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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Rear view: Tours and treaties

Indira Gandhi used both to bolster India’s position ahead of the Bangladesh war.

Written by Inder Malhotra |
Updated: April 14, 2014 8:37:57 am
Looking at yesterday to explain today, tomorrow Looking at yesterday to explain today, tomorrow

IT was with remarkable speed that the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation was negotiated in Moscow by D.P. Dhar and signed in New Delhi on August 9 by Foreign Minister Swaran Singh and his Soviet opposite number, Andrei Gromyko. Only three weeks had elapsed since the announcement of the world-shaking change in the Sino-US relationship.

What facilitated this was that a Soviet draft of such a treaty already existed, having been brought to Delhi two years earlier by the Soviet defence minister, Marshal Andrei Grechko. Discussions on it, however, had been desultory for two reasons.

First, Indira Gandhi was in no particular hurry to enter into a treaty relationship with either of the two superpowers. Second, some clauses in Moscow’s draft were not to her liking. For its part, the USSR was somewhat peeved that there had hardly been any progress on its proposal. All this was suddenly overtaken by the tectonic change in the world’s power equations resulting from the America-China embrace.

Consequently, the Soviets readily dropped from their draft the standard clause on defence cooperation that finds a place in all their treaties with friendly countries. Instead, Article 9 of the Indo-Soviet Treaty provides that in the event of the security of either party being threatened, the two sides would “immediately engage in consultations”. Moreover, making a solitary exception in the format of similar treaties, the Soviet Union recorded its endorsement of India’s non-aligned status.

This robbed the vociferous noise by the US, Pakistan, their several allies and Gandhi’s inveterate critics at home that India had “abandoned non-alignment and joined the Soviet camp” of any credibility. She pressed this advantage by declaring that she would sign “exactly the same treaty with whichever country wanted it”. In any case, when the crunch finally came and the Soviet Union delivered on every word of the treaty, with only one minor caveat, the critics had nowhere to hide.

Several other developments in August — ranging from Pakistan’s leader General Yahya Khan’s brusque rejection of UN Secretary General U. Thant’s legitimate concern about Sheikh Mujib’s trial to the US undersecretary of state’s suggestion to foreign secretary T.N. Kaul that India should “control guerrilla activity” on its side of the border and let UN personnel “handle refugee aid” — were disconcerting.

Gandhi realised, therefore, the urgent need to educate the world opinion on Pakistan’s genocide in Bangladesh and the problems it was creating for India. She had been writing to world leaders on this subject for some time, especially drawing their attention to the secret trial of Mujib in a Pakistani jail, requesting them to see to it that no harm came to Bangladesh’s leader at the hands of Pakistan’s army. But now the time had come for face to face meetings with the movers and shakers of the world.

She first went to Moscow, where the Indian position was fully understood. The main event in the Soviet capital was that Gandhi refused to start any talks with the lesser Soviet leaders until the Communist party’s general secretary and the country’s top leader, Leonid Brezhnev, was present. He rushed home from his annual holiday in Sochi.

Later, she embarked on a 21-day tour that took her to Brussels, Vienna, Paris, Bonn, London and Washington. It was a fascinating essay in masterly diplomacy. Everywhere, with the sole and sordid exception of Washington, she was listened to with respect and sympathy. Typical of her style of negotiating with world leaders was her exchange with the British foreign secretary,  Alec Douglas-Home. “Our fear,” he said, “is that there would be war.” “We wouldn’t start it,” was her laconic reply.

In every country, including the US, public and media opinion about the Pakistan army’s crimes against humanity in Bangladesh was far ahead of the government. Yet pleas for “restraint” were ubiquitous. Gandhi used her public appearances to deal with them. When a BBC interviewer advised her to “show restraint”, she shot back that such appeals were “meaningless”, because no government had shown such restraint as hers “despite tremendous provocation and threat to our security and stability”. When the interviewer persisted in his argument that restraint was the need of the hour, she told him: “When Hitler was on the rampage, why didn’t you say ‘let’s keep quiet, have peace with Germany and let the Jews die’.” This was greeted with tremendous applause.
The diplomatic odyssey did have some lasting effect. When, at the height of the Bangladesh war in December 1971, there was hectic diplomatic activity at the UN Security Council, France and Britain voted against every resolution unacceptable to India. The story in the US was starkly different during both the SC debates and Gandhi’s earlier visit to Washington.
In his book The White House Years, which many have called “Whitewash Years”, Henry Kissinger has recorded that the Nixon-Gandhi meetings “turned into a classic dialogue of the deaf”. He has added that Gandhi and Nixon were “not intended by fate to be personally congenial”.


Yet, even though she got nowhere with the Nixon-Kissinger duo, she made up for it by addressing her message to the American people who were already critical of the notorious “tilt” towards Pakistan. When at the National Press Club she was asked about a possible meeting with Yahya, she replied that she could not possibly “shake hands with a clenched fist”.

Another quotable quote of Kissinger is: “Nixon’s comments, after a meeting with her, were not always printable.” What an irony it is, therefore, that much later the US government itself printed some of these egregiously foul remarks. In 2005, the US State Department published South Asia Crisis, 1971, in the series, “Foreign Relations of the United States 1969-76”. It clearly states that while waiting for Gandhi to arrive for her second meeting with them, the then US president and his national security advisor were not content with calling her a “witch”; they also hurled at her a rhyming epithet that no civilised individual would use for a lady, leave alone a head of a foreign government.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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