1971 War Tales Fail to Bust Myths: The Tribune India

Maj Gen Ashok K Mehta (ret’d)

military commentator

The 1971 Indo-Pakistani War was a brilliant and comprehensive military victory that gave birth to a nation. The grand strategy resulted in the unconditional surrender of 93,000 prisoners of war, the capture of 5,000 km2 in the west and the humiliation of the Pakistani army. When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi surrendered to Simla, she was the winning army of strategic gains, while Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was the defeated and exhausted leader. The Simla Accord resulted in the following: (a) the conversion of the ceasefire line (CFL) into a line of control; (b) the concept of bilateralism and peaceful resolution (without the use of force) of disputes; and (c) the heads of the two states would meet for a final settlement of the Kashmir question. This meager result was achieved even after Indira Gandhi was worshiped as Durga and Sam Manekshaw as the victorious general of India’s first military triumph in a thousand years. The strategic community has long argued that military gains are wasted at the negotiating table.

The Indian diplomatic corps had not accepted this failure with grace. So, now we have the book by seasoned diplomat Chandrashekhar Dasgupta India and Bangladesh Liberation War: The Definitive Story, which has been hailed as “myth-busting.” Dasgupta’s claims are based on careful research from archival documents, but as Sarmila Bose (University of Oxford) wrote in Dead Reckoning: Memories of 1971 Bangladesh War, that most of what is written are partisan narratives, not history. She wants the “evidence to tell the story” and the testimonies of participants and eyewitnesses to become building blocks for chronicling and analyzing briefs and official accounts. That the war is “poorly documented” is a fact. Likewise, PN Haksar, DP Dhar and PN Dhar – all the accounts of prominent officials are in many ways partisan. Dasgupta’s final account is a valiant effort to counter criticism from foreign and civilian services during and after the war.

Dasgupta’s portrayal of Simla’s outcome, the rationale for postponing military intervention, and Manekshaw’s portrayal as a great leader contradict conventional wisdom. When Indira Gandhi summoned Manekshaw for a Cabinet meeting in April following the military crackdown in East Pakistan, he told her that an immediate military invasion would fail as it would take time to build the infrastructure, logistics, fill. equipment shortages, avoid monsoons on riparian lands, and allow northern passes to be closed to prevent Chinese intervention. In fact, Lieutenant-General JFR Jacob, in his book Surrender at Dhaka: Birth of a Nation, attributed the need for more time to his recommendation from the Eastern Command. But Dasgupta says that even before Indira Gandhi called Manekshaw, she had already decided that more time was needed for political and diplomatic preparations because “non-interference was considered sacred and intervention was not was not kosher “. It was Haksar who dissuaded Gandhi from intervening quickly. So Gandhi’s intention to delay action coincided with Manekshaw’s recommendations. What is the problem with the strange strategic politico-military congruence! Whether Manekshaw stole the show is another matter.

Likewise, on Simla’s denouement, Dasgupta tells us that India’s goal was the liberation of Bangladesh. Period. This was achieved in its entirety on December 16, 1971, following the abject surrender of Pakistani forces. Gandhi went to Simla with several tricks up his sleeve – 93,000 prisoners of war, 5,000 km2 of territory in the west and 195 Pakistani prisoners of war on trial for war crimes in Bangladesh. Dasgupta said India’s subsidiary goal is to convert CFLs to LoCs and achieve a treaty encapsulating bilateralism, non-use of force and a final Kashmir settlement. The Simla deal ran from June 28 to July 2, and the failed talks leaked to reporters on July 2. Bhutto demanded another meeting with Gandhi after dinner to break the deadlock and landed a favorable deal with just a sweat down his sleeves.

The only definitive book on the Simla Accord, Simla Summit 1972: Its Wasted Promise, written by PR Chari and Pervez Iqbal Cheema, presents each country’s perspective. Before the summit, preliminary talks were held in London and Murree. While Gandhi wanted a final settlement on Kashmir, Bhutto wanted to recover 93,000 prisoners of war, 5,000 km ² of land and abandon the trial of 193 prisoners of war. During the London talks, DP envoys Dhar and Bhutto agreed to convert CFLs to LoCs and resolve all disputes by peaceful means. The prisoners of war could not be returned and some were not tried without the consent of Bangladesh. Chari writes: “It is clear that India agreed with Simla to resolve Kashmir by accepting its division along the LoC. The inability of Indian negotiators to freeze the status quo in Kashmir led to Simla’s failure. Cheema notes that Bhutto went to Simla with no card up his sleeve. The Indians repeatedly insisted on converting the new LoC to IB (p135) despite their argument that it was constitutionally and legally part of India. And yet, they were looking for the status quo. The spoiled promise in the title of the book refers to Bhutto’s promise to gradually turn LoC into IB. Senior reporter Inder Malhotra said in The Indian Express (April 9, 2014) that Pakistanis said Bhutto’s diplomatic talent had deceived Gandhi. He adds that Soviet President Brezhnev told Gandhi that Bhutto should not be fired empty-handed. Gandhi’s magnanimity as the winner made the deal possible as Bhutto had promised, DP Dhar wrote in 2005: “Aap mere par bharosa keejiye” on the transformation of the LoC into a border.

Manekshaw comes in for un-charitable comments like the lack of geopolitical vision, being a storyteller, and that it was Jacob and not Manekshaw who staged the victory, including naming Dhaka as the war target. It would take another column to demolish this myth, the work of Jacob. Suffice it to say, Jacob was a thoughtful staff officer, akin to a senior secretary to the executive. But Manekshaw and Army Eastern Commander Jagjit Singh Aurora were the commanders, leading the campaign. A photo that appeared in mid-December in The Hindu, showing Manekshaw conspicuously leaning forward, sitting across from Gandhi in his office, testifying to the unique relationship between them. No one can take Manekshaw of his well-deserved glory. Dasgupta’s book is a must read even if it doesn’t break any myths.