India and the Bangladesh Liberation War review: The question of grand strategy

The most significant conceptual argument a former diplomat makes in his book is how Indian policymakers stitched together a multidimensional plan for the liberation of Bangladesh

March 05, 2022 04:05 pm | Updated 04:05 pm IST

The story of India’s military victory over Pakistan in Bangladesh is celebrated year after year as an example of India’s military power, the political decisiveness of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, how the Nixon administration in the U.S. failed to “scare off the Indians”, and how the erstwhile Soviet Union stood by India through the entire crisis.

Then there are unfair criticisms and baseless myths: how the political class (led by Mrs. Gandhi) did not manage to convert the military victory into a political one in Simla on the Kashmir question, and that India had wanted to break up Pakistan as soon as the crisis in East Pakistan had started.

Former Indian diplomat Chandrashekhar Dasgupta’s brilliantly researched and equally well-written new book India and the Bangladesh Liberation War is a conclusive response to many of those lingering criticisms and myths. On whether India had pre-planned the break-up of Pakistan, Dasgupta argues, quite convincingly and with solid evidence, that “far from planning to break up Pakistan, Indian policymakers hoped, right up to 25 March 1971, for a peaceful transition to democracy in Pakistan and the installation of an Awami League-led government in Islamabad.”

The Kashmir issue

But the real contribution of the book, in my opinion, is how Dasgupta debunks the fallacious but popular argument in India that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had sweet-talked Mrs. Gandhi into not pressing for a conversion of the Line of Control (then Ceasefire Line or CFL) into an international border in exchange for the 90,000-odd prisoners of war under India’s command at the time. Dasgupta argues that “at every stage in the Simla conference, India specifically reserved a final settlement of the Kashmir issue for future meetings. India did, indeed, push for an eventual settlement on the basis of the Line of Control, but Indira Gandhi feared that an immediate agreement on these lines would expose her to the charge that she had ‘surrendered’ Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.”

Let me explain this argument a little more. While India did not push for the conversion of the CFL (or ceasefire line) into an international border, it managed to gain several diplomatic victories at Simla. For one, the change of the nomenclature of the line from CFL to LoC meant that since December 1971 Jammu and Kashmir has a new dividing line. This, according to India, means that the United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP) which was monitoring the CFL since 1949 had no role to play in Kashmir after the Simla agreement was signed since the UNMOGIP was not party to the creation of the LoC, and the CFL which was monitored by the UN group didn’t exist anymore. Secondly, by agreeing to “to settle their differences by peaceful means through bilateral negotiations or by any other peaceful means mutually agreed upon between them”, India also ensured that the Kashmir conflict ceased to be internationalised but became a bilateral one. Dasgupta not only sheds sufficient light on the rationale behind Mrs. Gandhi’s decision at Simla to not push for a conversion of the CFL into an international border but has effectively laid the controversy to rest.

One could, however, argue that the victorious Indian side could have pushed for the delineation of the Siachen Glacier area. Recall that the LoC has only been delineated to a point called NJ 9842 (by the 1949 Karachi agreement) which is the root cause of the current dispute over the glacier. Had India, in 1972, pushed for delineating the LoC beyond NJ 9842, the Siachen dispute would not have arisen in the first place. But then perhaps it was not possible to foresee the dispute in 1972.

Freedom for a country

Perhaps the most significant conceptual argument that Dasgupta makes, with solid evidence again, is how Indian policymakers stitched together a multidimensional grand strategy to achieve the liberation of Bangladesh. Dasgupta defines grand strategy as “a comprehensive and coordinated plan for employing all the resources available to a state — diplomatic, military and economic — to achieve a defined political objective”. The book also, somewhat indirectly, prompts one to raise several questions about India and its experiments with grand strategy.

There is little doubt that what we witnessed in 1971 was one of those rare moments when India articulated and implemented a grand strategy. The Kargil conflict was another example when India was able to press its military, political and diplomatic resources to successfully beat back Pakistani territorial aggression. These were of course crisis moments and India performed well. Yet what is it about us that we manage to get our act together only when there is a crisis? For sure, a crisis demands a grand strategic response, but the real test of a country’s ability to adopt grand strategic responses is whether it is able to do so consistently, thoughtfully, and in the long term, in less politically riveting situations.

At the end of the book, I was left wanting a little more on the decades that followed Bangladesh’s liberation, reasons behind India’s inability to cement its strong relationship with Dhaka, among other things. Nevertheless, Dasgupta’s book is a masterclass on India’s role in the Bangladesh liberation war and must be read by every observer of Indian diplomacy and foreign affairs. This book, along with his earlier tome, War and Diplomacy in Kashmir, 1947-48, makes him one of the best diplomat historians of our times.

India and the Bangladesh Liberation War; Chandrashekhar Dasgupta, Juggernaut, ₹625.

The reviewer teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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