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:

Jairam Ramesh JAIRAM RAMESH is a member of Parliament since 2004 and has been a union minister between 2006 and 2014. He is the author of a number of books, including Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature (2017), Old History, New Geography: Bifurcating Andhra Pradesh (2016), and To the Brink and Back: India's 1991 Story (2015).

Keywords: Bangladesh Liberation war Bangladesh Indira Gandhi 1971 War PN Haksar Sam Manekshaw
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