INFA Column

 The Asian Dimension of Bangla Desh

M.L. Sondhi

July 5, 1971 

A broad analysis and evaluation of the role of Indian diplomacy in the Bangla Desh crisis would reveal two dimensions of our international activity, an Indian response to the attempted change in status quo in the eastern wing of Pakistan presented in concepts and perceptions to suggest a hopeful outcome to the outside world, and an unsuccessful but intensive dialogue with the Super Powers and other great powers aimed at creating international opinion and sanctions to reverse the course of Islamabad’s military offensive against Bangla Desh.

The prospect at present is that the Indian initiatives have not created a pattern of interaction which would require Islamabad to give up the pursuit of its basic interest to crush Bangla Desh and present a fait accompli to the world community. The refugees problem created through Islamabad’s instigation is a serious political and economic setback for India, and while being a strain on our resources, it pushes the substantive political questions aside from the area of discussion and increases pressures on India from powers whose altruism is not without “strings”. An additional consideration is that the spiral of conflict between New Delhi and Islamabad aggravates the threats to our military security but does not promise political victory on account of the commitment of the two Super Powers to protect the status quo.

Indian policy makers have been talking a great deal about cooperation between Asian countries and have been reaffirming our responsibilities to countries in our region. It is clear that regional cooperation can only be stimulated if countries in the region play a greater role in economic and political relations. It is not evaluated realistically. It lies in between the “go it alone” approach and the “Super Power intervention” approach. In the context of the Bangla Desh situation the remedies which will avoid war and surrender of Bangla Desh lie in the direction of a regional perspective which Indian policy should emphasise without further procrastination.

Let us take an oceans perspective. If it makes sense to talk of Mediterranean, Pacific and Atlantic problems, why not Bay of Bengal problems? Peace keeping and demilitarisation in the Bay of Bengal offer them for “regional-power dialogue”. At the time of the Cuba confrontation a naval blockade worked and the Soviet Union responded by withdrawal. An Indian Naval initiative in the context of “peace keeping and demilitarisation” would appeal to regional public opinion if the “limited” nature of our action was explained sufficiently. If India has conclusive evidence that Pakistan ships are carrying troops, tanks, and artillery to crush Bangla Desh, an Indian declaration of intent to intercept such movements would place Pakistan in a dilemma and would place the onus of escalation on Pakistan.

If Asian countries knew in advance that India’s actions are deliberate and strictly to “contain” Islamabad’s militarism and revanchism, and India is favourably disposed towards “regional-power dialogue”, the prospect is that important Asian countries like Indonesia and Japan will find it indispensable that they should seek and determine points of convergence with Indian policy. As soon as regional initiatives develop, India should be prepared to seek collective progress by convening an Asian summit conference. The Super Powers, the USA and Soviet Union, would neither censure nor prevent such a conference, but would seek to influence it behind the scenes.  India would have the opportunity to affirm its own political conception about Bangla Desh and if other regional interests are taken into account fully, it is not unlikely that a synthesis would result. In any case, it would provide India a valuable opportunity to explain the “peace keeping and demilitarisation” nature of its own initiative and place the issue of Pakistani militarism and revanchism in correct focus. India miscalculated badly when it rejected Indonesia’s invitation to the conference on Cambodia and blindly ignored the high value of regional initiatives. There is, however, no reason why our affinity with our region should not be reaffirmed and we should be glad if Indonesia does not find it politically embarrassing to accept our regional initiative.

India’s attitude towards peace-keeping forces has not been free from a certain ambivalence. The concept of a Regional Asian Mixed Force should be projected as soon as a regional initiative on Bangla Desh develops. The Regional Asian Mixed Force in which the smaller nations of Asia should be given the major role can draw upon earlier experience of international peace keeping forces and avoid costly mistakes. This force should confine itself to the solitary objective of de-militarising Bangla Desh.

