Fifty years on, the Simla Agreement has run its course

It did not live up to its initial promise — now amid rising instability, it is important for India to keep channels of communication open with Pakistan  

Updated - May 11, 2022 02:47 pm IST

Published - May 10, 2022 11:57 am IST

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, President of Pakistan and Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, signing the Simla Agreement on July 2, 1972.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, President of Pakistan and Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, signing the Simla Agreement on July 2, 1972. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Photo Archives

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Simla Agreement which was expected to put the stamp of legitimacy on the post-Bangladesh arrangement in South Asia and hopefully inaugurate a new era of cordial relations between India and Pakistan. Unfortunately, despite the high hopes pinned in India on it, the accord, signed on July 2, 1972, did not live up to its initial promise.

The three objectives in 1972

India had three major objectives at Shimla. First, it desired a lasting solution to the Jammu and Kashmir issue or, failing that, an agreement that would clearly declare it to be a bilateral issue, thus constraining Pakistan from involving third parties in discussions about the future of J&K. 

Second, it hoped that the Agreement would allow for a new beginning in relations with Pakistan based upon the latter’s acceptance of the clearly demonstrated post-Bangladesh balance of power in South Asia that hugely favoured India. 

Third, New Delhi wished to achieve both these objectives without pushing Pakistan to the wall and thereby encouraging the emergence of a military dominated revanchist anti-India regime.

Mixed outcome

The first objective was achieved to a certain extent despite Pakistan’s repeated efforts post-Shimla to raise the Kashmir issue in multilateral forums and involve third parties, such as the U.S., in finding a solution to the dispute. Most external powers have refrained from interfering in the Kashmir issue citing the Simla Agreement as the reason for doing so. Pakistan’s efforts to raise the issue in multilateral forums succeeded only marginally. 

As for the second objective, the awaited new beginning in India-Pakistan relations never materialised despite the demonstration of Indian military superiority in 1971. Old habits die hard and there are deep-rooted vested interests, above all the top brass of the Pakistani military that thrives on India-Pakistan tensions, that precluded the beginning of a new chapter in the two countries’ relations. 

More important, instead of convincing the Pakistani military and political elites to accept Indian primacy in the region, the vivisection of Pakistan with the help of Indian arms has had the exact opposite effect. It has ingrained a deep desire for revenge by leaving a profound scar on the Pakistani psyche that until this day overrides most other considerations, including economic benefits likely to accrue from a cooperative relationship between the two neighbours. Over the years Pakistani academics and diplomats have repeatedly asserted that Islamabad’s policy of supporting separatists in Kashmir and infiltrating terrorists into the Valley is motivated by the desire to pay India back in its own coin by ‘doing a Bangladesh on India’.

Ceasefire line, LoC

After a vigorous debate, a consensus emerged among top advisers to the Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, largely at the urging of P.N. Haksar, her Principal Secretary and closest adviser, that India must not pull a ‘Versailles’ on Pakistan at Shimla. The argument that won the day was that if Pakistan was totally humiliated, it would inevitably pave the way for an anti-Indian, revanchist military to return to power. This was one of the reasons why India did not force Pakistan to convert the ceasefire line in Kashmir into the international boundary. 

The other reason was the government’s worry that if it did so, it would face intense criticism that by turning the ceasefire line into the permanent boundary it had ceded Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, over which India has a legal claim, to Pakistan. Mrs. Gandhi was unwilling to yield the high ground on this issue to the Opposition. 

India did succeed in persuading Pakistan to change the nomenclature of the ceasefire line to the Line of Control (LoC), thus delinking it from the UN-imposed 1949 ceasefire line and highlighting that Kashmir was now a purely bilateral matter between India and Pakistan.

Notwithstanding its reluctance to do a ‘Versailles’ on Pakistan at Shimla, even though it held 93,000 Pakistani prisoners of war who had surrendered to the Indian army in the eastern theatre, India was unable to prevent the military from taking power in Islamabad in 1977 and executing Zulfikar Ali Bhutto soon after. Despite his unpredictable nature, many Indian analysts had considered Bhutto to be New Delhi’s best bet in post-Bangladesh Pakistan. 

General Zia-ul-Haq’s coup had a major bearing on India’s other objectives at Shimla. Zia’s strategy, informed by the military’s uncompromising anti-India ideology and its search for parity with India, was to use the Afghan insurgency in the 1980s to acquire sophisticated arms from the U.S. that Pakistan could use against India in a future conflict and to persuade Washington to ignore Islamabad’s clandestine quest for nuclear weapons. 

Pakistan’s public acquisition of nuclear capability following the Indian nuclear tests in 1998 created a situation of deterrence, negating to a considerable extent India’s superiority in conventional power. The 1999 Kargil War validated the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence when India desisted from taking the war across the LoC after Pakistan’s military incursion into Indian territory. In Pakistani perceptions, nuclear deterrence continues to provide the shield for the Pakistani military to take the ‘war’ into Indian Kashmir through its proxies, the terrorist groups created and supported by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). 

‘Opportunity of the century’

General Yahya Khan’s crackdown in East Pakistan in March 1971 had triggered the Bangladesh crisis by changing the goal of the popular movement from autonomy to independence. K. Subrahmanyam, India’s foremost strategic analyst, had characterised this crisis as the “opportunity of the century” for India to militarily intervene in East Pakistan and help in its speedy liberation as this would vastly improve its strategic environment by eliminating the threat of war on the eastern front in case of a future military showdown with Islamabad. It would also deprive insurgent groups in the Indian Northeast of their safe havens in East Pakistan, thus reducing the threat to the country’s territorial integrity. 

Subrahmanyam was correct as far as the 20th century was concerned. However, with both India and Pakistan flaunting their status as nuclear powers since 1998, coupled with the military’s continuing domination of the Pakistani polity and, more importantly, its control of the nuclear trigger, the strategic environment in the Indian subcontinent has undergone radical change in the past two decades. Therefore, notwithstanding Pakistan’s loss of its eastern wing, the India-Pakistan stalemate and Pakistan’s search for parity with India can be expected to continue well into the future. The Shimla Agreement has run its course. Resurrecting its ghost will not serve any real purpose. 

The nuclear paradox

Nuclear weapons can be great equalisers. Paradoxically, they can produce both stability as well as scary amounts of instability as the initial decades of the Cold War demonstrated. Now, with Pakistan deciding to introduce tactical nuclear weapons into its arsenal and increasing talk of India abjuring its “no first use” nuclear doctrine, the elements of instability are on the rise. 

It is imperative, therefore, that channels of communication between New Delhi and Islamabad remain open in order to minimise the risk of unintended misjudgements that could lead to horrific consequences. 

Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University

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