Babu Jagjivan Ram and the 1971 War

~ By Meira Kumar

16thDecember, 1971 was a moment of undiluted national pride. That was a time when we not only created history, but also changed the geography. Such moments come rarely in the life of a nation. Before 1971, we had a confidence deficit about our ability to protect our land. In 1948, we lost 28,000 sq. miles to PoK. In 1962 we lost 38,000 sq. miles to China. In 1965 India and Pakistan were on equal footing and we had to withdraw from Haji Pir. When the dark clouds of war began to gather on the Indian horizon in 1970, it was a time for India to redeem itself and establish its military prowess, its prestige and its honour.

My father, Babu Jagjivan Ram took charge of the Defence Ministry in June 1970 and he had exactly 17 months to prepare for the uphill task that he had before him. Our soldiers, our jawans, our officers, are trained to make supreme sacrifice for the mother land. They are not really trained to make supreme sacrifice for another land and thereinlay a challenge. Our armed forces had to be prepared to lay down their lives, if eventuality came, for another land. Their morale had to be boosted.

That was the task which Babu Jagjivan Ram undertook right in the beginning. He went around the country, to every post at the border telling them that we were not going to fight, that we did not have the history, the culture and the tradition of attacking, we did not have hegemonistic designs; but if the war was imposed on us, then the war would not take place on the Indian soil. We would push back the enemy and the war would take place on their soil. That was what really electrified the armed forces. Thiswas what he maintained right through and this was what happened.

I was reading the books. I read his speeches in the Parliament and I found that every second or third day he was briefing the Parliament. Every second or third day he was making public speeches. He was making public representatives aware of what was going on in the country and what our war- preparedness was.Hewas reaching out to every person in India – whether in the urban or the rural area – telling him or her that there was nothing to fear and that we would rise to the occasion and make it a historic war. He made the atmosphere, which is what counts.

Defence forces make supreme sacrifices. Once my father told me that you may or may not stand and pay respects to anybody else, but if u see a soldier just stand up, salute and pay respect. It is not easy. It is not easy to lay down your life for something abstract. So, here he was trying to boost the morale of the armed forces, of the jawans, of the officers, because they had seen the earlier three wars. He was also preparing the public. They had to also participate.

Defence of India does not mean only the army going and defending at the border. Defence of India also means every citizen of the country rising up to defend the country and its honour. He was doing it at the same time – boosting the morale of the armed forces and preparing the public for war.

He was constantly in touch with Mukti Bahini with regard to what help, assistance we could give. He was in constant touch with them. It was a unique war. Previous three wars we had the military at the ground, and the air force participating. But this was the time our navy was also participating. The coordination, the logistics, the exact precision, the chain of command and on another land all that had to be managed to send out the arms and ammunition, to send out the messages, to communicate was done all one time. In fact, the surrender of General Niazi had happened because of the excellent communication we had. It was the process of communication at the right time. Niaziwas demoralized and that led to surrender.

It never happened before – 93,000 soldiers of army surrendering. The army normally surrenders if there were no soldiers or if there were no arms and ammunition. Here there were 93,000 soldiers. Those days, we used to have Doordarshan in black and white. Other channels were not there. I saw mountain of arms and ammunitions which was surrendered by the Pakistani army.  I was talking of communication. They were completely demoralized by our officers commanding. General Manekshaw, General Jagjit Singh Arora (later he became field marshal), SM Nanda, PC Lal – brilliant officers. They completely isolated the Pakistani officers and their brigade was made to surrender.

A report appeared in newspapers and television that the seventh fleet was diverted by America from Vietnam to the Bay of Bengal and all of us got very worried. I was very worried. I stood in the portico, waiting for my father to return home for lunch. When he returned home, he got down from the car, he was a little surprised to see me waiting in the portico and he asked what has happened. He was smiling. I said when India was engaged in such a fierce war, and America, one of the super powers had sent their seventh fleet to Bay of Bengal, and the Defence Minister of India still managed to smile, I did not have to worry.

Later at the dining table I asked him what would happen now that the seventh fleet has come. He said that the same what had happened in Vietnam. Those people in Vietnam ate rice and water and they had no arms and ammunitions. Yet they were able to chase away the seventh fleet. We would do the same. He had tremendous faith in human spirit and human will. That was central to the war of 1971. Human spirit and human will was central to the MuktiBahini. They fought because of that. They won because of that.

Later I attended a memorial lecture of my father and there General Jagjit Singh Arora was delivering the lecture. He said during the war he had received every morning a phone call from my father just to check how I was and what my progamme for the day was. Something very ordinary, but that is how he was in constant touch with all his senior officers concerned. That is how he was controlling the war strategizing, leading, encouraging, inspiring.

There was this great surrender, which never really happened in the annals of history. After the surrender, there was question of prisoners of war (PoWs). They were in jail at various places. Nowadays,seedless grapes are common. But those days, grapes used to have seeds. In Hyderabad they just broughtout a seedless variety of grapes. My father said, the seedless grapes should be sent to them. He followed the Geneva convention to the teeth. He did not want the PoWs to go back to Pakistan and complain that they were not treated well in the jails of India. He wanted the same to happen to our PoWs in Pakistan.

Let me tell you one more thing. There was a clear cut instruction to our soldiers that when you were going into Bangladesh or enemy territory on the western side, please avoid the populated areas to not only avoid causing loss or damage, but also inconvenience to the civilians. Now it is 45 years since we fought the war. There have been many complaints coming to us from Pakistan. I was studying each one of them very minutely. I have never found any complaint of any kind coming about the 1971 war that any woman or man was mishandled or ill-treated by the soldiers of the Indian army.

That is the classic war we fought so honourably. After that, after having won the war, my father stayed as defence minister for two years. He stayed as defence minister because he wanted to ensure proper rehabilitation and proper relief.He wanted to look after the welfare of each jawan, each officer who suffered in any way in 1971 war. He took it personally, like looking after his own family. That is what he wanted to do.

This is the Great War that we have fought. It dazzles us with what we are capable of, of rising above ourselves when the moment comes. This is what reminds us of our inner strength.

(This article is the summary of the speech delivered by Smt. Meira Kumar, former Speaker of Lok Sabha at the Seminar on “1971 India-Pakistan War: Liberation of Bangladesh” jointly organized by India Foundation, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Indian War Veterans Association and Babu Jagjivan Ram Memorial Foundation on 16th December, 2016 at NMML)