It is estimated that over 15 million people were displaced during the Partition of the Indian subcontinent and two million lost their lives in the ensuing communal violence. This feature covers 42 years from 1906 to 1948, an astonishingly short period of time, during which the freedom movement emerged and subsequently achieved the creation of a separate Muslim state under the dynamic leadership of Mohammad Ali Jinnah – the Quaid-i-Azam – the monumental founder of this nation.


 In the photograph above courtesy National Archive Islamabad, the Quaid-i-Azam, Mohammad Ali Jinnah and G.M. Syed make their way in a triumphal procession to the Annual Session of the Mus

In the photograph above courtesy National Archive Islamabad, the Quaid-i-Azam, Mohammad Ali Jinnah and G.M. Syed make their way in a triumphal procession to the Annual Session of the Muslim League in Karachi in December 1943. Behind them and standing are Mr. Jinnah’s National Guard ADCs; Mumtaz Hidayatullah, the son of Ghulam Hussain Hidayatullah, the veteran politician from Sindh, and Saeed Haroon, the son of Haji Abdullah Haroon.

 On March 3, 1943, G.M. Syed brings before the Sindh Legislative Assembly, a resolution demanding the creation of Pakistan. The resolution is adopted, making it the first one in favour of the creation of Pakistan passed by a legislature in undivided India. It states that the Muslims of India “are justly entitled to the right as a single separate nation to have independent national states of their own, carved in the zones in which they are in majority in the subcontinent of India…”

It is this triumph for the Muslim League that frames Mr. Jinnah’s arrival later in December to attend the Annual Session of the Muslim League for which Karachi is chosen as the venue. As the President of the Sindh Muslim League, G.M. Syed is tasked with the responsibility of organising the arrangements for the Annual Session. He writes: “For nearly three months we worked to make a grand job of the honour that had been done to us. We did not spare men or material in lending all the grandeur and splendour to this historic session and only those who attended it can bear testimony to the scrupulous care with which every detail had been attended to and the lavish hospitality that Sindh had to offer.”

In his memoir, Struggle for New Sindh, G.M. Syed also writes about his admiration for Mr. Jinnah: “In Jinnah I found a man of extraordinary intellectual capacity. His domineering personality and dynamic genius left a deep impression on my mind.”

G.M. Syed is subsequently asked by Mr. Jinnah to resign from the presidency of the Sindh Muslim League, after which a group largely drawn from the Sindh Muslim League and styled as the Progressive Muslim League contest the 1945-46 elections in Sindh and establish a path of their own.



The Quaid i Azam with Nawab Shahnawaz Khan Mamdot and A.K. Fazlul Huq at Lahore_s Minto Park. Courtesy National Archive Islamabad

The Quaid i Azam with Nawab Shahnawaz Khan Mamdot and A.K. Fazlul Huq at Lahore’s Minto Park. Courtesy National Archive Islamabad

The Quaid-i-Azam, Mohammad Ali Jinnah addresses a mammoth crowd in Lahore’s Minto Park on March 22, 1940, subsequent to the passing of the Lahore Resolution at the three-day Annual Session of the Muslim League.

In the photograph above, Nawab Shahnawaz Khan Mamdot, the Chairman of the Punjab Reception Committee for the session, stands behind him, adjacent to the flagpole. At extreme left is Sher-e-Bengal, A.K. Fazlul Huq, Chief Minister of Bengal and the prime mover of the Resolution.

Sir Zafarullah Khan, Maulana Zafar Ali Khan, Maulana Abdul Ghafoor Hazarvi, Haji Abdullah Haroon and Qazi Isa. Dawn White Star Archives & Seafield Archives

Sir Zafarullah Khan, Maulana Zafar Ali Khan, Maulana Abdul Ghafoor Hazarvi, Haji Abdullah Haroon and Qazi Isa. Dawn White Star Archives & Seafield Archives

Sir Zafarullah Khan (first from left) is credited with the original drafting of the Resolution; the critical points were then submitted in a memorandum to the Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, in Delhi. The draft was subsequently further amended in Lahore by the Working Committee. The main supporters of the Resolution, one each from the north-western Muslim majority states in India, are (from second left) Maulana Zafar Ali Khan (Punjab), Maulana Abdul Ghafoor Hazarvi (NWFP), Haji Abdullah Haroon (Sindh) and Qazi Isa (Balochistan).

