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1971 Partition of India Pakistan

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1971 - The Key to India-U.S. Relations and India-Pakistan Relations

{Ethnicity and regional autonomy has emerged as a conceptual counterweight to oppose the growth of large state spatial authority in South Asia and the developing world. This theory, where ethnicity and central government form a dynamic and oscillating tension, informs Sankaran Krishna’s interpretation of India’s recent history as a period of true post-colonialism. Partition of India and Pakistan occured in 1947, and a further partition of greater Pakistan turned a province of old East Bengal into Bangladesh in 1971.}

More than simply following Independence from Britain chronologically, Krishna sees the last fifty years of post-colonial South Asian history as a period strongly influenced by the pre-1947 British authority mode. Inheritors of state sovereignty, the Indian government, and other ranking elites in Pakistan and Dacca engage in a directly mimetic aping of authoritarian forms. They indulge in the same simplistic communal distinctions that spawned Partition -- and are thus victims of their post-colonial insecurity. This post-colonial, mimetic, central-state authoritarian approach exacerbates existing ethnic minority tensions. The central state (whether it be India, Sri Lanka or Pakistan) feeds on this ethnic strife as it alternately crushes or protects the less assimilated language groups by turns .

Two very different views of India are put forward by Krishna and Sisson-Rose. Richard Sisson and Leo Rose represent the elite Cold War U.S. foreign policy outlook, while Krishna looks to re-imagine “South Asia as a space marked by decentralized nation states with high degrees of provincial autonomy.”

Krishna’s ideal seems to harken back to (or hope for) a counterfactual world of a large un-partitioned independent India--if India had not been partitioned, then “high degrees of provincial autonomy” would have been needed. Krishna’s book falls short due to an airy idealism, while Rose falls short from a less than critical realpolitick approach.

Post-colonial independence, autonomy, ethnicity and the policies of the new South Asian governments inform the discussion of the period. India in 1971 responded militarily to Pakistan and East Bengal’s rupture over provisional authority, and used force to conclusively endow an ethnic group with state autonomy. Was the six-point plan of Mujib and the Awami League ever a real possibility? Was a constitutional confederation enough to secure East Bengal within a greater Pakistan? In reality it was not, with the PPP leader Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto intimidating the junta leader Agha Mohammed Yahya Kahn. Without much stronger international support early on, the compromise measures (actual electoral mandates) of Mujib were doomed. The world was loking the other way. Ali Bhutto here resembles the Nationalists in the 1920’s Weimar Reichstag, willing to use the constitutional offices to bring about tyranny, and like Gustav Stresemann’s right-wing opponents in the 1920’s Bhutto had no real respect for the republican electoral mandate. His illegitimate grasping degraded Mujib’s mandate and derailed the six-point federal plan, until India was forced to intervene.

Rose stresses the impact of U.S. non-intervention in the Pakistan crisis: “In the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pakistan war, Pakistan complained bitterly that Washington had not fulfilled its obligation to an ‘ally.’” Rose explains this within an elite middle level NSC/State Department foreign policy paradigm. In 1971 President Richard Nixon, Dr. Henry Kissinger and the NSC/State Department system was focused on the Sino-Soviet split and were busy conducting the new ‘secret’ Laos Cambodia Vietnam war. Their alliance with Pakistan was convenient, shallow and non-binding. With appropriate triumphalism, the U.S. actors advocating the regional hegemon theory calmly allowed India to move into the power vacuum in East Bengal, and defeat the U.S. “ally,” Pakistan.

In his East Bengal general strike narrative, Rose shows the communication and logistics nightmare faced by a Pakistani military forces trapped “behind the lines” in the Deccan peninsula. Pakistan, i.e. General Yahya Kahn’s government, is certainly mimetic at this juncture – Pakistani forces in Chittagong and Dacca in 1970 were in the same position as the British had been in after the Rowlett Acts were imposed. Pakistan and then India mimicked roles learned from their former masters, the Great Britain Raj, and both used force to quell the ethnic secessionist revolt.

Indo-Pakistani relations underwent a sea change in 1971. The dynamic went from a rough parity, a standoff reflecting the 1966 Tashkent settlement, to India’s emerging with an absolute military domination of South Asia. Triumphalists in the NSC/ State Department apparatus saw this as vindication of the local hegemon approach to solving non-superpower conflicts.

Indira Gandhi’s non-aligned policy (India’s official policy since the Bandung conference of 1950) and the 7 August 1971 Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace and Friendship were certainly not Richard Nixon’s ideal for a proper Cold War position for India, but he met with Indira, he recognized the democratic federal republic as a functional democracy and let India go its own way. Problems like the non-aligned status of India and the 1971 Soviet treaty—if not unambiguously hostile to U.S. interests--were tolerated.

