Did Indira Gandhi really want to go to war in April 1971?

27 July, 2018

In his book, Intertwined Lives: P.N. Haksar and Indira Gandhi, the politician and writer Jairam Ramesh chronicles the life of PN Haksar, who served as principal secretary to the former prime minister Indira Gandhi. Haksar is often described as the most powerful person in the Gandhi’s cabinet, second only to the prime minister herself. He was known to be greatly involved in some of her most pivotal decisions, especially on foreign policy. In the following extract from the book, Ramesh examines a popular anecdote about Indira Gandhi’s decisions leading up to India’s 1971 war with Pakistan. According to Sam Manekshaw, who was the chief of army staff during the war, the prime minister wanted to begin military operations as early as April. Ramesh notes that there is, in fact, no documentary evidence to support this claim.

Field Marshall Sam Manekshaw is an authentic Indian hero and he did much to deserve that exalted status. He has bequeathed to us the story that Indira Gandhi and her advisors were keen on an early military operation, and that he put his foot down asking for more time. The documentary evidence does not lend any support to the claims made by Manekshaw. At no time did Indira Gandhi or Haksar betray any impatience for war—not in their public statements or actions and in Haksar’s case not in his internal notings either. And this even though many influential opposition leaders and public figures like Jayaprakash Narayan were clamouring for it—and so were some strategic experts like K Subrahmanyam, who wrote a detailed paper making the case for an early intervention and had it circulated at the top echelons of the government.

Manekshaw’s view, which has become the stuff of military legend, has been conclusively refuted, on the basis of primary, archival material by Srinath Raghavan and by an eminent diplomat-scholar Chandrashekhar Dasgupta. Raghavan writes:

… Contrary to the assertions of Manekshaw and his military colleagues, the prime minister did not contemplate such an intervention in the early stages of the crisis.

Dasgupta is more cutting. He writes:

One of the most popular anecdotes of the 1971 war is Field Marshal Manekshaw’s tale of how he restrained an impatient Indira Gandhi from ordering an unprepared Indian army to march into East Pakistan in April. The Field Marshal’s prowess as a raconteur fully matched his military skills but exceeded his grasp of the political and diplomatic dimensions of the grand strategy shaped by Indira Gandhi and her advisors. The prime minister had no intention of going to war in April since India’s political aims could not have been achieved at that stage simply through a successful military operation.

Dasgupta’s meticulous marshaling of archival evidence points unambiguously to just one conclusion: that, more than anyone else, it was Haksar who masterminded what Dasgupta calls “the framework of a grand strategy integrating the military, diplomatic and domestic actions required to speed up the liberation of Bangladesh.”

Haksar and Manekshaw enjoyed each other’s company. On 22 March 1971, Manekshaw sent a note to Haksar marking it to him as PN Haksar, Esq. ICS. Two days later drawing a circle around ICS, Haksar sent a ‘Strictly Personal’ chit to the general:

Dear Sam:

Change and adaptation are Darwinian imperatives. And so dinosaurs become lizards and survived. Perhaps Esquires could be Shris. Also I am not ICS, only poor IFS.
Please return this with your comments.

The next day, Manekshaw responded:

Dear Babbu:

Sorry to have branded you with the stigma of the ICS on the strength of which you may claim your pension in sterling or at Rs 18 per pound sterling in Indian currency!!! Shri P.N. Haksar sounds wonderful but “Shri” (which is Indian) doesn’t somehow go with “Secretary to Prime Minister” (which is so English). Likewise “Jurnail Manekshaw—Senpatti” would cause few comments, but “Jurnail Manekshaw-Chief of Army Staff” would sound odd. You agree? No—

That was the last bit of light-hearted banter between them for a long time for that very night the army crackdown in Dacca and other places in East Pakistan began.

This is an extract from Jairam Ramesh’s book, Intertwined Lives: P.N. Haksar and Indira Gandhi, published by Simon & Schuster.