Whatever its other consequences, last winter's brief war in South Asia broke the mold that since 1947 had cast India-Pakistan relations into a continuing confrontation punctuated by three military conflicts. Now, for better or worse, the subcontinent with its 700,000,000 people has been transformed into a ménage à trois, linking together three national members in new relationships.

Two of these nations-defeated, truncated Pakistan and the new state of Bangladesh-entered 1972 beset by severe internal problems. Neither is likely soon to play more than a reactive role in the affairs of the region. By contrast, India, the third element, emerged as a relative giant. Before 1971 India by many measures was three or four times larger than Pakistan, though her weaknesses reduced the differential in some respects. Today she has ten times the population and resource base of Pakistan and considerably more than ten times the resources of Bangladesh. Her decisive military victory over Pakistan last December added a full measure of self-confidence to her mood. Moreover, under Mrs. Gandhi's firm management India's economy has become steadier and the country's polity more closely knit in 1972. India has attained, in short, a new primacy in the subcontinent.

In these radically changed circumstances can Bangladesh, Pakistan and India put behind them the tensions and conflicts of the past generation in favor of peaceful cohabitation in their region? This question is urgent for a great many people outside as well as within the subcontinent proper. Such immediate neighbors as Ceylon, Nepal and Afghanistan, whose anxieties over the events of 1971 were evident, have major stakes in the answer. So do some, at least, of the nations of Southeast Asia and western Asia. The Soviet Union and China see that their own confrontation has a southern flank in the subcontinent The United States has repeatedly found itself enmeshed in competing claims by the countries of the region and could not but warmly welcome any just and peaceful settlement Also, apart from national interests in the area, crises such as occurred in 1971 touch the sensibilities of the international community in general.

Important as are external concerns over prospects in the subcontinent, however, the issue naturally presses most heavily on the three countries themselves, for essentially it is they who will determine how good these prospects are. Both Bangladesh and Pakistan have options ranging from considerable flexibility to the rigidities sometimes associated with extreme weakness. Yet in present circumstances neither can hope to match the political or material weight of India. Thus it is India which has both the greatest opportunity and the greatest responsibility for determining whether a fresh start-and if so what sort-can be made in the international relations of South Asia.


Bangladesh is a triumph of survivability. Again and again during the past generation the area has been struck by disaster: the great famine of 1943, the Hindu-Muslim massacres in 1946, the partitioning of Bengal (and of India) in 1947, the India-Pakistan wars in 1948 and 1965, and the ferocious cyclone in 1970 which swept away perhaps 200,000 people. Yet the society as a whole survived each fresh catastrophe. It now seems also to have survived the turbulence of 1971, in many ways the worst of all.

It had been evident for years that differences were deepening between West and East Pakistan. The latter had grown increasingly restive under what it regarded as political, administrative and economic discrimination by the dominant but less populous west wing of Pakistan. Ironically, it was just as Pakistani and international developmental efforts, including a major interest on the part of the World Bank, turned to East Bengal that the political scene erupted. The storm that broke in March 1971, after the collapse of negotiations over President Yahya's constitutional proposals, became a Greek tragedy. Pakistan poured more and more troops into Bengal in vain efforts to subdue resistance there, and this in turn was gradually strengthened by Indian training and weapons. Meanwhile, huge streams of refugees flowed across the border into neighboring districts of India. Finally, India's lightning occupation of East Bengal in December forced the surrender of the entire Pakistani force there and set the stage for the establishment of Bangladesh.

By some estimates, one million people were killed in Bengal between March and December. Some four million families-up to 20 million people-appear to have fled their homes, nearly half of them to refuge in India. Between one and two million houses were destroyed. Ports were mined, ships sunk, railways and roads disrupted, hundreds of bridges blown up, telecommunications broken. Industrial production came to a halt. The jute, tea and rice trades were thoroughly disorganized. Food distribution collapsed. In short, resources of all sorts were shattered.

Yet, once again, the people who now called themselves Bangladeshi-"of the Bengal nation"-survived. Wild enthusiasm greeted the establishment of their new state and the return of their leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, from detention in West Pakistan where he had been held since his arrest in March. Pride and exuberance rippled through the towns and countryside: this was, after all, the first opportunity in modern times for Bengalis to rule their own homeland. This spirit did much to pull together the battered nation in its first critical weeks.

Bangladesh emerged as a state of 70 to 75 million people, roughly 85 percent of them Muslims, in an area the size of Wisconsin. By population it thus ranks as the eighth or ninth largest state in the world. It is also the second largest Muslim state, after Indonesia (and before India and Pakistan, which now rank third and fourth, respectively, in Muslim population). However, to accent its dissociation from what its leaders regard as the spurious Pakistani doctrine of religious nationalism, Bangladesh like India identifies itself as a secular state.

