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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 38, September 10, 2011

The Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty and its Legacy

Tuesday 13 September 2011, by Arun Mohanty

As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of historic Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation signed on August 9, 1971, we cannot miss to re-emphasise the important role the Treaty played in safeguarding India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, shaping the geopolitics of the Indian subcontinent and strengthening regional security and world peace.

The Treaty was second perhaps only to India’s attainment of independence in terms of its significance for Indians and in terms jubilation that the country went through. Many indeed compared the conclusion of the Treaty as India’s second liberation, and they were right in many ways.

The relevance of the Treaty can be judged only by the geopolitical and strategic context under which it was signed. It is worth recalling the unfolding situation in our neighbourhood and emerging international scenario on the eve of the conclusion of the Treaty. Following the rising struggle for independence in the erstwhile East Pakistan and influx of millions of refugees from there to India, the possibility of war between New Delhi and Islamabad was looming large in Asia.

The then Pakistani President, Yahya Khan, had said that “if India made any attempt to seize any part of East Pakistan, he would declare war and Pakistan would not be alone”. China gave unqualified support to her ‘all-weather’ friend Pakistan against lndia so that New Delhi would not dare to interfere in the domestic affairs of Pakistan. During the July 1971 meeting between Henry Kissinger and Chou-Enlai, the Chinese Prime Minister had clearly indicated to the US Secretary of State that in case of an Indo-Pakistan war over East Bengal, Beijing would launch military intervention against India on behalf of Islamabad. There was every likelihood of Chinese military intervention against India on behalf of Islamabad in the event of an Indo-Pak war. India was desperate to avert Chinese intervention.

The emerging strategic alliance between Washington and Beijing and President Nixon’s relaxation of trade and travel restrictions to China marked a turning-point in the US-China relationship. The improved Sino-US relations emboldened China to be unreceptive to Indian overtures. On the other hand, the US policy supporting Islamabad at the cost of New Delhi turned into an obvious tilt in favour of Pakistan at the height of an independence movement in the then East Bengal. American President Nixon’s tilt towards Pakistan was designed largely to move closer to China. Kissinger’s visit to Beijing in July 1971 took place directly with the collaboration of US and Pakistani interests. It is true that Kissinger’s visit to Beijing was primarily motivated by the common desire of the US and China to normalise their relations In the wake of serious Sino-Soviet dissensions. However, the timing of the visit, the place of his departure for Beijing, that is, Islamabad, and the discussions held between Kissinger and the Chinese Premier in the context of the Indo-Pak tension, increased India’s apprehensions. During his brief visit to New Delhi in July 1971, Kissinger gave unambiguous warning that in the event of Chinese action across the northern border, India could not expect US assistance. India clearly saw Pakistan successfully coordinating its policies with Washington and Beijing against Indian interests. New Delhi was getting practically isolated in the international arena.

While Kissinger’s visit to Beijing was a morale-booster for Pakistan, it had an awfully demora-lising effect on India as New Delhi felt diplo-matically humbled and strategically isolated. India could see a US-China-Pakistan axis emerging against its vital national as well as geopolitical interests. This was perhaps the most perilous moment for India’s independence in the history of our country. In keeping with the spirit of the US-China discussions held in Beijing, Washington took serious steps in July-August of 1971 that strengthened India’s fears and enhanced Pakistan’s intransigence.

The recently declassified White House and US State Department records have thrown more light on the subject. Those papers suggest that Washington’s overtures towards Pakistan were primarily predicated on their global strategic calculations to reward Pakistan for its support in developing the newly emerging US-China axis. “I am getting hell every half hour from the President, we are not being tough enough on India,” Kissinger says, as revealed by the White House papers.

IN this backdrop, New Delhi and Moscow moved closer to ink the historic Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation to neutralise the effect of the emerging Washington-Beijing-Islamabad axis and defend their vital geopolitical interests. There is no doubt that the Treaty became the most important safeguard for India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, a strong deterrent to outside aggression, augmenting regional security and international peace. In a statement in the Lok Sabha after signing of the Treaty, Foreign Minister Swaran Singh said: ”We shall not allow any other country or combination of countries to dominate us or to interfere in our internal affairs. We shall, to our maximum ability, help other countries to maintain their freedom from outside domination, and their sovereignty. We have no desire to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries, but this does not mean we shall look on as silent spectators if third countries come and interfere in the internal affairs of other countries, particularly our neighbours, as our own national interest could be adversely affected.” Singh described the Treaty as “in essence a Treaty of peace against war”.

The leading Soviet national daily Pravda in an editorial, highlighting the significance of the Treaty, wrote that the Treaty had effectively ‘restrained‘ Pakistan and her allies from embarking on a course of ‘military adventurism’ in the subcontinent and would continue to act as a ‘deterrent’ against the hegemonic goals. It can be easily construed that the Treaty issued a clear warning to hegemonistic China.

