How India, Pak came close to settle border

A celebrated adviser to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in different capacities, Durga Prasad Dhar embellished everything he touched.

As cabinet minister, chairman of the policy planning committee of the Ministry of External Affairs and as ambassador to the Soviet Union twice, he played a crucial role in critical situations.

 Two of the most significant agreements of his time, the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation of 1971 and the Shimla Agreement of 1972 were essentially his handiwork. He is said to have stood firm on Indira’s side, when doubting Thomases dithered and whined. He was prominent among the architects of the liberation of Bangladesh, ranging from Indira Gandhi, G Parthasarathi, Field Marshall Manekshaw, General Arora, Lt Gen Jacob, Ambassador A K Damodaran to Ambassador A PVenkateswaran.

 The biggest dilemma the Indian leadership faced at that time was how to reconcile the commitment to nonalignment with a virtual military agreement with the Soviet Union.

The sabre rattling by the United States and China had made it imperative that we should have powerful friends behind us to win the war. Indira Gandhi proclaimed that national interest was supreme and that the only way was to liberate Bangladesh and to send the refugees back to establish peace in the region. In a whirlwind tour, she spoke to the world leaders about her compulsions, but the reaction was scepticism at best and hostility at worst. Dhar directed the entire operation from Moscow and Delhi.

Although the Soviets were committed to support and protect India, they were also worried about the outcome of the the war and, once the hostilities started, they were in a hurry to finish it.

As the days passed, the Soviets were nervous. It was Dhar who held their hand and assured them of the ability of the Indian Army to deal with situational issues in the war. Even after he finished his tenure in Moscow in 1971, he kept returning to the Soviet Union to manage the relationship.

The talks in Shimla between Indira Gandhi and Zulfiqar Bhutto were as crucial as the war itself. Though India agreed to return the prisoners of war and the areas occupied in the western sector, the two countries came closest to resolving the border issue. The ceasefire line became the Line of Control with a view to turning it into the international border. It was also decided that problems between India and Pakistan would be resolved bilaterally. Of course, Pakistan backed out of the Shimla Agreement, but it will eventually be a crucial factor in any settlement of the border issue. Dhar’s contribution to the Shimla Agreement will be long remembered.

Dhar returned to Moscow in 1975 as ambassador, when I had the privilege of working with him. Sadly, he passed away in June 1975 on a visit to India, but even during that short period in Moscow, I saw glimpses of his great personality, which combined personal charm, sharp intellect, good humour and warm hospitality. With his deep knowledge of the Soviet Union and access to Indira Gandhi, he was an ideal envoy.

After being a hero of the Bangladesh war and the Shimla Agreement, he had grown in stature beyond being an ambassador to Moscow. But when he found that Indira Gandhi's political calculations had landed him in Moscow, he put his heart and soul into his job. He convinced us during a short period that he had a grand design for Indo-Soviet relations and that each of us in his team in Moscow had a role to play.

Dhar took no time to settle in his new job, as he had become an expert on the Soviet Union not only during his first assignment as ambassador, but also during his days as the chairman of the policy planning committee, a cover for Bangladesh troubleshooting.

Dhar visited the Soviet Union several times during that period in the company of General (later Field Marshal S H F J) Manekshaw and the joint secretary of the MEA for East Europe, A P Venkateswaran, who later became foreign secretary.

To me, Dhar matched Chanakya of my imagination, tall, handsome, intelligent and stylish. But there was nothing Machiavellian about him. He was transparent, honest and upright. His thoughts and actions with regard to the Soviet Union and Pakistan are still relevant as we struggle with the Pakistan imbroglio.

(The writer is former ambassador and governor for India of the International Atomic Energy Agency)

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