Author and journalist Sitaram Sharma relives the story when he was with Indira Gandhi, former Prime Minister, Government of India on the day Pakistan attacked five of India’s air bases to start the 1971 war. It was December 3, 1971 and the author was at the Raj Bhawan in Kolkata.
This article also deals with the author’s unforgettable memories as a member of the first press party to visit the border after the liberation of Bangladesh, escorted by the Eastern Command on 19 December, just three days after the surrender of the Pakistani forces.
Even as Indira Gandhi was trying to get a hold on domestic matters, across the borders in Pakistan, a major crisis was brewing. In December 1970, Pakistan held its first general election based on adult franchise. In West Pakistan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party dominated. In the east, it was the National Awami League, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Yahya Khan, who has succeeded Ayub Khan as the President and martial law administrator, had expected that Bhutto would win the elections and that he would continue as President. The results were a shock to both Yahya Khan and Bhutto. In West Pakistan, the PPP won 68 out of 144 seats while in East Pakistan, which had a much larger population, the National Awami League won 167 out of 169 seats.
East Pakistan had always been treated as a colony by the western part of the country. For both Bhutto and Yahya, the prospect of a Bengali, Mujibur Rahman, dominating Pakistan was unthinkable. Attempts to work out a settlement acceptable to West Pakistan were made but Mujib was not willing to submit. The repression that was then unleashed on the people of East Pakistan is well known. Following that repression, no less than 10 million refugees crossed the border to seek shelter in India. The majority was Hindu but there were quite a few Muslims, because all Bengali Muslims, especially the intellectuals, students and those in the Bengali media were the targets of attack. They sought shelter in West Bengal, Tripura and Meghalaya. The number of those killed ran into thousands.
The cost of providing shelter and food to these refugees was a burden that the Indian economy could ill afford to bear. Resistance to the Pakistan army and its local auxiliaries, the Razzakars, started with units of the East Pakistani army deserting and forming the core of a Mukti Bahini (liberation army). Disturbed by these developments, US President Richard Nixon dispatched his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, to Beijing to formally establish relations with China. The US-Pakistan-China triangular axis was emerging as a threat to India.
To make the threat even more explicit, the US government dispatched a nuclear aircraft carrier to the Bay of Bengal. India’s response was quick. On August 17, 1971, the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation was signed. On December 3, Pakistan made a pre-emptive strike on India’s air bases in an unsuccessful attempt to cripple India’s defense capability. The Indian army, having tasted the bitter fruit of defeat at the hands of the Chinese and learnt its lesson, was able to trap the bulk of the Pakistani forces in Bangladesh and force them to surrender. On December 16, the Pakistani forces surrendered in Dhaka to Lt General Jagjit Singh Arora, Commander-in-Chief of the Eastern Command.
Bangladesh, a new state, was born. Indira Gandhi’s handling of the situation and her courage in taking on Pakistan, despite threats from the US and China, were hailed by her own party and the opposition alike. Within her own party there was effusive praise for the Prime Minister and even Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the senior most leader of the opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party and a Rajya Sabha member, spoke of her as ‘Durga’, the all-conquering Goddess of Hindu mythology.
I recall a story of Indira Gandhi and the war, of which I was a silent observer. I was a member of a delegation of the Small Newspapers Association, which had an appointment with the Prime Minister in the evening of December 3, 1971 at Raj Bhawan in Kolkata. West Bengal Governor Shanti Swarup Dhawan, a former judge of the Allahabad High Court, was briefing us on what points needed to be mentioned when we met the Prime Minister. Governor Dhawan was a progressive person and sympathetic to our cause and would have continued talking had not Indira Gandhi’s press adviser, H.Y. Sharda Prasad, called us in. During our meeting with the Prime Minister, a slip was passed to her. She read it, did not react, and continued in her affable style. We later learnt that the note contained the news that Pakistan had started a war by attacking five of India’s main air bases!