Its impoverished people have an average income per capita of less than $1 a week. There is promise of "green revolution" productivity in rice strains that were just becoming available in 1970-71. Also, the society is buoyed up by a rich and ancient culture and an educated class which, although relatively small, includes impressive talent. Sheikh Mujib and his colleagues have some justification for their belief that the country has reasonably good prospects for the future.

For the present, however, the sober realities of independence start with tremendous reconstruction needs. If there is a single first priority, it must be to reëstablish the transport and communications systems. This year the country must also import perhaps two million tons of foodgrains and rebuild lost homes for millions of returning refugees. In getting factories back into production it must replace managers-many of whom were West Pakistanis-as well as equipment and stocks that disappeared. The total reconstruction cost has been estimated by some as high as $3 billion, which would virtually equal one year's gross national product in Bangladesh. (The statistics are very approximate.) Plainly, the effort will require massive external assistance.

Many other urgent tasks also confront the leaders of Bangladesh. They need, for example, to build political cohesiveness on more enduring qualities than the charismatic leadership of Sheikh Mujib. What remains of the former provincial bureaucracy must be transformed into a properly functioning national administration. Stocks of weapons which remain in the hands of actual or potential dissidents must somehow be brought under government control. The country also needs to get a grip on minorities issues, notably those involving non-Bengali-speaking Muslims called Biharis. Nation- building in this early stage will be exceedingly arduous.

The sweep of domestic requirements quite naturally influences the foreign policy goals of Bangladesh. After assuming the prime ministership, Sheikh Mujib promptly declared that external assistance would be welcome from any source. He explicitly included the United States before the latter's recognition of his state and despite the belief that the American government had been antipathetic to the Bangladesh movement. He traveled to Moscow, both to thank the Russians for their early assistance and in search of more aid. He actively sought ties with as many nations as possible. The principal external link he forged, however, was with India.

It is obvious that for the indefinite future Bangladesh will be heavily dependent on India, and that India will have a major stake in the survival and stability of Bangladesh. Until 1947 the Bangladesh area was, of course, part of India, with a common administration, fiscal structure, rail service and the like. The reversal of the partition of that year does not appear to be in the cards. Yet intimate cultural ties continue to exist between the peoples of Bangladesh and of Indian Bengal and so do the compulsions for close alignment between the two countries. Not only was Indian support decisive in bringing Bangladesh to birth but Bangladesh finds Indian skills, Indian supplies, Indian markets, Indian finance, Indian transport and-if need be-Indian defense protection comfortingly close at hand. There is no practical possibility that assistance from other external sources can replace the need for large-scale Indian help. Nor, for her part, could India stand quietly by if for lack of help Bangladesh should begin to fall apart; the separatist tendencies which have been endemic in both East and West Bengal could readily spread trouble from one jurisdiction to the other. A relationship as close as this has its delicate aspects as well. Thus, while drawing heavily on Indian support, Bangladesh has been at pains to emphasize its unrestricted independence, for instance in encouraging the earliest practical departure of Indian troops after the victory over Pakistan.

After the breakaway, Bangladesh was initially in no hurry to sort out remaining issues with Pakistan. Yet for it to obtain full international standing, uncertainties about the distribution of undivided Pakistan's assets and liabilities as between the two present states must be resolved. Similarly with the host of international ties to which Pakistan has been a party-some might be taken up separately by Bangladesh whereas others would require modification to fit the new circumstances. Bilaterally, there is the political issue of the repatriation of some of the hundreds of thousands of Bengalis left in West Pakistan and the possible emigration of Biharis from Bangladesh to Pakistan, as well as the release of Pakistani prisoners of war in Indian custody. The tens of thousands of Pakistani military and civilian personnel who surrendered in December were counted as prisoners of the joint Indian-Bangladesh command. The announced plan of the Bangladesh government to try hundreds of these prisoners on war crimes charges quickly became charged with high emotion, and no easy solution is in sight


What remained of Pakistan proper in early 1972 was a despondent people who had not yet counted their surviving assets. The national military defeat and the dissection of the country had created a serious trauma. The population had not been kept well informed of the difficulties of the military campaign in distant Bengal and it was dazed by the sudden and total collapse. President Yahya and to a large extent the military establishment were discredited. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto succeeded to the presidency at the most critical moment with high ambitions but apparently little political leverage apart from his initial party support and a wider sense that there was no one else.

