Calling the U.S.’s bluff in 1971

Bold power play by India and Russia held off Pakistan’s benefactors in those crucial days in December 1971

Updated - December 19, 2019 01:08 am IST

Published - December 19, 2019 12:05 am IST

Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman signing the treaty of friendship, cooperation and peace in Dacca on March 2, 1972. Photo: The Hindu Photo Archives

Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman signing the treaty of friendship, cooperation and peace in Dacca on March 2, 1972. Photo: The Hindu Photo Archives

As we remember the liberation of Bangladesh this week more than four decades ago, it is worth recalling the geopolitics that made it possible. By 1969, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her advisers were aware that the U.S.’s feelers to China could potentially come at a cost to India’s security. The Sino-Soviet split meant that Moscow had looked at geopolitical developments with a similar perspective. By July 1971, the veil had been lifted. Pakistan had served as a middleman in the U.S.-China detente. By December 1971, it was crunch time as the fate of their ally hung in the balance. The U.S. aircraft carrier ‘Enterprise’ was despatched to the Indian Ocean as a gambit to raise Pakistan’s morale.

At a meeting chaired by Mrs. Gandhi to assess the implications of the Seventh Fleet’s presence in the Bay of Bengal, her adviser D.P. Dhar urged India to leverage the special understanding that had been formalised in August, “What is the point of India having signed the Indo-Soviet treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation, if India cannot call this bluff?” Then, on December 14, Mrs. Gandhi’s confidant P.N. Haksar cabled Dhar in Moscow saying it was necessary “to make a public announcement carrying the seal of the highest authorities in the Soviet Union that involvement or interference by third countries... cannot but aggravate the situation”. Shortly thereafter, the Soviets “sent a top-secret message to Nixon” warning the U.S. “against involvement or interference”.

Entry of Soviet naval vessels

Naval units from the Soviet Pacific Fleet had already been dispatched. The U.S. was aware that the Soviet Navy had entered the Indian Ocean on December 5 and by December 7 was “approximately 500 nautical miles east of Ceylon (Sri Lanka).” On December 8, U.S. National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger admitted that given the Russia factor, “I must warn you, Mr. President, if our bluff is called, we’ll be in trouble... we’ll lose.” On December 11, Kissinger briefed President Richard Nixon, “16 Soviet naval units are now in the Indian Ocean area, including three space support ships. Communications intelligence indicates that most of the ships are near Ceylon and Socotra.” The vessels were armed with anti-ship cruise missiles capable of destroying U.S. warships and escorted by nuclear submarines. There was no longer any ambiguity about what the Indo-Soviet Treaty meant in the unfolding situation.

The White House had also been hoping for some sort of a Chinese move to complicate India’s military operations. On the same day, Nixon told Kissinger, “a movement of even some Chinese toward that border could scare those goddamn Indians to death.”

China doesn’t take the bait

On December 10, in a secret meeting in New York, Kissinger told Huang Hua, China’s official at the UN, that the U.S. was “moving a number of naval ships in the West Pacific toward the Indian Ocean: an aircraft carrier accompanied by four destroyers and a tanker, and a helicopter carrier and two destroyers.” Kissinger also offered to provide “tactical intelligence” on “the disposition of Soviet forces” on China’s borders, and added, if the Chinese“were to consider the situation on the Indian subcontinent a threat to its security, and if it took measures to protect its security, the U.S. would oppose the efforts of others to interfere with the People’s Republic.”

The move was aimed to kill several birds with a single stone. But China didn’t bite. Beijing feared that even limited coercive actions against India would invite immediate reprisals from Moscow. In the light of Russia’s dramatic military escalation to Chinese provocations in their 1969 border crisis, Chairman Mao Zedong was not going to take a chance again. Indeed, a few months earlier, Soviet Defence Minister Andrei Grechko had plainly told Dhar, “the Chinese were aware of the superiority of Soviet forces on the Eastern borders and this ‘had downed their tail’.” For China to “invite a conflict” after the conclusion of the Indo-Soviet Treaty would be tantamount to “courting a disaster”. Later, during the Nixon-Mao summit in 1972, Zhou Enlai told Kissinger that the U.S. bluff had been called by the Soviets. On December 13, the Soviet Ambassador to India, Nikolai Pegov, reassured New Delhi that Moscow would counteract any moves by the U.S. or China. And, if Beijing decided to intervene in Ladakh, Moscow “would open a diversionary action in Xinjiang.” Three days later, the Pakistan Army surrendered.

Looking back, we can see that Indian policymakers achieved something remarkable in managing the geopolitical contradictions. They crafted a partnership with the Soviets to offset what was a formidable U.S.-Pakistan-China front. The nuggets also reveal how seriously China and the U.S. took Indian countermeasures and Moscow’s resolve to ensure that its ally emerged victorious.

Zorawar Daulet Singh is a fellow at the Centre for Policy Research

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