The Liberation of Bangladesh: India’s Greatest Military Victory

On December 16, 1971, over 90,000 Pakistani soldiers led by Lt Gen A A K Niazi, surrendered to Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora, Commander-in-Chief of India’s Eastern Command, at the Dhaka race course and the new nation of Bangladesh was born. A day later, on December 17, 1971, the guns fell silent after India’s unilateral offer of a cease fire was accepted by Pakistan’s military ruler General Yahya Khan.

The story had begun about a year earlier. In elections held in 1970, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, leader of the Awami League, had won 167 of 169 seats in East Pakistan and a simple majority in the lower house of Pakistan’s parliament. Though he had lawfully earned the right to form the government, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, refused to accept defeat. As the deadlock lingered on, there were widespread protests in East Pakistan and General Yahya Khan gave orders to the army to crush dissent. On the night of March 25, 1971, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was arrested and the army began a large-scale, brutal crackdown.

Under Lt Gen Tikka Khan, known as the ‘Butcher of Bengal’, the Pakistan Army unleashed horrific atrocities on the innocent Bengalis. Thousands of them were killed in cold blood. Many more were tortured over several months; many hapless women were raped and molested. Intellectuals and minority Hindus were particularly singled out. The genocide led to a mass exodus and about 10 million refugees straggled across the border into neighbouring Indian states. Despite India’s own difficulties, they were accommodated in refugee camps and were provided with food and shelter.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi condemned the arrest of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the atrocities in East Pakistan. She asked the armed forces to prepare for war as India’s security was being undermined by the massive influx of refugees. General S H F J Manekshaw (later Field Marshal) told the Prime Minister that the army needed some time to prepare for what would be a war on both the eastern and the western front. The monsoon was but a few months away, the Himalayan passes on India’s border with Tibet would remain open till mid-November and the Chinese could intervene. It was sound military advice as the troops needed for offensive operations in East Pakistan could be pulled out from the Chinese border only after the passes closed. The Prime Minister accepted the advice given to her.

Bengali troops in East Pakistan soon revolted and deserted in large numbers to join the Mukti Bahini, a guerrilla force that began to conduct covert operations against Pakistani forces. India provided political, diplomatic and moral support to the Mukti Bahini. While the armed forces began their preparations for war, Indira Gandhi launched a diplomatic campaign to create awareness about the situation in East Pakistan. She toured major world capitals to appeal to the international community to intercede with the government of Pakistan to put an end to the continuing atrocities and to provide humanitarian assistance to India to look after the refugees, but did not receive anything other than sympathy.

On December 3, 1971, Yahya Khan launched pre-emptive air strikes against 11 forward Indian air bases and India and Pakistan were once again at war. India responded with multi-pronged offensive operations into East Pakistan. On December 6, 1971, India accorded formal recognition to the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi told Parliament, “The people of Bangladesh battling for their very existence and the people of India fighting to defeat aggression now find themselves partisans in the same cause.”

The grand strategy in the war was to fight a holding action on the western front and to liberate Dhaka from Pakistan’s tyrannical rule. The Indian Army, with support from the Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force and hand-in-hand with the Mukti Bahini, made rapid progress. Pakistani strong points based on towns and other built up areas were bypassed by the leading columns and left for follow-on troops to clear while the spearheads advanced rapidly towards Dhaka.

Within a week, it became clear to all perceptive observers that Dhaka would soon fall. Maj Gen Rao Farman Ali, Military Adviser to the Governor of East Pakistan, expressed the administration’s willingness to surrender and on December 16, 1971, Maj Gen J F R Jacob, Chief of Staff, Eastern Command, flew into Dhaka to negotiate the terms of surrender. Later that day, Lt Gen Aurora accepted one of military history’s greatest surrenders. Announcing the surrender in Parliament, Indira Gandhi said, “Dhaka is now a free capital of a free country… We hail the people of Bangladesh in their hour of triumph. All nations who value the human spirit will recognize it as a significant milestone in man’s quest for liberty.”

The victory in Bangladesh was the result of a systematically planned and brilliantly executed politico-military campaign. Indira Gandhi proved herself to be a resolute leader who refused to buckle under the pressure of the U.S. fleet led by the USS Enterprise that sailed into the Bay of Bengal during the war. By signing a treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation with the Soviet Union before the war, she ensured that the Chinese were kept at bay. Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw emerged as a charismatic military leader who succeeded in forging rare unity among the three Services so that the full potential of Indian combat power was exploited in an optimal and synergised manner.

It was truly India’s finest hour. Forty years later, it can be truthfully said that it was a just war and the sacrifices made by Indian soldiers, sailors and airmen were not in vain.

