The 1971 watershed

Published : Nov 25, 2000 00:00 IST

From A Head, Through A Head, To a Head: The Secret Channel between the U.S. and China through Pakistan by F.S. Aijazuddin, Oxford University Press; pages 163, Rs.395.

NOW that Vedic astrology has become an approved subject for academic study in institutions of higher learning, one feels encouraged to reflect on the impact on world affairs of a singularly baleful configuration of the stars in the heavens in 1971. There was "too much turmoil under the heavens", Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai told Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, National Security Adviser to President Richard Nixon, when he arrived in Beijing on July 9, 1971 on a trip that could truly be called historic.

Exactly a month later, on August 9, 1971, the Foreign Ministers of India and the Soviet Union, Swaran Singh and Andrei A. Gromyko, signed the Indo-Soviet Treaty. For two good reasons, it would be wrong to say that it paved the way for the India-Pakistan war. One was that the decision to march into the then East Pakistan was taken by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on April 6, 1971, less than a fortnight after the Pakistan army's brutal crackdown in the province on March 25. P.N. Dhar asserts that "it was o nly after Indira Gandhi visited the refugee camps in West Bengal, Assam and Tripura in the last week of May that she made up her mind on the Indian response to the crisis" (Indira Gandhi, the 'Emergency' and Indian Democracy, OUP; 2000; pag e 156. (emphasis added, throughout).

This is belied by a mass of material cited earlier (vide the writer's article "The Making of Bangladesh", Frontline; January 10, 1997). To wit, the account of Lt. Gen. J.F.R. Jacob, Chief of Staff of the Eastern Command, Calcutta, of a call from t he Chief of the Army Staff, Gen. Sam Manekshaw, about a call in "early April" telling him that "the Government wants the Army to move into Bangladesh", and Manekshaw's repeated claims that he was summoned before the Cabinet soon after the crackdown, and asked whether he could march in. The first such assertion was made by him in Mumbai on November 16, 1977 (vide Surrender at Dacca: Birth of a Nation by Lt. Gen. J.F.R. Jacob; Manohar, 1977; pages 35-36). The Deputy Director of Military Operations at Army Headquarters in New Delhi, Major-Gen. Sukhwant Singh, revealed in his candid work The Liberation of Bangladesh (Vikas, 1980, page 35) that "the Army was asked to take over the guidance of all aspects of guerilla warfare on April 30".

The Central Intelligence Agency came to know of it instantly. Henry A. Brandon of The Sunday Times, who was close to Kissinger, wrote in his book The Retreat of American Power (Doubleday, 1973; page 254) that "the Indian Cabinet on April 28 had secretly decided to prepare for the possibility of war". An omission in my earlier article is being repaired here. A.K. Ray, then Joint Secretary (Pakistan) in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), from December 1969 to May 1971 and Joint Secretar y, MEA Branch Sect. in Calcutta from May 1971 and Joint Secretary, MEA Branch Sect. in Calcutta from May 1971 to February 1972, disclosed in an article: "She had actually made the commitment on April 6" (Indian Express, Dece-mber 19, 1996). The of ficial history of the Bangladesh war, laced reportedly with fable and fiction, has been put in deep freeze. It cries to be leaked.

Less known is the second reason why the Treaty did not lead to war. India had sought it to warn China against intervening in the war to come. The Soviets intended to use it to restrain India (Tad Szulc's report in The New York Times, August 10). David Bonavia of The Times (London) reported on the same lines.

Pakistan was not unduly alarmed, as is evident from the minutes of a meeting of its Ambassadors held in Geneva on August 24-25, 1971. The texts were published in Samar Sen's weekly Frontier (October 13, 1971). Sultan Mohammed Khan, the Foreign Secretary, who presided, mentioned a letter which Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin wrote, on August 17, a week after the Treaty was signed, "promising Russia's continued desire to help Pa kistan". Pravda and Izvestia continued to balance reports from New Delhi and Islamabad until Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's visit to Moscow, in late September, when she brought about what Andrei Fontaine of Le Monde called "the Great Switch ". Moscow abandoned the fence (vide the writer's book Brezhnev Plan for Asian Security; Jaico, 1975; Chapter 8 on the Indo-Soviet Treaty and the Brezhnev Plan). Not much revelatory material has appeared in India since. What has appeared elsewhere proves what the discerning understood even then - China had neither the desire nor the capacity to intervene. It did not support Pakistan's policy in East Pakistan. It was caught in the coils of the Cultural Revolution and faced a hostile Soviet Union.

