Soviets tried to avert 1971 war: CIA files

The common belief that the 1971 war between India and Pakistan was among other factors a reflection of the Cold War realpolitik stands contradicted by the recently released CIA files.

They show, instead, that Moscow disapproved of India’s “dark hints” of military intervention.

Again, contrary to common wisdom, Indira Gandhi was against the Indian right wing’s clamour for war, and the Soviets encouraged her in rebuffing the warmongers.

The files declassified in the last days of the Obama administration also show that while the late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was blamed for much of the crisis with the predominantly Bengali East Pakistan, it was the West Pakistani component of the army that influenced General Yahya Khan’s fateful choices to deal with Dhaka.

As part of its daily briefings to President Nixon, the CIA informed him in July 1971: “The Soviets…appear in fact to be troubled by India’s dark hints of military intervention (in East Pakistan), and have intensified their efforts to prevent another war between India and Pakistan like the one in 1965.”

“On July 9 (1971) and authoritative commentary in Izvestia provided a pointed reminder to India and Pakistan of Moscow’s desire that war be avoided on the subcontinent,” a briefing note to the president said.

“The article noted that local clashes have in the past frequently led to broad military conflicts, and urged that India and Pakistan find a peaceful solution to their problems over East Pakistan. It specifically endorsed Mrs Gandhi’s rebuff to those in India who advocate war with Pakistan.”

President Nixon was told that Soviet officers in India were voicing similar concern. “In recent remarks by the Soviet consul general in Madras to a group of Indian politicians, for example, the Soviet diplomat seemed preoccupied with the need to avoid a military conflict between India and Pakistan.”

The consul general showed other ways to deal with the crisis. “He cited Moscow’s help with the refugee problem and its remonstrances to the Pakistanis — but he stressed with much conviction that it would be very bad if India should drift into war and urged that every effort be made to prevent this.”

The CIA also told President Nixon that foreign aid committed to India to cope with the refugee influx was far below the needed funds. There was a commitment of $120 million when $400 million was needed to care for 6.5 million refugees for just six months.

“The presence of 5 million refugees in West Bengal alone has produced a sharp increase in food prices and substantial drops in wages.”

On 2nd March 1971, the CIA told Preisdent Nixon that East Pakistanis might react sharply to the postponement of the National Assembly session, posing further problems for President Yahya Khan.

Yahya urged the parties to come together but failed to get “a major west Pakistani party” to attend.

“Yahya is aware that he risks a strong East Pakistani reaction, but he presumably decided that the alternative – disorders in West Pakistan and unrest within the predominantly West Pakistani army – would be worse. Should Mujib taken a strong stand, possibly even proclaiming East Pakistan’s independence – Yahya could face another dilemma: whether to let East Pakistan secede or try to hold the country together by force,” the CIA noted.

It added: “The latter course would be extremely difficult in view of strong separatist sentiment among the 70 million East Pakistanis, and the limited army and police forces available in the province.”

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