How a 50-year-old war takes on new significance in US-Indian relations

Fifty years ago today, after months of tension, India and Pakistan went to war – and the United States and the Soviet Union took sides.

Pakistan in 1971 was made up of two main territories: the western part, between India and Afghanistan, and an eastern enclave, known as East Pakistan, on the border with Myanmar. Long-standing tensions between the Bengali majority in East Pakistan and Pakistani authorities have resulted in a massive migration of Bengalis to neighboring India. The upheaval has raised fears that China is drawn into a war. Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi has raised concerns with the United States, but Washington, under the leadership of President Richard Nixon, has made it clear that it will not support India if China sided with Pakistan in a conflict. Nixon was reluctant in part because he and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, were trying to make inroads into China.

In the summer of 1971, Prime Minister Gandhi instead signed a treaty with the Soviet Union. Discussions for such a treaty had been underway with the Soviets since 1969, but Gandhi had been reluctant to sign, worried about internal political criticism for being too close to Moscow. But if the United States could not be relied on for help, then the Soviet Union would help. Pakistan launched preemptive strikes against India on December 3, 1971; Gandhi took it as a declaration of war and invaded East Pakistan. When Nixon sent an American naval force to the Bay of Bengal, the Soviets encountered it with their own naval force.

The war lasted less than two weeks. With the victory of India, Bangladesh was born. This was a low point in US-Indian relations and strengthened India’s ties with the Soviet Union.

Fifty years later, does war still matter in the bond of Indo-American-Russian relations?

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“Of course,” said Nandan Unnikrishnan, distinguished fellow of the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, India. But not because the relationship between the three is as it was.

India is once again in an increasingly confrontational relationship, but this time the adversary is China, with which Russia is drawing closer. India and Russia enjoy strong diplomatic relations, and Russia continues to sell Indian military equipment. However, “Russia, at the same time, is not prepared to openly demonstrate its support for India as it did in ’71. India is therefore obliged to seek a balancing act in the United States, which is openly hostile to China, and is more than happy to comfort India – so far, at least verbally, ”said Unnikrishnan.

[see also: Samir Saran on India-US relations]

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The United States, for its part, no longer tries to open up to China. On the contrary, Washington is keen to work more closely with Delhi to counter Beijing. India plays a similar role to what it then was, Unnikrishnan said, but Russia and the United States read opposite lines in the script.

The memory of the war therefore recalls not only how far the United States and India have traveled, but also how changeable foreign relations and their narratives are.

There is also an obvious difference within India as well.

At the time, the war was celebrated both as a decisive military victory and “seen as a victory for secular democracy in India against the theocratic and military rule of Pakistan,” said Srinath Raghavan, author of 1971: A Global History and the Creation of Bangladesh. The Bangladeshis in East Pakistan parted ways to form their new country, and India fought alongside them.

But today, “the importance that the secular nationalist project had … simply no longer exists,” said Raghavan, professor of history and international relations at Ashoka University.

The “political significance of the event has changed,” he said. It is still remembered as an important military victory. But today, with a ruling party that seeks to link being Indian with being Hindu, and which describes many who stand in its way as unpatriotic, these secular democratic ideals are themselves “ideologically under attack. and politically by the powers that be ”.

This does not appear to endanger the closer Indo-American relations, however. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been invited to attend Biden’s “Democracy Summit” next week (December 9-10). Freedom House, a US-based advocacy group that monitors democracy and human rights around the world, believes India is only “partially free.” But Washington’s main concern is China: it cannot afford to turn its back on an ally in Asia, even with values ​​that diverge from those it claims to hold.

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