Our secrets in others' trunks

Published : Jul 15, 2005 00:00 IST

HOW would any self-respecting person feel if his family's secrets are locked up in the trunks in the house of someone else, who publicises to the world such snippets from them as he chooses and when he chooses? The pain would be the greater for the fact that the family's secrets are accessible within his own home but the head of the family refuses to grant him access. This is an apt description of the situation in regard to Indian archives. The authorities in the National Archives of India are extremely helpful. But the files are not released to them by the government for perusal by scholars. Our academics seem uninterested; else, they would have waged a sustained, spirited campaign for access to records, which are open in every democratic society - except India. An Indian scholar who wants to study the Simla Convention of 1914 and the drawing of the McMahon Line has to go to the British Library in London. In India, access is barred to records after 1913, despite the fact that there are nearly a dozen books, Indian and foreign, which have drawn on the records in London.

The 30-years rule is on paper. Records of border areas are closed from January 1, 1914, while those relating to Jammu and Kashmir are open up to December 31, 1924, only. The Indian Historical Records Commission should bestir itself.

The first two books reveal glimpses of Indian secrets in British, American and Soviet archives. Books that have been published recently draw on Chinese archives as well. The third book shows how far the world of scholarship has travelled elsewhere in the realm of archival research. The authors are Russian scholars, one of whom is based in the United Kingdom, while the other is in Moscow. Russian, Chinese and American scholars collaborate to produce studies jointly based on their respective archives. These works will fortify the case for invoking the Right to Information Act, 2005, for releasing the records - and the Henderson-Brooks Report.

Part of the apathy in India is a reflection of the ready acceptance of conventional wisdom and the official line in the realm of foreign affairs by most in the academia. Which is precisely why, though India has produced world-class scientists, economists and historians, it has not produced a single scholar of international note in foreign affairs. There is not a single definitive Indian work on non-alignment or on India's foreign policy. The Centre de Sciences Humaines (CSH) in New Delhi is a part of a network of research centres of France's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Its research work is primarily oriented towards the study of issues concerning the contemporary dynamics of development in India and South Asia. The activities of the centre are focussed on four main themes, namely: economic growth and sustainable development, international and regional relations, institutional structures and political constructions of identity and urban dynamics.

Max-Jean Zins is a senior researcher at the Centre National de La Recherche Scientifique in Paris and is a specialist on South Asia as is Gilles Boquerat who has been Head of the Department of International Relations at the CSH in New Delhi. His book on India's policies and foreign aid draws extensively on American, British and French archival material. They have put students of Indian diplomacy in deep debt. For, the first volume sheds light on significant aspects of the Nehru-Zhou summit in New Delhi in April 1960 and on Nehru's stand there on the boundary dispute; on Indian and Soviet perceptions of the treaty signed on August 9, 1971, and on Kissinger's record during the Bangladesh war.

The first volume is a collection of papers read at an international seminar held in New Delhi under the auspices of the CSH and CERI (Centre d' Etudes et de Recherches International), Paris, and the India International Centre. Boquerat writes on "France's Interaction with India through the Quai d'Orsay Archives (1947-1972)"; Denis Kux, a scholar-diplomat, writes on Nehru through the eyes of American officials; Sergey Lounev, a research fellow of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow, writes on Soviet perceptions of India's foreign policy in the 1940s and 1950s. The last two essays by Max-Jean Zins are an eye-opener. One is "a look at the British archives on India 1947-1971", the other analyses the Chinese factor in the United States' policy towards India based on clues from American archives.

Zins and Boquerat's introduction is a devastating critique of India's archival policy and, impliedly, the acquiescence of India's academia in the policy. "This country of more than one billion inhabitants is one of the most significant powers in the world today and its geopolitical stature will probably increase in the coming decades, as will the foreign relations literature. However, until now none of the existing literature is based on Indian archival documents for the simple reason that significant diplomatic records are kept locked and not even through restricted-circulation could the political scientists and historians have access to them. There is a veil of secrecy in India that other major democratic countries lifted long ago. Even countries which did not fall in this category until recently have shown grater openness. For instance, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Russia started opening its governmental and Communist party archives to a significant extent." So has China to some extent. The first part of the quote will, doubtless, please the fast-growing Indian ego. The second part should sober the inebriates.

