The vision of a normalised relationship and durable peace has not been realised to this day

by Sharat Sabharwal

India’s singular contribution to the liberation of Bangladesh from the clutches of the Punjabi-dominated Pakistani State that had trampled upon their political, cultural and linguistic rights, is a golden chapter in the annals of our history. Faced with the horrendous atrocities committed by the Pakistani establishment in its eastern wing – East Pakistan — and a massive influx of refugees, India’s sagacious and decisive political leadership, nimble-footed diplomacy and, above all, a brilliant military strategy and the valour of our armed forces came together to hand down a humiliating defeat to Pakistan, resulting in the capture of 93,000 military and civilian prisoners of war.

Guided by its abiding desire for peace, India hosted the summit meeting between Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto at Shimla less than seven months after its splendid victory, and the two leaders signed the Shimla Agreement on July 2, 1972. It was not only a peace accord, but a blueprint to end conflict and confrontation and work for durable peace. It provided, among other things, for respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, and settlement of differences by peaceful means through bilateral negotiations. Pending such settlement, neither side was to unilaterally alter the situation. In J&K, inviolability of the Line of Control, resulting from the ceasefire of December 17, 1971, was to be upheld by both sides without prejudice to their respective positions. The Shimla Agreement envisaged further discussions for normalisation of relations, including for “a final settlement of Jammu and Kashmir”.

The vision of a normalised relationship and durable peace has not been realised to this day. Rid of the burden of defending its eastern wing, the truncated Pakistani State used its Cold War linkages to recover from its abject defeat, particularly after becoming a frontline State in the US-led Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union, and resumed its hostile agenda against India. Having been trounced in the military conflicts with India, it shifted track to using terror as an instrument of State policy to achieve its aims.

While India has scrupulously adhered to bilateralism, Pakistan has continued to seek third party intervention, including UN involvement, in resolving bilateral differences, invoking the outdated UN Security Council resolutions on J&K and the clause in the Shimla Agreement requiring relations between the two countries to be governed by the principles and purposes of the UN Charter.

However, its attempts to internationalise the J&K issue have been subject to the law of diminishing returns, particularly because of the changing international equations and India’s growing stature. Despite China’s backing, Pakistan failed to secure any meaningful international support or UN intervention after the withdrawal of the special status of J&K. Further, conversion of the UN-mandated and supervised ceasefire line in J&K into the bilaterally agreed Line of Control and its inviolability have worked to India’s advantage. Its inviolability was solidly affirmed by the international community in the wake of Pakistan’s Kargil incursion.

Critics of the Shimla Agreement have maintained that by not pushing for a final settlement of the J&K issue at the moment of Pakistan’s utmost vulnerability, India lost on the negotiations table the advantage that it had gained on the battlefield. In his book Indira Gandhi, the ‘Emergency’, and Indian Democracy, Indira Gandhi’s senior aide, P N Dhar, who was present at Shimla, stated that the transformation of the ceasefire line into the Line of Control was the core of the Indian solution to the Kashmir problem and the de facto Line of Control was meant to be graduated to the level of de jure border.

Indira Gandhi felt that this was the only feasible solution: neither country would gain or lose territory, there would be no transfer of populations, and Kashmiris as an ethnic community would be left undivided on the Indian side. According to Dhar, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, while agreeing that the Indian proposal was the only feasible one, expressed his inability to carry it through immediately, but promised to work over its implementation in practice and over time. He, of course, did not fulfil his promise.

During negotiations, the Pakistanis were reported to have spoken repeatedly of an imposition of a one-sided deal on their defeated country resulting in strong opposition within Pakistan, eroding Bhutto’s authority and presenting India with utter chaos and hostility at its doorstep.

However, this does not seem to have been the only reason for Indira Gandhi not forcing the issue at Shimla. Dhar states that she was herself worried that a formal withdrawal of the Indian claim on Pak-occupied Kashmir could create political trouble for her. Moreover, Soviet support to India had been invaluable during the Bangladesh war. There appears to have been some uncertainty about that support remaining undiluted in the event of India rejecting peace at Shimla. In his well-researched book, India and the Bangladesh Liberation War, veteran diplomat C Dasgupta points out that when, in response to the information concerning Pakistan initiating steps in 1972 to build up its military strength, Indira Gandhi’s government approached the Soviet Union for required arms to maintain a certain margin of military superiority for India, the Soviets, who had responded to earlier similar requests promptly, withheld a positive response until after the Shimla summit.

The reasons for Indira Gandhi not pushing for a final settlement of the J&K issue at Shimla are a matter of history now. But what about the future? First, there has been a view since withdrawal of the special status of J&K that this step has taken the J&K issue off the negotiations table. However, this ignores the Shimla Agreement stipulation regarding a final settlement of Jammu and Kashmir, even as we continue to swear by bilateralism, also mandated by the same agreement.

Moreover, in the light of our claim to our territory under Pakistan’s illegal occupation, it would be erroneous to say that there is nothing further to discuss on J&K. Secondly, an attempt to recover our illegally occupied territory by force would pit us in a devastating war not only against Pakistan but also against China, which has developed a deep geostrategic interest in the so-called Gilgit-Baltistan. Therefore, whenever a serious attempt is made to resolve the issue, freezing the existing territorial reality, envisaged but not taken to a logical conclusion at Shimla, would commend itself as the only feasible peaceful solution.

The writer is a former High Commissioner of India to Pakistan

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