Why India did not hard-sell the release of 93,000 Pakistan POWs at the Shimla Summit, 1972 PDF Print E-mail

By Sashanka S Banerjee

Dear Friends,

Indeed very informative and interesting. I wonder what India could have done or should have done. We do blame the Iron Lady for this disastrous move, but perhaps there were other ways to get over it. I listened to the lament by the famed DP Dhar, our ex Ambassador to Moscow and later Min with Indira ji. I was the Asst LO and Interpreter (Chief LO Lt Gen KV Krishna Rao) with a Soviet delegation led by their Defence Minister, including the Soviet Naval and Air Chiefs in Feb 1975. During the banquet at the Ashoka Hotel, thrown by Sardar Swaran Singh, our RM, Mr DP Dhar got up and headed for the lift. I had known him well from Moscow and as he passed me, I wished him and asked if he needed anything. He just nodded and signaled for me to come with him. We went down and then he got to the lawn on the side and started walking. I could make out that he was a little agitated. The banquet was held immediately after a meeting attended by the PM. He kept talking of various issues, particularly Pakistan betrayal and the US connivance to that, and the reason why the Soviets had to be in India to hold our hands at that time, All this not much understood by me, till he suddenly came up with Shimla Agreement,turning towards me, he said, "Can you imagine a greater blunder than this" or words to that effect. I was a mute listener He then said that number of solutions were proposed to Madame, but she got so baffled by Bhutto, that she would not listen to any of us.

I did not much understand at that time, but later and now with the interesting article below, things are a bit more clear. Do read and educate yourselves

Jai Hind

Niranjan Malik




Why India did not hard-sell the release of 93,000 Pakistan POWs at the Shimla Summit. 1972?

An interesting article for those who may be interested in the history and story of the liberation of Bangladesh.

The untold story of why PM Indira Gandhi decided at the end of the Bangladesh War 0f 1971 not to hard bargain Pakistan on the issue of the release of 93,000 Pak POWs from Indian custody. Handled differently the Pak POWs issue had the potential to achieve the final settlement of the vexed Kashmir problem.

Sashanka S Banerjee

Eight months after the conclusion of the 13-day India-Pakistan War on 16 December 1971, the Shimla Agreement was signed on 2 August 1972 under which India agreed to send back home all the 93,000 Pakistani POWS taken by the Indian Army at the end of the war. India’s decision kicked up a huge controversy in India questioning why Prime Minister Indira Gandhi missed the golden opportunity of not using the POWs to force Pakistan for the settlement of the Kashmir problem. What motivated the PM to do this? What were behind the scene developments? Were there any compelling circumstances which have remained unreported? If there were any, ideally they should be placed in the public domain as lessons from history, for the benefit of the future generations. Since I was personally privy to these “behind the scene” developments, I can now as a retired Indian diplomat, although more than 40 years after the event, tell the story.

16 December 1971, the day when Pakistan’s Armed Forces laid down their arms in a Surrender Ceremony in Dhaka before the Joint Command of Indian Armed Forces and the Bangladesh’s Mukti Bahini was the finest hour in the military history of both the nations, one old and another new.

However as the Armed Forces of the two countries were celebrating their military victory, against an unrelenting tormentor, over the creation of a newly minted sovereign independent nation, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s mind, in the post-war scenario, was pondering over other critical issues facing India.

Apart from having to cope with the enormous cost of conducting a War, India was faced with the financial burden of having to look after the 10 million refugees who had crossed over to India from East Pakistan fleeing the horrendous atrocities of the Pakistan Army, better known as Bangladesh Genocide of 1971.

The other big challenge, which was diplomatically quite complex involving national security and foreign policy issues, requiring delicate handling was now the unforeseen and unbudgeted responsibility of having to look after the 93,000 Pakistani soldiers taken as POWs. India wanted to keep the Pakistani soldiers in comfort, over and above, the provisions of the Geneva Convention.

Indira Gandhi’s paramount concern at that moment of time was how to get back the Bangladesh leader Shaikh Mujibur Rahman alive and well.

Mrs Gandhi was prepared to pay any price to save his life. This much the PM confided to, at least one member of her so called Kitchen Cabinet. That person was RNK the RAW Chief.

The PM was acutely aware that Mujib was tried by a Military Court when a verdict of death by hanging on charges of treason was handed to the Bangladesh leader. Also as is typical with Pakistan, its security services did not fail to demonstrate its morbidity in the crudest possible terms. In Mujib’s prison cell a 6.5 ft long grave was dug with an overhanging rope with a loop at the end, serving as a warning that he would face a cruel death any moment by hanging on the rope.

