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The World: India and Pakistan: Over the Edge

13 minute read

DARKNESS had just fallen in New Delhi when the air-raid sirens began wailing. In the big conference room at the Indian government’s press information bureau, newsmen had gathered for a routine 6 o’clock briefing on the military situation in East Pakistan. “Suddenly the lights went out,” cabled TIME Correspondent James Shepherd, “and everyone presumed it was yet another test, though none had been announced. When the briefing team arrived, newsmen complained that they couldn’t see to write anything.”

“Gentlemen,” said the briefing officer, “I have to tell you that this is not a practice blackout. It is the real thing. We have just had a flash that the Pakistan air force has attacked our airfields at Amritsar, Pathankot and Srinagar. This is a blatant attack on India.”

Embroiled Again. Who attacked whom was still open to question at week’s end, and probably will be for some time. Nor was it clear whether any formal declaration of war had been issued. But the fact was that for the fourth time since the two nations became independent from Britain in 1947.

Pakistan and India were once again embroiled in a major conflict. On previous occasions, the fighting was confined mostly to the disputed region of Kashmir on India’s western border with Pakistan. This time, however, there was even heavier fighting in Pakistan’s eastern wing, separated from West Pakistan by 1,000 miles of Indian territory. The war even reached to the Bay of Bengal, where naval skirmishes occurred, and to the outskirts of major cities in both countries as planes bombed and strafed airfields. Having teetered on the edge of all-out war for many weeks, India and Pakistan had finally plunged over, and the rest of the world was powerless to do anything but watch in horror.

Great Peril. As usual, the two sides offered substantially differing accounts —and both barred newsmen from the battlefronts. According to Indian sources, the Pakistani attack came at 5:47 p.m., just as dusk was falling. The sites seemed selected for their symbolic value as much as their strategic importance: Agra, site of the Taj Mahal; Srinagar, the beautiful capital of Kashmir; Amritsar, holy city of the Sikhs, India’s bearded warriors. Forty-five minutes after the air attack,Pakistani troops shelled India’s western frontier and were reported to have crossed the border at Punch in the state of Jammu.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who had just finished addressing a mass rally in Calcutta when she received the news, immediately boarded her Tupolev twin-jet for the two-hour flight to New Delhi. At Delhi’s airport, where her two sons and a small cluster of ministers were on hand to greet her, she quickly got into a car and was driven without lights to her office in Parliament House. Shortly after midnight the Prime Minister, speaking first in English and then Hindi, addressed the nation.

“I speak to you at a moment of great peril to our country and our people,” she began. “Some hours ago, soon after 5:30 p.m., on the third of December, Pakistan suddenly launched a full-scale war against us.” She announced that the Pakistan air force had struck eight Indian airfields, and that ground forces were shelling Indian defense positions in several sectors along the western border. “I have no doubt that it is the united will of our people,” she said, “that this wanton and unprovoked aggression of Pakistan should be decisively and finally repelled.”

No Restraints. According to the very different Pakistan version, regular Indian army troops on the western frontier had moved earlier in the afternoon toward seven posts manned by Pakistani rangers. On being challenged, the Indians opened up with small arms, and the Pakistani rangers began firing back. Normally, border forces of both countries follow a gentlemanly procedure for handling firing across the frontier; they meet and talk it over. “In this case,” reported a Pakistani officer, “when our rangers approached their opposite numbers, they were surprised to find regular troops and they were fired upon.” The Indians mounted attacks with artillery support two hours later, he claimed, and Indian jet planes provided support. Pakistan planes then fanned out to strike at India’s airfields, one of them 300 miles deep inside India.

Radio Pakistan made no mention of the Indian border attack until India announced that Pakistan’s planes had struck, but it wasted no time in acknowledging its bombing missions. “We are at liberty now to cross the border as deep as we can,” a Pakistani army officer said. A Foreign Ministry representative added that Pakistani troops were “released from any restraints.

Fabrication. Earlier in the week, newsmen, including TIME’S Louis Kraar, reported Pakistani military movements at Sialkot, about eight miles from the Indian border. Kraar saw commandeered civilian trucks carrying fuel tins, portable bridges and other supplies. A train loaded with military vehicles chugged by, and wheatfields bristled with camouflaged gun emplacements. Families were moved out of the army cantonment at Sialkot, and civilian hospitals were advised to have blood plasma ready beside empty beds.