First came Sultan M. Khan's memoirs Memories & Reflections of a Pakistani Diplomat (The London Centre for Pakistan Studies; 1997), a mini-classic on diplomacy. On his return from Beijing, Kissinger told his Pakistani hosts that "the Chinese had sa id that they would intervene with men and arms if India moved against Pakistan". Far from being taken in, the astute diplomat Sultan Khan accurately assessed it to be "a mis-interpretation of the actual language used by Zhou Enlai". All that he ha d said was that "in case India invaded Pakistan, China would not be an idle spectator but would support Pakistan". As he perceptively noted, "support can take many forms... In the context in which Premier Zhou Enlai spoke, there could be no question of s upport taking the form of armed intervention." He had met Zhou in April and records: "China never, during these or subsequent talks, held out any possibility of coming to Pakistan's aid with her armed forces" (pages 307-8).

Kissinger did worse than misinterpret. The disgraceful role he was later to play emerged in The Kissinger Transcripts: The Top Secret Talks with Beijing and Moscow edited by William Burr (The New Press, New York; pages 515, $30). It contained reco rds of Kissinger's talks with Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Leonid Brezhnev, Andrei Gromyko and others, thanks to skilful recourse to the Freedom of Information Act by the National Security Archive. It is a public interest research library at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., a Project of the Fund for Peace. It has the largest private collection of declassified national security information outside the government and serves citizens by obtaining and disseminating government records for an info rmed public debate on defence and foreign affairs.

The publisher, The New Press, is a non-profit alternative to the big commercial publishing houses which dominate the book publishing world. It operates in the public interest. William Burr, the editor, is a senior analyst at the archive and the director of its nuclear documentation project. This is a work of scholarship, as the introduction to the book and the introduction to each chapter and the annotations reveal.

Anyone can rummage through the archives and publish a collection of documents with little or no annotation as the Pakistani civil servant Roedad Khan did (The American Papers, Oxford University Press, 1999).

William Burr is a scholar who, having mastered the published record, is able to put the discovered archival material in context with the help of copious notes and incisive analyses. In particular, he nails to the counter the many false claims Kissinger m ade in his memoirs. One memorandum of conversation which he reproduces records Kissinger's talk with China's Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Huang Hua, on December 10, 1971, in a CIA safe house in New York, a week after the war had broken out. Kissinger informed him: "We are moving a number of naval ships in the West Pacific towards the Indian Ocean: an aircraft carrier accompanied by four destroyers and a tanker, and a helicopter carrier and two destroyers... They (the Soviet fleet in t he Indian Ocean) are no match for the U.S. ships (showing Ambassador Huang the map)."

What he proceeded to add was unknown until the publication of Burr's work: "The President wants you to know that... if the People's Republic were to consider the situation on the Indian sub-continent a threat to its security, and if it took measures to p rotect its security, the U.S. would oppose efforts of others to interfere with the People's Republic." Shorn of diplomatic jargon, he offered that if China decided to intervene militarily, the U.S. would take care of any attack by "others" (read: the Sov iet Union) on China. This was said fairly early in a talk which lasted an hour and 50 minutes. Towards the end, Kissinger discarded diplomatic language: "When I asked for this meeting, I did so to suggest Chinese military help, to be quite honest. That's what I had in mind, not to discuss with you how to defeat Pakistan. I didn't want to find a way out of it, but I did it in an indirect way" (pages 52-55).

AIJAZUDDIN is a chartered accountant by profession and a successful businessman. He has written extensively on painting and aspects of Lahore's history. Ali Yahya Khan gave him access to the file his father, President A.M. Yahya Khan, had maintained on t he secret contacts the U.S. made with China since 1969 with Pakistan as the intermediary. Those exchanges prepared the ground for Kissinger's visit in July 1971. "The core of this book consists of forty-nine secret documents from a file marked 'The Chine se Connection' assembled and maintained personally by the late President Yahya Khan of Pakistan. The documents cover the period 15 October 1969 to 7 August 1971, and include the messages sent by President Nixon and Dr. Henry Kissinger to Premier Zhou Enl ai through President Yahya, and vice versa."

Aijazuddin provides competent annotations. He has read widely and laboured hard. As well as the Yahya Papers, he has drawn on four documents from the National Security Archive - memorandums of conversations of Nixon and Kissinger's talks in Beijing, on F ebruary 22, 23, 24 and 28, 1972, and Kissinger's Report to Nixon on July 17, 1971 on his first visit to Beijing. This volume adds significantly to the literature on that crucial phase of history.

However, in order to make his resume interesting, Aijazuddin lapses into trivia. Worse, he misses significant bits of the document he has read; in the memorandums of conversations of December 10, 1971 for instance. He does not quote the excerpts, quoted above, in which Kissinger egged on China to attack India.

