The Durga who led India to Asian stardom

A century since her birth, Indira Gandhi, the iron-fisted prime minister of India, stands tall, even amid the chaotic political juncture that the young Indian democracy still is. April 1971 was a decisive month in India’s contemporary history. Indira Gandhi had just returned to power with a thumping majority. Pakistan was going through a turmoil both in the west and the east. Pak general Yahiya Khan had sent his troops to suppress a popular movement in east Pakistan, where Mujeebur Rahman’s Awami League had won the election. The war in east Pakistan forced a river or refugees towards India. Deciding that a military intervention was the only solution, the cabinet summoned army chief Sam Manekshaw to explore the possibilities. The war hero categorically shot down the proposal for a military intervention. He had his reasons. The soldiers deputed across the country for the conduct of the general election would not return before the onset of the monsoon. The torrential rain would make the vast floodplains of Bengal inaccessible to the army. There were not enough wagons to transport the troops, the arms and ammunition were outdated and diplomatic efforts to prevent any interference from the United States or China were absent. That was not the response the ministers wanted to hear. Many of them wanted Manekshaw to be shown the door. The prime minister went into a private meeting with the general. “Tell me, what should I do?” she asked. “I can resign. Or you can sack me saying I was not mentally fit,” Manekshaw stuck to his guns. Gandhi, however, stood by the general, against the collective opinion of the cabinet. She gave the army chief time to prepare the forces, while she signed a military contract with the Soviet Union. Indian army bought covered vehicles that could traverse the flooded plains. Arms were procured. Her greatest challenge was to form a global consensus in favor of a military intervention by India. She toured the world and spoke with international media. India orchestrated the formation of a guerrilla force in east Pakistan to tell the world that the strife was a civil war and not a design by India. Winter was a good time to launch an operation, she was advised, since the snowfall in the Himalayas would keep away any Chinese intervention. Still Gandhi lobbied with the Soviet Union to secure an assurance that troops would be sent in the event of a Chinese aggression.

Manekshaw visited the prime minister in November. “Sweetie, I’m ready!” the general is said to have told Gandhi behind closed doors. Gandhi silenced him with a quick gesture. She suspected that someone was leaking news from her office. She handed a slip of paper to Manekshaw, who wrote on it a date. Gandhi burned the slip after reading. However, Pak air force attacked an Indian airbase in Punjab before the planned date. Gandhi seems to have wished for such a challenge. She was in Kolkata when the news broke. She told the chief of the eastern command, Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Aurora: “Good luck to you, my general.Aurora devastated the Pak army within two weeks, leading to the largest military surrender in the subcontinent. About a lakh Pak soldiers surrendered to India, epitomized by the photograph of Lieutenant General Amir Niazi signing the agreement. The war led to the creation of Bangladesh, glory for India and perpetual shame for Pakistan. Silent diplomacy, the intellect to turn big powers in favor of India and an ability to spot military talent helped Gandhi in her maneuvers. Her bitter critics in the home front could not help but laud her efforts to safeguard national security. Opposition leader Atal Behari Vajpayee termed her “Durga” after the liberation of Bangladesh. She ordered the Indian army to wrest the Hajipir Pass from Pakistan during the 1971 war, an act that would prevent any significant move by the Pak infantry against India in Kashmir in years to come.The experiences in 1965 and 1971 helped Gandhi buttress the country’s defenses. If Indian military tanks could charge towards Pakistan Punjab, Pakistan could do the same in Rajasthan. India’s border areas were comparatively safe in Punjab because of a vast networks of rivers and irrigation canals. Gandhi had a defense target in mind when she approved the construction of the Rajasthan canal, which later came to be known as the Indira Gandhi canal. Gandhi was determined to turn India into a nuclear power as soon as the 1971 war ended. India conducted the nuclear tests in 1974, before the western powers tried to steamroll the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Gandhi refused to sign the treaty unless the world powers recognized India as a nuclear-weapon state. India is still out of the treaty. The accession of Sikkim was one of the greatest diplomatic victories of Gandhi. The United States’ special interest in Sikkim’s palace politics in the 1970s ruffled feathers in neighboring India. The U.S. Overtures were helped by the America-born queen. Indian intelligence agencies supported the democratic forces in Sikkim to counter the increasing influence of the U.S. or China in Sikkim’s internal affairs. Sikkim’s legislature passed a resolution to end the monarchy and merge with India. The accession of Sikkim expanded India’s influence along the Chinese border. The new territories were instrumental in countering any attack by China.

The declaration of Emergency and the horrendous violations of human rights remained a shadow on Gandhi’s career. She was swept out of power in 1977.A resurgent Gandhi, however, focused on national security in the early 1980s. The lesser known ‘Operation Falcon’ started in this period, with a view to assert India’s positions on the Chinese border.Gandhi wanted General Krishna Rao to launch constructions inside the Indian territory along the Chinese border, a far cry from the earlier position not to provoke China.India was prepared to counter any Chinese aggression. Diplomatic efforts were also in place. Gandhi spoke with Chinese premier Hua Guofeng in Belgrade during the funeral of Marshal Tito. The leaders decided to launch annual meetings at the ministerial level to sort out differences. India was no longer scared of the neighbor.Gandhi’s diplomatic success stems from her ability to sense the changes in world politics. Known to be a Soviet ally, Gandhi surprised the international community after she came back to power in 1980. She bought Jaguar fighters from Britain.She explored new alliances even as she kept the bonhomie with the Soviet Union intact. Her visits to the United States and United Kingdom demonstrated a shift in thinking. She held talks with U.S. president Ronald Reagan and British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Gandhi was particularly peeved by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. She did not react because she was not in power. She later told Leonid Brezhnev that the Soviet Union had brought its cold war to South Asia. Gandhi’s concern was India’s security. The United States armed Pakistan to fight the Soviet forces in Afghanistan, breathing new life to a dejected military structure. Pakistan had an eye on the Siachen Glacier even as it launched an offensive in Afghanistan, the Indian army learned from its mountaineering sources. Gandhi did not bat an eyelid in ordering the deployment of a brigade atop the glacier. The prime minister risked being called ambitious in the international community but that move prevented Pakistan from staking claim over the strategic glacier. Gandhi knew throughout that the total dependence on imported weapons was a recipe for disaster. She initiated the development of light combat aircraft, missile projects, the top-secret submarine project and several such strategic weapons. Gandhi was convinced that the path of progress was through science. She formed an electronics commission. She formed an antarctic mission to explore the possibilities in the South Pole. Those were the times of giant strides in space technology as well. The space department was hived off from the nuclear energy department. Satish Dhawan was placed in charge of the new department. The success of the SSLV rockets prompted the prime minister to launch a guided missile program with the able guidance of young engineers such as A P J Abdul Kalam and A Sivathanu Pillai. The program led to the development of the Agni and Prithvi line of missiles. She also commissioned the development of nuclear warheads and the Arihant submarine. India owes its position as an Asian military power to the visionary leadership of Gandhi. She laid the foundation for India’s enviable leaps in nuclear, missile and aerospace sectors.