The editors are scholars enough to point out that foreign archives can tell only a part of the story. India alone can reveal how and why it made the decisions it did. Still, "comparison of different national approaches is an incomparable tool to define the multiple dimensions of a problem. The detour via the foreign diplomatic archives can help us overcome, to some extent, the non-access to the Indian records and gives us a better comprehension of what drove bilateral relations. At least this is the objective of this book, which represents the first attempt in this direction."

American denigration of Nehru persists still. A former Foreign Secretary, a notorious American favourite, flourished by feeding them with what they wanted to hear. What the book records repeatedly is that not only was Nehru anti-Communist, which is well known to any who care to read, but that he consistently moderated the Third World's criticism of the West's colonial policies. A good question: Why did he act thus and in whose interest? At the Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi in March 1947, for instance, "Pandit Nehru intervened personally to prevent the Vietnamese delegation from attacking France and, all said and done, our country was not treated any worse than England, Holland and even the United States", a French diplomat reported.

Nehru sought transfer of French enclaves in India by friendly negotiations. On June 15, 1948, a treaty was signed between India and France for holding municipal elections in Chandernagore, Pondicherry, Karaikal, Mahe and Yanam for electing municipal councillors who would hold a referendum to decide the future status of these settlements. Elections took place in Chandernagore in August 1948 leading to the victory of councillors who favoured accession to India. The referendum held in June 1949 confirmed the unwillingness of the people of Chandernagore to continue as a part of the French Union. A Treaty of Cession was accordingly signed on February 2, 1951. But in Pondicherry, Karaikal and Yanam, where elections were held in October 1948 (and in Mahe in February 1949), the candidates opposed to accession to India were generally the winners. Delays in resolving the impasse prompted India to denounce the 1948 agreement in 1952. France abandoned the idea of a plebiscite and signed an agreement on de facto transfer on October 21, 1954. A treaty of cession was signed on May 28, 1956.

There is a delightful nugget tucked away in a footnote. Nine years later a British diplomat reported to London: "Manac'h (the Director of Asian Affairs at the Quai d'Orsay) made an interesting comment on the change in the Indian attitude to self-determination. He said that before handing over Pondicherry the French government had informed the Indians that they were required by the Constitution to consult all French citizens by means of a plebiscite. The Indians opposed this on the grounds that it would constitute a precedent for a plebiscite in Kashmir. Accordingly, it was only possible to consult the conseillers municipaux and, as the requirements of the French Constitution were not met... ." This was disclosed in October 1965 shortly after the India-Pakistan war on Kashmir had ended.

A French diplomat predicted Pokhran I in July 1972, two years before the nuclear test. In 1972 "an informal approach was made to see if France would be ready to sign a treaty of friendship with India" after the treaty with the Soviet Union. France declined.

Sergey Lounev recalls Stalin's initial distrust of Nehru. During the fifth session of the United Nations General Assembly "on 38 occasions India's vote mirrored that of the U.S." while opposing it only twice. India ardently supported establishment of the Interim Committee, the "Little" General Assembly in 1949 in order to override the Soviet veto in the Security Council. It also supported the "Uniting for Peace" Resolution in 1950 though it was a clear encroachment by the Assembly on the Security Council's powers. By the time Stalin died in 1953 Indo-Soviet relations had become much warmer.

In the early years after Independence the Americans left it to the British to promote Western interests in the Cold War. Indians like Girja Shankar Bajpai confided to British diplomats about the Americans' "arrogance". Krishna Menon called them "newcomers, naive, impulsive, inexperienced". After years of sophistication the wheel has come full circle. Menon's words accurately describe the present U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Recently, she questioned North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il's sanity; a man with whom the U.S. must negotiate on the nuclear issue. In the process she revealed her own immaturity.

