Assessing the impact of the Indo-Soviet treaty of 1971 on Bangladesh’s independence
As Bangladesh celebrates its 50th anniversary on March 26th, the historic Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation signed on August 9, 1971, had a direct impact on the decisive battle in the eastern war theatre.
The treaty expedited the Bangladesh War of Independence and brought about the surrender of 93,000 Pakistan forces on December 16, 1971.
In the annals of diplomacy, the Indo-Soviet Treaty on Peace, Friendship and Cooperation was a unique document that not only epitomized the special relationship between India and then Soviet Union, but also acted as a guarantor of regional peace.
The treaty was a significant deviation from India’s previous position of non-alignment in the Cold War and the prelude to the Bangladesh war, and it was a key development in a situation of increasing China-American ties and American pressure.
The Indo-Soviet treaty was later adopted as the India-Bangladesh Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in 1972.
As the struggle for independence in Bangladesh gathered momentum in 1971, months after holding general elections in Pakistan, and the US hegemony attempted to subvert it, the treaty restrained the evil design of Pakistan and its allies.
Following the first-ever free, fair, and credible elections in Pakistan in 1970, Pakistan’s head of state, General Yahya Khan, was utterly dissatisfied with the large victory of the Awami League, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
The marauding Pakistan military unleashed a reign of terror under “Operation Searchlight” at midnight on March 25, committing genocide with the intent to cleanse the land of Bangali and Hindu populations, who were deemed as enemies of Pakistan and Islam.
Pakistan’s General Yahya Khan had said that “if India made any attempt to seize any part of East Pakistan, he would declare war and Pakistan would not be alone.”
Well, Kissinger’s surprise visit to Beijing in July 1971 was indeed a morale boost for Pakistan. On the other hand, it was frustrating for India as it felt diplomatically humbled and strategically isolated.
India could see the US-China-Pakistan axis as an emerging threat to regional geopolitical interests. China committed unqualified support to its “all-weather” friend Pakistan against India to stop interference in the domestic affairs of Pakistan.
During the parley between Kissinger and China’s Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, Beijing indicated that if war breaks out between India and Pakistan over Bangladesh, China would make military intervention against India on behalf of Islamabad.
The US sympathized with Pakistan for obvious reasons. The US believed a victory for India would be considered as an expansion of Soviet hegemony in South Asia. In this backdrop, Delhi and Moscow moved closer to ink the historic treaty to neutralize the emerging Washington-Beijing–Islamabad axis and defend their vital geopolitical interests.
In an editorial, Pravda, a leading Soviet national daily, underlined the significance of the treaty, saying the treaty had effectively “restrained” Pakistan and its allies from embarking on a course of “military adventurism” in the sub-continent and would continue to act as a “deterrent” against such hegemonic goals. The treaty also signalled a clear warning to China’s hegemonistic ambitions in the continent.
Following the rising struggle for independence in erstwhile East Pakistan and the influx of millions of refugees from there to India, the possibility of war between New Delhi and Islamabad was looming large in Asia.
Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, and recipient of Ashoka Fellow (USA) and Hellman-Hammett Award. Email [email protected]; Twitter @saleemsamad.