, but the fleet was ordered to sail back long before it could come anywhere near Indian or Bangladesh waters.

Indira was not amused by some American actions. As was expected, the United States moved to ask the U.N. Security Council for an immediate cease-fire and withdrawal of troops. While urging this course of action, the U.S. chief delegate to the United Nations, George Bush, accused India, bluntly and repeatedly, of being the aggressor. He not only ignored the fact that Pakistan had taken the first major military step towards war by bombing Indian airfields but also charged that India was anxious to annex territory in the Western wing and was conspiring to bring about Pakistan’s total disintegration. As days passed and the U.S. efforts to secure withdrawal of Indian forces from East Pakistan were thwarted by the Soviet veto, Bush’s diatribe against Indira and Indian leaders acquired a sharper, more wounding tone. In Washington, in the meantime, the administration had summarily adjudged India the aggressor and stopped all economic aid. It even froze the $88 million in assistance for which commitments had already been made and formal contracts signed. Through Kissinger, Nixon also ordered all departments of the government to follow the policy of a “tilt” against India. Kissinger went to the extent of directing that “henceforth we show a certain coolness to the Indians; the Indian Ambassador is not to be treated at too high a level.” Of the Indian Prime Minister, Kissinger said at a secret White House meeting, “the lady is cold-blooded and tough.”

On December 15 Indira reacted to the administration’s anti India stance and in a letter to Nixon asked sorrowfully if he as “President of the great American people will at least let me know where precisely we have gone wrong before your representatives or spokesmen deal with us with such harshness of language.” She told him that “we are deeply hurt by the innuendos and insinuations that it was we who have precipitated the crisis and have in any way thwarted the emergence of solutions.” The letter was not merely a sentimental plea for greater sympathy. Indira also bluntly told Nixon how his administration had failed the people of Bangladesh and must share the responsibility for the tragedy. War between India and Pakistan, she said, could have been avoided “if the power, influence and authority of all the States and above all the United State, had got Sheikh Mujibur Rahman released . . . Lip service was paid to the need for a political solution, but not a single worthwhile step was taken to bring this about.”Nixon, obviously chagrined by the U.S. failure to prevent the breakup of Pakistan and embarrassed by the naiveté of his Seventh Fleet move, refused to accept Indira’s criticism of his role. In a confidential letter, he sent her on December 18, he rebuked India for having “spurned” efforts and proposals that the United States had been making to find a peaceful solution to the Pakistan problem and instead having chosen war as an instrument of policy.” His administration, he wrote, was not against India. What it opposed was the resort to military means when political resources for a solution had not been fully explored. To Indira’s remark in her letter that “there are moments in history when brooding tragedy and its dark shadows can be lightened by recalling great moments of the past,” Nixon responded by remarking curtly that “there are times when statesmanship could turn the course of history away from war.”

That Nixon was mollified scarcely worried the Indian people. Under Indira’s leadership their country had won a war that, apart from being more decisive than the three earlier military conflicts with Pakistan, had led to the breakup of an intensely hated neighbour and secured the creation of a new nation, Bangladesh. Pakistan, as an Indian columnist tritely wrote in a Delhi newspaper, had been “cut to size.” The victory washed away the humiliation the Indian people had nursed for almost a decade since the border war with China. Their adoration of Indira—no other word can be used to describe the public attitude towards her in the beginning of 1972—was heightened by the fact that she could twit a world leader of Nixon’s stature. Throughout the country, as the refugees began to go home to Bangladesh hopes were high that now at last India under Prime Minister Gandhi would be recognized as a power of consequence—a role that many Indians had yearned for in the twenty-five years since independence.


A Military Debacle

 G.A. Custer, Lieutenant Colonel Seventh Cavalry, is young, very brave, even to rashness, a good trait for a cavalry officer–William T. Sherman

On June 25, 1876, while leading the 7th Cavalry Regiment at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana Territory against a coalition of Native American tribes, he and all his regiment—which included two of his brothers—were killed. The battle is popularly known in American history as “Custer’s Last Stand.” Custer and his regiment was defeated so decisively at the little bighorn that is has overshadowed all his prior achievements.

George Armstrong Custer (December 5, 1839 – June 25, 1876) was a United States Army officer and cavalry commander in the American Civil War and the American Indian Wars.  Armstrong Custer’s first charge as a General, on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, was a disaster, and he barely managed to escape with his hide (though not his horse). His final charge, against a large Plains Indian village on the banks of a winding river, was also calamitous. Between the two, he led a charmed life, attributable by some to chance – “Custer’s luck,” as he and both friends and enemies termed it — and by others to good fortune’s true components: preparation, analysis, confidence, and decisive action.

During the Civil War, Custer was frequently termed “The Boy General” in the press, reflecting his promotion to brigadier general at the age of 23.

During his years on the Great Plains in the American Indian Wars, his troopers often referred to him with grudging admiration as “Iron Butt” and “Hard Ass” for his physical stamina in the saddle and his strict discipline, as well as with the more derisive “Ringlets” for his vanity about his appearance in general and his long, curling blond hair.

His detractors claimed that he loved nothing better than a charge. They were right. They also accused him of recklessness, of acting without thought or deliberation. They were wrong about that. Custer had an uncanny ability to process what he saw, what he heard, and what he knew — the intelligence available in a situation — and then make a considered decision in an incredibly short amount of time. “He was certainly the model of a light cavalry officer,” said one of General Wesley Merritt’s staff members, “quick in observation, clear in judgement, and resolute and determined in execution.” Time and again in the last two years of the Civil War, after his promotion to Brigadier General, his subordinate officers observed ” the Boy General” decide on a split-second course of action that turned out to be the right thing to do at the time. It did not take more than a charge or two to make a believer out of anyone. By war’s end, only a few skeptics remained, and they tended to be resentful officers who were older and less successful. The men who served under Custer swore by him and claimed that they would follow him into hell itself.

After the Civil War, Custer remained a major general in the United States Volunteers until they were mustered out in February 1866. He reverted to his permanent rank of captain and was appointed a lieutenant colonel in the 7th Cavalry Regiment in July 1866. He was dispatched to the west in 1867 to fight in the American Indian Wars. On June 25, 1876, while leading the 7th Cavalry Regiment at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana Territory against a coalition of Native American tribes, he and all his regiment—which included two of his brothers—were killed. The battle is popularly known in American history as “Custer’s Last Stand.” Custer and his regiment were defeated so decisively at the Little Bighorn that it has overshadowed all his prior achievements.

On July 28, 1866, Custer was appointed lieutenant colonel of the newly created 7th Cavalry Regiment, which was headquartered at Fort Riley, Kansas. He served on frontier duty at Fort Riley from October 18 to March 26, and scouted in Kansas and Colorado to July 28. 1867. He took part in Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s expedition against the Cheyenne. On June 26, Lt. Lyman Kidder’s party, made up of ten troopers and one scout, were massacred while en route to Fort Wallace. Lt. Kidder was to deliver dispatches to Custer from General Sherman, but his party was attacked by Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne (see Kidder massacre). Days later, Custer and a search party found the bodies of Kidder’s patrol.

Following the Hancock campaign, Custer was arrested and suspended at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas to August 12, 1868 for being AWOL, after having abandoned his post to see his wife. At the request of Major General Sheridan, who wanted Custer for his planned winter campaign against the Cheyenne, Custer could return to duty before his one-year term of suspension had expired and joined his regiment to October 7, 1868. He then went on frontier duty, scouting in Kansas and Indian Territory to October 1869.

Under Sheridan’s orders, Custer took part in establishing Camp Supply in Indian Territory in early November 1868 as a supply base for the winter campaign. On November 27, 1868, Custer led the 7th Cavalry Regiment in an attack on the Cheyenne encampment of Chief Black Kettle — the Battle of Washita River. Custer reported killing 103 warriors and some women and children; 53 women and children were taken as prisoners. Estimates by the Cheyenne of their casualties were substantially lower (11 warriors plus 19 women and children). Custer had his men shoot most of the 875 Indian ponies they had captured. The Battle of Washita River was regarded as the first substantial U.S. victory in the Southern Plains War, and it helped force a significant portion of the Southern Cheyenne onto a U.S.-assigned reservation.

In 1873, Custer was sent to the Dakota Territory to protect a railroad survey party against the Lakota. On August 4, 1873, near the Tongue River, Custer and the 7th Cavalry Regiment clashed for the first time with the Lakota. One man on each side was killed. In 1874 Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills and announced the discovery of gold on French Creek near present-day Custer, South Dakota. Custer’s announcement triggered the Black Hills Gold Rush. Among the towns that immediately grew up was Deadwood, South Dakota, notorious for lawlessness.

Grant, Belknap and politics


Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer, 7th U.S. Cavalry, ca. 1875

The expedition against the Sioux was originally scheduled to leave Fort Abraham Lincoln on April 6, 1876, but on March 15 Custer was summoned to Washington to testify at congressional hearings. These concerned the corruption scandal involving U.S. Secretary of War William W. Belknap (who had resigned March 2), President Grant’s brother Orville, and traders at Army posts in Indian Country, who were charging troops double what they would have paid for the same goods in Bismarck, North Dakota. (Soldiers were required by regulations to purchase goods from the traders.) Belknap had been selling trading post positions.

After Custer testified on March 29 and April 4 before the Clymer Committee, Belknap was impeached and sent to the Senate for trial. Custer left Washington on April 20, but instead of immediately returning to Fort Lincoln, he visited the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and planned to travel to New York City to meet with publishers. Custer’s testimony was a sensation, both because of what he said and because he was the one saying it. Custer was sharply criticized by the Republican press and praised by Democratic editors.

President Grant held up Custer’s departure from Washington. Grant and Custer did not get along. Earlier, Custer had arrested Grant’s son, Fred Grant, for drunkenness. Now, Custer was accusing Grant’s brother and Secretary of War of corruption. Additionally, Custer was writing magazine articles criticizing Grant’s peace policy towards the Indians.

Brigadier General Alfred Terry determined there were no available officers of rank to take command, but Sherman refused to intercede. Stunned that he would not be in command, Custer approached the impeachment managers and secured his release. General Sherman advised Custer not to leave Washington before meeting personally with President Grant. Three times Custer requested meetings with Grant, but was always turned down.

Custer gave up and took a train to Chicago on May 2, planning to rejoin his regiment.  On May 3, a member of Sheridan’s staff greeted Custer in Chicago. President Grant had ordered Custer’s arrest for leaving Washington without permission. President Grant had designated General Terry to command the expedition in Custer’s place. Custer took a train to St. Paul to meet General Terry.

Brigadier General Terry met Custer in Fort Snelling, Minnesota on May 6. He later recalled, “(Custer) with tears in his eyes, begged for my aid. How could I resist it?” Terry wrote to Grant attesting to the advantages of Custer’s leading the expedition. Sheridan endorsed his effort, accepting Custer’s “guilt” and suggesting his restraint in future.

Grant was already under pressure for his treatment of Custer. His administration worried that if the “Sioux campaign” failed without Custer, then Grant would be blamed for ignoring the recommendations of senior Army officers. On May 8, Custer was informed at Fort Snelling that he was to lead the 7th Cavalry, but under Terry’s direct supervision.


President Ulysses S. Grant



Major General Philip Sheridan, Custer’s mentor


By the time of Custer’s Black Hills expedition in 1874, the level of conflict and tension between the U.S. and many of the Plains Indians tribes (including the Lakota Sioux and the Cheyenne) had become exceedingly high. Americans continually broke treaty agreements and advanced further westward, resulting in violence and acts of depredation by both sides. To take possession of the Black Hills (and thus the gold deposits), and to stop Indian attacks, the U.S. decided to corral all remaining free Plains Indians. The Grant government set a deadline of January 31, 1876 for all Lakota and Arapaho wintering in the “unceded territory” to report to their designated agencies (reservations) or be considered “hostile”.

