The Western Front

Indira Gandhi’s decision to hold the Indian Army back from Peshawar in 1971

01 July, 2018

AS AFTERNOON TURNED to evening on 16 December 1971—shortly after Pakistani forces surrendered to the Indian Army in East Pakistan—Prime Minister Indira Gandhi called a large meeting in the Cabinet Room, in the South Block of the Secretariat Building that housed her offices. Those present included the defence, foreign, finance and home ministers—all the senior members of the cabinet committee on security—as well as their secretaries, the chiefs of all three armed services, the head of the Research and Analysis Wing, and the cabinet secretary. Also in attendance were four of the prime minister’s closest advisers—PN Haksar, her principal secretary, PN Dhar, her secretary, G Parthasarathi, my father, then formally serving as the vice chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, and myself, her science and technology adviser.

Indira Gandhi, as the prime minister of India, was assured of the support of the Soviet Union. Yahya Khan, heading a military government in Pakistan, was backed by the United States. AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Indira Gandhi, as the prime minister of India, was assured of the support of the Soviet Union. Yahya Khan, heading a military government in Pakistan, was backed by the United States. KEYSTONE/GETTY IMAGES

Opening the meeting, Gandhi asked General Sam Manekshaw, the chief of army staff, how long he would take to reach Peshawar. In the west, as in the east, Pakistan’s defences had been shattered since the war began, on 3 December. Indian forces had complete superiority in the air over West Pakistan, and had taken significant territory on the ground. Maneskhaw’s army had surrounded Sialkot, in Pakistani Punjab, and was poised to breach that massive military fortification, the Ichhogil Canal. From there, the way to Peshawar cut north-west, through the Pakistani capital at Islamabad and the Pakistan Army’s headquarters in Rawalpindi.

“Three days, madam,” Manekshaw shot back. Gandhi seemed a bit surprised at the promptness of his response, and remarked that Manekshaw seemed very sure of himself. The general replied that as he and his commanders had watched developments in the east, they had known that this question would come, so they had done their homework and were ready.

Gandhi went around the table asking for views. One by one, everyone said that we should head straight for Peshawar and take it.

Then Gandhi asked Haksar for his thoughts. He said he had no doubt that Manekshaw could reach Peshawar in three days, but, he wondered, what then? Was India to take over and rule West Pakistan? With a deployment of 100,000 troops we could do it, he reasoned, and initially the people of West Pakistan would be with us. Their slogans would be “Yahya Khan murdabad, Tikka Khan murdabad,” denouncing the country’s military dictatorship. But after six months, the mood would shift, and the people would want the Indians out. The slogans would change to “Hindu kutte wapas jao”—Go back, Hindu dogs.

At this point, Jagjivan Ram, the defence minister, raised his hand to speak. Haksar had not understood his view, he said. He was not arguing for the annexation of West Pakistan—only a fool would advocate that. He was proposing that it was feasible and necessary to use the chance to take back areas that Pakistan had taken by force, in Jammu and Kashmir, after Partition.

For once, Haksar was speechless.

After hearing both Haksar and Ram, Gandhi closed the meeting. “Achha, main sochoongi,” she said—I will think about it.

WHY GANDHI DID NOT GO for Peshawar will remain one of the great enigmas of the twentieth century. As the end of the 1971 war approached, circumstances in the subcontinent, and globally, aligned to give her unprecedented cause for boldness. If she had chosen otherwise, history would have been fundamentally different for India, Asia and the world. Few know of everything that she had to consider.

The 1971 Indo-Pakistani War was not of our making. It was forced upon us by Pakistan, then under the military rule of Yahya Khan. The Pakistani military’s brutality in East Pakistan—especially as the military governor, Tikka Khan, oversaw the suppression of a growing liberation movement—created a huge flow of refugees into India. We were left with a humanitarian problem of gargantuan proportions. The government had to find a way, and quickly at that, to let the refugees return home in safety.

