The liberation of Bangladesh at the end of India’s spectacular military victory in the 1971 war stands out as a crown in the nation’s many splendored achievements not only since Independence but, arguably, in its entire history. Besides other factors, the conduct of India’s foreign policy by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi during the nine-month crisis was a major contributor in the ultimate achievements of political and military objectives of the 13-day liberation war.
Henry Kissinger’s visit to India in July 1971 made it amply clear that in case of war, unlike in 1962, India would not get any help from the United States if China was to come to Pakistan’s aid. In fact, Kissinger warned India on behalf of President Richard Nixon that India shouldn’t even think of attacking
Pakistan. Within a month of Kissinger’s departure, India signed the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation. This diplomatic masterstroke by Indira Gandhi was to act as a deterrent against both China and the US. The flow of refugees into India, which began soon after the Pakistanis started the genocide of East Bengal’s people in late March 1971, reached nearly six million by August and was to go upto 10 million by the end of 1971. Indira Gandhi wrote to all world leaders soon after the refugees started pouring in, explaining the circumstances that led to their fleeing their homeland, and urged them to put pressure on Pakistan to respect the people’s verdict. But there was only sympathy, nothing else.
When Indira Gandhi realised the world community was lukewarm to her appeals, she decided to undertake a tour of major countries and convince their heads of government that unless they could prevail upon Pakistan to settle the issue of the refugees, it could trigger a war with disastrous consequences that wouldn’t be confined to the subcontinent. From September to mid-November the Indian PM visited Soviet Russia, Belgium, Austria, the US, France and Germany, in that order. Many other countries that couldn’t be on the PM’s itinerary were visited by her affable foreign minister Swaran Singh. The PM’s foreign tour was covered in two phases: in the first phase into Soviet Russia and in the second, after a month, to Western Europe and the US. She visited Belgium, Austria and Britain before heading to the US, and later France and Germany. She explained to these countries’ leaders that the raging turmoil in Bangladesh and the resultant refugee problem were threatening India’s security and indeed its “very existence”. Everywhere, except with the Nixon administration, she encountered sympathy for the plight of the refugees and understanding for the Indian predicament.
To those who told her India must show restraint and enter into negotiations with Pakistan, she would firmly reply: “There was no India-Pakistan dispute involved. The negotiations must be held between the President of Pakistan and the duly elected leadership of the Awami League in Bangladesh.” In London, when British foreign secretary Alec Douglas-Home told her: “Our fear is that there would be war”, Mrs Gandhi replied: “We won’t start it.” According to one of her biographers, since the public and media opinion on Bangladesh in most Western countries was way ahead of their governments’ stand, Indira put her public appearances in Britain to good use to hammer home the message that the appeals for the restraint addressed to her were meaningless. No government, she told the BBC in an interview, could have shown the restraint that hers had done despite such tremendous provocation and threat to our safety and stability. When the word “restraint” was used yet again by the interviewer, she shot back: “When Hitler was on the rampage, why didn’t you say, ‘Let’s keep quiet and let’s have peace with Germany and let the Jews die’?”
All this was had a positive impact. When the crunch came and the Bangladesh war became a subject of heated discussion and hectic diplomatic activity at the UN Security Council, Britain and France abstained from voting on resolutions unacceptable to India. Later, in January 1972, they were quick to recognise Bangladesh. The story in the US was starkly different, as much in the Security Council debates in December 1971 as during Indira’s visit to Washington more than a month earlier. In Kissinger’s words, the Nixon-Gandhi conversation “turned into a classic dialogue of the deaf”. When the question of a meeting between her and Gen. Yahya Khan was raised at the National Press Club, she replied that she could not possibly “shake hands with a clenched fist”. She also pointed out that while she had never said a “rude word” about anybody, Yahya Khan had been making offensive statements about her and about things in general which precluded a “friendly conversation”. She explained how a whole nation was being “systematically exterminated”. It was genocide and it must be stopped.
During her stay in London Indira Gandhi told a meeting of the India League: “I am sitting on top of a volcano and honestly do not know when it is going to erupt.” Shortly after returning home, she knew the flashpoint had been reached. The success of her foreign trips prior to the war is summed up aptly by Dom Moraes in his book: “In view of all the events that followed her trip, it was perfectly timed. She had explained the stance of her country and the tragedy of Bangladesh to the leaders of the world. She had furnished them with a background against which to interpret her subsequent actions. Now she could turn full attention to the matter immediately at hand.”