The decision to award Indira Gandhi, PM of India in 1971 is a very positive one. It recognises her role as an ally in Bangladesh’s war of independence. The award not only recognises her role in that critical year but also recognises the close proximity of two histories, Indian and Bangladeshi. The two countries didn’t fight a common war though they had a common enemy and the results were victories for both. It is in knowing that while there were two different objectives but a common purpose that should drive away many misconceptions about who helped whom and why. Both served each other’s interest and both should remain obliged to each other.
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Disagreements as to whose war it was have been with us for long but there is little doubt that Indira Gandhi fought her war better than all others. She was enormously lucky too that Pakistan under the Generals had decided to act so unintelligently during her reign and gave her the opportunity to bring home the greatest trophy any Indian PM could hope for politically — the break up of Pakistan.
However, the conclusion of the situation was never certain and it is to her credit that she managed to bring home the shield after the battle against all odds. She served India brilliantly and in doing so also helped Bangladesh achieve its own objective.
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Was Indira prepared for what happened in Dhaka in March? There is little to suggest that she did as research says that Bangladeshi partisans fighting Pakistan in the days of April who crossed over to seek support from India were turned away by local officials saying that they had no order from their authorities. Agartala and other areas which received the first burst of refugees were totally unprepared and the system was immediately overwhelmed.
Most significantly, when Tajuddin Ahmed and his fellow traveller Amirul Islam reached India, they were taken into custody and only after their identity was confirmed that Tajuddin was flown to Delhi to meet Indira Gandhi for what was to be a fateful meeting. It was here that the decision to support the Bangladesh cause must have been taken and this encounter was certainly historic. Any record of what transpired between the two is available but it must be with the Indians and one wishes it was given to us as a memento of shared history.
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Indira faced several challenges both within and outside India. Within her political circle, a major pressure came from her West Bengal supporters who wanted immediate intervention. Other voices lent their muscle to this demand but she withstood it and one reason of course that India was not ready to strike. Her army brass including its chief Gen. Sam Maneckshaw had informed that an effective attack was not possible at once and the level of logistical support that was needed to ensure a quick victory was missing.
She moved her Commerce Secretary K.B. Lal to Defence, with the specific task of preparing the army for an intervention, obviously later in the year. However, it was clear that India was getting ready for what was its momentous year in its encounter with Pakistan.
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The 1971 war was an international one involving the superpowers though not directly. It was a time of high cold war between the Russians and the Americans with a half superpower China complicating matters by weighing in against the Soviets and thus the US and its long time ally, Pakistan. India was not friendly with the US and its old fashioned faith in socialism in the tradition of her father suited her friendship with the USSR, both strategic and emotional.
One can never say how she read the US but she certainly knew that they were not her allies in 1971. However, unlike Pakistan she didn’t expect any direct intervention by them. US State department documents show that they considered the birth of Bangladesh as inevitable what with the geopolitics including participation of India. It was worries that India may keep going and occupy a large chunk of Pakistan in case of a war in the Indo-Pak border. The US also feared that due to unavoidable situations, the bigger powers may get involved in an unwelcome South Asian war.
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Indira also had issues at home particularly within her decision making groups which was largely made up on pro-Soviet bureaucrats like PN Haksar, KN Kaul, DP Dhar, etc. There was also a pro-US group particularly in the Indian foreign ministry who tried to contest the Soviets but given the war situation, the Soviets were India’s ally. After the Indo-Soviet Treaty was signed, the preparation went full steam. Indira also went on a trip to the West to drum up global support for its incoming intervention.
In the US it was an odd situation, with huge popular goodwill for the Bangladesh cause but lack of the same from the White House led by President Nixon and his Adviser Henry Kissinger. They had decided to support Pakistan as it was brokering a goodwill visit to China which had long term positive impact for the US. It was a nationalist and patriotic decision on their part and while the support could have been expressed more maturely, the US didn’t cheer on Pakistan either. This is how international politics looks.
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The headache of everyone concerned was China. India and its army and security apparatus were paranoid about China and did everything to avoid a 1962 situation when China wrong-footed Indian intelligence and the army and took a chunk of India away. The US really didn’t understand Chinese intent as it had been away from international politics for long so there was huge anxiety from them too. The Russian of course were always hostile to China, its socialist enemy and tried to make sure that it didn’t get a foot inside the region. India meanwhile planned an attack in December to ensure that China didn’t cross the mountains to help Pakistan by attacking India.
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Indira Gandhi also had to handle her Mujibnagar allies, not a homogenous group with all kinds of internal contradictions. Her support to PM Tajuddin Ahmed was total because she knew that the Mujibnagar government must appear solid as the face of Bangladeshi nationalism. There were several rebellious initiatives from within Mujibnagar aimed at the PM, who was a brilliant PM in exile but not a popular leader within the party.
Khandaker Mushtaq Ahmed’s attempt to contact the US and try to create a space for himself was because of anti-Tajuddin sentiments rather than any treacherous ones. Indira ensured that nothing disturbed her rally and nobody rained on her parade by keeping a tight watch on them all and tight rein to match. For example when Mushtaq was about to leave, he was stopped from travelling.
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But Indira didn’t have enough confidence in Mujibnagar and set up the Bangladesh Liberation Army, Mujibbahini as it was popularly known. It was drawn up of students and youth activists led by one Gen. Ovan, a man who later supervised the raising of the Rakkhi Bahini in Bangladesh. This was done without the knowledge of Tajuddin Ahmed and his allies and many deeply resented it but Indira was buying insurance against the not so dependable allies of 1971. And to her it was India’s war and not anyone else’s.
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So there she was, guiding India to its finest hour. She had reined in her squabbling bureaucrats and generals and put them under one flag. She effectively neutralised the US moves and ensured that China couldn’t do much even if they wanted to. She organised Russian support for her cause and later at the UN to forestall a Cease Fire resolution before the war was won. She supported the Mujibnagar government despite its internal conflicts, looked after its refugees turning them into the biggest argument for intervention and even raised a paramilitary directly under Indian comma to make sure no pie was burnt. She made sure she won the war.
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It is for this reason that we also won our war. We fought two fundamentally different wars but it was fought together. India came first to her, thank heavens and her totally unemotional approach delivered the goods. In the process the enemy was vanquished and in doing so, with our help, so was ours.
The award recognises her contribution, her place in history and her capacity to mange such a complex regional war which has inputted so much into the birth of Bangladesh.
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.