The central problem for the new Pakistan has been to adjust to present realities. Objectively, its prospects are not necessarily bleak. It is no longer beset by the deep cultural cleavages of the former bifurcated state. At current consumption levels it is economically viable, and it has prospects for growth. Its ratio of resources to population seems rather more favorable than India's, not to mention that of Bangladesh. If it is given international economic assistance it should be able to acquire a considerable degree of self-sufficiency. Whether it can in fact do so must depend heavily on how President Bhutto's government deals with critical issues both on the domestic front and in the necessary war settlement. The national fabric at present is so fragile that serious adverse developments in either area could tear it apart.

The country must absorb the economic as well as the other consequences of the loss of East Pakistan. The trade and resource exchanges on which much of the Pakistani economy had been built are gone. While alternative prospects (e.g. cotton textile sales in Africa) can perhaps be developed, for the time being the economic base is highly vulnerable.

Even more vulnerable is the political base. This quickly became evident when Mr. Bhutto collided with regional leaders and other political elements over such issues as the maintenance of martial law (which he subsequently lifted, while keeping many of the same controls under a continuing state of emergency). His early months in office saw police strikes in at least three cities and disruptions and walkouts at some of his public meetings. In a partisan campaign reminiscent of Bengali demands a year earlier, voices in the Northwest Frontier Province, Baluchistan and Sind-Mr. Bhutto's own province-called for substantial provincial autonomy rather than a strong central government. Supporters of the President vowed to maintain the integrity of the country even if troops had to be called up. The highly charged atmosphere seemed to quiet somewhat when the President convened the National Assembly and got the assent of the parties to a provisional constitution which set the ground rules until 1973. Mr. Bhutto is well known for political agility, but whether he can keep the underlying conflicts in check remains to be seen.

President Bhutto has set in train other policies that could, if successfully implemented, bring deep changes in Pakistan's traditional social and economic patterns. He has, for example, declared for basic reforms in land-holding patterns and in controls of industrial enterprises. Like the numerous retirements and transfers which he ordered for military commanders and civil service officials, such moves could undercut the coalition of senior officialdom, landed gentry and major industrial families which has long managed the national instruments of power. The new Pakistan may be ripe for more populist political arrangements, but it is an unanswered question how much risk would be entailed in pressing for these reforms under the present circumstances.

With his home base less than secure, Mr. Bhutto could not afford serious delays in settling with India and Bangladesh the problems remaining from the war. To prepare for what must be difficult negotiations he began his presidency by testing prospective support in rapid travels to the Middle East, China and Soviet Russia and in diplomatic probes elsewhere. Apparently he found a good deal of understanding and sympathy, with indications of a certain degree of diplomatic backing at least from China and several Middle Eastern Muslim states. Yet the results of his diplomatic initiatives as announced suggested that a Pakistan now one-tenth the size of India would be pretty much on its own at the negotiating table.

Among the issues that could cause Pakistan grave difficulty three stand out. The first relates to about 2,500 square miles of territory in Pakistan's Punjab and Sind provinces that India has seized during the December war and continued to occupy after the ceasefire. Any attempt by India to keep parts of this territory as a condition of peace would be stoutly resisted by Pakistan, defeated or not, and President Bhutto would certainly make intensive appeals to the international community for support. Secondly, the return of Pakistani prisoners could become a sticky issue if Bangladesh were to persist in its intention to try hundreds of the prisoners as war criminals. Emotions in Pakistan on this issue could be explosive.

Even more complicated, however, is the new phase which has begun in the protracted Kashmir dispute. For a generation the quarrel over Kashmir has done more than any other issue to corrode India-Pakistan relations. Is there anything in the new conditions which offers hope of a settlement? An editorial in a New Delhi paper indicated that some thoughtful Indians regarded the handling of Kashmir since 1947 as the Achilles' heel of Indian policy. Can some sort of accommodation be made with the Indian position? If Pakistan realistically assessed its strengths and weaknesses, might it moderate its claims?

The key factor, as it has always been, is whether Pakistan and India can bring themselves to make compromises which they can live with. If each clings to its traditional claim to the whole of Kashmir there will be no hope. Nor will there be hope if each should take its classic stand on the issue of a plebiscite. Any real prospect of a settlement would be undermined, of course, by the sort of fresh military clashes that occurred in May across the current lines of control. Yet the search for a solution should not be dropped. One approach to possible progress would be for negotiations to start by recognizing the present partition. Among various possible next steps, arrangements might be explored whereby Kashmir residents could move freely within the whole state, even though different parts of it would continue under the separate jurisdictions of India and of Pakistan. Failure to agree on the future of Kashmir would only put Pakistan and India at loggerheads for a future period and in circumstances much more disadvantageous than before for the smaller state.


