Open Essay

The Man Behind Indira

Jairam Ramesh is a Member of Parliament and an author
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The wise counsel of PN Haksar

Intertwined Lives: PN Haksar & Indira Gandhi | Jairam Ramesh | Simon & Schuster | 813 pages | Rs 599

ON 18 JANUARY 1971, PN Haksar, principal secretary to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi from 1967 to 1972, sent her a note, the significance of which would be revealed much later. He wrote:

‘I have received a programme drawn up for PM to tour her own constituency on the 1st February, 1971. I find that a helicopter is being used twice. PM has to consider this carefully. Also, whether this was done in 1967. Use of helicopter which West Bengal is advising in the interest of security, is one thing. Its use in going to inaccessible places is also understandable. Whether similar justification exists for its use by PM in her own constituency, requires, I submit, careful consideration.’

Some months later after the election results were declared and she had won handsomely in a landslide, her opponent Raj Narain would petition the Allahabad High Court that Indira Gandhi was guilty of a series of electoral malpractices, including the use of government helicopters for her campaign. I will be discussing that case a little later. Suffice it to say for the moment that she was held ‘not guilty’ by the judge of the charge of misusing helicopters because she had confined it to specific areas on security considerations as advised by Haksar. As it is, she would be held guilty on two counts. There may well have been a third count had she not heeded Haksar’s advice on the use of helicopters in her own constituency of Rae Bareili in Uttar Pradesh.

The election campaign was in full swing and Indira Gandhi had returned to New Delhi to take part in the Republic Day celebrations on 26 January 1971. Just the previous day, Haksar delivered a bombshell of sorts to her: ‘I was born on 4th of September, 1913. I, therefore, reach the age of superannuation on 4th of September, 1971.

For India to give recognition to an independent Bangladesh, Haksar advised the Prime Minister, an assessment should include the question whether West Pakistan would retaliate against India, particularly in Kashmir

Under Fundamental Rule 86, it is provided that leave at the credit of a Government servant in his leave account shall lapse on the date of compulsory retirement provided that if in sufficient time before that date he has formally applied for leave due as preparatory to retirement and been refused it, or ascertain in writing from the sanctioning authority that such leave, if applied for, would not be granted—in either case, the ground for refusal being the requirements of public service, then the Government servant may be granted, after the date of retirement, the amount of leave so refused subject to a maximum of six months.

My leave account standing as on 31st December, 1970 shows that I have the following amount of leave due to me:-

(i) Earned leave—180 days

(ii) Half Pay leave—440 days

In accordance with the provisions of Fundamental Rule 86, I therefore apply for leave preparatory to retirement for the entire amount of leave due to me with effect from 1st of February, 1971. [italics mine]’

Haksar was clearly telling the Prime Minister that he wanted to leave. She sat on Haksar’s note and a few days later, on 2 February 1971, sent him an extraordinary note of her own:

‘You know that I am neither morbid nor superstitious but I do think that one should be prepared. The thought of something happening to me has haunted me—not so much now, as during the last tour—and I am genuinely worried about the children. I have nothing to leave them except very few shares which I am told are hardly worth anything. There is some little jewelry, which I had divided into two parts for the two prospective daughters-in-law. Then there are some household goods, carpets, pictures, etc. It is for the boys to decide. I personally would like everything to be as evenly divided as possible, except that Rajiv has a job but Sanjay doesn’t and is also involved in an expensive venture. He is so much like I was at his age— rough edges and all—that my heart aches for the suffering he may have to bear. The problem is where they will live and how… I can only hope and trust for the best. But I should like the boys and some to feel that they are not quite alone, that they do have someone to lean on.’

