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This article is based on retired diplomat Asoke Mukerji’s public lecture ‘India and the UN 1971’. You can watch it here.
The narrative of India’s diplomacy in the framework of the 1971 India-Pakistan war involved two dimensions. At the bilateral level, India engaged primarily with the four great powers (France, the UK, USSR, and US), as part of the larger international community, to prevail on Pakistan to reach a “political settlement” in East Pakistan and mitigate the burden of 10 million refugees in India pushed out by Pakistan’s genocidal crackdown (Operation Searchlight) from March 25, 1971.
At the multilateral level, India coordinated with three of the great powers (France, the UK and the USSR) from December 4, 1971 onwards to prevail on the UN Security Council (UNSC) to prioritise such a political settlement as part of any decision calling for a ceasefire to India’s military campaign launched in response to Pakistan’s declaration of war on India.
These two dimensions converged with the UNSC resolution 307 on December 21, 1971, removing the consideration of the “situation in the India/Pakistan subcontinent” from the UNSC’s agenda till today.
Diplomacy before outbreak of war
The outcome of December 1970 parliamentary elections in Pakistan, which had resulted in the victory of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League party in the legislature of united Pakistan, with 167 of the 313 seats, was rejected by Pakistan’s military ruler General Yahya Khan. Instead, with the launch of ‘Operation Searchlight’ on March 25, 1971, Pakistan unleashed a reign of terror and genocide that continued until the beginning of the conflict in December 1971. This substantially revised India’s original objective of upholding democracy in Pakistan with a proactive diplomatic and military campaign for an independent Bangladesh.
In 1971, the USSR was facing two major international challenges. It was embroiled in an ideological dispute with communist China, aggravated by the bloody border clashes between Soviet and Chinese troops in March 1969 along the Ussuri river. With the US, it was building on attempts to normalise relations by preparing to host the first visit by a US President to Moscow since the end of the Second World War.
India’s diplomatic outreach registered a positive outcome with the USSR, when Soviet President Nikolai Podgorny wrote to President Yahya Khan on April 2, 1971 denouncing ‘Operation Searchlight’ and calling for a “peaceful settlement” in East Pakistan. This demand was deflected by Yahya Khan, and enabled India’s Foreign Minister Sardar Swaran Singh during his visit to Moscow in June 1971 to discuss and negotiate the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation. The Treaty was signed on August 9, 1971 during Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko’s visit to New Delhi.
Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s personal leadership of India’s diplomacy in 1971 was evidenced by her outreach to all four major powers. She visited Moscow at the end of September 1971 to coordinate views on how to implement the Treaty with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, resulting in the visit of two high-level delegations from the USSR to India from October 22, 1971 led by Deputy Foreign Minister Nikolai Firyubin and Chief of the Soviet Air Force Marshal Pavel Koutakov. These visits opened the door for mutual coordination and support on the battlefield and in the UNSC, where the diplomatic endgame of the war would play out in December 1971.
PM Indira Gandhi followed up her visit to Moscow by undertaking a high-profile visit to the major Western capitals between October 25 and November 12 in 1971. Her first stop was London, which had been since 1947 a major strategic supporter of Pakistan. However, in late 1971, the UK’s primary diplomatic objective was to become part of the European Economic Community (EEC). French President Charles de Gaulle had twice (in 1961 and 1969) vetoed the UK’s attempts to enter the European integration process. Following de Gaulle’s resignation in mid-1969, the UK saw an opportunity to garner French support for its entry into the EEC (which it succeeded in doing in 1973).
In Asia, the UK had steadily downsized its strategic footprint following the Suez Crisis in 1956. In 1971, the UK was preoccupied with ensuring control of its huge oil and financial stakes in the Gulf, while granting independence to Gulf states. Bahrain and Qatar became UN members in September, Oman in October, and the United Arab Emirates in December 1971.
Following his meeting on October 31 with PM Indira Gandhi, British PM Edward Heath wrote to President Yahya Khan on November 9 suggesting a negotiated settlement in East Pakistan with the Awami League. This was rejected by Pakistan and played a part in the UK’s reticence during the UNSC debate on the war in December 1971.
PM Indira Gandhi’s next stop was Washington DC. The world was at the time unaware of the US’s secret outreach to communist China in 1971, and the surreptitious visit between 9-11 July 1971 by Dr Henry Kissinger, the National Security Adviser of President Richard Nixon, to Beijing while he was supposed to be in Pakistan. In fact, Pakistan’s role in the rapprochement between the US and communist China played a significant part in the policy of the US to appease its military regime, despite evidence of the genocide from the ground contained in the report from the US consul general in Dhaka, Archer Blood (known as ‘The Blood Telegram’).
