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The year that established India as a South Asian leader

Post-1971, India, under Indira Gandhi's leadership, was able to send out the message of its pre-eminent hold over South Asia loud and clear

Indira Gandhi with Richard Nixon.
Indira Gandhi with Richard Nixon. (Wikimedia Commons)

In November 1970, a powerful cyclone ripped through East Pakistan, submerging many parts of the state and killing more than 500,000 people. The cyclone didn’t just expose the entire region to utter devastation, it exposed Pakistan leadership’s inability and apathy in dealing with this much neglected part of its country that was granted to it in Partition by the British, but separated from it by the vast breadth of India. On 7 December, just a day before the letter from Zhou (Enlai) was delivered to the White House, Pakistan held general elections, in which Bengalis of East Pakistan, angered over the West Pakistani handling of the disaster voted 72 per cent in favour of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League, which ensured it won a majority, 160 of the overall 300 seats. The result was a massive setback to Yahya Khan and to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s PPP that won West Pakistan, and they stalled the process of swearing in the constitutionally elected new PM. Meanwhile, in India, Indira Gandhi’s Congress Party faction won a landslide victory in February 1971 (the results were later questioned, which led to the Emergency), and she was consolidating her power both as a popular leader and as an international figure.

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The battle drums were growing louder in South Asia, but Washington had its eye on the peace pipe with Peking (now Beijing). In March and April 1971, the Pakistani military unleashed a massive pogrom, called ‘Operation Searchlight’ on East Pakistan, but the (Richard) Nixon administration was more preoccupied by the Chinese invitation to the US ping-pong team to visit Beijing, along with US journalists, and what that signalled for their talks. Nixon’s response to (Henry) Kissinger’s memo in April 1971 on options before the US—(a) support Pakistan; (b) maintain neutrality; (c) help Pakistan end the conflict—was unequivocal. ‘To all hands, don’t squeeze Yahya at this time,’ he said, checking option (c). On each occasion that the US consulate in Dhaka proposed the US intervene to stop the Pakistani government, the White House sought instead to firm up its Chinese opening, for which it needed the Pakistani government.

Events in the rest of South Asia in 1971 were no less tumultuous, some of which intersected with the India–Pakistan crisis, and others that added to the drama of the times for the Indira Gandhi government. Sri Lanka (Ceylon at the time), for example, witnessed an insurrection by the ultra-communist JVP that lasted several months in 1971, and saw Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s government lose control of a number of cities and areas before Sri Lankan forces prevailed. Both Pakistan and, subsequently, India rushed troops, air support, and supplies to assist. In return for Pakistan’s support, and possibly even in an attempt to play mediator, Bandaranaike allowed Pakistani planes to transit and refuel in Colombo on their way to East Pakistan. After a stiff warning to Colombo from New Delhi, they stopped the facility in August 1971.

A New Cold War: Henry Kissinger and the Rise of China, Edited by Sanjaya Baru and Rahul Sharma, HarperCollins India, 320 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>799
A New Cold War: Henry Kissinger and the Rise of China, Edited by Sanjaya Baru and Rahul Sharma, HarperCollins India, 320 pages, 799

India’s steadfast friendship with Bhutan was tested in other ways around the same time. In December 1970, Bhutan had applied for membership of the United Nations, the first such independent foray for the Himalayan kingdom that was still bound by (the now revised) 1949 agreement to be ‘guided by the advice of the Government of India in regard to its external relations’. To be sure, India sponsored Bhutan’s application, but not after many years of misgivings in Bhutan about India’s intentions. In 1964, Bhutan’s queen, a powerful figure, had hinted as much in a conversation with Foreign Secretary T.N. Kaul….

Nepal had tensions with India on a different score, over the delayed renewal of the 1960 Treaty of Trade and Transit , which had led to an economic crisis and anti-India protests in Kathmandu. Nepal’s King Mahendra watched the Bangladesh crisis clearly, with an eye on whether China would intervene in Pakistan’s favour....

The idea that India was now unassailable in South Asia became the most important takeaway of the Bangladesh crisis. For decades, Indians had not even wished to use the term South Asia, as they felt the ‘Indian subcontinent’ gave India its ‘rightful’ place in the region’s hierarchy. (This is also one of the reasons that New Delhi was suspicious about the creation of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), spearheaded by Bangladesh’s Zia-ur Rahman, which it saw as a platform for the smaller South Asian countries to ‘gang up’ against it.)

Many officials believed that the South Asian construct was a US ploy to reduce India’s influence in the region. This belief was fuelled by the fact that the first official reference to South Asia was at the US State Department, which published a report titled ‘The Subcontinent of South Asia: Afghanistan, Ceylon, India, Nepal and Pakistan’ in 1959. This also fed into the many ‘balance of power’ theories that meant that both the US and China’s courtship of Pakistan in the decades after independence were driven less by bilateral concerns and more by a desire to restrain India from acquiring the ability to dominate the rest of the region.

Post-1971, India was able to send out the message loud and clear of its pre-eminent hold over the region. A few weeks after India’s win against Pakistan in Bangladesh, the US embassy reported on an interview that Indira Gandhi gave to a journalist in which she said the US–Indian relations could return to normal ‘if the US was prepared to recognize India’s predominant position on the subcontinent.’

‘It’s not just a question of India’s case insofar as Bangladesh is concerned,’ she is quoted by the US embassy as having said. ‘It’s a question of recognizing what India is, what India stands for and what India wants to do. We have never accepted the theory of balance of power, and we have no intention [of] doing it now.’

Edited and excerpted from A New Cold War: Henry Kissinger and the Rise of China, edited by Sanjaya Baru and Rahul Sharma with permission from HarperCollins India.

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