The problem of Bangla Desh resembles in many ways the problem of Austria in post-war Europe. The neutralisation of Austria was based on the equilibrium of interest of the great powers. The current political situation in Asia and the involvement of the great powers in the region will always require specially contrived stabilisation measures. At the right moment after the regional initiatives have been taken, an international conference to confer permanent neutralisation status on Bangla Desh will be necessary to relieve Bangla Desh of the anxiety for it political future. The successful outcome of this crucial step will help to reach a modus vivendi between all the powers concerned, regional and global, and will open the way to the economic and social rehabilitation of the people of Bangla Desh. This course of action is unlikely to be jeopardised by Communist China for two reasons. The present phase of Chinese policy after the Cultural Revolution is militarily speaking highly “conservative”, and the Chinese role will remain “limited” for fear of offending Asian opinion if the Bangla Desh problem becomes the subject of active regional diplomacy and the Chinese do not suspect “U.S.-Soviet collaboration”. 

This agenda for regional action will require the Government of India to manifest a strong political will to overcome the present difficulties and to resist pressures by the Super Powers, since it is no longer a secret that both Soviet Union and the United States are committed to prevent the break-up of Pakistan. The report of the External Affairs Minister suggests that during the tour of the world capitals, the immediate diplomatic objective was a negotiated termination of the internal war in Pakistan and a return to status quo ante.

A diplomacy of this sort can only succeed if the disagreements on the subject are merely instigated by divergent strategies to secure national interests within the range of activities sanctioned by the international order. The nature of the Bangla Desh crisis suggests that it could prove to be more complex than the minor phenomena of local conflicts, and irrespective of the rights and wrongs of the matter, the serious shock to the status quo of the international order which would be the consequence of the new Bangla Desh state would be contrary   to the institutionalised conduct of the world powers. A significantly different prospect can, however, be fostered if the future possibilities following the emergence of Bangla Desh are closely related to a set of norms for restructuring regional relations in the direction of greater stability. India has a great stake in the creation of a peace order in Asia, and the Prime Minister of India has on previous occasions expressed the hope for a restoration of peace in the conflict ridden areas through neutralisation. At the operational level India’s External Affairs Ministries seems to be talking at cross purposes to the chief policy maker of the Government. The Prime Minister wants a withdrawal of the great powers from Asia and emphasises the dangers of relying on foreign guarantees when she refers to problems of Indo-China or to the question of vacuum in the Indian Ocean. the External Affairs Minister would rather guide our diplomacy towards a greater involvement of the great powers in our region when the initiative should come from our own government for keeping them out.

Crisis-management cannot be successful if a foreign office finds itself engaged in one minor political skirmish after another and the attainment of the main strategic goals is relegated to obscurity. India has administered several “warnings” to Islamabad and those who are helping her in one way or another. This drama of diplomatic protests has in fact diverted our attention from the vital and crucial issues of Islamabad’s militarism and revanchism.

Naturally the people of Bangla Desh and the people of Asia are watching to see whether they can detect India’s determination to help a cause to which India’s Government and Parliament are publicly committed. India has put too much trust in the Super power and according to all reports, the United States and the Soviet Union have already re-examined their “Pakistan policies” and have discovered that Islamabad’s presence in Dacca is designed to suit their political needs. India’s expectations of an endorsement by the two Super Powers of the decolonisation of Bangla Desh run counter to considerations of balance of power and the cold facts of Super Power coexistence.

India’s super power oriented diplomacy has proved a millstone around her neck and the people of India are at a loss to know which path the country should take. In the confused state of our foreign relations, voices are heard which advocate the ‘art of brinkmanship” which would mean that Indian militarism is the answer to Pakistan’s militarism. This bodes ill for the future and a war which is brought to an abrupt end by super power intervention could prove politically troublesome and costly for India.  Only by regional diplomacy can India manifest its determination to ensure the survival of Bangla Desh. A regional policy would lay no claim to unmitigated success, but it would be the best way to indicate the high priority of India’s involvement in Bangla Desh and to give full expression to the weight of India’s moral, political and strategic commitment to the people of Bangla Desh.

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