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How a war fought half a century ago is taking on new relevance in US-India relations

India went to war with Pakistan in 1971. Today, it still finds itself caught between rivals, but its relationship with the US is very different.

By Emily Tamkin

Fifty years ago today, after months of tensions, India and Pakistan went to war – and the United States and the Soviet Union picked sides.

Pakistan in 1971 consisted of two main territories: the western part, between India and Afghanistan, and an eastern exclave, known as East Pakistan, on the border with Myanmar. Long-standing tensions between the Bengali majority in East Pakistan and the Pakistani authorities led to the mass migration of Bengalis into neighbouring India. The upheaval raised fears that China would be drawn into a war. Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi raised her concerns with the United States, but Washington, under President Richard Nixon, made clear it would not support India if China took Pakistan’s side in any conflict. Nixon was reluctant in part because he and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, were trying to make inroads into China.

In the summer of 1971, Prime Minister Gandhi signed a treaty with the Soviet Union instead. Discussions for such a treaty had been ongoing with the Soviets since 1969, but Gandhi had been reluctant to sign, worried about domestic political criticism for being too closely aligned with Moscow. But if the United States couldn’t be counted on for assistance, then the Soviet Union would help. Pakistan launched pre-emptive strikes on India on 3 December 1971; Gandhi took it as a declaration of war and invaded East Pakistan. When Nixon sent a US naval task force into the Bay of Bengal, the Soviets met it with a naval force of their own.

The war lasted less than two weeks. With India’s victory, Bangladesh was born. It was a low point in US-Indian relations and strengthened India’s links with the Soviet Union.

Fifty years later, does the war still have relevance in the nexus of India-US-Russian relations?

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“Of course,” said Nandan Unnikrishnan, Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, India. But not because the relationship between the three is as it was.

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India is once again in an increasingly adversarial relationship, but this time the adversary is China, with whom Russia is getting closer. India and Russia maintain solid diplomatic relations, and Russia continues to sell India military equipment. However, “Russia at the same time is not willing to openly come out in support of India like it did in ‘71. So India is forced to look for a balancing party in the United States, which is openly adversarial towards China, and is more than happy to – so far, at least, verbally – comfort India,” said Unnikrishnan.

[see also: Samir Saran on India-US relations]

The United States, meanwhile, is no longer trying to make overtures to China. Rather, Washington is eager to work more closely with Delhi to counter Beijing. India is playing a similar role as it was then, said Unnikrishnan, but Russia and the United States are reading opposite lines in the script.

The memory of the war, then, is a reminder not only of how far the United States and India have come, but also of how mutable foreign relations and their narratives are.

There is also a difference evident domestically within India, too.

At the time, the war was celebrated as both a decisive military victory, and “seen as a victory of Indian secular democracy against the theocratic, military rule of Pakistan”, said Srinath Raghavan, author of 1971: A Global History and the Creation of Bangladesh. Bangladeshis in East Pakistan broke away to form their new country, and India fought alongside them.

But today, “the salience the secular nationalist project had… simply does not exist any longer”, said Raghavan, a professor of history and international relations at Ashoka University.

The “political significance of the event has shifted”, he said. It’s still remembered as an important military victory. But today, with a ruling party that seeks to link being Indian with being Hindu, and which paints many who stand in its way as unpatriotic, those secular democratic ideals are “themselves under attack ideologically and politically by the powers that be”.

That doesn’t appear to be putting closer India-US relations at risk, however. Indian prime minister Narendra Modi was invited to participate in Biden’s “Summit for Democracy” next week (9-10 December). Freedom House, a US-based advocacy group that monitors democracy and human rights around the world, assesses India as only being “partly free”. But Washington’s main concern is China: it can ill afford to turn its back on an ally in Asia, even one with values that diverge from those it claims to hold.

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