In her two meetings with President Richard Nixon on 4 and 5 November 1971, PM Indira Gandhi (and her American hosts) were clear that India and the US would be on opposing sides in attempts to reach a political settlement in East Pakistan.
The humanitarian crisis in East Pakistan had aroused the voice of prominent French intellectuals led by Andre Malraux. Public opinion forced the French government to impose sanctions on Pakistan in July 1971. During PM Indira Gandhi’s visit to Paris, the convergence of priorities for a political settlement in East Pakistan, including the release of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from custody, was apparent.
Following his meeting with PM Indira Gandhi, French President Georges Pompidou wrote a letter on November 18, 1971 to President Yahya Khan asking him to release Sheikh Mujib as part of a political settlement in East Pakistan. This was flatly rejected by President Yahya Khan. France tacitly supported India’s position on the urgency of a political settlement when the UNSC began its debate on December 4, 1971.
In the May Day celebration in Beijing in 1970, Mao Zedong, the leader of China’s Communist Party, had given a public signal to India’s charge d’affaires Brajesh Mishra on China’s interest in improving relations with India. In July 1971, PM Indira Gandhi wrote to Chinese PM Chou En-lai explaining India’s concerns on the situation in East Pakistan. On October 25, 1971, two thirds of the member-states of the UN General Assembly, including India, voted to replace the Republic of China with communist China in the UN, including the UNSC. This brought communist China into the UN and UNSC debates on East Pakistan, on the side of Pakistan.
In its diplomatic outreach to the wider international community, India sent delegations to 70 countries, of which 13 were at ministerial level. However, the main hurdle faced by India in galvanising the support of nonaligned and developing country member-states of the UN was to overcome their concern on the impact of any political settlement in East Pakistan on the principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty, upheld by the UN Charter.
Diplomacy in the UN
Under Article 99 of the UN Charter, the UN Secretary-General (UNSG) has the mandate to alert the UNSC on any issue which could threaten international peace and security. Although he had provided the UNSC with detailed reports regarding the humanitarian crisis in East Pakistan, UNSG U. Thant did not play a proactive role in advising the UNSC to resolve the crisis. His second five-year term was to end in December 1971; the military regime in Burma did not support him; and he was hospitalised with ulcers as the crisis came to a head, appearing in the UN after the outbreak of the India-Pakistan war in December 1971.
On December 3, Thant proposed to the UN Security Council, based on the UN Secretariat reports, that the UN should position observers in India and Pakistan and called for the withdrawal of Indian troops from the border with East Pakistan. The US supported this proposal, which was included in the first draft resolution tabled by Ambassador George H.W. Bush, the envoy of the US to the UN (who would become the 41st President of the US in 1989), on December 4, 1971 in the UNSC.
The resolution called for a ceasefire, withdrawal of the armed forces of India and Pakistan from each other’s territories, and the deployment of UN observers. While the US, China (represented by Huang Hua, the former interpreter of Mao Zedong) and 9 elected members of the UNSC supported the resolution, France and the UK abstained. Soviet envoy Yakov Malik vetoed the US’s draft resolution on the ground that it did not address the need for a political settlement in East Pakistan. Poland voted against the resolution.
On December 5, the Soviet Union proposed a draft resolution which called for a political settlement in East Pakistan as a pre-requisite for the cessation of hostilities. 12 Council members abstained on this proposal, and China opposed it on the grounds that this was an internal matter of Pakistan. The Soviet proposal was not adopted. A second draft resolution moved by the US, along with Argentina, Belgium, Burundi, Italy, Japan, Nicaragua, and Somalia on December 5 was vetoed by the USSR, its second veto on successive days of the war, again on the ground that the proposal would not lead to a political settlement in East Pakistan.
Somalia’s envoy Abdulrahim Abby Farah, supported by Argentina, Burundi, Nicaragua, Japan, Belgium, Italy, and the US proposed on December 6, UNSC Resolution 303 referring the matter to the UN General Assembly (UNGA) under the “Uniting for Peace” resolution of 1950. This resolution was adopted with 11 members including the US and China in favour, and four abstentions (the USSR, France, UK, and Poland).
