A minister of Indira Gandhi’s cabinet betrayed India’s “war objectives” to the Central Intelligence Agency in December 1971, causing an abrupt end to the Bangladesh war under vicious US arm twisting.
This is the highlight of the book CIA’s Eye on South Asia by journalist Anuj Dhar. Published by Delhi-based Manas Publications, which is facing government’s ire for coming out with a book on the R&AW, the book compiles declassified CIA records on India and her neighbours. It specifically spotlights what arguably has been India’s biggest spy scandal.
In the run up to the 1971 India Pakistan war over what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), The New York Times first hinted at the presence of a CIA operative in the Indian government. By December The Washington Post had reported that US President Richard Nixon’s South Asia policy was being guided by “reports from a source close to Mrs. Gandhi.”
Records and telecons declassified recently - but not properly explained up till now - show that a dramatic turnaround came on December 6 when a CIA operative, whom Dhar pins down as a minister of the Indira Cabinet, leaked out India’s “war objectives” to the agency. Prime Minister Gandhi told Union Cabinet that apart from liberating Bangladesh, India intended to take over a strategically important part of the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and go for the total annihilation of Pakistan’s armed forces so that Pakistan “never attempts to challenge India in the future.”
When he came to know of the CIA report, a furious Nixon blurted out that “this woman [Indira Gandhi] suckered us,” thinking that Mrs. Gandhi had promised him that India won’t attack East Pakistan - not to speak of targeting West Pakistan and PoK. “But let me tell you, she’s going to pay,” he told his National Security Advisor Dr Henry Kissinger even as he tried to leak out the CIA report to give her bad press.
The CIA went on assess that fulfillment of India’s “war objectives” might lead to “the emergence of centrifugal forces which could shatter West Pakistan into as many as three or four separate countries.”
As a direct result of the operative’s information, the Nixon administration went on an overdrive to save West Pakistan from a massive Indian assault. Because the President felt that “international morality will be finished - the United Nations will be finished - if you adopt the principle that because a country is democratic and big it can do what the hell it pleases.”
Nixon personally threatened the USSR with a “major confrontation” between the superpowers should the Soviets failed to stop the Indians from going into West Pakistan. Kissinger secretly met Chinese Permanent Representative at the UN to apprise him of the CIA operative’s report and rub in that what India was planning to do with Pakistan with the Soviet backing could turn out to be a “dress rehearsal” of what they might do to China.
Dhar quotes in the book the official records showing that USSR’s First Deputy Foreign Minister Vasily Kuznetsov visited Delhi after Nixon’s threat and told the “Indians to confine their objectives to East Pakistan” and “not to try and take any part of West Pakistan, including Azad Kashmir” as “Moscow was concerned about the possibility of a great power confrontation over the subcontinent.” Kuznetsov also extracted a guarantee from Prime Minister Gandhi that India will not attack West Pakistan. This decision was promptly conveyed to Nixon. On 16 December 1971 when Nixon was told that India had declared a ceasefire, he exulted: “We have made it… it’s the Russians working for us.” Kissinger congratulated him for saving West Pakistan - India’s main target, as per the operative’s report to the CIA.
Dhar repudiates recent assertion by a former Indian Navy chief that showing up of America’s biggest nuclear powered carrier into the Bay of Bengal during the war had something to do with the accidental destruction of a US plane in Dhaka during an Indian strafing. “Declassified records make it unambiguously clear that the month-long show of strength by the USS Enterprise and accompanying flotilla was a byproduct of the CIA operative’s reports,” he writes, reproducing chunks from official records detailing how Nixon ordered a naval task force towards the subcontinent to “scare off” India from attacking West Pakistan.
In subsequent years, former Prime Minister Morarji Desai, and two deputy PMs - Jagjivan Ram and Y B Chavan - were alleged to be the CIA operative active during the 1971 war. However, all such charges lacked any substantiation because there was no confirmation whether or not such an operative ever existed. As such no constructive discussion on the issue ever took off. This has changed now given the unassailable evidence in the form of US records making it clear that the CIA had a “reliable” agent operating out of the Indian cabinet in 1971.
In declassified records the name of the operative has been censored because the CIA Director has “statutory obligations to protect from disclosure [the Agency's] intelligence sources.” Dhar writes: “Naming the Indian operative even after so many years will adversely impact the Indo-US relations, and hit the Agency’s prospects of recruiting new informants.”
However, he suggests that Indian government may have known the identity of the operative. “R&AW under the most capable R. N. Kao could not have missed the reference to the ’source close to Mrs. Gandhi’ and must have dug deeper,” he writes, adding that in 1972 Mrs. Gandhi herself charged that “she had information that the CIA had become active in India”.
More pertinently, Dhar quotes from the declassified record of a 5 October 1972 meeting between Indian Foreign Minister Swaran Singh and US Secretary of State William Rogers. During the meeting, Singh asserted that “CIA has been in contact with people in India in ‘abnormal ways.’” and that India had information that “proceedings of Congress Working Committee were known to US officials within two hours of meetings”.
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