South Asia — India & Pakistan

Eastward from Iran and the Persian Gulf lie the giant states of South Asia which together act as the anchor of a huge imaginary crescent that holds the southern part of Eurasia in its arc. With China at its center, the arc starts from Oman and the Straits of Hormuz in the Middle East. It extends into the Arabian Sea around India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to Southeast Asia, northward around the Philippines to Japan, toward the Sea of Okhotsk, Kamchatka, and the wastes of the Russian Far East. This arc encloses a landmass with over a third of the world’s people. Vital today of course, these countries were important in the 1960s as well.

In 1947, Great Britain created the separate independent states of India and West and East Pakistan in the partition of its South Asian empire. In the months leading up to the split, massive and agonizing exchanges of population took place. Ethnic and religious violence erupted on a gigantic scale, and set the tone for the already difficult task of carving out specific boundaries within the new states in the early years of each state’s independence, and preoccupied their leaders.

Nehru and Gandhi on the cusp of Indian independence, July 6, 1946 (photo: Dave Davis, Acme Newspictures; Max Desfor)

As if not hard enough, at the start of the REPUBLIC OF INDIA came the assassination by a Hindu fanatic of M.K. Gandhi, the man most associated with Indian independence. In the absence of its spiritual leader, it was left to two men in January 1948 to take control – first and foremost Jawaharlal Nehru and with him Vallabhai Patel. Patel, to whom fell the task of consolidating the Indian federation of 17 former British provinces and 562 princely states, died untimely in 1950. An associate of Gandhi’s in India’s freedom fight, the charismatic Nehru became head of the Congress Party and prime minister until his death in 1964. Nehru exercised great influence over the shape of the early Indian republic and beyond. His daughter, who became known as Indira Gandhi (no relation), became India’s third prime minister in 1966. Her son, Rajiv Gandhi, served in the same office starting in 1984.

The Indian Constitution of 1949 created a federal republic. Its first national elections took place in 1952 and gave the National Congress Party a majority until 1967. Domestically, the newly-independent India had to manage several divisive forces among states. An early controversy was deciding what language, if any, to chose as a national tongue. From north to south, there were 60-odd spoken languages and though many realized the practical value of English, pressures grew all over India to redraw the map along linguistic (and ethnic) lines during our era. A new province, Andhra, was created for example solely on the basis of language in 1953, as was Gandhi’s home state of Gujarat in 1960, and Indian Punjab in 1966. In addition to territorial changes, the first Indian parliaments passed reforms that built on British innovations, such as legal rights for Hindu women and legislation against caste discrimination, including untouchability.

The Indian economy just after independence was quite different from the dynamic one that started in the 1990s. To guide the nation’s development and alleviate poverty, Nehru chose socialism. He advocated a minimum wage, formation of unions, and reduced taxes for farmers. He pushed broad educational initiatives from the elementary to post-secondary levels. Nehru nationalized steel, aviation, shipping, power generation, and the mining industries; and initiated government-funded public works from roads to canals to dams.

Starting in the 1950s, but particularly the 1960s, policies tended toward protectionism, import substitution in the domestic market, and a spurning of international trade. Indian leaders closed the economy to the outside world, and made the rupee inconvertible.

High-yielding varieties of wheat in Punjab State (photo: Sanyam Bahga)

Aggressive attempts at food self-sufficiency brought Norman Borlaug’s “Green Revolution” to India in 1963 with high-yield corn and wheat. Five-Year Plan after Five-Year plan resembled central planning in the Soviet Union and put industry under close state management. The Indian state administered these developments with a labyrinthine bureaucracy that made business approvals so arduous that India acquired a new name: “the Licence Raj.”

Aspiring to swift progress, India fell terribly short. Its 3% growth rate in the 1960s was well behind its South Asian peer, Pakistan, and below any of the developing economies of East Asia which expanded three times as fast. Already in 1960, much smaller South Korea had a per-capita income four times larger than India’s; in 1990, it was larger by an astounding factor of twenty (WIKI, “Hindu Rate of Growth”). Reasons for disappointing economic results may have had something to do with the choice of the centralized nature of socialism. But outside events played a part as well.

As India carved out a post-independence role in the world, it remained attached to its British Empire legacy through membership in the [British] Commonwealth. It did so, however, not as a protagonist in the Cold War – as were Britain and the United States – but as a neutral power, unaligned with either Moscow or Washington. India became part of a so-called “Third World” that included countries such as Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Norway and most new African and Latin American states.

As Nehru steered a course between the two great Cold War powers globally, India collided with external issues close to home – none more distracting than its all-consuming quarrel with Pakistan. The partition of 1947 had created two countries – one mainly Hindu (India), the other mainly Muslim (Pakistan); caused over 10 million people to flee to the country of their faith, and a million deaths often under hideous sectarian circumstances. Soon after signing the Instrument of Accession in October, India and Pakistan established diplomatic relations but the violence of partition poisoned their relationship then and to a certain extent to this day.


Nehru and Jinnah at Simla in 1946 (British Library)

Like India, Pakistan had to address core issues upon its independence. Created by the British partition as a sort of Muslim Zion, its initially unorganized internal territorial boundaries settled into the large provinces of Sindh, Punjab, Baluchistan, Northwest Frontier, and East Bengal that we know today, coordinated from its original capital of Karachi. As India had lost Gandhi by assassination in 1948, Pakistan similarly lost its founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the same year. As a result, Ali Khan became Pakistan’s first prime minister. He established a strong government to manage the new large provinces (including secessionist movements in Baluchistan) and, in general, balanced an awkwardly split country whose eastern-most part (East Pakistan) lay non-contiguously on the other side of India and spoke not Urdu but Bengali. Ali-Khan himself was assassinated in 1951. Language and religious riots as well as separatist movements plagued both sides of the new country resulting in a martial law declaration in 1954 and established the long-standing precedent for military participation in Pakistani politics.

In 1960 General Ayub Khan assumed the leadership of Pakistan by national referendum, and put forth a new constitution that established a civilian government under a presidential system that utilizing an American-inspired electoral college. In a symbol of changes to come, President Khan moved the center of governance northward from Karachi to the newly-planned capital, Islamabad, and his time in office to 1969 is often dubbed and celebrated as the “Great Decade” for Pakistan, which was the 1960s.

President Kennedy welcomes President Khan to Washington, July 1961 (photo: Abbie Rowe)

In contrast to Indian socialism, President Khan brought free market policies to Pakistan, encouraging private sector jobs in small and medium-scale industries with tax cuts. He modernized agriculture with the help of Harvard advisors, established an oil refining industry in Karachi, and in 1961 even started a space program, just three years after the United States started NASA. Typical of a quickly-growing economy, the rich-poor income gap widened as the economy performed remarkably in the years 1960 to 1969, averaging 6% yearly growth. With one-third the population, Pakistani manufacturing exports ranked higher in 1969 than those for Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia combined (Husain article, 3)(pop. calculated for 1965, NationMaster).

The success of Ayub’s economic policies appeared to serve the country well, and Pakistan in the 1960s was the model of a developing economy to learn from and emulate. Ayub Khan called his authoritarian system of government and economics “Guided Democracy” – after the phrase by Indonesia’s Sukarno at the time. By 1970, however, there was a reversal of Khan’s free market policies and an embrace of a distributive justice and equity approach under the slogan of Islamic socialism. Nationalizations of companies, banks, and schools began and the promise of the 1960s quickly dimmed into the sluggish growth of the 1970s under the leadership of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

The reversal of fortune in Pakistan had less to do with economics than with serious foreign policy disputes with India, including the issue of East Pakistan – today known as Bangladesh. Numerous territorial disputes cropped up in the wake of partition. In 1947 a stand-off took place, for example, over part of the Indian state of Gujarat (Junagadh) which its Muslim ruler claimed belonged to Pakistan. India settled the relatively minor Gujarat issue swiftly by force. By contrast, the issue of the Himalayan northern state of Kashmir and Jammu persisted as a dangerous and disputed area. In 1947-1948, India and Pakistan fought the so-called First Kashmir War that resulted in Pakistan taking two-fifths of Kashmir by an agreement that divided the former princely state along a cease-fire line brokered by the United Nations.

