Home / Opinion / Why the 1971 war failed to bring peace

On this day, 45 years ago, Lt General A.A.K. Niazi of the Pakistan Eastern Command signed an instrument of surrender accepting defeat at the hands of Indian forces. A photograph capturing the historical moment was gifted by Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the latter’s visit to Dhaka in June last year. The gesture was widely resented in Pakistan. It is not surprising that past wars continue to divide the imagination of nation states to the present day. For instance, ritual offerings by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Yasukuni Shrine for the war dead invariably invite rebukes from both China and South Korea—the two countries see the shrine as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism.

However, if the formerly warring nations have transformed their relationship, the symbols of war need not be shunned indefinitely. They can indeed be embraced to bring about a closure. It was in such a spirit that US President Barack Obama decided to visit Hiroshima, the first of two cities hit by American nuclear bombs in 1945. And now, Abe is planning to visit Pearl Harbour, the site of the Japanese attack that drew the US into the World War II—which, of course, ended with the nuclear bombings.

Indo-Pakistan relations, however, are nowhere comparable to US-Japan relations. Hence, it is natural that the photograph of the 1971 surrender being given as a gift is not a pleasant sight for the Pakistanis. But could this have been different? Yes, provided the leaders in Pakistan—both civilian and military—had drawn different lessons from the 1971 defeat than they did.

It is instructive to note how US-Japan relations turned on their head after the World War II. In his book World Order: Reflections On The Character Of Nations And The Course Of History, Henry Kissinger recalls asking Harry S. Truman about the proudest achievement of the latter’s presidency. Truman replied: “... we totally defeated our enemies and then brought them back to the community of nations." This did not stem organically from the “humane and democratic values" of America, as Kissinger would have us believe, but from internalization of the lessons from history—of the grievous mistakes committed in the aftermath of World War I.

P.N. Haksar, the top adviser to former prime minister Indira Gandhi, was well aware of those mistakes. Haksar ensured that the 1972 Simla Agreement between India and Pakistan did not repeat the errors of the Treaty of Versailles. From his study of history, Haksar had concluded that “if those who sat around the table at Versailles to conclude a peace with Germany defeated during the First World War had acted with wisdom and not imposed upon Germany humiliating terms of peace, not only the rise of Nazism would have been avoided but also the seeds of the Second World War would not have been sown." Haksar had, it seems, learnt the same lesson as Truman.

He would convince the Indian prime minister—notes historian Srinath Raghavan—“that a punitive settlement would only prepare the ground for further conflict in South Asia". This explains why India did not leverage a stupendous military victory and the capture of 93,000 prisoners of war to settle the Kashmir dispute once and for all in its favour.

Even if India, learning from history, did not unilaterally impose the terms of the Simla Agreement, the leadership in Pakistan did not draw the lessons from the war which could lead to cessation of hostilities. In fact, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who took over power after the war, was actually interested in initiating a “1,000-year war" against India. He would commit Pakistan to the acquisition of nuclear weapons so as to prevent a repeat of the 1971 humiliation. This acquisition was supported actively by China and passively by the US.

In a famous 1999 essay titled “Give War A Chance" for the Foreign Affairs journal, Edward N. Luttwak had said: “…although war is a great evil, it does have a great virtue: it can resolve political conflicts and lead to peace." For all its decisive ending with the dismemberment of the state of Pakistan, the 1971 war could not bring peace. The nuclear parity that the war led to has allowed Pakistan to engage in low-cost asymmetrical warfare while keeping another full-scale war at bay—many scholars don’t treat Kargil (1999) as a full-scale war. Such an artificial freezing of conflict—to use the words of Luttwak in a somewhat different context—“[perpetuates] a state of war indefinitely by shielding the weaker side from the consequences of refusing to make concessions for peace".

It, however, didn’t have to end this way if Pakistan had drawn the correct lessons from 1971. Unlike the US and Japan, Pakistan could not have made India its ally but could have shown interest in developing economic interdependencies, the way Japan did with both China and South Korea.

Did India adopt the correct approach in the Simla Agreement? Tell us at views@livemint.com

Catch all the Business News, Market News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates.
More Less

Recommended For You

Trending Stocks

Get alerts on WhatsApp
Set Preferences My ReadsWatchlistFeedbackRedeem a Gift CardLogout