Thereafter, on December 7, the UNGA presided by Foreign Minister Adam Malik of Indonesia conducted an extensive debate. Most speakers focused on whether the principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty, including addressing internal matters of member-states, could be violated by armed action by another member-state. The humanitarian dimension, including the genocide and the denial of democratic rights in East Pakistan, were stressed by countries critical of Pakistan. Fifty out of the 131 member-states in the UNGA spoke, and 104 voted in favour of Argentinian resolution 2793 calling for ceasefire and withdrawal of armed forces to their respective territories, return of refugees, a role of the UN, calling on the UNSC to act. These 104 countries included the US, China, and Pakistan. Eleven countries opposed the resolution, including India, USSR, Bhutan, and members of the Warsaw Pact, while 10 countries including France, UK, Afghanistan, Nepal, Oman, and Singapore abstained.
Pakistan informed the UNSC President on December 9 of its readiness to comply with the UNGA resolution. India informed the UNSC President on December 12 of its inability to comply with the UNGA resolution as it omitted any political settlement in East Pakistan, which India had recognised on December 6 as the independent state of Bangladesh.
On December 8, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev wrote to President Nixon proposing a “simultaneous” ceasefire and a political settlement in East Pakistan. On December 9, President Nixon proposed to Soviet Charge d’affaires Yuli Vorontsov, accompanying the visiting Soviet Agriculture Minister to the White House, that in exchange for progress in US-USSR relations on strategic arms limitation talks, the status of Berlin, a framework for cooperation and security in Europe and improved trade, the USSR should agree to work with the US on a ceasefire, and talks “within a Pakistan framework” on East Pakistan, so that “the United States and the Soviet Union will be as close together as we were during the great war”. The USSR did not respond to this gambit immediately.
On December 12, the US asked for a meeting of the UNSC to propose another resolution after receiving the responses of Pakistan and India to the UNGA resolution. The resolution moved by the US on December 13, which mirrored the UNGA resolution, was again vetoed by the USSR, and abstained on by France and the UK, as it did not address the political settlement in East Pakistan.
Foreign Minister Sardar Swaran Singh and Pakistan Deputy Prime Minister/Foreign Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto attended the UNSC meetings from December 12. At noon on December 15, when the Council reconvened for its meeting to consider a draft resolution moved by Poland, Pakistan Foreign Minister Bhutto walked out of the meeting, accusing the Council for the “legalisation of aggression” and procrastinating “for Dacca to fall”. The Polish resolution was opposed by China. The Soviet Union tabled another resolution and sought an adjournment till December 16, for delegations to examine the draft, which was agreed to.
When the Council reconvened on December 16, Indian Foreign Minister Swaran Singh informed the Council that the fighting in Bangladesh had come to a halt with the surrender of the Pakistani army in Dhaka. India had announced it would ceasefire in the western sector on December 17. On December 21, the UNSC adopted Somalia-tabled Resolution 307 (on which the USSR and Poland abstained) to close its consideration of the 1971 India-Pakistan war. It called for a durable ceasefire, withdrawal of forces, upholding of Geneva Conventions of 1949 on PoWs, and repatriation of refugees.
Four outcomes flow from this diplomatic narrative of the 1971 India-Pakistan war. First, it provided the basis for India and Pakistan to negotiate and agree between January-July 1971 on a legal treaty (the Simla Agreement of July 2, 1972) that committed both countries to resolve issues, including the Kashmir issue, bilaterally. As a treaty registered under Article 102 of the UN Charter, this overtook previous UN decisions on India-Pakistan issues.
Second, it presaged the entry of an independent Bangladesh into the UN (after overcoming communist China’s first veto on August 25, 1972 against Bangladesh’s membership), providing an international framework for the new country’s orientation and aspirations.
Third, the diplomatic responses to the war demonstrated the hollowness of the UN in acting to uphold the legal obligations of the 1948 Convention on Genocide adopted to prevent mass atrocity crimes after the Second World War. The UN has failed to halt such crimes subsequently, as in Cambodia (1975-1979), Srebrenica (1992), Rwanda (1994), and the Yazidi genocide in Iraq (2014). Fourth, it effectively overturned the UK’s “two-nation theory” of 1947, which was applied to divide and partition British India, with the emergence of Bangladesh showing that religion could not be the sole factor behind nationhood in South Asia.
Asoke Mukerji is a retired diplomat, who was India’s Ambassador to the United Nations from 2013-2015. This article is based on his public lecture ‘India and the UN 1971’. You can watch it here.