Quaid i Azam, Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan peruse the Lahore Resolution. Courtesy Lahore Museum

Quaid i Azam, Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan peruse the Lahore Resolution. Courtesy Lahore Museum

The Quaid-i-Azam, Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan peruse the Lahore Resolution as Chaudhry Khaliquzzaman, the seconder of the Resolution and the leader of the Muslim League in the UP legislature, delivers a fiery oration.

Unanimously accepted, the Resolution declares: “No constitutional plan would be workable or acceptable to the Muslims unless geographical contiguous units are demarcated into regions, which should be so constituted with such territorial readjustments as may be necessary.”

In the long journey to Pakistan, a critical point has been reached. Nothing will be the same again. It is the moment of truth.




Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah with Mian Mumtaz Daultana and Haji Abdullah Haroon in Seafield House Dawn White Star Archives & Seafield Archives

Haji Abdullah Haroon, President of the Sindh Muslim League relaxes at home in Seafield House between sessions of the Karachi Conference. The Quaid-i-Azam, Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Mian Mumtaz Daultana are in an animated discussion about the revitalisation of the first All India Muslim League government in Sindh headed by Haji Abdullah Haroon.

Mr Jinnah, once looked upon as the ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity, returns to India in 1934 to assume the presidency of the Muslim League after four years in self-imposed exile in London. His return is marked by three vigorous years during which he consolidates the foundations of what will eventually constitute the future territories of Pakistan (although Pakistan is still not yet an inevitability in his mind).

Specifically, he succeeds in pushing back the Unionist style coalitions in Sindh, which by their composition are dependent upon the intervention of the British Governor. This pushback culminates in the resolution moved by Shaikh Abdul Majeed and adopted at the Karachi Conference recommending that the Muslim League develop a plan for Muslims to attain full independence. This is an important first step in Mr Jinnah’s journey towards Muslim independence and a remarkable homecoming.

Four years later, in 1942, Haji Abdullah Haroon passes away. Mr Jinnah in his tribute says: “Muslim India, especially Sindh, has lost a leader who served and guided the people loyally and faithfully. I have lost a friend and colleague and deeply mourn his death.”

Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan describes him as “a pillar of strength to the Muslim League and one of its most sincere leaders. He was a staunch Pakistanist. His death is an irreparable loss to Muslim India in general and to Sindh.”

The Quaid i Azam, in celebratory progression through Karachi in December 1938. At the front, next to the driver_s seat is his ADC, a young Mahmoud Haroon. Courtesy National Archive Isl

The Quaid i Azam, in celebratory progression through Karachi in December 1938. At the front, next to the driver’s seat is his ADC, a young Mahmoud Haroon. Courtesy National Archive Islamabad



Sir Muhammad Iqbal arriving at the 25th Session of the All India Muslim League in Allahabad. Dawn White Star Archives

Sir Muhammad Iqbal arriving at the 25th Session of the All India Muslim League in Allahabad. Dawn White Star Archives

 Sir Muhammad Iqbal arrives at the landmark session of the Muslim League in Allahabad on December 30, 1930, to deliver the now famous Allahabad Address. Seated in the Lanchester on the right is Haji Abdullah Haroon. Standing next to the car is a young Yusuf Haroon; standing at the extreme left is poet Hafeez Jullundhri who will pen Pakistan’s national anthem eighteen years later.

In his address, Sir Muhammad Iqbal sets out his vision of an independent state for the Muslim majority provinces of undivided India. He defines the Muslims of India as a nation and suggests there is no possibility of peace in India until they are recognised as a nation under a federal system whereby Muslim majority units are accorded the same privileges given to Hindu majority units.

