Look-back at Dec 1971: Int’l dimension

Friendly Fire
Khalid Saleem

Saturday, December 04, 2010 - When two elephants fight, the grass gets trampled. The same happens when they make love. — African saying

Passage of almost four decades has not eased the pain of the traumatic events of 1971. Much has been written on the subject. Most analyses have been confined to the developments within the subcontinent. The break-up of Pakistan has generally been viewed in the context of internal and regional upheavals. Little attention has been paid to the international dimension of the momentous events in the subcontinent. This dimension, though not the center-piece does have a bearing on the result. A modest attempt will be made in the following paragraphs to touch upon the international events that unfolded parallel to the evolving ground reality. One would hasten to clarify, though, that the intention is not at all to either under-rate or to minimize the importance of the internal upheaval of the epoch but merely to explore a dimension that has perhaps not been given the weightage that it deserved.

The events of 1971 sent shock waves far and wide. They culminated in a thorough realignment of forces in Asia. If one were to single out the one crucial event around which all the others revolved it was, without doubt, Dr. Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to Beijing (July 1971) that was facilitated by Pakistan. Dr. Kissinger describes it in the following words, “When we completed drafting the communiqué announcing my secret visit to China in July 1971, Chou En-Lai remarked that the announcement would shake the world. He was right …overnight it transformed the structure of international politics”. Kissinger and Chou En-Lai were each viewing it from the vantage point of their respective countries – one an acknowledged superpower and the other well on its way to becoming a major player in its own right. The irony of it all was that the crunch of this momentous development was to be borne by a relatively small country of South Asia that had (unwittingly?) got embroiled in what was, in effect, a big power game.

Ever since 1969, when Brezhnev had propounded his Asian Collective Security ‘doctrine’, the Soviet Union had been trying assiduously to woo the countries of South Asia to its own scheme of things. This move was dictated by the Soviet preoccupation with the ‘containment of China’.

With détente flourishing in the West, the USSR was keen to engineer a strategic cordon sanitaire around China to accomplish her grand design. One state crucial to this scheme of things was Pakistan, which had had friendly links with China. The Soviet Union bent its efforts, consequently, to try to wean away Pakistan using the classical carrot and stick approach.

The brewing crisis in East Pakistan presented an embarrassing situation for the Soviets, in that they were being driven towards an open pro-India and anti-Pakistan stance on the question. And yet, despite its close and growing friendship with India, the Soviet Union continued to resist the pressure for quite a while. {In fact there were indications that the Soviet Union made an indirect effort to atone for its precipitate – and somewhat impulsive – role by subsequently nudging Pakistan-India détente at Simla}.

In the words of Professor G. W. Choudhury, “The Soviets long avoided (at least officially) discussion of an independent Bengali state, talking instead of a political settlement acceptable to the whole of Pakistan. During his visit to Algeria in the summer of 1971, Kosygin referred to Pakistan’s ‘territorial integrity’.”The Kissinger visit upset the applecart. The Soviet Union had been busy tying up the loose ends to firm up an arrangement aimed at the containment of China. It was instead suddenly confronted with the specter of ‘US-China collusion’ in the region. Pakistan’s role in arranging the Sino-American dialogue understandably piqued Moscow, which - like New Delhi – opted to engage in what President Nixon termed “fanciful speculation of a US-China alignment”.

Exactly a month to the day (9 August) after Kissinger’s secret flight to Beijing, the infamous Indo-Soviet Treaty was signed. In the words of Bhabani Sen Gupta, “In signing the treaty, New Delhi and Moscow entered into a coalition in which collaboration for the attainment of shared objectives did not preclude efforts by each to influence the other for the pursuit of its own strategic interests”.

Henry Kissinger summed up the Soviet strategic decision thus: “There was … an ominous side to Soviet Policy. In the growing India-Pakistan conflict, the Soviet Union discovered an opportunity to humiliate China and to punish Pakistan for having served as intermediary … The Soviet Union had seized a strategic opportunity to demonstrate Chinese impotence; and to humiliate a friend of both China and the United States proved too tempting.” Soviet green-light facilitated India in its decision to send its regular forces into East Pakistan.

Pakistan appears to have made no calculations at all in respect of the ominous consequences of the forces it had set in motion. On 1 October 1971, a senior official of the Soviet Foreign Ministry said the following to (a somewhat mystified) Ambassador of Pakistan in Moscow: “You are the victims of what we call an objective situation. Just now a game is being played for very high stakes and it has not got so much to do with you …You should understand the situation, as well as our position”. This conversation was duly reported to Islamabad, which apparently took it in its stride. On its part, the United States appears to have made no serious effort to save Pakistan from dismemberment. In the words of Henry Kissinger, “There was no question of ‘saving’ East Pakistan. Both Nixon and I had recognized for months that its independence was inevitable”. The US, though, was not at all oblivious of the repercussions of this turn of events in the overall strategic context. Pakistan could be conveniently thrown to the wolves; not so America’s strategic interests! To quote Henry Kissinger again, “Nixon understood immediately that if the Soviet Union succeeded in humiliating China, all prospects for world equilibrium would disappear. He decided – and I fully agreed – that if the Soviet Union threatened China we would not stand idly by.

A country, which we did not recognize and with which we had had next to no contact for two decades, would, at least in these circumstances, obtain some significant assistance – the precise nature to be worked out when the circumstances arose”. The rest is history.

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