Online edition of India's National Newspaper
Sunday, Jul 03, 2005

About Us
Contact Us
Published on Sundays

Features: Magazine | Literary Review | Life | Metro Plus | Open Page | Education Plus | Book Review | Business | SciTech | Entertainment | Young World | Property Plus | Quest | Folio |


Printer Friendly Page Send this Article to a Friend

A war won against the `tilt'


What deep, dark secrets lie buried in the voluminous files, documents and other classified material that Governments everywhere zealously guard as sacred? The Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 has long been a story told with relish in India. It features a heroine, Indira Gandhi. And it has a villain, the United States of America. The judgment stands vindicated by documents of the period released recently by the U.S. Government as part of the ongoing "The Foreign Relations of the United States" series. The Foreign Relations series presents the official historical record of major policy decisions and diplomatic activity by successive U.S. Governments, and is bound by law to be published within 30 years of the events being recorded. This artic

FROM NEUTRAL TO AGGRESSIVE: Richard Nixon gradually adopted a posture of belligerent defence of Pakistan. Here, he is seen with Indira Gandhi during the welcome accorded to her at the White House on November 4, 1971. PHOTO: THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

IT had everything a best-seller could ask for — a complicated plot involving three world powers and two smaller, adversarial nations, one of them led by a tough woman Prime Minister; bizarre sub-plots; clandestine negotiations; double-faced, perfidious diplomacy; expletive-rich conversation; and finally a script that raced to a thrilling, explosive climax in ten short months.

Tragically, the Bangladesh liberation war of 1971 was not a figment of any novelist's imagination. It was for real, and fought against the backdrop of Yahya Khan's genocide against his own people: The "reign of terror," to quote an official of the United States' National Security Council Staff, was aimed at overturning the thumping mandate given to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman by the Bengali-speaking people of East Pakistan in the general election of December 1970 — the first free election conducted in the history of Pakistan. Mujib's Awami League won 167 of 169 seats in the eastern wing, giving the party an overall majority in Pakistan's 313-seat National Assembly.

On March 15, 1971, Mujib announced he was taking over the administration of East Pakistan. The Pakistan President responded by arresting Mujib and his followers and crushing the Awami League. According to U.S. Secretary of State William Rogers, the crackdown left 4,000 to 6,000 people dead in the Dacca area. Mujib put the death toll at three million. What followed was human exodus of a kind rarely seen in history. For India and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the choice was between a rock and a hard place. India was faced with a deluge of refugees — whose numbers swelled to 10 million by the close of war in December 1971 — who could not be turned away, the enormous social and financial cost of supporting them notwithstanding. A political settlement between West and East Pakistan, with Mujib in a key role, was the only way to reverse the tide but Yahya Khan would not concede an inch to Mujib. This raised the spectre of war, which, for India, meant risking the wrath of the Pro-Pakistan Richard Nixon.

Nixon's Pakistan tilt

Over the next 10 months, as Mrs. Gandhi struggled to maintain calm in the face of cascading problems — burgeoning refugee flow, mounting food bills, domestic clamour for action — the Nixon Government gradually moved from a professed "neutral" position to aggressive, belligerent defence of Pakistan. President Nixon's overt "tilt" was baffling given the enormity of Yahya Khan's crimes, and the fact that no section of the U.S. approved his policy — Congress grilled him on the humanitarian question ("the political people, Democrats and Republicans are raising hell" he told an intra-government meeting), the press hammered him and his own bureaucracy stonewalled him over and again much to his chagrin. U.S. Ambassador to India Kenneth Keating conveyed his anguish on March 29, 1971: "Am deeply shocked at massacre by Pakistan's military in East Pakistan, appalled at possibility these atrocities are being committed with American equipment and greatly concerned at U.S. vulnerability to damaging allegations of association with reign of military terror. I believe, U.S. Government should promptly, publicly and prominently deplore this brutality." A sterner message followed from the office of the U.S. Consul General in Dacca. Even the notorious Central Intelligence Agency disputed the President's negative assessment of India.

The President's single ally in the Government was Henry Kissinger — loyal to the end and the Head of State's man for all seasons, all purposes. Kissinger, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, ran numerous errands for the President: he scolded the State department for not sufficiently projecting the "tilt," he warned India in the strongest language ("if they go to war, there will be unshirted hell to pay") and alternatively cajoled and threatened the Union Soviet Socialist Republic against supporting India's war moves.

