Revisiting Shimla

Many still wonder how India’s most clear-eyed and hard-headed PM agreed to trust Bhutto’s word

Written by Inder Malhotra | Published: July 2, 2012 3:07 am

Many still wonder how India’s most clear-eyed and hard-headed PM agreed to trust Bhutto’s word

On July 2 falls the 40th anniversary of the Shimla Agreement. Some may ask,pertinently enough,whether there is any point in harking back to this accord when the great expectation of a brave new era of a lasting peace between India and Pakistan it had aroused was smashed by Pakistan’s then prime minister,Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. He had brazenly reneged on the solemn word he had given to Indira Gandhi. Even so,there are good reasons to look back on what happened in the summer of 1972.

First,the younger generation that constitutes a majority of the Indian population hardly knows anything about Shimla,even if it is vaguely aware of the 1971 war for the liberation of Bangladesh,to which the Shimla summit was the natural sequel. Second,as was perhaps to be expected,in the run up to its 40th anniversary,Pakistan has once again started a barrage of propaganda to deny that Bhutto ever gave any verbal assurance to his Indian counterpart. Facts may be on our side but our Pakistani friends are on a stronger wicket. For,as US movie mogul Sam Goldwyn famously said,an oral agreement is “not worth the paper it is written on”.

P.N. Dhar,who had headed the PM’s secretariat from 1970 to 1977,first published a candid and detailed account of the talks between the two PMs well after the Shimla negotiations were declared a “failure”. He even quoted Bhutto’s exact words — “aap mujh par bharosa keejiye (please do trust me)”. Almost immediately there was an avalanche of disdainful denials from across the border. Close to the bone,however,was an article by Humayun Gohar. While praising Bhutto’s “diplomatic artistry”,he wrote: “Face it Mr Dhar,even if we accept what you say,Mr Bhutto fooled your prime minister”.

In view of this,it is all the more necessary to go over everything that happened so that hereafter negotiators of this country do not repeat the mistakes made then. Excessive trust devoid of verification or even caution has been the cause of severe disappointment in our dealings with the western neighbour. Large-scale infiltrations into Kashmir,the prelude to the 1965 war,began five days after the signing of the Kutch agreement. In 1999 the attack on Kargil occurred within weeks of the Lahore Summit between Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif. What lends a sharper edge to all this is the present Pakistani government’s persistent denial of the very existence of the understandings on Kashmir reached through the “back channel” by PM Manmohan Singh and the then Pakistan president,General Pervez Musharraf.

During the last few months an atmosphere of promise and hope had been created again by encouraging developments such as an agreement on trade,an agreement ready for signatures on the reform of the restrictive visa system and a meeting of minds on Sir Creek. It was first dented by Pakistan’s (in fact,its army chief,General Ashfaq Kayani’s) insistence that demilitarisation of Siachen must take precedence over all other matters. This,as Defence Minister A.K. Antony has made clear in Parliament,is unacceptable to India. Now,Islamabad’s shocking reaction to Abu Jundal’s damning disclosures about 26/11 has made the situation fraught,and it could get worse.

In the Bangladesh War,India’s victory was decisive. Pakistan’s defeat was complete. The 93,000 Pakistani troops that laid down their arms at Dhaka (the largest surrender since World War II) were in Indian custody. Nearly 5,000 square miles of Pakistani territory were also in this country’s possession. These were powerful leverages,and many blame Indira Gandhi for not using them to the full. There may be something in this assertion,but the reality is that the custody of 93,000 Pakistani soldiers was a big problem for the Indian army too. An equal number of its officers and men had to vacate their accommodation and live in tents to house the prisoners properly. Moreover,under the Geneva Convention,PoWs cannot be held beyond a time.

A unique feature of Shimla was that it was the first occasion when,after a war,India and Pakistan were negotiating peace by themselves. After the first Kashmir War (1947-48) the UN was the virtual arbiter of the ceasefire and party to delineating the ceasefire line. After the 1965 war,the Soviet Union played an intermediary role at Tashkent.

India’s main objective at Shimla was to get a final solution to the vexed Kashmir issue. To this end,it got Bhutto’s agreement to convert the UN-sponsored ceasefire line into the Line of Control. This much is part and parcel of the Shimla Agreement. The agreement also includes a commitment by both sides to respect the LoC and not to try to change it by the use of force or threat of use of force,“without prejudice to the basic position of either side”.

The nub of the matter at this stage was to have a credible commitment by Bhutto “gradually” to change this line (he at one stage suggested it may be called the “Line of Peace”) into an international border. That is where his plea that he could not commit himself to this in writing and his word should be trusted came in. Indira Gandhi accepted it. Later,when she and Bhutto disclosed their agreement to their respective top advisers,P.N. Dhar demurred and she frowned on him.

In the Indian strategic community and among many informed foreigners there is a consensus that the Indian delegation was in the thrall of “Versailles Syndrome” — never to treat a defeated enemy too harshly,as the allied powers treated Germany after World War I. However,many still wonder how India’s most clear-eyed and hardheaded PM agreed to trust Bhutto’s word.

Many years later I took this question to her confidant,the legendary spymaster R. N. Kao. To my surprise he answered it frankly and allowed me to quote him. “I am also totally surprised”,he said. “Before leaving for Shimla,she had asked me ‘Can I trust Bhutto? People tell me that if I shake hands with him,I should immediately count my fingers’.”

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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