Why Bangladesh feared Indian invasion after 1975 coup  

B. Z. Khasru

 When Gen. Ziaur Rahman became Bangladesh’s virtual ruler following several bloody military coups in 1975, he told the United States that India intended to invade its small neighbor to install a puppet regime.

So intense was Zia’s fear of an Indian invasion that on 7 November 1975 he made a call on the radio for national unity to face the attack. His call triggered more processions in Dhaka, initially sparked by the news of his release from detention by the officers who had mounted a failed coup earlier. The processions were laced with anti-Indian slogans.

This public mood in Dhaka reflected a total reversal of the sentiment at the end of the Bangladesh war in 1971 when the sentiment was explicitly anti-Pakistani and secular. Following the November 1975 events, the attitude turned explicitly pro-Pakistani, pro-Islamic, pro-American and pro-West.

Ziaur_Rahman_President_Jimmi_carterFearing a direct Indian intervention, the new regime instructed Nazrul Isam, acting foreign secretary of Bangladesh, to seek U.S. support to discourage New Delhi.

He was to request that America convey Bangladesh’s feelings regarding the possible Indian move to China and Pakistan so that they could mobilize support from the Muslim countries. Accordingly, Islam asked Irving G. Cheslaw, U.S. Chargé d’Affaires in Dhaka, for support to checkmate any Indian invasion.

As Islam talked with Cheslaw in Dhaka, the U.S. consul general in Kolkata discussed the events in Bangladesh with Ashok Gupta, West Bengal chief secretary, and Gen.  J.F. R. Jacob, Eastern Command deputy chief, at a Soviet reception. Gupta described the Bangladesh situation as worrisome. Fighting was still going on there, and Dhaka’s air was thick with anti-Indian slogans.

Indian general predicts Zia’s peril

Jacob spent at least an hour at the reception. He was evidently in high spirits, obviously enjoying the host’s vodka. He told Consul General David Korn that the Bangladesh situation was “very bad.” He predicted Zia would not last very long.

When Korn asked if the fighting had ended, Jacob said it was continuing. Jacob knew this from monitoring of the Bangladesh army internal network. Korn asked what Jacob was going to do. Jacob replied, with a smile, “Nothing. I don’t give a damn about Bangladesh.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Consular Officer Joseph O’Neill spoke with a senior Indian Air Force officer and a Navy officer. He found both relaxed and unconcerned. A senior police officer told him the West Bengal-Bangladesh land border remained open.

The Bangladesh deputy high commissioner in Kolkata told O’Neill that he did not expect “outside interference,” because the current leadership in Dhaka was very reasonable and intelligent.

However, his deputy, in a separate conversation, told Korn he was quite worried about the possibility of an Indian military intervention.

Indeed, Bangladesh was worried.

Mahbubul Alam Chashi, principal secretary to Bangladesh President A. M. Sayem, telephoned Davis E. Boster, U.S. ambassador in Dhaka, to seek assurance from the United States with respect to any external threat.

Boster informed the State Department that “although Chashi’s formulation was vague, what he clearly had in mind was assurance from us that we would help deter India from intervening in the current situation.”

US pledges support for Bangladesh

Responding to Bangladesh’s request, the State Department instructed the U.S. Embassy in Dhaka on 8 November 1975 to deliver a message pledging American support. The message said the Bangladesh government’s “requests for our support during this unsettled period have received urgent and careful attention in Washington. We support the independence of Bangladesh and want to carry on the close and cooperative relations we have had with previous governments in Dacca. We will continue to be sympathetic to Bangladesh’s needs and concerns.”

However, the United States faced “the practical question of how best to proceed in order to achieve what both our governments desire – to stabilize the present situation and avoid the possibility of outside intervention.”

To calm the situation down, America urged Bangladesh to “take immediate steps to reassure” India that Dhaka intended to pursue good relations with New Delhi and to live up to its obligations to protect the foreign community and the Hindu minority.

America was worried that any external pressure on India, particularly if it appeared to be organized by the United States, as suggested by Bangladesh, would only serve to confirm Delhi’s suspicions and might well increase the possibility of Indian intervention. However, in line with Bangladesh’s requests, Washington decided to keep in close touch with Pakistan to exchange views and to make clear America’s “support for the restoration of stability in Bangladesh free from outside interference.”

To calm the situation down, America urged Bangladesh to “take immediate steps to reassure” India that Dhaka intended to pursue good relations with New Delhi and to live up to its obligations to protect the foreign community and the Hindu minority. “In our judgment, this is the best way for the new regime to support our efforts in New Delhi to reduce the likelihood of Indian intervention.”

On 8 November, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told the U.S. ambassador in New Delhi to meet with External Affairs Minister Y.B. Chavan or Foreign Secretary Kewal Singh to seek a high-level Indian assessment of the situation in Bangladesh and convey the message that the United States supported an independent Bangladesh.

Singh assured the American that New Delhi had no intention of interfering in Bangladesh affairs. How Bangladesh ran its government was its affair. But if its policies created problems or hurt Indian interests, then “India must express its concern.”

He believed Zia knew of India’s views.

Zia panics again

Zia panicked for the second time on the night of 23 November when he feared India was about to attack Bangladesh. At 0:30 a.m., he went on the radio appealing for the nation’s unity in “this fateful hour.”

