Sunday, Dec 04, 2022

Tashkent syndrome

Unable to apply transformative pressures, subjected to strong external pressures ourselves, we reverted to the status quo ante.

We were surprised into war, ignoring a contingency obvious in the most rudimentary planning; we planned for Tashkent, but concluded without achievement. We were surprised into war, ignoring a contingency obvious in the most rudimentary planning; we planned for Tashkent, but concluded without achievement.

On January 10, 1966, the Tashkent Declaration brought an inconclusive war to an inconclusive end. Pakistan failed in its objective without confronting any need to change it. We foiled Pakistan without any lasting effect. We were surprised into war, ignoring a contingency obvious in the most rudimentary planning; we planned for Tashkent, but concluded without achievement.

Arguably, we made the best of a poor job: Stalemate on the ground means stalemate at conference tables. Unable to apply transformative pressures, subjected to strong external pressures ourselves, we reverted to the status quo ante. The opposite case, that we muffed things from start to finish, is equally sustainable. That presumes options, which can only be conjectural but, clearly, we showed deficiency in anticipation and deficiency in handling – two equal weaknesses in statecraft.

Initially rejecting Moscow’s proposed summit, we soon realised it was better than facing the Security Council. Delegations need a dogsbody; returning from three years in Pakistan, I was chosen presumably for that intense experience. Dutifully preparing ordered briefs on all outstanding India-Pakistan issues, I couldn’t imagine discussion of refugee properties, abducted women or even Farakka. What were we really expecting?

Such decision-making was, of course, at more stratospheric levels but the privilege of access to them elicited the answer. We aimed at revising the ceasefire line to retain our gains beyond the old one, and get it accepted as the equivalent of an international frontier — precision of objective, at least. But Pakistan had suffered no setback that could extract such surrender of determined ambition. How to gain our aims, and what if we couldn’t?

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The intention was to stick it out, but we ran into a difficulty. Moscow’s initial plea that Tashkent would only be a start, we could keep talking at more Tashkents, proved a ruse. Once there, we found the Russians determined on success. Worse, any fond hopes that our old “friendship” would help us yielded to their deft evenhandedness. Moscow’s illusions of weaning Pakistan away from its then pet hate, China, actually made it rather softer on Ayub Khan, but such are the ways of the world.

They are not our ways. Signals that if no agreement emerged, Moscow could not give us its usual veto in the Security Council, proved too much for us. Umpteen countries have defied umpteen UN resolutions, including India, but at Tashkent, perhaps it was considered too much hard work. How we persuaded ourselves that that peculiar phrase, “both sides shall observe the ceasefire terms on the ceasefire line”, amounted to recognising it as the international frontier remains baffling. Lal Bahadur Shastriji had misgivings, but he had the core government of India there — his foreign and defence ministers, both political heavyweights, three seniormost secretaries and the incoming army chief, most decisively our hyperactive ambassador to the USSR. None said nay, the die was cast.

What if we had not signed? We had an asset of invaluable, if unpredictable, potential. Pakistan had grabbed, after the ceasefire, swathes of Rajasthan desert, to claim winning more area than us, but virtually unpopulated; we could have endured nominal loss, albeit with our usual political clamour. Pakistan, however, had almost half a million refugees from the small but heavily populated Pakistani Punjab angrily refuting Islamabad’s claims of victory. The political consequences of letting them agitate for months is inevitably speculative but it was an alternative.


Retaining our gains across the ceasefire line would have been internationally condemned, perhaps leading to sanctions, admittedly hard on the eve of ship-to-mouth dependence on wheat aid. But Pakistan was in no better position, and those internal consequences of not regaining its Punjab pockets would have made it weaker. The option was not looked at. We gave up our two planned objectives because we could not think what else to do.

This is not to find fault, only to illustrate how we function. We were inexperienced then: No Indian had had to decide on defending the nation for nearly two centuries. The advantage of relative freedom from distractions and constraints, with decision-making limited to a small, supposedly better-equipped circle, was dissipated by amateurishness. Fifty years later, the use of state power for state purposes, the contents and role of power itself, keeps eluding us. Inexperience then, immaturity now. The way both successive governments and oppositions, and our fourth estate, behave is just plain childish.

Our previous PM had a very clear understanding of India’s strategic needs; his transformative intentions were frustrated by his own party adding to opposition obstructiveness. The present PM has shown extraordinary imagination and finesse in fresh transformative initiatives, only to face worse obstruction. “You paralysed us, so we must paralyse you!” Serious, adult people do not damage national interest like this.


Fifty years also confirm specifically the intractability of India-Pakistan relations. No Indian government ever explains itself, perhaps because Hinduism does not believe in conversion, winning over opinion. The arts of persuasion have never been our forte. We prefer ex-cathedra pronouncement, leaving everyone to decipher rationales. But sneers of volte-faces — “what has changed to make policy change?” — is just more puerility.
Precisely because things do not change it is sometimes worth trying something different. Stubborn persistence is necessary when it achieves something — as we have shown by holding to our J&K position despite huge pressures (what we have done there is another matter). But adamant insistence on terms never possible can only matter if you use time to develop transformative pressures, which our politico-administrative situation prevents.

Lahore was a brilliant idea, Pathankot notwithstanding. Indeed, the lesson is that there will always be Pathankots. Whether Pakistan can ever get a government able and truly willing to override its diehards is debatable — doubtless the equivalent question can be asked about us. Our only effective course is to make ourselves so strong — above all, so efficient — that we can contain, or at least withstand, Pakistani mischief. That requires a national consensus on just a handful of national security issues; which we do our worst to deny ourselves. Governments need to carry conviction, persuasiveness. Others must also serve national interest, subordinating, if not abandoning, foolish behaviour. Our politicians need to grow up — and our administrative machinery to deliver. Or else, we can keep on muffing things.

First published on: 09-01-2016 at 12:00:04 am
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