In striking contrast to Bangladesh and Pakistan, their big neighbor India has been riding a crest of exhilaration in 1972. To foreign visitors Indians this year have seemed to show more pride in being Indian and less defensiveness about faults or shortcomings in their country than at any time within memory. They approach the national tasks facing them with a new degree of confidence.

During 25 years India's military operations have for the most part been inconsequential (Junagadh, 1947; Hyderabad, 1948; Goa, 1961), indecisive (Kashmir, 1947-48; Pakistan, 1965) or disastrous (China, 1962). But the 1971 campaign is generally acknowledged to have been conducted with speed, skill and éclat. Indians tend to see it, in the words of a military writer, as "the most decisive liberation campaign in history-giving a nation of 75 million people its independence in one lightning strike." They also see it as a wholly justified war. The victorious campaign not only stopped the pressures against the local East Bengali population that between March and December had thrown millions of refugees into India but it opened the door for their return to their own homes. Much of the world, however it had initially viewed India's justification for military action, was looking at India with new respect. It is no wonder that Indian national confidence zoomed!

But more than elation over the military triumph underlies the new mood. In economic and political fields as well, Indian confidence has been buoyed by stronger results after years of disappointments. Not all of India's towering economic programs are yet yielding to solutions, to be sure: population pressures, unemployment, urban deficiencies, management problems- especially in public sector corporations, black market operations, foreign- exchange stringencies and other familiar difficulties can still be catalogued at great length. What is more, the 30 percent growth in net national income (at 1960-61 prices) achieved during the past decade has improved the lot of the average Indian by hardly more than one percent per year.

None the less, there has been genuine progress and more is in the works. In just five years the "green revolution," for all the well-publicized problems it has generated, has brought India to the point of self- sufficiency in foodgrains. Industrial production has not only expanded substantially in scale but has also attained higher levels of sophistication. With a new generation of technocrats moving up in business and government, some of India's persistent management problems may be on the way to being managed. Balance in foreign exchange will doubtless be harder to achieve, but greater efforts have been stimulated by the suspension during the December war of development assistance loans by the United States and, for a time at least, by some other countries. Economically, the country seems to be on the move.

Recent progress in political management has been more dramatic. Mrs. Gandhi has proved herself as adept a national leader as her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, and as skilled a political manager as his close associate at the time of independence, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Having fragmented and virtually neutralized her opponents in the central parliamentary elections of 1971, she consolidated her hold on the country's political apparatus in early 1972 by campaigning with great effect (and with the prestige of the Bangladesh victory) for "strong and stable state governments, in tune with national policies." Her victories do not suggest that India will no longer face regional strains. However, she has clearly acquired a degree of authority beyond the reach of previous Indian prime ministers. What remains to be seen is how she will use it, both domestically and in India's relations with other powers. In respect to the future tranquility of the subcontinent, much will depend on how India's current cohesiveness and confidence are used to contribute to a lasting settlement with Pakistan.


The prospects for a fresh start in the subcontinent are necessarily also affected by the postures of the major external powers.

The Soviet Union has substantially increased working relationships with India during the past year. It has aimed at this since the 1950s and especially since the Sino-Soviet split and the Sino-Indian war of 1962. Soviet economic involvement in India and the scale of its military aid to India both rose markedly after the India-Pakistan war of 1965. By 1969 the Soviets were hoping for a favorable Indian response to the Brezhnev proposal for an Asian security arrangement. However, it was only the confluence of two developments in mid-1971 that opened the way for a formal Soviet-Indian tie. One was the new turn in Chinese-American relationships, dramatized by Dr. Kissinger's flight to Peking via Pakistan; to Indians this suggested a prospective axis of three nations antipathetic to Indian interests. The other was the gathering Bengal crisis and the possibility of another India-Pakistan war, in which India could expect backing only from the Soviet Union among the major powers. Faced with these prospects, India signed a mutual assistance pact with the Soviet Union last August. The pact was generally welcomed by Indian opinion. Although some Indians expressed anxiety that their country might fall too much under the Soviet sway-and tended to blame the United States for "having pushed us into Russia's arms"- there was considerable confidence that India could manage the Soviet relationship to her own advantage.

