India-Pakistan War: Tashkent Declaration – Then and Now

India-Pakistan normalization was in Moscow’s core interests.

Tacitus, the great historian and politician of the Roman Empire, wrote in his work Agricola (98 AD) that “This is an unfair thing about war: victory is claimed by all, failure to one alone”. The 50th anniversary of the Tashkent Declaration, the peace pact between India and Pakistan signed in the capital of Uzbekistan, USSR on January 11, 1966, which strove to resolve the war between the two countries the previous year, passed by largely unnoticed.

Indeed, the peace pact signed in Tashkent proved short-lived. By December 1971, India and Pakistan were once again at war. To be sure, neither New Delhi nor Islamabad was in celebratory mood last week.

However, Tashkent Declaration is a landmark event in the political and diplomatic history of the region. It holds useful lessons. It brought to the fore the efficacy (or the lack of it) of ‘third-party mediation’ to resolve the India-Pakistan differences and disputes.

India consistently opposed such mediation, while Pakistan, the weaker party, always sought third-party intervention. Paradoxically, however, these were only pro forma positions. Neither India nor Pakistan is amenable to making compromises, which indeed requires a radically different mindset.

Nonetheless, third-party intervention in India-Pakistan issues has been a fact of life. The Anglo-American intervention in the recent decades mostly concentrated on easing tensions and preventing them from cascading to reach flashpoint.

Even today, one compelling factor that pushes the present Indian government to move toward dialogue with Pakistan (notwithstanding the continued reality of cross-border terrorism) is the pressure from the Obama administration, which seeks a reduction in India-Pakistan tensions as a desirable objective while advancing its regional strategies, especially its rebalance strategy in the southwest Asian region bordering Central Asia.

The point is, India-Pakistan tensions always had a geopolitical backdrop. The 1965 war and the flurry of diplomatic activity resulting in the Tashkent Declaration, where the former Soviet Union played a uniquely overt mediatory role, underscored this reality.

In the ebb and flow of the Cold-War era politics, the first half of the 1960s was a particularly fluid period. The Stalin era had become part of Soviet history, but Cold War tensions touched a high noon in the Cuban missile crisis. The Sino-Soviet schism began surging.

Unsurprisingly, vague stirrings of new thinking toward ‘communist China’ began engaging the American mind. At the same time, the two superpowers were also groping their way toward global strategic balance.

The big-power politics inevitably cast their shadow on the alignments in the Indian subcontinent. Following the 1962 conflict between India and China, Pakistan drew close to China. Equally, the US gave invaluable support to India during the 1962 conflict, based on a congruence of interests regarding China, which qualitatively lifted their bilateral relationship for a while – albeit a brief spell only.

In all this, the Soviet Union faced a strategic dilemma of having to offer a friendly hand to Pakistan (which at the same time also used to be the US’ key ‘non-NATO’ ally in the region from where, actually, the U-2 spy plane piloted by Gary Powers actually took off).

On the other hand, Moscow appreciated India’s towering stature in the non-aligned movement and was tenaciously building a strategic partnership of immense consequence.

In sum, Soviet Union did an astute balancing act by remaining neutral in the Indo-Pak war of 1965 as such, while at the same time taking care to meet India’s ‘red line’, namely, stalling any Anglo-American attempt to reopen the Kashmir file during the UN Security Council deliberations at that time.

Curiously, Moscow and Washington happened to be on the same page when it came to forestalling or discouraging any direct Chinese involvement in the 1965 war on Pakistan’s side.

This is of course simplifying geopolitics. The contradictions were far too many. By the sixties, Soviet Union was already well on its way to becoming the single most important supplier of weapons to India (on rupee payment terms which mattered a great deal at that time when the Indian economy was in dire straits to meet the needs of the build-up of armed forces due to the prevailing Chinese threat).

On the contrary, Pakistani military continued to be the darling of the Pentagon and was the recipient of high-performance jets and tanks as generous US military aid.

Despite the US-Indian proximity during the 1962 conflict with China, Washington continued to view India’s non-aligned status with disquiet and regarded its policies as working as a bad influence on the countries of Asia and Africa.

Above all, US-Pakistan strategic bonding was poised to acquire a new direction as the Lyndon Johnson Administration began toying with the desirability of improvement of relations with China. Washington sensed that on this audacious journey toward normalization with China, Pakistan could play a unique role as bridge.

It is entirely conceivable that the then Pakistani leader Ayub Khan’s historic visit to China in March 1965 (which followed Premier Chou En-Lai’s visit to Pakistan 8 months earlier) had enjoyed tacit American encouragement. The Sino-US relations did figure as a key topic in those two historic Sino-Pak exchanges at the highest level.

Suffice it to say, the Soviet geostrategic considerations behind undertaking a mediatory mission soon after the 1965 India-Pakistan war ended were perfectly understandable. In retrospect, the bottom line is that then, as now, India-Pakistan normalization was in Moscow’s core interests.

If one were to move to time present, there are interesting parallels – but then, there are significant differences, too. Clearly, Moscow and Washington both have their own legitimate reasons to encourage India and Pakistan to enter into dialogue at present. The major difference today is that China also encourages India-Pakistan dialogue.

Profound considerations of regional security and stability are at work today. With the rise of extremist terrorist organizations, the stability and security of the South Asian region critically impacts international security.

Meanwhile, Washington has jettisoned its antipathies toward India, while the latter’s relations with Russia and China have also transformed in the post-Cold War era. Again, India’s profile as an emerging power and the yawning gap between India and Pakistan in their comprehensive national power, coupled with the fact that both are nuclear powers, would inhibit the outbreak of war. Any third-party mediation on India-Pakistan issues becomes highly improbable under the circumstances.

Finally, it is helpful to be optimistic. A paradigm shift could be imminent. India and Pakistan are set to become members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), alongside Russia and China, shortly. The SCO processes will inevitably rub on India-Pakistan relations. A mature outlook would demand that the two countries kept up an uninterrupted bilateral dialogue while on a parallel track the regional cooperation programs under the SCO auspices got under way.

Whereas the SCO’s main priority used to be regional security and stability, under Russia’s recent chairmanship its focus also includes trade and economic cooperation. This works well for fostering trust and confidence between India and Pakistan.

Russia and China can play a positive role here. In the 50th anniversary year of the Tashkent Declaration, the ancient caravanserai on the Silk Road once again provides the setting when the SCO summit meeting is held in June.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.