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How significant was 1971?

Sushant Singh16 December. Vijay Diwas. A day of glorious victory for India in the war for liberation of Bangladesh. And unconditional surrender of Pakistani forces in the East. But how significant was 1971? What did it lead to?

1971 was the coming of age of the Indian armed forces. From an ignominious defeat at the hands of the Chinese in 1962, it was a spectacular turnaround in a mere nine years. From its British-era legacy of a defensive force, capable of fighting static battles, Indian army had evolved into a formidable strike force by 1971. The Indian Air Force, which had not been used in 1962, established complete air superiority within first three days of the war. And it is not going to be any different if the situation were to repeat itself now. 1971 was also the first time the Indian Navy was deployed in a war. Since then, it has raised its profile to emerge as India’s foremost strategic arm.

Indian armed forces
Memorable year: The victory in 1971 marked the coming of age of the Indian armed forces

1971 was also as much a diplomatic success for India as it was a military success. In August 1971, India entered into a Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation with the Soviet Union. It was a significant departure from the Nehruvian stance of non-alignment and resulted in the Soviets moving 40 divisions to the Xinjiang and seven to the Manchurian borders to deter the Chinese in the prelude to the Bangladesh war. Despite tremendous diplomatic pressure exerted by Pakistan’s close allies, China and the United States, India was able to achieve its aims. Such was the American animosity that in his private comments to President Nixon, Henry Kissinger described Indira Gandhi as a ‘bitch’ and a ‘witch’. He has, of course, expressed regrets for his comments since.

But the diplomatic impact continued well beyond the war. There was no Tashkent as after the 1965 war, where India had given up the strategically important Haji Pir pass at the negotiating table. India benefitted from closer military cooperation with the Soviet Union while the US lost interest in building Pakistan as a military equal to India. In February 1972, Pakistan offered the US naval bases along the Balochistan coast in return for rearming the Pakistani army. US politely declined the offer. In a memo to the US President, the then Secretary of State, William Rogers suggested “that we avoid any action in the military field that would encourage Pakistan again to postpone the difficult decisions it must make if it is to reach basic accommodation with its stronger neighbor.”

1971 was not an unqualified Indian diplomatic success though. When ZA Bhutto came to Shimla in June 1972, he had to secure the return of 5,139 square miles of Pakistani territory in Indian control and obtain the release of Pakistani prisoners of war -- 79,700 of Pakistan’s regular soldiers and paramilitary troops, along with 12,500 civilian internees. He pleaded with Indira Gandhi not to insist on including a final resolution of Jammu and Kashmir in the bilateral agreement. (Indians had probably forgotten that during talks over J&K in December 1962, Bhutto, as Pakistan’s foreign minister, had brusquely told the Indian foreign secretary, “You are a defeated nation, don’t you see.”) There was a view in India that it should be benevolent and not behave like the victors of the First World War which led to rise of Hitler. Indira Gandhi accepted Bhutto’s argument that if the agreement included J&K, his government would be toppled by Pakistan army, accusing him of losing Kashmir. The same Bhutto later claimed that he had saved Pakistan from the humiliation of giving up its claim to Kashmir.

Domestically, the victory of 1971 led to a great surge in Indira Gandhi’s popularity. She was compared to Goddess Durga. This contributed, in no small measure, to her emasculation of democratic institutions and disastrous economic policies, eventually resulting in the imposition of the Emergency. While India has recovered economically in the last two decades, the institutional damage could not be fully reversed.

Most importantly, 1971 didn’t fundamentally alter the behaviour of the Pakistani state. In fact, Pakistan’s pathologies worsened. It started work on the nuclear bomb in 1972 and turned rabidly Islamic, first under Bhutto and then under Zia. At the first possible opportunity, it launched a proxy war against India in Punjab and J&K.

There is no doubt that 1971 was a glorious chapter in independent India’s history. But its glory didn’t extend to the rest of the book.

Sushant K Singh is a Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review

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