Prelude To The 1971 War: Unrest In Pakistan And A Cautious India

NEW DELHI: The 1965 war with India took its toll on Pakistan in more ways than one. Within a couple of years after the war, President Ayub lost all credibility and had to make way for Gen Yahya Khan in 1969, who became the President of Pakistan. Pakistan was brought under martial law in March 1969. In 1970, Yahya Khan ordered elections after agreeing to the principle of ‘one man, one vote’—a long-cherished dream of East Pakistanis.

The Awami League, despite its reservations about disproportionate powers vested in the hands of the President to accept or reject the Constitution that would be framed by whichever party came to power after the elections, was all geared up to participate in the elections.

Mujib (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman) had consistently advocated a six-point programme for more autonomy to East Pakistan since 1966, and he decided to make that manifesto the cornerstone of his election campaign in 1970 too. The six-point formula he had advanced was as following:

1. Parliamentary democracy and genuine federal constitution

2. Limiting powers of the central government to just two subjects: defence and foreign affairs

3. Separate currencies for East and West Pakistan

4. To maintain independent foreign exchange deposits for each wing

5. Separate fiscal policy for each wing

6. To maintain separate military/militia force for each wing

This formula was, however, unacceptable to the deep establishment in West Pakistan, and Mujib always knew he had an uphill task getting even part of his agenda fulfilled. He pressed on regardless, fully aware that he had the majority of the Bengalis in East Pakistan behind him.

As 1970 rolled on, the Martial Law administration under Gen Yahya Khan (he had replaced Ayub in 1969) decided to hold the elections on 7 December 1970 after postponing it once. As bad luck would have it, less than a month before elections were to be held, East Pakistan was battered by a devastating cyclone on 12 November 1970. It killed close to one million people.

In a humanitarian gesture, India announced a major grant of 50 million rupees and sent hundreds of trucks loaded with essential items. Awami League volunteers also chipped in wherever they could. The party’s election campaign was impacted positively by this timely help. The response from West Pakistan, especially from Yahya’s administration, was indifferent. This casual approach fuelled the latent anger among the Bengalis against West Pakistan.

The elections were largely free and fair, and Awami League in East Pakistan and Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) were riding on popular but different waves. Yet, no one could have imagined the outcome. The PPP won a modest 83 seats out of 144 seats of the National Assembly (equivalent to India’s Parliament) in West Pakistan; the Awami League, in contrast, swept the polls in the East bagging 167 of the 169 seats!

This unexpected outcome meant that the military regime would now have to take the Awami League’s six-point demand seriously. Even more sinister for the West Pakistanis, the Awami League had a chance to rule entire Pakistan on the strength of its majority of 167 seats in a House of 313. No other party, not even the PPP, came close to the Awami League’s numbers. Under normal circumstances, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was all set to become the prime minister of Pakistan.

But circumstances were not normal. The ruling elite in West Pakistan, including the all-powerful military dictator, Gen Yahya Khan, was not willing to hand over power to those who they saw as their poor, second-class cousins. Yahya and his advisers started looking for ways to deny Mujib and his party the legitimate prize. So various alternatives were thought of. The first option was to let Mujib and his party frame the Constitution that could then be rejected by the President and allow Gen Yahya to continue. The second option was to persuade Mujib and Bhutto to enter into a coalition government and set them off against each other. The third was to maintain status quo, although the last option was fraught with consequences and loss of face for Yahya who had promised transfer of power to the elected representatives.

The game plan started unfolding rapidly. Firstly, Yahya Khan sent congratulatory messages to both Mujib and Bhutto which in itself was questionable since Mujib had clearly won the elections and, therefore, had the mandate to be the prime minister. As if on cue, a few days later, Bhutto declared that the authority at the centre needed to be shared between Awami League and PPP, since the Awami League had not won a single seat in the western part of the country!

The deadlock continued even as Yahya Khan travelled to Dhaka on 12 January 1971 to confer with Mujib. Playing to the gallery during a press conference there, he described Mujib as the future prime minister of Pakistan and that he would soon be handing over the reins of power to ‘Sheikh Sahib’.

R&AW Comes Into Play

India was watching the events unfolding in Pakistan closely. The R&AW, tasked with foreign intelligence, was keeping a wary eye on India’s neighbour. In a 25-page secret note dated 14 January 1971 (two days after Yahya had landed in Dhaka), addressed to the Cabinet Secretary (with a copy to P.N. Haksar), RNK warned of the possibility of Pakistan launching a military campaign against India to divert attention.

He went on to elaborate, ‘After the recent elections, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman has emerged as the unchallenged leader of East Pakistan… He would, therefore, be in a strong position to press for the incorporation of his party’s six-point programme in the Constitution. He would find it difficult to make any compromise in his stand on the main Constitutional issues, since his party had declared that the elections would be considered as a referendum on the six-point programme.’

