Our secrets in British archives

Published : Feb 28, 2003 00:00 IST

ROEDAD KHAN retired from the Civil Service of Pakistan after holding high positions under five Presidents. His keen interest in public affairs remains undiminished as does his concern for the proper care of the Margalla Hills. Four years ago he produced The American Papers: Secret and Confidential India-Pakistan-Bangladesh Documents 1965-1973, which was also published by Oxford University Press. The idea of collecting material for the volume under review struck him on the eve of his departure for London for a medical check-up. He consulted extensively the Public Record Office at Kew near Richmond in Saneg, a daunting task for a person of his age. As before, he has rendered high service to students of history. As before, sadly, he has omitted to provide annotation for the documents. One wishes he had assigned the job to a competent researcher.

The documents are selected by Roedad Khan. Astonishingly, the ones concerning the Swaran Singh-Bhutto talks on Kashmir in 1962-1963 are totally neglected. It is unlikely that they are still under embargo. The U.S. State Department published a significant selection in 1996 in Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963, Volume XIX, South Asia.

It included a joint U.S.-U.K. proposal to India and Pakistan in April 1963 entitled `Elements of a Settlement'. It envisaged partition of Kashmir on the basis that each must have "a substantial position in the Vale". About the only document on the talks in this volume is Pakistan's Foreign Secretary Aziz Ahmed's reaction to a draft communique presented to him by the British High Commissioner Morrice James on August 8, 1963. He not only objected to the principle that both sides must have "a substantial position" in the Valley but insisted that military aid to India, after the war with China in 1962, must be linked to a Kashmir settlement. Aziz Ahmed was very close to Bhutto. In 1963 Nehru, reversing his position, agreed to the appointment of a mediator. Bhutto's intransigence killed this move.

Since documents on those talks are open to the public in British and American archives, why do India and Pakistan still keep them under wraps? Roedad Khan rightly remarks: "Governments, especially in Third World countries, over-classify material in which the public has real interest and it (sic) sometimes does so to avoid the embarrassment of sunshine. It is my sincere hope that with the publication of these documents, the official account of the events covered in these papers will soon be made available by the governments concerned... In the twenty-first century, secrecy should be the exception and not the rule. In this day and age, governments must accept that citizens have a right to ask for any document and any refusal must be justified before a court on a case by case basis... they must agree to set up a public register of documents. I look forward to the day when every citizen in our part of the world shall have a right of access to all documents, including those dealing with security and military affairs."

The documents and the malaise they reflect are analysed in a brilliant introduction by an outstandingly able diplomat, Humayun Khan. He was Pakistan's High Commissioner to India from 1984 to 1988 when he was appointed Foreign Secretary. Several of the ruling elite of India and Pakistan in those days were Anglophile. "This endeared them to British diplomats" to whose professional competence Humayun Khan pays a deserved tribute. They perceived correctly, reported accurately. Their concern, as that of American diplomats, was promotion of their country's interests, not democracy. General Ayub Khan's claim that the Army coup of 1958 was staged to prevent the destruction of the country was false. It was the Army, aided by the civil service, which systematically undermined democracy in order to pave the way for its assumption of power. In this they were assisted by a judge, Mohammed Munir, who prostituted his office as Chief Justice and his ability to assist that cabal. He upheld Governor-General Ghulam Mohammed's dissolution of the Constituent Assembly in 1954 and the Army's coup in October 1958. The British High Commissioner, Sir Alexander Symon, and the American Ambassador were informed in advance by the Army's frontman, President Iskhandar Mirza, of his plans for the coup. In less than a month thereafter, Ayub Khan, who became the Chief Martial Law Administrator, forcibly threw Mirza out of office.

Humayun Khan aptly remarks: "Prescience is the diplomat's ultimate skill, though even that must be accompanied by appropriate verbiage in case one turns out to be wrong." Symon's successor, Sir Morrice James, noted nearly a decade before Bangladesh was born that "the atmosphere in East Pakistan in some ways now resembles that of a colony on the brink of achieving its independence." The cable, though quoted in his memoirs Pakistan Chronicle, remains classified. Some years later he wrote of Bhutto: "It seems to me that he was born to be hanged." However, James' successor, Sir Cyril Pickard, confidently reported in 1966 that "Pakistan is not going to split in two". The American Consul-General in Dhaka was more realistic than the British Deputy High Commissioner there.

Humayun Khan writes: "An interesting sideline to this drama (Ayub's ouster in 1969 by Yahya Khan) was once again the tendency among senior Pakistani leaders to confide in foreigners before important developments took place."

