Behind the Scenes of India’s Response to the East Pakistan Crisis of 1971

An extract from ‘Intertwined Lives: P.N. Haksar and Indira Gandhi’ by Jairam Ramesh.

Within a few days of taking over, Indira Gandhi faced a crisis of epic proportions on India’s eastern border with Pakistan. From the midnight of 25 March 1971, a brutal crackdown by the Pakistani army began in what was then East Pakistan. This created an enormous humanitarian crisis leading to millions of refugees fleeing to India. It also led to huge pressure on Indira Gandhi to intervene militarily. This story of 1971 that culminated in India’s victory in the war with Pakistan and the emergence of a sovereign Bangladesh has been told brilliantly in two books – one by the noted historian Srinath Raghavan and the other by the political scientist Gary Bass. Both have made extensive use of [P.N.] Haksar’s archives and have highlighted the pivotal role he played all through 1971, orchestrating and managing India’s response to the crisis in East Pakistan.

Jairam Ramesh Intertwined Lives: P.N. Haksar and Indira Gandhi Simon & Schuster, 2018

Jairam Ramesh
Intertwined Lives: P.N. Haksar and Indira Gandhi
Simon & Schuster, 2018

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was arrested in Dacca on the midnight of 24 March 1971, and flown to West Pakistan. On 26 March 1971, Indira Gandhi, fully briefed by Haksar with extensive talking points, met with leaders of all Opposition parties. Haksar had urged her to be firm and say that India’s response to what was happening in East Pakistan should not become a subject matter of public debate as ‘such a debate would defeat the purpose of giving such comfort as we can to democratic forces in Pakistan as a whole’. He asked her to emphasize that while India’s sympathy towards the people of Bangladesh was natural, India, as a state had to walk warily because Pakistan was a sovereign member of the United Nations, and ‘outside interference in events internal to Pakistan would not earn us either understanding or goodwill internationally’. From his own personal knowledge he mentioned the Biafra secessionist movement in Nigeria which had fizzled out because of lack of international support. There were other factors weighing on Haksar’s mind while briefing the prime minister – the impact of what India might say or do on its own consistent position on Kashmir and to what extent would Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his colleagues be able to establish their legitimacy in the eyes of the world.

In short, Haksar was advising the prime minister that the Government of India must move with a great deal of circumspection and ‘not allow our feelings to get the better of us’. Evidently, she was in full agreement with this line for she followed Haksar’s script largely at the meeting with Opposition leaders. But the Fifth Lok Sabha, which was then in its opening session, was agitated and already voices were being raised for some decisive ‘intervention’ by India. To cool passions, Indira Gandhi moved a resolution in Parliament on 31 March 1971, drafted by Haksar, promising ‘whole hearted sympathy and support for the people of East Bengal’.

That very day, she received a letter from former Cabinet Minister Triguna Sen on behalf of the Bengali residents of Delhi, which lamented that ‘we are not standing by our brothers and sisters of Bangladesh the way we should and the policy of our Government is not yet clear and firm enough to meet the demands of the hour’. Haksar was incensed with this letter and told the prime minister sometime later on 31 March 1971 itself:

When I read a letter of the kind written by Dr Sen, I am reduced to a state of despair and dark foreboding about our country. Here is a man who is a trained engineer, has been Vice-Chancellor of a University and has occupied the position of a Cabinet Minister. I should have thought that during the three years that he had been Cabinet Minister, he should have understood some elementary principles on which Governments are run in the world and international relations conducted. I should have also thought that he would have the sensitiveness to see that what is happening in East Pakistan is a matter of national concern and that Bengalis, as Bengalis, especially those who claim to be Indians, have no special responsibility, any more than Tamilians should have a say in fashioning our relations with Ceylon or with Malaysia, or Gujaratis should have a say in how we conduct our relations with East Africa. It is really quite preposterous how these eminent worthies think loosely and appear to wear their emotions on their sleeves…

I would beg of P.M. to send for Dr. Sen and request him to behave with greater maturity than he has shown in the letter…

Two days later, Ashok Mitra, then chief economic adviser in the Ministry of Finance, received a call in his office from a professor of the Delhi School of Economics. The professor was calling from Mitra’s residence asking him to come home immediately to meet two close friends of his who were facing some problems. The professor who called would win the Nobel Prize in Economics 27 years later—Amartya Sen. The two friends of his were Anisur Rahman and Rehman Sobhan, then rising stars amongst Pakistani economists. The two—both Bengalis—had fled Dacca and somehow managed to reach New Delhi. Mitra too was well known to them, and so they took refuge in his residence under assumed names. What was to happen next is best recounted in Mitra’s own words:

…On the evening of the day Anis and Rahman took shelter in my house [2 April 1971], I took them to Haksar’s residence… This bit of history is not known to any outsiders. It was from that evening that India’s secret but activist role in the Bangladesh War of Liberation got going. Haksar could establish links with the Awami League Leadership with these friends of ours doing the bridge-building…

Mitra exaggerates slightly since Haksar had already started the ball rolling on Bangladesh on 2 March 1971. But Mitra is right that Anisur Rahman and Rehman Sobhan may well have been the first people who had escaped from Dacca to meet Haksar. Sobhan himself has written that Haksar’s reactions suggested that the encounters that he and Rahman had with him ‘was his [Haksar’s] first such exposure to these events [the crackdown by the Pakistani army and the launch of the genocide soon thereafter]’. On 3 April 1971, fully briefed by Sobhan and Rahman, Haksar met with Tajuddin Ahmad, the top Awami League leader and Amirul Islam, when they called on Indira Gandhi. Exactly a fortnight later, on 17 April 1971, Sobhan writes that ‘Tajuddin Ahmad was sworn in as the Prime Minister of an independent Bangladesh “at a mango grove near Kushtia … which is now known as Mujibnagar’.

Indira Gandhi and P.N. Haksar. Courtesy: Nehru Memorial Library

Indira Gandhi and P.N. Haksar. Courtesy: Nehru Memorial Library

Tajuddin Ahmad met Indira Gandhi again on the night of 6 May 1971. Before the meeting she sent Haksar a handwritten note:

Re this evening’s meeting. If you think Sardar [Swaran Singh] etc should be called, by all means do so. You should anyhow be there.

However, Sardar is a little doubtful about our policy re. B. Desh. This should be kept in mind.

On his part, Haksar sent a note to the prime minister:

P.M. might begin by telling our friends that G.O.C.-in-C Eastern Command has had conversations with Shri T [Tajuddin Ahmad]. Her understanding is that Gen. Arora has explained to him our assessment of the present situation and directions in which we should move forward from here onwards. Obviously, it is essential for us to feel that the Government of Bangladesh not only shares our assessment but agrees wholly and without reservations with the plan of action…

The second point to be raised is about the role which the Government of Bangladesh wish to assign to variety of other political elements inside Bangladesh. It appears that there are, for instance Members of the Communist Party of Bangladesh. There are also Members of the National Awami Party led by Wali Khan. There may be others. P.M. might ask Shri T how the Government of Bangladesh visualizes the precise role which these elements would play in the total struggle for national liberation.

P.M might wish to inform Shri T of all the sustained efforts which the Government of Pakistan is now making the various Governments in the word that a situation of normalcy is about to be restored; and that as soon as this situation is achieved, President Yahya Khan will resume negotiations; that his expectation is that a sizeable number of the elected representatives of the Awami League will cooperate … P.M. might enquire how realistic is this assessment of President Yahya Khan … and what effect it would have on the resistance movement inside Bangladesh.

On 7 May 1971, Indira Gandhi had a second meeting with Opposition leaders. Haksar now informed her that:

We are now at the commencement of the second phase of the struggle in Bangladesh. This would require consolidation and centralization of political direction from the Bangladesh Government. A common strategy of warfare over a comparatively prolonged period will have to be evolved. The main characteristics of this would be guerilla tactics with the object of keeping the West Pakistan army continuously off their balance and to gradually bleed them.

If the struggle could be sustained over a period of time of 6 to 8 months it is not unreasonable to expect that sheer burden on Pakistan of carrying on this struggle will become, sooner or later, unbearable.

Haksar proved prescient. As it turned out, in slightly over seven months time Pakistan would give up. He also advised Indira Gandhi to stress that the best that the Government of India could do at this stage was ‘wait and watch’ for the situation to develop. His assessment was that the Government of Bangladesh had yet to acquire legitimacy both within its own territory as well as internationally. On the all-important issue of recognition of Bangladesh, which was the clamour in Parliament, he asked the prime minister to say that such recognition at that point of time will not be very productive and it raises ‘false hopes that recognition would be followed by direct intervention of the Armed Forces of India to sustain and support such a Government’. A number of political leaders, strategic experts and others were advocating military action by India. In this background, Haksar wanted Indira Gandhi to be categorical in stating that:

We cannot, at the present stage, contemplate armed intervention at all. It would not be the right thing to do. It will evoke hostile reactions all over the world and all the sympathy and support which the Bangladesh [government] has been able to evoke in the world will be drowned in the Indo-Pak conflict. The main thing, therefor, is not a formal recognition, but to do whatever lies within our power to sustain the struggle.

