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.
BY COURTESY: INDIRA BY KRISHAN BHATIA, PRAEGER PUBLISHERS INC., NEW YORK, WASHINGTON, 1974