Indian leaders were not free from this failing. The Andersen Papers revealed that the Prime Minister's highly sensitive talks with the Soviet Ambassador Pegov became known to Kissinger in a day or two. There was a mole in her Cabinet. Nor were Chiefs of the Indian Army any better. The American Papers contains a very detailed report of a talk which the U.S. Consul-General in Calcutta (now Kolkata), William K. Hitchcock, had with the GOC-in-C Eastern Command, Lt. Gen. Sam Manekshaw, on October 12, 1966 when they happened to meet on the Delhi-Calcutta flight. Hitchcock promptly sent the memorandum of conversation to U.S. embassies in New Delhi and Rawalpindi and to Consulates in Dhaka, Karachi and Hong Kong. It is an astonishing document (pages 193-195). Manekshaw forgot that he was an Army Commander talking to a foreign official and let himself go. He waxed eloquent on India-Pakistan relations, especially Kashmir; on Bhutan; the Chogyal of Sikkim; on how he had "brutally frank" discussions with Defence Minister Y.B. Chavan in New Delhi. When Hitchcock urged a "realistic" (read, more pro-U.S.) line on Vietnam, Manekshaw wished he had spoken to him a month earlier. He was in Delhi then and "would have been delighted to have advocated such a line of action". Also, "he said he was deeply concerned over the degree to which India is becoming militarily dependent on Soviet equipment". This was in response to an invitation to visit the U.S. "He believes that if he were to go to the U.S. now the consequences would be (1) that he would be identified with a Western bias (which he most definitely has), (2) that such identification might thwart his promotion as Chief of Staff, and (3) that, not being Chief of Staff, he would be unable to take effective action to redirect Indian military thinking away from the Soviet Union." One wonders what "effective action" he took in this direction after he became Chief of the Army Staff (COAS).

But this was not all. "He was quite critical" of the Army Chief General J.N. Chaudhuri's conduct of the war with Pakistan in 1965. "It was ridiculous, he said, that the Indian (sic) allowed the Chinese, through a few menacing sounds, to pin down the more than 300,000 troops he has in his command. (This was the first time he has ever mentioned such a figure to me, though it is consistent with our previous assumptions)" (emphasis as in the original). Comment on the indiscretion is unnecessary. Evidently, throughout the New Delhi-Calcutta flight, Manekshaw did nothing but talk, talk and talk.

If The American Papers shows him in a poor light, The British Papers reveals Chaudhuri to be little better. Unlike Manekshaw, what he said was not so exceptionable as the fact that he reported to the envoy of a foreign country a talk with his Defence Minister on a very sensitive subject. In March 1966, Chavan sounded him on the circumstances under which the Army would seize power. Chaudhuri lost no time in reporting this to the British High Commissioner, John Freeman, who, in turn, sent London a "Note of Conversation". It bears quotation in extenso: "In a recent conversation with General Chaudhuri, COAS revealed to me that Mr. Chavan had consulted him during March on the possibility that circumstances might arise in which the Army would seize power from the civil authority. COAS told me that they had discussed this matter at some length and that he had expressed the categorical view that such a possibility did not exist. He based his belief on (a) His view that there was a deep-seated respect for constitutional government at all levels in the country. (b) The size of India and the degree of decentralisation of its government machine. From this he argued that it would be administratively and operationally impracticable for the Army to seize power from both the Union and the State governments in a single operation. (c) If the Army were to attempt a coup against the Union government without seizing power in the States simultaneously, the Congress machine would remain operational and the coup would almost certainly be ineffectual. (d) If the coup were directed against one or more of the States without the acquiescence of the statement (sic), it would present the same weakness as above in even greater measure. Moreover, in case the Army commander who directed such a coup would place a critical strain on the loyalty of Army, since State loyalties and rivalries are a real factor in the Army. COAS is of the opinion that in these circumstances, the organiser of coup would probably find himself with a his hands and that a civil war situation conceivably develop.

"COAS agreed that there would probably be no great difficulty if the Union government directed the Army to take over a particular State or region - though even then he himself would require reasonable time to redeploy troops and assemble a select force whose loyalty would be strained as little as possible."

On one crucial aspect Chaudhuri was dangerously ignorant of the correct constitutional position:

"COAS had considered the possibility that, in a situation of political and administrative chaos, the President of India might, independently of the Union government or even against its wishes, order the Army to take over from the civil authority. If this ever happened he would interest his duty as requiring him to do his best to execute the order. He believed that presidential authority would be adequate cover and that the operation could probably be carried out successfully. But he was thankful that there was no prospect of such an order being given before his retirement." This is utter rubbish.