The Treaty, containing about 1300 words in 12 Articles, put a stamp of legality on the rapidly expanding multifaceted relationship and cooperation between the two countries over the years and elevated their ties to a high strategic level. The Treaty was not a military agreement as described by some experts; and in effect it honoured India’s non-alignment policy. However, its implications were very serious and clear if you read between the lines and this could not been missed by India’s adversaries. The most significant clauses dealing with security issues were the Articles 8, 9 and 10 of the Treaty. Article No. 8 declared that neither state shall ‘enter into or participate in any military alliance directed against the other party’. Article No. 9 of the Treaty’ going a step further, stated that the contracting parties would enter into mutual consultations when either of the parties is subjected to an attack so as to remove the threat and to take appropriate measures to maintain the security of the region. This Article guaranteed that if either of the parties is attacked or threatened with attack then India and the Soviet Union will ‘immediately start mutual consultations with a view to eliminating this threat’. The US, China and Pakistan could not have missed the message hidden in this clause. This indeed frustrated the Chinese designs to intervene from the north, and foiled the evil intention of the US whose Seven Fleet was in the Bay of Bengal in an obnoxious demonstration of its gunboat diplomacy to launch intervention from the east against India.

President Nixon had encouraged China to make coordinated military moves in support of Pakistan. At Nixon’s instruction, his National Security Advisor, Kissinger, met the Chinese ambassador to the UNO to suggest that Beijing make coordinated military moves in support of Pakistan. The implication conveyed by Kissinger was that in case of Soviet military action, the US would support China in any confrontation with the USSR.

As revealed by the White House papers, in December 1971, at the peak of the Indo-Pak military conflict, Kissinger thought there was a real possibility that Beijing might go to war. He instructed his assistant that if China informed the US that they are going to move, Washington should reply that it would not ignore Soviet intervention. Kissinger sent letters to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Iran keeping open the possibility of weapons transfer and letting the Indians know these transfers were being contemplated.

The US sent its nuclear-powered Seventh Fleet to the Bay of Bengal in an attempt to intimidate India, which was followed by the Soviet Pacific fleet moving into the Indian Ocean. As a result, China could not muster courage to launch its military intervention against India fearing the consequences of the Indo-Soviet Peace and Friendship Treaty. That is how India could overcome the worst crisis in its history.

THE Treaty became a bulwark of regional security and world peace at large, and provided a strong boost for developing multifaceted bilateral cooperation in all possible spheres of human activity, converting our ties into a special relationship in the 1980s. The Treaty, originally meant for 20 years, according to its provision, was to be extended for another twenty years in 1991, given the mutual desire to that effect from both sides. By the middle of August 1991, it was clear that the two countries had expressed their desire to extend the Treaty for another two decades. However, the so-called August 1991 coup in Moscow changed the course of history hastening the disintegration of the Soviet Union. (The Kremlin maverick Boris Yeltsin, in an attempt to gather more support from foreign countries for consolidating his victory over his arch rival Soviet President Gorbachev, made an attempt to persuade visiting Foreign Minister Madhavsinh Solanki to scrap the Indo-Soviet Treaty following which he would sign a much stronger treaty with India on behalf of his country. India did not wish to scrap the Treaty since the USSR was still existing though only on paper.)

After the Soviet disintegration in December 1991, when relations between Delhi and Moscow nose-dived in all spheres, a high-level Indian delegation headed by Foreign Secretary J.N. Dixit arrived in Moscow in January 1992 for stocktaking and damage-control. Yeltsin’s regime, to the surprise of the Indian delegation, presented them with a new draft for replacing the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation. Finally a new Treaty of Friendship and Coo-peration, signed between the two countries in January 1993 during President Yeltsin’s first and last visit to India, replaced the historic Indo-Soviet Treaty. The fundamental differences between the two treaties lay in the fact that the new Treaty was bereft of the vital security clauses that constituted the core of the Indo-Soviet Treaty. The security clauses became irrelevant after the end of the Cold War, explained experts. This is how the historic Treaty found itself dumped in the dustbin unilaterally by Russia reflecting Moscow’s ‘de-ideologised’ pro-Western foreign policy under President Yeltsin and his Foreign Minister, Kozyrev. However, as Moscow’s honeymoon with the West came to an end, Russia under Foreign Minister and subsequently Prime Minister Evgeny Primakov’s stewardship looked for strategic partners in the East, re-discovering the virtues of the Indo-Soviet Treaty.

The Joint Statement, issued at the end of Evgeny Primakov’s official visit to India as the Russian PM in December 1998, made an explicit mention of the Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty for the first time in the history of the relationship between India and post-Soviet Russia. The Joint Statement affirmed that India and Russia would move towards a ‘strategic partnership’, and the declaration on strategic partnership, proposed to be signed at the next summit meeting, would be a step forward in the elaboration of the principles contained in the Indo-Soviet Treaty of 1971, Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation of 1993 and the Moscow Declaration of 1994. The Delhi Declaration on Strategic Partnership, signed during President Putin’s first ever state visit to India in November 2000, indeed reflects some of the spirit and essence of the historic Indo-Soviet Treaty of 1971, building the legal foundation for our robust strategic relationship which received a ‘special and privileged‘ status recently.

While marking the 40th anniversary of Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Coopera-tion, it may be noted that the Treaty may be dead but its spirit and legacy continue to live on in today’s “Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership” between the two states.

The author is a Professor, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and the Director of the New Delhi-based Eurasian Foundation.

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