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1971 War: How the US tried to corner India
Claude Arpi
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December 26, 2006
'India won a glorious victory against Pakistan in the 1971 war. It was the first decisive victory in a major war in centuries. And it was won singlehandedly, in the face of opposition and threats from a majority of the UN member-States, including a superpower. Every Indian patriot felt proud of this glittering chapter in the nation's history.'

-- Dr S N Prasad in his introduction to the Indian government's 'restricted' Official History of the 1971 War.

I am not usually a great defender of United States policies, but I have to admit that in the field of right to information, the US is far ahead of the Indian babus who obstinately block access to Indian archives under the lame pretext that this could 'endanger national security'.

A few months ago, the Office of the Historian at the US State Department released Volume XI of the Foreign Relations of the United States devoted to the 'South Asia Crisis, 1971': in other words, the Bangladesh War.

Flashback: 1971 War, 35 Years On

This 929-page publication groups together documents which were already known like the minutes of Henry Kissinger's secret visit to China in July 1971 as well as scores of freshly declassified material available for the first time to the public.

It throws light on a less known angle of the India-Pakistan conflict: The role of the nascent friendship between the United States and China. This is a welcome new piece in the puzzle of the history of the 1971 War.

Another piece is the Hamidur Rahman Report, ordered by the government of Pakistan after the war, which analyses the Pakistani defeat. 'Due to corruption... lust for wine and women and greed for land and houses, a large number of senior army officers, particularly those occupying the highest positions, had not only lost the will to fight but also the professional competence necessary for taking the vital and critical decisions demanded of them for the successful prosecution of the war.'

The US administration saw the unfurling events differently.

According to Kissinger, then American President Richard M Nixon's national security adviser, 'When the Nixon administration took office, our policy objective on the subcontinent was, quite simply, to avoid adding another complication to our agenda.'

But events in the subcontinent and the Chinese factor forced Nixon to change his stand. The new closeness between Washington, DC and Beijing [Images] and the involvement of the Pakistan president as a secret go-between greatly influenced US policy.

Then US President Richard Nixon According to the State Department historian, 'When the fighting developed, the Nixon administration tilted toward Pakistan. The tilt involved the dispatch of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise to the Bay of Bengal to try to intimidate the Indian government. It also involved encouraging China to make military moves to achieve the same end, and an assurance to China that if China menaced India and the Soviet Union moved against China in support of India, the United States would protect China from the Soviet Union. China chose not to menace India, and the crisis on the subcontinent ended without a confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union.'

The first US documents deal with the background of the conflict. Nixon's position was clear: 'We should just stay out -- like in Biafra, what the hell can we do?'

But everybody did not agree with him. In a telegram sent on March 28, 1971, the staff at the US consulate in Dhaka complained, 'Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy. Our government has failed to denounce atrocities. Our government has failed to take forceful measures to protect its citizens while at the same time bending over backwards to placate the West Pak dominated government... We, as professional public servants express our dissent with current policy and fervently hope that our true and lasting interests here can be defined and our policies redirected in order to salvage our nation's position as a moral leader of the free world.'

When US Secretary of State Will Rogers received this 'miserable' cable, he informed President Nixon that the 'Dacca consulate is in open rebellion.' This did not change Nixon's opinion: 'The people who bitch about Vietnam bitch about it because we intervened in what they say is a civil war. Now some of the same bastards...want us to intervene here -- both civil wars.'

From the start, the Nixon administration knew 'the prospects were "poor"... the Pakistani army would not be able to exert effective control over East Pakistan.' Washington believed India was bound to support Mujibur Rahman. The CIA had reported that 'India would foster and support Bengali insurgency and contribute to the likelihood that an independent Bangladesh would emerge from the developing conflict.'

It is here that the Chinese saga began. In a tightly guarded secret, Nixon had started contacts with Beijing. The postman was Pakistani dictator Field Marshal Yahya Khan.