Article 53(2) of the Constitution says that "the Supreme Command of the Defence Forces of the Union shall be vested in the President and the exercise thereof shall be regulated by law". But this is ancillary to his position as constitutional head of state in a parliamentary democracy. He acts on the advice of the Council of Ministers headed by the Prime Minister. He cannot be a constitutional head in the civil sphere and a supremo in the military. Article 83(2) is itself "without prejudice to the generality" of Article 83(1) which vests executive power in the President to be exercised "in accordance with the law". Article 83(2) also says that his position as C-in-C "shall be regulated by law".

Referring to this phrase, Attorney-General M.C. Setalvad, in a considered legal opinion dated October 6, 1950, said that "the supremacy of the legislature in regard to this matter is implicit in sub-clause (2) of the Article... " (For the text, vide K.M. Munshi, Pilgrimage to Freedom, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Vol. 1, pages 570-575). He opined that the President cannot summon Secretaries in the Ministries, only the Ministers. It is doubtful whether he can summon Chiefs of the Services. Certainly, no President can "order the Army to take over from the civil authority". No COAS is bound or entitled to obey such an order. If he does, he makes himself an accomplice in the crime perpetrated by the President.

Freeman's conclusion is noteworthy: "I do not personally find all COAS' arguments fully convincing - in theory - but I daresay they might prove so in practice. In any case, I have little doubt that they do represent General Chaudhuri's considered views."

There is another aspect to this episode. Chavan would not have risked his position as Minister and made those enquiries of the COAS of his own accord. He went at the instance of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. And she had every reason to view President S. Radhakrishnan with deep suspicion. During the war with China in October 1962, she had complained to Vice-President Zakir Husain that the President was setting up "a King's party". Zakir Saheb revealed to this writer during interviews for his biography that he pacified her and advised her to ask Nehru to meet the President and allay his concerns. Radhakrishnan told Mridula Sarabhai, in the presence of Chaudhari Mohammed Shafi, former MP: "Your Jawaharlal wants a gun-carriage funeral". All this within months of his elevation to the Presidency thanks entirely to Nehru. American Ambassador Chester Bowles records in his memoirs Promises to Keep (Delhi, 1972; page 496): "On several occasions he expressed to me in a half-joking manner the wish that somehow after Nehru's death or retirement the whole country could operate under `President's rule' for a few months. This, he said, would enable him in his role as President to ease some of the accumulating political conflicts and make some of the difficult but necessary decisions before turning the government over to a new Prime Minister and Cabinet."

He was clearly sounding Bowles, "half-jokingly," to play safe. Bowles ignored the suggestion. Indira Gandhi was well aware of Radhakrishnan's proclivities during the Nehru as well as the Lal Bahadur Shastri era. During the India-Pakistan war he summoned Bowles and proposed partition of Kashmir. In Bowles' presence he asked an aide to summon Air Marshal Arjan Singh (vide the writer's article "Lyndon Johnson and India"; Frontline; May 25, 2001). Indira Gandhi showed good judgment in terminating Radhakrishnan's tenancy of the Rashtrapati Bhavan by refusing him a second term in 1967. He never forgave her for that.

One should note the second reason which Chaudhuri realistically mentioned to demonstrate how "impracticable" the very idea of a coup was. Manekshaw would tell anyone who gave him an ear of an exchange with Indira Gandhi on the subject - she said he "couldn't" do it; he challenged her; she modified he "wouldn't" do it. Since the tale is now in print it is fair to point out that (a) it is intrinsically unworthy of credence; (b) was not told publicly during her lifetime; and (c) it presumes that the Army commanders and rank and file as well as the other wings - Air Force and the Navy - would have obediently followed Sam Bahadur, which is untrue. The whole story is cheap braggadocio by an inveterate braggart. No individual deserves more respect than India's democratic edifice. India's Army is a model of patriotic commitment.

The volume shows a keen British interest in the thinking within the Army during 1966. In April a detailed study was undertaken by the High Commission in New Delhi "(a) to confirm General Chaudhuri's view that as things stand at present we do not envisage an attempted coup by the Army; and (b) to indicate what circumstances would need to occur to prompt a coup." The study was sent to London on July 7, 1966. It reported: "Congress Government (either Central or State) is admittedly somewhat unpopular, is widely believed to be corrupt, and is seen to be lacking in competence. Despite all these faults, Congress Government is generally accepted perhaps as a matter of habit - and there is still reasonable faith in its ability to muddle through, however imperfectly. Mrs. Gandhi exerts something of her father's magnetic appeal.