 Sheridan to Terry & Crook at Omaha HQ: order for operations against hostiles on Feb 8. 1876. Before leaving Fort Snelling, Custer spoke to General Terry’s chief engineer, Captain Ludlow, saying he would “cut loose” from Terry and operate independently from him. Several companies of infantry will accompany the 7th to man the supply depots while Custer searched for the enemy from his base up the Yellowstone River. Steamers would freight supplies up the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers. Dakota Column comprised 12 companies of 7th Cavalry, 3 infantry companies & battery of Gatling Guns.

The Campaign

Sioux War Country 1876; The Little Bighorn Campaign 1876; Area in Detail; The Battlefield 25 June 1876.



Area Detail





June 25, 1876

Battle of the Little Bighorn

Montana Column from Fort Ellis– eastwards in western Montana Territory; Colonel John Gibbon; 5 companies of infantry & 4 cavalry troops under Major James Brisbin, 400 men, 2 Gatling Guns. 

At the outset of the campaign, Terry had ordered Gibbon’s smaller command to move down the Yellowstone to the mouth of the Bighorn River, prevent any Indians from getting away to the north, and strike a hostile camp only if the opportunity arose. His Montana column had been encamped some twenty miles east of the mouth of the Bighorn since April 20. The next day a dispatch from Terry ordered him to stay put until the weather delayed Dakota column got underway.

May 16: Lieutenant James Bradley spotted  an immense Lakota camp on Rosebud Creek. Upon hearing Bradley’s report, Gibbon ordered his command on May 17 to cross the Yellowstone and strike at the encampment but the fast flowing river prevented a surprise attack. 

Gibbon moved his command downstream to the mouth of the Rosebud  on May 21, four days after the failed river crossing in response to his scout’s report of a large body of Indians headed that way. He found no Indians but established a new camp there. 

On May 27, Bradley reported that the village he had espied eleven days earlier had now grown to almost five hundred lodges and moved from the Tongue River to Rosebud, the next waterway to the west. Gibbon did not take any action but wrote to Terry about the sighting of a large enemy village. The report was delivered to Terry by courier a week later. 

On May 28 pursuant to fresh orders from Terry to move east toward the Little Missouri, he began marching downriver Yellowstone to join the Dakota column against the hostiles then believed to be in the vicinity. After more tan 5 weeks on the Yellowstone, Gibbon’s command of almost 500 men had accomplished little. Indians seemed indifferent to the soldiers in the north.

Wyoming Column from Fort Fetterman-north from Wyoming, Brigadier General George

March 1. two companies of infantry & ten troops of cavalry under Colonel Joseph J. Reynolds (55 years age).

March 8: wagon train sent back with all tents and bedding to increase mobility.

March 16-Crook splits command into Reynolds with strike force of 400 men and remained behind with 4 companies.

Cheyenne band of 50 lodges led by Old Bear attacked Crook’s column which blundered and returned to Fort Fetterman.

June 11: Crook reached Goose Creek to establish a base camp there.

June 16: Crook marches out with four days rations leaving wagon train and pack train behind under guard to increase mobility. (1300 men, including 175 infantrymen mounted on green wagon mules). Spots the Indian camp which shifted from Rosebud to Little Big Horn on June 15.

On the afternoon of June 16, two Cheyenne hunting parties stalking a herd of buffalo came upon Crook’s Wyoming column. The chiefs of all the tribal circles met in one large council and after a discussion advised prudence. A course of action was decided upon the insistence of young warriors. The Indian force comprised at least seven hundred warriors and Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse rode with them. But Sitting Bull would not participate in the battle, and for good reason.

Battle of Rosebud is a debacle for Crook, and he turns back to Goose Creek. Crook loses strategically for he retreats the next day and abandons the mission. No attempt made to communicate with Terry or Gibbon though he notifies Sheridan on June 19. Intelligence reached Terry on July 9.

Dakota Column from Fort Abraham Lincoln: west from Dakota Territory.

May 17: Custer & 7th Cavalry + 1 infantry battalion & artillery departed from Fort Abraham Lincoln, part of a larger army force planning to round up remaining free Indians.

June 7: reached Powder River,a few miles below the Yellowstone. Three scouts from Gibbon’s command  rode up and delivered the news that the Indians were in considerable force south of Yellowstone. Supplies received at Stanley’s Stockade (Yellowstone & Glendive Creek) by river steamers.

Meanwhile, in the spring and summer of 1876, the Hunkpapa Lakota holy man Sitting Bull had called together the largest ever gathering of Plains Indians at Ash Creek, Montana (later moved to the Little Bighorn River) to discuss what to do about the whites. It was this united encampment of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians that the 7th met at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.





About June 15, Reno, while on a scout, discovered the trail of a large village on the Rosebud River.

On June 22, Custer’s entire regiment was detached to follow this trail.

On June 25, some of Custer’s Crow Indian scouts identified what they claimed was a large Indian encampment in the valley near the Little Bighorn River. Custer had first intended to attack the Indian village the next day, but since his presence was known, he decided to attack immediately and divided his forces into three battalions:

  • One led by Major Marcus Reno, sent north to charge the southern end of the encampment.
  • One by Captain Frederick Benteen sent south and west to cut off any attempted escape by the Indians.
  • One by himself; rode north, hidden to the east of the encampment by bluffs and planning to circle around and attack from the north.

Captain Thomas M. McDougall and Company B were with the pack train.

Reno began a charge on the southern end of the village but halted some 500–600 yards short of the camp, and had his men dismount and form a skirmish line. They were soon overcome by mounted Lakota and Cheyenne warriors who counterattacked en masse against Reno’s exposed left flank, forcing Reno and his men to take cover in the trees along the river. Eventually, however, this position became untenable, and the troopers were forced into a bloody retreat up onto the bluffs above the river, where they made their own stand. This, the opening action of the battle, cost Reno a quarter of his command.

Custer may have seen Reno stop and form a skirmish line as he (Custer) led his command to the northern end of the main encampment, where he apparently planned to sandwich the Indians between his attacking troopers and Reno’s command in a “hammer and anvil” maneuver. According to Grinnell’s account, based on the testimony of the Cheyenne warriors who survived the fight, at least part of Custer’s command attempted to ford the river at the north end of the camp but were driven off by stiff resistance from Indian sharpshooters firing from the brush along the west bank of the river. From that point, the soldiers were pursued by hundreds of warriors onto a ridge north of the encampment.

Custer and his command were prevented from digging in by Crazy Horse, however, whose warriors had outflanked him and were now to his north, at the crest of the ridge. Traditional white accounts attribute to Gall the attack that drove Custer up onto the ridge, but Indian witnesses have disputed that account.

“Hurrah boys, we’ve got them! We’ll finish them up and then go home to our station.”—Famous words reportedly said by General Custer shortly before being killed.

For a time, Custer’s men appear to have been deployed by company, in standard cavalry fighting formation—the skirmish line, with every fourth man holding the horses, though this arrangement would have robbed Custer of a quarter of his firepower. Worse, as the fight intensified, many soldiers could have taken to holding their own horses or hobbling them, further reducing the 7th’s effective fire.

When Crazy Horse and White Bull mounted the charge that broke through the center of Custer’s lines, pandemonium may have broken out among the soldiers of Calhoun’s command, though Myles Keogh’s men seem to have fought and died where they stood. According to some Lakota accounts, many of the panicking soldiers threw down their weapons and either rode or ran towards the knoll where Custer, the other officers, and about 40 men were making a stand. Along the way, the warriors rode them down, counting coup by striking the fleeing troopers with their quirts or lances.

Initially, Custer had 208 officers and men under his command, with an additional 142 under Reno, just over 100 under Benteen, 50 soldiers with Captain McDougall’s rearguard, and 84 soldiers under 1st Lieutenant Edward Gustave Mathey with the pack train. The Lakota-Cheyenne coalition may have fielded over 1800 warriors.  Historian Gregory Michno settles on a low number around 1000, based on contemporary Lakota testimony, but other sources place the number at 1800 or 2000, especially in the works by Utley and Fox. The 1800–2000 figure is substantially lower than the higher numbers of 3000 or more postulated by Ambrose, Gray, Scott, and others.


As the troopers were cut down, the native warriors stripped the dead of their firearms and ammunition, with the result that the return fire from the cavalry steadily decreased, while the fire from the Indians constantly increased. The surviving troopers apparently shot their remaining horses to use as breastworks for a final stand on the knoll at the north end of the ridge. The warriors closed in for the final attack and killed every man in Custer’s command. As a result, the Battle of the Little Bighorn has come to be popularly known as “Custer’s Last Stand”.


Some eyewitness reports state that Custer was not identified until after his death by the Native Americans who killed him. Several individuals claimed personal responsibility for the killing, including White Bull of the Miniconjous, Rain-in-the-Face, Flat Lip, and Brave Bear. In June 2005, at a public meeting, the Northern Cheyenne broke almost 130 years of silence about the battle. Storytellers said that according to their oral tradition, Buffalo Calf Road Woman, a Northern Cheyenne heroine of the Battle of the Rosebud, struck the final blow against Custer, which knocked him off his horse before he died.


A contrasting version of Custer’s death is suggested by the testimony of an Oglala named Joseph White Cow Bull, according to novelist and Custer biographer Evan Connell, who relates that Joseph White Bull stated he had shot a rider wearing a buckskin jacket and big hat at the riverside when the soldiers first approached the village from the east. The initial force facing the soldiers, according to this version, was quite small (possibly as few as four warriors) yet challenged Custer’s command. The rider who was hit was mounted next to a rider who bore a flag and had shouted orders that prompted the soldiers to attack, but when the buckskin-clad rider fell off his horse after being shot, many of the attackers reined up. The allegation that the buckskin-clad officer was Custer, if accurate, might explain the supposed rapid disintegration of Custer’s forces. However, several other officers of the Seventh, including William Cooke and Tom Custer, were also dressed in buckskin on the day of the battle, and the fact that each of the non-mutilation wounds to George Custer’s body (a bullet wound below the heart and a shot to the left temple) would have been instantly fatal casts doubt on his being wounded or killed at the ford, more than a mile from where his body was found. The circumstances are, however, consistent with David Humphreys Miller’s suggestion that Custer’s attendants would not have left his dead body behind to be desecrated.

During the 1920s, two elderly Cheyenne women spoke briefly with oral historians about their having recognized Custer’s body on the battlefield and had stopped a Sioux warrior from desecrating the body. The women were relatives of Mo-nah-se-tah’s, who was alleged to have been Custer’s one-time lover. In the Cheyenne culture of the time, such a relationship was considered a marriage. The women allegedly told the warrior: “Stop, he is a relative of ours,” and then shooed him away. The two women then shoved their sewing awls into his ears to permit Custer’s corpse to “hear better in the afterlife” because he had broken his promise to Stone Forehead never to fight against Native Americans again.

When the main column under General Terry arrived two days later, the army found most of the soldiers’ corpses stripped, scalped, and mutilated. Custer’s body had two bullet holes, one in the left temple and one just below the heart. Capt. Benteen, who inspected the body, stated that in his opinion the fatal injuries had not been the result of .45 caliber ammunition, which implies the bullet holes had been caused by ranged rifle fire.

Following the recovery of their remains, Custer’s body and that of his brother Tom were buried on the battlefield, side-by-side in a shallow grave, after being covered by pieces of tent canvas and blankets. One year later, Custer’s remains and those of many of his officers were recovered and sent back east for re internment in more formal burials. Custer was buried again with full military honors at West Point Cemetery on October 10, 1877. The battle site was designated a National Cemetery in 1876.

Criticism and controversy

President Grant, a highly successful general, bluntly criticized Custer’s actions in the battle of the Little Bighorn. Quoted in the New York Herald on September 2, 1876, Grant said, “I regard Custer’s Massacre as a sacrifice of troops, brought on by Custer himself, that was wholly unnecessary – wholly unnecessary.”

