Shortly after the shining victory in the 1971 Bangladesh war, Indira Gandhi embarked on the more arduous task of restoring peace with India’s western neighbour. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, prime minister of what was earlier only the western wing of the larger Pakistan, needed a settlement a lot more acutely. Both sides knew, however, that their objectives were conflicting and therefore difficult to achieve. Gandhi wanted a final solution of the Kashmir issue once and for all. Bhutto aimed at getting back the 93,000 prisoners of war and 5,000 square kilometres of his country’s territory under Indian possession.
Consequently, there were intense “preparatory” negotiations between Gandhi’s trusted aide, D.P. Dhar, and Aziz Ahmed, a hardline Pakistani foreign secretary so liked by Bhutto that he was made minister of state for both foreign affairs and defence, controlled by the Pakistani prime minister himself. Only much later it became known that these conversations were preceded by “informal talks in London” between Gandhi’s principal aide, P.N. Haksar, and two of Bhutto’s emissaries. Before the two prime ministers met at Shimla in the last week of June 1972, Dhar and Ahmed had agreed on two points: to convert the UN-sponsored Ceasefire Line in Jammu and Kashmir into the Line of Control to be “respected” by both sides, and settling all disputes through peaceful and bilateral means.
In Shimla, Pakistan was tersely told that while India would readily return all Pakistani territory it had captured during the war, nothing of the kind would be done in relation to the areas in Kashmir that had been won. As for the 93,000 PoWs, Gandhi told Bhutto, politely but firmly, that they could not be returned without the consent of Bangladesh, which had not yet been recognised by Pakistan, and was determined to put at least 195 Pakistani officers and men “on trial for war crimes”. (It was a year later that, as a result of a trilateral agreement between India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, the PoWs were sent home without anyone having to face a trial.)
On recognising the LoC in J&K as a permanent border between India and Pakistan and thus settling the Kashmir problem on the basis of status quo, Bhutto’s position was that no ruler of Pakistan could accept this and hope to “survive”. At the same time, he pleaded that he could not go back “empty handed”. Of course, he promised to “forget the past and forge an entirely new relationship with India”. No wonder, the failure of the Shimla conference was announced on the evening of July 2. However, as often happens during India-Pakistan parleys, Bhutto suggested, after a dinner hosted for him by Gandhi, that the two of them should make a “last-ditch” effort to break the deadlock.
Sometime around midnight, the two leaders confided to their respective top aides that an agreement had been reached, and while arrangements were being made for the signing ceremony, Gandhi told Haksar and P.N. Dhar (not to be confused with D.P. Dhar, and Gandhi’s secretary from 1970 to 1977), that Bhutto had solemnly assured her he would “gradually” make the LoC the permanent border, but he just could not put it in writing. The text of the agreement merely said the two sides would respect the LoC “without prejudice to the recognised position of either side”. Both countries also committed themselves to “settle all their differences by peaceful means and through bilateral negotiations or by any other peaceful means mutually agreed upon”. This did rule out third-party mediation or intervention. But where was the guarantee that Bhutto, even more slippery than an eel, would keep his word? After all, hadn’t the American movie mogul, Sam Goldwyn, said famously: “A verbal agreement is not worth the paper it is written on”?
This might explain why P.N. Dhar demurred when Gandhi informed only Haksar and him what had transpired. This visibly annoyed her. Haksar signalled to him to leave the room. In any case, the agreement was signed in the wee hours of the morning but was still dated July 2.
It is perhaps needless to add that Bhutto reneged on his solemn vow to Gandhi a lot earlier than some had anticipated, and from then onwards, all Pakistani governments — including that of General Zia-ul-Haq, who first overthrew Bhutto in July 1977 and then executed him in April 1979 — have maintained that the promise attributed by India to Bhutto was never made.
In 2005, P.N. Dhar wrote a series of articles revealing as much of what had happened at Shimla as he could. He quoted Bhutto’s exact words to Gandhi: “Aap mujh par bharosa keejiye (please trust me)” and so on. Immediately, there was an avalanche of disdainful denials from across the border. One Pakistani writer, after praising Bhutto’s “diplomatic artistry”, wrote: “Face it Mr Dhar, even if we accept what you say, Mr Bhutto fooled your prime minister”.
Doubtless, before and during the Shimla conference, Gandhi was under pressure from various foreign leaders, including Leonid Brezhnev of the erstwhile Soviet Union, that Bhutto must not be sent back from Shimla “empty handed” because the resultant chaos in Pakistan could affect the whole region. Equally, some senior members of the Indian delegation were in the thrall of the “Versailles Syndrome” — never treat a defeated enemy as harshly as the Allied powers had treated Germany after WWI. Even so, many continue to wonder till today how India’s most clear-eyed and hard-headed prime minister was taken in by Bhutto’s sweet talk and false vows.
In the late-1980s, I had taken this question to legendary spymaster and one of Gandhi’s most trusted advisers, R.N. Kao. He not only answered it candidly but also allowed me to quote him: “I am as surprised as you are. Before leaving for Shimla, she had asked me, ‘Can I trust Bhutto? People tell me that if I shake hands with him, I must immediately count my fingers’.”
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator