Updated: March 23, 2010 11:00 IST

The tilt and the jolt

print   ·   T  T  

The tilt is engraved in our national memory as the aberrant policy President Nixon and his adviser Henry Kissinger pursued to favour Pakistan and harm India during the Bangladesh crisis of 1971 — ‘Tilt” has become the codeword for American bias in the early 1970s. It was really ancillary to Nixon's pet project of teaming up with China against the Soviet Union in a balancing act of “triangular diplomacy,” a jolt to Cold War equations. He was desperate to stop what he believed was an Indian design to dismember West Pakistan after the secession of East Pakistan became inevitable. That would have spelt Soviet ascendancy in Asia to the detriment of China and the United States. The paradox of Nixon, the arch anti-communist seeking out to Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai, astonished the world, but the logic of the U.S. leveraging China against the Soviet Union confirmed the age-old strategy of befriending the enemy's enemy. Nixon was anxious to end the Vietnam war without loss of face (sounds familiar now?) and vainly hoped that China would moderate North Vietnam's obduracy in peace-making.

Nixon had elevated China as a world power and game changer. He derided India as a crafty, hypocritical minor power bent on crushing friendly Pakistan. His intended trip to China was announced on July 15, 1971, immediately after Kissinger's secret visit to Beijing in a boyishly conspiratorial subterfuge he plotted with President Yahya Khan, which did not impress Zhou. As if in reaction, India and the Soviet Union signed a treaty of friendship on August 9. This gave pause to the collusion between the U.S. and China to intimidate India right in the midst of the Bangladesh liberation war in December 1971.

Historical folklore

How Prime Minister Indira Gandhi stood up to Nixon and Kissinger and ignored these threats, notably the entry of ‘USS Enterprise' into the Bay of Bengal, has passed into historical folklore. But the frantic exchanges between the key players during that crisis should be fully studied and re-interpreted by young historians and diplomats. Nixon's visceral antipathy to Indira Gandhi and her cool way of showing up his jaundiced view of the subcontinent's travails angered him beyond endurance.

A plethora of documents and telephone transcripts have been released in stages by the U.S. governmental archives and the independent National Security Archive of the George Washington University. The Freedom of Information Act has prised out some sequestered papers. We lack a matching transparency from New Delhi, Beijing, and Moscow. Memoirs and monographs abound, among them Nixon's and Kissinger's, but they cannot be trusted without corroboration.


Kalyani Shankar, a senior journalist and author, has compiled 50 declassified documents, relating to a painful phase in Indo-U.S. relations, from the American archives. She has drawn upon some excellent studies by and interactions with American scholars, besides a tome by George Perkovich on India's nuclear policy. There are fewer Indian sources, except in the final chapter on the consequences of the Peaceful Nuclear Explosion in 1974

She credits Indira Gandhi with building up a strong case for international action to halt Yahya Khan's genocidal repression of East Bengal, but there are gaps in this presentation which relies rather excessively on American perceptions.

The author bypasses evidence of leaks to the CIA from Indira Gandhi's cabinet meetings in December 1971 on her alleged “war aims.” Nixon insisted that India was the aggressor even when it was Pakistan that attacked Indian airfields on December 3, precipitating the war. Kalyani Shankar has not chosen to examine whether it was Nixon's warning to the Soviet leaders that restrained India from advancing into West Pakistan. Kissinger gave credit to Nixon for stopping the war and saving Pakistan from Indo-Soviet domination.


The book is marred by quite a few shortcomings and lapses in production, both on the technical and content fronts. To give some examples: printing and grammatical errors; docketing of documents in overlapping sequences; repetition of quotations from documents; and truncation of documents in some cases. Incidentally, one memo of a talk with Kissinger shows Ambassador L.K. Jha in a poor light; he had blamed P.N. Haksar and D.P. Dhar as pro-Soviet advisers who misled Indira Gandhi into accepting the Indo-Soviet treaty.

This book will spur readers and scholars to delve more deeply into the vicissitudes of Indo-U.S. relations. The transcripts of the Nixon-Zhou talks (1972) and the Kissinger-Zhou talks (1971 and 1972) are worth detailed study. They show a shared derision for India, Nehru and Indira. Zhou's remarks on Japan, Taiwan and the Soviet Union are also revealing. The American records are wonderfully kept, but diplomatic documents can be misleading — they are sieves which let through decision-making untouched by ink. The tilt could re-emerge in a morphed pattern. Our experts should scrutinise the state of play move by move.

NIXON, INDIRA AND INDIA - Politics and Beyond: Kalyani Shankar; Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 2/10, Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 445.

More In: Books

More »



Recent Article in Books

(From right) Historian Romila Thapar, poet Ashok Vajpeyi, Kannan
Sundaram, MD, Kalachuvadu Publications, and Rajan Krishna of Ambedkar
University at a meet organised by SAHMAT, in solidarity with Tamil writer
Perumal Murugan in New Delhi on Tuesday. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

Romila Thapar, Ashok Vajpeyi speak up for Perumal Murugan

On a day when Tamil writer Perumal Murugan began his “life in exile” in Chennai after being “hounded” to declare the death of the author... »