Exclusive: How Pakistan Tried to Strike a Deal With Apartheid South Africa

Archival material reveals Pakistan held backroom talks with South Africa over the ‘treatment of Indians’ issue to create a separate community of Muslims of Indian origin in that country and pave the way for diplomatic recognition of Pretoria.

Indian settlers in South Africa. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Indian settlers in South Africa. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

An unusual set of letters passed between South Africa’s department of external affairs and the country’s high commission in London in early 1957. A Pakistani UN delegate was scheduled to visit South Africa, but at the very last moment, South Africa’s high commission in London realised that the man who it would host from a country it officially had no diplomatic relations with had a warrant of arrest pending against him. The man in question, Transvaal-born Essop Mohammed Bhabha, had been charged for falsities and theft of £2,025 in 1950 in South Africa. He had fled the country in 1951 and settled in Pakistan. South Africa had also, unsuccessfully, tried to secure his extradition in 1953.

If Bhabha was to land in South Africa, he would have to be arrested – a diplomatic disaster considering that he was given a special laissez-passer by the high commission in London. By the time South Africa’s external affairs ministry hurriedly asked London to stop Bhabha from boarding his flight to South Africa, he had already left London. Fortuitously, he was contacted at Rome airport while he waited to board his flight and after communicating to him the reasons, his special visa was annulled. Both South Africa and Pakistan had averted a diplomatic misadventure – but this had also stopped a duplicitous deal that these two countries were otherwise plotting.

Pre-partition India had famously protested against the racial discrimination of Indians in South Africa at the inaugural session of the United Nations in 1946 – an issue on which India and Pakistan were subsequently joined at the hip since segregation in South Africa applied not to nationalities or religious communities, but to Indians as a race. From 1947 onwards, both India and Pakistan became affected parties when the issue was again taken up at the UN. Every year, except in a session in 1949-1950, the item ‘treatment of Indians in the Union of South Africa’ appeared on the UN agenda until 1962 when it was merged with another item on ‘apartheid’. The former item became what South Africans called a ‘hardy annual’, which raised specifically the treatment meted out to the South Africa’s Indian community but also served to galvanise world opinion against that country’s racism in general. In all these years, although India and Pakistan fought vigorously against each other on Kashmir at the UN, on the issue of the ‘treatment of Indians’ in South Africa, both were on the same side. Or, at least that is what seemed from their official positions. The reality was, however, more complicated.

As early as 1949, Indian diplomats started speculating that Pakistan was keen to undercut India on the issue. In the backdrop of India’s military action in Hyderabad, on which both Pakistan and South Africa condemned India’s double standards on morality at the UN, Pakistan’s diplomats informally conveyed to their South African counterparts that they were willing to go soft on the ‘treatment of Indians’ issue.

More interested in undermining India’s international legitimacy than challenging South Africa’s racism, Pakistan felt little pressed to fight for what it saw as only ‘about 80 Pakistanis’ residing in South Africa. Pakistan’s lack of interest in championing the rights of South African Indians was also influenced by the fact that the trade sanctions that pre-partition India had imposed on South Africa in 1944 deprived Pakistan of an important South African import item – coal – and a significant export market for Pakistan’s primary export good – jute. Hence, Pakistan was keen to take the issue out of the UN and resume diplomatic ties with South Africa.

Although India was initially reluctant, on South Africa’s initiative and Pakistan’s strong backing, the three countries agreed to meet for preliminary talks in Cape Town about convening a round-table conference on the issue. India was concerned that if it backed out of these talks, South Africa and Pakistan would cut a separate deal and jointly impress upon the global community that India’s intransigence was the reason for little progress on the issue. Accordingly, Indian politician H.N. Kunzru led the Indian delegation at this conference, while Pakistan’s delegation was headed by its deputy foreign minister, Mahmud Hussain.