This was a most unusual Indira Gandhi—emotional and baring her soul to her aide. Was she telling him that she still needed him and that he should not press his resignation? Whatever it was, events soon overtook both of them when on 30 January 1971, an Indian Airlines plane flying from Srinagar to Jammu was hijacked to Lahore and destroyed there. India immediately suspended flights of Pakistani civil and military aircraft over Indian territory. Indira Gandhi issued two statements in quick succession, both drafted by Haksar. From Calcutta, on 6 February 1971, she appealed to ‘all political parties in the country not to use this incident for narrow political ends’, and ended by saying, ‘I should like to warn all elements, inside the country or outside, that we stand united in the defence of our national honour and interests and shall not allow them to be threatened or jeopardized under any circumstances.’ The same day, Haksar sent her a message:

‘A message has come from Islamabad saying that Pakistan Government has sent a note requesting mutual talks and consultation for overcoming difficulties that have arisen and saying that India should not have acted unilaterally in cancelling civilian and military overflights. This I interpret as a good sign. We have said that we are considering this request made by Pakistan, but in the meantime Government of India’s decision in respect of overflights remains, expressing the hope that Pakistan would create a better atmosphere for mutual negotiations by paying compensation for the loss and damage suffered by India.’

‘The thought of something happening to me has haunted me—not so much now, as during the last tour—and I am genuinely worried about the children,’ Indira Gandhi wrote to Haksar

But the message also carried some political advice for a prime minister on her election campaign:

‘I would submit that the main theme for PM’s talks with the business and industrial community in Calcutta should be on ‘politics of growth with stability’ to which Government is committed and the Congress Party is committed. Stability cannot be reached on the basis of grand alliances or on the basis of extreme left. The path which the Congress Party led by the Prime Minister is treading is the only path on which one could have some assurance that stability could be reached and growth ensured …’

On 18 February 1971, the Soviet ambassador called on Haksar at his own instance. Right through 1971, this diplomat Nikolai Pegov would meet Haksar very often, both formally and informally. Haksar recorded of that early-February 1971 meeting:

‘The Ambassador handed over to me in extreme confidence, a Photostat copy of a letter written by the Ambassador of Pakistan in Moscow to Chairman Kosygin. I place below a copy of it. The Soviet Ambassador said that Chairman Kosygin had not yet replied to this letter and wondered if there was anything which Government of India would like Chairman Kosygin to do. I asked him what he had in mind. He replied by saying that perhaps some meeting could be arranged at an appropriate level in Moscow between the two sides [India and Pakistan] and with Soviet presence. He said, for instance, that the Ambassadors of the two countries could meet. I told him that the issues involved were fairly simple and straightforward. An Indian aircraft on Pakistani territory was wantonly destroyed and the Pakistani authorities looked on; the President of the [International Civil Aviation Organisation] had recommended to Pakistan that the aircraft, together with the passengers, mail, etc, should be allowed to continue their journey and that the hijackers must be prosecuted. Pakistan has to set right the wrong done. Once this was achieved, the proper atmosphere would be created for restoring confidence without which restoration of air flights over the territories of the two countries concerned could not be resumed. The Ambassador did not argue against my line of reasoning.’

The Pakistan Government’s complaint to the Soviet Union and asking for its mediation had fallen on deaf ears. On the contrary, India was shown a copy of the Pakistani letter and allowed to put forward its arguments to strengthen the Soviet case for non-involvement. A week later, Haksar sent a telegram to DP Dhar, India’s ambassador in Moscow, identifying specific military equipment which were urgently required by India ‘based on a review (a) of our deficiencies and (b) of substantial accretion to Pakistan’s offensive capabilities’. The list included tanks with matching ammunition with spares, armoured personnel carriers, guns, ammunition, bomber aircraft, surface- to-air guided weapon, low-looking radar and aircraft for India’s aircraft carrier. It was a long wish list and Haksar ended the telegram by telling Dhar that:

‘Pakistan has acquired qualitatively a new dimension in its capability in the air in terms of quality of aircraft, their range, their numbers, etc. We have no, repeat no, other source of supply than to rely upon Soviet readiness to understand and respond to our needs.’

Simultaneously, Haksar handed over a detailed aide memoire to Pegov giving full details of what exactly the Indian armed forces wanted from the USSR.