So, what explained Nixon's Pakistan obsession? After all, it was apparent to any one watching the situation that Bangla Desh was a fait accompli. On April 29, 1971, Nixon appended a hand-written note to a National Security Council decision paper: "To all hands. Don't squeeze Yahya at this time." The clue to this puzzling bias was to be found partly in Nixon's self-confessed fondness for Yahya Khan. Kissinger conveyed as much to the India-leaning Keating on June 3: " The President has a special feeling for Yahya. One cannot make policy on that basis but it is a fact of life." However, the "tilt" also owed to U.S. efforts around that time to make contact with Peking as a basis for rapprochement after decades of hostilities. Pakistan had a crucial role in this important sub-plot. Islamabad had provided a channel for communication between the U.S. and China in 1969. Nixon pursued this angle when he subsequently visited Lahore. On January 5, 1971, the U.S. President wrote to Chou-En-lai using the Islamabad link, which paid off. On April 21, 1971, (one week before Nixon's "don't squeeze Yahya" warning ), the Chinese Premier, through Yahya Khan, formally affirmed his willingness to "receive in Peking a special envoy of the President of the U.S." Needless to say, the envoy was Henry Kissinger. Nixon and Kissinger were overjoyed at this breakthrough. The President's "special envoy" left for Peking in July. Upon his return, Kissinger told Agha Hilaly, Pakistan's Ambassador to the U.S.: "Our gratitude is very great."

The pro-Pakistan "tilt" imposed peculiar obligations on the White House. President Nixon condemned India in the harshest language and lavished praise on Yahya Khan. The Indian Ambassador was always "that goddamned Ambassador." Indians were "arrogant" or "savages". With Mrs. Gandhi, Nixon's tone bordered on the abusive. In a conversation with Kissinger he agonised over not being hard enough on the Indian Prime Minister when she visited Washington on November 4, 1971: "What I'm concerned about, what I worry about is whether or not I was too easy on that goddamned woman ... This woman (expletive) us. But let me tell you she's going to pay for this." Upon this Kissinger told the President: "I should have recommended you to brutalise her privately."


The U.S. President hardened his stand against India after the December 3, 1971 air-raid on Indian airfields on the West. This despite the CIA's conclusion that Pakistan was responsible for the attacks. In a report titled, "India-Pakistan: Responsibilities for initiating hostilities on December 3, 1971," the CIA said: "It was difficult to determine conclusively which country initiated hostilities but the weight of evidence tended to support Indian claims that Pakistan struck first in the West with air strikes."

`I want the Indians blamed'

Nixon's remained stubborn: "Let's start getting some top anti-India propaganda out." At another time he told Kissinger, "let the Indians squeal, let the liberals squeal. What's wrong with that? ... I know all the arguments, that we're choosing up sides, we are not neutral. Of course we are not neutral ... We've got to make it tilt more because we know they (Indians) are totally to blame." As the end-game began, there were more hysterics. Said Nixon: "Get a White Paper out. I want the Indians blamed. We can't let these goddamn sanctimonious Indians get away. These Indians are pretty vicious."

The bias also meant that the U.S. would cut off all aid to India, military and economic, and order the U.S. carrier, Enterprise, into the Bay of Bengal. Duplicitously, the U.S. did this on the pretext of evacuating its staff in East Pakistan.

The approach was reverse with Yahya Khan. He was "decent" if politically unsmart. At a meeting of Washington Special Actions Group on September 8, 1971, State Department official Bruce Laingen made so bold as to tell Kissinger, "We're trying to dry up the pipeline (military supplies to Pakistan). That is where we stand." This was mandatory under U.S. law. Nonetheless Kissinger flared up: "You are trying to dry up the pipeline. That is where you stand. That is not where we stand. The President has ruled on this 500 times." Later, Kissinger assured Pakistan that Nixon was not placing any deadline on a possible cut off of military shipments; indeed that the U.S. was not holding a "gun at Pakistan's head".

This is not all. Forced by U.S. legislation to cut off military aid to Pakistan, Kissinger illegally arranged for transfer of fighter aircraft to Islamabad from Jordan and petitioned Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey for similar bail-out. Finally, as war broke out and the reality of "Bangla Desh" loomed large, he rushed to New York to meet with a team led by Huang Hua, Permanent Representative of the People's Republic of China to the United Nations. Why? To get China militarily involved in support of Pakistan so as to shock India and the Soviet Union. (Kissinger told Nixon : "I'm convinced that if the Chinese start to move, the Indians will be petrified.") At his meeting with the Chinese team, Kissinger beat about the bush, but eventually admitted to the gameplan: "When I sought this meeting, I did so to suggest Chinese military help, to be quite honest. That is what I had in mind ... but I did it in an indirect way."

