On 29 November, Yahya Khan decided to launch an all-out attack on India on the western front. He had scant hope of success, but he felt that the reputation of the Pakistan army would suffer irreparable damage if it were to lose East Pakistan without a full-scale war. He later admitted that the army could not have lived down the ignominy of surrendering East Pakistan without fighting an all-out war with India.

His chief of general staff, Lt Gen Gul Hasan, is reported to have said: “...we had to take this action, otherwise we will not be able to wear our uniforms.” The date of the attack was set for 2 December, but it was later postponed by a day. New Delhi was hoping for just such a decision. It hoped that Pakistan itself would initiate a full-fledged war, conceding to India the legal and political advantage.

When Pakistan finally launched its attack on Indian forward airbases on the western front on the evening of 3 December 1971, the Indians were fully prepared. Early warning radars had been suitably positioned, and aircraft had been dispersed and camouflaged. The attack turned out to be a fiasco. The air strikes were followed up with assaults on Indian ground positions in the Chhamb and Ferozepur areas.

With these attacks across India’s western borders, Pakistan started the war that India had been preparing to fight since April 1971. By the end of November, India had completed its military and diplomatic preparations for a short and decisive military campaign leading to the liberation of Bangladesh. Its armed forces were in position. It had ensured that the Soviet Union would veto a hostile US or Chinese resolution in the Security Council, and signals had also been received from two other permanent members of the Security Council – France and the UK – indicating differences with their US ally.

The war launched by Pakistan gave India the justification it was seeking for according formal recognition to the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. On 6 December, Indira Gandhi announced in parliament:

Now that Pakistan is waging war against India, the normal hesitation on our part not to do anything which could come in the way of [a] peaceful solution, or which might be construed as intervention, has lost its significance. The people of Bangladesh battling for their very existence and the people of India fighting to defeat aggression, now find themselves partisans in the same cause.

I am glad to inform the House that in the light of the existing situation and in response to the repeated requests of the Government of Bangla Desh the Government of India have after the most careful consideration, decided to grant recognition to the GANA PRAJATANTRI BANGLA DESH.

The next day, India and Bangladesh entered into an agreement to create a Joint Command for the liberation war under Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora. The general was explicitly instructed to report to both the Indian and Bangladesh governments.

The military operations leading up to the Pakistani surrender at Dhaka have been studied in detail by several analysts, including many of the leading protagonists. It is not our intention to enter this well- trodden field. Our aim is to study the interplay between the military and diplomatic moves that enabled military operations to be pursued without interruption to a decisive conclusion; the attainment of the overall political aim of assisting the speedy emergence of the new state of Bangladesh and the return of the millions of Bangladeshi refugees to their homeland.

The ‘tilt’

Nixon’s ‘tilt’ towards Pakistan posed the most formidable challenge to the attainment of India’s aims. On 1 December, even before the outbreak of war, Nixon suspended military sales to India. This, in itself, was a matter of little practical consequence, since India’s arms imports from the US were negligible. Indeed, the State Department had earlier pointed out the futility of the move.

When Keating conveyed the presidential decision to Kaul, the Indian foreign secretary received it with equanimity, stating firmly that pressure tactics would not work with India. Nor was suspension of foreign aid, announced shortly thereafter, of great importance – at least in the short run. India, in 1971, was no longer as critically dependent on foreign aid as it had been in the past two decades.

More serious were three other manifestations of the White House “tilt”. First, immediately upon the outbreak of war, the United States raised the issue in the United Nations. It spared no effort to impose an immediate ceasefire and troop withdrawals through a Security Council resolution, before the liberation war could be brought to a successful conclusion.

An early ceasefire imposed by the Security Council was precisely the contingency that India had feared and anticipated in drawing up its strategic plans. India relied on a Soviet veto to thwart such initiatives until military operations had reached a successful conclusion.

Second, Nixon and Kissinger attempted to “scare off “ or intimidate India by sending a nuclear carrier task force into the Indian Ocean while also encouraging China to exert military pressure on India’s borders. While New Delhi had anticipated the UN move, a menacing US naval presence in the Indian Ocean had previously been dismissed by Indian policymakers as inconceivable.

Finally, the White House tried to undercut Soviet support for India by linking this issue with the prospects of detente. The Bangladesh crisis erupted at a time when the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in exploring the possibility of detente. A major breakthrough was expected during Nixon’s planned visit to Moscow in May 1972.

The White House strongly hinted that continued Soviet support for India would prejudice the prospects of detente. A fundamental feature of Nixon’s interpretation of detente was the concept of “linkage”. This meant, in Nixon’s own words, that “...crisis or confrontation in one place and real cooperation in another cannot long be sustained simultaneously”.

The United Nations

On the outbreak of war, the United States took the lead in calling for an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council, marshalling eight other members as co-signatories. Pakistan itself had not requested a meeting, fearing that a Security Council debate might raise awkward questions about the origins of the crisis. Hence, China was not among the co-signatories of the US proposal.

