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Nehru’s blunder

There was no need for a negotiated written treaty. Unfortunately, it appears that Nehru’s priority was his international stature rather than his national duty.


by Prafull Goradia

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was never faulted for negotiating with Pakistan on the distribution of the Indus waters and for going to Karachi to sign the Indus Water Treaty in 1960. The Ravi is an eastern river whose source is in the Chamba district of Himachal Pradesh. Again an eastern river, Beas is sourced in the Rohtang Pass, also in Himachal. The third eastern river is the Sutlej, which starts near Mount Kailash in Tibet, passes through Himachal Pradesh and Punjab, until it finally flows into the Indus. Along with the Indus, the Jhelum is also considered a western river. It originates in the Pir Panjal Range in Kashmir, flows through Srinagar and eventually enters Pakistan and joins the Indus. Lastly, the Chenab is sourced at the Lahaul and Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh, flows through Kishtwar, Doda, Ramban and Reasi districts of Jammu and Kashmir and then into West Punjab before merging with the Indus. In short, all the six rivers help to form the Indus basin. Five are tributaries of the great Indus and they all reach the sea together, near Karachi.

The noteworthy point is that four of the tributaries originate in India, while the fifth one, the Chenab flows through India too. The Indus itself traverses Ladakh in India. It is clear from this description how strategically important the geography of Kashmir is to our country. In short, we could have held our neighbouring country by the scruff of its neck. We are a much bigger nation and could have assured Pakistan that we would let it have sufficient water provided it behaved like a normal nation. There was absolutely no need for a negotiated written treaty in the presence of World Bank officials, who played the role of negotiators for some nine years. If Kashmir was a mistake—New Delhi ordered the Indian Army to stop at the line dividing the Kashmiri speaking part of the Valley from the Punjabi speaking Muzzafarabad—the Indus Waters Treaty was a blunder. Nehru’s Kashmir move was intended to oblige Sheikh Abdullah, who although known as the lion of Kashmir, was not confident of support from the Punjabi speaking section. Realising the doubtful nature of his decision, Nehru put the burden of responsibility for ceasing fire and referring the issue to the United Nations Organisation on Viceroy Mountbatten.

If Nehru had the vision, India-Pakistan relations would have been smoother and friendlier. In the absence of a treaty, Pakistani diplomats would have frequented the South Block to make sure that the Indian government continued to be well inclined towards them and there was no threat of reducing the flow of Indus water into their part of the basin. Let us review how. The person who represented India throughout 1951 to 1960 in the Indus water negotiations with Pakistan and the World Bank was Niranjan D. Gulhati, an accomplished irrigation engineer. In his words: “So far as India was concerned, the real problem arose out of the fact that out of 26 million acres of land irrigated annually by the Indus canals, Partition placed 21 million acres in Pakistan and only 5 million acres in India. Within the Indus plains, the areas irrigated in 1945-46 was 19.5 million acres in Pakistan and only 3.8 million acres in India. Most of the highly developed canal system, the famous canal colonies, the granary of the Punjab, were in west Punjab. The population depending on the waters of the Indus system, according to the 1941 census, was 25 million in Pakistan and 21 million in India. The newly imposed political frontier not only disrupted the food supply line for the 21 million in India but also severed suddenly the hydrologic unity of the river system and posed a serious obstacle to the development of several million acres of highly arid, but otherwise fertile, land in the Indian part of the Indus Basin. Only 5.9 million acres in the Indian part of the Indus plains had been provided with canal irrigation as against 28 million acres in the Pakistan part.”

Indus water was a subject of dispute long before the partition of 1947. The provinces of Punjab and Sind and the princely states of Bahawalpur and Bikaner had quarrelled over Indus’ water for many years. The disputes however, were not taken seriously because all four parties owed their loyalties to the British Crown. Upon Partition, however, the issue became focused between east and west Punjab, with each side owing loyalty to different masters, namely New Delhi and Karachi. In the absence of any agreement or understanding, on 1 April 1948, the irrigation department on the Indian side stopped the water flowing into canals from rivers on their side. It was clear that India could not afford to go on giving plentiful supply to the canals constructed by the British earlier in the century. The granary that was west Punjab would be of little use to the Indian side. It was for Pakistan to add to its canal network, whereby they would draw water from the three western rivers, namely the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab. Such a network would have needed the construction of several reservoirs.

The crisis created by the action of 1 April 1948 was temporarily overcome by the two Punjabs on 18 April. Subsequently, an inter-dominion accord was temporarily reached on 4 May. For permanence, Pakistan was deeply anxious and wished to take up the matter at the International Court of Justice, whereas India advocated bilateral discussions. Many a meeting was held between the two dominions, leading nowhere. The World Bank at Washington DC volunteered to mediate and by the time serious discussions could take place, it was 1954. It then took another six years for a treaty to be ready for signature. It was eventually signed in Karachi by Jawaharlal Nehru, Field Marshal Ayub Khan and Vice-President of the World Bank, W.A.B. Iliff. Why did India give the water dispute so much importance that the Prime Minister himself had to go to Karachi to sign the treaty? It was as if Pakistan was doing a India great favour.

Instead of this naïveté, India, being the much bigger country and the one sharing its water, could have extracted the guarantee of good behaviour from Pakistan before allowing sufficient flow of water to that country. There was no need to waste World Bank’s time. If Karachi insisted on litigation at The Hague, despite New Delhi’s assurance, so be it. If the court gave an unwelcome judgement, India could have demanded behavioural guarantees on the part of Karachi. Pakistan was already guilty of vandalizing the Kashmir Valley from October 1947 to the whole of 1948.

Representatives of no decent nation could have indulged in rape, loot and arson on innocent people. Unfortunately, it appears that Nehru’s priority was his international stature rather than his national duty. There might have been a war in 1965 notwithstanding a water treaty. It is possible that the over-confidence of Field Marshal Ayub Khan and the apparent meekness of Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri might have precipitated a clash for the sake of Kashmir as well as a release from the water clutches. But one defeat would have settled Islamabad from raising its head again.

When one reads a book called Empires of the Indus by Alice Albinia, one comes to the bitter conclusion that India is wasting its time worrying about the Indus water basin and our obligation to release sufficient water. In her last chapter entitled “The Disappearing River”, Albinia describes her journey beginning from the Indus delta of the river at Karachi to several thousand kilometres upwards until she reached Senge Khabab in Tibet, where the source of the legendary river is located. To go back to the delta from where Albinia travelled by boat, she found that the first 150 kilometres of the water had come from the sea. There was no outward flow of the river until that point. Further up is the Kotri dam built to irrigate parts of Sind. Going further upwards in a jeep in the Punjab, is the much bigger Tarbela dam. This is to irrigate parts of Punjab. Thereafter, Albinia got to see the impressive hydroelectric dam with a reservoir, near Senge Khabab. All in all, it appears, considering the enormity of the Indus, not much water is allowed into Pakistan and certainly not to Sind. Little wonder that Albinia has named her final chapter “The Disappearing River”.

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