File photo of Indira Gandhi
File photo of Indira Gandhi | Commons
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Despite a domestic national election at home, Delhi was fully cognizant of the dramatic internal crisis in Pakistan’s body politic. There is also evidence to suggest that some of the ingredients of an interventionist strategy might have already been in place before events in East Pakistan exploded. Internal communications reveal two competing images. One image was represented by R.N. Kao, Chief of R&AW and Indira Gandhi’s trusted confidante, who perceived the crisis in more ominous terms and advocated an advantageous realpolitik to exploit Pakistan’s internal fissures. A second image was represented by sections in the MEA, who perceived the crisis in more benign terms and advocated a non-interventionist posture. Interestingly, as early as 1969, Kao had been arguing that East Pakistan was poised for deeper turmoil and possible secession and that India ‘should be prepared for it’. And his perceptions got stronger as the crisis came closer. In an April 1969 intelligence cable, he had foreseen an impending crisis across the border:

The authorities would have to resort to large-scale use of the Army and other paramilitary forces in East Pakistan to curb a movement, which has already gained considerable strength. The use of force is likely, in turn, to lead to a situation where the people of East Pakistan, supported by elements of the East Bengal Rifles (who are known to be sympathetic towards the secessionist movement as evidenced from the recent East Pakistan Conspiracy Case), may rise in revolt against the Central Authority and even declare their independence … although this possibility may not be immediate at present, it would be desirable that the Government of India should think about the policy it should adopt in such an eventuality and keep its options open.

Kao’s implied advice to exploit a crisis should it arise seems to fit comfortably with Indira Gandhi’s security seeker role. In contrast, the higher levels of the MEA were taking a more conservative view. Senior officials argued that Pakistan’s unity was in India’s interest, and hoped that the Awami League would emerge as the dominant political voice of a unified Pakistan, which in turn would change Pakistan’s external behaviour towards India. A classic exposition of this view was reflected in India’s then high commissioner to Islamabad, Krishna Acharya, who cabled Delhi on 2 December 1970 shortly after elections had been held in Pakistan. Given the relentless hostility of a West Pakistani-dominated government, Acharya argued that majority control of the National Assembly by the Bengalis seemed ‘to be our only hope for achieving our policy objectives towards Pakistan and overcoming this stonewall resistance of West Pakistan’. And, ‘in order that this hope may become a reality, however, it is essential that Pakistan (with its East Pakistan majority) should remain one, so that we may pursue our policy objectives through the leaders of East Pakistan’.

Not only did the Indian envoy espouse the virtues of Pakistani unity, albeit reformed under the influence of moderate Bengalis, he underscored the grave dangers and geopolitical risks of an independent Bangladesh, which might demand unity with India’s adjacent province of West Bengal, and that such a united Bengal was likely to come under the influence of pro-China Naxalites. Acharya warned that India’s ‘strategic and defence problems will be multiplied manifold’ by a breakup of Pakistan. Foreign Secretary T.N. Kaul also felt ‘that India should do nothing to encourage the separation of East Pakistan from West Pakistan but he added that it did not lie in India’s hands to stop it’. Sections of the mainstream media too favoured non-interference. For example, Girilal Jain, a leading journalist, suggested that ‘two propositions—a declaration of interest in Pakistan’s unity and an attempt to persuade the two superpowers not to interfere in its affairs’—could serve as policy guidelines as they did for Nehru.

The above belief from the MEA was a more passive and conservative outlook compared to Kao’s strategic activism, and arguably more consistent with Nehru’s conflict avoidance images. These two competing worldviews again reflected in a 6 January 1971 inter-agency meeting attended by senior MEA and R&AW officials. Kao argued that Bengali national aspirations had deep roots and were at a point of no return, with neither the Awami League nor West Pakistani leaders likely to find common ground after the League’s extraordinary electoral success. The Pakistan Army, moreover, would reject a fundamental change in Pakistani politics and would attempt to re-seize control of the situation. Kao defined the policy problem, as he had suggested in 1969: that India should prepare itself for the succession of East Bengal and develop a capacity to assist the liberation movement to achieve early success.

Kao was supported in this assessment by an MEA official, Asoke Ray, who concurred that a secessionist movement would advance India’s interests. This policy option was challenged by Acharya and another senior diplomat, S.K. Banerji, who argued that succession was not a foregone conclusion, and the Pakistani system’s ability to find a rational arrangement that preserved a unified state could not be ruled out. Why is it that the same material situation was being perceived by two such contrasting perspectives? It appears that Nehru’s core images regarding conflict avoidance and a reluctance to disturb the geopolitical status quo in the subcontinent were still strong in sections of the MEA. These officials perceived and defined events with an eye on stability and tension reduction as Nehru had done in the first East Bengal crisis in 1950. The competing images, embodied by Kao and Ray, were more consistent with Indira Gandhi’s beliefs, where the impulse to reshape the subcontinent’s order, coercively if necessary, was a natural reaction to Pakistan’s domestic problems.


