The Soviets may now seek via the Tashkent meeting,” wrote the American ambassador to Moscow, “more manoeuvrability in its relations with the subcontinent.” This was the moot point in a note written for the United States Secretary of State on 30 December 1965. The telegram provided an appreciation of Russia’s advance following a ceasefire (on 23 September) that effectively ended the second India-Pakistan War.
The conference in Tashkent in the early part of January 1966 was meant to work out modalities of a withdrawal, and potentially, invite a wider discussion about a lasting peace in the subcontinent. A declaration to this effect was signed on this day 56 years ago. Its significance can hardly be oversold. More than anything else, it marked Russia’s place in the future of South Asia.
The agenda for the eight-day conference was peppered with scheduled and spontaneous interventions between Soviet premier Alexi Kosygin and his war-beaten guests: Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri – fondly referred to as “little Lenin” on the streets of Tashkent – and Pakistani President Ayub Khan, who arrived in Uzbekistan only to find that his foreign ministry had no agenda for the conference.
What was striking yet increasingly apparent to America’s envoys was Russia’s willingness to actively shape diplomatic outcomes between India and Pakistan. In 1962, during and immediately after the India-China War, Khrushchev’s Russia remained distant. This time, Kosygin unhesitatingly sought to fill a vacuum left open by both US President Lyndon Johnson and British Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Johnson was far too occupied with the escalation in Vietnam. By the end of 1965, Wilson retired from the politics of South Asia. He confessed that “the situation had become much too complicated.”
At Tashkent, in many ways, India was better positioned for an outcome of its choice. Pakistan, the provocateur, whose attempt in early August 1965 to infiltrate regular soldiers disguised as Mujahidin volunteers into Jammu and Kashmir had been scuttled. A villager named Wazir Mohammad, in the Poonch district of Kashmir, spotted the “raiders” on 5 August as he returned from the fields. It ended the first phase of Pakistan’s war against India. The second phase, in early September, ended after a not-so-shy Shastri ordered the Army to open a second front across the international boundary. The ultimate stalemate led to a ceasefire, leaving India with a devastating war it won by not losing.
War on Russian turf
During eight intense days of negotiations, side-conversations, late-night secret parleys, a night at the Navoi opera and the odd evening at the ballet, Shastri and Ayub fought on for two different reasons. For Shastri, the Tashkent conference was about ending the 1965 War, securing an amicable and acceptable withdrawal plan, and returning to India without having to seriously discuss the future of Kashmir. For Ayub, this was about salvaging what was left of his political shine. A deal on Kashmir or even a mention of potential negotiations in the near-future might have, according to his advisors, saved his political back.
Yet, this was not 1962 or 1963. American President John Kennedy and British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan were not there to guardrail Ayub’s desires. As they were, at least initially, during the testy Kashmir negotiations between India and Pakistan after the China debacle. This was Kosygin’s turf, and the Russians, at least in the 1960s, were simply more on India’s side than that on Pakistan’s.
In fact, soon after the ceasefire was announced, T.N. Kaul – the Indian ambassador to Moscow and the unabashed Soviet cheerleader – confessed in a note to Indira Gandhi that “the Soviet government will not press us [India] to make any compromises that we have not already offered.” In a letter to the Indian Foreign Secretary, C. S. Jha, Kaul noted that as far as Kashmir was concerned, “the Soviets will not go back on our legal title to the whole state.” Further, Kaul relayed, they would support India’s “claim to the Valley [in Kashmir] both for strategic reasons as well as on the ground of our secularism.” The Valley of course was a key Pakistani demand.
This is not to say that Kosygin played every over for India. The Russian premier was instrumental in convincing the Indian delegation to return the hard-fought Haji Pir pass to Pakistan, much to the Indian Army’s understandable disappointment. Shastri, however, managed to keep Chamb, an area in which an Indian regiment continued to occupy ground well past the ceasefire deadline.
Kosygin’s position on exchanges such as this was aided by a well-informed network of spies and agents in India, and a few in Pakistan. A KGB-led ‘active measures’ campaign had been funded in both countries. They were mostly designed to delegitimise the United States in the eyes of South Asia’s growing populations. Two key agents were recruited from within Pakistan’s diplomatic corps in 1965, presumably with the view to track Pakistan’s thinking during the war. At Tashkent, nothing surprised Kosygin. Ayub and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s insistence on the Kashmir talks were easily rebuffed.
Shastri’s mission possible
On the other hand, in his calm and disarming way, Shastri worked his magic. He convinced Kosygin – in two successive meetings lasting over two hours each – that even a passing remark on Kashmir should highlight nothing more than each side’s “respective positions.” On 10 January, the Tashkent declaration was signed. Clause one ended with the sentence: “Jammu and Kashmir was discussed, and each of the sides set forth its respective position.” Nothing else was said on Kashmir. On 11 January, the front pages of the Soviet official publications, Pravda and Izvestia carried the entire declaration. An editorial in The Guardian stated: “At Tashkent they did not even make a start: to that extent India’s will prevailed.”
“The rock-line firmness” of Shastri “under his soft and gentle appearance,” as those with the prime minister at Tashkent recalled, won a respectable withdrawal for India. Tragically, and only a few hours following a reception to celebrate the declaration, Shastri “breathed his last” at 1.32 am on 11 January. Kaul noted, as the prime minister lay on the lap of his doctor, “His face was calm as if he had achieved the mission of establishing peace in the subcontinent.” Later that day, Ayub Khan helped to lift Shastri’s coffin onto the military aircraft that would bring him home.
The Tashkent declaration set the stage for talks between the two militaries to commence the withdrawal, to be completed by 25 February. On 21 January, Indian and Pakistani army chiefs met to review the status of de-escalation. On 17 February, Indian Air Chief Marshal Arjun Singh met with his Pakistani counterpart – Nur Khan – in Peshawar. They agreed on a set of parameters to use each other’s air space. Those days a few hours of tough negotiations could still end with a game of golf.
In the end, the Tashkent declaration may not have brought peace to the subcontinent. It did, however, end a war and allow a degree of camaraderie to re-develop between the two sides – although short-lived. Most importantly, the Tashkent moment served as Russia’s coming-out party in the theatre and politics of South Asia.
The author is the director of Carnegie India. He tweets @Rudra_81. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)