Retail Reverberations

India’s retreat on economic liberalization has broad consequences for the country’s international standing and for U.S.-India relations specifically

Just when it looked like Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would make something out of his second term, he beat an ignominious retreat on opening up India’s huge retail sector to foreign companies. The stunning turnabout — actually more of a debacle –has a number of significant implications for the domestic economic and political landscapes. In particular, it confirms what many have increasingly suspected: Regardless of whether he manages to hang on through the Uttar Pradesh state elections early next year or miraculously serves out his allotted term, Singh is very much a lame duck presiding over a government that is hopelessly adrift and ineffectual. He and his long-time Cabinet associates, once lauded as the “economic dream team,” have proven themselves incapable of making the bold decisions many believe are crucial for India’s future.

The capitulation also has far-reaching consequences for the country’s international standing and for U.S.-India relations specifically. The retail liberalization was hailed as a landmark economic reform, evidence that New Delhi had finally overcome the chronic leadership paralysis and policy contradictions that have made foreign investors wary. This leeriness is the reason India is perpetually unable to lure in the levels of global capital that have fuelled China’s stratospheric economic ascent. It accounts for the marked withdrawal of foreign investment that has caused the rupee’s rapid depreciation in recent months. And it explains why the business community felt it necessary to launch a “Credible India” marketing campaign to address India’s image problem. Yet the retail retreat will only solidify international skepticism.  After the rescindment, the chairman of Microsoft India announced that the country could no longer even be regarded as a magnet for technology investment.

The backtracking similarly reinforces the growing perception that India is the Godot of great powers – its arrival in the top tier of countries is much heralded but never quite happens. The country’s elites speak assuredly of the coming “Indian Century” and yet are haunted by the shadow of the long-defunct East India Company, a corporate entity that is in any case now owned by an Indian entrepreneur. The contrast with China is instructive. Even with its own history of foreign exploitation, Beijing was confident enough about its strengths to allow Walmart, Ikea and other foreign retail enterprises to set up shop more than 15 years ago.

India possesses a multitude of latent resources necessary for national greatness but is conspicuously bereft of strong political institutions capable of mobilizing them in a purposive direction. This absence habitually condemns India to punching far beneath its strategic weight. A few days ago, Jim O’Neill, the progenitor of the now ubiquitous BRICs saga, pronounced India the “most disappointing” member of the quartet and ranked it on par with Russia in terms of governance and corruption. And Jyoti Thottam, Time magazine’s South Asia bureau chief, warns that the reversal “may be remembered as an inflection point in the ‘rising India’ story, a moment when skepticism about India’s future finally started to overshadow optimism.”

The episode will also have repercussions for relations with the United States. It will ensure that bilateral commercial ties remain far below their potential and that U.S.-India trade levels continue to be eclipsed by U.S.-China economic interactions. This is most unfortunate since, as Raymond E. Vickery, Jr. points out in his new book, The Eagle and the Elephant, private-sector linkages are a key driver of the overall U.S.-India relationship.

Many have proposed that Washington launch negotiations on a free trade agreement with New Delhi, while others criticize the Obama administration for dragging its feet on crafting a bilateral investment accord. But the logic of these measures is now in severe doubt. Given the obvious inability of Indian leaders to make the bold decisions that would be necessary, there is no reason why a beleaguered U.S. president would spend precious political capital on ventures that promise so little chance of success.

On the geopolitical level, Singh’s retreat further undermines the seriousness with which Washington views with the current Indian government. From the political soap opera that accompanied the parliamentary debate over the nuclear cooperation agreement three years ago to last year’s nuclear liability law that effectively locks out U.S. involvement in the nuclear energy sector, and from this spring’s rejection of American entrants in the lucrative fighter aircraft competition to this week’s retail rollback, doubts have been steadily rising about New Delhi’s capacity for strategic engagement. It is little wonder why, six months after Ambassador Timothy Roemer departed New Delhi, the Obama administration has yet to bother nominating a successor.

A chorus of critics accuses Washington of being derelict in relations with India. In a just-published article, for example, the Wall Street Journal’s Mary Kissel rebukes the administration for “neglecting” and “ignoring” New Delhi. She’s right that the Team Obama was too slow in distilling rhetorical professions about “indispensable partnership” into meaningful policy initiatives. But even if the administration had been more pro-active and creative, would it have made much of a difference? Sadly, the record of the past few years indicates that leadership dysfunctions in New Delhi would have precluded any sort of serious response.

Ever since President Obama’s inauguration, Indians have vocally complained that he has forsaken them in favor of the Chinese. The grievance has some justice, though many in New Delhi are oblivious to how they too bear some of the blame (see here and here). They would be wise, however, to heed the warning just issued by Ashley J. Tellis, one of the architects of the Bush administration’s strategic entente with New Delhi. In the coming years, he cautions, Washington may become “hard-pressed to justify preferential involvement with India at a time when U.S. relations with China – however problematic they might be on many counts – are turning out to be deeper, more encompassing, and, at least where the production of wealth is concerned, more fruitful.”

