For Indian Diplomats in Pakistan, the Run up To the 1971 War Was a Very Tense Time

Deportations, house arrests and mob attacks became the norm as relations between the two countries deteriorated.

The year 1971 was marked with several ‘big victories’ – in politics, cricket and in war – all of which had long term implications for India. The national mood was buoyant, even if the country continued to struggle with endemic problems.

Fifty years later, we look back at those times and evoke some of that mood. In a series of articles, leading writers recall and analyse key events and processes that left their mark on a young, struggling but hopeful nation.

1971. The most cataclysmic year in the history of the sub-continent since the Partition of India in 1947. Even as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Muktijuddho, the War of Liberation, India’s decisive military victory over Pakistan and the emergence of Bangladesh in the comity of nations, one must remember the extreme price exacted by a vengeful Pakistan army, the countless innocent men killed, the countless women violated.

There had been unease in the relations between the two wings of Pakistan from the very early days. Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s refusal to accept Bengali as a state language, even though it was the language of the majority, had caused him to be heckled in Dhaka University in 1948. The language movement simmered and burst into flames with the killing of students on February 21, 1952, since immortalised as ‘ekushe’, and now observed by the United Nations as International Mother Language Day. In the first elections to provincial assemblies in 1954, the Awami (then called the Awami Muslim) League led United Front trounced the Muslim League comprehensively. The 21-point manifesto of the Front demanded autonomy for East Pakistan as envisaged in the Lahore Resolution.

And then, what had been murmurs became strident demands for parity in economic development. East Pakistan had woken to the fact of discrimination at all levels. The foreign exchange earned by the east’s exports came to be used by the west. The substantial expenditure on the armed forces benefited the west. The east was shortchanged at every step of developmental expenditure and Bengali economists like young Rehman Sobhan spoke up forcefully for a course correction. In March 1966, the Awami League, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, put forward the Six Point Programme. They demanded inter alia “a Federation of Pakistan in its true sense on the Lahore Resolution” and that “the federal government should deal with only two subjects: defence and foreign affairs, and all other residuary subjects shall be vested in the federating states.” The gauntlet had been well and truly thrown.

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Through the 1960s, East Pakistan remained disturbed by agitations related to language, the Six Points and the Agartala Conspiracy Case. The latter, instituted in early 1968, charged Sheikh Mujib and others with sedition for conspiring with India against Pakistan. Following massive protests, the charges were dropped a year later.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi with Sheikh Mujib -ur-Rehman, Prime Minister of Bangladesh at Palam airport prior to latter’s departure on April 11, 1974. Credit: Photo Division, GOI

The West was not quiet

Meanwhile, the west had not been quiet. Economic issues following the 1965 war with India had disenchanted the people. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who had parted company with President Field Marshall Ayub Khan, had formed the Pakistan Peoples Party and reached out to students and workers with his fiery oratory. Meanwhile, President Ayub Khan had ordered a celebration of the Decade of Development, recalling his coup of 1958. In October 1968, I had seen him holding forth on his achievements at the annual passing out parade in Kakul, later made famous by Osama bin Laden.

I was driving to Rawalpindi from Islamabad to pick up some provisions when I was flagged down by an elderly citizen. Obviously recognising my identity through the diplomatic number plate of the car, he suggested that I turn back as there was trouble ahead and it would be best if an Indian were not seen there. A diplomat has to be curious and I drove ahead to see the first bus of the anti-Ayub agitation being burnt following the shooting of some students. The date was November 7, 1968.

The following months continued to be turbulent for both wings of Pakistan. On March 25, 1969, Ayub Khan resigned, handing over the government to the army chief, General Yahya Khan. Yahya promised general elections, which were held in December 1970. The Awami League won 160 of the 162 seats in East Pakistan, giving it an absolute majority in the house of 300. Bhutto’s PPP won 81 of the 138 seats in the west. Bhutto refused to accept the results and encouraged Yahya Khan to reject Mujib’s claim to form the government, suggesting that a whiff of grapeshot would take care of the Bengalis. Mujib’s speech at Ramna on March 7 asked the people to be prepared to resist. Administration ceased to exist in East Pakistan. At Islamabad, we heard with wonder nationalist songs being broadcast from Dhaka. After several rounds of fruitless talks, the army crackdown came on the night of March 25.

Meanwhile, relations between India and Pakistan deteriorated steadily. There was mutual expulsion of diplomats at the end of January. I escorted B.L. Joshi, first secretary, and his family to the border at Ganda Singh Wala across Firozepur where, to our amusement, the Pakistan rangers unwittingly gave him a guard of honour. On January 30, the Ganga, an Indian Airlines Fokker, was hijacked to Lahore while en route Jammu from Srinagar and blown up. India suspended overflights between the two wings of Pakistan. The problems in communication and sending troops to East Pakistan were partially overcome by Sri Lanka affording transit facilities to PIA. Diplomatic missions in both countries faced angry demonstrations. Firebombs were thrown at our Chancery in the first week of February. Two days later, our house was attacked by a mob and a visiting Canadian diplomat’s wife’s car set on fire in the driveway. Pakistan media carried photographs of the blazing car identifying me as the arsonist.