As in the 19th century, the British were obsessed with "The Russian Menace to India"; the title of a paper produced by the Foreign Office at the end of 1947. The British were well served by their first High Commissioner to India, Archibald Nye, former Governor of Madras. The Foreign Office was realistic. A comment on the margin of a despatch from New Delhi in 1951 read: "There is no doubt that Nehru is firmly opposed to communism and has given up hope that China's brand may turn out to be different from the Russian. He advocates `neutralism' out of a desire to see `Asia for the Asians' and not as a result of any policy of balance and counterbalance in his attitude to East and West. I cannot recall any case where Nehru has taken positive steps to obstruct Western policy in South East Asia; cf. the lack of criticism by him of our action in Malaya and Indo-China."

Sheikh Abdullah's decision to accede to India in October 1947 was regarded as "a setback to the pro-Communist faction which favours independence". The British came to know better. A few months later the Sheikh told the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations, Patrick Gordon-Walker, that the best solution was - Kashmir's independence. "It would be much better if Kashmir were independent and would seek American and British aid for development".

London was not unduly worried about Nehru's China policy. Only the ignorant regard it as "romantic" or "idealistic". It verged on the cynical. The High Commissioner in New Delhi reported on February 8, 1952: "There is no doubt that Nehru is firmly opposed to communism" and "India is fully alive to the Chinese communist threat on the northern frontier." Max-Jean Zins rightly remarks that if India was officially and openly sympathetic towards China, "it was not because it liked its neighbour but because it feared China mainly for geo-strategic reasons".

A despatch of August 28, 1952, from the British High Commission contained this assessment: "India's attitude towards China represents the most complex piece in the puzzle of Indian foreign policy. It is the least easy to fathom, and presents many inconsistencies, but it is at the same time, I think, the key to the whole. I believe that the explanation is that the public declarations of the Indian government are fundamentally out of accord with their real appreciation of the position in China. I suspect that fear is really their basic motive... . They are horrified at the possibility of war and feel that at all cost they must avoid involvement in any clash with China" (emphasis added, throughout).

After the 1962 war a Chinese journal remarked that there was always a dark side to Sino-Indian relations; the bhai-bhai phase included. In 1953 British diplomats in Beijing suggested that the relations "were cooling off". At the end of Zhou Enlai's visit to India, they concluded that "the points of difference in approach between the two Prime Ministers seem to have been almost as numerous as the points of agreement in practice".

On December 23, 1954, the British Ambassador in Beijing reported that Indian diplomats there did not conceal their suspicion about China's intentions regarding its border with India. By 1956 they were "more openly worried" than they had allowed themselves to appear.

Zins' comments are very fair and deserve to be quoted in extenso: "The analysis of the FO [Foreign Office] archives led us to underline the weakness of the Indian diplomatic position and its lack of realism. The border dispute between India and China focussed essentially on two areas: the eastern sector and the western sector, the later being the most important for China's control over Tibet. From the beginning, the Indian diplomacy adopted more or less the position that nothing was negotiable. Nehru proclaimed this publicly in the Parliament, reducing by the same token his margin of manoeuvre. Yet, the Indian leaders knew that the balance of power was not in their favour. And they did not hide this fact from the British. Some Indian diplomats told their British counterparts that India was in a ratio of 1:7 vis-a-vis China.

"Nor was the military leadership more optimistic. According to the Chief of the Indian Army, General K.S. Thimayya, the actual McMahon Line was `militarily indefensible' and in Ladakh, the General considered that it would now need a major military operation to recover it. So from the Indian point of view, it is a liability rather than an asset. Diplomats were even less diplomatic: `there is little or nothing that the Indians can do to prevent this', N.R. Pillai, the Secretary-General of the Ministry of External Affairs, said to the UKHC [U.K. High Commission]. In spite of recognising this state of inferiority, the Indian leadership (read: Nehru) did not offer any realistic negotiating propositions to the Chinese. Basically, India remained inflexible and Nehru even gave the order to the Indian Army to move forward wherever it could."

