USA AND INDIRA

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.

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

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