§

D.P. Dhar was a key player in the events of 1971, first from Moscow and later from New Delhi. He had unparalleled access to the Soviet leadership and, of course, to Indira Gandhi and Haksar as well. He had great influence on how Soviet thinking on Bangladesh evolved from one of extreme caution in early-1971 to one of full support to India’s position by the middle of the year. But ‘DP’, as he was popularly called, was desperate to leave Moscow and be in New Delhi where all the action was. He wrote to Haksar on 12 May 1971 on his discussions with Soviet leaders including Prime Minister Kosygin and ended that letter thus:

… Finally where do you intend to place me? If I have to be in the Prime Minister’s outfit, I shall have to synchronise exit [from Moscow] with yours.

… Many people have talked to me with grave concern about the prospect of your quitting the present assignment—Krishna [Menon], Shashi Bhushan, Arunaji, Nahata, Nurul [Hasan] and others. I am happy to know from your letter that you still have an open mind on this issue. As I will be back by about the 20th of June, I would take the opportunity of discussing then some alternatives I have in view. In the meanwhile, I beg of you not to feel tempted or provoked to close any one of the available options.

Jairam Ramesh. Courtesy: Jairam Ramesh

Jairam Ramesh. Courtesy: Jairam Ramesh

On 14 May 1971, Haksar had the prime minister write to 39 world leaders, including the president of the USA, the prime minister of the UK, the chancellor of Germany, the prime minister of Japan, the president of France, among others. The letter focussed less on Pakistan’s actions in ‘East Bengal’ but more on the ‘gigantic problems which Pakistan’s actions in East Bengal have created for India’. The letter estimated the number of refugees till then at about 3 million with ‘about fifty thousand pouring in every day’. It spoke of the grave security risks India was facing as a result of this huge influx, and sought ‘the advice of all friendly Governments on how they would wish us to deal with the problem’. It also expressed deep concern with the personal safety of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and sought international assistance ‘to impress upon the rulers of Pakistan that they owe a duty to their own citizens whom they have treated so callously and forced to seek refuge in a foreign country’. More such communications to over 30 other countries were to go over the next few days.

But Haksar had not forgotten D.P. Dhar’s latest missive. He replied on 22 May 1971:

… As you will be here soon, I will let myself be dissected by you. As far as I am capable of knowing about myself, all that I can say at this stage is that I feel, physically and mentally, stretched beyond the breaking point. I feel that I just cannot carry on. Maybe my outlook and the way I look at things now will radically change after I have had a little rest and time to think. My present assessment is that for the new phase that has begun I am not the man. However, as I said, we can discuss till the cows come home. [italics mine]

As for yourself, I devoutly hope that you are well. Proceeding on that assumption, I am just wondering whether if you would contemplate to continue being a “civil servant”; or would you wish to regain your freedom and return to politics? You might ask what I have in mind? I shall be precise: I want you to be the Chairman of the Policy Planning Committee of the Ministry of External Affairs and be, simultaneously, principal political liaison man for the Bangladesh Government. The alternative is, of course, to be a Member of the Rajya Sabha and be “available”. Knowing as I do how our system works, what sounds theoretically attractive can be extremely unnerving in practice and also unproductive. All this is my brain child, but I have vaguely mentioned it to Tikki [T.N. Kaul] …

DP would be appointed chairman of the Policy Planning Committee of the Ministry of External Affairs as identified for him by Haksar. He would also become India’s interlocutor with the political leaders of Bangladesh. As far as Haksar was concerned, clearly by mid-1971 he had made up his mind to leave. The main reason could well have been the political ascendancy of Sanjay Gandhi. Indira Gandhi still depended heavily on Haksar but it would have been natural for equations to have changed subtly after her stupendous electoral victory that would have given her enormous self- confidence.

On that very day of 22 May 1971, when Haksar made DP the job offer, he wrote him another letter which was yet another demonstration of the special warmth that existed between the Soviet leadership on the one side and Indira Gandhi and Haksar on the other. The previous month, on 19 April 1971, Arshad Hussein a former foreign minister of Pakistan had been to Moscow as a special envoy of President Yahya Khan. He had met Kosygin a week later and presented Pakistan’s case on the Bangladesh issue forcefully. This had been done very quietly. Haksar told DP:

My dear Durga:
I enclose a copy of a note setting out the conversation which recently took place in Moscow between Chairman Kosygin and Arshad Hussein. This is for your own personal information. The Soviet Ambassador has conveyed this is strictest confidence to Prime Minister.

There would be other instances in the coming months when Pegov, obviously acting on Kosygin’s instructions, would share with Haksar top secret communications of Pakistan with Soviet leaders.


Excerpted with permission from Intertwined Lives: P.N. Haksar and Indira Gandhi by Jairam Ramesh, published by Simon & Schuster.

Jairam Ramesh is a Member of Parliament, India.

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