The R&AW note pointed out that ‘In the Western Wing of Pakistan, particularly the Punjab and Sindh [Zulfikar Ali], Bhutto seems to have captured the imagination of the common man, because of his promises of early radical changes in the social and economic order… It is difficult to judge whether his anti-India posture yielded him rich dividends, because other rightist parties, the leaders of which also consistently indulged in India-baiting, did badly in the elections.’

In RNK’s assessment, the peculiar situation that had emerged in Pakistan after the election results presented a big dilemma for President Yahya Khan. He noted, ‘The present ruling elite consisting of hard-liners in the Armed Forces, the privileged bureaucrats and the vested economic and federal interests might possibly exert pressure on Yahya Khan to try to reserve the trend towards the transfer of power to the representatives of the people in the circumstances which have emerged from the elections. In that event, there would be a temptation for Yahya Khan to consider the prospects of embarking on a military venture against India with a view to diverting the attention of the people from the internal political problems and justifying the continuance of the Martial Law.’ The situation in Pakistan remained fluid and Yahya was trying to find a political solution through a compromise between Mujib and Bhutto. However, RNK, whose job was to look at the worst-case scenarios, concluded, ‘[The] present political situation in Pakistan has not crystallised and is at a very crucial stage. The success or failure of the current Constitutional experiment could be expected to have a definite impact on Pakistan’s policy towards India. If the present Martial Law regime sincerely desires to bring about political stability in the country and pacify the alienated East Pakistani with a view to keeping the two Wings together, it would avoid a military showdown with India. The threat of a military attack or infiltration campaign by Pakistan would also recede if genuine democracy starts functioning in Pakistan. There would, however, be increased possibility of Pakistan resorting to a military venture against India if the democratic process is aborted or the National Assembly is dissolved either due to its failure to evolve an agreed Constitution or refusal by Yahya Khan to authenticate it.’

The R&AW note had also estimated the Pakistani military strength at that point in time and had concluded, ‘Pakistan has considerably increased her armed strength since 1965. Her Army, Navy and Air Force have achieved a good state of military preparedness for any confrontation with India. The potential threat of a military attack by Pakistan on India is quite real, particularly in view of the Sino-Pakistan collusion. Pakistan has also the capability of launching another infiltration campaign into Jammu & Pakistan.’

The note concluded that the Sino-Pakistan collusion was on the rise but correctly predicted—as it was proved in December 1971—that in the event of a military conflict between India and Pakistan, China will not directly intervene but will support Pakistan morally and materially. ‘The relations between China and Pakistan continue to be close… However, while there have been clear indications of collusion between China and Pakistan in pursuing an antagonistic policy towards India, there is little evidence so far to show that these two countries are planning a concerted military action against India… It is unlikely that China would actively get involved, militarily, in Indo-Pakistan conflict. Nevertheless, it is to be expected that in the event of all out hostilities between India and Pakistan, China would adopt a threatening posture on the Sino-Indian border and even stage some border incidents and clashes, to prevent the diversion of Indian troops, assigned to meet the Chinese threat, to the theatres of war with Pakistan. China would also assist Pakistan by arranging a steady flow of supplies and military stores.’

The R&AW had assessed that Pakistan had persistently procured military hardware from all available sources. This hardware had been utilised to build the strength and equipment of Pakistani armed forces and the stockpile of reserves. The US had also offered to sell to Pakistan 300 armoured personnel carriers, seven B-57 bombers, six F-104 star fighters and four P-3 Orion long range maritime reconnaissance aircraft. Pakistan and France had concluded negotiations on procuring 24 Mirage III E and 30 Mirage V aircraft over the next two-three years, the R&AW informed Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. India, on the other hand, was erratic in modernising its military after the 1965 war.

RNK’s note pointed towards Pakistan’s likely attempts to increase infiltration of small groups of armed and well- trained personnel into J&K. ‘The main targets of the infiltrators would be bridges, lines of communication, petrol and supply dumps, airfields, formations headquarters, ammunition depots, police stations, power houses and other key installations. It would appear to be the current strategy of Pakistan to work towards building up popular unrest in J&K, which could be exploited at an opportune moment for launching a “liberation movement” there,’ the assessment concluded.

Meanwhile, as East Pakistan careened towards an unprecedented crisis, Indian decision makers were already making contingency plans. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, despite her preoccupation with the upcoming elections, found time to be briefed regularly on the developing situation in East Pakistan. Haksar, her sounding board and principal trouble-shooter, along with RNK was worried about the fallout of the internal trouble in Pakistan.

Hence, based on RNK’s 14 January 1971 note about Pakistan’s attempts to strengthen her armed forces and create trouble in J&K, Haksar sent a telegram to India’s Ambassador to Moscow, detailing the military equipment that India needed urgently to be ready to face any Pakistani aggression. The list included tanks, APCs, guns, ammunition, bomber aircraft, surface-to-air guided weapons and aircraft for India’s aircraft carrier. ‘We have no, repeat, no other source of supply than to rely upon Soviet readiness to understand and respond to our needs,’ Haksar’s telegram, quoted by Jairam Ramesh in his 2018 book, said.

