Origins of Tragedy

The India-Pakistan Crisis of 1971

In every administration some event occurs that dramatizes the limits of human foresight. In the year of uncertainty on Vietnam, the opening to China, and the evolving relationship with the Soviet Union, there was almost nothing the Administration was less eager to face than a crisis in South Asia. And as if to underscore the contingent quality of all our planning, it was triggered by, of all things, a cyclone.


Bordered on the south by the Indian Ocean, on the north by the Himalayas, and on the west by the Hindu Kush mountains that merge with the heavens as if determined to seal off the teeming masses, and petering out in the east in the marshes and rivers of Bengal, the Indian subcontinent has existed through the millennia as a world apart. Its northern plains simmer in enervating heat in summer and are assailed by incongruous frost in winter; its lush south invites a life of tranquility and repose. Its polyglot peoples testify to the waves of conquerors who have descended upon it through the mountain passes, from the neighbouring deserts, and occasionally from the sea. Huns, Mongols, Greeks, Persians, Moguls, Afghans, Portuguese, and at last Britons have established empires and then vanished, leaving multitudes oblivious of either the coming or the going.

Unlike China, which imposed its own matrix of law and culture on invaders so successfully that they grew indistinguishable from the Chinese people, India transcended foreigners not by co-opting but by segregating them. Invaders might raise incredible monuments to their own importance as if to reassure themselves of their greatness in the face of so much indifference, but the Indian peoples endured by creating relationships all but impervious to alien influence. Like the Middle East, India is the home of great religions. Yet unlike those of the Middle East, these are religions not of exaltation but of endurance; they have inspired man not by prophetic visions of messianic fulfilment but by bearing witness to the fragility of human existence; they offer not personal salvation but the solace of an inevitable destiny. Where each man is classified from birth, his failure is never personal; his quality is tested by his ability to endure his fate, not to shape it. The caste system does not attract civilisations determined to seek fulfilment in a single lifetime. It provides extraordinary resilience and comfort in larger perspectives. The Hindu religion is proud and self-contained; it accepts no converts. One is either born into it or forever denied its comforts and the assured position it confers. Foreign conquest is an ultimate irrelevancy in the face of such impermeability; it gives the non-Indian no status in Indian society, enabling Indian civilisation to survive, occasionally even to thrive, through centuries of foreign rule. Of course, so many invasions have had to leave a human, not only an architectural, residue. The Moslem conquerors, representing a proselytizing religion, offered mass conversion as a route for lower-caste Hindus to alleviate their condition. They succeeded only partially, for once converted the new Moslems lost the respect to which even their low-caste status had entitled them. Here were sown the seeds of the communal hatred that has rent the subcontinent for the past generations.

Britain was but one of the latest conquerors, replacing Moslem Mogul and some Hindu rulers in the north and propping up indigenous Hindu rulers in the south– carrying out the cycle, it seemed of the ages. But in one important respect Britain’s conquest was different. True, it was made possible precisely because the British replaced one set of rulers by another in a pattern that had become traditional; its psychological basis was that the concept of nationhood did not exist. But it was Britain that gave the subcontinent– heretofore a religious, cultural, and geographic expression– a political identity as well. The British provided for the first time a homogenous structure of government, administration, and law. They then supplied the Western values of nationalism and liberalism. Paradoxically, it was their implanting of values of nationalism and democracy that made the British “foreign,” that transformed a cultural expression into a political movement. Indian leaders trained in British schools claimed for their peoples the very values of their rulers. And the half-heartedness of Britain’s resistance demonstrated that it had lost the moral battle before the physical one was joined.

As the prospect of nationhood appeared, the polyglot nationalities that the flood of invasions had swept into India now were left alone with their swelling numbers, their grinding poverty, and above all with one another. Nearly a third of the total population was Moslem, concentrated in the West Punjab and East Bengal but with important pockets all over India. Many of these peoples, by now outcasts of Indian society, found it unacceptable to live in a secular state dominated by those who through the centuries had disdained them. The British solution in 1947 was partition along religious lines.