Borders and Buddhism

Events last week illustrated that the true fault line in India-China relations remains the 60 year-old acrimony over the Tibetan frontier.

From India’s increasing presence in the disputed waters of the South China Sea to the duel over diplomatic influence in Myanmar, developments in recent months (here and here) amply illustrate how India and China will bump into each other as they grow in power and aspiration. But events last week illustrate that the true fault line in bilateral relations remains the 60 year-old acrimony over the Indo-Tibetan frontier. The border area was the site for the month-long war between the countries in 1962, as well as serious military crises in 1967 and 1987. It is the only place where the outbreak of armed conflict is a realistic possibility, as well as the focus for much of India’s expansive plans for military modernization. And the chances are good that the frictions here will only intensify in the years ahead.

The border was to be the stage for an act of India-China cooperation last week, when high-level talks were to convene in New Delhi aimed at managing the increasing quarrels along the Himalayan boundary. The meeting was also intended to prepare the way for a visit to India early next year by Xi Jinping, China’s vice president who is heir apparent to Hu Jintao. But the Chinese side abruptly pulled out of the talks after failing to persuade New Delhi to prevent the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader who is much reviled in Beijing as a separatist, from giving the valedictory address at an international Buddhist conclave that was meeting in the Indian capital at the same time.

The border talks will likely be rescheduled in the coming weeks. Both governments were circumspect in their official comments about the postponement. Notably, the Global Times, a Beijing-based tabloid that is an unfailing tribune of bemusing jingoism including recent fulminations aimed at New Delhi, reacted cautiously. In an editorial titled “China and India mustn’t go for the throat,” it counseled that:

“Both sides must keep the border issue from worsening by focusing on keeping good will talks alive and being mindful of the consequences of a sudden breakdown.”

A high-level defense dialogue between the two countries will also go ahead as scheduled in New Delhi this week. With the United States becoming more strategically assertive in East Asia – punctuated by President Barack Obama’s tour in the region last month – Beijing has high incentive to stabilize relations with India while it turns its attention to the challenges raised by Washington. The Global Times underscored this priority when it noted that even though India “appears to be highly interested in facing off with China,” the rivalry with New Delhi “is not the primary focus of Chinese society.”

With its own plate piled high with economic and governance challenges, not to mention the multiple insurgencies underway in its northeastern region, India also is keen to tamp down border ructions. Indeed, in deference to Chinese sensitivities, Pratibha Patil, India’s president who was supposed to inaugurate the Buddhist assembly, cancelled her participation, while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, also scheduled to make an appearance, likewise stayed away.

But events are conspiring to upend each side’s preferences. As last week’s contretemps demonstrate, the border dispute is not simply a matter of contested claims over real estate. It also is bound up with the increasingly volatile issue of Tibetan nationalism. It is no coincidence that Beijing in recent years has turned up the volume about its territorial claims on the northeastern Indian states of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh (the latter of which China has taken to calling “South Tibet”) at the same moment that the ethnic Tibetan population inside China has become more restive. Beijing views the agitations as the handiwork of the Dalai Lama, who has been especially effective in making Tibet an international cause célèbre, as well as the Tibetan government-in-exile. Both the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan exile core are based in Dharamsala in northern India.

Adding to the combustible mix is the location of Tawang Monastery, a revered site in Tibetan Buddhism that is just inside the Indian side of the contested border. The monastery is close to the birthplace of a 17th-century Dalai Lama who remains an immensely popular historical figure among Tibetans. Its significance has greatly increased after the current Dalai Lama stated that he might be reincarnated outside of Chinese-controlled territory and that the selection process for his successor might break with precedent, such as being hand-picked by him or chosen by popular acclaim. With Tawang likely to play an important role in the selection, Beijing is keen to assert control over it.

Beijing’s apoplexy over the Dalai Lama, once again on display last week in New Delhi, is a measure of its insecurity on the Tibet issue. This hypersensitivity has impelled the People’s Republic, officially an atheistic party-state, to entangle itself in deeply into the affairs of Tibetan religious institutions, including absurdly banning the current Dalai Lama from being reborn anywhere but inside China and insisting that it alone has the definitive word on the selection of his successor. It drove Beijing in 1995 to kidnap a six year-old Tibetan boy who the Dalai Lama proclaimed as the Panchen Lama, the second-ranking figure in Tibetan Buddhism. The boy’s fate remains unknown; Beijing has promoted its own candidate as the true Panchen Lama. While many Tibetans see this person as a pretender, he provides Beijing a key opening to manipulate the selection for the next Dalai Lama, since the Panchen Lama traditionally has a central part in the process.

