The road to Tashkent

How the Soviet Union brought India and Pakistan to the negotiating table after the 1965 war

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".

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