history reportage HISTORY

The Western Front

Indira Gandhi’s decision to hold the Indian Army back from Peshawar in 1971

By ASHOK PARTHASARATHI | 1 July 2018

AS AFTERNOON TURNED TO EVENING on 16 December 1971—shortly after Pakistani forces surrendered to the Indian Army in East Pakistan—Prime Minister Indira Gandhi called a large meeting in the Cabinet Room, in the South Block of the Secretariat Building that housed her offices. Those present included the defence, foreign, finance and home ministers—all the senior members of the cabinet committee on security—as well as their secretaries, the chiefs of all three armed services, the head of the Research and Analysis Wing, and the cabinet secretary. Also in attendance were four of the prime minister’s closest advisers—PN Haksar, her principal secretary, PN Dhar, her secretary, G Parthasarathi, my father, then formally serving as the vice chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, and myself, her science and technology adviser.

Opening the meeting, Gandhi asked General Sam Manekshaw, the chief of army staff, how long he would take to reach Peshawar. In the west, as in the east, Pakistan’s defences had been shattered since the war began, on 3 December. Indian forces had complete superiority in the air over West Pakistan, and had taken significant territory on the ground. Maneskhaw’s army had surrounded Sialkot, in Pakistani Punjab, and was poised to breach that massive military fortification, the Ichhogil Canal. From there, the way to Peshawar cut north-west, through the Pakistani capital at Islamabad and the Pakistan Army’s headquarters in Rawalpindi.

“Three days, madam,” Manekshaw shot back. Gandhi seemed a bit surprised at the promptness of his response, and remarked that Manekshaw seemed very sure of himself. The general replied that as he and his commanders had watched developments in the east, they had known that this question would come, so they had done their homework and were ready.

Gandhi went around the table asking for views. One by one, everyone said that we should head straight for Peshawar and take it.

Then Gandhi asked Haksar for his thoughts. He said he had no doubt that Manekshaw could reach Peshawar in three days, but, he wondered, what then? Was India to take over and rule West Pakistan? With a deployment of 100,000 troops we could do it, he reasoned, and initially the people of West Pakistan would be with us. Their slogans would be “Yahya Khan murdabad, Tikka Khan murdabad,” denouncing the country’s military dictatorship. But after six months, the mood would shift, and the people would want the Indians out. The slogans would change to “Hindu kutte wapas jao”—Go back, Hindu dogs.

At this point, Jagjivan Ram, the defence minister, raised his hand to speak. Haksar had not understood his view, he said. He was not arguing for the annexation of West Pakistan—only a fool would advocate that. He was proposing that it was feasible and necessary to use the chance to take back areas that Pakistan had taken by force, in Jammu and Kashmir, after Partition.

For once, Haksar was speechless.

After hearing both Haksar and Ram, Gandhi closed the meeting. “Achha, main sochoongi,” she said—I will think about it.

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 This essay draws partly on material in GP: 1912-1995, a book on G Parthasarathi by Ashok Parthasarathi, upcoming from Academic Foundation.

Ashok Parthasarathi was the science and technology advisor to the former prime minister Indira Gandhi.

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