Isha khan’s Weblog

Manekshaw’s secret, Indira Gandhi’s plans : a 1971 mystery
February 19, 2009, 1:09 pm
Filed under: Bangladesh, India

Manekshaw’s secret, Indira Gandhi’s plans : a 1971 mystery


Field Marshal 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

“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

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.

Posted by Isha Khan, who can be reached at


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