46. Letter From Indian Prime Minister Gandhi to President Nixon1

Dear Mr. President,

Thank you for your warm message of congratulations on our recent elections.2 You know how much I value your good wishes.

I trust you have been following closely the sequence of events in East Bengal. I do not wish to write about the barbarities which have been committed across our eastern border. These have been vividly described in the world press. My concern is to draw your attention to the gigantic problems which Pakistanʼs actions in East Bengal have created for India.

The carnage in East Bengal has naturally disturbed the Indian people deeply. There has been a surge of emotion which we have tried to contain but we find it increasingly difficult to do so in view of the systematic effort on the part of Pakistan to force millions of people to take refuge in our territory. The two problems—Pakistanʼs war on the people of East Bengal and its impact on US in the form of millions of refugees—cannot be separated.

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Soon after it was returned to office in March, my government started mobilising all its energies in order to make up for the tardy growth of our economy in recent years. In the best of circumstances this would have been a formidable task but the situation with which Pakistan has confronted us makes it almost impossible. As things are at present, our economy faces disruption. This is not a prospect which we can contemplate with equanimity. As we see it, the rulers of Pakistan would wish the refugee problem in India to result in an aggravation of social tension and religious strife. They probably have a vested interest in this.

Until the 12th May, 1971, the number of fugitives who were registered on their crossing the border into India was 2,328,507. We believe that there is a fair number who have avoided registration. Refugees still continue to pour in at the rate of about fifty thousand a day. We are doing our utmost to look after them. But there is a limit to our capacity and resources. Even the attempt to provide minimum facilities of shelter, food and medical care is imposing an enormous burden on us. The rains have begun in the Eastern region and soon the fury of the monsoon will be unleashed and vastly complicate the problem of providing shelter to the evacuees. Apparently, Pakistan is trying to solve its internal problems by cutting down the size of its population in East Bengal and changing its communal composition through an organised and selective programme of eviction; but it is India that has to take the brunt of this.

In this grim situation, I feel I am entitled to seek the advice of all friendly Governments on how they would wish us to deal with the problem. As far as we are concerned, Pakistanʼs claim that normalcy has been restored in East Bengal cannot carry conviction until it is able to stop this daily flow of its citizens across the border and the nearly three million refugees who are already here begin to go back with some assurance of their future safety.

The regions which the refugees are entering are over-crowded and politically the most sensitive parts of India. The situation in these areas can very easily become explosive. The influx of refugees thus constitutes a grave security risk which no responsible government can allow to develop.

We are convinced that the loyalty of a people to a State cannot be enforced at gun-point. Through their recent elections the overwhelming majority of the people of East Bengal expressed their adherence to the concepts of nationalism and democracy. Since the expressed will of the people is being stifled, extremist political elements will inevitably gain ground. With our own difficulties in West Bengal the dangers of a link-up between the extremists in the two Bengals are real. If your assessment is different, I should be glad to have the benefit of your views.

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I believe that the Government of the United States of America is interested in the peace and stability of the sub-continent and its evolution along democratic lines. I have no doubt that you are giving thought to the long-term consequences of the events in East Bengal. In the meantime, it is our earnest hope that the Government of the United States of America will impress upon the rulers of Pakistan that they owe a duty towards their own citizens whom they have treated so callously and forced to seek refuge in a foreign country.

It is also our earnest hope that the power and prestige of the United States will be used to persuade the military rulers of Pakistan to recognize that the solution they have chosen for their problem in East Pakistan is unwise and untenable.

The people of India, including all political parties, are deeply concerned with the personal safety of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who is in the custody of the Government of Pakistan according to their own announcement. If you consider sending any message to the President of Pakistan, we would appreciate your taking up this matter with him.

We are all delighted to hear of your daughterʼs engagement and wish her and her fiancé the very best.

With kind regards,

Yours sincerely,

Indira Gandhi
  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POL INDIA–US. No classification marking. Sent to the President under a covering letter from Ambassador Jha on May 19. (Ibid.)
  2. See Document 7.