The young barrister Muhammad Iqbal in his library left. At the historic Mezquita mosque of Cordoba, in Andalusia, Spain in 1933 right Courtesy Iqbal Academy

The young barrister Muhammad Iqbal in his library left. At the historic Mezquita mosque of Cordoba, in Andalusia, Spain in 1933 right Courtesy Iqbal Academy

In outlining a vision of an independent state for Muslim majority provinces for north-western India, Iqbal is the first politician to articulate the two-nation theory; that Muslims are a distinct nation deserving political independence from the other regions and communities of India.

Sir Muhammad Iqbal’s eight stanza masterpiece, Masjid-e-Qurtuba, is inspired by his prayers at the mosque and includes the following lines: “The stars gaze upon your precincts as a piece of heaven/But alas! For centuries, your porticoes have not resonated with the call of the azaan”; an allusion to the turning point when Cordoba returned to Christian rule in 1236 and the mosque became a Roman Catholic cathedral.


Mr Jinnah with his sister Fatima and his remarkable daughter Dina Courtesy National Archive Islamabad

Mr Jinnah with his sister Fatima and his remarkable daughter Dina  Courtesy National Archive Islamabad

The Round Table Conferences in London have ended in failure. Mr. Jinnah decides to stay on in London where he has a thriving practice as a Privy Council lawyer, with chambers located on King’s Bench Walk. He spends long periods brooding over the collapse of the Hindu-Muslim unity platform in the Indian National Congress.


Mr. Jinnah and Dina share a private moment in the grounds of their home on West Heath Road in Hampstead, London Courtesy National Archive Islamabad

Finally, in 1934, he is persuaded to return to India to assume the presidency of the All India Muslim League. Thereafter, as the Quaid-i-Azam, he launches a series of initiatives that within a record time span of thirteen years, lead to the establishment of Pakistan.

Ruttie Jinnah is the daughter of Parsi baronet, Sir Dinshaw Petit. She marries the Quaid at the age of eighteen in 1918, despite virulent family opposition. The couple reside in South Court Mansion in Bombay. Ruttie and Mr. Jinnah are a glamorous couple. Flawless in her silks, Ruttie wears her signature hairstyle adorned with fresh flowers or complemented with headbands, embellished with diamonds, rubies and emeralds.

The couple are happy in the early years of their marriage. However, by 1923, Mr. Jinnah’s deepening political involvement, long hours and frequent travel leave Ruttie feeling lonely and increasingly fragile.

Ruttie Jinnah Courtesy National Archive Islamabad

Ruttie Jinnah Courtesy National Archive Islamabad

He is in Delhi when a call comes through on February 20, 1929 with the news that Ruttie is critically ill. According to a close friend, Mr Jinnah says:

“Do you know who that was? It was my father-in-law. This is the first time we have spoken since my marriage.” What Mr Jinnah does not know is that Ruttie is already dead.

The funeral is held at Bombay’s Muslim cemetery on February 22, 1929. According to Ruttie’s friend, Kanji Dwarkadas, “the funeral was a painfully slow ritual. Jinnah sat silent through all five hours.”

Then as Ruttie’s body is lowered into the grave, Mr Jinnah is the first to throw a handful of earth on the body. Suddenly, he breaks down and weeps like a child. Another friend, M.C. Chagla, said years later that “there were tears in his eyes. That was the only time I found Jinnah betraying some shadow of human weakness.”


Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar left standing next to Dr Mukhtar Ahmed Ansari. Courtesy Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar_s family & Dawn White Star Archives

Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar left standing next to Dr Mukhtar Ahmed Ansari. Courtesy Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar’s family & Dawn White Star Archives

Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar (left) dons Turkish attire on his visit to Turkey on the eve of the First World War. Dr Mukhtar Ahmed Ansari, leader of the Indian Muslim Medical Mission to Turkey and future president of the Muslim League, stands on the right. The firebrand Ali Brothers from Rampur State, achieve legendary status within the Khilafat Movement (1919 -1922), as the crucible in which a separate South Asian Muslim identity takes shape.

Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar makes his mark at the end of the First World War, when the Ottoman Empire is occupied by the Allied Powers under the Treaty of Sèvres. The Turkish Nationalists reject the Treaty, and the Grand National Assembly under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk denounces the rule of the reigning sultan, Mehmed VI. As these events unfold, Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar and his brother, Maulana Shaukat Ali, launch an agitation in India aimed at building up political unity among Muslims and pressure the British to preserve the Ottoman caliphate.

The agitation leads to the formation of the Khilafat Movement. However, despite an alliance with the Indian National Congress and a nationwide campaign of peaceful civil disobedience, the Khilafat Movement itself weakens, because Indian Muslims are divided between working for the Congress, the Khilafat Movement and the Muslim League.

The end comes in 1924 when Atatürk abolishes the caliphate. The brothers join the Muslim League and play a major role in the Pakistan Movement. The Khilafat Movement is a major step towards the establishment of a separate Muslim state in South Asia.

Maulana Shaukat Ali sitting next to the coffin of his brother Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar Courtesy Lahore Museum Archives

Maulana Shaukat Ali sitting next to the coffin of his brother Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar Courtesy Lahore Museum Archives

Maulana Shaukat Ali (extreme right) in January 1931 sits next to the coffin of his brother, Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar, on board the ship SS Narkunda on the way to Port Said. Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar is buried within the precincts of the Masjid Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem. His frequent jail sentences and acute diabetes have an adverse impact on his health. He dies in London in January 1931, while attending the First Round Table Conference. His final words to the British Government are: “I would prefer to die in a foreign country as long as it is free. If you do not grant us freedom in India, you will have to find me a grave here.”


Nawab Viqar ul Mulk, Nawab Salimullah and Sir Sultan Mohammed Shah Aga Khan III Dawn White Star Archives

Nawab Viqar ul Mulk, Nawab Salimullah and Sir Sultan Mohammed Shah Aga Khan III Dawn White Star Archives

 Nawab Viqar-ul-Mulk (first from left), a prominent political personality from Hyderabad State, inaugurates the founding session of the All India Muslim League in Dhaka in 1906.

Nawab Salimullah of Dhaka (second from left), a venerated educationist, legislator and a powerful advocate for the Partition of Bengal, hosts the session of the All India Muhammadan Educational Conference in Dhaka; a session that leads to the foundation of the All India Muslim League.

Sir Sultan Mohammed Shah Aga Khan III (third from left), the spiritual head of the Ismaili community worldwide, plays a formative role in the founding of the All India Muslim League and serves as President from 1907 to 1913. He later becomes president of the League of Nations.

Founding members of the All India Muslim League Dawn White Star Archives

Founding members of the All India Muslim League Dawn White Star Archives

 The founding members of the All India Muslim League above and below at the baradari of Shah Bagh in Dhaka on December 30, 1906.

The image below shows Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar seated on the front row, second from left, and his brother Maulana Shaukat Ali, sixth from left, same row.

The All India Muslim League which grows from the vision of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan at Aligarh will spearhead the creation of Pakistan in 1947.

Founding members of the All India Muslim League Dawn White Star Archives The founding members of the All India Muslim League above and below at the baradari of Shah Bagh in Dhaka on Dec

Founding members of the All India Muslim League  Dawn White Star Archives


The road to partition. — Excerpted with permission from Witness to Life and Freedom, Roli Books, Delhi

The road to partition: Excerpted with permission from Witness to Life and Freedom, Roli Books, Delhi

As Partition approaches in 1947, large convoys of Sikh and Hindu refugees head towards East Punjab, and Muslims flee to the two wings of Pakistan. This photo captures the tail end of this momentous period.

By courtesy: This content has been independently produced by Dawn Media Group. UBL has paid for association with the content.


Indira Gandhi

Indiraji: an enigmatic and complex personality

Mrs. Gandhi was a multi-faceted person, who could at the same time be complex and simple, familiar and aloof, haughty and humble, sociable and lonely, tough and vulnerable, gentle and harsh, and many other things.

