The US wanted to avoid a second India-Pakistan war after 1965, but it had no option but to support its key ally, Pakistan. And, when the 1971 war broke out, the Task Force 74 of the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet was deployed in the Bay of Bengal to attack India under the garb of evacuating US citizens from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).
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The seventh fleet was led by the 75,000-ton nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise along with guided-missile cruiser USS King, guided-missile destroyers USS Decatur, Parsons and Tartar Sam, and amphibious assault ship USS Tripoli. The deployment was seen as a show of force by the US against India.
Meanwhile, the Indian Navy’s fleet was led by the 20,000-ton aircraft carrier, Vikrant, with barely 20 light fighter aircraft. The US fleet was followed by the British naval group comprising the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle with commando carrier HMS Albion.
The British and the US had coordinated a pincer attack to intimidate India as the British were approaching India’s territorial waters from the west.
The US had to limit its support to West Pakistan, at least directly, due to a large number of killings in East Pakistan. However, when the creation of Bangladesh was certain, as per the classified tapes, US President Richard Nixon told National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger to keep the carriers moving towards East Pakistan.
The conversation was tapped by Indian intelligence agencies and the news spread like wildfire. Admiral SM Nanda wrote in his autobiography, The Man Who Bombed Karachi, the Soviet Union had deployed its ships in the Strait of Malacca, behind the American fleet to act as a deterrence.
Nanda says in the book that when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi asked him how they were going to deal with the situation, he told her that if Indian ships encounter American vessels, he has directed his Captains that they must invite the Captain of the US ship over for a drink.
India had feared that the US might come to East Pakistan in support of the beleaguered West Pakistani forces. Admiral N. Krishnan, the chief of the Eastern Command of the Indian Navy, writes in his book, No Way But Surrender that he was afraid that the Americans may reach Chittagong, the port city on the southeastern coast of then East Pakistan.
He writes that they even thought of attacking Enterprise with a torpedo to slow down the speed of the fleet.
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But it was certain that the US wouldn’t have waged war against India. Admiral Mihir Roy, Director of Naval Intelligence, had assured Indira Gandhi that the seventh fleet wouldn’t attack India due to the Vietnam War.
The Indian leadership had realized that it was almost impossible for the US trapped in Vietnam to send its troops to fight India.
Experts talking to the EurAsian Times backed the statement and said that it would have been inconceivable for the US to open a second front especially after all the battering it was getting in Vietnam.
And had the US decided to deploy its soldiers on the ground in Bangladesh, the USSR would have instantly jumped in to support India. It could either have triggered a World War or another Vietnam-like situation which turned out to be a disaster for the US. Unknowingly, Vietnam turned out to be a savior for India in 1971.
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In an interview with an Italian journalist, Indira Gandhi had said that a “third world war” could have erupted had the US dared to fire a single shot on the Indian fleet (with its rivalry with the USSR at peak).
If Enterprise had moved unstoppably, it would have reached East Pakistan on December 16, but Pakistan had surrendered on December 15, following which the US fleet changed its movement towards Sri Lanka.
US politician Patrick Moynihan also wrote in his book, Estranged Democracies: India and the United States, that Nixon had no intention of engaging in a naval battle with India.
He was using the Enterprise to pressurize India and the former Soviet Union. He writes that Kissinger used to say that he had no intention of getting his soldiers involved in this battle.