The Soviets also moved quickly to establish a presence in Bangladesh. While their assistance was not great in quantity, at least in the early months, they spared no effort to establish their visibility as a benefactor. More quietly, they also received Mr. Bhutto in Moscow and agreed to resume assistance programs that had been under way in West Pakistan before the war. There can be no doubt that the Soviets see themselves as a major factor in the subcontinent and intend to remain so.

By contrast, China has seemed to view the subcontinent in terms of her own confrontation with the Soviet Union and her differences with India, rather than as an area of broad opportunity. Her close and cordial relations with Pakistan did not affect the outcome of the Bengal conflict. Her posture toward India during and since that conflict has kept antagonism at a high pitch, effectively rebuffing India's previous overtures toward negotiating outstanding border issues. Now that Pakistan's political weight in the subcontinent has dwindled, some Indians hope the Chinese may revise their posture.

The same hope is voiced about the Americans. With rare unanimity, Indian opinion has judged American official policy on the Bangladesh issue as wholly wrong. Reactions have ranged from outright hostility to deep puzzlement as to what could have driven the U.S. government to support a corrupt and politically bankrupt Pakistani régime, alienate India and wind up with the defeated and discredited side. No matter that the White House in 1971 was focusing primarily on the China initiative rather than on the subcontinent or that American policy was apparently influenced by official suspicions that India intended to encourage the break-up of West Pakistan after completing the task in Bangladesh. Some influential Indians who had long been known as pro-American have particularly resented being, as they see it, let down. They have noticed with satisfaction that general public opinion in the United States has appeared to favor the Indian position rather than that of the American government. Even so, bitterness against the United States has been running higher than in any period since the middle 1950s, when American military aid programs for Pakistan were first developed.

Actually, two separate sets of principles are involved in the policies of India and the United States in this instance. India assessed the Bangladesh issue in terms of Wilsonian self-determination. The U.S. government chose to stand on the concepts built into the U.N. Charter that protect the sovereignty and integrity of member nations against interference by external powers. While this may not be a very convincing position, especially since the flood of refugees into India effectively internationalized the issue on the ground, its significance was demonstrated by the response in the United Nations. Only the Soviet veto protected the Indian position against an adverse vote in the Security Council. In the General Assembly no third-world country except Bhutan (whose vote is controlled by India), and no other country outside the Soviet bloc backed the Indian resistance to stopping military operations in East Bengal. Because many other countries contain potentially dissident areas, governments are understandably loath-as the U.S. delegation understood-to endorse outside military intervention against a central authority. (Ironically, in the Kashmir debates in the United Nations the principle of national integrity has been defended by India and the concept of self-determination by the United States. Somehow the two countries look at different issues from different perspectives.)

The first fragile indications that both the United States and India would prefer to move toward more normal relationships came months later. Both have sound reasons to desire friendly relations. Having won her contest within the subcontinent and, in the process, strengthened her ties with the Soviet Union, India needs to bring her international relations back into some sort of balance. On the American side, it is clear that henceforward any dealings of significance within the subcontinent will bring the United States into contact with India.

This was made clear by the U.S. recognition of Bangladesh. Also, continuing contacts with the Pakistan government help make certain that the United States, like the Soviet Union, will maintain working relationships with all three countries. What directions they will take must depend on the kind of relationships that are worked out between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh themselves.


Whatever the great-power concerns with the subcontinent, in the new circumstances of 1972 the focus must be on developments within the region rather than on influences from outside. While all three of the countries in the subcontinent need access to international economic assistance programs to achieve timely growth, and to the network of international connections within the world community, the key decisions affecting the 700,000,000 people of the region will be made in the three national capitals.

Two factors stand out in the relationships among the three countries. One is the imbalance between the contributions to be expected from Dacca, Islamabad and New Delhi. The stability of Bangladesh is the primary responsibility of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his government, just as the integrity of Pakistan is the central domestic issue facing the government of Mr. Bhutto. Yet neither of these countries can manage its affairs without taking into account the posture and policies of its huge neighbor India. India, on the other hand, carries not only the responsibility for three-quarters of the subcontinent's population but also the knowledge that her views and actions can substantially affect the well-being of the two smaller countries. Thus, while in a ménage à trois it takes three to make a settlement, the chief opportunity and responsibility clearly lie with the one that disposes the most resources.

The second factor is the inescapable linkage of the three independent nations. As Mr. Bhutto commented in a recent conversation, "There is something about the subcontinent, with its high mountains to the north and the ocean surrounding it on all other sides, that keeps us all together and forces us to find ways to live with each other." It is this sort of understanding, to the extent that it is shared by him and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Mrs. Gandhi, that gives the best hope, despite all difficulties, of a fresh start in the subcontinent.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now