For Pakistan it was no small diplomatic achievement. "The first formal contact initiated by President Nixon, it will be recalled, occurred during his meeting with President Yahya Khan in August 1969 at Lahore, Pakistan. The first document in Yahya Khan's file is a message three months later, dated 10 October 1969, sent to President Yahya Khan by Major-General Sher Ali Khan Pataudi, then his Minister for Information and Broadcasting." It served as courier for nearly two years without breach of secrecy. O n one occasion, which Aijazuddin omits to mention, China's patience snapped. It threatened to break off the exchange if Kissinger was so coy about an open visit. Sultan Khan did not transmit that message. Instead, he mollified the Chinese Ambassador.

Aijazuddin renders a service by reproducing the texts of the messages exchanged. During Kissinger's second visit to Beijing in October 1971, "Chou surely recognised from my presentation that we have too great stakes in India to allow us to gang up on eit her side. Nevertheless he did not attempt in any way to contrast their stand with ours as demonstrating greater support for our common friend, Pakistan." Kissinger himself did not wish to intervene militarily, either. "In turn I made it clear that while we were under no illusions about Indian machinations and were giving Pakistan extensive assistance, we could not line up on either side of the dispute."

Pakistan was keenly aware of the dividends its efforts would yield. Its Ambassador to the U.S., Agha Hilaly, wrote to Yahya Khan on April 28, 1971: "So far as we are concerned, we will be placing Nixon under an obligation to us at this particularly delic ate moment in our national life when he is (the) highest dignitary in this country insisting on pressure not (repeat, not) being put on (the) Yahya regime in regard to (the) East Pakistan situation."

In his memoirs Kissinger claims that he told Indira Gandhi in New Delhi on July 7, 1971: "We would continue to oppose unprovoked military pressure by any nuclear power, as enunciated in the Nixon Doctrine." Aijazuddin reveals what he told his friends in Pakistan thereafter. "His views were summarised, probably by Sultan Khan, in a handwritten note on paper headed 'Govern-ment House, Nathia Gali', initialled and dated (9/7 July): Dr. Kissinger has stated that in Delhi he found a mood of bitterness, hosti lity and hawkishness, and he came away with an impression that India was likely to start a war against Pakistan. United States has conveyed a strong warning to India against starting hostilities but she may not pay heed, thinking that present hostile att itude of press and Senate against Pakistan offers her a good opportunity."

This writer would like to share with the readers a memorandum of conversation between Kissinger, on the one hand, and P.N. Haksar, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister and Vikram A. Sarabhai, Chairman of India's Atomic Energy Commission, on the othe r. No one else, from either the MEA or the U.S. Embassy, was present. The memorandum was meticulously prepared by Winston Lord, a member of the National Security Council staff. It was an informal discussion for an hour and 40 minutes over luncheon at the Ashoka Hotel in New Delhi, on July 7, 1971. The writer is indebted to the National Security Archive for a copy of this document.

Kissinger disclosed: "We are just at the beginning of a meaningful dialogue with the Chinese... Over the coming months the U.S. might be able to make some significant starts in its relations with the Chinese, although we had no illusions about our differ ences." Short of telling his hosts that he would be in Beijing two days later, Kissinger revealed enough for New Delhi not to be too surprised when that historic trip was made known to the wide world on July 15.

In this context, what Kissinger said on India merits quotation in extenso: "Dr. Kissinger said that under any conceivable circumstances the U.S. would back India against any Chinese pressures. In any dialogue with China, we would, of course, no t encourage her against India. The U.S. knew that foreign domination of India would be a disaster. It was for a strong, independent India which would make for stability in the region. From what we knew, this was the Soviet aim as well, and we did not believe that the U.S. and Soviets had any conflicting interests in India. India was a potential world power. Our priorities would reflect these facts."

He added: "The U.S. hoped to use its influence with Pakistan, rather than cutting off all influence, and move it toward the type of political evolution in East Pakistan that we believe India wanted also."

Shortly after his return from Beijing, on July 16 Kissinger summoned India's Ambassador L.K. Jha to San Clemente to say that the assurance he gave in New Delhi would not apply in the event of China's intervention in an India-Pakistan war. During the war, he encouraged China to do just that.

Nor was Haksar any the more candid, when, agreeing with Kissinger, he said it was in India's interests to see Pakistan stronger. Winston Lord was quick to ask whether that covered both its wings: "Mr. Haksar confirmed that he meant East Pakistan a s well as West Pakistan." He knew, of course, that the Prime Minister had decided on war in April. It is about time India began publishing the records of 1971, if only to educate the astrologers, now in high favour, that the events of that year owed more to human folly and worse than to the stars.

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