Looking back at the Simla Agreement and its failure to achieve peace
As India has passed another anniversary of the India-Pakistan Simla Agreement of July 2, 1972, fresh and fascinating insights into the assumptions, motivations and aims of the eventual head of Indian negotiators, P N Haksar, have been put into focus through Jairam Ramesh’s interesting book Intertwined Lives: P N Haksar and Indira Gandhi. Do they establish the charge that the opportunities created by what was won on the battlefield were squandered on the high table of diplomatic negotiations?
As the Simla Agreement has acquired seminal importance in India-Pakistan relations, a sober and objective assessment in light of the material in Ramesh’s book would be timely, especially at a time India-Pakistan bilateral ties are deeply troubled.
So, in the first place, what was won by the force of Indian arms, and consequently what were the opportunities that may have been frittered away by the diplomats and the political leadership?
The Pakistan Army led by the country’s president at the time, General Yahya Khan, and supported by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who had emerged as the pre-eminent political leader of what was then Pakistan’s western wing, refused to accept the results of the national elections held in December 1970. Sheikh Mujibur Rehman of the Awami Party had completely swept the country’s eastern wing, East Bengal, and acquired a majority in Parliament.
Inviting him to form the government would have meant that the dominant western wing would have had to cede power for the first time to East Bengal and to Rehman’s Awami Party, which was committed to a federal Pakistan where real authority would be vested in the provinces. This the army refused to do. Instead, it arrested Rehman and launched a genocide in the eastern wing commencing in March 1971, and over the next eight months around 10 million refugees fled to India.
Ramesh’s book shows that within a few weeks of the December 1970 elections, India grew apprehensive that Pakistan’s internal situation might lead the army to a military adventure against it. It began to fill the gaps in its military preparedness.
Once the genocide began and refugees started to cross over in their millions, India realized that its military success would require it to give assistance to Bengali freedom fighters. The Pakistani generals and Bhutto continued to mishandle the situation and, losing patience, attacked India on December 3, 1971.
The ensuing war led to Pakistan’s defeat and the creation of an independent Bangladesh. The military governor of the east, General A A K Niazi, and 93,000 Pakistani soldiers surrendered to the Indian Army on December 16. India declared a unilateral ceasefire in West Pakistan, which Yahya Khan accepted. At that time India had captured about 13,000 square kilometers of Pakistani territory in West Pakistan.
As India began the task of peace building, it focused not only on its immediate procedural modalities but on defining the future nature of bilateral India-Pakistan relations. High on its priorities was a desire that the Pakistani people should not get a feeling of permanent humiliation that would generate a desire for revenge.
Also, it wanted future relations without the meddling of foreign powers. It wanted hostile propaganda undertaken against each other to cease and the issue of Jammu and Kashmir, which was the “sourest factor” in the ties, to be settled.
Early after the war India indicated that unlike what had happened after the 1965 India-Pakistan war, when the leaders of the two countries met in Tashkent in January 1966 under the mediation of the Soviet Union to settle a postwar agreement, now the two countries would meet bilaterally to look to the future. Bhutto did not oppose such a meeting. Instead he expressed a willingness to meet with prime minister Indira Gandhi in India to work out an “entirely new relationship with India.”
That paved the way for a summit in Simla, northern India, to be preceded by meetings of special envoys to work out its agenda and its priorities.
Prior to the summit, Bhutto addressed his nation on June 27. He identified the return of Pakistani prisoners of war (PoWs) and the territories occupied by India as his country’s top priorities. He indicated an unwillingness to make concessions on the right of self-determination of the Kashmiri people and a determination to engage directly with Bangladeshi leaders. He also warned against India seeking to impose peace like the victors of World War I did on Germany through the Treaty of Versailles. Finally, he defended the idea of direct talks with India.
As the negotiations began among officials, the leader of the Indian delegation, D P Dhar, suffered a heart attack, and P N Haksar took his place. The “lessons” of the Treaty of Versailles weighed heavily upon him too as also a desire not to make permanent enemies of the Pakistani people. He comes through as a practitioner of realpolitik, but there were chinks in his diplomatic armor on account of ignoring the foundational principles of Pakistan. Many of that generation given to leftist thinking downgraded the significance of the religious factor as a powerful motivation for national action as in the case of Pakistan.
As negotiations proceeded, India stuck tenaciously to enshrining the principle of bilateralism to govern future ties. It succeeded, but with the final agreement containing the caveat “or other peaceful means mutually agreed upon.” This has enabled Pakistan always to urge third-party mediation in India-Pakistan relations, but with India steadfastly refusing any mediation, neither Pakistan nor any other country has ever sought such a role. This is notwithstanding the US intervening at times of high tension in South Asia.
Pakistan did not want the Kashmir issue to be raised at Simla, for the situation was not, as it saw it, equal. It was here that India did not extract concessions except the renaming of the Cease-fire Line as the Line of Control, which would be respected by both sides. The Indian side conceded that this would be without “prejudice to the recognized position of either side.” For Pakistan, J&K is disputed territory, though for India it is constitutionally a part of India.
Clearly, India did not play the PoW and territory cards fully. It could have sent Bhutto back empty-handed – as Atal Bihari Vajpayee sent General Pervez Musharraf away 29 years later at Agra – but chose to make what Haksar was to recall later as “one concession after another to get one thing – to make them accept the need for durable peace and the doctrine of bilateralism as the means to achieve that peace.” Forty-six years later, Pakistan has obviously not accepted either, though now no country or the United Nations Security Council is willing to mediate in India-Pakistan bilateral matters.
One last point. Was there an understanding reached at Simla between Indira Gandhi and Bhutto on Kashmir? Ramesh refers to the record of Pakistani foreign secretary Agha Shahi’s and Haksar’s conversation in May 1975 in the context of “Pakistan’s preoccupation with the question of self-determination on Kashmir.” Haksar told his Pakistani interlocutor “that there was a firm understanding on Kashmir but that it is now being said that the internal opinion in Pakistan cannot get reconciled to that understanding.”
In the cruel world of international diplomacy, understandings amount to nothing. Indira Gandhi and the team of Indian negotiators should have known that. But the question remains: What was that understanding?