Manekshaw’s secret, Indira’s plans: a ‘71 mystery

July 1st, 2008 - 3:12 pm ICT by IANS  

By Dipankar De Sarkar
London, July 1 (IANS) Field Marshall Sam Manekshaw’s death robs Indians of a vital source of information on one of recent Indian history’s unresolved questions: did New Delhi have secret plans to dismember Pakistan in the west after comprehensively defeating it in the east? India’s plans in the western sector toward the close of the 1971 war over Bangladesh have long been a matter of controversy and speculation by historians and others.

American declassified documents say President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger believed Prime Minister Indira Gandhi wanted to dismember West Pakistan.

Equally, some Russian commentators have said they dissuaded her from doing so.

But some leading Indian - as well as Pakistani - diplomats and strategic experts say if Gandhi had wanted to march in to Pakistan, she could have done so. They attribute the American and Russian claims to interventionist zeal.

The hero of the 1971 war, Manekshaw, was a garrulous man. But he never spoke publicly about the issue.

The divided opinion found an echo at a just-ended conference on India and Pakistan organised by the Tehelka media group in London.

“Mrs Gandhi never had a territorial ambition, but she did want to finish off Pakistan’s military capability,” former Pakistan foreign secretary Tanvir Ahmad Khan told IANS.

“But that would have ultimately led to the break up of Pakistan. There would have been chaos,” he added.

Khan’s assessment is similar to that of the late Nixon and Kissinger, who is a prominent commentator in the US media.

Declassified US documents claim that details of a briefing given by Gandhi to members of her cabinet in early December 1971 were leaked to the US intelligence.

A summary of the documents by the State Department says: “Gandhi outlined her war aims: she would not accept a settlement until Bangladesh was liberated, the ’southern area of Azad Kashmir’ was liberated, and the Pakistani armoured and air force strength was destroyed to prevent any future challenge to India.

“Nixon and Kissinger took this as proof that India planned not only to foster the independence of East Pakistan, but to use the opportunity of the crisis to inflict a crushing military defeat on Pakistan, which would lead to the break-up of West Pakistan. Kissinger attributed to the Gandhi government the goal of Balkanizing West Pakistan.”

With the Bangladesh war seen in Cold War terms by the Americans and Russians, exchanges between Nixon and Kissinger sometimes bordered on the paranoid - the two men even contemplated using nuclear weapons against Russia if China entered the conflict.

The US archives quote Kissinger as telling Nixon: “If the Soviets move against them (the Chinese) and we don’t do anything, we will be finished.”

“Nixon asked: ‘So what do we do if the Soviets move against them? Start lobbing nuclear weapons in, is that what you mean?’ Kissinger responded: ‘If the Soviets move against them in these conditions and succeed, that will be the final showdown… and if they succeed we will be finished’.

“He added that ‘if the Russians get away with facing down the Chinese and the Indians get away with licking the Pakistanis… we may be looking down the gun barrel.’ In the end, they concluded that the projected confrontation with the Soviet Union would not involve a nuclear exchange.”

But at the London conference June 26-27, at least two former senior Pakistani figures - spy chief Lt Gen Assad Durrani and finance and foreign minister Sartaj Azeez - were not sure if Indira Gandhi would have wanted to dismember Pakistan.

“There was neither the intention, nor the capability. The relative strength of Pakistan on the western front would not have encouraged a major Indian invasion,” said Durrani.

“You wouldn’t turn your guns to the western sector when the bulk of your forces were in Bangladesh, and achieve a strategic result,” he added.

Sartaj Azeez said both the US and the Soviet Union “overstated the case” in order to give their impression that it was their intervention that had stopped the Bangladesh war from spiralling out of control.

“In any case, Pakistan would have been ready for such an invasion as the bulk of our troops - something like 600,000 men - was in West Pakistan,” Azeez said.

The late Indian foreign secretary Jyotindra Nath Dixit too has dismissed Nixon’s and Kissinger’s claims.

“The Indian government’s attitude after the war disproved the theory of those who still believed that India had opposed the existence of Pakistan,” he is quoted as saying in British journalist Victoria Schofield’s book, “Kashmir in Conflict: India, Pakistan and the Unending War”.

“Had India wanted to dismember Pakistan completely, the army could have marched straight on to Rawalpindi,” Dixit said.

Whether Indira Gandhi ever contemplated such an invasion, or whether the claims were part of an elaborate Cold War drama played out by the Americans and Russians is something that still awaits clarity.

And Sam Manekshaw isn’t telling. He never did tell.

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