 General Nelson Miles (who inherited Custer’s mantle of famed Indian fighter) and others praised him as a fallen hero betrayed by the incompetence of subordinate officers. Miles noted the difficulty of winning a fight “with seven-twelfths of the command remaining out of the engagement when within sound of his rifle shots.

The controversy over blame for the disaster at Little Bighorn continues to this day. Major Marcus Reno’s failure to press his attack on the south end of the Lakota/Cheyenne village and his flight to the timber along the river, after a single casualty, have been cited as a causal factor in the destruction of Custer’s battalion, as has Captain Frederick Benteen’s allegedly tardy arrival on the field, and the failure of the two officers’ combined forces to move toward the relief of Custer.

When writing about Custer, neutral ground is elusive. What should Custer have done at any of the critical junctures that rapidly presented themselves, each now the subject of endless speculation and rumination? There will always be a variety of opinions based upon what Custer knew, what he did not know, and what he could not have known…”—from Touched by Fire: The Life, Death, and Mythic Afterlife of George Armstrong Custer by Louise Barnett.

General Phillip Sheridan and other critics have asserted several tactical errors in Custer’s final military actions.  While camped at Powder River, Custer refused the support offered by General Terry on June 21, of an additional four companies of the Second Cavalry. Custer stated that he “could whip any Indian village on the Plains” with his own regiment, and that extra troops would simply be a burden. At the same time, he left behind at the steamer Far West, on the Yellowstone, a battery of Gatling guns, knowing he was facing superior numbers. Before leaving the camp all the troops, including the officers, also boxed their sabers and sent them back with the wagons.

On the day of the battle, Custer divided his 600-man command, despite being faced with vastly superior numbers of Sioux and Cheyenne. The refusal of an extra battalion reduced the size of his force by at least a sixth, and rejecting the firepower offered by the Gatling guns played into the events of June 25 to the disadvantage of his regiment.

Custer’s defenders, however, including historian Charles K. Hofling, have asserted that Gatling guns would have been slow and cumbersome as the troops crossed the rough country between the Yellowstone and the Little Bighorn. Custer rated speed in gaining the battlefield as essential and more important. The additional firepower had the potential of turning the tide of the fight, given the Indians’ propensity for withdrawing in the face of new military technology. Other Custer supporters have claimed that splitting the forces was a standard tactic, to demoralize the enemy with the appearance of the cavalry in different places all at once, especially when a contingent threatened the line of retreat.



Posthumous legacy

Custer Monument

Custer monument in Ohio

After his death, Custer achieved the lasting fame that he had sought on the battlefield. The public saw him as a tragic military hero and exemplary gentleman who sacrificed his life for his country. Custer’s wife, Elizabeth, who had accompanied him in many of his frontier expeditions, did much to advance this view with the publication of several books about her late husband:

Boots and Saddles,

Life with General Custer in Dakota (1885),

Tenting on the Plains (1887), and

Following the Guidon (1891).

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote an adoring (and often erroneous) poem.

President Theodore Roosevelt’s lavish praise pleased Custer’s widow.

Connell concludes: “These days it is stylish to denigrate the general, whose stock sells for nothing.  Nineteenth-century Americans thought differently. At that time, he was a cavalier without fear and beyond reproach.”



Family, ancestry and early life

From the beginning of his life, Custer never lacked for confidence. Its source, as with anyone, can only be guessed at–what a man is born with, what he develops, what he is accorded– but a good portion of Custer’s share of that attribute likely was his upbringing. A middle child of a large family, he was loved, encouraged, and admired by his parents and all his siblings.

Custer’s ancestors, Paulus and Gertrude Küster, immigrated to North America around 1693 from the Rhineland in Germany, probably among thousands of Palatine refugees whose passage was arranged by the English government to gain settlers. According to family letters, Custer was named after George Armstrong, a minister, in his devout mother’s hope that her son might join the clergy.

Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio, to Emanuel Henry Custer (1806–1892), a farmer and blacksmith, and Marie Ward Kirkpatrick (1807–1882). He had two younger brothers, Thomas Custer and Boston Custer, who both died with him on the battlefield at Little Bighorn. His other full siblings were the family’s youngest child, Margaret Custer, and Nevin Custer, who suffered from asthma and rheumatism. Custer also had several older half-siblings. Throughout his life Custer was known by a variety of nicknames. He was called “Autie” (his early attempt to pronounce his middle name) and Armstrong.


USMA Cadet George Armstrong 'Autie' Custer, ca. 1859

USMA Cadet George Armstrong ‘Autie’ Custer 1859

Custer spent much of his boyhood living with his half-sister and brother-in-law in Monroe, Michigan, where he attended school. Before entering the United States Military Academy, Custer attended the McNeely Normal School, later known as Hopedale Normal College, in Hopedale, Ohio.

Custer entered West Point as a cadet on July 1, 1857, to become a member of the class of 1862. At the time, West Point’s course of study was five years long. With the outbreak of the American Civil War, the course was shortened to four years allowing Custer and his class to graduate on June 24, 1861. He was last in a class of 34 cadets. Throughout his life, Custer tested boundaries and rules. In his four years at West Point, he amassed a record-total of 726 demerits, one of the worst conduct records in the history of the academy.

Under ordinary national conditions, Custer’s low-class rank would represent a ticket to an obscure posting, but Custer had the ironic fortune to graduate as the Civil War broke out. During his rocky tenure at the Academy, Custer came close to expulsion in each of his three years, due to excessive demerits. Many of these were awarded for pulling pranks on fellow cadets.

Civil War

Custer was commissioned a second lieutenant in the 2nd U.S. Cavalry Regiment and was assigned to drilling volunteers in Washington, D.C.

On July 21, 1861, he was with his regiment at the First Battle of Bull Run during the Manassas Campaign, where Army commander Winfield Scott detailed him to carry messages to Major General Irvin McDowell. After the battle, he continued participating in the defenses of Washington D.C. until October when he was sick and absent from his unit until February 1862.

In March 1862, he participated with the 2nd Cavalry in the Peninsula Campaign (March to August) in Virginia until April 4.

On April 5, he served in the 5th Cavalry Regiment and participated in the Siege of Yorktown, from April 5 to and May 4 and was aide to Major General George B. McClellan; McClellan was in command of the Army of the Potomac during the Peninsula Campaign. On May 24, 1862, during the pursuit of Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston up the Peninsula, when General Barnard and his staff were reconnoitering a potential crossing point on the Chickahominy River, they stopped, and Custer overheard his commander mutter to himself, “I wish I knew how deep it is.” Custer dashed forward on his horse out to the middle of the river and turned to the astonished officers of the staff and shouted triumphantly, “That’s how deep it is, Mr. General!” Custer then could lead an attack with four companies of the 4th Michigan Infantry across the Chickahominy River above New Bridge. The attack was successful, resulting in the capture of 50 Confederate soldiers and the seizing of the first Confederate battle flag of the war.

McClellan termed it a “very gallant affair” and congratulated Custer personally. In his role as aide-de-camp to McClellan, Custer began his life-long pursuit of publicity. Custer was promoted to the rank of captain on June 5, 1862. On July 17, he was reverted to the rank of first lieutenant. He participated in the Maryland Campaign in September to October, the Battle of South Mountain on September 14, the Battle of Antietam on September 17, and the March to Warrenton, Virginia in October.



Lincoln and generals at Antietam (Custer (extreme right) with President Lincoln, General McClellan and other officers at the Battle of Antietam, 1862)

On June 9, 1863, Custer became aide to Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Pleasonton (rank since September 17, 1862), who was now commanding the Cavalry Corps, Army of the Potomac (June 7 to March 26, 1864); after the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30-May 6, 1863), Pleasonton’s (Brigadier General, July 16, 1862, U.S. Volunteers) first assignment was to locate the army of Robert E. Lee, moving north through the Shenandoah Valley in the beginning of the Gettysburg Campaign.

Brigade command and Gettysburg

Custer with Gen Pleasonton

Custer (left) with General Pleasonton on horseback in Falmouth, Virginia

Pleasonton was promoted on June 22, 1863 to Major General of U.S. Volunteers. On June 29, two days prior to the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–3), Pleasonton promoted Custer to brigadier general of volunteers, commanding the Michigan Cavalry Brigade (“Wolverines“). Despite having no direct command experience, Custer became one of the youngest generals in the Union Army at age 23. Two other captains—Wesley Merritt and Elon J. Farnsworth—were promoted along with Custer, although they did have command experience. Custer lost no time in implanting his aggressive character on his brigade, part of the division of Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick. He fought against the Confederate cavalry of Major General J.E.B. Stuart at Hanover and Hunterstown, on the way to the main event at Gettysburg.

In his first command, Custer affected a showy, personalized uniform style that alienated his men, but he won them over with his readiness to lead attacks from the front (in contrast to many other officers); his men began to adopt elements of his uniform, especially the red neckerchief. Custer distinguished himself by fearless, aggressive actions in some of the numerous cavalry engagements that started off the campaign, beginning with the Battle of Aldie on June 17. Pleasonton was Custer’s introduction to the world of extravagant uniforms and political maneuvering, and the young lieutenant had become his protégé, serving on Pleasonton’s staff. Custer was quoted as saying that “no father could love his son more than General Pleasonton loves me.”

Custer’s style of battle was often claimed to be reckless or foolhardy, but military planning was always the basis of every Custer “dash”. As Marguerite Merrington explains in The Custer Story in Letters, “George Custer meticulously scouted every battlefield, gauged the enemy’s weak points and strengths, ascertained the best line of attack and only after he was satisfied was the ‘Custer Dash’ with a Michigan yell focused with complete surprise on the enemy in routing them every time.” One of his greatest attributes during the Civil War was what Custer wrote of as “luck” and he needed it to survive some of these charges.

Custer established a reputation as an aggressive cavalry brigade commander willing to take personal risks by leading his Michigan Brigade into battle, such as the mounted charges at Hunterstown and East Cavalry Field at the Battle of Gettysburg. At Hunterstown, in an ill-considered charge ordered by Kilpatrick against the brigade of Wade Hampton, Custer fell from his wounded horse directly before the enemy and became the target of numerous enemy rifles. He was rescued by Private Norvell Francis Churchill of the 1st Michigan Cavalry, who galloped up, shot Custer’s nearest assailant, and allowed Custer to mount behind him for a dash to safety.

One of Custer’s finest hours in the Civil War occurred just east of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. In conjunction with Pickett’s Charge to the west, Robert E. Lee had dispatched Stuart’s cavalry on a mission into the rear of the Union Army. Custer encountered the Union cavalry division of Brigadier General David McMurtrie Gregg directly in the path of Stuart’s horsemen. He convinced Gregg to allow him to stay and fight, while his own division was stationed to the south out of the action. At East Cavalry Field, hours of charges and hand-to-hand combat ensued. Custer led a mounted charge of the 1st Michigan Cavalry, breaking the back of the Confederate assault. Custer’s brigade lost 257 men at Gettysburg, the highest loss of any Union cavalry brigade. “I challenge the annals of warfare to produce a more brilliant or successful charge of cavalry”, Custer wrote in his report. On July 3, he received the rank of Brevet Major, “For Gallant and Meritorious Services at The Battle of Gettysburg, PA.” Custer was wounded during action at the Battle of Culpeper Court House in Virginia on September 13.




Elizabeth (Libbie) Bacon



George and Libbie Custer, 1864

On February 9, 1864, Custer married Elizabeth Clift Bacon(1842–1933), whom he had first seen when he was ten years old. He had been socially introduced to her in November 1862, when home in Monroe on leave. She was not initially impressed with him, and her father, Judge Daniel Bacon, disapproved of Custer as a match because he was the son of a blacksmith. It was not until well after Custer had been promoted to the rank of brevet brigadier general that he gained the approval of Judge Bacon. He married Elizabeth Bacon fourteen months after they formally met.