It was a nightmare for Mrs Gandhi to imagine that if the Pakistan Army carried out the death sentence, Bangladesh would emerge as an orphaned state. For India, who supported the Bangladesh Liberation Struggle, heart and soul, it would be an unmitigated disaster, a dream shattered. So India would leave no stone unturned to save Mujib’s life, for his sake, for the sake of his family, for the sake of Bangladesh and for well-wisher India’s sake.

Meanwhile the defeat in war for Pakistan at the hands of its perceived arch enemy India was seen as an intolerable insult to its nationhood. What was worse Pakistan lost half of its territory to Bangladesh, leaving Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s two-nation theory – the ideological foundation of Pakistan’s existence - in tatters. Stung by this incalculable catastrophe the Military Dictator, General Yahya Khan, in a flash decision, taking full responsibility for the national disaster, stepped down from his office. He asked Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who was still in New York attending UNSC meetings to return home to Islamabad. Bhutto was also informed by General Yahya Khan that he had resigned from his office and that he (Bhutto) was appointed as the Chief Martial Law Administrator of Pakistan. However before he took his flight for Rawalpindi, Bhutto was instructed that he must call on US President Richard Nixon, Pakistan’s mentor at that time, in Washington DC.

The Grand Finale – an Unlikely Thriller

Bhutto’s Washington-Rawalpindi flight was scheduled for a refuelling stop-over at Heathrow Airport in London.

Having secured an insiders information about the details of Bhutto’s return journey home, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi called an Emergency Meeting of the War Cabinet in New Delhi at her office in South Block. The PM wanted with utmost urgency a contact to be established on Bhutto’s arrival at Heathrow Airport in London and explore what information could be gathered about the only one piece of intelligence India was looking for namely: what was Bhutto thinking about Mujibur Rahman on the verdict of the death sentence passed on him by Pakistan’s Military Court?

The meeting was attended by Durga Prasad Dhar, Policy Planning Minister in the Ministry of External Affairs, Ram Nath Kao, Chief of Research and Analysis Wing, ( India’s External Intelligence Agency ), PN Haksar, Prime Minister’s Principal Secretary and TN Kaul, Foreign Secretary.

It was under PM’s instructions that Muzaffar Hussain ( name slightly changed ), who was the Chief Secretary of the Government of East Pakistan, the highest level Civil Servant posted in Dhaka as on 16 December 1971 and now a POW in India, considering his high status was lodged as a VIP guest at the official residence of the Foreign Minister DP Dhar. His wife Mrs Laila Hussain who was visiting London when War broke out on 3 December 1971 couldn’t return home and was stuck in London. Both Mr Hussain (from Delhi) and Mrs Hussain (in London) were communicating with each other through Diplomatic Channels. I was assigned the job of a VIP courier. Thanks to several to-ing and fro-ing, I soon established a useful rapport with Mrs Laila Hussain.

The PM was very much aware that Laila Hussain and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto were intimate friends from the past. And their intimacy had remained unbroken. It was felt at the PMO - Prime Minister’s Office - that she was well placed to play a key role in a Bhutto-Laila Hussain

Track-II one-off diplomatic “Summit” at the VIP Lounge - Alcock and Brown Suite at Heathrow Airport.

I had met DP Dhar several times in London during the 9 months from 25 March 1971 to 16 December 1971 when the Bangladesh Liberation Struggle was in progress. It was at that time that we became friends. He was an unassuming refined literary personality extremely well versed in Urdu poetry. My love of Urdu poetry from my days at the Osmania University in Hyderabad was the reason which forged our unlikely friendship despite the huge gap in official hierarchy. DP was a Cabinet Minister and I was a mere bureaucrat.

Just 2 days before Bhutto was to arrive in London I got a telephone call from DP Dhar in Delhi. DP wanted me to inform Laila Hussain that Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was appointed as the Chief Martial Law Administrator of Pakistan and that he was on his way to Islamabad from Washington. His flight would be stopping at Heathrow Airport for refuelling. I was supposed to persuade Laila Hussain to meet Bhutto – for old time’s sake - and ask him in his capacity as the Chief Martial Law Administrator, if he could help getting her husband released from Delhi. Laila knew only too well that I was aware that she had a relationship with Zulfiqar Ali in the past. Beyond Laila Hussain’s husband, how the discussions progressed would be a matter of great interest to us. India wanted to know only one thing: what Bhutto was thinking about Mujib: release him to return home or carry out the court verdict.

