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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 34, August 13, 2011 - INDEPENDENCE DAY SPECIAL

Forty Years of the Indo-Soviet Treaty: A Historic Landmark at the Global Level

Saturday 20 August 2011, by Ashok Parthasarathi

On August 9 forty years ago, India and the Former Soviet Union (FSU) concluded a historic treaty on “Peace, Friendship and Cooperation”. For most Indians the Treaty is inseparable from the Pakistan-initiated war against us and the swift attainment of our goals in it, namely, the defeat of the Pakistani forces in East Pakistan and decisively helping in the birth of the new nation of Bangladesh. As the distinguished journalist, Pran Chopra, says in his book on the Treaty, “For India the touchstone of the Treaty continues to be the founding of Bangladesh. Neither the Soviet nor the Indian Government can afford to forget this which makes it a doubly welcome fact.”

But the crisis in Bangladesh was not the only or even the main cause for the conclusion of the Treaty; it was only the most immediate one. What led to it was the cumulative swell of much larger events which had been taking place around India and in the world. They could be summed up as follows: the worsening of Sino-Soviet relations to the point of their border in Central Asia becoming highly militarised with a million troops, advanced armour and even tactical nuclear weapons on the Soviet side and three million more primitively armed forces on the Chinese side and then an actual military clash between those forces across the Ussuri river in mid-1969; the early, tentative but revolutionary opening of Sino-American relations; and a further deepening and widening of Sino-Pak relations. All these taken together had brought the FSU and India further closer together even two years before the signing of the Treaty. The crisis in East Pakistan, the huge inflow into India of refugees from there to Assam, Tripura and Meghalaya, the brazen US support to Pakistan and growling noises directed at us by China, all combined against the above global background to constitute the ideal opportunity for both the FSU and us to clinch the Treaty (whose draft had been ready for almost a year).

It is, nevertheless, difficult to exaggerate the importance of the Indo-FSU Treaty and the timing and manner of it being signed. In doing so the two countries had shown a dramatic sense of opportunity. The meaning and implications of the Treaty were not lost in any part of the world, let alone in our neighbourhood.

The 20-year all-weather historical Indo-FSU close friendship made the Treaty significant in any case. But it marked an important new stage in the bilateral equation between them, because for nearly two decades Indo-FSU relations have had dimensions about them which India has not had with any other country and vice versa. Whether it was Kashmir or Goa or the development of key strategic industries in the public sector, the FSU had supported India as no other country has. Indeed, in the Chinese War against India of 1962, the FSU not only practically equated the “comrade” and the “friend” but, by end-1963, had supplied the first squadron of supersonic MiG-21 fighter-bombers to India clearly meant for deployment on the Sino-Indian border and technically and operationally far superior to any aircraft in the Chinese Air Force. On the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT), while it adhered to the Treaty primarily because of its concern to prevent Germany from developing nuclear weapons, the FSU, unlike the major Western powers, did not put any pressure at all on us to sign the NNPT recognising that we were facing a nuclear-weapon-possessing China. It may be added here, that right from the time of the first Chinese nuclear weapon test on October 16, 1964 and the launch of the Pakistani nuclear bomb programme in mid-1972, the FSU provided us with detailed intelligence information on the progress and problems of both programmes including satellite imagery and human derived intelligence.

Armed with the Treaty and with refugees from East Pakistan continuing to pour into our country due to the persisting genocide by the Pak Army, Indira Gandhi made one last attempt to get the USA to pressurise the Pak Generals to halt the atrocities and seek a political solution with the Awami League. So she visited Washington in mid-September 1971 for talks with Nixon and Kissinger. But she was unceremoniously rebuffed. She then visited various European capitals and met the leaders of those countries. While she was received in a positive atmosphere and given a patient hearing, actual support came forth only from President de Gaulle of France.

SO, on her way back to Delhi, she stopped over in Moscow on September 29, 1971 for a final round of talks with the FSU leadership. As expected, she got warm and unqualified support. Furthermore, in her one-to-one talks with Brezhnev and Kosygin, both of them conveyed to her that it was the considered assessment of the Soviet leadership that the East Pakistan/Bengal problem could only be settled by war with the Pak Generals and that the FSU would provide India all-out support and assistance in that eventuality.