Thus was born, amidst unspeakable horrors and communal riots, the states of India and Pakistan. Pakistan was composed of two units: the West, dominated by the Punjab; and the East Bengal*, separated by a thousand miles of Indian territory, with no common language, held together not by economics or history but by Islam and a common fear of Hindu domination. Pakistan’s very existence was an affront to Indian nationalists who had, like other leaders of independence movements, dreamed of claiming all the territory ruled by the former colonial power. And India saw in the neighbouring Moslem state a potential threat to its own national cohesion. Since more than fifty million Moslems remained under India’s rule, either they would sooner or later claim their own national existence, or else the creation of Pakistan had been in fact the needless British imposition that some Indian nationalists never tired of proclaiming it was. For its part, Pakistan conscious that even the lowest-class Hindus believed themselves part of a system superior to the Moslems, looked on its larger neighbour with fear, with resentment, and occasionally with hatred.

* Bengal was split by the 1947 partition. The eastern portion became East Pakistan; West Bengal remained part of India.

Few old neighbours have less in common, despite their centuries of living side by side, than the intricate, complex Hindus and the simpler more direct Moslems. It is reflected in the contrasts of their architecture. The finely carved Hindu temples have nooks and corners whose seemingly endless detail conveys no single view or meaning. The mosques and forts with which the Moguls have covered the northern third of the subcontinent are vast, elegant, romantic, their resplendent opulence contrasting with the flatness of the simmering countryside , their innumerable fountains expressing a yearning for surcease from a harsh environment and a nostalgia for the less complicated regions that had extruded the invader.

In the 1950s and 1960s, America, oblivious to these new countries absorption with themselves, sought to fit them into its own preconceptions. We took a face value Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s claim to be neutral moral arbiter of world affairs. We hardly noticed that this was precisely the policy by which a weak nation seeks influence out of proportion to its strength, or that India rarely matched its international pretensions with a willingness to assume risks, except on the subcontinent where it saw itself destined for pre eminence. And we treated Pakistan simply as a potential military ally against Communist aggression. There was no recognition that most Pakistanis considered their real security threat to be India, the very country that we had enshrined in the pantheon of abstract morality and that in turn viewed our arming Pakistan as a challenge undermining our attempt to nurture its favour.

At one and the same time we overestimated the feasibility of obtaining India’s political approbation and misjudged the target of Pakistan’s military efforts. We were overly sensitive to the “world opinion” that India purported to represent. But we also sought to include Pakistan in a conception of containment that it did not share. The legal obligation to the common defense was thought to represent a deterrent to Communist aggression even when the members of the alliances in question could do little to reinforce each other’s strength or had a few shared objectives. Pakistan became our ally in the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) and in the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO). Pakistan thus became eligible for US arms aid, which was intended for use against Communist aggression but was suspected by India of having other more likely uses.

The military alliances formed in the Eisenhower Administration became controversial in America when the Democratic opposition attacked them as examples of overemphasising on military considerations. India became the special favourite of the American liberals, who saw in its commitment to democracy the foundation of a notional partnership and in its hoped-for-economic success the best refutation of Communist claims to represent the wave of the future. No wonder that after a change of administrations in 1961, Washington’s interest in Pakistan cooled noticeably; verbal assurances of American protection came increasingly to be substituted for military hardware. (The multiplication of these assurances came back to haunt in 1971). And all the while India worked tenaciously and skilfully to undermine the military relationship between Pakistan and the United States even after India had built up a significant weapons industry of its and established a substantial military supply relationship with the Soviet Union.

