The Puzzle of the 1972 Shimla Summit, Or Why India Did Not Impose Its Will

Indira Gandhi’s reputation for shrewd statecraft is widely acclaimed, even by her fiercest detractors. Her quest for peacemaking was equally bold, as witnessed by India’s approach to the 1972 peace conference at Shimla. The 1972 case, however, is intriguing for what it did not reflect – India not leveraging the fruits of the 1971 war victory to produce an advantageous geopolitical settlement. After all, for the first time since Partition, India was negotiating from a position of (POWs) strength and prestige with Pakistan; 93,000 Pakistani prisoners of war , including the entire military leadership in East Pakistan, had surrendered to Indian forces. India had also captured strategic locations in Kashmir and 5,000 square miles of Pakistan’s territory in Sindh and south Punjab.

Yet, historians have never adequately resolved the puzzle of why India did not impose its will as a victor. While most interpretations of India’s approach to this post-conflict phase have been polemical, the available evidence reveals that ambitious strategic objectives informed India’s negotiating behaviour. In their quest to shape the post-war order, Gandhi and her advisors sought to reorient Pakistan’s domestic politics and insulate the subcontinent from the next phase of the Cold War.

Indian calculus

The post-1971 international and regional context had made reaching some kind of an agreement an important policy goal for Gandhi and her national security team. Having engaged in a successful war that liberated Bangladesh, policymakers sought to further buttress India’s status by also demonstrating a credible attempt at peace. Elevating India’s image, of course, had to be balanced by attaining concrete outcomes. The most desirable outcome would have been a final resolution in Kashmir around the de facto-administered position of both sides. The evidence suggests that policymakers sought to address some of the deeper roots of the India-Pakistan dispute in Kashmir, which was perceived as a direct manifestation of Pakistan’s national identity rather than a normal inter-state territorial impasse. P.N. Haksar, Gandhi’s leading foreign policy advisor, later wrote that India’s approach was based on “a recognition that Pakistan continued to have an unresolved crisis of its national identity”. 1971 had opened the possibility for an alternative future for Pakistan.

In a memo drafted shortly after the war, Haksar described the flux across the border: “The military-bureaucratic and feudal social order had crumbled…Pakistan of Yahya Khan had suffered political and military defeat. It is a nation in ferment seeking new identity for itself.” Having framed the adversary’s precarious internal balance, Haksar introspected on how India should “act towards the emergence of new forces in Pakistan”. Invoking lessons from the past, he argued, “At the end of the Second World War, a lesson was learnt by the victorious powers not to treat the defeated nations and impose upon them a greater humiliation than that produced by the defeat itself. India, proud of its position as a responsible country in South Asia, had to act with wisdom and foresight in its dealings with the new Pakistan”.

D.P. Dhar, another important confidante of Gandhi and the lead Indian negotiator, also appeared to endorse Haksar’s basic sentiment. In his telegram to Haksar in March 1972, Dhar noted: “The (Simla) settlement will not be between the victor and the vanquished because such a settlement has in history led to renewed and more violent conflicts. A settlement on the contrary…should be and would also be made to appear as the end of a chapter of acrimony between two estranged brothers”. But we also now know that Dhar was less enamoured with the prospect of change inside Pakistan than ensuring that India was seen to be making a credible effort at peacemaking. And, most importantly, he wanted India to extract unambiguous gains during the negotiating process. For Dhar, without a resolution of the Kashmir issue there could be “no hope of permanent peace in the subcontinent”.

In essence, there were two rival strategies at the apex level in the lead up to the Shimla talks. Dhar as the quintessential realist “sought to take full advantage of the military victory” and make Indian concessions (i.e. Pakistani POWs and territorial gains) “conditional” on Pakistan’s acceptance of a final Kashmir settlement. If Pakistan rejected such an approach, his policy advice was that India should “continue a state of armed hostility short of war”. The alternative constructivist approach was embodied by Haksar, who in addition to immediate territorial goals also sought an ambitious vision for “subcontinental peace and stability” by assisting in Pakistan’s domestic transformation.

These complex images are perhaps a good proxy for Gandhi’s own attitude before the Shimla summit. The perceived opportunity to exploit the possibility for an internal transformation of Pakistan’s body politic seems to have persuaded Indian policymakers to approach the Shimla negotiations by a dual, if not competing, preference to avoid weakening the new civilian leadership in Pakistan led by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and, simultaneously extracting new conflict resolution norms from the same leadership.

It was this inherent tension in these dual strategic aims that arguably conditioned India’s overall posture on the eve of the Shimla summit. Interestingly, India did have some prior insights into Pakistan’s approach to the summit after the Soviet leadership’s meeting with Pakistan’s lead negotiator, Aziz Ahmed. On June 27, Moscow cabled Delhi that although Ahmed had stressed that Pakistan intended to insist firmly on the old ceasefire line, “it seems to us that the Pakistani side had a reserve position on the problem of Kashmir…Ahmed made to understand, that Bhutto is ready, in principle, to consider the possibility of converting the ceasefire line into the permanent international frontier”.

The actual negotiations began on June 28, 1972 and lasted five days, with India persisting with Dhar’s approach where India’s return of the POWs and occupied territory was made part of a package settlement via a durable agreement on formally defining the frontier in Kashmir. In the opening session on June 28, Dhar made it clear that concluding a peace settlement was an “essential” prerequisite for the repatriation of the POWs. On June 29, he sought a clear framework. Any “agreed formulation should be in conformity with the existing situation” and “capable of implementation”. Dhar emphasised “the world was fast moving towards bilateralism”. Ahmed, however, offered minimal commitments and strove to retain the old UN-centric conflict resolution framework. Haksar too stressed that India and Pakistan should “solve our own problems” without “involving distant countries into our disputes”. On June 30, Dhar suffered a minor heart attack with Haksar assuming the lead for the remainder of the summit. India’s negotiating thrust, however, remained consistent.