1971 was the great transitional moment in Indo-Pakistani and Indo-U.S. relations. The dynamic of ethnicity and state power must be the critical agent of interpretation of these events—both in understanding India’s rise to dominance over Pakistan and in its elevation to respected status vis-à-vis the U.S. India became the arbiter of ethnic legitimacy, which built up its own legitimacy. India had learned to play both sides of the ethnicity/central power game.

British attitudes had left a mimetic legacy to post-colonial South Asia. India and Pakistan were partitioned along sectarian lines. In the Nehru/Gandhi era the Congress party learns, slowly, to delegate rights. Language based rights were extended to the southern Indian state provinces, and Krishna shows that this forbearance was the key to preventing full blown secession and a civil war in the Dravidian region. The literate and radical East Bengal intellectuals were an ethnic group divergent in locale and culture from the West Pakistani Muslims. They sought autonomy and less authoritarian central government through the Awami League actions and the Six Points. Pakistan was unable to compromise with the elected majority, and India’s intervention in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Kashmir then form a pattern of India seeking legitimacy through a defense of the ethnic national aspirations of its neighbors.

The U.S., which was modulating its perception (at the elite State/NSC level which Rose interacts with and reflects) of India through its simplistic Cold War bi-polar filter, and the U.S. didn’t have as sensitive a view of ethnic issues as the leaders of India at New Delhi did. Certainly Dr. Kissinger and his assistant Alexander Haig had no sensitive affinity for the offended language groups in the Dravidian or along the coasts of the Deccan peninsula and Sri Lanka, or knew how to deal with these issues. The U.S. understanding of India’s ethnicity interests was inadequate, at best, during the Vietnam War era. Put simply, Nixon and Kissinger didn’t know what was going on in the East Bengali sphere and they didn’t really care. They were not going to support either side and they didn’t want the trouble to spread. Kissinger didn’t want to lose his window on China, but Pakistan was in no position to question U.S. policies of non-intervention. India ‘settled’ the dispute in 1971 and the U.S. was impressed with Gandhi’s masterstroke of foreign policy. As Krishna states, foreign policy is part of nation building. With the collapse of the Egypt-Syrian confederation the Indian domination of South Asia became the best (only) example of a regional hegemon.

The U.S., during the height of the Laos Cambodia Vietnam secret war, did not understand or care about the ethnic sub-state secessionist violence in South Asia. The U.S./Indian relationship, never good but never truly hostile, reached a low point when the USS Enterprise sailed into the Indian Ocean in 1971. “New Delhi recognized the dispatch of the (7th) Fleet was a symbolic gesture intended to impress China and the Islamic states in southwest Asia as well as to counter the reinforced Soviet fleet in the Indian Ocean.” Rose makes it clear that the USS Enterprise incident was not aimed solely or even mainly at India, but it served as a ‘keep out of it’ signal to the Soviets and the Iran/Iraq leaderships. So the USS Enterprise incident does not fundamentally weaken the case that India was allowed to act as unilateral hegemon in South Asia. Only an all out military destabilization of the minor U.S. ally, Pakistan, would have brought a true U.S.- Indian confrontation.

1971 was a turning point in Indian relations with Pakistan, with India emerging as the dominant heir to the British subcontinent governing power. Pakistan was split into two, which remedied the most striking oddity of the 1947 Partition program, the unprecedented 1200 mile gap between East and West Pakistan. Parity and the Tashkent stalemate were over when India militarily helped to build a new nation out of the old East Bengal/East Pakistan region, essentially disciplining and partitioning its neighbor, greater Pakistan.

1971 was also the turning point in India-U.S. relations as Indira Gandhi and the Indian military earned the hearty respect of realpolitick NSC/State Department elites, who felt that India as a local enforcement power could contain regional strife in South Asia, an area of less than compelling global importance to the U.S. India in it pacification of the East Pakistan civil war and refugee crisis foreshadows clearly the 1983 Sri Lankan intervention by the Indian Peace Keeping Force, which the U.S., significantly, did not oppose. The excesses of emergency rule in 1977 and the 1983 Sri Lanka intervention would tarnish the U.S. image of an ascendant India.

Indian-U.S. and Indo-Pakistani relations hinge on these events in 1971, when East Bengal broke away from West Pakistan and India fought West Pakistan on behalf of the Bangladeshi insurgents. Ethnic struggle and mimetic state powers form a useful point of departure in understanding the realpolitick masterstroke of India in 1971.

Edited by Shanet Clark
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