When on April 28 1971, Kissinger sent a note defining the future policy option towards Pakistan, Nixon replied in a handwritten note: 'Don't squeeze Yahya at this time.' The Pakistan president was not to be squeezed because he was in the process of arranging Kissinger's first secret meeting to China. The events of the following months and the US position should be seen in this perspective.

Indira GandhiIn May, Indira Gandhi [Images] wrote to Nixon about the 'carnage in East Bengal' and the flood of refugees burdening India. After L K Jha, then the Indian ambassador to US, had warned Kissinger that India might have to send back some of the refugees as guerillas, Nixon commented, 'By God we will cut off economic aid (to India).'

A few days later when the US president said 'the goddamn Indians' were preparing for another war, Kissinger retorted 'they are the most aggressive goddamn people around.'

During the second week of July, Kissinger went to Beijing where he was told by then Chinese prime minister Zhou Enlai: 'In our opinion, if India continues on its present course in disregard of world opinion, it will continue to go on recklessly. We, however, support the stand of Pakistan. This is known to the world. If they (the Indians) are bent on provoking such a situation, then we cannot sit idly by.' Kissinger answered that Zhou should know that the US sympathies also lay with Pakistan.

On his return, during a meeting of the National Security Council, Nixon continued his India bashing. The Indians, he noted, are 'a slippery, treacherous people.'

The State Department historian says, 'in the perspective of Washington, the crisis ratcheted up a dangerous notch on August 9 when India and the Soviet Union signed a treaty of peace, friendship and cooperation.' It was a shock for Washington as they saw a deliberate collusion between Delhi and Moscow [Images].

During the following months, the situation deteriorated and many more refugees came to India. The Indian prime minister decided to tour Western capitals to explain the Indian stand. On November 4 and 5, she met Nixon in Washington, who told her that a new war in the subcontinent was out of the question.

The next day, Nixon and Kissinger assessed the situation. Kissinger told Nixon: 'The Indians are bastards anyway. They are plotting a war.'

To divert the pressure applied by the Mukti Bahini on the eastern front, the Pakistan air force launched an attack on six Indian airfields in Kashmir and Punjab on December 3. It was the beginning of the war.

The next day, then US ambassador to the United Nations George H W Bush -- later 41st president of the United States and father of the current American president -- introduced a resolution in the UN Security Council calling for a cease-fire and the withdrawal of armed forces by India and Pakistan. It was vetoed by the Soviet Union. The following days witnessed a great pressure on the Soviets from the Nixon-Kissinger duo to get India to withdraw, but to no avail.

The CIA reported to the President: 'She (Indira Gandhi) hopes the Chinese (will) not intervene physically in the North; however, the Soviets have warned her that the Chinese are still able to "rattle the sword" in Ladakh and Chumbi areas.'

Henry KissingerFor Kissinger it was clear that Indira Gandhi wanted the dismemberment of Pakistan.

On December 9, when the CIA director warned Nixon that 'East Pakistan was crumbling', Nixon decided to send the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise into the Bay of Bengal to threaten India.

Let me recount an anecdote related to me by Major General K K Tewari (retd), Chief Signal Officer, Eastern Command, during the 1971 War.

General Tewari was present at a briefing the three defence services held for Indira Gandhi. She was seated at a large table. On one side was General S H F J Manekshaw, the army chief, and on the other Admiral S M Nanda, the navy chief.

During the course of the presentation, the admiral intervened and said: 'Madam, the US 8th Fleet is sailing into the Bay of Bengal.' Nothing happened; the briefing continued. After sometime, the admiral repeated, 'Madam, I have to inform you that the 8th Fleet is sailing into the Bay of Bengal.' She cut him off immediately: 'Admiral, I heard you the first time, let us go on with the briefing.'

All the officers present were stunned. Ultimately, their morale was tremendously boosted by the prime minister's attitude. She had demonstrated her utter contempt for the American bluff.

