A lost opportunity in 1971: where Indira Gandhi erred

Indira Gandhi failed to convert India’s victory in the 1971 war into a durable peace with Pakistan

November 20, 2019 12:15 am | Updated December 04, 2021 10:40 pm IST

Indian Prime Minister Shrimati Indira Gandhi and Pakistan President Shri Z.A. Bhutto signing the historic Simla Agreement on bilateral relations on July 03, 1972.

Indian Prime Minister Shrimati Indira Gandhi and Pakistan President Shri Z.A. Bhutto signing the historic Simla Agreement on bilateral relations on July 03, 1972.

November 19, 2019 marked the 102nd birth anniversary of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Thirty-five years after her death, she continues to be regarded as the most courageous and decisive leader India has had. Her time in office was marked by epoch-making achievements, including the swift and successful prosecution of the war with Pakistan in 1971. But there were also serious lapses of judgment, including the 1975-1977 Emergency and the storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar in 1984, an ill-advised move that cost the Prime Minister her life.


A disadvantageous peace

Among her failures, the least talked about was also her worst. Until all official records related to the Simla Agreement signed on July 2, 1972 are made public, we will never know what led Indira Gandhi to conclude such a disadvantageous peace with Pakistan following the 1971 war. The Simla Agreement, and the subsequent Delhi Agreement, gave Pakistan everything it wanted: the territory it lost to India in the war and the safe return of all its soldiers without one of them being held responsible for the genocidal campaign unleashed in what is now Bangladesh.


The Simla Agreement reads more like a communiqué than a peace agreement with a country that had waged war on India. Nothing in the Agreement pinned Pakistan down to future good behaviour. It also included some laughable expectations, such as the clause requiring both governments “to take all steps within their power to prevent hostile propaganda directed against each other”.

Hardly had the Agreement been signed when the Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who had never hidden his intention to make Pakistan a nuclear power, began disparaging India. Indira Gandhi ought to have taken note. Writing in the Foreign Affairs magazine in April 1973, Bhutto disingenuously observed that “Pakistan had been the victim of unabashed aggression: her eastern part seized by Indian forces. It was this fact that made it difficult for our people to be reconciled to the fait accompli, more so because the invasion was not an isolated phenomenon. On the contrary, it was but the climax of a long series of hostile and aggressive acts by India against Pakistan since the establishment of the two as sovereign and independent states”.

What the Simla agreement failed to achieve for India could well have been obtained through the 1973 Delhi Agreement signed by India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

An inflection point

If ever there was an inflection point in India’s relations with Pakistan, it was the moment when India had Pakistan on its knees, holding over 15,000 square kilometres of its territory and 93,000 its soldiers — nearly a quarter of its army — as prisoners of war. It is mystifying why India so easily returned both. A former Indian diplomat, Sashanka Banerjee, provided an explanation, when he said that the decision to repatriate Pakistani prisoners of war “was taken to get Sheikh Mujibur Rahman back to his country alive and well”. But that doesn’t sound right. The repatriation of Pakistani prisoners of war occurred after the signing of the Delhi Agreement, long after Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had returned to Bangladesh in January 1972.


India ought to have rightly insisted that an international tribunal try those prisoners of war who had contributed to the well-documented genocide in Bangladesh. This would have also eroded the credibility of the Pakistani Army, eliminated it as a political force and led to a more enduring peace in the region. Indira Gandhi’s inexplicable failure to convert India’s victory in the 1971 war into a durable peace will remain a blot on her record. We will continue to bear its consequences, one of them being confronting a nuclear Pakistan.

Uday Balakrishnan teaches at IISc, Bengaluru

Top News Today


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.