The road to Tashkent
As early as August 18, 1965, the Soviet prime minister, Alexei Kosygin, had written to his Indian counterpart, Lal Bahadur Shastri, and Pakistan President Ayub Khan, asking them "not to take any steps that might lead to a major conflict". He wrote again on September 4 appealing for "an immediate cessation of hostilities and a reciprocal withdrawal of troops behind the ceasefire line". He also offered the Soviet Union's "good offices" in negotiating a peaceful settlement of differences between India and Pakistan. Neither country reacted to this offer for the obvious reason that two days later the war had escalated, and the Indian army was on the march to the prized Pakistani city of Lahore.
On September 18, Kosygin sent his third letter to the two South Asian leaders, proposing that they "should meet in Tashkent or any other Soviet city for negotiations", and even offered to take part in the discussions himself, "if both sides so desired". He underscored his serious concern because the war was taking place "close to the Soviet Union's borders".
Shastri waited until September 23, when the ceasefire came into force, before disclosing to Parliament the Soviet offer, adding that he had "informed Mr Kosygin that we would welcome his efforts and good offices". In Pakistan, however, there was complete silence on the subject because of its extreme reluctance to take part in Soviet-sponsored negotiations.
"Ayub," records his closest confidant and biographer Altaf Gauhar, "was quite disturbed that the US and the British should leave the field to the Soviet Union... the subcontinent had been traditionally the area of Western influence, and the induction of the Soviet Union into the region as a mediator would only strengthen India's position". Consequently, even after agreeing to the Tashkent talks on November 11, he decided to go to London and Washington to persuade Harold Wilson, the British prime minister, and US President Lyndon Johnson to so arrange things that some "self-executing machinery" could be set up to resolve Kashmir, preferably before the Tashkent meeting. In both capitals he drew a blank. Wilson bluntly told Ayub that China was the "greatest danger in the region because it was far more expansionist than the Soviet Union or India". His foreign secretary added that in its present mood, "China was an extremely dangerous friend to have". Wilson's concluding remark at the end of a marathon meeting was: "We cannot hurry the Kashmir issue, though we realise the conflict is driving India and Pakistan to orbits we fear".
On way to Washington, Ayub stopped over in New York to deliver a speech at the UN General Assembly. He devoted it almost entirely to Kashmir and ended his oration with the demand: "Let India honour her agreement as we would, to let all the people of Kashmir settle their own future through self-determination, in accordance with past pledges." In Washington the next day, at his prolonged meeting with Johnson, he returned to this theme and said with some emotion that the Kashmir problem must be resolved. "If India could not comply with the UN resolutions then arbitration by an independent body was the only peaceful way to settle the dispute."
According to Gauhar's account, Johnson said little about Kashmir but dilated at some length on America's problems in Vietnam, where both the Soviet Union and China were helping North Vietnam. The US president then told his guest that he was "praying for the success of the Tashkent meeting". Whereupon Ayub "regretted" that US and Soviet policy "had come to coincide in India, and that was why the Soviet Union was helping India, and the US, too, had allowed itself to be 'suckered' by the Indians".
While the two presidents were engaged in one-to-one talks, Pakistan officials told their American opposite numbers that throughout the "crisis", the feeling in Pakistan was that the US "had let down Pakistan and equated it with the aggressor". Ayub said the same thing somewhat politely at his final meeting with Johnson: "Let us hope we get more comfort in future out of our alliance with the US."
As was perhaps to be expected, China acted promptly to vindicate Johnson's apprehension that it would "fish in troubled waters" in both South Asia and Indochina. No sooner had Pakistan announced its willingness to partake in the Tashkent talks under Soviet auspices, that the Chinese tried to throw a spanner in the works by suddenly opening fire on two Indian posts on the Sikkim-China border and making repeated intrusions across this frontier. What added to Indian worries was a report by the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies that China had "massed 15 divisions in Tibet, of which at least six were stationed near the borders of Sikkim, Bhutan and Nepal". However, New Delhi's assessment was that Beijing was only trying to create tensions and wasn't paving the way to a renewed invasion.
Shastri's greater worry was about the withdrawal of troops to the positions they held before Pakistan's infiltrations into Kashmir on August 5. The Indian army had paid a heavy price to wrest from Pakistan the highly strategic Haji Pir Pass, the most convenient route for Pakistan's infiltrators. There was a strong feeling in the country that Haji Pir should never be returned to Pakistan. Though normally a cautious man, Shastri himself intensified this sentiment by declaring repeatedly that if Haji Pir were to be given back to Pakistan, "some other prime minister would do it".
Meanwhile, the Soviets invited foreign minister Swaran Singh to Moscow a week before the start of the Tashkent conference. The message he brought back was that while the Soviet Union stuck to its traditional stand that Kashmir was a part of India, it was also of the firm view that peace between India and Pakistan must be established on the basis of the UN Security Council resolution of September 20, which demanded the "withdrawal of all armed personnel to positions held prior to August 5, 1965".
This, as we shall see, was to be a source of great trouble during the Tashkent talks, as well as afterwards.
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator
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