I succeeded in setting up the meeting. Thus two long-lost friends Laila Hussain and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto met at the VIP Lounge at Heathrow Airport. The meeting was marked by great cordiality. It was as convivial as could be. Without a doubt, the Track II “Summit” turned out to be a meeting of great historic significance. It was well and truly a thriller, a grand finale to this narrative.

Bhutto was quick on the uptake. As he was replying to Laila Hussain’s emotional appeal for help in getting her husband released from Indian custody, he had measured up that the lady was in fact doing a biding from the highest authority in Delhi.

With a twinkle in his eye and changing the subject, pulling her aside, Bhutto in a whisper conveyed to Laila Hussain a very sensitive top secret message for the Indian PM. Sourced from Mrs Laila Hussain, I quote “Laila I know what you want. I can imagine you are doing a biding from Mrs Indira Gandhi. Do please pass a message to her, that after I take charge of office back home, I will shortly thereafter release Mujibur Rahman, allowing him to return home. What I want in return, I will let Mrs Indira Gandhi know through another channel. You may now go”.

After Laila Hussain briefed me following the meeting, I lost no time in shooting out a confidential message to the PMO in Delhi reporting Laila Hussain’s input.

Not unexpectedly, Mrs Gandhi was pleased that Bhutto had sent out a positive message, although unofficially through a Track II channel, but her suspicion was could ZAB be trusted? The PM was cautiously optimistic but only just? Was Bhutto trying to mislead India? Was he creating a false dawn with a mischievous motive? She wanted a confirmation of Laila Hussain’s input from our Diplomatic Mission in Pakistan as fast as possible. Meanwhile within hours, a report came back from Islamabad confirming the authenticity of Laila Hussain’s report. At this point PM took matters in her own hands elevating the discourse from the level of bureaucracy to the political level.

At her own level the PM had come to know that Mujib would first land in London and then fly from there to Dhaka or may be via Delhi.

Sharing a secret thought with one of the members of her Kitchen Cabinet, she confided that she now had confirmed information what Bhutto wanted from her in return against Mujib’s impending release.

Bhutto had no option but to release Mujib first, the turn of thePOWs would come later. Obviously Bhutto was relying on Mrs Gandhi’s sense of decency that she will not let him down. It was getting clear that Mrs Indira Gandhi had made up her mind. If Bhutto personally asked her for the release of the POWs, she would have no hesitation in agreeing to it. A gesture of generosity must be met with a matching gesture of grace.

No less.

In a show of manufactured geo-political generosity, known in Pakistan as Biryani Diplomacy, over-ruling the verdict of death handed by a Military Court in Rawalpindi, ZA Bhutto ( read ISI ) released Mujibur Rahman on 8 January 1972. On his return Mujib took charge as Prime Minister of sovereign independent Bangladesh on 10 January 1972.

Exuding a spirit of genuine gratefulness for sparing the life of Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s Father of the Nation, eight months after he was set free, India ordered the release of all 93,000 Pakistani POWs under the Shimla Agreement of 2 August 1972. The world had never known such decency in the conduct of international relations as India had shown to Pakistan on the POW issue.

The brutal assassination of Mujibur Rahman and his family 3 years and 8 months later on 15 August 1975 by a batch of Abbottabad trained Pakistan Army officers who were now holding senior positions in Bangladesh Army, seemed like a belated fulfilment of an unfinished agenda of the ISI to mete out severe punishment on the Bangladesh leader for his role in unravelling the territorial integrity of Pakistan on 16 December 1971. His release from Mianwali Prison on 8 January 1972 was merely a distraction.

From India’s perspective, the vexed Kashmir problem remained unresolved. Pakistan launched an unrelenting proxy war which has lasted 45 years up until this day.

Thousands lost their lives. The blood never dried; the tears have never stopped flowing.

I conclude by what Justice Abu Said Choudhury, who later became the President of Bangladesh, had to say in a strongly worded letter dated 16 December 1971 addressed to Mrs Indira Gandhi warning her of dire consequences if she decided to go for an Unilateral Cease Fire on the Western Front. It would remain, he maintained, a half-finished business of the Bangladesh War. His concluding line was: “When you chop off the tail of a cobra, its head becomes ten times more venomous”.

The letter arrived on the Prime Minister’s desk a day too late.

About the Author:

Sashanka S Banerjee was posted as a Diplomat in the Indian Mission in London in 1971-72.

Among other books he has written, he is the author of “India, Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh Liberation & Pakistan: A Political Treatise” published from the US in 2011. He was awarded a State Honour “Friend of Bangladesh Liberation War” in October 2013 by Prime Minister Shaikh Hasina.