This is an unhistorical jump from 1959-60 to 1962. Nehru arrogantly stipulated pre-conditions to negotiations in November 1959, resiling from his many admissions in August-September 1959 that the border in Ladakh was undefined.

He persisted in this stand at the summit with Zhou in April 1960. Its failure is only partly attributable to his fears of a backlash from the public, whom he had fed with propaganda, and to colleagues like G.B. Pant and Morarji Desai. Both could have been managed. The statement about orders to the Army to expel the Chinese from Thagla ridge came on October 12, 1962, in an irresponsible off-the-cuff remark at Palam airport. In 1961 he had launched the Forward Policy.

ZINS' research sheds light on the Nehru-Zhou summit. "What is more surprising is that officials in India even believed that an agreement with China was at hand. Nearly everyone dealing with the issue in India confided to the British that the Chinese would be ready to exchange their claim in the eastern sector for their claim in the western sector (in other words validating the McMahon Line in exchange for the Aksai Chin). Furthermore, it would be the only realistic, if not satisfying, solution to the border dispute. In November 1959, N.R. Pillai said to the UKHC that most of his colleagues were of the opinion that China's aim was to get such an `exchange' of territory. In April 1960, India's Vice-President, Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, qualified this bargain as a `sensible compromise'. The same month, Pillai reaffirmed that `the Chinese would be prepared for some sort of a deal on the basis of the status quo in the NEFA [North East Frontier Agency] and other areas for an Indian concession in Ladakh'... . Even the Army people underlined that Ladakh was uninhabited and without any economic value." This was said in July 1960.

The British held that China was prepared for a fair deal. But documents in Nehru's Selected Works reveal that he had set his face against any real negotiations from the very beginning. Volume 26 contained the text of his directive of July 1, 1954, withdrawing old maps and claiming for the first time "a firm and definite" line "which is not open to discussion with any body". The present Volume reproduces his Note of September 7, 1956, which asserted that "so far as we are concerned, there is no boundary question". He even persuaded the Speaker of the Lok Sabha not to admit a question of the China-Myanmar boundary question because it bore on the Chine-India boundary question, directly. The McMahon Line covered both countries.

There is a most disturbing omission in this volume. Prime Minister Zhou Enlai visited India from November 30 to December 12, 1956. But while Volume 26 contained minutes of Nehru's talks with him during his earlier visit from June 25-28, 1954, all we have in the present volume are Nehru's speeches on November 28 and 29. The minutes do exist, however. They were quoted by Nehru in his letter to Zhou on December 14, 1958, recording Zhou's acceptance of the McMahon Line (White Paper I; page 49). We must have them all in full.

The editor Prof. Mushirul Hasan, a historian of international standing, is too professional to have omitted them. He was presumably not given a copy of the minutes. The writer learnt of the editors' limitations from the late Prof. S. Gopal whom he had criticised, unjustly, for omitting some words abruptly in a strongly pro-Western document penned by Nehru. Later, Gopal mentioned, quite out of the blue, unrelated to what we were discussing, that the Cabinet Secretariat had directed the cuts.

Nehru's letter to D.P. Dhar, dated September 21, 1956, reflected his determination to buttress the gangster regime of Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed ("the acknowledged leader in Kashmir") so that Sheikh Abdullah could safely be kept in prison and popular protests against his imprisonment crushed.

The volume covers the period when the crises in Suez and Hungary erupted. Nehru's communications to world leaders, India's envoys abroad and to V.K. Krishna Menon are indispensable to an understanding of his policies. But these volumes are no substitute for opening our archives of the period. All we get are interesting driblets. The foreign archives, with all their limitations, provide a different picture. It is not always a flattering one.

