Tuesday, December 5, 2023

’71 War: When Indira made Nixon wait for 45 minutes in that tense build-up

(This is the sixth piece in a series on ’71 Indo-Pak War which is celebrating its 50th year this year. The first , second,  thirdfourth and fifth piece could be read by clicking on links).

US President Joe Biden wants India to stand firmly with his country in its battle of supremacy with China. The US has already formed a loose alliance called QUAD of which India is a member, the other two being Australia and Japan. Officially, it is not a military alliance but there is nothing un-military about it when we take a closer look. The armed forces, particularly navies of these nations, have been undertaking repeated exercises aimed at closer coordination, and working in tandem. But if we look back to where US and India were in their relationship 50 years ago, we find that they were firmly in opposite camps. 

At that time, US President Richard Nixon wanted China to foment trouble on its frontiers with India. The Chinese response to repeated prodding from the US was interesting, as they conveyed to Nixon that “India was unafraid of them’’. Nixon’s efforts to cajole the Chinese to attack India as it went to a war with Pakistan thus could not fructify. It wanted Chinese assistance, of muscle flexing or worse which could prove useful to Pakistan, which it had armed before the 1971 India-Bangladesh war.

The hostility between the US and India was hardly a surprise then given the way the summit meeting between the top leaders of the two countries unfolded in November that year. Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had met Nixon on November 4-5, 1971, in Washington but their meetings could sure be called disastrous as nothing went right. Nixon used swear words and a diction against Indira which his security advisor Henry Kissinger termed unprintable. Supposedly the milder words Nixon used to describe Indira were “a bitch and a witch’’ and Kissinger speaks about the meeting a lot more in his book “White House Years’’.

In her meeting with Nixon, Indira put in a proposal that the US exert pressure on Pakistan President Yahya Khan to release Sheik Mujib Rehman from custody. Another proposal was for Yahya to negotiate with Mujib a peaceful political solution to East Pakistan’s civil war which could ensure return of all the refugees from India. At that time, India was playing host to over 10 million (1 crore) refugees, both Hindus and Muslims, who had come in from East Pakistan.

On March 25, 1971, Pakistan military dictator Yahya Khan ordered a crackdown in East Pakistan named Operation Searchlight. Thousands of Bengalis, both Hindus and Muslims, were butchered, lakhs of women were raped and millions got displaced from their homes. India saw a massive influx of refugees, over 10 million over the next few months. With an unending influx, several states in the north east were badly hit and wanted the refugees to leave their territories. It was these refugees Indira wanted to go back to East Pakistan territory.

When the Indira-Nixon meeting began on November 4, 1971, the US leader offered sympathies for floods in Bihar and the devastation they had caused. He spoke nothing about the East Pakistan situation. Indira chided him for ignoring the man-made tragedy due to atrocities done by Pakistan armed forces and the crisis India was facing. Not something that Nixon liked. It is often said that well begun is half done. Stretching the phrase further, it can be said that if something is not well begun, it is at least half undone too. The meetings on two successive days proved diplomatic disaster.

Kissinger wrote later that it was a “dialogue of the deaf’’ the two leaders had. Elaborating, he said that it was not a case of Indira and Nixon not understanding one another, but understanding rather too well what the other one was saying! Indira and Nixon were supposed to address a joint press conference for which an announcement had been made. However, Indira chose to walk out on Nixon and not interact with journalists. 

Kissinger escorted Indira to her car and suggested that may be she could have been more diplomatic with the President (Nixon). Indira said something to the effect that even as a developing nation, India had spine, clearly demonstrating her displeasure with the US who was aligned with Pakistan, and willing to ignore all its wrongdoings. The small conversation made it clear to Kissinger that she harboured no illusions about Nixon.