Meanwhile, preparations for such a war in the winter of 1971 had been underway by all the three Indian Armed Forces from as far back as May-June. However, on her return to Delhi from Moscow Mrs Gandhi called in Defence Minister Jagjivan Ram and all the three Military Chiefs and asked them to go all-out for a December war. Action was taken accordingly.

During that period we received considerable supplies of weapons of all kinds for all the three Services from the FSU. The FSU also continuously launched satellites for detailed high resolution monitoring of both Pak and Chinese military force movements. They also supplied their frontline Antonov-126 airborne early warning aircraft to our Air Force for our surveillance of West Pakistan. Most important perhaps was the human and electronic intelligence they supplied to concerned agencies of the Government of India practically in real time. All these FSU inputs gave a gigantic advantage to us over Pakistan. They played no small role in the Indian armed forces being able to get the Pak forces to surrender unconditionally on December 16, 1971 having started the war on December 3 with air attacks on all our forward air fields in J&K, Punjab and Sindh on the west and Kalaikonda, Kazipur and others in the East. But in twelve days the Pak Army and Air Force crumbled with the result that Lt. General Niazi, the Commander of all Pak forces in the East, signed an unconditional treaty of surrender with Lt. General Jagjit Singh Arora in Dhaka. As we had promised the world, and the FSU in particular, we, for our part, declared a unilateral ceasefire in both sectors on December 17, 1971.

But before the ‘Bangladesh’ war really ended, the USA, assessing by around December 12 that Pakistan was going to lose the war in the east in a few days, sent the Seventh Fleet, normally stationed in the Taiwan Straits, through the Straits of Malacca and up into the Bay of Bengal on December 13. Their destination? Chittagong where they planned to land 40,000 marines from troop ships which were part of the massive US armada led by the 100,000-tonne nuclear powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. Our response was to leave barely 30,000 troops to defend Dhaka and move the remaining 100,000 to the beaches of Chittagong to face the US marines should they land. The FSU’s supportive response to the US dispatch of the Seventh Fleet was to send an armada from Vladivostok but it was four days sailing behind the US armada. The FSU knew that full well. The purpose of the FSU armada was “to fly the flag” in our support. When the US armada’s troop ships were barely 16 hours from their Chittagong landing, Leonid Brezhnev rang up Nixon on their “hot line” and told him in no uncertain terms that if the US Marines landed “it would be the Third World War”. Simultaneously, the FSU put all its strategic missiles on maximum alert for an attack on the USA. Nixon realised that Brezhnev was serious, and so, 14 hours before the planned US marine landings in Chittagong, on December 15, the entire US armada turned around and went back down the Bay. This was a massive, tangible and unprecedented support by the FSU to us, fully in conformity with the Treaty—indeed beyond it.

Meanwhile, in the UN Security Council the FSU used its veto many times and in many circumstances to assist—indeed protect—us.

With the war won in the east with our also taking 90,000 Pak soldiers as prisoners, the attention shifted back to getting the over nine million Bengali refugees back to the new State of Bangladesh. Mujibur Rahman, who had been a prisoner in West Pakistan since he won the elections in March 1971, was got released by us immediately after the ceasefire and sworn in as the Prime Minister of Bangladesh on December 23, 1971. Despite the chaos in Bangladesh in the early months of 1972, the resounding defeat of the Pak Army, the large scale protective deployment of the Indian Army in Bangladesh and the return of Mujibur Rahman and his Awami League colleagues to power, gave the refugees the confidence to start returning home from February 1972 and all nine million returned by the end of that year—a development without historical precedent.

MANY developments took place over the next 20 years from the Shimla Accord to the broad-based development and intensification of Indo-FSU cooperation in defence, economy, industry, trade, and science and technology to the Pokhran-I nuclear test of May 1974 (which the FSU supported and vetoed sanctions by the Western powers in the UN Security Council), the 1984 FSU-India agreement on the transfer of technology, consultancy and training of our nuclear scientists and naval personnel for a nuclear submarine capable of launching ballistic missiles from underwater, the lease of a submarine of that type to the Indian Navy for five years from 1988 to 1993 etc.