In November 1868, following the Battle of Washita River, Custer was alleged (by Captain Frederick Benteen, chief of scouts Ben Clark, and Cheyenne oral tradition) to have unofficially married Mo-nah-se-tah, daughter of the Cheyenne chief Little Rock in the winter or early spring of 1868–1869 (Little Rock was killed in the one-day action at Washita on November 27). Mo-nah-se-tah gave birth to a child in January 1869, two months after the Washita battle. Cheyenne oral history tells that she also bore a second child, fathered by Custer in late 1869. Some historians, however, believe that Custer had become sterile after contracting gonorrhea while at West Point and that the father was his brother Thomas. A descendant of the second child, who goes by the name Gail Custer, wrote a book about the affair.

The Valley and Appomattox

In 1864, with the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac reorganized under the command of Major General Philip Sheridan, Custer (now commanding the 3rd Division) led his “Wolverines” to the Shenandoah Valley where by the year’s end they defeated the army of Confederate Lieutenant General Jubal Early in the Valley Campaigns of 1864. During May and June, Sheridan and Custer (Captain, 5th Cavalry, May 8 and Brevet Lieutenant Colonel, May 11) took part in cavalry actions supporting the Overland Campaign, including the Battle of the Wilderness (after which Custer ascended to division command), and the Battle of Yellow Tavern (where J.E.B. Stuart was mortally wounded). In the largest all-cavalry engagement of the war, the Battle of Trevilian Station, in which Sheridan sought to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad and the Confederates’ western resupply route, Custer captured Hampton’s divisional train, but was then cut off and suffered heavy losses (including having his division’s trains overrun and his personal baggage captured by the enemy) before being relieved. When Lieutenant General Early was then ordered to move down the Shenandoah Valley and threaten Washington, D.C., Custer’s division was again dispatched under Sheridan. In the Valley Campaigns of 1864, they pursued the Confederates at the Third Battle of Winchester and effectively destroyed Early’s army during Sheridan’s counterattack at Cedar Creek.

Sheridan and Custer, having defeated Early, returned to the main Union Army lines at the Siege of Petersburg, where they spent the winter. In April 1865, the Confederate lines finally broke, and Robert E. Lee began his retreat to Appomattox Court House, pursued by the Union cavalry.

Custer distinguished himself by his actions at Waynesboro, Dinwiddie Court House, and Five Forks. His division blocked Lee’s retreat on its final day and received the first flag of truce from the Confederate force.

Custer was present at the surrender at Appomattox Court House and the table upon which the surrender was signed was presented to him as a gift for his wife by General Philip Sheridan, who included a note to her praising Custer’s gallantry. She treasured the gift of the historical table, which is now in the Smithsonian Institution.

Before the close of the war Custer received brevet promotions to brigadier general and major general (because of a plea by his patron General Sheridan) on March 13, 1865, in the regular army, and major general of volunteers on April 15, 1865. As with most wartime promotions, even when issued under the regular army, these senior ranks were only temporary.

On April 25, after the war officially ended, Custer had his men search for, then illegally seize a large, prize racehorse “Don Juan” near Clarksville, Virginia, worth then an estimated $10,000 (several hundred thousand today), along with his written pedigree. Custer rode Don Juan in the grand review victory parade in Washington, D.C. on May 23, creating a sensation when the scared thoroughbred bolted. The owner, Richard Gaines, wrote to General Grant, who then ordered Custer to return the horse to Gaines, but he did not, instead hid the horse, and winning a race with it the next year, before the horse died suddenly.

Reconstruction duties in Texas

On June 3, 1865, at Sheridan’s behest, Major General Custer accepted command of the 2nd Division of Cavalry, Military Division of the Southwest, to march from Alexandria, Louisiana, to Hempstead, Texas, as part of the Union occupation forces. Custer arrived at Alexandria on June 27 and began assembling his units, which took more than a month to gather and remount. On July 17, he assumed command of the Cavalry Division of the Military Division of the Gulf (on August 5, officially named the 2nd Division of Cavalry of the Military Division of the Gulf), and accompanied by his wife, he led the division (five regiments of veteran Western Theater cavalrymen) to Texas on an arduous 18-day march in August. On October 27, the division departed to Austin. On October 29, Custer moved the division from Hempstead to Austin, arriving on November 4. Major General Custer became Chief of Cavalry of the Department of Texas, from November 13 to February 1, 1866, succeeding Major General Wesley Merritt.

During his entire period of command of the division, Custer encountered considerable friction and near mutiny from the volunteer cavalry regiments who had campaigned along the Gulf coast. They desired to be mustered out of Federal service rather than continue campaigning, resented imposition of discipline (particularly from an Eastern Theater general), and considered Custer nothing more than a vain dandy.

Custer’s division was mustered out beginning in November 1865, replaced by the regulars of the U.S. 6th Cavalry Regiment. Although their occupation of Austin had apparently been pleasant, many veterans harbored deep resentments against Custer, particularly in the 2nd Wisconsin Cavalry, because of his attempts to maintain discipline. Upon its mustering out, several members planned to ambush Custer, but he was warned the night before and the attempt thwarted.

American Indian Wars

On February 1, 1866, Major General Custer mustered out of the U.S. volunteer service and took an extended leave of absence and awaited orders to September 24. He explored options in New York City, where he considered careers in railroads and mining. Offered a position (and $10,000 in gold) as adjutant general of the army of Benito Juárez of Mexico, who was then in a struggle with the Mexican Emperor Maximilian I (a satellite ruler of French Emperor Napoleon III), Custer applied for a one-year leave of absence from the U.S. Army, which was endorsed by Grant and Secretary of War Stanton. Sheridan and Mrs. Custer disapproved, however, and when his request for leave was opposed by U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward, who was against having an American officer commanding foreign troops, Custer refused the alternative of resignation from the Army to take the lucrative post.

Following the death of his father-in-law in May 1866, Custer returned to Monroe, Michigan, where he considered running for Congress. He took part in public discussion over the treatment of the American South in the aftermath of the Civil War, advocating a policy of moderation. He was named head of the Soldiers and Sailors Union, regarded as a response to the hyper-partisan Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). Also formed in 1866, it was led by Republican activist John Alexander Logan. In September 1866 Custer accompanied President Andrew Johnson on a journey by train known as the “Swing Around the Circle” to build up public support for Johnson’s policies towards the South. Custer denied a charge by the newspapers that Johnson had promised him a colonel’s commission in return for his support, but Custer had written to Johnson some weeks before seeking such a commission. Custer and his wife stayed with the president during most of the trip. At one point Custer confronted a small group of Ohio men who repeatedly jeered Johnson, saying to them: “I was born two miles and a half from here, but I am ashamed of you.”

With Scout

Custer and Bloody Knife (kneeling left), Custer’s favorite Indian Scout

Custer presented Bloody Knife, his Arikara (“Ree”) scout, with several gifts. Custer told Bloody Knife and some Arikara scouts this would be his last Indian campaign. Custer further stated that if the scouts helped him win a victory, then he would become president and look after the Arikaras from the White House.








Sitting Bull, spiritual leader of the Plains Indians, had been a renowned warrior in his prime

Sitting Bull, spiritual leader of the Plains Indians, had been a renowned warrior in his prime

Low Dog, Oglala war chief

Low Dog, Oglala war chief

 Wooden Leg, noted northern Cheyenne warrior

Wooden Leg, noted northern Cheyenne warrior

Spotted Eagle, Sans arc war chief

Spotted Eagle, Sans arc war chief

Major Marcus Reno, Custer's second in command on the expedition

Major Marcus Reno, Custer’s second in command on the expedition


Captain Frederick Benteen, chafed at serving under Custer, whom he despised

Captain Frederick Benteen, chafed at serving under Custer, whom he despised

Brevet Major General George Armstrong Custer, United States Army, 1865

George Armstrong Custer

  • Born: December 5, 1839, New Rumley, Ohio
  • Died: June 25, 1876 (aged 36), Little Bighorn, Montana
  • Buried at: initially on the battlefield; later reinterred in West Point Cemetery

Allegiance: United States of America

Union: Service/Branch

  • United States Army
  • Union Army

Years of service-1861–1876

American Civil War

  • First Battle of Bull Run
  • Peninsula Campaign
  • Battle of Antietam
  • Battle of Chancellorsville
  • Gettysburg Campaign
  • Battle of Gettysburg
  • Overland Campaign
  • Battle of the Wilderness
  • Battle of Yellow Tavern
  • Battle of Trevilian Station
  • Valley Campaigns of 1864
  • Siege of Petersburg
  • Appomattox Campaign

American Indian Wars

  • Battle of Washita River
  • Battle of the Little Bighorn

Promotions and ranks

Custer’s promotions and ranks including his six brevet [temporary] promotions which were all for gallant and meritorious services at five different battles and one campaign:

  • Second Lieutenant, 2nd Cavalry: June 24, 1861
  • First Lieutenant, 5th Cavalry: July 17, 1862
  • Captain Staff, Additional Aide-De-Camp: June 5, 1862
  • Brigadier General, U.S. Volunteers: June 29, 1863
  • Brevet Major, July 3, 1863 (Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania)
  • Captain, 5th Cavalry: May 8, 1864
  • Brevet Lieutenant Colonel: May 11, 1864 (Battle of Yellow Tavern – Combat at Meadow)
  • Brevet Colonel: September 19, 1864(Battle of Winchester, Virginia)
  • Brevet Major General, U.S. Volunteers: October 19, 1864 (Battle of Winchester and Fisher’s Hill, Virginia)
  • Brevet Brigadier General, U.S. Army, March 13, 1865 (Battle of Five Forks, Virginia)
  • Brevet Major General, U.S. Army: March 13, 1865 (The campaign ending in the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia)
  • Major General, U.S. Volunteers: April 15, 1865
  • Mustered out of Volunteer Service: February 1, 1866
  • Lieutenant Colonel, 7th Cavalry: July 28, 1866 (killed at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, June 25, 1876)

Commands held           

  • Michigan Brigade
  • 3rd Cavalry Division
  • 2nd Cavalry Division
  • 7th Cavalry Regiment


  • Elizabeth Bacon Custer
  • Thomas Custer, brother
  • Boston Custer, brother
  • James Calhoun, brother-in-law

By courtesy:

  • A Terrible Glory by James Donovan, Little Brown & Company, New York, London, Boston, 2008

Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif

His Excellency Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif  MNA نواز شریف


Nawaz Sharif 

Born into a wealthy Sharif family in Lahore, he is the son of Ittefaq Group founder Muhammad Sharif, and the brother of  Chief Minister of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif.

Early life

Nawaz Sharif was born in Lahore, Punjab on 25 December 1949. The Sharif family are Punjabis of Kashmiri origin. His father, Muhammad Sharif, was an upper-middle-class businessman and industrialist whose family had emigrated from Anantnag in Kashmir for business, and eventually settled in the village of Jati Umra in Amritsar district, Punjab at the beginning of the twentieth century. His mother’s family came from Pulwama. After the movement led by Jinnah and his struggle to create Pakistan in 1947, his parents migrated from Amritsar to Lahore. His father followed the teachings of the Ahle-Hadith.

His family owns:

Ittefaq Group multimillion-dollar steel conglomerate
Sharif Group conglomerate company with holdings in agriculture,

transport and sugar mills

He is married to Kulsoom Butt. The personal residence of the Sharif family, Raiwind Palace, is located in Jati Umra, Raiwind, on the outskirts of Lahore. He went to St. Anthony’s High School.

  • He graduated from the Government College University (GCU) with a degree in art and business.
  • He received a law degree from the Law College of the Punjab University in Lahore.


Government College University, where Sharif studied business.