During his November 5 meeting, Nixon talked to Indira about China. In turn, Indira did not mention Pakistan in any of her remarks and talks were later described as centred on world affairs in general! However, it was not that the US did not know or understand the real cause of frostiness in relationship with India. Edmund S. Muskie, Democrat of Maine, correctly diagnosed the malady and said in a speech prepared for the Senate: “At the heart of our frayed relations with India is the human tragedy taking place in East Pakistan — and the policy of continued support for Pakistan that our Government has insisted on.” 

Over six months before meeting Nixon, in April 1971, Indira had decided to go to war with Pakistan to ensure the end of civil war that was raging in India’s east. This was mainly with a desire to see the refugees return to their homes and unburden Indian states. Indian Army chief Sam Manekshaw refused to play ball and conveyed to her that he needed six months or more for the war to ensure victory. He offered to resign in case she did not agree to his suggestion. But Indira went by what he had suggested and asked him to start preparations for war right away.

As the armed forces started preparations in right earnest, Indira started touring capitals of important countries in the world. At that time, the international community was divided into two blocks, one being led by the US and and the other by USSR. On August 9, 1971, India signed a friendship treaty with the USSR for 20 years. The friendship started 50 years ago was stamped again recently by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In his meetings, Nixon had conveyed it clearly to Indira that the US would not countenance any military action against Pakistan. True to his words, Nixon ordered the US 7th Fleet to enter the Bay of Bengal area. By this muscle flexing, Nixon was keen to rattle India. But after sending the 7th Fleet to Bay of Bengal, the US could not muster courage to attack India. He failed to `”walk the talk’’ as it were by not attacking Indian targets and get embroiled in this war.

One major factor was USSR boss Leonid Brezhnev’s counter-moves of ordering some USSR naval assets to trail the US ships. This served as proverbial insurance policy for India as it did not have to battle the US armada.

It was a battle of nerves that Indira and Nixon played on November 4 and 5. On November 4, Indira complimented Nixon for his handling of Vietnam and China, both sore points that annoyed the US President. On 5th, Nixon kept Indira waiting for 45 minutes for a meeting at the Oval Office. Not the one to let this slight unanswered, Indira kept Nixon waiting for 45 minutes when he called her to the Blair House. Nixon got the message loud and clear.

Due to this strained and threatening posture adopted by the US, and a number of other factors, India was reluctant to start the war. But it could not have waited endlessly and had decided December 4 as D-Day, the day of declaring open war against Pakistan. Much to its relief, Pakistan pre-empted India by launching attacks on 11 of its airfields on December 3. India now had no reason to hold back and gave it back in kind on December 4, which was a poornamashi, a full moon day.

Pakistan started the war and gave India the excuse it needed to go all-out for it. It launched multi-pronged attacks both in East Pakistan and West Pakistan, beginning December 4. Due to Pakistani attacks on December 3, India’s plans needed some recalibration but remained largely unchanged in their thrust and direction. Nixon’s reading of Indira was correct as he said that he considered her `”a cold-blooded practitioner of power politics’’, something that applied to him too. 

All Indian armed forces were put on general alert and some formations were later moved to western border with Pakistan. This, in turn, saw Pakistan also make some deployments to the forward areas. Pakistani dictator Yahya Khan knew clearly that there was no way they could defend East Pakistan. At the strategic level, he decided that the defence of “East Pakistan lay in West Pakistan’’ and accordingly deployed most of his military there, focussing on trying to keep Indian forces tied down. However, that was not to be.

Sant Kumar Sharma, a seasoned journalist, is an authority on Jammu and Kashmir. Two of his books on Article 370 and Delimitation are already out. The third one on Indus Waters Treaty is now out and could be bought here.

Sant began as a teacher but after six years, joined the Indian Express, Chandigarh in 1990, the year when terrorism was taking its first step in J & K and soon there would be exodus of lakhs of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley. He subsequently worked for The Statesman, The Times of India and Star News among others. He is based in Jammu since May 2000.

He edits epaper.earthnews.in, a newspaper from Jammu presently.

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