Simultaneously, Haksar sought and secured Indira Gandhi’s permission to set up a 5-member committee (Committee on East Pakistan), including himself and Kao, under the Cabinet Secretary’s chairmanship. It included the Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary in the beginning. The committee was formed to figure out ways to respond to the evolving situation in East Pakistan. The work was to be coordinated by RNK as the member secretary showing the importance which he had in the government structure at that point in time.

P.N. Banerjee Alias Nath Babu

Although most Indian diplomats posted in East Pakistan had good contacts with the Awami League, there was one man who had better access than most—PN Banerjee alias ‘Nath Babu’. An IPS officer of the West Bengal cadre, Phanishwar Nath (P.N.) Banerjee worked in various districts of the state, did a stint in the State’s Special Branch before becoming Superintendent of Police of Tripura. In 1962, he was deputed to the IB.

After a tenure as Deputy Director at the IB headquarters in Delhi between 1962 and 1965, Banerjee was sent back to Calcutta as the man in-charge of the IB’s Eastern India office on promotion as the Joint Director (JD). At this point, his career flourished as Banerjee showed exemplary leadership and a penchant for intelligence work.

In 1968, he was made the Joint Secretary in-charge of R&AW’s Calcutta station, even as he continued to remain JD, Subsidiary Intelligence Bureau (SIB), Calcutta.

Banerjee’s appointment as the JS in R&AW turned out to be a masterstroke. Entrusted by RNK the delicate job of befriending Mujib, Banerjee assumed a new name, P. Nath and a new passport in this new identity. P. Nath incidentally was derived from his first name Phanishwar Nath!

So P. Nath contacted Mujib through some of his friends in East Pakistan and met him for the first time in London in 1968. Thus began a friendship that lasted until Nath Babu, as Banerjee had come to be known in East Pakistan, passed away suddenly on 24 July 1974 in Dhaka’s Inter-Continental Hotel. In that brief period of six years, Nath Babu was RNK’s eyes and ears, not just in eastern India but in East Pakistan, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand and Japan.

His son, Soumitra ‘Bobby’ Banerjee, a former journalist in Calcutta—and at one time the author’s boss in The Telegraph, some quarter century ago—reminisces, ‘My father became very close to Mujib as they met a number of times in London and other cities across the world in the period between 1968 and 1970. Mujib trusted him totally. I remember when our entire family was invited to Dhaka in March 1972 (after the liberation of Bangladesh), and we went to Mujib’s house, he turned to me and said, “you know I trust your father totally. He is the only non-family member to have unrestricted access to my house.”’ Nath Babu’s unfettered access to Mujib and the Awami League leadership helped India get real time and actionable intelligence out of East Pakistan and helped RNK and the Government of India make realistic plans when the balloon went up in March 1971!

As the political crisis deteriorated in February–March 1971, Nath Babu became the most important conduit between Mujib and the Indian Government. He was directly reporting to RNK and Sankaran Nair in Delhi. His updates were keeping the headquarters busy and giving Kao sleepless nights. The inputs were grim. Banerjee’s assessment said that Pakistan was preparing for a crackdown and it was Kao’s job to warn Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her advisers for a worst-case scenario.

In early March 1971, Mujib had also read the writing on the wall and Yahya’s intention not to honour his commitment. He sent a message to Indira Gandhi seeking material and moral help in keeping the Pakistani army at bay. In a message conveyed through Banerjee, Mujib wanted India to give an assurance that it would help East Pakistan. He specifically pointed out that India could ‘intercept Pakistani troops, ships and aircraft on the pretext that Pakistan had violated Indian borders.’ Mujib felt that Yahya was emboldened to reinforce deployment in East Pakistan because India had withdrawn troops from West Pakistan border.

In reality, Yahya had used an incident of hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight to Lahore on 30 January 1971 as a pretext to beef up security in both East and West Pakistan. The Indian Airlines aircraft was flying from Srinagar to Jammu but was hijacked to Lahore by two members of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), which was fighting for Kashmir’s independence. The hijackers were welcomed openly in Pakistan, exacerbating tension with India. While the two hijackers got asylum in Pakistan, India retaliated by suspending Pakistani flights over Indian territory adding to Pakistan’s discomfort.

It was against this backdrop that India was weighing its options on East Pakistan. When New Delhi failed to respond immediately to Mujib’s request of early March for help, he sent one more message which reached Indira Gandhi on 19 March. India’s deputy High Commissioner in Dhaka, K.C. Sen Gupta, carried New Delhi’s response. Author and historian, Srinath Raghavan, says Sengupta conveyed to Tajuddin Ahmad, one of Mujib’s associates, New Delhi’s vague and general assurance that India would offer all possible assistance to victims in the event of an attack. India was not fully committing itself yet, since the Indian leadership was still unsure about the direction in which the events in East Pakistan were headed.

(Excerpted from the book ‘RN Kao: Gentleman Spymaster’ (Bloomsbury; 2019) with the author’s permission)