The 1965 India-Pakistan war furnished us a pretext to disentangle ourselves to some degree. The United Sates stopped the supply of all military equipment to both sides (this policy was modified somewhat in 1966-1967, to permit the provision of non-lethal items and spares for all equipment). The seeming even-handedness was deceptive, the practical consequence was to injure Pakistan, since India received most of its arms either from Communist nations or from its own armouries. President Johnson, aware of the one-sidedness of the action, promised to arrange a transfer to Pakistan of some obsolescent American tanks through a third party such as Turkey. But he never completed the transaction, in part because he did not want to spend his waning Congressional support on what must have appeared to him a marginally important decision, in part because the third parties developed second thoughts.

Henry Kissinger

My own experience with the subcontinent should have forewarned me of its fevered passions. In January 1962, while I was still technically a consultant to President Kennedy, the United States Information Agency arranged a series of lectures for me on the subcontinent. Our Ambassador to India, John Kenneth Galbraith, a good friend of mine, was not a little disquieted about the impact on his presumptively sensitive and pacifist clients of a Harvard professor whose chief claim to fame at that time was a book called Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy. I promptly put his mind at ease by getting myself embroiled with Pakistan upon my arrival at the New Delhi airport. At the inevitable press conference, I replied to a question about Kashmir with what I thought was a diplomatic answer–that I did not know enough about it to form a judgement. When queried bout Pakistan’s budding flirtation with China, I was loath to admit my ignorance of a development that, in the light of the prevalent view of China’s congenital aggressiveness, seemed preposterous. I therefore opined that I could not imagine Pakistan doing such a foolish thing. Pakistan’s leaders already felt discriminated against because a Harvard professor had been assigned as Ambassador to New Delhi while Islamabad rated “only” a career appointment. But they had been too circumspect to attack a personal friend of Kennedy. My airport interview was a godsend. It enabled the Pakistani press to vent its disappointment against another Harvard professor and lesser associate of Kennedy. My confession of ignorance about Kashmir was transmuted into a symbol of American indifference. Using the word “foolish” in the same sentence as “Pakistan”–even to deny that Pakistan was foolish–became a national insult. There was one compensation. The Pakistani press campaign turned me fleetingly into a figure of consequence in India. Thus in 1962, at least, the charge was that I was tilting toward India.

Matters eventually calmed down enough so that I could show my face in Pakistan on the same trip. I proved immediately that I had not lost my touch. Returning to Peshawar from sight-seeing at the Khyber Pass, I was waylaid by a Pakistani journalist who asked me whether I had seen any sign of Pushtoon agitation.* on the theory that the subcontinent had been deprived of my wisecracks long enough, I replied: “I would not recognise Pushtoon agitation if it hit me in the face.” the resulting headline, “Kissinger Does Not Recognise Pushtoonistan,” triggered an official Afghan protest in Washington, but at least it made me a momentary hero in Pakistan. There is no telling what else I might have achieved had I followed my wanderlust to visit Afghanistan. But the USIA judged that it had more than gotten its money’s worth of cultural exchange and that home was a safer place for my talents.

*this referred to a movement to detach the border region from Pakistan and connect it with people speaking a similar language on the Afghan side of the Khyber Pass. Thus, perhaps I should have known better than to become involved in the frenzies of the subcontinent in 1971.

When the Nixon Administration took office, our policy objective on the subcontinent was quite simply to avoid adding another complication to our agenda. In their uneasy twenty-two years’ coexistence India and Pakistan had fought two wars. We sought to maintain good relations with both of them. Nixon, to put it mildly, was less susceptible to Indian claims of moral leadership than some of his predecessors; indeed he viewed what he considered their alleged obsequiousness toward India as a prime example of liberal soft headedness. But this did not keep him from having a moderately successful visit to New Delhi in 1969 on his round-the-world trip. He quickly abandoned his vision of crowds comparable with Eisenhower’s in 1956. The reception was restrained; crowds were merely adequate; the discussions were what in communique language would be called “constructive” and “businesslike.” Nixon gave a very eloquent dinner toast, paying tribute to the wisdom of Mahatma Gandhi and ruminating thoughtfully on the nature of peace in the modern wold.