Sharif studied business at Government College Lahore and later law, at the University of Punjab before entering politics in the late 1970s. In 1981, Sharif was appointed by the military government as the minister of finance for Punjab. Backed by a loose coalition of conservatives, he was elected as the Chief Minister of Punjab in 1985 and re-elected after the end of martial law in 1988. In 1990,

Political career

Nawaz Sharif started his political career during the period of nationalization policies introduced by former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The Sharif family was financially hit after the family owned steel business was nationalized, but soon Sharif was into national politics. In 1976 he joined the Pakistan Muslim League, a conservative front rooted in the Punjab province. He initially focused on regaining control of his steel plants from the government. In May 1980 Ghulam Jilani Khan, the recently appointed Governor of Punjab and  former Director-General of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), initiated a search for new urban leaders; Sharif was one of the men picked and promoted quickly to  finance minister of Punjab. In 1981, Sharif joined the Punjab Advisory Board under General Zia-ul-Haq and rose to public and political prominence as a staunch supporter of the military government of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq during the 1980s.

He maintained close relations with Zia-ul-Haq, who soon agreed to return the steel mills. During his political career, Sharif maintained an alliance with General Rahimuddin Khan, who was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee and also had close ties with the Director-General of ISI, Lieutenant-General (retired) Hamid Gul, who played a substantial role in the formation of the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) – a conservative political alliance that supported Sharif.

Sharif invested in Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Arab countries in the Middle East to rebuild his steel empire. According to personal accounts and American historian Stephen Cohen in his book,  Idea of Pakistan: “Nawaz Sharif never forgave Bhutto after his steel empire was lost at the hands of Bhutto; and even after [Bhutto’s] terrible end, Sharif publicly refused to forgive the soul of Bhutto or the Pakistan Peoples Party.” After coming to national power in 1990, Sharif attempted to reverse Bhutto’s nationalization policies, introducing an economy based on privatisation and economic liberalization.

Punjab Advisory Council

In 1981, he became a member of the Punjab Advisory Council under General Ghulam Jilani Khan, the Governor of Punjab. Since the start of his early career, Sharif had been strongly vocal of capitalism and opposed the nationalization. In the 1980s, Sharif gained influence with General Zia-ul-Haq. He convinced the General to denationalize and deregulate the industries to improve the economy.

In the military government of Lt.-General Ghulam Jilani Khan, Sharif was appointed the provisional finance minister and successfully denationalized all of the government-owned industries to private sector. As provincial finance minister, he presented development-oriented budgets to the military government; he gained prominence in Punjab which also supported and extended the rule of Lt. General Ghulam Jillani Khan, as he improved the law and order situation in Punjab. Financial policies drafted and approved by Sharif were backed by General Zia. Punjab Province benefited with improved financial capital, and purchasing power of locals was greatly and exponentially improved. Punjab with Sharif as Finance minister, received many funds from the federal government, more than any other province of Pakistan. This also contributed to the economical inequality between Punjab and other provinces. Due to its huge financial capital in the 1980s, Punjab was Pakistan’s richest province and had a better standard of living compared to other provinces.

Chief Minister of Punjab

In 1985 General Ghulam Jilani Khan nominated Sharif as Chief Minister of the Punjab, against the wishes of Prime Minister, Muhammad Khan Junejo, who wanted the rural candidate, Malik Allahyar. Sharif secured a landslide victory during the non-political parties 1985 elections and became Chief Minister of Punjab with the support of the army. He served for two consecutive terms as Chief Minister of Punjab, the most populous province. Because of his popularity, he received the nickname of “Lion of the Punjab”. As chief minister, he stressed welfare and development activities and the maintenance of law and order.

The provincial martial law administrator of Punjab, Lt. General Ghulam Jilani Khan sponsored the government of Nawaz Sharif, and Sharif built close ties with senior army generals who would remain supportive and sponsor his ministership. Lt. General Jilani Khan made headway in beautifying Lahore, extending military infrastructure, and muting political opposition; while Sharif maintained the law and order in the province, expanded the economical infrastructure that benefited the people of Punjab. In 1988, General Zia dismissed the government of Prime Minister Muhammad Khan Junejo, and called for new elections. All the provisional and the national assemblies were dissolved, but General Zia-ul-Haq retained Sharif as the Chief Minister of Punjab. He continued with Sharif’s support until his death (Gen. Zia) and the elections in 1988.

1988 General Elections

After General Zia’s death in August 1988, Zia’s political party, Pakistan Muslim League (Pagara Group)–split into two factions. Fida Group led by Sharif and Zia loyalists and Junejo Group led by Prime Minister Muhammad Khan Junejo.The Fida Group later became the PML while the Junejo Group was known as the JIP. The two parties plus seven other right-wing conservatives and religious parties united with the encouragement and funding by the ISI to form the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI). The alliance was co-led by Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi to oppose PPP in the elections. The IJI gained substantial majorities in Punjab and Sharif was re-elected Chief Minister of Punjab.

In December 1989, Sharif decided to remain in the Punjab Assembly rather than hold a seat in the National Assembly. In early 1989, the PPP government failed to unseat Sharif through a no-confidence motion in the Punjab Assembly. Sharif retained control by a vote of 152 to 106.

First term as prime minister (1990–93)

Sharif led a conservative alliance to victory, becoming the Prime Minister; investigation into the election would later reveal that the election was rigged in favour of Sharif by the Pakistani intelligence through channeling millions of rupees into his election campaign.

The conservatives for the first time in the country’s history came to power under a democratic system under Nawaz Sharif, who became the 12th Prime Minister of Pakistan on 1 November 1990 as well as head of IJI. He succeeded Benazir Bhutto as Prime Minister.  IJI had been created and funded by Zia loyalists in the ISI; they gave Rs 15 million.  He had campaigned on a conservative platform and had vowed to reduce government corruption focussing on improving the nation’s infrastructure and spurring the growth of digital telecommunication. He privatised government banks and opened the door for further industrial privatisation; disbanding Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s policies. He legalised transactions of foreign money exchange through private money exchanges. His privatisation policies were continued by Benazir Bhutto and Shaukat Aziz in the mid-1990s and 2000s respectively.

Conservative policies


Nawaz Sharif meeting with conservative intellectuals of Pakistan in Sindh Province, c. 1990s.

Sharif took steps to initiate Islamisation. The continuation of conservative change in Pakistan started by Zia-ul-Haq was encouraged. Reforms introduced for:

  • Fiscal conservatism
  • Supply-side economics
  • Bioconservatism
  • Religious conservatism in Pakistan.

He raised the Kashmir issue in international forums and worked toward a peaceful transfer of power in Afghanistan; to help end the rampant trading of illicit drugs and weapons across the border.

  • He intensified General Zia-ul-Haq’s controversial Islamisation policies
  • He Introduced Islamic Laws such as the Shariat Ordinance and Bait-ul-Maal (to help poor orphans’ widows etc.)
  • He ordered the Ministry of Religion to prepare reports and recommendations for steps taken toward Islamisation.

He ensured the establishment of three committees:

  1. Ittehad-e-bain-ul-Muslemeen (Unity of Muslims Bloc)
  2. Nifaz-e-Shariat Committee (Sharia Establishment Committee)
  3. Islamic Welfare Committee

He believed in forming a Muslim Bloc by uniting all Central Asian Muslim countries and so extended the membership of Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) to all Central Asian countries. Nawaz Sharif ruled confidently due to the majority he enjoyed in the assembly. He had disputes with three successive army chiefs.

 Domestic issues

Following the passing of the Resolutions 660, 661, and 665, Sharif sided with the United Nations on the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Sharif’s government criticised Iraq for invading a fellow Muslim country, which led to strain in Pakistan’s relationship with Iraq. This strain continued as Pakistan improved relations with Iran, and this foreign policy continued with Benazir Bhutto, and Pervez Musharraf until the removal of Saddam Hussain in 2003.

Sharif concurred with former Chief of Army Staff General Mirza Aslam Beg over the 1991 Gulf War; under directions from General Beg, Pakistan Armed Forces participated in the conflict and the Army Special Service Group and the Naval Special Service Group was rushed to Saudi Arabia to provide security to Saudi royal family. Sharif also supported the new Chief of Army Staff General Asif Nawaz over paramilitary operation in Sindh.

During his first term, he found it difficult to work with PPP and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a potent force in Karachi. The MQM and PPP opposed Sharif due to his focus on beautifying Punjab and Kashmir while neglecting Sindh.

The MQM, a liberal force, also opposed Sharif’s conservatism. The clash between liberalism and conservatism forces soon erupted in 1992 when political tension began to rise as both party renegades initiated an ideological war against each other. Despite MQM being a part of the government with Sharif, more and more problems surfaced between Sharif and the MQM in 1992. Sharif’s government passed a resolution in the Parliament for launching paramilitary operations to end the cold war between PML-N and MQM.

During this time, the centre left of Pakistan Peoples Party remained neutral watching the cold war between liberal and conservative forces. Prime Minister Sharif also concurred with Chief of Army Staff General Asif Nawaz on the paramilitary operation in Sindh which was launched in 1992.  It brought violence and economic halt in the country that dismantled Sharif’s industrialisation and investment process. Benazir Bhutto, during this time remained silent as she too had opposed the MQM but due to pressure exerted by her brother Murtaza Bhutto, it had come to a halt. The period between 1992–1994 is considered the bloodiest in the history of the city, when many went missing.

Industrialization and privatisation

Shortly after assuming the office of prime minister, Sharif announced his economic policy under the programme called, the “National Economic Reconstruction Program ” (NERP) which introduced a high level of western-styled capitalist economic system.

It was acknowledged that unemployment had become Pakistan’s greatest disadvantage in its economic growth and only industrial and privatization could solve the economic slowdown. An intensified Privatization Program was commenced and presided by Sharif in his vision to “turn Pakistan into a (South) Korea by encouraging greater private saving and investment to accelerate economic growth.”

In 1990, Sharif announced the nuclear policy which aimed to continue peaceful atomic energy benefit for country’s economic infrastructure. Sharif expanded and industrialized nuclear energy program in the whole country and a peaceful economic infrastructure was extensively built by him by the 1990s. Many of the nuclear medicine and nuclear engineering projects were completed under his government as part of Sharif’s Atoms for Peace program.

The privatization programme came as a response to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and the Peoples party led by Benazir, and Sharif’s spontaneous programme was as swift as the nationalization programme of Peoples Party in the 1970s. However, Sharif lacked the charisma and personality of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and countered Bhutto’s ideology with full force by aping him. During the period 1990–93, around 115 nationalized industries were put under private-ownership management, but this was controversial as the programme lacked competition, and was largely controlled by favoured insiders.The favouritism shown in privatization of the industrial and banking units by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was to become the hallmark, and the rise of strong business oligarchs who concentrated enormous assets, further increasing inequality in Pakistan and contributing to political instability.

Privatization programme took the GDP growth rate to 7.57% (1992), but it dropped to 4.37% (1993-1998).

Sharif upgraded Islamic laws such as Shariat Ordinance and Bait-ul-Maal (to help poor orphans widows) to make Pakistan an Islamic welfare state. Sharif’s family was affected by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s nationalization policy. A number of important industries, such as:

  • Pakistan National Shipping Corporation
  • National Electric Power Regulatory Authority
  • Pakistan International Airlines
  • Pakistan Telecommunication Corporation
  • Pakistan State Oil

were opened to private sector. In 1990, Prime Minister Sharif successfully privatised the National Development Finance Corporation.

He introduced and inaugurated several large-scale projects to stimulate the economy, such as the Ghazi-Barotha Hydropower plant. However, unemployment remained a challenge. He imported thousands of yellow-cab taxis for young Pakistanis; this program came at a cost; few of the loans were repaid to the government and Sharif founded it difficult to keep the taxis at a low rate as the young and poor could not afford a higher price. Sharif privatised these taxis at low rate and the steel industry was forced to pay the remaining cost.

