The 1971 war | The liberation of Bangladesh, 50 years ago

Faced with a massive refugee problem from the east, the Indira Gandhi govt. made a host of coordinated political, diplomatic and military moves that eventually led to Pakistan’s defeat

Published - December 19, 2021 12:02 am IST

In the evening of April 10, 1971, the Kolkata station of the Radio Free Bangladesh, an offshoot of Akashvani, announced that an important news would be broadcast after 10 pm. Word spread like wildfire and people across India and Pakistan rushed to the nearest radio-owning neighbours, hoping to catch the announcement.

Late evening, the dramatic voice of Debdulal Bandyopadhyay announced that the government of independent Bangladesh had been formed under the presidency of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Syed Nazrul Islam would be the Vice President. “We will build a new Bangladesh on the ruins of the old East Pakistan,” said Tajuddin Ahmad, the Prime Minister, in a speech that electrified India and East Pakistan. It was an unprecedented moment in Indian history when the head of a Government-in-exile addressed the people of his country from the Indian government's radio network. Sharmeen Ahmad, currently an Awami League MP in Dhaka, wrote about that momentous speech in her book on her father, Tajuddin Ahmad: Neta o Pita . The speech was the the beginning of a massive public relation and psychological campaign that India would unleash over the next few months that would create a global public opinion to favour a free Bangladesh.

Fifty years later, India-Bangladesh relations, despite internal tensions and geopolitical challenges, are still on a strong wicket. Last week, when Bangladesh celebrated 50 years of its liberation from Pakistan, President Ram Nath Kovind was in Dhaka. In March, when Dhaka marked the outbreak of the conflict in 1971, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the guest of honour. Speaking at the celebratory event on December 16, President Kovind said the 1971 war “altered the ideological map of South Asia”.

The beginning

Two crises gripped India and Pakistan by the end of 1970. Indira Gandhi was dependent on the Left parties and was under constant attack from the conservative Swatantra Party. A mid-term election could work in her favour if she could secure absolute majority. On December 27, Gandhi went to President V.V. Giri and asked him to dissolve the Cabinet and call for election in February 1971.

In November 1970, East Pakistan was hit by a monstrous cyclone — Bhola. It took a few days before the devastation caused by the cyclone became known to the world. Lakhs were swept away into the sea and all properties in the path of the storm destroyed. The cyclone exposed the prejudice in the heart of the Pakistani government located in the western wing of the country. Bengalis of East Pakistan suffered without much help from Islamabad. Hurt by neglect, they voted in the December election to form a government of their choice. The Awami League (AL) won a majority of seats in the National Assembly, but President Yahya Khan and leader of the Pakistan People’s Party Zulfikar Ali Bhutto refused to allow the AL to form the government.

With each passing day, the situation in East Pakistan became tense as protests and violence continued. Finally, in the late evening of March 25, news came: the Pakistan Army had begun to disarm East Pakistan Rifles, which was mainly manned by Bengalis. Soon thereafter, Dhaka’s skies were lit up with flares and targeted killings began against those who supported the AL. That was also the evening when Mujib was arrested and flown later to Rawalpindi. On being alerted in advance by workers of the Awami League, Tajuddin Ahmad, carrying a rifle and a pistol, left for India, telling his family: “You have to look after yourself. I have to leave.”

The Government of India had been watching the developments in Bangladesh for months. As Indira returned to power with the mandate to remove poverty, her agenda was shaped by the developments in neighbouring East Pakistan. Starting with the movement of the leaders of the Awami League, millions of people began to pour into West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura. Schools, colleges, offices, railway platforms, godowns were filled up with people. Unable to contain the human flow, the Government began to set up big hollow pipes where they could stay while the Government went around distributing food and medicines.

Indira Gandhi travelled to all the bordering States and spoke in Parliament on May 24. She wanted a quick action but that could not be carried out without an adequate public relations exercise as Pakistan was supported by U.S. President Richard Nixon. She entrusted Sardar Swaran Singh, P.N. Haksar, R.N. Kao, and T.N. Kaul with various aspects of India’s approach, including secret diplomacy in the West and espionage operations. The refugees who poured in provided the foot soldiers for the Mukti Bahini that Kao, chief of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), raised.

Indira Gandhi and Swaran Singh travelled to major world capitals. Members of the western bloc, including Australia, West Germany and France, turned against Pakistan, moving away from the official American line. Gandhi visited Washington, where her meetings with President Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger were disastrous, but she gave a series of interviews that added to the anti-Pakistan public opinion.

Ronen Sen, India’s former Ambassador to the U.S., recollecting the developments, says the military and diplomatic moves of the Indira Gandhi government were equally supported by the public relations blitzkrieg that India launched.

Military solution

Indira Gandhi had placed Durga Prasad Dhar, a former politician from Kashmir, as India's Ambassador to Moscow. Assisted by young diplomats like Ronen Sen, A.K. Damodaran and Romesh Bhandari, Dhar carried out a series of negotiations with Soviet leaders for establishing military cooperation, which led to the Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty aimed at securing emergency military supplies. Just as the Pakistan military continued its campaign, Dhar and his team negotiated the Indo-Soviet treaty. During the monsoon and autumn, the Mukti Bahini was used to soften targets in East Pakistan. Armed with Second World War-era rifles and wearing blue and black lungis and white vests, the soldiers of Mukti Bahini merged among the sympathetic local farmers tending fields and carried out attacks that surprised the Pakistan military.

After the Durga Puja of 1971, Indira Gandhi focused on finding a military solution. On December 3, she came to address a rally in Kolkata. After the rally, she sat down for a cup of tea with the city’s filmmakers and writers. Her biographer Pupul Jayakar wrote the PM went missing for two hours because of the meeting.

In the meanwhile, a momentous development had happened and her office finally tracked her down in the meeting and handed over a piece of paper. Gandhi read the paper and then continued to chat calmly and finished the meeting and left for the airport. The paper informed her that the Pakistan Air Force had carried out a bombing raid in the western sector. Gandhi had ordered India’s military to be ready for war but wanted Pakistan to make the first move so that Yahya Khan could be projected as the aggressor.

For the next two hours, the PM’s aircraft flew over northern India while Pakistani bombers remained airborne . Gandhi rushed to the map room and ordered retaliation, starting an all out tri-service war — India’s first.

Ambassador Sen recollects that the war was won because Dhar had established a solid channel with the Soviets, who set up an air-bridge between Moscow and Delhi, flying in critical equipment for the Indian Army, led by Gen. Sam Maneckshaw. Top Soviet officials were stationed in Delhi to ensure India could carry out the military operation in a swift manner. Mr. Sen says the Soviets were concerned about pushing the Americans too far as that could trigger a chain reaction. On December 16, exactly 50 years ago, the war came to an end with the surrender of the Pakistan military under the command of Gen A.A.K. Niazi, before the joint India-Bangladesh forces. A free Bangladesh was born.

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