‘Pakistan has acquired a new dimension in its capability in the air. We have no other source of supply than to rely upon Soviet readiness to understand and respond to our needs,’ noted Haksar

Clearly, military contingency plans were being drawn up even as the country was preparing to go to the polls. On 2 March 1971, Haksar secured Indira Gandhi’s approval to set up a five-member committee chaired by the cabinet secretary and including himself to ‘immediately examine the issue of giving help to Bangladesh and give their assessments to the PM’. The entire exercise was to be coordinated by RN Kao [then chief of the Research & Analysis Wing]. The issue was to be examined from the following angles—the language being clearly that of Haksar’s:

‘(a) What would be the implications, internal as well as external, of India giving recognition to an independent Bangladesh?

(b) If India gives aid to Bangladesh what would be the various implications under the heads given below. These may be considered under two sets of circumstances viz, with and without formal recognition of Bangladesh:

Implications to be examined

(a) Political— both internal and external implications should be considered.

(b) Economic—the implications of economic aid should be examined with reference to India’s foreign trade, the possible trans-border trade into Bangladesh and all other relevant factors, including an estimate of the cost likely to be entailed in giving such aid.

Note: The requirements of Bangladesh include the following:

(i) Arms and ammunition (including LMGs, MMGs and Mortars).

(ii) Food supplies amounting to 3 million tonnes of food stuffs.

(iii) Medicines.

(iv) Communication and Signals equipment.

(v) Transport for quick movement inside India around the borders of Bangladesh. The transport includes a small passenger aircraft plus a helicopter.

(vi) A radio transmitter with facilities for Bangladesh broadcasts.

(c) Military—This assessment should include the question whether West Pakistan would retaliate against India, particularly in Kashmir. Also, whether there would be any military reaction on the part of China as a close ally of Pakistan.’

This was Haksar at his analytical, meticulous best. What is interesting is that he had got the Government thinking on 2 March 1971 itself.

The background to this was clearly a 25-page note that had been sent to him by Kao on 14 January 1971, of which the main points were:

‘(a) the impressive increase in Pakistan’s armed might since her confrontation with India in 1965; and

(b) the possibility of a combination of circumstances leading to a situation in which Pakistan might be tempted to start fomenting violent agitation, sabotage, etc, in the J&K State followed by extensive infiltration.’

On 9 March 1971, Haksar informed the Prime Minister:

‘… PM may kindly recall that when she last visited the Operations Room, the Chiefs of Staff had given assessment of the relative position of India vis-à-vis Pakistan in terms of men and material. It was found that we were deficient in a number of respects. Subsequently, I had arranged a series of meetings to precisely estimate our requirements, taking into account the augmentation of the material strength of Pakistan’s armed forces through a variety of sources, including the United States of America. As a result of this exercise the Defence Secretary wrote to me suggesting that the matter should be taken up between India and the Soviet Union at the highest possible level. It was also suggested that PM write to Chairman Kosygin. I had some hesitation in straightaway committing PM to making a demand without some assurance it would be met … It was then decided that I should send for the Soviet Ambassador which I did. I told him of our urgent requirements… I then informally handed over to the Soviet Ambassador an aide memoire. The Soviet Ambassador promised to convey our requirements to the Soviet Union at the highest possible level …

I should perhaps also inform PM that we have had two meetings up to date with the Soviet Ambassador and his experts. The first meeting was devoted to identifying the various difficulties which our Air Force is experiencing in getting more spare parts and other essential supplies. The second meeting, which took place this morning, was devoted to an examination of the various requirements of our Navy consisting largely of spare parts, oil and lubricants for vessels we have purchased from the Soviet Union. These meetings have been extremely useful in resolving many difficulties and streamlining procedures, etc.’

(This is an excerpt from his book, Intertwined Lives: PN Haksar & Indira Gandhi | Simon & Schuster | 813 pages | Rs 599)