Before we went in to meet her, we were warned that the Prime Minister had only a few minutes for us. As soon as the introductions were over, she asked, ‘If you do not mind, can I sit in a relaxed manner?’ She was in a very relaxed and friendly mood and seemed in no hurry. Sharda Prasad was also present. I remember asking her, “How do you propose to implement your progressive and socialist programmes with a bureaucracy so deeply entrenched against such policies?” She gave a very straightforward and direct answer, “All will have to change and will change. For this I need your support.” She was obviously disappointed with big newspapers and wanted to encourage the small ones.
Subinoy Das, a press photographer friend who was with us, wanted to be photographed with her. She agreed, saying, “Normally I have a photograph with pressmen once a year on my birthday but let it be.” She then enquired who would take the photograph and I offered to do the honour. Subinoy, a very old friend, preserves the photograph with great pride. All this was taking place while she was actually internalizing the news that India was under military attack from Pakistan. I have often wondered with amazement about the ability of the lady to deal with such a grave situation with such equanimity, as she posed for a group photograph with us.
Indira Gandhi flew back that night. The Pakistan air force was airborne and there was a danger that the Prime Minister’s plane, if identified, could be shot down. It is reported that on landing she told her secretary P.N. Dhar that she had not been sure of reaching Delhi. The report of our meeting was published in Pupul Jaykar’s 1992 biography of Indira Gandhi. It read, “Indira was in Calcutta at the time. She had addressed a public meeting in the evening and was later on present at a gathering of writers, artists and literary personalities. Frantic efforts were made to contact her. It took two hours to locate the Prime Minister and give her the message. Her demeanor did not alter and she did not immediately react or end the meeting.”
I was involved, albeit in a small way, with the post-war rehabilitation effort. Along with some friends, I had gone to the Indo-East Pakistan border at Benapole on two occasions by local train from the Sealdah station, to hand over support materials to the Eastern Pakistan Rifles soldiers or the Mukti Bahini, as it was known. I met senior journalist Barun Sengupta at Benapole, whose dispatches from the border in the Ananda Bazar Patrika were very popular. I remember publishing a photograph of a receipt by the Eastern Pakistan Rifles acknowledging our material, in Jan Sansar.
I was also a member of the first press party to visit the border after the liberation of Bangladesh. Escorted by the Eastern Command, we left Calcutta early on December 19, three days after the surrender of the Pakistani forces. Our first stop was the Jessore cantonment where 93,000 Pakistani prisoners of war were detained. I remember they were eating bananas and listening to transistors. We also went to the Khulna port, which had been devastated by the Indian navy. On the way we saw many dead bodies of Pakistani soldiers. Passing by vehicles carrying Indian soldiers being wildly cheered by the Bangladeshis. We got ourselves photographed atop a T-72 Indian tank that was the mainstay of India’s artillery in the Indo-Pak war of 1971.
It was an unforgettable journey and brings back many memories. Jiban Banerjee of the Bengali daily Satyajug was with us as we walked the streets of Jessore, which were full of enthusiastic, cheering crowds shouting, ‘Sikh Sena Zindabad’ (Long live the soldiers; the Sikh regiment of the Indian army had been deployed there); ‘Joy Bangla’ and ‘Joy Mukti Bahini’. On the day of victory, December 16, Calcutta went berserk with jubilation. Shouts of ‘Joy Bangla’ filled the air, throughout the night. Huge processions came out on the street, disregarding the black-out. The sight of unknown people congratulating and embracing each other is etched in the memory.
It is often said that victory does not spare the victor. Hardly a year had passed since the war victory and the triumph of the Congress in the 1971 polls - including in West Bengal – before widespread social and economic discontent rapidly engulfed the country. Before examining the consequences of that discontent, it is necessary to understand the extent of the victory scored by Indira Gandhi in the elections. Without this massive victory she could not have had the confidence to take the bold decision that she did over aiding the dismemberment of Pakistan and the formation of Bangladesh.
(Edited excerpts from ‘West Bengal: Changing Colours, Changing Challenges’ by Sitaram Sharma published by Rupa Publication, New Delhi in 2014.)