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With the recent incursions on the Sino-Indian border, it is worth revisiting how India in 1971, used its diplomatic prowess and moral authority to liberate Bangladesh and prevent Chinese incursions in the country.
Today, with the Chinese occupation of parts of Ladakh and hostile relations with Pakistan, there are lessons from how India was able to stave off a multi-front war by continuing to curtail China through diplomatic alliances, while championing the rights of Bangladeshis.
Fraught tensions with its neighbours in the rest of South Asia will undermine India’s status as a regional power and its ability to effectively respond to the strengthening Sino-Pakistani alliance.
India’s Win in Shortest War in History
During the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War, India defeated the Pakistani Army and liberated Bangladesh in less than 2 weeks, making it one of the shortest wars in world history.
India’s success is attributed to a range of factors, from the careful planning of Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, Operation Python and Operation Trident that cut off East Pakistan from West Pakistan, and its blockade on East Pakistan.
However, India would not have been able to hold its ground had it not been for its alliances, specifically, the one with the USSR.
As India grapples with Chinese incursions in Ladakh, threats from Pakistan in the west, and the deterioration of alliances in the rest of South Asia, but the country’s stronger relations with the USA it is worth re-examining India’s foreign policy in 1971.
Sino-USSR Split Drew India Closer to Latter
Indian foreign policy after independence was dominated by the concept of Non-Alignment, the belief that the world should not be drawn into a military alliance with either superpower.
In fact, India was a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement. Nonetheless, the USSR and India had historically shared cordial relations from 1947. The USSR provided India with significant economic and military aid, to the extent that in the 1960s, it was believed that the USSR had invested more in India than it had in Communist China. Soviet aid enabled India to set up its first technical universities and dams.
Because of the Sino-Soviet split, the Sino-Soviet War (1969), and the Sino-Indian War, the USSR and India drew even closer together and further strengthened their relations. Indian soldiers travelled to the USSR for training and learned Russian, which was used in military operations, and the USSR provided India with its first aircraft carrier and many of its frigates. For example, during Operations Trident and Python, Indian sailors communicated with each other in Russian, which confused Pakistani intelligence, inhibiting it from providing correct information about the Indian Navy to its armed forces.
Soviet aid and diplomatic clout alone do not explain why India became so closely aligned to the USSR, considering that it shared strong relations with the USA for most of its existence after independence. Under Richard Nixon, US President from 1968-75, however, the relationship changed.
A key issue between India and the USA was the removal of the arms embargo imposed on Pakistan because of the 1965 Indo-Pakistan War in July 1970.4 This move was met with criticism by Indian officials, and Indira Gandhi expressed her anger to the US Ambassador to India in a meeting.
By the end of 1970, according to Kissinger, Indo-US relations had, “had achieved a state of exasperatedly strained cordiality, like a couple that can neither separate nor get along.”
This was just the beginning of a breakdown in relations between the world’s largest democracies.
USA’s Reluctance to Help India
In 1971, when the refugee crisis began in Bangladesh, India went around the world garnering support for the Bangladesh cause and to receive aid for western nations to host the 10 million refugees that entered its territory, line with its strategic aim of preventing refugees from destabilising the country.
However, most NATO members were reluctant to commit to the cause, with the USA just contributing $20 million of the $153.67 million that India had received. This figure was still far below the estimated cost of $576 million.
The USA’s reluctance to help India combat the refugee crisis further strained an already tense relationship.
Indian foreign policy aims at this time were dictated by its desire to ensure that it had the backing of one of the superpowers if it were to go to war with Pakistan and prevent a Chinese invasion.
The USSR had expressed a desire to have a treaty alliance from 1969, which was eventually realised in August 1971, in the form of the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation. Article IX of the treaty also allowed for the countries to “take appropriate effective measures to ensure peace and security,” in the event of war.
Moreover, the USSR assured India that if China were to attack India, it “would not hesitate to use its strength and force in repelling it,” stressing its commitment to combating China. With this alliance secured, India was ready to go to war if needed.
During the war itself, the Soviet Union provided diplomatic cover to India. The USA convened multiple meetings of the UNSC to discuss the war and drafted resolutions that called for a ceasefire and withdrawal of Indian and Pakistani forces on 4, 5 and 13 December, which were all vetoed by the USSR.
In doing so, the USSR allowed India to not face condemnation from the international community and enabled it to rapidly take control of East Pakistan without foreign interference.
Diplomatic assistance aside, the Soviet Union also supported India militarily during the war. By 9 December 1971 the CIA reported that Pakistan would lose the war, prompting Nixon to dispatch the 7th Fleet into the Bay of Bengal to intimidate India.
In response to the deployment, India activated Article IX of the Indo-Soviet Treaty, resulting in the USSR dispatching a group of battleships and nuclear submarines to counter the US navy.
When US and British ships in the Bay of Bengal realised that the Soviets had arrived, they left the Bay of Bengal, allowing India to force a surrender by 16 December without the threat of foreign intervention.
The USSR’s efforts in the UN were essential to ensuring an Indian victory in the subcontinent. The UN was unable to implement a ceasefire and India was protected from foreign criticism because of Soviet vetoes.
The Soviets also delivered impassioned speeches in support of India, despite overwhelming hostility to it from most leading members of the UN like the USA, UK, and China. Moreover, by deploying its nuclear submarine task force against the USA, the USSR assured India of its alliance and prevented it a further escalation of the conflict into a more global war.
The USSR’s contributions to the war effort were crucial to India’s overall strategic aims since it allowed India to achieve decision, knock out Pakistan, and avoid a prolonged conflict in the area, which would allow a more rapid return of refugees to Bangladesh.
Contrast this situation to India today, where Chinese incursions have not been repelled by Indian forces, but none of India’s allies have done much beyond condemning Chinese expansion.
Currently, India lacks alliances as strong as the Indo-Soviet one was in 1971, despite stronger ties with the USA, Japan, and Australia.
Russia, the successor to the USSR, has drawn closer to China since the Syrian Civil War, and even closer since the invasion of Ukraine in 2014, while India’s dependence on it for arms has dropped.
Despite participating in the Quad military exercises, the level of military support for India from the USA, Australia or Japan is limited.
Obviously, Communist China was far weaker in 1971 than it is today, but was still a threat to Indian interests. In order to stave off further inclusions while securing our borders in the West, India’s needs to foster close relations with the West, while also ensuring that its neighbours are friendlier to it than to China, or Pakistan.
Calling its neighbours “termites”, and imposing economic blockades undermines India’s moral authority, and by extension, diplomatic efforts, amidst fraught tensions along the border.
(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them. Vibhav Mariwala studies History and Anthropology at Stanford University. His most recent research was on the Origins and Implementation of India’s Planned Economy from 1947-64.)