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Henry Kissinger dies: How the controversial foreign policy figure failed to 'scare' India in 1971 war

Kissinger and Nixon did not hide their dislike of India and its leaders, even calling ex-PM Indira Gandhi a "b**ch* and accusing her of "starting a war" before the 1971 conflict. Kissinger attempted to scare India during the 1971 India-Pakistan war by convincing the Chinese to intervene.

Aveek Banerjee Written By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee New Delhi Published on: November 30, 2023 15:40 IST
Former US Secretary of State and National Security Adviser
Image Source : AP Former US Secretary of State and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger.

Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who was known as the ultimate champion of American foreign policy, passed away on Wednesday at the age of 100. The controversial diplomat was awarded with the Nobel Prize but also earned scorn for his contentious policies in Asia and many who faced the brunt of his interventions called him a war criminal.

Kissinger, known for his thick glasses and distinctive voice, was a key figure in shaping US foreign policy during the withdrawal from Vietnam and the initiation of diplomatic relations with China. He was known for his realpolitik approach to foreign policy, emphasizing practical and realistic considerations over ideological or moral concerns. 

Kissinger has been a crucial part of the foreign policy debate in post-independent India. The American statesman was thoroughly known for his disdain towards India, although Kissinger had preferred establishing friendly relations with New Delhi for picking China for the same.

However, former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) soured ties with the US administrations under Harry Truman and D Eisenhower, and certainly did not improve under Richard Nixon. India's position at the time was that it sought to avoid getting dragged into the conflict between the world's two largest powers.

The growing relations between the US and Pakistan as well as between India and the Soviet Union were also major headaches for the Nixon administration and Kissinger himself, causing the latter to focus on China to curtail India's military operations. Despite the US' efforts to stop India's operations in the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War, the conflict ended with a decisive victory with New Delhi.

Kissinger's thoughts about India

Kissinger was a major influential figure in US foreign policy throughout the years, having held key roles including the National Security Adviser and the Secretary of State under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford from 1969 to 1977. Kissinger did not share a friendly view about India, which was very evident during his and Nixon's particularly contentious relationship with former PM Indira Gandhi.

However, in recent years, Kissinger said that his first preference for establishing friendly ties was with India as he adviced the US Chambers of Commerce in the 1970s to establish the US India Business Council (USIBC) and advocated for India and Japan to be granted permanent membership of the UN Security Council.

Nixon and Kissinger had a particularly problematic relationship with Indira Gandhi, who approached them a month before the 1971 conflict began. According to declassified conversations, both men engaged in derogatory language towards India and its leaders, calling Indira Gandhi a "b**ch" and Kissinger accusing her of "starting a war".

India Tv - Henry Kissinger with former Indian PM Indira Gandhi.

Image Source : XHenry Kissinger with former Indian PM Indira Gandhi.

Kissinger also referred to Indians as "b*****ds" and the "most aggressive people around", and he and Nixon called Indians the "most sexless" and "pathetic" people and Indian women as the "most unattractive". In response to Nixon's doubts about US Ambassador to India Kenneth Keating, Kissinger said, "They (Indians) are superb flatterers, Mr President. They are masters at flattery. They are masters at subtle flattery. That’s how they survived 600 years. They suck up — their great skill is to suck up to people in key positions.”

According to a report, Kissinger was also irritated with India sheltering millions of Bangladeshi refugees who were fleeing from East Pakistan (Now Bangladesh) amid a brutal crackdown by Pakistani authorities and called them "a scavenging people".

The 1971 India-Pakistan War

The US-India tensions can be largely explained by geopolitical alliances at the time, when Pakistan was a crucial ally for America as the latter sought to counter Soviet influence across the globe. While Pakistan was 'friends' with the US, India was growing closer to the Soviet Union, causing the Nixon administration to seek a counterbalance to Indian growth and open diplomatic channels towards China, an all-weather friend of Islamabad.

On March 25, 1971, the Pakistan Army launched a brutal crackdown on East Pakistan's Bengali nationalist movement that killed millions of people and caused a massive refugee influx in India. The Consul General of Dhaka Archer Blood asked the US to intervene in the conflict and was met with a "deafening silence". Blood was recalled by the US after he openly criticised the government.

The war officially began on December 3, 1971, when Pakistan carried out aerial strikes on 11 Indian air stations, to which New Delhi responded promptly with counterstrikes on the same night. As the conflict went on, Nixon and Kissinger attempted to "scare off the Indians" by getting the Chinese to intervene.

Beijing shared close relations with Islamabad, so the US hoped that a pro-Pakistan policy would help facilitate a better relationship with China. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union also deployed naval fleets and warned the US against any interference in the war. Fearing the situation, the US deployed its aircraft carrier 'Enterprise' after multiple negotiations to the Indian Ocean to raise Pakistan's morale on the advice of Kissinger.

The ex-Secretary of State hoped that the carrier would convince the Chinese to move its troops to the border with India and scare them off. Kissinger also offered to provide 'tactical intelligence' to the Chinese on the movement of Soviet forces.

"The President wants you to know that… if the People's Republic were to consider the situation on the Indian subcontinent as a threat to its security, and if it took measures to protect its security, the US would oppose efforts of others to interfere with the People's Republic," Kissinger told senior Chinese official Huang Hua.

However, China did not comply, as it feared that coercive actions against India would lead to reprisals from Moscow. This came after the dramatic military escalation by Russia in response to Chinese provocations in their 1969 Sino-Soviet border crisis, after which then-President Mao Zedong was not willing to take another chance. The Soviet administration also reassured India that it would counteract against any moves by the US and China, hence Pakistan's main benefactors were unable to intervene in the war.

Eventually, the aircraft carrier never approached Indian waters in the Bay of Bengal and went to Sri Lanka, as intervening would have drawn the US into direct conflict with the Soviet Union. The war ended in a decisive victory for India after Pakistani soldiers surrendered, leading to the establishment of the independent state of Bangladesh. Kissinger was told to have congratulated Nixon for "saving West Pakistan".

Kissinger's later views on India

Years after the war, Kissinger's views about India changed significantly as he called Indira Gandhi a woman of 'great character' and justified that his foul remarks should be understood in the context of the Cold War atmosphere. “When I think about India, I admire their strategy," Kissinger said in 2018 during the first annual leadership summit of the US India Strategic and Partnership Forum (USISPF) in June 2018.

In 1974, Kissinger told then-President Ford that Indira Gandhi felt an “almost pathological need” to criticise the US but desired an improvement in Indo-US relations on a “more equal” basis after Washington recognised India as an “important country in the world”.

"Our relations with India are friendly and aloof. It's a fortunate thing the Indians are pacifists, otherwise, their neighbours would be worried. The first time we were in India, they told me that Kabul belonged to India too," he was quoted as saying in a White House memo.

After the Cold War ended, relations between India and the US improved and Kissinger called for establishing stronger ties with New Delhi. After Narendra Modi became the Indian Prime Minister in 2014, Kissinger was reported to be a great fan of the former and advocated for strong ties with India under his leadership. The ex-US NSA also interacted with PM Modi several times.

"If you look at the world, there are upheavals in almost every part of the world and you cannot necessarily develop a general concept for each of them but you can work together on the essentials of peace and progress. Then I would say no two countries now are better situated to evolve their friendship," said Kissinger at a separate USISPF event.

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