In a letter to Dorothy Norman dated 20 September 1959, Mrs. Gandhi wrote:

Are most people not just a split personality but several personalities? I feel I am and I have learnt to make all the separate personalities quite friendly with each other. But I still don’t know how to present them to the world. Different people see different me-s! — Indira Gandhi by Dorothy Norman

I am not sure if these traits were as friendly to each other as Mrs. Gandhi claims. However, interaction with different people brought out different aspects of her personality, and they assessed her accordingly.  She had an inner quality which remained untouched by the outer turmoil she faced, and there was a tremendous amount of turmoil in her life. Armed with this inner strength, she withstood many storms, both political and personal. At the same time, she could be vulnerable too. These were the many paradoxes in her life and personality. She was a loner; she shut herself in but didn’t shut others out. Actually, she had a wide circle of contacts and maintained relationships even with distant relatives and friends from her school days, and she participated in their joys and sorrows.

Benazir Bhutto with Shri Y.S. Parmar, chief minister of Himachal Pradesh, and the author in Shimla, 1972

Mrs Gandhi and the author at the Parthenon in Athens, Greece 1983

Mrs Gandhi with Melina Mercouri, Greek minister of culture and film actress, at the amphitheatre in Epidaurus, Greece, 1983

While Mrs. Gandhi could talk quite intimately with people, and this led some to form an impression that she was close to them, this was not necessarily so; an inner distance was always maintained. Another of her traits was that sometimes, when meeting a person with whom she was diffident about interacting, she would keep quiet and make notes or doodles. She generally kept her views close to her chest.

She was not a feminist, but proved the point through actions rather than words. Any reference to her as a woman prime minister used to irritate her. Mary Carras offers an interesting insight:

In her political demeanour [Mrs.] Gandhi rarely revealed any of the ‘feminine’ traits ascribed to women . . . In her public persona, she did not fit the female model as ‘nurturer’ or peacemaker. But in her dress and . . . bearing, she was very feminine . . . In the privacy of her home, with her children and especially grandchildren, she was decidedly a ‘nurturer’.

An important aspect of her personality, and so naturally of her work, was her quiet, subtle and unostentatious way of working. This was also reflected in the simple, natural, and yet aesthetic environment of her surroundings. Simplicity and economy were the keys to her personality. Her capacity for economy was visible in all aspects of her character and personality, even in her body movements and the way she packed for travel. She was often dissatisfied and irritated with the packing done by others and felt they wasted space. She often took out everything and repacked the bag herself in such a way that many more things could be accommodated.

The quality of economy was especially evident in her writing. She had the ability to grasp the essence and weed out the superfluous. She would have made a good editor. I noticed this right away when I started to work for her and was a one-person secretariat! A draft put up to her would come back chiselled, sharper in focus, with all verbosity slashed away. She was quite allergic to pompous, verbose and flowery language, which she felt generally diffused the meaning and power of the language. She liked to be provided the basic material, the inputs and the draft, but she then used them as raw material, as the craftsperson does to mould and shape the text to her own liking. She often rejected suggestions but negating them would often ignite her own creativity and expression. She worked on revising her special speeches and letters, even to children, until she was fully satisfied. In some cases, this would take hours and sometimes even days.

She was a quick reader and went through papers and books at quite a speed. At the same time, one felt that her reading was not superficial and that she had comprehended the essential points. Intrigued, I once asked her how she managed to do this. She said that first she skimmed over the words to get the sense. If the idea or language interested her, she then went over the text more slowly. Although the scope and amount of her work changed over the years, her style of work more or less remained the same. Work, leisure and family duties were never compartmentalized, but they flowed into each other. She worked best when many streams of activity interacted with each other, and while working with one task she could attend to numerous other activities as well.  For her, work and relaxation were intertwined, and she did not need separate periods to rest and relax. However, relaxation did not mean long periods of doing nothing. It was really doing something different, even if this was for a short time, such as reading, arranging flowers, sorting books or clothes or even watching television. While having lunch she often did crossword puzzles, which also perhaps helped her to defuse the tension, to relax, and to sort out her ideas.

