Lessons of the past

While Nixon and Kissinger adamantly supported the army rulers of Pakistan, the carnage in East Pakistan continued. The Nixon administration put considerable premium on its reliance on Islamabad for facilitating normalized relations with Beijing, as that was its top foreign policy concern. Kissinger was categorical, ‘Yahya must be kept afloat for six more months’

Lessons of the past

In the two major external crises of independent India, one in 1962 and the other in 1971, we faced near isolation. In the 1962 war with China, only Malaysia supported us. Dallas even had a big dig that if India would have been aligned with the USA the attack would not have taken place. The Soviets advised us in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis to accept and settle the border issues with the Chinese on the latter’s terms. In 1971, India got involved unexpectedly when the military rulers of Pakistan could not accept a stunning electoral victory of the Awami League in erstwhile East Pakistan. The subsequent crackdown led to an exodus of roughly 10 million people into India.

Even when a genocide was taking place in the then East Pakistan, US President Nixon and Secretary of State Kissinger tried their best to downplay the atrocities and stood like rocks with the military administration at Islamabad. When the conflict became acute and a war with India became likely, both the USA and China defended a regime that had slaughtered lakhs of people, mostly civilians in East Pakistan. It was an irony that even during the height of the Cold War, the 1971 episode had nothing to do with ideological issues of liberal capitalism vs statist communism but only an ethnic and religious conflict, in which both the super powers supported their allies. After the Sino-Soviet split, China became close to the USA.

Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, on 13 May 1971, sent a clear message to President Nixon, explaining India’s predicament. She pointed out India’s refugee problem was a security threat “which no responsible government can allow to develop”. Since the refugees had entered a heavily populated and unstable area there was danger that the situation might become explosive. She accused the military rulers of Pakistan of pursuing ethnic cleansing by changing the communal composition of erstwhile East Pakistan.


The Indian Ambassador to USA, L K Jha, cautioned Kissinger about the explosive nature of the refugee problem and insisted that some ways had to be found to facilitate the return of the refugees. Kissinger retorted that a war was inconceivable on the issue of refugees. In their private conversations Nixon and Kissinger both expressed anger at New Delhi’s behaviour and used many unparliamentary phrases.

Meanwhile, while Nixon and Kissinger adamantly supported the army rulers of Pakistan, the carnage in East Pakistan continued. The Nixon administration put considerable premium on its reliance on Islamabad for facilitating normalized relations with Beijing, as that was its top foreign policy concern. Kissinger was categorical, “Yahya must be kept afloat for six more months”. The US support to Islamabad was total and the critical arms flow continued. For Kissinger, Pakistan’s role in arranging the secret diplomatic parleys to China was more important than the genocide in former East Pakistan. The Pakistani army for all practical purposes became an army of occupation in erstwhile East Pakistan.

The CIA confirmed that 80 to 90 per cent refugees were Hindus, a clear message of ethnic cleansing. India’s earlier hope of a mediated settlement increasingly looked unlikely. India’s foreign minister Swaran Singh described the situation as intolerable and cautioned that India “cannot sit idly by if the edifice of our political stability and economic wellbeing is threatened”. With the total failure of Pakistan’s military regime to build any semblance of popular support, the Mukti Bahini with India’s support became more and more effective in disrupting the activities of the military junta and its supporters. Even then Washington’s Ambassador to India Kenneth Keating urged India to close the borders which India refused.

Prime Minister Gandhi made an official visit to Washington in November 1971 where she met President Nixon privately. Nixon emphasized on the utmost need to avoid war in South Asia; Mrs Gandhi pointed out the US military support to Islamabad and the severity of the refugee crisis. But the duo Nixon-Kissinger were unmoved and in their private conversation were abusive, which reflected a gender bias. The grim situation of East Pakistan did not have any effect on US policy. The stringent policy arose out of Kissinger’s belief that India would win in an eventuality of war leading to India’s dominance in South Asia and strengthening the Soviet hold in this region. Nixon blamed India for the crisis but concurred with Kissinger that in a war India would win. He also feared Pakistan’s disintegration.

On 3 December 1971, Pakistan initiated an air attack on India. But despite the fact that Pakistan was the aggressor and responsible for the genocide in former East Pakistan, Nixon’s sympathies were still with the Pakistani dictator Yahya. Kissinger reciprocated and believed it to be an “Indian-Soviet collusion, raping a friend of ours”. He also commented that “if the Soviets get away with this in the Subcontinent, we have seen the dress rehearsal for a Middle Eastern war”.

The CIA perception was that it was a Soviet ploy to gain advantage in the third world over China. India was perceived as the counter weight to China and also in prohibiting a future alliance between the two against the USSR. It also thought that the Chinese image as a defender of small and medium sized countries would suffer, as it proved to be a ‘paper tiger’. India’s response was quick and decisive. Paul Thomas Chamberlain commented “while New Delhi invoked the causes of democracy and human rights, Islamabad appealed to god and justice”.

India’s retaliation was quick and splendid. India was well prepared and the pre-emptive feeble strike of Pakistan provided enough justification for invading East Pakistan, a land separated by a thousand miles from West Pakistan. The latter’s calculation was deterrence with an attack on Indians in East Pakistan and Western border of Kashmir and Punjab, gaining advantage in the West and resistance in the East hoping for a UN sponsored ceasefire with the support of USA and China.

With India having established total control in former East Pakistan and holding back Pakistani forces in the West, the White House realised that its plan for a united Pakistan was lost. But still the Nixon-Kissinger due expected for a significant illegal arms transfer from Jordan to Pakistan and even a Chinese show of strength against India.

The Bangladesh crisis happened during the intense struggle for global dominance between the USA and the former USSR. For the USA, restoring normal diplomatic relations with China was the most important priority in which the brutal military regime of Pakistan was the important linkage. Human rights and democracy went to the backburner and what prevailed was the perception of the US administration.

The Cold War is over but the primacy of national interest remains. Lord Palmerstone had remarked that a nation had no permanent friends or enemies but only permanent interests. Our interest at the present juncture is to build a reasonable deterrence to meet any aggression or attempt to change the LAC by force or any attack on our territorial integrity. This is the lesson of 1962 and 1971. Self-reliance has to be the guiding principle as the intentions of other nations are not known and the future remains uncertain.

The writer is a retired Professor of Political Science, University of Delhi