During his first term Sharif intensified policies of industrialisation and privatisation of major industries that were nationalised by former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Undoing what was previously done in the 1970s remained a challenge for Sharif but, despite the slowdown of the economy, Sharif reversed major policies of Bhutto and within a short span of time, 90% of the industries were industrialized and privatized by him. This radical move did have a positive impact on country’s economy and it improved at an appropriate level.

Sharif policies were continued by Benazir Bhutto, who nationalised those industries that needed a government bailout plan, and by Pervez Musharraf and Shaukat Aziz in the 2000s who managed to privatise all the major industries by the end of 2008.


A line graph indicated policy benefits enjoyed by Punjab.

During his first term, Sharif focused his industrialization on Punjab and Kashmir; few projects were completed in Khyber and Balochistan provinces, while Sindh did not get the benefit. After severe criticism from Pakistan Peoples Party and the liberal-secular Mutahidda Qaumi Movement (MQM), Sharif launched the Orangi Cottage Industrial Zone which was completed and inaugurated by him.

However, prime minister’s reputation in Sindh was badly damaged because of his focus with Lahore and Kashmir’s beautification, and neglect of other provinces. Sharif’s industrialization was also targeted by his opponents as it was focused on Punjab and Kashmir. His opponents argued that Sharif, as prime minister, obtained permits for building factories for his business. Sharif is also blamed for expanding and financing the Armed Forces secret industrial conglomerate. He is held responsible for bribing generals to protect himself.  Sharif strongly criticized former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s socialist economics policies, citing them as “lamentable state of Pakistan”. His privatization policies were also strongly criticised by former science adviser Dr. Mubashir Hassan, who called Sharif’s privatization “unconstitutional”. Other PPP members maintained that nationalization measures were protected by the Parliament which gave them a constitutional status; the Peoples Party felt the privatization policies were illegal and was taking place without parliamentary approval and parliament was not taken in confidence.

Science policy

Sharif authorized the establishment of the Jinnah Antarctic Station in 1991. Sharif took steps for government control of science in Pakistan and the projects needed his authorization.

In 1991, he authorized the Pakistan Antarctic Program of the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) and Pakistan Navy’s Weapons Engineering Division, and established the Jinnah Antarctic Station and Polar Research Cell.

In 1992, Pakistan became an Associate Member of Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research which was signed by the Science Adviser Munir Ahmed Khan at United Nations. Like Benazir, the ongoing nuclear weapons and the energy program remained one of his top priorities. Sharif countered international pressure, and followed Benazir. He refused to compromise the program in spite of the United States offer of large economic aid to Pakistan. Unlike Benazir, Sharif’s nuclear policy was seen as less aggressive towards India and focused on the atomic programme for the benefit of civil society, and he set forth a nuclear policy to build civil nuclear power.

With this vision, he intensively used the integrated atomic programme for medical and economic purposes; his nuclear policy was viewed by experts as vintage Atoms for Peace program— the United States’ 1950s program to use the nuclear energy for civil purposes, and to promote peaceful nuclear technology in the world as well.

In 1993, Sharif authorized the establishment of:

  • The Institute of Nuclear Engineering (INE) and promoted the policy of peaceful use of nuclear energy.
  • On 28 July 1997, Sharif declared the year as “year of science” in Pakistan
  • He allotted funds for the 22nd INSC College on Theoretical Physics.
  • In 1999, Sharif signed an executive decree, declaring 28 May as the National Science Day in Pakistan.

Nuclear policy

On 7 November 1990, the prime minister announced the nuclear policy on public television. He stated: “the peaceful [atomic] programme which . . . would be accelerated to accommodate growing [nuclear] energy needs and to make up for rising [oil] prices. And, of course, (Pakistan) will construct new nuclear power plants.”

On 26 November, Sharif authorized talks with the US to solve the nuclear crisis after the US tightened the embargo on Pakistan, prompting him to send  finance minister Sartaj Aziz to hold talks in Washington. It was widely reported in Pakistan that the US Assistant Secretary of State Teresa Schaffer had told Foreign Minister Sahabzada Yaqub Khan to halt the uranium enrichment programme.

In December, France’s Commissariat à l’énergie atomique agreed to provide a commercial 900 MW power plant, but plans did not materialize as France wanted Pakistan to provide   funding for the plant. In December, a financial embargo was placed, and the country’s economy felt the effect which prompted Sharif to replace the finance minister. Sharif then used Munir Ahmad Khan to convince IAEA to allow Pakistan a nuclear plant in Chashma, and Khan intensively lobbied with IAEA for that. In December 1990, IAEA allowed Pakistan to establish CHASNUPP-I, signed with China; the IAEA also gave approval of upgrading of the KANUPP-I in 1990.  During his first term, Sharif intensified his non-nuclear weapon policy and strictly followed the policy of deliberate nuclear ambiguity which was continued by Benazir.

Responding to US embargo, Sharif publicly announced that: “Pakistan possessed no [atomic] bomb… Pakistan would be happy to sign the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) provided India “first did the same.”

Sharif intensified his move to enhance Pakistan’s integrated nuclear development and authorized projects that seemed to be important in his point of view. He promoted the peaceful nuclear energy programme, and signed for the CHASNUPP-I reactor with People’s Republic of China for commercial electricity use. Sharif also proposed to use nuclear development mainly for economical usage for the country’s benefit. His policy to use the nuclear programme for economical benefit was continued by Benazir Bhutto and Pervez Musharraf.

 1992 Co-operatives societies’ scandal

Sharif lost support from Punjab and Kashmir when the co-operatives societies’ scandal became public. Co-operatives societies accept deposits from members and can legally make loans only to members for purposes that benefit the society and its members. However, mismanagement of the societies led to a collapse in which millions of Pakistanis lost money in 1992. In Punjab and Kashmir, around 700,000 people, mainly poor, lost all their savings when the states cooperatives societies went bankrupt. It was discovered that the society had granted billions of rupees to the Ittefaq Group of Industries— Sharif’s owned Steel mill. Though Ittefaq Group’s management hurriedly repaid the loans to the affected, the prime minister’s reputation was tarnished.

1993 Constitutional Crisis

In 1993, Sharif survived a serious constitutional crisis when it was reported that he had developed serious authority issues with the President. On 18 April 1993, President Ghulam Ishaq Khan with the support of the Pakistan Army used his reserve powers under (58-2b, 8th Amendment) to dissolve the National Assembly, the lower house. Khan appointed Mir Balakh Sher as the interim prime minister. When the news reached Sharif, he refused to accept this, and moved the Supreme Court of Pakistan.  On 26 May 1993, Sharif returned to power after the Supreme Court ruled the Presidential Order as unconstitutional and reconstituted the National Assembly immediately. The Court ruled, 10–1, that the president could dissolve the assembly only if a constitutional breakdown had occurred, and the government’s incompetence or corruption was irrelevant. Justice Sajjad Ali Shah was the only dissenting judge; he later became 13th Chief Justice of Pakistan.

End of First Term

However, issues with the president over authority increased and a subsequent political standoff occurred between the president and the prime minister. In July 1993, Sharif resigned under pressure from the Pakistan Armed Forces but negotiated a settlement that resulted in the removal of President Ghulam Ishaq Khan as well; Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee General Shamim Alam and the Chief of Army Staff General Abdul Waheed Kakar forced President Ishaq Khan to resign from the presidency and end the political standoff. Under the scrutiny of the Pakistan Armed Forces, an interim and transitional government was formed and new parliamentary election was held after three months.

Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif was born in Lahore, Punjab on 25 December 1949 (age 41) and served as the Prime Minister of Pakistan from November 1990 to July 1993.

  • Spouse: Kulsoom Nawaz
  • Children: 4
  • Parents: Shamim and Sharif
  • Residence: Prime Minister’s Secretariat
  • Political party: Pakistan Muslim League (N)

 Alma mater   

  • Punjab University Law College
  • Government College University
  • Religion: Islam
  • Website:

Chief Minister of Punjab: 9 April 1985 – 13 August 1990

By courtesy:  Schajee – Own work, Public Domain,

Memories and monstrous fables

Popular support for secession: The results of the December 1970 elections in East Pakistan are often taken to be incontrovertible evidence of overwhelming support for the creation of “Bangladesh”. The Awami League, under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, won 75% of the popular vote in East Pakistan and 160 out of 162 seats of the province. It was a verdict to silence all debate–or so it seems.

The Awami League’s popular mandate in terms of percentage of votes and seats won has obscured some other interesting numbers and other possible interpretations of the election results. If the election–widely acknowledged as the first free and fair one in the country–was regarded by Bengali East Pakistanis as essentially a referendum on such a major constitutional issue as secession, one would expect the voter turnout in East Pakistan to be relatively high. Yet, oddly, the voter turnout in East Pakistan is given only as 56%, lower than in the provinces of Punjab (66%) and Sind (58%) in West Pakistan, though higher than in North West Frontier Province (47%) and Balochistan (39%). It would appear that 44% of the East Pakistani electorate was too disinterested in the issues of the election to vote, or else had some disincentive to go out to vote.

Of those who did vote in East Pakistan, three-quarters voted for the Awami League, showing that the party had been highly successful in bringing out its vote on election day. As only 56% of the electorate voted, it meant that 42% of the total electorate voted for the Awami League. That is well short of a majority of the electorate, but still an impressive showing for the party. However, even the 42% vote in favour of the Awami League cannot be interpreted as a vote for secession. The relatively low turnout suggests that the electorate did not consider the election to be a referendum on such a major issue, and Sheikh Mujib did not present it as such during the campaign. Those who voted for him may have been expressing their alienation from the existing regime, in favour of change, redress of perceived discrimination and greater autonomy. Only an unknown fraction of them may have sought outright secession at that point.

Similarly, the 58% of the total electorate that did not vote for Sheikh Mujib–either by staying home or by voting for other parties–cannot be interpreted as having been in favour of the status quo. Many of them may have shared the grievances of other voters, but not regarded Sheikh Mujib and his party as the solution.

One of the most striking aspects of the Bangladeshi “liberation literature” is the pervasive presence of those termed “Razakars” or “collaborators”– Bengalis who cooperated with the regime in its quest to keep  the two wings of Pakistan united. The thirteen volumes of individual Bangladeshi reminiscences–“Smirti 1971” (Memoirs 1971) — and all the rest of the “pro-liberation” literature are replete with references to those among the Bengalis themselves who were on the side of the regime, in favour of the unity of Pakistan. They are presented in a very negative light–as those who did not respond to the call for freedom, who informed on the “freedom fighters”, captured them, guarded them, handed them over to the army or even killed them– but they are present in virtually every story, in every village and every neighbourhood.

Perhaps the politically active ‘Razakars’ were only a minority, but, as in the case of the active pro-liberation fighters, for every activist on either side of the political divide there were likely to be many others who quietly shared his belief, and a good part of the population that was not firmly on one side or the other. There is also a constant complaint in the Bangladeshi ‘liberation literature’ that the ‘collaborators’ were quickly rehabilitated in independent Bangladesh, rising to positions of power and influence. This suggests that failure to support actively the creation of Bangladesh, and even active opposition to the secession from Pakistan in 1971, were not ‘hanging offences’ as far as many Bangladeshis were concerned. Even those who shared the sense of alienation from West Pakistan may have balked at sudden and immediate secession from a ‘homeland’ they had created a mere twenty years before.