Her day and her work did not have strict divisions. How much she could do in a day was amazing. With her organized and disciplined mind and her ability to grasp the essential without wasting time or energy, she could do much more in twenty-four hours than most people generally manage to do. She also followed an exercise regimen. If she could not get the time in the morning, she would do it on her return from the office in the evening.

Mrs. Gandhi was a very frugal eater. She used to have coffee, toast with honey, and fruit for breakfast while working in her room. Lunch consisted of simple Indian food in a ‘thali‘, eaten with the family in the dining room. Dinner was again light-fish or egg, steamed or baked vegetables–often in her room unless the whole family was eating together. She was not keen on desserts and watched her weight.

As Mrs. Gandhi’s mind worked all the time and since it was sometimes not
possible for her to convey her instructions and comments personally to the person concerned, she would often leave slips of paper for them.  Her interest in books stayed with her from her childhood till the end. She was happy in their company and liked to be in touch with the latest thoughts and writings. Even if she travelled out of Delhi for a day, books would accompany her. Books and journals would collect in her room over a period of time. Mrs. Gandhi’s powers of observation were quite extraordinary. Even when her mind was involved in serious business, she never failed to observe minute details of the people and the environment around her. Sometimes we would be together at a place and on our return, she would refer to many points of interest which, to my embarrassment, I had not noticed. Her sense of humour was subtle, often going above the heads of others.

However, to say that Mrs. Gandhi was always pleasant and good-humoured would not be true. There were many rough edges to her personality. The pressures she faced often produced irritation and eruptions of temper. While Panditji also used to lose his temper, with him it was like a cloudburst which subsided immediately and there was a blue sky thereafter. It was not always so with Mrs. Gandhi. She could nurse grudges for quite a long time and some lasted all her life. Sometimes she would become cool towards a person who would often be unaware of having given cause for offense, thus leading to an uncomfortable atmosphere. One learnt to give her time and space.

After she became the prime minister, however, such moods decreased because she became completely involved in many activities in her own right. This gave her not only a sense of fulfilment but also left her with less time to brood over hurts and grievances. Still, the tendency did not disappear, and though it was not always visible, it was sometimes, reflected in her behaviour in the political field as well.

Mrs. Gandhi was humane, compassionate, and sensitive, but she did not find it easy to be large-hearted and generous. Possibly that is why she especially admired her grandfather, Motilal Nehru, who had these qualities in abundance.

She took her work–political and official–in her stride and it did not submerge the feminine side of her personality, which extended to different areas, ranging from her interests in hospitality and interior decoration to personal grooming.

In spite of her tremendous work schedule, Mrs. Gandhi managed to retain her grace and elegance, which had both external and internal aspects. There was nothing sloppy about her. No doubt she had an eye for beautiful saris but she also possessed the ability to carry them off with élan, which many women do not have. During her visits abroad, Mrs. Gandhi’s dress sense and her well-turned-out appearance were admired. She, of course, had a natural elegance, but for the trips abroad much planning was involved behind the scene. A chart was prepared indicating the different occasions she would be attending. Mrs. Gandhi’s saris and accessories were decided upon with great care with her concurrence, and these were then entered into the chart in different columns. This resulted in no wastage of time, as everything was planned and her clothes and accessories were kept ready for her rushed schedule.

How does one sum up Mrs. Gandhi’s personality?

According to Mary Carras she mirrored India in many ways: in the contradictions within her personality, her penchant for synthesis, and her singular ability to evoke both hate and love — to alienate and to charm, to frustrate and simultaneously to delight. Carras adds that the motivation of her personality blended in unique ways with opportunities offered, by her culture and that only in the interaction between her environment and her personality can her political behaviour and outlook be understood.

Of course, this is only one interpretation. Mrs. Gandhi was an enigmatic and complex person, and there are bound to be many different interpretations concerning her.