"The Army seems to share this indifferent faith in the constitutionally elected Government. There is no evidence that the Generals have political ambitions and no evidence that the Army wants to take over the enormously difficult job of civil administration. There is a deep-rooted respect for democratic government in India which is ingrained in the Army too... Troops could be moved to Delhi from the northern Punjab in a matter of hours; but a coup directed at the capital only would still leave Congress in control of the rest of the country - and it seems very unlikely that the Army would wish to lay themselves open to the risk of civil war. Civil war could pose even greater difficulties for any General who took possession of Delhi; the composition of the Army reflects the State loyalties and rivalries that exist throughout India and the Army might well mutiny in conditions of armed conflict between the Centre and the States.

"It is not possible to speculate further without deliberately making out a case for an Army coup. But circumstances of this sort, which could conceivably occur by the late autumn of this year, would provide a plausible setting for a gradual and perfectly constitutional transition from civil to military government in a large part of the country. The point at which the Army's legal control of the country became unconstitutional would greatly depend on the role which the President felt compelled to play. A point might be reached where, independently of the Union government or even against its wishes, the President ordered the Army to take over completely from the civil authority. As a remote alternative, disintegration of authority at the Centre might provoke the Army to take over without presidential orders. One should not assume that developments of this kind will occur, but it would be unwise to dismiss those possibilities completely." Clearly, on this important issue the British were at sea.

The Papers reveal little about the War of 1965 that is not already known. There is an excellent report by John Freeman to London on September 7 after a long late night talk with L.K. Jha, Shastri's Principal Secretary: "Jha said that Mr. Shastri had for some time envisaged his own solution of the Kashmir problem. It amounted to a rationalisation of the cease-fire line. It would give India a little more room in the north, e.g. round Kargil; it would straighten the line from Uri to Poonch; it would contemplate equivalent concessions of tactical convenience for Pakistan and the cession to Pakistan of a `respectable area of territory' towards the southern end of the cease-fire line. The details of the last Jha did not specify. However, no discussions of any `solution' of the Kashmir problem could be contemplated in the foreseeable future... When it was conveyed to Shastri during the Kutch negotiations that this provocative action (extension of Article 356 to Jammu and Kashmir) had seemed to Ayub the last straw, he sent, according to Jha, a secret personal message to Ayub through a trusted intermediary. Its essence was that Shastri was still ready to negotiate on Kashmir after he had faced his elections, and incidentally after the retirement of Aziz Ahmed. The constitutional provisions would not be allowed to stand in the way of anything they agreed. Any cession to Pakistan of territory in Kashmir would in any case involve a major political crisis in India, and Shastri was prepared to face this in the context of a constitutional amendment, as would be the case with other frontier adjustments. This message was conveyed on or about June 27, 1965...

"Jha added that an invasion of West Pakistan, which was originally intended as a fairly small-scale, retaliatory operation, was ready to be launched if the Kutch agreement had not been signed when it was. The D-day for the operation was July 3. In other words, Shastri gave the Pakistanis one week after agreement was reached in London to sign the document."

Freeman, one of the best U.K. High Commissioners ever, was realistic to the core and was free from any traces of pomposity. He edited The New Statesman before he came to Delhi. He had in mind "an autonomous Kashmir... with international guarantees" but knew that the moment was not propitious for any accord.

There is a clear reference to a U.S. warning to China, in the talks in Warsaw, not to meddle in the India-Pakistan war and to an agreement between Generals Chaudhuri and Musa at Tashkent in January 1966 "for reduction of military forces in Kashmir to levels agreed to in 1949". Attempts to arrange an Indira Gandhi-Ayub Khan summit in 1966 failed completely. At a meeting of officials of the U.K. and the U.S. in London on June 14, 1966, a British diplomat "asked about the possibility of the Indian government attempting a so-called `peaceful' nuclear explosion, if the political pressure for a bomb became irresistible. Such an explosion would be of value to India's morale and prestige". The American diplomat Card Laise ridiculed the idea.

It is anybody's guess what the quality of diplomatic reporting and assessment is like these days.

The British Papers: Secret and Confidential, India-Pakistan-Bangladesh, Documents 1958-1969;

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