Indian officials, military and diplomatic, talked freely to British diplomats in New Delhi. One of them Jagat S. Mehta, then Joint Secretary in the MEA at the China Desk, who became Foreign Secretary, excelled himself in characteristically self-promoting boasts by offering his "personal observation" to a British diplomat in May 1960, shortly after the summit, though it was not his place to do so. This is what he said: "Nehru could not have intended `negotiating' with the Chinese for he did not study the detailed brief about the areas under dispute prepared for him by his advisers (read: Jagat Sinh Mehta) before the meetings." It was a far-fetched conclusion based on a palpable falsehood. The record shows that Nehru was only too well prepared. He argued instead of negotiating. Such conduct on the part of any official is despicable.

Nehru's Forward Policy in Ladakh was senseless. On July 7, 1962, the Chinese Ambassador in Moscow told his Pakistani counterpart that China was going to teach India a "lesson". Nehru was not an appeaser. He was a mindless and arrogant hardliner; be it on Kashmir or on the boundary question.

We learn a lot about another crucial phase in our recent history - 1971. "British diplomats clearly did not appreciate very much the personal role of Kissinger whose behaviour did not follow traditional diplomatic patterns. Their dispatches contained a thinly veiled criticism upon the `considerations of Macht Politik' (Power Politics) which `are always in the forefront of Kissinger's thoughts'. They dissociated themselves from `the emotional factor' (which) they discerned in Kissinger's fascination for China, `from which even officials do not appear immune'. The American visit to the Great Wall did not impress them: `(It is) really disheartening to see the cream of the National Security bureaucracy being paraded for photographs with Chou, entirely to suit his book, like a troop of floppy trousered Albanians. They did not fail to notice that Kissinger `left all his shirts in Islamabad' when he left for China from Pakistan and described it as a `beautiful symbolism'. Neither did they fail to report that, once in China, `on two occasions Kissinger left the famous book of instructions behind in the guest house, to the consternation of his staff'."

Kissinger explained the U.S. policy to the British. It was aimed at "searing off Indian attack on West Pakistan. America cannot afford to give appearance of caving in against situation where Russian military and political support is as overt as it is in India. This would greatly weaken American influence in Middle East and other trouble spots."

The British sensed Indira Gandhi's reservations about the Soviet Union. This brings us to the treaty. A.K. Damodaran (the affectionate "Damo" to friends) was Minister in the Indian Embassy in Moscow. He explained to British diplomats there in November 1971 that "(its) genesis goes back to 1968 when the Soviet Union was supplying arms to Pakistan and this led to Indian protests. The Russian had then tried to reassure the Indians with the arguments that if they did not show friendship to Pakistan in this way it would leave the field open for the penetration of Chinese influence which could not be to India's benefit. The Indians had not been impressed by the argument and the Russians, in order to reinforce such assurances, had offered the Indians a treaty." Marshal Grechko brought along a draft when he came to New Delhi on March 2, 1969. The very day there were armed clashes with the Chinese on the Ussuri (vide the author's Brezhnev Plan for Asian Security; 1975; page 60). But the security clauses were inserted only in 1971.

The treaty was intended, not to encourage India to go to war, but "to restrain it". This British assessment was sound. Tad Szulc of The New York Times reported as much from Moscow on August 10 citing intelligence sources. Pakistan's Ambassador there, the able Jamshed Marker, concurred. Everyone knew that China would not intervene militarily if war broke out. It simply could not afford to nor did it approve of Pakistan's policies in East Pakistan.

To allay the U.S.' fears, India's Ambassador L.K. Jha gave a different spin on the treaty to Kissinger on August 9, 1971. Zins bears quotation in extenso once again: "How could a `potentially' great power like India allow its policy to be dictated by Soviet Union?" Kissinger asked the Indian Ambassador to the U.S., L.K. Jha. Jha's answer was certainly not the most appropriate one to convince Kissinger that India was not pro-Soviet. He chose to say that "first of all, Madame Gandhi was not at all pro-Soviet". Then, Jha suggested that the 1971 Indo-Soviet treaty "had first been thought up long time ago by Dinesh Singh, the former Foreign Minister", adding "on a personal basis (that) he wouldn't be a bit surprised if Dinesh Singh actually received pay from the Communists. Jha adds that (T.N.) Kaul and (P.N.) Haksar were very much under Soviet influence and that for both these reasons Madame Gandhi was under great pressure. In fact, she did not have her heart in it (the treaty)." He ended his meeting with Kissinger by repeating that "Haksar and Kaul were the real obstacles in India and that in the Foreign Office there were many pro-Soviet elements".