A ceasefire appeal and its repudiation

While the United Nations was locked in these debates, the ground realities were changing rapidly. The Indian army raced towards Dhaka from three directions – west, north and north-east. It received an enthusiastic welcome everywhere from the local population. The freedom fighters spread out all over the countryside. On 6 December, CIA Director Richard Helms reported that on a conservative estimate, it would take ten days for India to compel Pakistani forces to surrender on the eastern front.

On 8 December, the day after the adoption of the General Assembly resolution, Yahya Khan confided to the American ambassador that the situation in East Pakistan was “beyond hope”. Thus, within the first week of the war, the Pakistani collapse in the eastern theatre was clear to all informed observers.

On 9 December, Nixon despondently said to Kissinger: “The partition of Pakistan is a fact...You see those people welcoming the Indian troops when they come in...Why then are we going through all this agony?” Kissinger, the agile geopolitical theorist, shored up the president’s resolve by arguing that if a “combination of the Soviet Union and the Soviet-armed client state [India]” were allowed to succeed, it would lead to a “complete collapse of the world’s psychological balance of power”!

That very day, 9 December, the governor of East Pakistan, Dr AM Malik, sent a signal to Yahya pointing out the futility of further resistance:

Once again urge you to consider immediate cease-fire and political settlement(.) Otherwise once Indian troops are free from East Wing in a few days even West Wing will be in jeopardy(.) Understand local population has welcomed Indian army in captured areas and are providing maximum help to them(.) Our troops are finding it impossible to withdraw and manoeuvre due to rebel activity(.) With this clear alignment sacrifice of West Pakistan is meaningless(.)

Yahya authorised the governor to take whatever decision he thought fit: “...take decisions on your proposals...I will approve of any decision you take and I am instructing Gen Niazi simultaneously to accept your decision and arrange things accordingly.”

Thus, on 10 December, the governor’s political adviser Maj Gen Rao Farman Ali handed over a message from the governor to the senior UN official in Dhaka, Paul Marc Henri. The message, prepared in consultation with Lt Gen. Niazi, stated that the governor had been authorized by President Yahya Khan to call upon the UN to arrange for a peaceful transfer of power to the elected representatives of East Pakistan.

As the conflict arose as a result of political causes, it must end with a political solution. I therefore having been authorised by the President of Pakistan do hereby call upon the elected representatives of East Pakistan to arrange for the peaceful formation of the government in Dacca. In making this offer I feel duty bound to say the will of the people of East Pakistan would demand the immediate vacation of their land by the Indian forces as well. I therefore call upon the United Nations to arrange for a peaceful transfer of power and request:- ONE: An immediate ceasefire. TWO: Repatriation with honour of the Armed Forces of Pakistan to West Pakistan. THREE: Repatriation of all West Pakistan personnel desirous of returning to West Pakistan. FOUR: The safety of all persons settled in East Pakistan since 1947. FIVE: Guarantee of no reprisal against any person settled in East Pakistan since 1947. The question of surrender of Armed Forces will not be considered and does not arise and if this proposal is not accepted the Armed Forces will continue to fight to the last man.

The message caused a flurry of excitement in New York – until it was repudiated by the Pakistani president. Yahya had been ready to accept a ceasefire, but not an agreed transfer of power on terms that seemed to imply acceptance of an independent Bangladesh. Moreover, the governor was expected to make the appeal on his own (delegated) authority, without saddling the president with the responsibility!

The governor’s message, Yahya complained to him, “...has gone much beyond what you suggested and I had approved. It gives the impression that you are talking on behalf of Pakistan when you have mentioned the subject of transfer of power, political solution and repatriation of troops from East to West Pakistan, etc. This virtually means the acceptance of an independent East Pakistan.”

Yahya authorised the governor to make an alternative offer limited to a ceasefire in East Pakistan, guarantees of the safety of Pakistani armed forces and prevention of reprisals.”The question of transfer of power and political solution will be tackled at National level.” Hours later, Yahya changed his mind and countermanded these instructions.

He instructed the governor to take no action regarding even a ceasefire. “Important diplomatic and military moves are taking place by our friends. It is essential that we hold out for another 36 hours at all costs,” he advised the governor. Yahya was pinning his hopes on a rescue operation by the White House.

During this episode, India refrained from commenting on the governor’s proposals, pending clarification of their status. The proposals handed over by Gen Rao Farman Ali would have met India’s primary objective by arranging for an early de facto transfer of power to the Bangladesh government and freeing the country of the presence of the Pakistani armed forces.

Had they been authenticated by Yahya, the terms may well have been accepted by India. With the repudiation of the governor’s initiative, Pakistan lost the opportunity for a negotiated ceasefire and paved the way for an unconditional surrender in the eastern front.

India and the Bangladesh Liberation War

Excerpted with permission from India and the Bangladesh Liberation War, Chandrashekhar Dasgupta, Juggernaut.