1971 - Soviet and Indian Interests Clashed
Getting Soviet help was a challenging task
It is a truism that India could not have won the 1971 war to liberate East Pakistan and establish Bangladesh without the political and military support extended by the Soviet Union.
The USSR was the only power in the world to support India in that military intervention to end a colossal humanitarian crisis. But getting the Soviets to support India was a challenging task because Indian and Soviet geopolitical interests clashed.
The story of the “Reluctant Russians” finally supporting the war has been narrated in fascinating detail by Srinath Raghavan in his book 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh.
In the run up to the war, the US, under Nixon and Kissinger, was hoping that India would miserably fail to subdue its ally, Pakistan, and China was needling India with its bellicose pro-Pakistan statements.
The Soviet Union was sympathetic, but till the 11 th. hour, it felt that if the refugee influx was stopped or the refugees were provided for, war would be avoided. The Soviets were against military action in East Pakistan and Pakistan’s dismemberment.
In fact, they were keen on mediating between India and Pakistan, wanting to build on their successful peacemaking bid at Tashkent which ended the 1965 Indo-Pak war.
In 1968, Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin wrote to his Indian counterpart, Indira Gandhi, saying that Moscow would like to mediate between India and Pakistan in the interest of peace in the subcontinent. He had been encouraged to do so by Moscow’s success in thrashing out the 1966 Tashkent Agreement which ended the India-Pakistan war of 1965. Indira Gandhi replied saying that India preferred to settle matters bilaterally with Pakistan.
Moscow then “dropped a bombshell” by announcing arms sales to Pakistan which set off alarm bells in India. To mollify India, the USSR offered a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation.
Soviet Defense Minister Andrei Grechko offered India arms and promised to aid India if Pakistan or China attacked. At that time, the Soviet and Chinese armies were facing each other eyeball to eyeball in Xinjiang.
Though her key advisors were keen on an Indo-Soviet pact, Mrs. Gandhi was reluctant to sign a treaty, especially if there was a military content in it. Reasons? She was committed to non-alignment; she had an interest in opening a line of communication with China; there was severe opposition from the anti-Soviet Indian Right Wing; and her political position was tenuous with her Congress party heading for a split.
She felt that one way of mollifying domestic critics was to get the Soviets to stop arms supplies to Pakistan. She told Kosygin quite plainly that the Indians would not like India and Pakistan being equated and demanded primacy for India. In early 1970, the USSR agreed to stop military supplies to Pakistan.
In a further concession to India, the draft Indo-Soviet treaty only referred to “mutual consultations” in the case of aggression by a third party. It avoided the term “military”. Raghavan says that the Soviets agreed to this because they wanted the Left-leaning Indira Gandhi to get the better of the Right Wing in her party.
However, the Soviets were still touting an India-Pakistan détente and did not increase arms supplies to India. This discomfited India which sought an Indian-centric commitment.
The worsening of political tension in East Pakistan in early 1971 made the USSR realize that Pakistan was an embarrassment. President Nikolai Podgorny wrote to President Yahya Khan to stop repression and bloodshed in East Pakistan.
But the Soviets did not envisage the division of Pakistan. In fact, they warned Yahya Khan that “imperialist powers” and “forces in Asia” (US and China respectively) could use the crisis to dismember Pakistan. The Soviets feared that China would use East Bengali leftists to manipulate the situation in its favor.
In early 1971, the USSR was concerned about reports that India had massed six divisions along the India-East Pakistan border and had sent in infiltrators to stir the pot there. When this was conveyed to New Delhi, Foreign Minister Swaran Singh flatly denied any plans to use military means to solve the problem, even though millions of refugees were pouring into India.
Unimpressed, the Soviets appealed to Indira Gandhi “not to precipitate matters.” Simultaneously, Prime Minister Kosygin kept telling the Pakistanis that Moscow had no interest in dismembering Pakistan or in dictating any political solution for the East Pakistan question.
However, Kodygin did add that any solution should be based on the “lawful wishes of the parties”. This rung an alarm bell in Pakistan as it meant accepting the wishes of the rebel Bangladeshi leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman of the Awami League.
Worried about the lack of full support in the Kremlin, the Indian envoy in Moscow, D.P.Dhar, warned the Soviets that the planned butchering and expulsion of Hindus in East Pakistan could result in anti-Muslim riots in India which would be a catastrophe. He also made it clear that international help to maintain the refugees will not be enough.
Moscow was told firmly that the real solution to the problem of refugees lies in a suitable political solution to the East Pakistan question. This meant accepting the demands of the Awami League which had swept the December 1970 parliamentary elections in East Pakistan.
The Soviet line was that India should be satisfied if the refugee issue was tackled and that the political solution should be left to the domestic parties concerned.
To draw the Soviets into the Indian line of thinking, Ambassador Dhar drew their attention to the bellicose anti-India statements from Beijing. He also tried to revive the proposal for a Peace and Friendship Treaty made by the Soviets earlier. But Indira Gandhi was still unconvinced about the need to enter into a treaty with the Soviets. She felt it would jeopardize the chances of making up with China.
But the continually escalating situation in East Pakistan, the massive influx of refugees which had crossed 7 million, the massing of Pakistani troops and aggressive statements from China, made Marshal Grechko seek a policy change at the Kremlin. Grechko told Ambassador Dhar that India should be wary of “our friend from the North” meaning China.
He suggested entering into a “Treaty of Mutual Help” of the kind concluded between the Soviet Union and Egypt. Grechko further said that the treaty “should contain some reference to military cooperation also. He pointed out that the massing of Soviet troops on the Sino-Soviet border “would help India directly in her defense against China.” If the Chinese did not have to contend with Soviet forces on the border, they would unleash their hoards against India, he warned.
Dhar liked Grechko’s approach. But in Srinath Raghavan’s view, the Marshal was only thinking of countering the Pakistanis and the Chinese, not launching a military campaign in East Pakistan. The Soviets were still averse to a military solution to the East Pakistan crisis and continued to expect India to abjure war.
As days rolled by, threats from the Chinese rankled the Soviets and they began pressing for the signing of an Indo-Soviet treaty with a mention of military involvement to meet a threat. But India wanted an amendment to say “mutual consultations with a view to removing the threat.” The Soviets accepted the amendment.
However, the treaty was not signed until the US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told Indian Ambassador L.K.Jha that if India and Pakistan went to war, the US would not help India. With the Americans slamming the door shut, India had no option but to sign the Indo-Soviet treaty, but without making it look like a military pact.
Still keen on avoiding war, Soviet President Podgorny pleaded with Pakistani President Yahya Khan to start talks with Sheikh Mujib. Yahya “irritably replied that he would not talk to that traitor”, Raghavan notes. The Soviet leadership then concluded that Yahya did not want a reasonable solution and Moscow decided to throw its weight behind India.