The bit about a bribe was a lie by Kissinger. The memo of conversation was prepared by Kissinger for Nixon. Dinesh Singh was Foreign Minister in 1969. In 1971, it was Swaran Singh. Jha was not a fool to believe that Kissinger was one. Only a fool would believe that as in medieval times, treaties can be made by bribing Ministers or envoys. This treaty had the support of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.

On August 30, 1971, Kissinger told Jha: "Our interests in the long term (are) congruent". In September 1972 he assured Jha that "if China is engaged in military adventures against India, we would not support it at all". On December 19, 1971, he had urged China's representative to the U.N. Huang Hua to attack India. His Indian interviewers never question him on this.

Gilles Boquerat's study of India's policies and foreign aid notes that "The Indians, indeed, realised to the accompaniment of much pain that they had crossed the threshold of dependence on a particular type of aid, beyond which the recipient was at the mercy of the donor country and the conditions that it might choose to lay down for granting its aid." It is a nuanced study based on American, British and French diplomatic records in their archives.

His conclusion is a flattering one: "Apart from a few accommodations India did not allow itself to be dictated to on its fundamentals and continued to pursue its policy goals without unduly jeopardising its national development."

The book's concern is the impact of foreign aid on India's policies. But its narrative takes in its sweep many a diplomatic problem. On April 21, 1950, Archibald Nye wrote to Gordon-Walker: "Some critics have begun to blame Nehru for the isolated international situation in which India finds herself, attributing this to his intransigent attitude on Kashmir, and to his cherished policy of non-attachment to blocs. Early in the quarter (of 1950) Sardar Patel was pressing upon him (and at the same time canvassing Congress and big business support) proposals to compromise by partition on Kashmir, and thereafter, enter into negotiations with Pakistan with a view to settling all outstanding questions, including the economic deadlock resulting from Pakistan's non-devaluation of the rupee, and thus putting India-Pakistan relations on a firm basis." Patel was keen on a Kashmir settlement even after the "police action" in Hyderabad in 1948.

Yoram Gorlizki and Oleg Khlevniuk delved into Russia's archives to discover the truths about Stalin's relationship with his entourage during the Cold War (1945-1953). They hold that "Stalin's behaviour after the war followed a clear political logic. This was, in part, the logic of a dictator seeking to preserve his power in conditions of old age and chronic ill health.

It was also, however, the logic of a leader determined to consolidate his position as head of a separate, respected, and powerful socialist system. In order to press home his country's claims as a global power and to put it on a level economic and military footing with the West Stalin vested authority in committees, elevated younger specialists, and initiated key institutional innovations. No matter how perverse they may have appeared, Stalin's actions did not contradict his wider political objectives. For all their high drama, Stalin's relations with his companions followed a political and administrative logic." They are set against the backdrop of wider domestic and international events.

Hand it to the Kremlin. It opened the archives. South Block has no such intention.

India in the Mirror of Foreign Diplomatic Archives edited by Max-Jean Zins and Gilles Boquerat; Manohar; a publication of the French Research Institutes in India; distrbuted by Foundation Books; pages 138; Rs.295.

No strings attached? India's Policies and Foreign Aid, 1947-1966 by Gilles Boquerat; Manohar; a publication of the French Research Institutes in India; distributed by Foundation Books; pages 431; Rs.895.

Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, 1 September-30 November 1956; Second Series, Volume 35 edited by H.Y. Sharda Prasad, A.K. Damodaran and Prof. Mushirul Hasan; Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund; distributed by Oxford University Press; pages 655, Rs.500.

Cold Peace: Stalin and the Soviet Ruling Circle 1945-1953 by Yoram Gorlizki and Oleg Khlevniuk; Oxford University Press; pages 248, 21.50.

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