In New Delhi, Indian spokesmen vigorously denied the story that Indian troops had launched an attack in the west as a fabrication to justify the air strike. “No sensible general staff attacks first on the ground,” said Defense Secretary K.B. Lall. Some six hours after the Pakistani air raids, India hit back in force, bombing eight West Pakistani airfields including one at Karachi. Some time after midnight, Pakistani and Indian planes tangled in dogfights over Dacca in East Pakistan. When asked to account for the six-hour delay in India’s response, Lall joked that there had been some difficulty in getting the air force to move. It did appear that India was taken by surprise: nearly every senior cabinet official was out of the capital at the time, including Mrs. Gandhi, who was in Calcutta. During the night, Pakistani planes repeatedly attacked twelve Indian airfields. On the ground, Pakistan launched attacks along the western border.

Reckless Perfidy. The next morning, Prime Minister Gandhi went before the Indian Parliament. “This morning the government of Pakistan has declared a war upon us, a war we did not seek and did our utmost to prevent,” she said. “The avoidable has happened. West Pakistan has struck with reckless perfidy.” In a broadcast at noon the same day, Pakistani President Agha Mohammed Yahya Khan accused India of starting a full-scale war and declared that it was time “to give a crushing reply to the enemy.” He made no mention of a formal declaration of war, but a proclamation in the government gazette in Islamabad declared: “A state of war exists between Pakistan on one hand and India on the other.” Mrs. Gandhi did not issue a formal declaration of war, but Foreign Secretary T.N. Kaul told newsmen: “India reserves the right to take any action to preserve her security and integrity.”

The conflict had its genesis last March when the Pakistani President and his tough military regime 1) moved to crush the East Pakistani movement for greater autonomy, 2) outlawed the Awami League, which had just won a majority in the nation’s first free election, 3) arrested its leader, Sheik Mujibur Rahman, and 4) launched a repressive campaign that turned into a civil war with East Pakistan’s Bengalis fighting to set up an independent Bangla Desh (Bengal Nation). Nearly 1,000,000 people were killed and 10 million refugees streamed into India. “We have borne the heaviest of burdens,” Mrs. Gandhi said last week, “and withstood the greatest of pressure in a tremendous effort to urge the world to help in bringing about a peaceful solution and preventing the annihilation of an entire people whose only crime was to vote democratically. But the world ignored the basic causes and concerned itself only with certain repercussions. Today the war in Bangla Desh has become a war on India.”

Self-Determination. It soon became clear that India would make an all-out effort to ensure self-determination for Bangla Desh. India’s desire to bring about an independent nation there as soon as possible stems from two factors. First is the tremendous economic and social burden of the refugees who have sought sanctuary in India. Second is that in a prolonged guerrilla war the moderate leadership of the Awami League would probably give way to more radical political forces, perhaps leading to a Peking-oriented government on India’s border. A third factor, of course, is India’s unspoken desire to weaken its neighbor by detaching a sizable chunk of its territory.

For several months, Indian troops and Pakistani forces have been engaged in almost daily border skirmishes. In the past two weeks, Indian forces, working with the Bengali guerrillas, have stepped up pressures against Pakistan’s troops in the east; in retaliation the West Pakistanis have been rampaging through Bengali villages in kill-and-burn raids, slaughtering some 2,000 people in the vicinity of Dacca alone.

Even while Mrs. Gandhi was speaking to Parliament, India was launching an invasion of East Pakistan. In Rawalpindi, former Foreign Minister Zulfikar AH Bhutto, who is slated to be deputy premier in a civilian government that Yahya is said to be planning, declared: “I don’t see the Indian army just sweeping through East and West Pakistan in a matter of weeks. Either there will be a stalemate, or each side will take some territory from the other and then negotiate.”

That may prove an optimistic appraisal, in view of India’s numerical superiority. As far as troop strength goes, the Pakistanis are outnumbered by more than two to one in the east. In the west, both countries are reported to have about 250,000 men deployed along the border for an almost even balance. India’s overall troop strength is about 980,000 compared with Pakistan’s 392,000, but an estimated eight mountain divisions are on guard along India’s borders with China.

In matériel, India also has the edge: of its 1,450 tanks, about 450 are Russian medium tanks, and about 300 Indian-made Vijayanta tanks. India has 625 combat aircraft, including some 120 MIG-21 supersonic fighters and eight squadrons of Indian-made Gnats. For its part, Pakistan has about 1,100 tanks, including 200 American Patton tanks, 225 Chinese T-59s, and numerous old American Shermans and Chaffees of limited utility. Pakistan’s 285 combat aircraft include two squadrons of Mirage 111 fighters and eight squadrons of American F-86 Sabres.