Mrs Gandhi's moves

Unfortunately for the Nixon-Kissinger duo, things did not play out the way they wanted. Mrs. Gandhi was considerably strengthened by India's August 9, 1971 "Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation" with the USSR. She spoke her mind to the U.S. President on more than one occasion. With two days to go before signing the treaty, she told Nixon : "... it is not for us to object to the U.S. maintaining a constructive relationship with Pakistan." Then referring to suggestions that U.N. observers could induce refugees to return: "Would the League of Nations observers have succeeded in persuading the refugees who fled from Hitler's tyranny to return while the pogroms against the Jews and political opponents of Nazism continued unabated?" On December 15, 1971, she blamed the war on the failure of the world powers, including the U.S., to secure the release of Mujib. She had waited nine months. Yet " not a single worthwhile step was taken to bring this (political settlement) about." (See box)

Thus even as the Nixon-Kissinger pair raved and ranted, Mrs. Gandhi quietly accomplished the task of liberating Bangla Desh. Despite U.S. attempts to get Britain and France on board, the two countries abstained from voting in the United Nations Security Council. China was supportive but also suspicious that the U.S. did not want to dirty its hands. After consultations with Premier Chou En-lai, the Chinese team sent word through Zulfikar Ali Bhutto that they would back the U.S. on a strongly-worded Security Council resolution. There was wisely no mention of an attack on behalf of Pakistan.


The frustration increased for the President and his aide. Kissinger told Bhutto who was trying to contain the damage for Pakistan: "We are standing alone against our public opinion, against our bureaucracy at the very edge of legality."

The U.S. resolution was scathing: "With East Pakistan virtually occupied by Indian troops, a continuation of the war would take on increasingly the character of an armed attack on the very existence of a member state of the U.N. All permanent members have an obligation to end this threat to world peace on the most urgent basis." There was not a word on the genocide in East Pakistan. The resolution was not adopted because of the Soviet veto.

In the end, these theatrics hardly mattered. On December 16, 1971, at 1.30 p.m Indian time, Pakistani forces commanded by General Ameer Abdullah Khan Niazi surrendered unconditionally in Dacca. Mrs. Gandhi hailed Dacca as "the free capital of a free country." At the same time, the Indian Government announced a ceasefire on the front between India and West Pakistan. A small, tough woman had won against a blustering, threatening world power.

`We seek nothing'

Excerpts from a letter dated December 15, 1971, from

Mrs Gandhi to Richard Nixon:

"Dear Mr. President,

I am writing at a moment of deep anguish at the unhappy turn which the relations between our two countries have taken. I am setting aside all pride, prejudice and passion and trying, as calmly as I can, to analyse once again the origins of the tragedy which is being enacted.

There are moments in history when brooding tragedy and its dark shadows can be lightened by recalling great moments of the past. One such great moment which has inspired millions of people to die for liberty was the Declaration of Independence by the United States of America.

That Declaration stated that whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of man's inalienable rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, it was the right of the people to alter or abolish it.

All unprejudiced persons objectively surveying the grim events in Bangla Desh since March 25 have recognised the revolt of 75 million people, a people who were forced to the conclusion that neither their life, nor their liberty, to say nothing of the possibility of the pursuit of happiness, was available to them. The world press, radio and television have faithfully recorded the story. The most perceptive of American scholars who are knowledgeable about the affairs of this sub-Continent revealed the anatomy of East Bengal's frustrations.

The tragic war, which is continuing, could have been averted if during the nine months prior to Pakistan's attack on us on December 3, the great leaders of the world had paid some attention to the fact of revolt, tried to see the reality of the situation and searched for a genuine basis for reconciliation. I wrote letters along these lines. I undertook a tour in quest of peace at a time when it was extremely difficult to leave, in the hope of presenting to some of the leaders of the world the situation as I saw it. It was heartbreaking to find that while there was sympathy for the poor refugees, the disease itself was ignored.

War could also have been avoided if the power, influence and authority of all the States and above all the United States, had got Sheikh Mujibur Rahman released. Instead, we were told that a civilian administration was being installed. Everyone knows that this civilian administration was a farce; today the farce has turned into a tragedy ...

Mr. President, may I ask you in all sincerity: Was the release or even secret negotiations with a single human being, namely, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, more disastrous than the waging of a war?...

We are asked what we want. We seek nothing for ourselves. We do not want any territory of what was East Pakistan and now constitutes Bangla Desh. We do not want any territory of West Pakistan.

We do want lasting peace with Pakistan ... ."

Printer friendly page  
Send this article to Friends by E-Mail


Features: Magazine | Literary Review | Life | Metro Plus | Open Page | Education Plus | Book Review | Business | SciTech | Entertainment | Young World | Property Plus | Quest | Folio |

The Hindu National Essay Contest Results

The Hindu Group: Home | About Us | Copyright | Archives | Contacts | Subscription
Group Sites: The Hindu | Business Line | The Sportstar | Frontline | The Hindu eBooks | The Hindu Images | Home |

Comments to :   Copyright 2005, The Hindu
Republication or redissemination of the contents of this screen are expressly prohibited without the written consent of The Hindu