But Nixon and Mrs. Gandhi, Indian Prime Minister and daughter of Nehru, were not intended by fate to be personally congenial. Her assumption of almost hereditary moral superiority and her moody silences brought out all of Nixon’s latent insecurities. Her bearing toward Nixon combined a disdain for a symbol of capitalism quite fashionable in developing countries with a hint that the obnoxious things she had heard about the President from her intellectual friends could not all be untrue. Nixon’s comments after meetings with her were not always printable. On the other hand, Nixon had an understanding for leaders who operated on an unsentimental assessment of the national interest. Once one cut through the strident, self-righteous rhetoric, Mrs. Gandhi had few peers in cold-blooded calculation of the elements of power. The political relationship in substance was thus far better than the personal one.

Whatever Nixon’s personal qualms about its Prime Minister, India continued throughout his first Administration to enjoy a substantial constituency in the Congress and within the US government. Mrs. Gandhi had not yet disillusioned Americans by her nuclear test and assumption of authoritarian rule.
Emotional ties with the world’s most populous democracy remained. Large annual aid appropriations were proposed by the Administration and passed by the Congress with little opposition. Between 1965 and 1971 India received $4.2 billion of American economic aid, about $1.5 billion of it during the Nixon years.

If India basked in Congressional warmth and was subject to Presidential indifference, Pakistan’s situation was exactly the reverse. Pakistan was one of the countries where Nixon had been received with respect when he was out of office; he never forgot this. And the bluff, direct military chiefs of Pakistan were more congenial to him than the complex and apparently haughty Brahmin leaders of India. On the other hand, Pakistan had never found the sympathy in America that India enjoyed, at least among opinion-making groups. It did not represent principles with which Americans could identify as readily as with the ” progressive” slogans and pacifist-sounding morality of the world’s largest democracy. Moreover, India was much larger and had four or five times the population of Pakistan. There were thus hard headed reasons for the priority attached to our relations with India.

Nixon made few changes in the policies he inherited on the subcontinent except to adopt somewhat warmer tone toward Pakistan. He and I–as the only senior officials who knew the facts- were profoundly grateful to Pakistan’s role as the channel to China. It was a service for which Pakistan’s leaders, to their lasting honour, never sought any reciprocity or special consideration. The only concrete gesture Nixon made– and it was also to maintain the promise of his predecessor–was to approve in the summer of 1970 a small package of military equipment for Pakistan. This was to be a “one-time exception to the US arms embargo. It included some twenty aircraft and 300 armoured personnel carriers, but no tanks or artillery. The package amounted to $40 to $50 million (or somewhat more, depending on the type of aircraft chosen). India, which was increasing its military procurement at the average rate of $350 million a year–nearly ten times this amount– raised a storm of protest. At the same time,  India was accusing us of interfering in its domestic affairs because some of our Embassy personnel–in perhaps the most overstaffed Embassy of our diplomatic service– occasionally saw opposition leaders. This was not fulfilling a Washington-designed strategy but was a natural activity in a country with free institutions; it was an old accusation for the leaders of a democracy to make. But the storm soon blew over.

By 1971 our relations with India had achieved a state of exasperatedly strained cordiality, like a couple that can neither separate nor get along. Our relations with Pakistan were marked by a superficial friendliness that had little concrete content. On the subcontinent, at least, alliance with the United States had not been shown to produce significant benefits over non-alignment.

At the beginning of 1971 none of our senior policy makers expected the subcontinent to jump to the top of our agenda. It seemed to require no immediate decisions except annual aid programs and relief efforts in response to tragic natural disasters in late 1970. It appeared to be the ideal, subject for long-range studies. I ordered three of these in late 1970. Two addressed Soviet naval strength in the Indian Ocean and its implications; the third examined our long- term policy onward India and Pakistan, including the objectives of the Soviet Union and Communist China and the interplay between them.. Each of these studies was given a due date far ahead; no serious crisis was expected.

By Courtesy:


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