Date(s) of the war: the date of the start of full-fledged war between India and Pakistan in 1971 is a contested issue. The date popularly given out is 3 December, the one announced by India, but this is merely the date the war spread to include the western sector. In a sense India’s involvement in the war may be taken to be from March, and its involvement in the politics of the province perhaps from even earlier. Numerous Bangladeshi pro-liberation accounts blithely recount close contact and coordination with Indian authorities prior to the military action taken by the Pakistani regime, as well as Indian involvement and casualties in ‘actions’ in East Pakistan throughout the year. Many of the Pakistani officers I spoke to described Indian penetration of the territory as pervasive. ‘The big operations are always done by the Indians’, reported  The Guardian on 18 September 1971, after an ethnic Bengali, who blended in with the local population and needed no translation, visited the training camps of the Mukti Bahini in India and crossed into East Pakistan with a guide on his own. Of the couple of hundred Bengali ‘volunteers’ who were said to be in the border area he visited, only six had been given any training at all and only three had taken part in any operation.

The start-date of the open all-out war in East Pakistan turns out not to have been 3 December after all. General Niazi, the Eastern Commander of the Pakistan Army, was irritated enough by claims of a ‘lightning campaign’ by India to devote a separation section in his book to the subject, entitled ‘The Date of the War’: ‘On the night of 20/21 November 1971, the Indian Army attacked East Pakistan from all directions’. General Niazi is of course an interested party in this debate, but his assertion is supported by the work of the American scholars Sisson and Rose. They conclude that India decided in favour of eventual direct military intervention as early as April 1971, and then devised a phased strategy. ‘The American government was correct in its assessment that India had already decided to launch a military operation in East Pakistan when Mrs. Gandhi came to Washington in early November pretending that she was still seeking a peaceful solution’.

However, the initial phase of Indian assistance to the rebel forces from East Pakistan failed in the sense that ‘the newly organised Mukti Bahini had not been able to prevent the Pakistani army from regaining control over all the major urban centres on the East Pakistani-Indian border and even establishing a tenuous authority in most of the rural areas. The next phase in Indian tactics, from July to mid October, involved both much more intensive training of the Mukti Bahini and direct involvement in Mukti Bahini activities by Indian military personnel . . . The Mukti Bahini campaign, with some disguised Indian involvement’ was directed at strategic targets. Indian artillery was used in support.

In the next phase from mid-October to 20 November, according to Sisson and Rose, Indian artillery was used more extensively and Indian military forces, tanks and air power were also used. ‘Indian units were withdrawn to Indian territory once their objectives had been brought under the control of the Mukti Bahini–though at times this was only for short periods, as, to the irritation of the Indians, the Mukti Bahini forces rarely held their ground when the Pakistani army launched a counterattack’.

‘After the night of 21 November, however, the tactics changed in one significant way–Indian forces did not withdraw. From 21 to 25 November several Indian army divisions, divided into smaller tactical units, launched simultaneous military actions on all of the key border regions of East Pakistan, and from all directions, with both armoured and air support’

As for the date of 3 December, Sisson and Rose wrote, ‘The Government of India was greatly relieved and pleasantly surprised when Pakistan, after temporising in its responses to the Indian military intervention in East Pakistan for nearly two weeks, ordered the Pakistani air force in West Pakistan to strike at major Indian air installations in northwestern India on 3 December’. The inaction of two weeks contradicted the Pakistani strategic doctrine that the defence of the East lay in the West. In a even more bizarre move, as Genera Niazi has confirmed, when the Pakistani regime finally launched the attack in the Western sector on 3 December it did so without consulting or informing it’s Eastern command which was already fighting a war in the East.

Prisoners of war: one of the most notable ‘numbers’ of 1971 in circulation is the assertion that ‘93,000 Pakistani soldiers’ were taken prisoner by India at the end of the war. The statement has been repeated, virtually unchallenged in practically every form of publication. It is a number about which one expects a certain precision–after all the number of POWs in India had to be an exact figure, not an approximation. Yet it turns out that 93,000 soldiers were not, in fact, taken prisoner.

In March 1971, the number of West Pakistani troops in East Pakistan was reported to be 12,000. More forces were brought in to cope with the crisis and Lt. Gen. A.A. K. Niazi, Commander of the Eastern Command in 1971 from April to December wrote: ‘The total fighting strength available to me was forty-five thousand–34,000 from the army, plus 11,000 from CAF and West Pakistan civilian police and armed non-combatants’. Out of the 34,000 regular troops, 23,000 were infantry, the rest being armour, artillery, engineers, signals and other ancillary units.

How did 34,000 army personnel plus 11,000 civilian police and other armed personnel, a total of 45,000 men, more than double into ‘93,000 soldiers’ who were reported taken prisoner by India in December? According to General Niazi:

The strength of the Pakistani Army was 34,000 troops; Rangers, scouts, militia and civil police came to 11,000, thus the grand total came to 45,000. If we in include naval and air force detachments and all those in uniform and entitled to free rations, e.g., HQ, MLA, depots, training institutes, workshops, factories, nurses and lady doctors, non-combatants like barbers, cooks, shoemakers, and sweepers, even then the total comes to 55,000 and not 96,000 or 100,000. The remaining were civilian officials, civilian staff and women and children.

So it appears that while the total figure in Indian custody is about right, to state that ’93, 000 soldiers’ were taken prisoner is wrong, and creates confusion by greatly inflating the Pakistani fighting force in East Pakistan.

There were other numbers related to prisoners of war that usually go unnoticed–the numbers of Pakistani  POWs held by India since early 1971. Lt. Ataullah Shah of 27 Baluch, who was captured in Kushtia and handed over to India in early April, told me that he saw sixty to eighty West Pakistani officers and other ranks already in custody when he was moved to Panagarh. Among Pakistani prisoners in India since March were the commanding officer of 4 East Bengal Regiment, Lt. Col. Khizr Hayat, and other West Pakistani officers of that unit, who had not been killed by the rebel Bengali second-in -command Major Khaled Musharraf, but taken in custody and handed over to India. Twenty-five West Pakistani trainees in the Sarda police academy in Rajshahi were captured and handed over to the Indian Border Security Force on 11 April according to villagers in Thanapara.

 ‘Genocide of three million’: the ultimate word-number combination
The ultimate ‘word number’ combination of the 1971 war is the assertion by Bangladeshi nationalists, believed by people around the world including Indians and many Pakistanis, that the Pakistan army committed ‘genocide’ of three million Bengalis’ during 1971. In the dominant narrative of the 1971 war, the Pakistan Army in this context is assumed to be entirely made up of West Pakistani personnel and the victims are assumed to be ethnic Bengalis, the majority inhabitants of the rebel province. The ‘three million’ allegedly killed are referred to usually as ‘innocent Bengalis’ suggesting that they were non-combatants, killed solely on the basis of their ethno-linguistic identity.

I started the research for this study from the premise, as it was embedded in the narrative with which I had grown up and was part of my own memories of 1971 as a child in Calcutta. I expected the figure of ‘three million’ to be an approximation, but a ballpark figure. I assumed that it was an estimate based on some form of accounting of the established realities on the ground.

Examination of the available material on the 1971 war in both Bengali and English showed that while the allegation of ‘genocide’ of ‘three million Bengalis’ is often made–in books, articles newspapers, films and websites– it is not based on any accounting or survey on the ground. Sisson and Rose state that the figure of three million dead was put out by India, while some Bangladeshi sources say it was the figure announced on the return to Dhaka by Sheikh Mujib, who in turn had been ‘told’ that was the death toll when he emerged from nine months in prison in West Pakistan. It is unclear who ‘told’ Sheikh Mujib this and on what basis. However, Sheikh Mujib’s public announcement of ‘three million dead’ after his return to the newly created Bangladesh was reported in the media.  For instance, on 11 January 1972 in The Times, Peter Hazelhurst reported from Dhaka on Mujib’s emotional home-coming: in his first public rally in independent Bangladesh, Mujib is reported to have said, ‘I have discovered that they had killed three million of my people’.

There are reports that having publicly stated that three million Bengalis had been killed– on the basis of what he had apparently been ‘told’ after his release from imprisonment–Sheikh Mujib tried to establish the necessary evidence for it by setting up a committee of inquiry in January 1972. No further information appears to be available on the work of the inquiry committee or its findings. None of the popular assertions of three million Bengalis allegedly killed by the army cites any official report.

The claim of three million dead or variations thereof was repeated in South Asian and Western academia and media for decades without verification. In an early comment on the war appended to her study of the alienation of East Pakistan, Rounaq Jahan wrote of ‘savage brutalities of the Pakistan army and the genocidal nature of their killings’, and stated, ‘Between one and three million people were reportedly killed during the nine-month struggle‘. No source or reference was cited for the figures. Thirty years later, in a single reference to the 1971 conflict in East Pakistan in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, Samantha Power asserted, ‘Beginning in March 1971, . . . Pakistani troops killed between one and two million Bengalis and raped some 200,000 girls and women’. No source or reference was cited for this assertion. As Sisson and Rose commented, ‘India had of course, a good case to make in terms of Pakistani atrocities in East Pakistan, and it found the foreign press incredibly gullible in accepting, without effort at verifying, the substantial exaggeration that were appended to the list of horror stories from Dhaka’.

While the ‘three million’ figure has been repeated without substantiation by many, the occasional outside observer did notice the rather conspicuous gap between claims and actual evidence. In a report published in The Guardian entitled ‘The Missing Millions’ on 6 June 1972, William Drummond wrote, ‘This figure of three million deaths, which the Sheikh has repeated several times since he returned to Bangladesh in early January, has been carried uncritically in sections of the world press. Through repetitions such a claim gains a validity of its own and gradually evolved from assertion to fact needing no attribution. My judgement, based on numerous trips around Bangladesh and extensive discussions with many people at the village level as well as in the government, is that the three million deaths figure is an exaggeration so gross as to be absurd’.

In a striking parallel to Kissinger’s comments in April 1971 about Bengali claims of a thousand bodies in graves when fewer than twenty bodies could be found, Drummond wrote in June 1972, ‘Of course, there are ‘mass graves’ all over Bangladesh. But nobody, not even the most rabid Pakistani-hater has yet asserted that all these mass graves account for more than about 1,000 victims. Furthermore, because a body is found in a mass grave does not necessarily mean that the victim was killed by the Pakistani Army’.

As the earlier chapters indicate, my own experience in Bangladesh was very similar with claims of dead in various incidents wildly exceeding anything that could be reasonably supported by evidence on the ground. ‘Killing fields’ and ‘mass graves’ were claimed to be everywhere, but none was forensically exhumed an examined in a transparent manner, not even the one in Dhaka University. Moreover, as Drummond pointed out in 1972, the findings of someone’s remains cannot clarify unless scientifically demonstrated, whether the person was a Bengali or a non-Bengali, combatant or non-combatant, whether death took place in the 1971 war, or whether it was caused by the Pakistan Army. Ironically, as Drummond also points out, the Pakistan Army did kill, but the Bangladeshi claims were ‘blown wholly out of proportion’, undermining their credibility. Drummond reported that field investigations by the Home Ministry of Bangladesh in 1972 had turned up about 2000 complaints of deaths at the hands of the Pakistan Army.

Under the circumstances, the number ‘three million’ appears to be nothing more than gigantic rumour. Until and unless credible accounting can be produced to substantiate it, scholars and commentators must cease reporting it. Also, until and unless casualty figures estimated on the basis of some form of credible and transparent accounting are released from official archives of the concerned governments, no other number can be offered as the estimate of the dead.

On the Pakistani side, the Hamoodur Rehman Commission, set up after the war by the new government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to inquire into Pakistan’s defeat in the war, did  submit a report, de-classified parts of which were published in Pakistan. The Hamoodur Rehman Commission’s comment on the claim of three million dead is as follows: ‘According to the Bangladesh authorities, the Pakistan Army was responsible for killing three million Bengalis and raping 200,000 East Pakistani women. It does not need any elaborate argument to see that these figures are obviously highly exaggerated. So much damage could not have been caused by the entire strength of the Pakistan Army then stationed in East Pakistan, even if it had nothing else to do’.