There were no estimates of casualties at week’s end. But India claimed to have destroyed a total of 33 Pakistani aircraft. The Indian Defense Ministry admitted to the loss of eleven of its own fighters. As India seemed to be engaged primarily in a holding action in the west while aiming for a quick knockout in the east, Pakistani ground forces claimed to have seized “significant territory” on India’s western border. One of the Pakistani advances was in the Sialkot sector near Kashmir; India admitted losing “some ground” on the Punjab border near Ferozepore.

Stray Cattle. Outmanned and likely to be outgunned, Pakistan’s Yahya Khan may well have realized that he had only two options: negotiations or war, both with the probable result of independence for Bangla Desh. Since negotiations without a war would mean going down without a fight, the generals might have decided to choose war; such a course would enable them to say that the breakup of Pakistan was caused not by faintheartedness but by superior forces.

Islamabad also figured that timely intervention on the part of the United Nations, which might be expected if war were declared, would enable West Pakistan to extricate its troops as part of a ceasefire. At U.N. headquarters in Manhattan, however, the big powers seemed paralyzed. With the subcontinent about to burn, the Security Council spent most of the week fiddling around with a debate over an obscure border dispute between Senegal and Portuguese Guinea involving some stray cattle. As one oldtimer quipped: “India-Pakistan is too important to get into the U.N.”

With Russia lined up behind India, China supporting Pakistan and the U.S. also leaning sharply toward Pakistan, no one wanted to risk a session that would dissolve into a sulfurous shouting match. Nonetheless, at week’s end, the 15-member Security Council met to take up the problem.

Preserving Leverage. In Washington, Secretary of State William Rogers canceled a scheduled trip to Iceland. After huddling with State Department advisers and conferring by telephone with Richard Nixon at the President’s Key Biscayne retreat in Florida, Rogers announced his decision late last week to take the issue to the U.N. “The U.S. hopes that the Council can take prompt action on steps which could bring about a ceasefire, withdrawal of forces and an amelioration of the present threat to international peace and security,” he said. But no one was optimistic about its outcome—and rightly so.

U.S. Ambassador George Bush introduced a resolution calling for a ceasefire, an immediate withdrawal of armed personnel by both sides, and the placement of observers along the borders. The proposal won eleven votes, with two abstentions (Britain and France) and two nays (the Soviet Union and Poland). It was the veto by the Soviet Union’s Yakov Malik, who blamed “Pakistan’s inhuman repression” for the conflict, that killed the measure.

In any event, the Administration’s decision to get involved in the situation was belated at best. Seeking to pre serve its leverage with Yahya in hopes of inducing him to restrain his troops, the U.S. managed only to outrage India, which felt among other things that it had become the pawn in the Administration’s move to use Pakistan as the bridge for Nixon’s detente with Peking.

Two Sides. At week’s end, the U.S. seemed determined to alienate New Delhi even further with a harsh State Department declaration that in effect officially blamed India for the war on the subcontinent and failed even to mention the brutal policies pursued by the Pakistani military regime. “We believe,” the statement said, “that since the beginning of the crisis, Indian policy in a systematic way has led to perpetuation of the crisis, a deepening of the crisis, and that India bears the major responsibility for the broader hostilities which have ensued.” The statement was cleared with the President, one high official stressed.

Clearly, there were at least two sides to the conflict, and the U.S.’s blatant partiality toward Pakistan seemed both unreasonable and unwise. India has legitimate grievances: the cost of caring for 10 million refugees, $830 million by the end of March; the threat of large-scale communal turmoil in the politically volatile and hard-pressed state of West Bengal, where the bulk of the refugees have fled; the presence on Indian soil of large numbers of guerrillas who could become a militant force stirring up trouble among India’s own dissatisfied masses; and finally, the prospect of a continued inflow of refugees so long as the civil war continues.

To be sure, New Delhi is not above criticism. The Indians have seemed entirely too eager to convert the situation into geopolitical profit by ensuring that Pakistan would be dismembered. Whatever the motives, however, both India and Pakistan stand to lose far more than they can afford. As a Pakistani general, a moderate, put it last week while the conflict worsened: “War could set India back for years—and ruin Pakistan.”

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