December 1, 1971: When Indira Gandhi ‘had to’ intervene

On December 1, Indira Gandhi said General Yahya's problems had been self-created and India could not withdraw its troops

The Bangladesh Liberation War escalated to its peak at the end of November, when Pakistan's military ruler General Yahya Khan declared a state of emergency on November 23, 1971 in the face of a mobilization of troops by India.

Active fighting continued in the border areas of East Pakistan in the last week of November, with some Indian officials seen increasingly open about the fact that Indian troops had gone across the border. But they continued to maintain that the crossings were aimed at quelling Pakistani shelling and were an act of self-defense.

According to a document sent to then US President Richard Nixon by his Assistant for National Security Affairs Henry Kissinger, the Pakistani army in East Pakistan expected to be able to defend the province for a month or more and to limit Indian penetrations to 10 or 15 miles if the Indians did not use air power.

On November 28, Pakistani Foreign Secretary Sultan Khan asked that UN observers be stationed along the India-East Pakistan border as soon as possible. 

On November 27, during a two-hour meeting with US Ambassador to Pakistan Joseph S Farland, President Yahya Khan said he would arrange a meeting for the envoy with AK Brohi, the distinguished Pakistani lawyer who had been defending the imprisoned Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the supreme leader of the Awami League and first president of the provisional Bangladesh government, at his trial in camera since August of the year . 

General Yahya said the prosecution in Mujib's trial had completed its case and the trial had adjourned for a few days while Brohi prepared the defense. Farland said he had been aware from confidential sources that Brohi had been hopeful of contacting him. 

“Several competent newsmen have reported being told that Brohi has been serving as a go-between in political negotiations between Yahya and Mujib,” read the document prepared by Kissinger.

On November 30, envoy Farland wrote to Kissinger that the Americans had “no information to suggest that a Pakistani attack on Kashmir was imminent or under active consideration, although some contingency plan to that effect surely exists. 

“Yahya continues to assure me that he does not wish war, nor does he intend to start it here. He has so far held sway over his hawks, although how much longer he can do so in the face of continued Indian incursions into East Pakistan is most uncertain.” 

Farland said Pakistanis were in a state of readiness that they must fight in the West as well as in the East, while “Kashmir is an emotionally attractive target, although we have generally thought that they would go for the more easily penetrated areas further south.”

On December 3, the Pakistan Air Force launched strikes on 11 airfields in north-western India, known as Operation Chengiz Khan, prompting India to retaliate.

Indira Gandhi-Keating meeting 

On December 1, US Ambassador to India Kenneth Keating called on Indira Gandhi to deliver a message to her from President Nixon. 

She said no one in all of India was more opposed to war than she was. "I wouldn't like to take this country to war", but, she added, "this war and this situation is [sic] not of our making”.

According to Keating's report, Gandhi said India had great admiration for the US but every country must first look to its national interest. It was her duty to see what was in the interests of her country.

She said Pakistan had been the first to move its troops to the border and no one had asked them to withdraw. It was only after India moved its troops to the border that proposals were made for withdrawals.

Gandhi added that General Yahya's problems had been self-created and "we are not in a position to make this easier for him”. That was one of the reasons why India could not withdraw its troops. India was being asked to allow the misdeeds of Yahya to stand and "we are not going to allow that”.

The Indian premier said: “Many countries said they were exerting pressure on Yahya. But what has it yielded?" Nothing, she answered, "except that President Yahya has his back to the wall" and wants "to be bailed out”. 

She then told Keating: "We have to take steps which will make us stronger to deal with this situation.” 

Gandhi said what Yahya had done to start a political process, especially the "farcical" elections, had moved the situation in the wrong direction. “These so-called elections are not going to make any difference whatsoever.”

She said that her patience had worn thin. She did not know how she could tell India that it must continue to wait, and added, "I can't hold it."

When Keating started to comment about the recent Indian military incursions, she cut him off by saying: "We can't afford to listen to advice which weakens us."

Ambassador Keating wrote that Gandhi spoke with clarity and more grimness than he had ever seen her display. “In the absence of some major development toward a meaningful political accommodation, India will ensure that the efforts of the Mukti Bahini to liberate East Pakistan do not fail.

“There seems to be no give in this position and probably little bluff. There is no evidence that she is wavering from a pursuit of India's interests as she sees them.”