The dictatorship of Yahya Khan and Tikka Khan was totally and unconditionally supported by the US president, Richard Nixon, and his hard-nosed, arrogant national security adviser, Henry Kissinger. Other Western powers, despite their avowals of democracy, stood by the Khans too, even in the face of unimaginable crimes such as the systematic rape of women in East Pakistan.

Gandhi and her advisors designed a strategy in response to the Khans and their Western benefactors. First, we would build up our armed forces to fight and win what seemed an inevitable war. Second, as a way to counter the distorted picture of South Asia being put out especially by the Western and Pakistani media, we would send delegations to countries in Western Europe, East and West Asia, Africa and even Latin America, as well as to the United Nations, to explain what was really happening. Third, India and the Soviet Union would enter into a treaty that guaranteed strategic cooperation in the event that either country was attacked.

Swiftly, we raised new infantry and armoured divisions, to be deployed against West Pakistan. The Soviet Union, with assistance from experienced Indian officers, selected a couple of thousand top infantrymen who could fight in the hot and humid conditions of East Pakistan. We also acquired from the Soviet Union two squadrons of MiG-23 fighters for our air force, and several batteries of surface-to-air missiles for the protection of Delhi and Bombay. The Soviet position was that we could take whatever we wanted, and the price could be decided later.

Camps set up to receive refugees from East Pakistan eventually came to hold some ten million people, who constituted one of the largest trans- border migrations in human history AP PHOTO

Such was the Soviet Union’s generosity that it sent to India a specialised aerial-surveillance aircraft. The aircraft would circle high over the battle zone with its powerful radar, processing signals with its complex onboard electronics to pick up every Pakistani military aircraft. The data with the exact locations of Pakistani planes was to be sent to a ground station that we quickly constructed at a place called Chakrata, to be operated by the Aviation Research Centre of the Research and Analysis Wing. Intelligence would be passed on from there to the headquarters of both the army and the air force, and onwards to our airfields and air defences. Normally such a project would have been undertaken by the air force, but the matter was so secret that the prime minister asked me to monitor the operation. The same applied to the exceptionally valuable high-resolution ground data of Pakistani airfields collected by low-orbit Soviet surveillance satellites.

My close involvement in the preparations for the coming Pakistani attack took me on visits to some of the camps set up to receive those fleeing East Pakistan, in West Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. These eventually came to hold some ten million refugees, who constituted one of the largest trans-border migrations in human history. Young men from East Pakistan, many of whom had seen their mothers, wives and sisters raped and killed by Pakistani forces, clamoured for us to train, arm and finance them, so they could go back and avenge their loved ones. A team of senior army officers was set up to do what they asked. Soon there was a group called the Mukti Bahini—“freedom fighters”—that went on to play a big part in the coming war. We encouraged reports about the Mukti Bahini in the media in India and abroad, and these stirred a great deal of sympathy across the globe.

The guerillas of the Mukti Bahini had a big role in the defeat of Pakistani forces in the east. WILLIAM LOVELACE/EXPRESS/GETTY IMAGES

We were ready on all points of our strategy. Towards the end of November, our intelligence agencies, as well as Soviet intelligence, concluded that Pakistan would launch its opening attack on 3 December.

On the evening of 2 December, the Soviet ambassador, Nikolai Pegov, came to South Block and went straight to PN Haksar’s office. There, Pegov handed over a bulky envelope. Haksar later told me of how Pegov said that he did not know what it contained, since his embassy had received it via intelligence channels, and not the usual diplomatic avenues.

The message was from Leonid Brezhnev, the leader of the Soviet Union, and was addressed to Indira Gandhi. Brezhnev wrote that he and his colleagues on the politburo of the Soviet communist party had watched with admiration how India’s prime minister and her main colleagues, the Indian armed forces and the country’s people had responded to Pakistan’s actions. In the war looming over the subcontinent, he said, India could count on the unconditional support of the Soviet Union.

Haksar rushed off to the prime minister’s residence with the letter. I was there as she read it, twice over. Her reaction was a single remark to Haksar about the Soviets. “Look at them,” she said. “Whenever we are in trouble they stand behind us like a rock.”