On November 10, Nixon instructed Kissinger to ask the Chinese to move some troops toward the Indian frontier. 'Threaten to move forces or move them, Henry, that's what they must do now.'

This was conveyed to Huang Hua, China's envoy to the United Nations. Kissinger told Huang the US would be prepared for a military confrontation with the Soviet Union if the Soviet Union attacked China.

On December 12, the White House received an urgent message. The Chinese wanted to meet in New York. General Alexander Haig, then Kissinger's deputy, rushed to the venue, but was disappointed. Huang just wanted to convey his government's stand in the UN, no words of an attack in Sikkim or in the then North East Frontier Agency (now, the northeastern states).

The myth of the Chinese intervention is also visible in the secret Pakistani dispatches. Lieutenant General A A K Niazi, the Pakistani army commander in Dhaka, was informed: 'NEFA front has been activated by Chinese although the Indians for obvious reasons have not announced it.'

Until the last day of the war, Pakistan expected its Chinese saviour to strike, but Beijing never did.

In Washington, Nixon analysed the situation thus: 'If the Russians get away with facing down the Chinese and the Indians get away with licking the Pakistanis...we may be looking down the gun barrel.' Nixon was not sure about China. Did they really intend to start a military action against India?

Finally, on December 16, Niazi surrendered to Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Aurora. Nixon and Kissinger congratulated themselves for achieving their fundamental goal -- the preservation of West Pakistan. They were also happy for having 'scared the pants off the Russians.'

Kissinger's South Asia policy upset many in the US, not only the American public, the press but also the State Department, and more particularly, Secretary of State Rogers who was kept in the dark most of the time.

It is worth mentioning an episode which, of course, does not appear in the American archives -- The Tibetan participation in the conflict. After the debacle of 1962, the Government of India had recruited some Tibetans youth in the eventuality of another conflict with China. The Special Frontier Force was trained in Chakrata in Uttar Pradesh under the command of an Indian general.

In 1971, nine years after its creation, the SFF was sent to East Pakistan to prepare for the arrival of regular Indian troops. Their saga is one of the least known parts of the Bangladesh war.

Late October 1971, an AN-12 airlifted nearly 3,000 Tibetans who later assembled at Demagiri close to the India-East Pakistan border. On the other side of the border were the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Armed with Bulgarian-made assault rifles, the SFF was given the task of organising guerrilla raids across the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Opposite the SSF, in thick jungles and leech-infested marshes, was stationed a Pakistan brigade, including a battalion of its elite Special Services Group.

The Indian army knew this brigade was a threat to one of its corps preparing to advance on Dhaka.

During the second week of November, Operation Eagle began. Leaving Demagiri in canoes, the Tibetans commandos entered East Pakistan. The SFF then started overrunning one Pakistani post after another.

By the time the war was officially declared, the Tibetans had already been inside East Pakistan for more than three weeks. Using both their Bulgarian rifles and native knives, they advanced swiftly. Their Indian commandaner, Major General S S Uban later said, 'They were unstoppable.'

On December 16, the SSF was 40 kilometers away from Chittagong port, having successfully managed to neutralise the Pakistani brigade.

After Pakistan's surrender, they paraded through Chittagong. Unfortunately, 49 Tibetans lost their lives for a nation which was not theirs.

The release of the State Department volume on the 1971 conflict is a posthumous homage to the courage of the Indian Army which despite heavy odds and the might of the United States freed Bangladesh from Pakistani clutches.

Some aspects are still missing to make the puzzle complete.

First, the Indian history from the Ministry of Defence does not detail the political compulsions of Indira Gandhi's government. Second, the secret operation involving the Tibetan Special Frontier Forces in the Chittagong Hill Tracts is virtually unknown. Lastly, the Chinese involvement from the Chinese point of view remains unexamined.

Like the Henderson Brooks' report on the 1962 border war with China, it may take a few decades more to be revealed.

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