Very early on, I realized that to preserve a relationship with our friend [Mrs. Gandhi] it was essential to preserve, or build up a certain detachment, otherwise one would inevitably become vulnerable to being hurt, not intentionally, but because friend is moody (letter dated 28 August 1983)Marie Seton

Complex facets of her personality emerged: one intimate, leisurely and provocatively intelligent with the strongest inclination for the company of creative people, the other side, businesslike cool in appearance and with a swift withdrawal to irritability . . . Panditji by Marie Seton

It was hard to decide if he was a very handsome man in a hacked out sculptural manner, or if he was distinctly devilish to look at. As a personality, he might have walked out of a primeval forest, . . . But in contradiction to this primal quality . . . his intellect was tempered to the most scintillating impersonal steel . . . It crossed my mind that this man might be possessed of a streak of what is called genius. –Marie Seton on V.K. Krishna Menon

Although he genuinely admired his father-in-law, he thought there was something counterfeit in the cult developing around Nehru. He intensely disliked being introduced as ‘the Prime Minister’s son-in-law,’ . . . This only encouraged him all the more to establish his own identity. As Indira found a substitute satisfaction in attending to her father’s needs, Feroze sublimated his energies in attending to the needs of his constituents and to parliamentary affairsIndira Gandhi: A Personal and Political Biography by Anand Mohan

He hated protocol, state banquets, formality in any shape or form . . . The children, under his care, would not have been so bedazzled by their proximity to power . . . Indira had grown up at a time when India was engaged in [the freedom] struggle . . . Rajiv and Sanjay by contrast were brought up in the shadow of power politics
The Nehrus and the Gandhis: An Indian Dynasty by Tariq Ali

She was charged with a fierce sense of responsibility. Mrs. Gandhi said, “I was looking after myself from the time I was three or four, and whether I was or not, I thought I was looking after my parents.” It was this feeling that made her fiercely protective when she saw her mother slighted or neglected or pushed into the background–Indira by Katherine Frank

When I went to live with my father at Teen Murti House, the residence of the Prime Minister, it wasn’t really a choice. My father asked me to come and to set up the house for him. There was nobody else to do it. So I set up the house, bit I resisted every inch of the way about becoming a hostess. I was simply terrified of the so-called social duties . . . I used to stay for a period of time and then go . . . It was a real problem because, naturally Feroze didn’t always appreciate my going away. I was living about half the month in Lucknow and half in Delhi, until Feroze became a member of the Parliament.Indira Gandhi, My Truth. 

For many months following Feroze’s death, Indira retreated into herself. When Indira was at last able to speak about his death, she said to me that it would have been a far greater tragedy for her had she and Feroze not discovered a revived understanding of each other during their month alone in Kashmir. This was her salvation. She confessed that on the day he died and people crowded about her, their sympathy only made her feel more alone in her stunned condition. Panditji by Marie Seton

I am sorry to have missed the most wonderful thing in life, having a complete and perfect relationship with another human being . . . for only thus, I feel, can one’s personality fully develop and blossomIndira Gandhi by  Dorothy Norman,

In February 1967 Mrs. Gandhi was on a tour of Orissa, and while she was giving a speech in Bhubaneshwar, some rowdy young people threw stones to disturb the meeting. A stone hit Mrs. Gandhi on the face and a nasal bone was cracked. When she returned to Delhi, she looked quite a sight and had to be in the hospital for a couple of days. Her vanity had been hurt by the injury, and being always conscious of her long nose, she wrote Dorothy Norman half in jest:

“Ever since plastic surgery was heard of, I have been wanting to get something done to my nose . . . I thought the only way it could be done without the usual hoo-ha was first to have some slight accident which would enable me to have it put right. But as you know, things never happen the way one wants them to.”

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Mrs Gandhi in the Lidder river in Pahalgam, Jammu & Kashmir, 1956


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By courtesy: Indiraji by Usha Bhagat, Published by the Penguin Group, Toronto Ontario 2005


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