On 28 or 29 April 1971 — the exact date is unclear — Prime Minister Indira Gandhi convened a crucial cabinet meeting to discuss the crisis in “East Bengal”. The term “East Bengal” was first used in a parliamentary resolution of 29 March 1971, condemning the brutal crackdown in “East Pakistan” – a more dispassionate term used on previous occasions. The use of the term “East Bengal”, argues Chandrashekhar Dasgupta, the author of a remarkable new book on ‘India and the Bangladesh Liberation War’, showed that the prime minister was a “step ahead of her advisors”. “She had quickly grasped,” according to Dasgupta – an Indian diplomat who served in Bangladesh between 1972 and 1974 – that Pakistani President Yahya Khan’s heavy-handed tactics “had delivered the final death blow to Pakistan’s unity.”
To discuss the crackdown and India’s approach to the same, General Sam Manekshaw – then Indian Chief of Army Staff – was invited to the 28/29 April meeting. Others included foreign minister Swaran Singh, possibly defence minister Jagjivan Ram, prime minister’s adviser P.N. Haksar, and others.
What previous accounts tell
According to Gandhi’s biographers, such as Pupul Jayakar, the following exchange took place between the prime minister and her Army Chief: “Refugees are pouring in,” Gandhi made clear. “You [Manekshaw] must stop them. If necessary, move into East Pakistan but stop them.” In response, the Army Chief, according to other sources, stated: “I guarantee 100 per cent defeat” if the Indian Army was asked to immediately intervene.
Accordingly, Indira Gandhi is said to have been swayed against intervention in the summer of 1971. Take this logic a step forward and it could be deduced – as many have – that India averted military defeat because of Sam Manekshaw. To be sure, this exchange – recounted in numerous secondary accounts – has become something of a living myth. The archival document for this meeting remains classified. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) is said to have digitised the records – but nothing has been transferred to the National Archives, as yet – to the best of my knowledge.
An alternate view…
Dasgupta sets the record straight. Maneskshaw, “a gifted raconteur,” argues the former diplomat-turned-historian, “circulated a colourful tale about how he had restrained Mrs Gandhi from ordering the Indian Army to march into East Pakistan in April.” This description – that takes-up a couple of paragraphs in this monumental effort of 250 pages – has set the scene for all sorts of literary interventions.
According to Arjun Subramaniam, a former Air Vice Marshall and the celebrated author of two fantastic volumes on India’s Wars, Dasgupta does a little more than “undermine” an “iconic” Army Chief.
For Subramaniam, the suggestion that the Prime Minister and not the Army Chief played a more significant role in those testing summer days seems preposterous. To an extent, the outrage is understandable. For many, especially those who served in the Indian military, Dasgupta’s interpretations are emblematic of a particular homily in the larger literature in civil-military relations that consistently undermines the agency of the Indian military.
Yet, in this case, Dasgupta appears to have got it more right than wrong. Doing so does in no way take away from Sam Manekshaw’s fundamental contributions to this nation. In fact, continuing to place the spotlight on this narrow episode in history, a mere slice of Manekshaw’s role in the 1971 War, does more to undermine an icon that many of us have grown-up with.
…and the rationale behind it
There are at least two sets of reasons that support Dasgupta’s claim that Indira Gandhi had already made-up her mind about the need to delay military intervention, prior to the meeting on 28/29 April. Further, much like any policy process, thinking around an eventual military intervention evolved over the next seven months. To understand the development of policy, the archival records are clear – and easily available in at least half-a-dozen libraries around the world. Declassification of the MEA’s records is of course desirable, but it is not essential to understand the motives behind India’s decision to wait to intervene until December 1971.
First, from the beginning of April 1971, Swaran Singh encouraged restraint. Garnering international support against Yahya’s regime and for an intervention was on the top of the Indian foreign minister’s agenda. D. P. Dhar, the Indian ambassador to the Soviet Union had reported that Moscow’s support was unclear. He and his deputies had only begun re-exploring the potential of a ‘Treaty of Friendship’, first mooted by Russia in 1969. It was signed on 9 August 1971. The treaty was seen by many as a diplomatic shield that sought to protect India from American, Chinese and Pakistani collective actions. Yet, as Dasgupta highlights in his book, until November, the Soviet leadership was divided on its support to India. Andrei Gromyko had also conveyed to his American counterparts, early-on in June and July, that the Treaty could in fact restrain India (these correspondences are available in College Park, in the United States National Archives.) None of this was lost on Dhar.
In fact, as Srinath Raghavan makes clear in his magnificent treatise on The Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh, both Gandhi and Haksar believed – as early as the end of March 1971 – that “interference in events internal to Pakistan will not earn us either understanding or goodwill from the majority of nation-states.” It was imperative to design an international campaign to win global support. This is exactly what transpired over the following six months. The primary objective of the campaign was to convince capitals around the world of the “genocide” being carried out in East Bengal. Gandhi did not fail to use exactly these terms in interviews she gave across Europe and the United States.
Second, Jagjivan Ram – the defence minister – and others cautioned Gandhi about the potential role China could play in the event of an early intervention. This line of thinking deepened following Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to Peking in July 1971. The treaty with Russia was seen, in some quarters, as a deterrent that could keep the Chinese at bay. Further, as mentioned above, it was understood to provide a degree of cover in the event of Chinese, American, and Pakistani collusion. Evidence of this collusion became clearer to Swaran Singh in June, when he visited the United States and learnt of American arms shipments to Pakistan.
In the end, the deliberations that took place on 28/29 April made clear, as J. N. Dixit writes, that an “evolutionary policy stance” was to be adopted. The objective, according to Dixit, was to leave open the “freedom to exercise the military option if interim measures taken did not resolve the East Pakistan crisis.” Maneskshaw, without doubt, played a part in the policy stance that grew out of these deliberations. However, it is also clear that Gandhi did not need to be convinced of the decision to reconsider an early intervention. That call had already been taken by her. It was shaped by her advisors, her cabinet and re-confirmed – for more logistical reasons – by her Army Chief.
The author is the director of Carnegie India. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)