Then came the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the FSU in 1991 and the end of the Cold War. Yeltsin became the first President of the Russian Federation in 1991 displacing Gorbachev as the last President of the FSU and General Secretary of the now non-existent Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

The twenty-year life of the 1971 Treaty ended in August 1991. Despite the chaotic conditions prevailing in FSU/Russian Federation, it was renewed in 1991 for another twenty years in the same form and content as the original Treaty.

However, soon thereafter, there were second thoughts in the Russian Federation. For instance, Russian Vice-Foreign Minister Kunadze pointed out to our visiting Foreign Secretary, J.N. Dixit, in January 1992 in Moscow, that the “new Russian policies would not have any linkage with the Soviet Union’s ideology or its world view”. He wanted the world “Peace” to be dropped from the title of a new Treaty since “Peace” was a “communist word and smacked of Soviet ideology”. Dixit replied: “We have no desire to insist on an older relationship which you don’t want. You have a new relationship, we have a new relationship.” Consequently the word “Peace” was dropped from the new Treaty.

But the extremely serious Article IX, the kernel of the 1971 Treaty, was expunged by the Russians. Dixit’s comment on this development was: “The 1971 Treaty was against all sorts of security challenges to both countries. As the world changed, so Article IX became irrelevant. We (the GOI) felt that Russia (as opposed to the FSU) will not be as intensely interested in an operational defence cooperation with us (in 1992), so we agreed to downplay the strategic relation-ship.”

At the same time, the underlying continuity factor was evident in the re-prioratisation of India’s worthiness in the Russian foreign policy decision-making circles by the acknowledgment of the 1971 Treaty in the Preamble of the new Treaty of 1993. So also was the crucial Article X of the 1971 Treaty which ensured that Russian cooperation with Pakistan (such as it was) would come totally to an end.

The new 14-Article 1993 Treaty on Friendship and Cooperation was signed by Prime Minister Narasimha Rao and President Yeltsin on the latter’s visit here in January 1993 and was the first political document to guide future Indo-Russian relations.

However, in the areas of defence, space and nuclear cooperation, even in Yeltin’s time there was no slackening, let alone discontinuity, in cooperation with India. For example, even in the case of US pressure on Russia not to supply us with defence equipment, Yeltsin refused. Then there was the case of supply to us by the Russian Federation of super hi-tech Cryogenic Engines for the largest Satellite Launch Vehicle of the ISRO. Here again, the USA pressurised Yeltsin not to make such a supply. After several months of resisting the pressure and even agreeing to make the supply in January 1993, Yeltsin finally succumbed to US pressure and cancelled the Cryo Engine contract in July 1993. However, quietly the Russian Federation supplied us seven finished engines and full manufacturing documentation and sent us their engineers to train our engineers in such manufacturing. This act even by Yeltsin demonstrated that Indo-RF relations remained de-facto at the Indo-FSU level.

Coming in conclusion to the present-day situation in defence, we have: completion and launching of the SLBMs and the first indigenous nuclear submarine and laying down of the keel of the second; the provision beyond 2011 of the Cruise Missile launching and anti-nuclear submarine Nerpa on a ten-year lease; the aircraft carrier Gorshkov/Vikramaditya; the supply of 45 Mig-29 K carrier aircraft—16 for the Vikramaditya, and 29 for our indigenous carrier being built at the Cochin Shipyard; several stealth Frigates, the more latest conventional submarines; the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft for joint development and co-production; upgradation of Sukhoi-30 Mk India; supply and transfer of technology for the state-of-the-art Mi-28 attack helicopters etc.

In atomic energy, Russia has (a) agreed to transfer Enrichment and Reprocessing Technologies to us which the US has refused to and France is equivocal about; (b) accepted our Civil Nuclear Liability Law, where the position is the same.

When President Putin visited here in 2000 he stated publicly that it was his and the Russian Federation Government’s goal to restore relations with India in all areas and all fields to those that prevailed in Soviet times. Both sides are steadily and rapidly proceeding towards attainment of that goal. The 40th anniversary of the Treaty of 1971, which we are celebrating this month, is and will be the bedrock of that mission.

Prof Ashok Parthasarathi is a former Secretary to the Government of India in various Scientific Departments, and Science Adviser to late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

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