Calling the claims by Dhaka ‘altogether fantastic and fanciful‘, the Commission presented its own estimate of the dead: ‘. . . the latest statement supplied to us by the GHQ shows approximately 26,000 persons killed during the action by the Pakistan Army. This figure is based on the situation reports submitted from time to time by the Eastern Command to General Headquarters’.

The Hamoodur Rehman Commission thought the estimate of 26,000 dead might be biased, but based upwards: ‘It is possible that even these figures may contain an  element of exaggeration, as the lower formations may have tended to magnify their own achievement in quelling the rebellion’. The Commission accepted the figure of 26, 000 dead as ‘reasonably correct’, given the ‘absence of any other reliable data’ and on account of ‘the fact that the reports were sent from East Pakistan to GHQ at a time when the army officers in East Pakistan could have no notion whatsoever of any accountability in this behalf’.

On the basis of the claims made by the two sides of the Pakistan civil war, therefore, we are left with a range of war-dead between 26,000, the figure based on situation reports of the Pakistan Army submitted to the Pakistan inquiry commission, and the Bangladesh/Indian claim of three million, based on – nothing. A meaningless range by any standards, as it is rendered farcical by the elimination of the three million figure as an assertion without any accountable basis.

In the course of their systematic research on the 1971 conflict, Sisson and Rose attempted to tackle the question of how many ha actually died in he war. They wrote:

India set the number of victims of Pakistani atrocities as three million, and this is still the figure usually cited. We interviewed two Indian officials who had held responsible positions on the issue of Bangladesh in 1971. When questioned about the actual number of deaths in Bangladesh in 1971 attributable to the civil war one replied ‘about 300,000’. Then when he received a disapproving glance from his colleague, he changed this to ‘300,000 to 500,000’.

The impression left by this exchange is that the Indian officials were still citing figures off the top of their heads without any supporting accounting basis, and that their  motivation was still to cite as large a number as possible. By this logic that official’s initial figure of 300,000 was also an ‘exaggerated’ figure, but not large enough for the disapproving colleague, hence the further inflation to a possible 500,000. Neither figure is supported by any accounting on the ground, nor must both necessarily be rejected.

Sisson and Rose raise another important consideration with regard to the number of dead (whatever the figure might be) : . . . it is still impossible to get anything like reliable estimates as to:

1. How many of these were ‘liberation fighters’ killed in combat?
2. How many were Bihari Muslims and supporters of Pakistan killed by Bengali Muslims?
3. How many were killed by Pakistani, Indian, or Mukti Bahini fire and bombing during hostilities?

One thing is clear– the atrocities did not just go one way, though Bengali Muslims and Hindus were certainly the main victims’.

Indeed as the earlier chapters have shown, many of the dead during the conflict were non-Bengalis victims of Bengali ethnic hatred. Of the corpses reported littering the land and clogging up the rivers, many would have been Biharis–this would be especially true where the victims were men, women and children, as Bengali mobs appear to have killed non-Bengali indiscriminately while the Pakistan Army appeared to target adult Bengali men. There is no reliable breakdown of the casualties into Bengali and non- Bengali. It is also hard to distinguish between combatant and non-combatant casualties as so many combatants on the Bangladeshi side were civilians (or in civilian attire). While some non-combatant civilians were killed in deliberate massacres recounted in incidents in this study, many civilians also perished in crossfire or bombings. Realistically, it is no longer possible to apportion the dead reliably into any categories–Bengali or non-Bengali, combatant or non-combatant, deliberate targeting or so-called ‘collateral damage’.

Some of the instances of inflation ( or deflation) captured by this study indicate the scale of the problem of numbers. The White Paper of the Pakistan government listed gruesome cases of brutalisation and murder by Bengali nationalists and claimed that more than 100,000 men, women and children had been killed by Bengalis during the ‘Awami League reign of terror’ started on 1 March 1971. It would be logical to assume that the White Paper might tend to inflate the number of victims of Bengali nationalist violence, just as Bengali nationalists’ claims of the number of victims of the Pakistan Army are exaggerated. However, as the case-studies of Khulna in Chapter 4 and Chapter 8 demonstrate, non-Bengali  men, women and children massacred by Bengali nationalists ran into thousands of casualties per incident. Hence the total number of dead among the ‘Bihari’ population would easily run into tens of thousands.

The warring parties do not necessarily minimise how many they killed. Both sides have the incentive to claim to have inflicted higher casualties on the ‘enemy’, to inflate their own ‘achievements’. The weeks following the start of the military action witnessed serious blood- letting with heavy casualties on both sides. As Chapter 4 has shown, about 144 members of the Pakistan armed forces were killed by Bengali attackers in Kushtia in a protracted battle and subsequent ambushes. However, the claim that pro-liberation fighters caught unawares at Satiarchora in Tangail inflicted a loss of 200-250 soldiers in a matter of minutes before being crushed seems highly exaggerated.

An Associated Press photographer, who evaded deportation from Dhaka for a couple of days after the start of the military action on 25-26 March reported that 200 students were reported killed in Iqbal Hall (in Dhaka University). As discussed in Chapter 3, one of the key army officers in charge of the operation in Dhaka that night told me that the number of dead at Iqbal Hall was twelve and that at Jagganath Hall was thirty two. From the witness accounts discussed in that chapter it appears that the casualty figure at the university might range from around seventy, including those forced to carry the corpses and shot afterwards, to 300 as claimed by the commanding officer of the regiment executing the action at the university. The university memorial lists 149 war-dead for the whole year, contradicting the initial press report.

Similarly as discussed in Chapter 4, the army attack on Shankharipara, a Hindu area in old Dhaka, on 26 March left 14-15 men and one child dead according to eye-witnesses and survivors whom I interviewed: but a prominent Pakistani journalist reported that 8,000 people had been killed there. The evidence assembled in Chapter 6 on the killing of Hindu refugees at Chuknagar indicates that a large-scale massacre– perhaps with hundreds dead–occurred there on 20 May. This is still not enough for some locals and Bangladeshi academics, who aspire to establish the incident as the ‘biggest mass killing’ of the year, by claiming–implausibly–that 10,000 people were killed there by a platoon o soldiers with just their personal weapons in a morning’s operation.

From the available evidence discussed in this study, it appears possible to estimate with reasonable confidence that at least 50,000-100,000 people perished in the conflict in East Pakistan/Bangladesh in 1971, including combatants and non-combatants, Bengalis and non-Bengali’s, Hindus and Muslims, Indians and Pakistanis. Casualty figures crossing one hundred thousand are within the realm of the possible, but beyond that one enters a world of meaningless speculation.

A culture of victim hood and violence

Regardless of the number of dead, whether the deaths during the 1971 conflict were ‘genocidal’ in nature is a separate question. The crime of ‘genocide’ is not based on the numbers killed, but on whether the victims were targeted on the basis of nationality, ethnicity, race or religion. The international community defined ‘genocide’ in the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 1948, according to which:

Genocide means any of the following acts committed  with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnically, racial or religious group, as such:

1. Killing members of the group
2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group
3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part
4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group
5. Forcibly transferring children or the group to another group

The allegation that the Pakistan Army killed Bengalis in a ‘genocidal’ manner runs into several problems. To begin with, virtually all of the population of about seventy million in East Pakistan was Bengali. Defining the ‘target’ population as ‘Bengali’ therefore is non-starter. As the rebels fighting for an independent Bangladesh were Bengalis in an overwhelmingly Bengali province, it is hardly a surprise that those killed by the Pakistan Army in its bid to put down the rebellion would be Bengalis.

As the instances in this study show, the Pakistan Army was clearly not killing all Bengalis even in the worst instances of massacres such as those at Thanapara, Chuknagar and Boroitola. There appears to have been the pattern of targeting adult men while sparing women and children, starting with the military action in Dhaka University on 25-26 March through the duration of the conflict. In Dhaka University, non-Bengali male staff members were also killed. Nor were all adult Bengali men the target of army action. Some Bengali men were active supporters of the regime– termed ‘Razakars’ by the pro-liberation Bengalis. Many others were not active on either side and the vast majority of such men survived the war, even if they were picked up and interrogated along with real insurgents such as the Dhaka guerrilla groups. However, Hindu men appear to have been more likely to be presumed to be insurgents solely on the basis of their religion.

Hence the available evidence indicates that Pakistan Army committed political killings, where the victims were suspected to be secessionists in cahoots with the arch enemy India and thus ‘traitorous’. Extra-judicial political killings in non-combat situations, however, brutal and deserving condemnation, do not fit the UN definition of ‘genocide’, whether in East Pakistan in 1971 or in other instances of large-scale political killings elsewhere in the world. However,  to identify their targets–secessionist rebels–in situations other than straight combat, the Pakistan army used proxies, or ‘profiling’ as it is called in current usage: sometimes the proxy might have been political affiliation ( membership of the Awami League, for instance), but at other times the proxies appear to have been age (adult), gender (male) and religion (Hindu). It is the latter proxies, in particular the disproportionate probability of being presumed to be an insurgent on the basis of religion–Hinduism–that led the army into killings that may have been ‘political’ in motivation, but could be termed ‘genocidal’ by their nature.

Yet many Hindus were also left unharmed by the Pakistan army during 1971. As the witness accounts in Chapter 6 show, many Hindu refugees were leaving their villages and fleeing to India not because of any action of the army, but because they could no longer bear the persecution by their Bengali Muslim neighbours. Much of the harassment of Hindus by their fellow-Bengalis appears to have been non- political, motivated by material greed. The intimidation, killing and hounding out of Hindus—whether by the army or by Bengali Muslims–amounted to what has later come to be termed ‘ethnic cleansing’.

While Pakistan Army’s political killings turned ‘genocidal’ when religious ‘profiling’ was used for the selection of victims, the killing of non-Bengalis–Biharis and West Pakistanis–by Bengalis was clearly ‘genocide’ under the UN definition. As many instances in this study show, many Bengalis Muslims in East Pakistan committed ‘genocide’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’ of non-Bengali Muslims and Bengali and non-Bengali Hindus, as the victim were targeted on the basis of ethnicity or religion.

The ‘liberators literature’ of Bangladesh repeatedly uses the words ‘genocide’, ‘holocaust’, or ‘concentration camp’ in their depiction of 1971 in blissful disregard of the need to provide substantiation, in an obvious attempt to benefit from the association with the horrors of Nazi Germany. The need for ‘millions’ dead appears to have become part of a morbid competition with six million Jews to obtain the attention and sympathy of the international community. The persistent cultivation of a ‘victim culture’ glides effortlessly through allegations of exploitation by West Pakistan, ‘genocide’ in 1971, neglect by an uncaring world and further exploitation by India, the erstwhile liberators.

It is important to emphasise that there is no comparison between the 1971 conflict in East Pakistan and the real Holocaust–the systematic extermination of millions of European Jews, other minorities and political dissidents by the Nazis and their allies during the Second World War. Such careless references are an insult to the victims of the Nazi Holocaust as well as the casualties of the 1971 conflict, who do not require their suffering to be grossly exaggerated or distorted in order to be taken seriously.

When the Pakistan Army came for Sheikh Mujib on the night of 25-26 March 1971 he was apprehensive; the soldiers arrested and imprisoned him, accusing him of treason. When soldiers of the Bangladesh Army came for Sheikh Mujib on 15 August 1975 he went to meet them as they were his own people; they killed him and all his extended family present, including his wife, two daughters-in-law, and three sons, the youngest a child of ten.

Ultimately, neither the numbers nor the labels matter. What matters is the nature of the conflict, which was fundamentally a complex and violent struggle for power among several different  parties with a terrible human toll. The war of 1971 left a land of violence, with a legacy of intolerance of difference and a tendency to respond to political opposition with intimidation, brutalization and extermination.

By courtesy: Dead Reckoning by Sarmila Bose, Columbia University Press New York 2011