Early on the following morning, Gandhi rang up her private secretary, NK Seshan, to say that she wanted to go to the east of the country that day, and that he should see to the arrangements. Seshan was incredulous that she would want to leave the capital with an attack impending. He called me to tell me of Gandhi’s plan, and asked me to rush to her residence to try and dissuade her. I had barely put the phone down when it rang again. This time it was Jagjivan Ram, the defence minister. He had also heard the news, and told me that, since the prime minister was fond of me and valued my advice, he hoped I could change her mind. I replied that I was only her science and technology advisor, while he was the defence minister, and that the advice might be better coming from him.

Very soon, I was at the prime minister’s residence. As I headed in, Ram was coming out. Gandhi was adamant, he told me. Inside, I told Gandhi, “Madam, you know better than all of us that the first Pakistani strike is due.” She did not waver.

And so she went. Later that day, she delivered a public speech in Calcutta. Before sunset, the Pakistani air force hit our forward airbases, and other sites. In the evening, and after being informed of the strikes, Gandhi landed back in Delhi. She went straight from the airport to the Cabinet Room in South Block, where all those who would gather here again on the day of the Pakistani surrender had already assembled. After half an hour of comprehensive stock-taking on the military situation, the cabinet formally handed the war over to the three service chiefs.

Our navy launched a massive bombardment of Karachi, and by midnight, Pakistan’s main port was burning. In the night, our air force struck Pakistan’s major air bases, including the principal base at Sargodha. The bases saw huge damage, and many Pakistani aircraft were destroyed on the ground.

The army moved swiftly as well. In the east, it gained steadily on Dhaka, where the East Pakistan leadership found itself trapped. In the west, after a series of decisive victories in the early days of the war, the army advanced to the positions it held when Manekshaw addressed Gandhi on 16 December. It was not just East Pakistan that faced total collapse. Even in the west, Pakistani troops were throwing down their weapons in surrender, and we captured thousands of soldiers from some of the best Pakistani regiments. Demonstrations against Yahya Khan and Tikka Khan began breaking out in some of Pakistan’s largest cities.

On the morning of 16 December, Gandhi received a second top-secret letter from Brezhnev. The Soviet leader and his politburo colleagues congratulated the prime minister and all of India for the superb victory in the east. Now, Brezhnev wrote, Gandhi and her colleagues had to turn their attention to the west, and consider carefully what they would do there. Whatever they decided, they could once again count on unconditional Soviet support.

If anyone had any doubt about Russia’s solidarity, what Brezhnev said in word he had also demonstrated in deed. The United States Seventh Fleet, centred on the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, had been ready to land American troops in Chittagong. Russia had rushed a naval armada of its own to the Indian Ocean. The American fleet eventually turned away.

Gandhi did not share this letter with anyone else at the time—not even Haksar, with whom she was extremely close. I came to know of it only several weeks later, and got to read it only when the prime minister showed it to me after a few months. She was the only one who knew of the Soviets’ firm reaffirmation of support as everyone gathered in South Block to discuss what to do with West Pakistan. She would make her fateful decision with the secret to herself.

Indian soldiers joined civilians in East Pakistan to celebrate the surrender of Pakistani forces in the territory, on 16 December 1971. East Pakistan shortly became an independent Bangladesh. GETTY IMAGES

AS GANDHI LEFT SOUTH BLOCK, there was jubilation in Delhi and across India, and also in Bangladesh, as East Pakistan came to be called after its independence. The prime minister headed to her residence, and I followed her there to plead that we advance to Peshawar. I told her we would never have another chance like this, and that she owed it to my generation, which had seen Partition and all that followed it.

Gandhi replied that when the leader of a country has to take such a momentous decision, she is desperately alone. There was nothing more to say.

I went back to my office in South Block. The prime-time news broadcast on All India Radio, at 8pm, announced that the government of India had declared a ceasefire in the west.

This essay draws partly on material in GP: 1912-1995, a book on G Parthasarathi by Ashok Parthasarathi, upcoming from Academic Foundation.