The Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 began in an era of the US-China rapprochement. The USA’s bittersweet love affair with China was emerging. Pakistan was the broker. Essentially, India was nowhere to be found in the USA’s foreign policy.
Nixon’s and Kissinger’s hatred for Indira-ruled India:
A large compilation of the declassified documents released by the US national security archives reveals the Richard Nixon administration’s hatred for the Indira-ruled India in the early 1970s. Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger saw India as a ‘stooge’ of the Soviets. Anything against Pakistan was nothing for them. Harbouring ties with China was paramount.
The US wanted to open another front in the cold war against the Soviet Union by mending ties with China. And Pakistan’s then-dictator Yahya Khan was facilitating the diplomatic engagement between the White House and then Chinese premier Zhou Enlai. In October 1970, a meeting had taken place between Kissinger and General Yahya, who had helped the Nixon administration set up a communication channel with China in 1969.
Parallel emergence of China-US rapprochement and instability in East Pakistan:
In April 1971, when the Liberation war in Bangladesh had already begun, Nixon was engaged in “ping-pong diplomacy” with China. Kissinger’s historic visit to China in 1971 was meant to capitalize on the adversarial relationship between Beijing and Moscow. Meanwhile, the Pakistani Army’s war on its own civilians in East Pakistan turned even more horrific and barbaric. But Nixon conveniently chose to ignore.
The NSA web archives confirm that Nixon and Kissinger did not want to upset West Pakistan by calling out Pakistan’s inhuman treatment of its civilians in the East. Fallout with Yahya would have rendered the whole rapprochement process with China dead in stillbirth.
The US consulate general in Dacca (Dhaka) was brazenly censored by the State Department. Even their top envoy in Dhaka, Archer Blood, was never promoted by the Nixon Administration for daring to go all out to report the Pakistani Army’s abuses in East Pakistan to his bosses in the State Department.
“Bitch Indira” who quashed Nixon’s ambitions:
But patience was running thin in New Delhi. For India, the most contentious issue was the unfolding humanitarian crisis and the ensuing migrant crisis on the Indian border. India’s intervention was appearing necessary. In November 1971, a month prior to India’s intervention in the Bangladeshi civil war, Indira Gandhi visited Washington to calm the tensions and urge the US to press Pakistan to stop its atrocities against nationalist Bengalis.
After Indira Gandhi’s visit, Kissinger reportedly said, “Indians are bastards anyway. They are starting a war there [in Bangladesh] … While [Indira Gandhi] was a bitch, … she will not be able to go home and say that the United States didn’t give her a warm reception.”
Frustrated with the USA’s response and its flirtatious behaviour towards Pakistan and China, India decided to take the matter into its own hands. Tensions were already running hot between India and Pakistan, and operation “Chengiz Khan” by Pakistan marked the beginning of the full-blown conflict. India joined the war on December 3 in 1971, after Pakistan launched preemptive air strikes on North India.
Why did the USA support Pakistan?
The US did not blink an eye before throwing its support behind Pakistan. It was important because of two reasons. Firstly, the US wanted to impress China by helping an ‘ally’ in an event of a war or any military emergency. Secondly, preventing India from overrunning Pakistan was necessary to weaken the Soviets and its ‘armed client state’ India.
CIA reported that India intended to dismantle Pakistan by ruthlessly crushing the Pakistani invasion on both fronts (East and West Pakistan). Red flags were raised. The US sent its warships and an aircraft carrier to frighten the ‘Soviet stooge’. But India was simply unstoppable. This glaring American tilt towards Pakistan also brought India enormous naval support from the Soviets. So, the US scrambled to earn favours from China.
Kissinger pleaded China to scaring off India:
On December 10, a mere week after India’s intervention, Kissinger began encouraging China to invade India. “If the People’s Republic were to consider the situation on the Indian subcontinent a threat to security, and if it took measures to protect its security, the US would oppose efforts of others to interfere with the People’s Republic,” Kissinger had suggested.
The US was itself skeptical about China’s capabilities; their intention was just to scare off the Indian Army. On December 12, Kissinger and Nixon were informed that China was not prepared to intervene militarily, but would urge to calm both the parties. But that was useless. A major predicament for the Chinese military was the death of China’s defence minister Lin Biao in September 1971 in Mongolia.
Four days later, On December 16, Pakistan surrendered in Dhaka. India won, and learned some life lessons. The war was fascinating. India’s will to defend its interests had prevailed over all caveats. Message sent to the USA was unnerving, and stirred tremendous anxiety among the Chinese. The Chinese grew even more insecure over their fragile sway over Tibet. 50 years down the line, India may have become an important strategic partner for the US, but the scars inflicted by previous administrations still run deep in the flourishing ties between the two nations.