India’s suspicions of Pakistan were confirmed when the latter unilaterally lifted the trade ban at the start of the preliminary conference, thereby weakening India’s negotiating position. Although these talks, held in February 1950, helped to lay the ground rules for a round-table conference proposed for later in the year, South Africa’s promulgation of the Group Areas Act in 1950, which further entrenched racial segregation, killed any chances of anther level of talks. Both India and Pakistan were forced to return to the UN.

Over the next few years, as a series of legislations codified and established apartheid, global criticisms of South Africa grew sterner. The entry of more Asian and African countries into the UN helped this process. In 1952, a group of Asian and African countries, including India and Pakistan, brought a resolution on racial discrimination, which complemented the other Indian resolution on the ‘treatment of Indians’. South Africa was roundly isolated when in 1956, its eccentric foreign minister, Eric Louw (once called ‘South Africa’s Goebbels’), announced that frustrated by the annual anti-South Africa diatribe, his country would henceforth maintain only a token presence at the UN.

While South Africa was clutching at straws for international support, Pakistan surreptitiously extended it a lifeline. Informally reaching out to South Africa’s delegation at the UN, Pakistan’s permanent representative, Mir Khan, requested settling the issue separately with his country. As discussions between the Pakistani and South African delegations at New York progressed, the two sides arrived at a ‘formula’ for negotiations. This ‘formula’ envisioned the creation of a separate community of Muslims of Indian origin in South Africa, estimated at around 50,000 people ,(barely 0.5% of South Africa’s population). Pakistan proposed that while the Group Areas Act should be applied to all racial groups, certain ‘administrative adaptations’ could be made with regard to Indian Muslims, which separated them all other non-European racial groups. Such adaptations included, for instance, a more liberal allocation of land for residence, relaxed provisions for trading rights, and separate allotments for sites for educational and religious purposes would serve the purpose.

In essence, it meant that Pakistan did not have any issue with either the principle or widescale application of racial discrimination in South Africa. As long as the Indian Muslim community was treated on a slightly favourable basis from other non-European communities – especially, Hindu Indians – Pakistan was willing to drop its opposition to South Africa at the UN and resume full diplomatic ties. Interestingly, while in the immediate post-independence years, Pakistan viewed South African Indians through the category of statehood (‘only 80 Pakistanis’), in 1956 it officially became a theocratic state and thus now concerned itself with all Indian Muslims.

To negotiate further with South Africa on this ‘formula’, Khan, with the concurrence of Pakistan’s foreign affairs ministry, appointed Bhabha to visit the country. As a South Africa-born Pakistan-based industrialist, Bhabha was seen as an ideal candidate to negotiate on behalf of Pakistan and to convince South African Muslims to agree to this proposal.

In spite of these intentions, the ‘formula’ did not see the light of day, as Bhabha’s visit was abruptly cancelled in April 1957. This proposal was never discussed again, possibly because the opposition to apartheid had increased significantly between the two UN sessions in January and November 1957. So while voting on the ‘treatment of Indians’ resolution at the general assembly in January 1957 was 42 in favour, 12 abstentions and zero opposition, in November 1957, the voting was even more unequivocal – 64 in favour, 15 abstentions and none against. The intervening months had indeed provided a brief window of opportunity for the two sides to exploit before opposition to South Africa hardened. However, there is no reason to believe that Bhabha would have secured the support of South African Indian Muslims for this proposal. In the middle of a struggle in which Indians – both Hindus and Muslims – had joined hands with Africans, and the leadership of the South African Indian Congress was aligned with India, a separate racial category of Indian Muslims was a pipedream. In reality, the parleys between South Africa and Pakistan to create a ‘loyal’ racial category of Indian Muslims were guided less by a moral conviction to protect the rights of Muslim Indians and more towards scuttling India’s diplomatic efforts.

Vineet Thakur is a lecturer at the department of politics and international studies at SOAS, London. The archival material used in this article comes mainly from National Archives of South Africa, Pretoria (BVV, Vol. 13, Ref. 11/2/A).