The military regime took the threat so seriously that it sent a secret envoy to Pakistan to seek Prime Minister Z. A. Bhutto’s help to fend off the Indian attack.

Immediately after receiving the news from Bangladesh, on 25 November Bhutto ordered Agha Shahi, Pakistan’s foreign secretary, to ask the U.S. ambassador to see him, saying he was doing so at the prime minister’s order.

Shahi had received a message hours earlier from the Pakistani ambassador in Rangoon, who had just had a meeting with Bangladesh Ambassador K.M. Kaiser. Kaiser was in Bangkok when he received telephonic instructions from the Bangladesh president to proceed immediately to Pakistan on a secret visit as a special presidential envoy.

He was to inform Bhutto of an alarming situation that had arisen for the security and independence of Bangladesh by actions of the Indians, who had already marched in and occupied certain areas of Bangladesh, an assertion the Americans later disputed.

Pakistan was less than pleased with Kaiser’s proposed visit. The Pakistan foreign office preferred a “somewhat more reliable emissary.” Kaiser asked for Pakistani visas for himself and an assistant.

Dhaka sends secret envoy to Islamabad

Henry Byroade, the U.S. ambassador in Islamabad, questioned Shahi on the timing of the reported Indian movement into Bangladesh, and specifically whether this might relate to reports a few days ago, which mentioned trench diggings along the border inside Bangladesh, or whether this was a new event. Shahi did not know. Byroade asked if he was concerned that India might try to make something big out of such a visit. Shahi said Bhutto had carefully considered that factor in deciding to go along with Kaiser’s urgent plea to visit Pakistan.

Byroade in a cable to Washington downplayed Bangladesh’s plea. He said “Kaiser is a bit of a self-starter, who gets involved in many, many things.” Shahi described the visit as a “top secret.” Bhutto agreed to see Kaiser because he feared that if he refused and his refusal became public there would be a strong negative public reaction against him for refusing to receive an envoy of the Bangladesh president.

Meanwhile, on 26 November, Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Tabarak Husain called Irving Cheslaw, U.S. Chargé d’Affaires in Dhaka, at home at 8 p.m. for a discussion, especially with Zia on Bangladesh’s concern that India could invade Bangladesh. Husain asked Cheslaw to go at once to the presidential palace.

Husain’s meeting with Cheslaw took place after an attack on Samar Sen, India’s high commissioner in Dhaka, by some armed elements of the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal, a militant political group.  An Indian aircraft was coming to take him back to India for medical treatment. Husain believed that the high commissioner’s departure under dramatic circumstances would only further heat up the existing situation, whereas his agreement to remain would help cool it down. Sen agreed and the Indian aircraft was turned around without landing in Dhaka.

After briefing Cheslaw of the situation, the foreign secretary called in Zia and Navy chief Admiral M.H. Khan, who wanted to pursue the discussion in greater detail.

Zia described India’s possible military invasion as an attempt to create instability in Bangladesh to bring into power a government completely under New Delhi’s control.

India funded JSD?

Zia claimed that Bangladesh had evidence of military movements on the border. India also established training centers and even refugee camps in many of the same locations used in 1971. He felt that the incident at the Indian High Commission compound was no coincidence. The two men caught in connection with the incident were Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal members. JSD had been receiving money from the Indian government – directly from the Indian High Commission in Dhaka, Zia told Cheslaw.

He expected the Indians to move into Bangladesh very soon, even possibly in the next few days. Zia asked that America put pressure on India not to follow through with this madness. He said India “should be made to realize that this is not 1971. This is 1975 and they will find a military force of sixty thousand and a population of seventy-five million that will present enormous problems for” for New Delhi. Zia believed that the Indian military needed to control the area – Bangladesh – that stood between India’s eastern territories and the rest of the country. He inferred that the Indians believed this would be an easier move to carry out because they could hold off the Pakistanis and the Himalayan passes were snowbound.

Both Zia and Husain requested that the American envoy immediately convey their tremendous anxiety to Washington – and particularly their request that the U.S. government provide all possible assistance in making India realize that this situation must be cooled down immediately.

“Walking with me to my car, the foreign secretary said he would have no objection if I conveyed the general sense of this discussion to other missions in Dacca, such as the British, even the Australians, in hope they could also be of assistance,” Cheslaw informed Washington.

As things grew tense, India sent its foreign secretary to Moscow for consultation.

On 26 November, the Soviet political counselor in New Delhi told an American diplomat that he had just heard on All India Radio that Kewal Singh, India’s foreign secretary, had been received by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. The Soviet officer expressed some surprise at this development. Singh’s meeting with Premier Alexi Kosygin had only been arranged at the strong urging of the Indian government. The Soviet Embassy had recommended appointments with Defense Minister Andrei Grechko and Kosygin.

In Washington, the State Department did not consider Kaiser credible. It advised the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad to tell the Pakistanis that the Bangladesh situation was not exactly what Kaiser told them. Accordingly, the U.S. political counselor told Hyat Mehdi, director general for South Asia at the Pakistan Foreign Ministry, “that contrary to Kaiser’s allegation in Rangoon, we had no evidence that Indian forces have occupied any portions of Bangladesh territory.”

This is an excerpt from B.Z. Khasru’s new book, The Bangladesh Military Coup and the CIA Link, which will be published shortly by Rupa & Co. in New Delhi.