‘To retain goodwill in Bangladesh, India planned strategy to end 1971 war’

A date to pull out Indian troops from what would be Bangladesh was agreed upon with the country’s leadership even before Indian troops entered the country in December 1971 to free it from West Pakistani clutches. This was critical to ensure that India retained its goodwill in Bangladesh, former Indian diplomat Chandrashekhar Dasgupta, says in his new book India and the Bangladesh Liberation War as the two countries celebrate 50 years of the liberation of Bangladesh. Excerpts from an interview:

India prepared for nine months for a war that lasted for about nine days; you are all praise for the manner in which a committee of secretaries functioned and delivered all that was expected of them in close coordination with the military leadership. How did this happen?

The government machinery functioned effectively because India had a grand strategy, arguably for the first and only time since 1947. My book shows how in April-May 1971, India formulated a comprehensive plan, which encompassed military, diplomatic and domestic initiatives, with the aim of bringing the Bangladesh liberation war to a successful conclusion by the end of the year. The committee of secretaries worked to this plan in coordination with the armed forces.

How would you compare India’s Bangladesh mission with that of the IPKF going to Sri Lanka in 1987. Specifically, you refer to how India was seen to have an end date even before the war began for its troops to return home from Bangladesh.

Strategic planners often fail to work out a clear exit strategy before they send troops into a foreign country. Let’s take a few examples outside India, in the case of the U.S., for example, the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, all provide sobering examples of what happens in the absence of a clear exit strategy. Now, in our own case, when planning the Sri Lanka operation in 1987, we seemed to have a vague idea that our troops could be brought home quite soon, but obviously they had no clear plan. In 1971, it was very different. While drawing up plans for joint operations with the Bangladesh authorities — this was in November — we pressed them to indicate the earliest date by which our troops could be withdrawn. When [Sheikh] Mujib passed through Delhi in January, Mrs. [Indira] Gandhi seized the opportunity to discuss the question with him and, in February, Mujib and Mrs. Gandhi agreed on March 31,1972, as the date for completing the withdrawal. Subsequent to that, on Mrs. Gandhi’s request, the date was advanced to March 15. I think it was very, very important to withdraw our troops as soon as it became possible, not only because we wanted our boys back home, but also because they earned goodwill for us in Bangladesh. If our troops were to stay on in Bangladesh for an indefinite period, I think we would have lost much of the goodwill that we earned in December 1971.

You point out that India’s external Intelligence Agency R&AW, in the form of its chief R.N. Kao, had correctly assessed that the West Pakistan establishment would never accept a dominant role for the Eastern wing. Did this in any way affect Indian preparations to help in the creation of Bangladesh?

The R&AW chief Kao offered the assessment that the Pakistan Army and the West Pakistan establishment would never accept a dominant role for Bengalis of the eastern wing. This assessment was offered after the Awami League won an absolute majority of seats in the Pakistan National Assembly elections, which took place in December 1970. And right up to March 25, there was a debate within the Government of India as to whether this was going to lead to the break-up of Pakistan, the fact that the democratic verdict was not going to be honoured by the West Pakistan establishment and the army. In the course of this debate, the Ministry of External Affairs, at least most officers in the MEA, the head of the Pakistan division was an exception, they felt that while a break-up was certainly on the cards — it was certainly possible but not quite inevitable. Some sort of accommodation could be worked out between Mujib and [Zulfiqar Ali] Bhutto, which would allow Bhutto to be in effective control of West Pakistan, while the East and the Centre lay with Mujib. Likewise, an arrangement could be worked out between Mujib and the Army, because the Army’s principal concern was that it should have what it regarded as its legitimate share of the budget. And indeed, during the course of the next two months some tentative attempts were made in these directions, but they didn’t work out. The MEA and the prime minister’s office felt that the only hope of a breakthrough in India-Pakistan relations as a whole lay in the Awami League forming a government in Islamabad as the Pakistan Army and the West Pakistan establishment were so fixated on a policy of perpetual hostility towards India. But if the Bengalis of the East, who didn’t have this sort of hangup, were to form the kernel of a government at the Centre, then there was hope of addressing issues in a reasonable way. The hope that the Awami League would be allowed to form a government at the Centre was dashed on March 25 when the Pakistan Army launched a savage crackdown in which hundreds of thousands were killed and 10 million Bengalis were driven across the borders as refugees in India.

Can you specifically tell us about the role of Mrs. Gandhi’s principal secretary P.N. Haksar, who by all accounts in your book played a key role in planning and implementing this grand strategy?

Mrs. Gandhi largely followed the advice of a set of advisers led by P.N. Haksar, but including also P.N. Dhar, R.N. Kao, the Foreign Secretary T.N. Kaul, on the civilian side, and all these people worked in very close coordination with General [Sam] Maneckshaw, the Army chief. The principal adviser certainly was Haksar. And it was Haksar who selected D.P. Dhar to coordinate with Bangladesh. Mrs. Gandhi, in most cases, followed their advice. Not in all cases.For example, her advisers favoured signing the treaty of friendship with the Soviet Union even before [U.S. Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger had returned from Beijing. Mrs. Gandhi held out. And what tipped the balance was what Kissinger told the Indian ambassador in Washington, L.K. Jha –words to the effect that we should not count on American understanding if China were to move troops to the Indian border in the event that war broke out between India and Pakistan.

The credit for 1971 does not go to any single individual, not to Mrs. Gandhi, not to Maneckshaw. It’s shared by innumerable people. Certainly,a great share of the credit goes to Mrs. Gandhi for her indomitable leadership. And, even more than that, for taking the Opposition into confidence. To the extent possible, she rose above the temptation of depicting the victory as a personal triumph or a triumph for her party. At the end of the war, she made it a point to pay tribute on the floor of Parliament, not only to the soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the victory, but to the Opposition parties for their understanding and cooperation during the war. Her biggest contribution was that she made it a national effort, not simply an individual triumph. There were millions of people, often very poor people, who welcomed the refugees, who were prepared to share the little that they had with the hapless refugees. The credit for our success in 1971 goes to all these people — it was a national plan.

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