The Simla Agreement: An imperfect peace
The accord completes 50 years today. There was and remains a sense that India had squandered a great military victory. But the evidence suggests that a better deal was not possible, given the fractious nature of Pakistani politics
Fifty years ago — plus or minus a few minutes — India and Pakistan formally ended the 1971 war. While the document shows the date as July 2, 1972, Indira Gandhi and Zulfikar Bhutto did not sign it until shortly after midnight: 12:40 am on July 3, 1972. In exchange for a Pakistani commitment to a peaceful, bilateral resolution of their disputes, India agreed to withdraw Indian forces to its side of the international border. The ceasefire line in Kashmir became the Line of Control (LoC).
Gandhi and Bhutto, with only their closest advisers in the room, reached a last-minute accord following days of negotiations, after the rank and file of both negotiating teams had concluded the summit at Simla (which is now called Shimla) would end in failure.
In the intervening 50 years, the Simla accord has taken a fair share of criticism. There was and remains a sense that India — or more precisely Gandhi and her advisers — had squandered a great victory by the military. KN Bakshi, a young diplomat present at Simla, was tasked with producing a typed copy of the agreement for final signature. When he finally saw the text that Prime Minister (PM) Gandhi and her principal secretary, PN Haksar, had accepted, he said, “I read it and cried.” Bakshi felt India demanded too little and conceded too much. “We had all the cards,” he said later. “We had the POWs [prisoners of war]; we had the Pakistani territory; Pakistan was broken up; world public opinion was very much with us. We had defied the Americans; the Soviet Union was supportive. Even then, we could not achieve much.”
Despite Bakshi’s account, the evidence that a better deal was possible is thinner than critics might lead us to believe. The negotiations, by all accounts, were about to break down when PM Bhutto proposed a final, private conversation with his Indian counterpart, which, in turn, resulted in the surprise deal.
It is true that India held territory, but much of that territory was a barren desert. It is also the case that India held more than 90,000 Pakistani POWs. Yet, in criticism of Simla, there is a certain collapsing of time that occurs that seems to imply Gandhi also returned the prisoners on July 2. That was not the case. The prisoners would remain in Indian custody — technically joint Indian-Bangladeshi custody — for another 14 months. Similarly, while India and Pakistan agreed to resume trade, communications, and diplomatic relations, all of those details were left to subsequent talks. India could and did use its considerable remaining leverage in the years ahead.
Many critics seem most angry that Gandhi did not use her leverage to force Bhutto to turn the ceasefire line into a border. Certainly, some in Gandhi’s team believed a written agreement to that effect was a prerequisite for an agreement. What Gandhi secured instead was a commitment by Pakistan to pursue peaceful, bilateral negotiations. If both parties had kept that commitment, then the Kashmir divide would have become a de facto border. Additionally, several sources — contemporaneous and subsequent — indicate that Bhutto made a secret commitment to convert the LoC to a permanent border within three to five years. He did not meet that commitment. Within five years and two months of signing Simla, Bhutto was under military arrest. Less than seven years after Simla, Bhutto was hanged by General Zia-ul-Haq’s government.
Gandhi was restrained in Simla based on Bhutto’s pleas — as well as discreet backchannel messages from Bhutto’s large negotiating party — that he would be ousted from office if he made serious concessions on Kashmir. Gandhi’s close adviser, Haksar, felt the lesson of the Versailles Treaty was that national humiliation could lead to fascistic revanchism. Subsequent critics see this as naivety. They argue that Bhutto was “a great actor” who “fooled” Gandhi. His pleas to the Indian negotiation team not to ask for more concessions lest they destabilise his young government were merely well-delivered lines. Bhutto certainly had no problem lying, but his end in a hangman’s noose more than suggests his stated concerns about his precarious position were not entirely instrumental. A senior Indian diplomat posted in Islamabad during this period told me that Bhutto had been “removed without question because the Army felt he was too soft on India”.
In the years after 1972, Bhutto justified his occasional rhetorical excesses after Simla, this diplomat recounted, as merely the necessary zigging and zagging required to fulfil his secret obligations. Who knows? Perhaps not even the opportunistic Bhutto may have known whether he ever intended to settle the Kashmir dispute along its present lines permanently.
Could India have pushed harder? Here it is worthwhile to consider what failure might have meant. It would have meant ignoring the advice of the Soviet Union, which had just helped ensure India sufficient time to prosecute the war without extra-regional interference. Soviet diplomats worried renewed confrontation would invite United States (US) or Chinese adventurism. Moscow, off-balance from the Sino-Soviet split and US-China rapprochement, was working to give détente with the Richard Nixon administration a chance. It is hard to imagine the Soviets would have welcomed a failed summit.
Upon reflection, too, the POWs may have been less of a bargaining chip than they appear in popular memory. Even for a populous country such as India, caring for 90,000 prisoners is hardly an easy task. Further still, Bhutto would show in the many months of post-Simla negotiations that he was obsessed with avoiding political disadvantage at home. If that led to a prolonged stay for Pakistani prisoners, that was a cost he seemed willing to bear.
After he discovered a minor coup plot in 1973, Bhutto stressed to Indian negotiators that summer that he would not accept war crimes trials against 195 prisoners in exchange for receiving the remaining 90,000-plus. “So far as prisoners of war are concerned you can throw the whole lot in the Ganges, but I cannot agree to the trials,” he told the Indians privately.
What India got in Simla in 1972 was an imperfect peace. Bhutto soon found space to recognise Bangladesh, renormalise relations with India, and resume trade. All along the way, he was fiercely focused on ensuring those concessions did not jeopardise his hold on power. He removed dozens of generals, drafted a new constitution, and ruled Pakistan ruthlessly. His fear of political enemies contributed to his overreach and eventual downfall. Yet the Simla understanding largely held in Kashmir. Bhutto’s departure in 1977 and India’s seizure of the Siachen Glacier in 1984 — surely a violation of Simla’s spirit, Pakistanis allege with some merit — did not cause widespread violence along the LoC. That would only come later, after deeply flawed elections in Kashmir in 1987.
Fifteen years of imperfect peace is hardly a transformative victory, yet it is not trivial either. Simla may have been an imperfect peace, but the record suggests that an imperfect peace may have been the best deal possible, given the fractious nature of Pakistani politics. In the intervening decades, nuclear weapons in India and Pakistan likely have made any future decisive victory unobtainable. Fifty years after Simla, India may still need leaders willing to accept imperfect peace.
Christopher Clary is an assistant professor of political science at the University at Albany and a non-resident fellow of the Stimson Center in Washington, DC. His book, The Difficult Politics of Peace: Rivalry in Modern South Asia was published in June by Oxford University Press
The views expressed are personal