China has also embarked on an extraordinary charm offensive (here and here) to win the hearts and minds of the international Buddhist community, including plans to build a multi-billion dollar pilgrimage and tourism complex at the Buddha’s birthplace in Lumbini, Nepal, which is right on the border with India. New Delhi is counter-punching by sponsoring Buddhist gatherings, including the one last week that raised Beijing’s ire and which in one of its final acts decided to create an International Buddhist Confederation that will be headquartered in the Indian capital.

Given the volatility of the Tibetan issue, one could envision without much imagination scenarios that result in a military confrontation along the frontier. One might involve the outbreak of serious unrest within Tibet, leading to a Chinese crackdown that spills into India. Beijing could bring military pressure on New Delhi to clamp down on the Dalai Lama and his compatriots in Dharamsala, setting off a dangerous spiral of misperception and miscalculation. Alternatively, the passing of the Dalai Lama, who is now 76, could spark a tumultuous search for his successor, leading China to seize Tawang so it can control the outcome.

Unfortunately, there is ample historical precedent for such scenarios. Indian support of the abortive Tibetan uprising in 1959, for example, colored Beijing’s perceptions in the lead-up to the 1962 border war. And in the mid-1980s, an isolated incident in the Sumdurong Chu Valley in Arunachal Pradesh led to a serious military stand-off in early 1987. As one of the WikiLeaks dispatches from the U.S. embassy in Beijing reported, some Chinese observers believe that policy on Tibet is even more inflexible than toward Taiwan, where Beijing at least tolerates some U.S. interference. And concern among Chinese leaders over internal unrest is rising.

A New York Times article has called Tawang “the biggest tinderbox” in relations between India and China. Expect to hear more about it in the coming years.

The Prospects Look Good for Bill to Eliminate Per Country Limit

Legislation that will have a positive direct impact on Indian nationals passed the House of Representatives on Tuesday, November 29. The vote was an overwhelming 389 to 15.

HR 3012, “The Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act,” would eliminate the per country limit for employment-based immigrants in a transition over a four-year period. The primary effect of the bill would be to shorten the wait times substantially for highly educated foreign nationals from India and China. The part of the Immigration and Nationality Act that limits nationals of any one country to 7 percent of the total employment-based immigrants in a year will be removed the law books. In addition, by raising the family per country limit from 7 percent to 15 percent it would also help long-waiting family-sponsored immigrants from Mexico and the Philippines.

The House Floor

Speaking in favor of the bill on the House floor, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), the chief sponsor of the bill, emphasized that the legislation provided no new green cards. He said the measure was necessary to have the law match the way employers in America hire – based on merit, not country of origin.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) also spoke in favor of the bill. He emphasized the long wait times, pointing out that some nationals from India in the employment-based third preference (EB-3) had been waiting since 2002 for green cards. In support of the bill, Rep. Smith asked: “Why should American employers who seek green cards for skilled foreign workers have to wait longer just because the workers are from India or China?”

On the Democratic side, Representatives Steve Cohen of Tennessee and Jim Moran of Virginia spoke in favor of the bill. (No one spoke against the bill.) Rep. Moran talked about the importance of skilled immigration generally to jobs and business development in Northern Virginia.

Prospects in the Senate

The passage of the bill in the House gave bill supporters new information about the chances for the legislation to move in the Senate. The New York Times reported, “The bill seemed likely to pass easily in the Senate, said Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, a leading Democrat on immigration.”

Explaining the implications of the bill, The New York Times noted, “By far, the main beneficiaries will be highly skilled immigrants from India and China, including many with master’s degrees and doctorates in science and engineering. Because they come from populous countries that send many people to work here who have advanced science and technology skills, immigrants from those two nations had been forced by the country limits into lines that were many years long and growing much longer.”

An Associated Press article also quoted Senator Schumer, the chair of subcommittee that handles immigration in the Senate Judiciary Committee, who is favorably disposed toward the bill: “Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who heads the Senate Judiciary panel on immigration, said he planned to move the bill as quickly as possible in the Senate, ‘where we expect it to find overwhelming support.’ He said the legislation would ‘remove outdated constraints that prevent us from attracting the kind of innovators who can create job growth in America.’”

An analysis by the National Foundation for American Policy concluded that passing H.R. 3012 would reduce the wait for a newly sponsored foreign national from India in the employment-based third preference (EB-3) to 12 years, far less than the potential wait of several decades under current law. In the employment-based second preference (EB-2), the wait would drop to two or three years, rather than the current 6 years or more for a newly sponsored Indian-born scientist, researcher or engineer sponsored in that category.