The Pakistani and Indian delegations posing for a group photo. Credit: Bhutto.org

The Pakistani and Indian delegations posing for a group photo. Credit: Bhutto.org

Haksar now focused more directly on Kashmir. He said that India “would like to remove the endless curse of conflicts on the question of Kashmir” and “if there was no understanding, a new situation would be created which would require serious consideration”, the latter a thinly veiled threat. On July 1, in a session that included the heads of government, Gandhi noted that “the ceasefire line” in Kashmir had “no validity” and “did not keep the peace”. T.N. Kaul, the foreign secretary, reiterated the core basis of a deal: “repatriation and withdrawal (of Indian forces in the West)” would “have to be part of durable peace and can take place only after durable peace has been established.” A chagrined Ahmed retorted, “We have agreed to everything except Kashmir.” Bhutto then invoked domestic pressure: “My back is to the wall; I cannot make any more concessions”. But the Indian side still gave no signs of relinquishing its core bargaining strategy of a package settlement. On the fifth day, July 2, the negotiations broke down after Ahmed rejected India’s proposals saying that Pakistan “cannot accept that the ceasefire line had ceased to exist.”

Hoping to salvage an agreement, Bhutto called directly on Gandhi. During this climactic meeting, Gandhi underscored the primary advantage of India’s Kashmir proposal – neither side was required to physically relinquish territory or exchange populations. With “feeling and apparent sincerity” Bhutto admitted that while India’s proposal was the only feasible one, a formal legally binding commitment would severely weaken his domestic position and strengthen the military establishment. He could not offer more than a verbal assurance that the de facto border in Kashmir would gradually acquire, in Bhutto’s words, the “characteristics of an international border”. In contrast, India’s concession was concrete and upfront. India gave up its “package settlement by agreeing to withdraw troops from the international border before an agreement on Kashmir is reached”.

A hope belied

The following day Gandhi admitted to Kaul that while she did “not trust Bhutto”, she “wanted to make a gesture to the people of Pakistan with whom we have ultimately to settle this question”. This was based on a belief, mistaken as it eventually turned out, that Pakistan was on the cusp of a structural transformation after its shock defeat, and, one that India should enable rather than thwart. Gandhi told parliament in August 1972: “There is a great change in Pakistan. It may be that the Pakistanis did not want that change. But the change is there regardless of whether they desire it or not”. It is apparent that policymakers were torn between seeking immediate security gains and holding out for a more durable regional order. Such an order was predicated on the possibility of a new Pakistan that might substitute Islam with a modern secular ideology.

Proceeding from such an overall outlook, policymakers did not fully seek to leverage the fruits of victory on the battlefield to ruthlessly bend the defeated party on the bargaining table. Key strategists, particularly Haksar, believed that a modicum of Indian benevolence might facilitate Pakistan’s internal transformation at a critical turning point in the civil-military and socio-political balance in that state’s history. For Haksar, India had to avoid adding to Pakistan’s “political adventurers who play upon Indo-phobia mixed by Islamic atavism”. Haksar’s advice to Gandhi was that India had “a vested interest in seeing there is democracy in Pakistan”. But there is evidence that a realpolitik, if cynical worldview, also had apex level support through Dhar regarding India’s bargaining posture at Simla. However, it is unlikely that this belief was ever strong enough to sway Haksar’s image of reassurance and co-existence. As P.N. Dhar, another PMO advisor at the time, recalled, “The overriding consideration for India was to put an end to its adversarial relations with Pakistan and forge an instrument that would help build a structure of durable peace in the subcontinent”. Nevertheless, Indian negotiators did take their Pakistani interlocutors to the water’s edge.

Ultimately, Gandhi emerged as the swing factor between the assertive and accommodative postures in the finale at Shimla. The alternative of calling Bhutto’s bluff and walking away without any agreement was deemed too costly for Gandhi and Haksar after India’s dramatic 1971 triumph. The self-restraint underlying India’s posture was all too palpable to the Pakistanis. Ahmed, their lead negotiator, later remarked that despite holding “all the bargaining chips”, India’s “excessive anxiety to avoid the failure of the talks at any cost became its major handicap”. Haksar later noted, “‘Negotiating from strength’ has been made part of diplomatic coinage. But to negotiate with someone who is manifestly weak is even more difficult”.

In more immediate geopolitical terms, India’s main gain was the conversion of the UN-endorsed 1949 ceasefire line in Kashmir into a hardened Line of Control (LoC) based on the new December 17, 1971 ceasefire position. It was at the political and symbolic level where Indian policymakers could claim some success. The Shimla Agreement was an expression of the Indian framework for South Asian security, namely the norm of bilateralism. Ever since India’s fateful decision in 1948 to seek third-party mediation in the India-Pakistan conflict, policymakers had struggled to limit the interference of external actors in the Kashmir dispute. Krishna Menon’s UN interventions in 1957 were the first diplomatic expressions of seeking to disentangle India from third party involvement. In 1965, the norm of bilateralism had been implied, although ironically, at a third party venue in Tashkent under proactive Soviet diplomatic efforts. In 1972, Indian policymakers explicitly enshrined this principle at Shimla.

Zorawar Daulet Singh is a fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.