The Indus River and its many tributaries (cartographer: Keenan Pepper)

After the war, pressure continued between Indian and Pakistan because the waters that fed most of Pakistan’s farmland – the great Indus River and its tributaries – started in the Kashmir hills. As a result of partition, the source rivers of the Indus were in India, and Pakistan’s dependent position was difficult to the point of aggression. Throughout the 1950s, the two sides barely met and in the end it took Indian, Pakistani, and World Bank engineers under American and British mediation to work out a concrete plan for the disposition of water resources by a series of constructed canals and storage dams. In 1960, Nehru and Ayub Khan signed the landmark Indus Waters Treaty at Karachi that managed water between India and Pakistan flowing into the largest irrigated area of any river system in the world.

Hard-won and fragile, the water agreement nevertheless did not prevent hostilities over Kashmir. In August 1965, war broke out again when Pakistan began Operation Gibraltar – deploying air assets and 30,000 infantry into Kashmir to precipitate an uprising against Indian rule. Matched by Indian forces, a five-week general war ensued with thousands of casualties. Pakistan lost the war, and by the Tashkent Agreement of 10 January 1966, the Americans and Soviets compelled India and Pakistan to pull back to pre-war positions and restore the Kashmir 1949 ceasefire line – now known on maps as “The Line of Control” or “LOC.”

Regionally, the 1965 war was more than a blip in the middle of a decade. It had serious origins and ramifications. It was a defeat for Pakistan, and Indian premier Lal Bahadur Shastri was hailed as a national hero. China repeatedly threatened to intervene to support Pakistan. It also saw the use of American arms by Pakistani forces, and pushed India into closer relations with the Soviet Union which in the 1960s became India’s largest arms supplier.


Disputed Territories at the Top of the World: Shown in green is Kashmiri region under Pakistani control. The orange region represents Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir while the Aksai Chin is under Chinese occupation (CIA/Library of Congress, 2003).

The war highlighted the volatile intersection where India, Pakistan, and Chinese Tibet came together; where they met became among the most dangerous places on earth in the 1960s. Pakistan’s action against India followed shortly on a serious conflict between China and India over a portion of their shared Himalayan border in general dispute as far back as the 19th century in the British Raj. After partition, and without the British buffer, ever-more serious border skirmishes and disputes occurred between China and India, made immeasurably worse by China’s annexation of Tibet in 1950. In the early 1960s, India and China tested each other by building outposts in areas claimed by the other but the flashpoint came over a region about the size of Switzerland called Aksai Chin – claimed by India as Kashmir, but by China as part of its Xinjiang Province. In October 1962 Chinese troops invaded India “with disturbingly unclear objectives.” This was the phrase of British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan for the India-China clash, which had little significance except its consequences, and for the fact that it occurred at the exceedingly-charged moment that the Kennedy administration confronted the Soviet Union over Cuba.

Pahalgam Valley in Kashmir (photo: KennyOMG)

The Kennedy administration considered nuclear weapons to blunt Chinese moves toward India. China defeated India, that now sought improved relations with the Soviet Union, and the Indian defeat also triggered a defense build-up that Pakistan hoped to preempt with an ill-fated attack on India in 1965. India defeated Pakistan that year; the country’s impressive economic growth ended, Ayub Khan was ousted, and Pakistan embarked on a quest for nuclear weapons to compete with India that was now a rival in an arms race with China. In a blistering speech to the United Nations in 1965, Foreign Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto declared:

Pakistan will fight, fight for a thousand years. If India builds the bomb, Pakistan will eat grass or leaves, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own. We have no other Choice!

Scientific research into nuclear arms programs for the South Asian giants began in the 1960s, took time, and paid off. India exploded a nuclear device in 1974, Pakistan in 1998. As we will see, China boasted of an atomic bomb by 1964. With three nuclear antagonists border to border, the unresolved Kashmir-Jammu-Tibet dispute threatened to become radioactive.

Indo-Pakistani tensions climaxed in an event that closes our era and altered the geography of the South Asia. For years, relations between East and West Pakistan had deteriorated. Islamabad’s inadequate response to the cyclone that ravaged East Pakistan at the end of 1970 triggered calls for separation and independence in Dacca. In response to East Pakistan’s impulse to form its own country, West Pakistan exacted a terrible toll beginning in March 1971. The West’s army commenced operations to crush the nationalist movement in the East, systematically burning centers of unrest; raping, killing, and deporting activists, particularly Bengali Hindus. Figures vary, but in what is now known as the Bangladesh Liberation War, sources site casualties between 300,000 to three million, with the word “genocide” used in reports from news organizations and American consular personnel. Time magazine quoted a high U.S. official as saying “It is the most incredible, calculated thing since the days of the Nazis in Poland.” (WIKI, “Bangladesh Genocide”). For eight months, war raged and large-scale atrocities by Pakistani regulars and Islamic militias caused massive displacements of East Pakistan’s population and the exodus of some 10 million refugees to nearby Indian states. Preempting a military response by India, Pakistan struck Indian Air Force bases in northwestern India on December 3, 1971 – including Agra, where the Taj Mahal was heavily camouflaged in anticipation of a possible attack. This action marked the start of the Indo-Pakistani War.

The war lasted two weeks and involved air, sea, and land forces. Pakistan suffered a complete defeat, lost half its population, with almost a third of its army captured. The war allowed millions of Bengali refugees to return to their homeland, which Prime Minister Indira Gandhi celebrated at the end of hostilities on December 16, 1971:

Dacca is now the free capital of a free country. We hail the people of Bangladesh in their hour of triumph. All nations that value the human spirit will recognize it as a significant milestone in man’s quest for liberty. (“India: Easy Victory, Uneasy Peace.” Time Magazine, 27 December 1971.)

The 1971 war attracted the attention of the major Cold War players. The Soviet Union supported East Pakistan and India. The United States supported West Pakistan. West Pakistan was a close ally of China, with which President Nixon and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, were negotiating a rapprochement and which they planned to visit in 1972. In addition to its Chinese calculations for supporting Pakistan, the Nixon administration feared that an Indian invasion and occupation of Pakistan would strengthen the Soviet position in the region and undermine American influence. To avoid a Pakistani collapse, Nixon ignored reports of atrocities against Hindus in the East, encouraged countries such as Jordan and Iran to send military supplies to Pakistan, and urged China to mobilize its armed forces to discourage an Indian invasion to blunt a Soviet opportunity. Late in the war, the aircraft carrier, USS Enterprise and its battle group steamed into the waters off the coast of East Pakistan and met a Soviet nuclear task force dispatched from Vladivostok. As with Cuba in 1962, the Cold War antagonists stood eyeball to eyeball.

India and Pakistan stopped fighting in December 1971, and Pakistan’s defeat – the second in six years – was codified in writing by an agreement signed at the famous hill station town of Simla on July 2, 1972. Among its several provisions, the agreement returned Pakistan’s prisoners of war, and Pakistan acknowledged de jure what the war had already established de facto – the independence of the sovereign state of Bangladesh. The agreement reiterated the borders in Jammu Kashmir as the “Line of Control,” which, notwithstanding a few incidents, has held the area ever since in precarious balance.

Balanced or not, the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971 humiliated Pakistan, and established India’s military predominance on the subcontinent. Soviet influence in the region increased throughout the 1970s and western aid dollars shifted to Pakistan as a result, joining Chinese assistance that had been in place for some time. The agreement at Simla finally ended the series of conflicts that took place during the era of the 1960s. It did not, however, end the bitterness since the 1947 Partition between the two powers, nor quench mutual insecurities. Each began nuclear programs as a result of 1960s encounters, and each continued large national defense outlays. India continued, and Pakistan adopted, socialist policies that reduced options for growth, and locked in sluggish economic development for decades.

The Partition of the British Raj in 1947 and subsequent events of the 1950s and 1960s came as an indirect – albeit important – effect of the Second World War. Pakistan and India indeed were among the first in the major phenomenon of postwar decolonization that rippled around the world and culminated in 1960s Africa. But they were generally untouched by the war in such things as material damage, interrupted lives, and casualties.

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