Also read: New book claims Indira Gandhi wanted to recapture Pak-occupied Kashmir after 1971 war


By mid-January 1971, Kao’s perceptions were growing stronger and finding resonance with his colleagues at the apex. In a 14 January assessment, he noted that ‘hard liners’ in the military, the ‘privileged bureaucrats’, and ‘feudal interests’ might exert pressure on General Yahya Khan, the President and Army Chief, to try and reverse the trend towards the transfer of power to the Awami League. However, the Bengalis ‘and even some sections of the people in the Western Wing, would not be hoodwinked by such tactics’. Kao also highlighted the possibility of a diversionary military move by Pakistan in the form of ‘an infiltration campaign into J&K’ to deflect attention from its internal problems. P.N. Haksar too had recorded his uneasiness about Pakistan. The Awami League’s victory had complicated Pakistan’s internal problems and ‘the temptation’ for ‘external adventures’ had become greater. He advised the Prime Minister to instruct the Service Chiefs for an urgent military assessment including ‘recommendations of what the requirements of each of the Services are so that we can feel a sense of security’.

Meanwhile, events on the ground were confirming Kao’s hypothesis. In mid-February, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of the Pakistan People’s Party ruled out negotiations with the Awami League to frame a new constitution and declared that his party would not attend the new National Assembly sessions. On 1 March, Yahya Khan announced a postponement of the National Assembly. Fearing a conspiracy, Mujibur Rahman responded with a call for a ‘peaceful non-cooperation’ movement, which galvanized people across East Pakistan. Indira Gandhi appears to have been persuaded by Kao’s definition of the problem because on 2 March the Prime Minister authorized the formation of a high level Committee consisting of the Cabinet Secretary, P.N. Haksar, R.N. Kao, T.N. Kaul, and the Home Secretary to examine the political, economic, and military implications of India assisting a Bangladesh liberation movement. The assessment included ‘the question whether West Pakistan would retaliate against India particularly in Kashmir’ and ‘whether there would be any military reaction on the part of China’. The R&AW Chief now sought to convince Haksar and the Prime Minister as to why India should initiate a sustained and speedy programme of assistance to the East Bengal liberation movement. While the Pakistan Army ‘may gain some temporary successes’, it would be ‘impossible for them anymore to completely crush the liberation movement’. The longer the struggle took, Kao argued, the greater were the prospects of the movement falling ‘into the hands of extremists and pro-China communists, in Bangladesh’. Hence, ‘it would be in our own interest to give aid, adequate and quick enough, to ensure the early success of the liberation movement under the control and guidance of the Awami League and its leaders’.’

It is apparent from her 2 March decision that Indira Gandhi was receptive to exploring the policy option of exploiting the crisis. This was a significant decision and is consistent with Indira Gandhi’s security seeker role. To be sure, policymakers were also being prudent by preparing for a possible diversionary ploy by Pakistan to export its internal vulnerability onto Kashmir or even the Indian heartland, as R&AW’s 14 January appreciation had indicated. Nehru too had agreed to make defensive military preparations to counteract a potential Pakistani move in Kashmir during the 1950 East Bengal crisis. This time, however, Indian intentions are clear from the apex-level Committee’s terms of reference: to examine a role in supporting the Bengali resistance inside Pakistan. The policy option being considered was not just predicated on deterrence but aimed at changing the status quo.

By mid-March, the crisis was out in the open. On 18 March, Delhi received a R&AW cable from Dhaka conveying Mujibur Rahman’s message, which repeated a ‘special appeal for help at this critical hour’. Expecting large reinforcements from West Pakistan, the Awami League leader sought Indian advice before deciding his next move. The telegram emphasized that ‘Mujib has no alternative but to fight for independence’. Haksar quickly reinforced R&AW’s recommendation and advised Indira Gandhi that India should not ‘say anything at all placatory, but be “tough” within reason’. This was ‘not the time to make gestures for friendship to Pakistan. Every such gesture will bring comfort to Yahya Khan and make the position of Mujib correspondingly more difficult … 2½ Divisions of Pak Army is poised to decimate East Bengal’.


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This excerpt from the book Power & Diplomacy: India’s Foreign Policies During the Cold War by Zorawar Daulet Singh has been published with permission from Oxford University Press.

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8 COMMENTS

    • Whether it turns out to be a blunder or not, Z.D. Singh offers very interesting insights in his book. He quotes Nehru “any interference by any other power would also be an interference in the political system of India…a thing which India cannot tolerate…and she will oppose” (Singh, Z.D., 2019: 198. Power and Diplomacy. Oxford University Press). There is a common thread in India’s foreign policy, and it has evolved as the world kept changing. Yet, some readers on this website (certainly NOT you) are obsessed with Modi government’s decision on Kashmir and view this development through the prism of Western media. While they would lament about 80 children in UP, yet throw frivolous and childish statements such as “this has been happening for 30 years” and “I have a soft corner for Pakistan, please don’t mock the country” when militants kill an innocent trader in Kashmir (post 370).

  1. When I was growing up, we were in awe of the Kashmiri Pandits. They ran India. Now we must make do with Shri Anupam Kher and Ms Aarti Tikoo Singh.

    • What is wrong with them? Nothing!! And who was in awe of someone? Nehru? Nobody except Muslim or Christian may be who are fan of Congress and it’s Anti-India politics.

    • To clarify, I meant the mandarins, diplomats, spooks. There may have been an element of favouritism in choosing them, but they proved their mettle.

    • To be in awe of a bunch of incompetent buffoons, who laid the foundations of/for the failure of the benighted country they administered requires a special kind of woolly headedness. Today India is a desperately poor country with some of the lowest HDIs on the planet due to this gang of morons.

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