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Day of reckoning

It was clear to both governments that a day of reckoning would soon come. High Commissions and consulates started reducing their staff. So that one country may not gain an advantage, a system of exit permits was instituted so that the departure of one officer from one country would permit one from the other to leave. A different problem arose in Calcutta and Dhaka. With a few West Pakistani exceptions, the staff of the Pakistani Deputy High Commission in Calcutta declared their allegiance to Bangladesh. On the plea that all their officials had been forcibly interned by India, Pakistan placed the Indian officials in Dhaka under house arrest. After weeks of negotiations under Swiss mediation, Indian officials and their families from Dhaka and west Pakistani members of their Calcutta mission were put in planes which crossed mid-air! Meanwhile, one of my duties was to hand over bags of currency to the Soviet Embassy in Islamabad to be conveyed to our beleaguered officials in Dhaka. This was well before the Indo-Soviet Treaty of August 1971. Another duty, until I left on an exchange basis in August, was to destroy the records of the Mission.

A mother and her child at Bongan refugee camp in August 1971. Photo: Deb Mukharji

The world very soon became aware of the genocide unleashed by the Pakistani army. The US Consul General in Dhaka, Archer Kent Blood, reported within a day of the systematic elimination of Awami Leaguers, intellectuals and Hindus by the Pakistan army and its collaborators, using US-supplied tanks and aircraft. Receiving no response, Blood and twenty of his colleagues sent a ‘dissent’ telegram, charging the government with moral bankruptcy in its support to the military government, disregarding the atrocities and assaults on democratic values.

Blood was withdrawn.

Later on, of course, there was the famous Nixon-Kissinger tilt against India. But in the early days, it should have been possible for the US to lean on Pakistan, given the latter’s dependencies, to halt the massacres and seek a negotiated solution if it were still possible. It did not, as Pakistan had become a conduit for the opening to China. What also emerges from the research of authors like Gary Bass and Srinath Raghavan is the intense distaste, if not hatred, for India, Indians and, above all, Indira Gandhi, that permeated all conversations between Nixon and Kissinger. The racism is palpable and to them, the Indians were clearly children of lesser gods.

Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi with US President Richard Nixon. Photo: US National Archives/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

With no restraining hand and assured of the support of both Beijing and Washington, the murderous spree of the Pakistan army continued unabated in East Pakistan. Whole villages were wiped out. Countless men were shot in cold blood; uncounted women violated, often killed. The Hindus came in for special attention as they were thought to have infected Muslim thinking. It ignored the fact that over the previous decades, it was the Muslim Bengali who had given teeth and sustenance to the demand for parity and now formed the bulk of the Mukti Bahini, the freedom fighters.

Even as nations remained engaged in weighty debates, the murderous assaults of the Pakistan army increased in ferocity and millions of refugees continued to stream into India. Meanwhile, the freedom fighters were grouped in nine sectors, under commanders drawn from Bengali officers of the Pakistan armed forces. They, and those operating independently, carried out engagements and guerilla activities, demoralising the enemy and were to prove invaluable in the eventual surrender of the Pakistan army. The bulk of the freedom fighters came from the peasantry and the student community and received training in India, as also arms and ammunition.

Bongan refugee camp in August, 1971. Photo: Deb Mukharji

There were dilemmas that India faced when the crisis exploded. With a serious Naxalite movement on the borders of East Pakistan, apprehension of such influences in Bangladesh may have been a concern.  There is no evidence that India worked towards the break-up of Pakistan from the beginning. There were influential voices within the government in favour of a united Pakistan. But the fact of Pakistan’s unrelenting brutal assault on the people and the increasing burden of refugees tilted the scales and from July, Indian support to the freedom fighters acquired greater substance and commitment. The Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation was intended to discourage external involvement in case of conflict.

Also Read: Revisiting the Battle of Garibpur, a Precursor to the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War

Throughout the year, India had maintained intense diplomatic overtures at international bodies and individual capitals. These had been no tangible results, even if public opinion in countries like the US and UK were with the Bengalis. Prime minister Indira Gandhi herself undertook visits to major European capitals and Washington in November to present India’s case.

On December 3, 1971, the PAF attacked Indian airfields and other installations. At midnight, Indira Gandhi told parliament that “the wanton and unprovoked aggression of Pakistan would be decisively and finally repelled.”

As the Pakistan army in East Pakistan reeled against the combined attacks of the Indian army and the freedom fighters, a desperate Washington sent the aircraft carrier Enterprise to the Bay of Bengal to intimidate India. As the noose tightened, Kissinger met the Chinese representative at the UN and after some shadow play, bluntly sought Chinese military intervention against India.

On December 16, 1971, Lt Gen A.A.K. Niazi, Martial Law Administrator, signed the instruments of surrender to Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Arora, Joint Commander of the Indian and Bangladeshi forces, at Ramna Race Course.

Defying all odds and the most powerful country in the world, India in 1971 struck a powerful blow for human rights and liberty that remains unmatched.

Deb Mukharji was a member of the Indian Foreign Service and has served in Islamabad 1968-1971 and Dhaka 1977-1980 and 1995-2000.