By Nitya Chakraborty
‘Gentlemen, I am late because we are at war. Pakistan has attacked India on the western front and we have retaliated. We are officially at war now’. That was what the Information & Broadcasting Secretary of the Government of India R C Dutt, belonging to ICS, told impatient newsmen at the Press Information Bureau (PIB) conference hall at Shastri Bhavan, New Delhi in the evening of December 3, 1971.
At 6 PM, PIB press room was crowded with media people, both Indian and foreign. Suddenly there was total blackout and the siren started in an ominous manner. The scheduled briefing did not start and there was impatience among the press people. After quite some time, R.C Dutt appeared and the correspondents started complaining that they were waiting for too long. The cigar smoking Dutt, belonged to the legendary Dutt family of Rambagan of Kolkata. His ancestors included famous ICS historian Ramesh Chandra Dutt and the British Communist leader Rajani Palme Dutt and Taru Dutt, the first Indian woman to bring out a book of poems in French. Taru died at only 21 in 1877. This Rambagan Dutt family was the only one among Calcutta’s westernised rich landlord families which gave competition to the Tagores of Jorashanko in terms of intellectual talent in 19th century Bengal.
After making his stunning announcement, Dutt said that the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was in Calcutta addressing a meeting, the emergency meeting of the union cabinet will be held after she was back and the briefing would be held at night after 9 PM. The reporters rushed to file stories. As a junior reporter in IPA, I also left immediately for the nearby central telegraph office at Janpath to file my story for our subscribers. Later at the final briefing after 10-30 PM, R C Dutt was accompanied by foreign secretary T N Kaul and the defence secretary K B Lall. This trio was in complete command at that vital press meet. Even the provocative questions by some western correspondents were met with such terse replies that they never followed up the same.
As I see back and assess the developments from March 26 to December 16, 1971 the day the Pakistani forces surrendered in Dhaka, it becomes apparent how the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi crafted her political and military strategy step by step and defeated not just the Pakistani rulers but also the scheming duo of United States of America president Richard Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger. In fact, the US strategy was never humbled in such a manner excepting its fiasco in Vietnam during that period.
Indira Gandhi’s strategy was so well made and it was executed with such professional expertise that even many Muslim nations extended support to her. The first was the signing of the Indo-Soviet Treaty on August 9, 1971. By that time she was convinced that the US will take position against India, even can take the risk of siding militarily with Pakistan. Both Nixon and Kissinger disliked her, she knew. She told the Soviet leadership candidly that India had no expansionist ambition. Not an inch of territory of Pakistan will be taken by India. India’s only wish was that the Bangladesh should be allowed to emerge as an independent nation.
The fact is that the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev was apprehensive when the war started in full scale on December 3 evening and it escalated in western front. Since the Indo-Soviet Treaty stipulated collaboration if India was militarily attacked, the Russians wanted to avert any direct confrontation with US as US President was already cosying with China after his visit to Beijing. But the Soviets were fully convinced after getting Indian PM’s assurance and also the feedback from their intelligence sources that Indian Government has the limited ambition of helping Bangladesh emerge as an independent nation.
This equivocal stand helped Indian PM to get full military backing during those days in December when the USA threatened India with its Seventh Fleet and India equally replied that it would take adequate retaliatory measures. As soon as the US fleet began its journey, Soviet fleet followed giving rethinking among Nixon-Kissinger camp that another Cuba episode should be avoided. Pakistan continuously egged President Nixon to do something concrete to threaten India after December 9 when the situation in eastern part was collapsing and panicky messages were coming from Dhaka based military generals. Kissinger persuaded Nixon to send seventh fleet. The fleet was supposed to go to the eastern part of Bay of Bengal but the immediate Soviet action in deploying its powerful flotilla behind the US fleet and the message from the Soviet Union that the Soviet leaders will not allow any US military intervention in India-Pakistan war, made all the difference. The US fleet changed its course on December 12 and instead of the east proceeded to the west.
With that change of direction of the US fleet, all hopes of the Pakistan President Yahya Khan were lost and efforts started on working on a ceasefire solution to save the face. But India remained firm and demanded total surrender for avoiding further losses of human lives. Pakistan President hoped for some days that China would deploy its forces around the border in NEFA but no such thing took place. There was some movement of Chinese troops but that was far away from the border. Pakistan media tried to project that China would give assistance but they were disappointed. China helped Pakistan indirectly but avoided direct intervention.
The best thing that favoured India before the war officially started was the gathering of intelligence on Pakistani moves and that made the real difference in making proper preparations. Initially, the date of Pakistani attack was scheduled for December 2 but then it was shifted to December 3 and all the moves were known to India through their sources.. On the basis of all the information received from the intelligence sources, the military officials adopted a foolproof action plan.
Indian side took all the precautions to disperse the aircrafts from the known positions in the airbases and the high quality Indian radar could locate the Pakistani planes direction. Everything of Indian planning on December 3 went in clock like precision and to their horror, Pakistani side found that it was a disaster for their airforce, after their attack. That was the beginning and the Indian superiority on the western front was established in every area, army, air force and navy.
1971 victory against Pakistan and the emergence of Bangladesh as a free nation catapulted Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to a new height in popularity. And in this entire course of nine months in that year till December 16, every step was taken after full consultations with her senior officials, especially her political secretary P N Haksar. It was a perfect combination of the Government leadership, senior bureaucrats and the military chiefs. This was really India’s moment of glory in international diplomacy. (IPA Service)