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‘Kissinger Cables’ Offer Window Into Indian Politics of the 1970s

Posted by Ram Kumar Shrestha on April 9, 2013


By NEHA THIRANI BAGRI
Indira Gandhi, then Indian prime minister, at the site of India's first underground nuclear test in Pokhran, Rajasthan, in Dec. 1974.ReutersIndira Gandhi, then Indian prime minister, at the site of India’s first underground nuclear test in Pokhran, Rajasthan, in Dec. 1974.
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The “Kissinger Cables,” a collection of U.S. diplomatic cables released on Monday by WikiLeaks, contain some fascinating revelations about the political scenario in India in the 1970s. Here are the five great insights about India in the WikiLeaks release:

India’s first nuclear test was possibly motivated by political considerations:

According to this cable, sent from New Delhi to the Department of State, India’s first nuclear test on May 18, 1974, was motivated by domestic politics. The cable says that the nuclear test had been done at a time when the Indian government was tackling an economic slowdown, increasing discontent and rising political unrest.

“We are inclined to believe that this general domestic gloom and uncertainty weighed significantly in the balance of India’s nuclear decision,” reads the cable sent on the date of the nuclear test. “The need for a psychological boost, the hope of recreated atmosphere of exhilaration and nationalism that swept the country after 1971 – contrary to our earlier expectation – may have tipped the scales.”

The cable adds that the U.S. Embassy was not aware of any recent military pressure on the Indian government, and that the decision to demonstrate nuclear capability may also have been driven by a need to regain its position in international politics, where India “has felt it had been relegated to the sidelines with its significance ignored and its potential role downplayed.”

Rajiv Gandhi, then Indian prime minister, with his wife Sonia at an airport in New Delhi on May 26, 1985.Douglas E. Curran/Associated PressRajiv Gandhi, then Indian prime minister, with his wife Sonia at an airport in New Delhi on May 26, 1985.

Rajiv Gandhi might have acted as the middleman for a Swedish airplane manufacturer:

During his stint as an Indian Airlines pilot, Rajiv Gandhi might have acted as a middleman for the Swedish company Saab-Scania, which was trying to persuade the Indian Air Force to buy its Viggen fighter aircraft. This cable, dated Oct. 21, 1975, says that a Swedish Embassy official had informed the U.S. Embassy that the “main Indian negotiator” for Saab-Scania is Rajiv Gandhi while the French company Dassault’s chief negotiator was the son-in-law of the then Indian air marshal, Om Prakash Mehra. The cable added that Indira Gandhi did not want to purchase the British Jaguar because of “her prejudices against the British.” The Swedish diplomat “expressed irritation at the way Mrs. Gandhi is personally dominating negotiations, without involvement of Indian Air Force officers.”

“The Swedes here have also made it quite clear they understand the importance of family influences in the final decision in the fighter sweepstakes,” said another cable, dated Feb. 6, 1976. “Offhand we would have thought a transport pilot not the best expert to rely upon in evaluating a fighter plane, but then we are speaking of a transport pilot who has another and perhaps more relevant qualification.”

In 1974 India returned 195 prisoners of war to Pakistan, originally wanted by Bangladesh for war crimes trials:

This cable sent from Islamabad on May 17, 1974, reveals that after the Bangladesh-India-Pakistan agreement signed on April 9, 1974, India returned the last Pakistani prisoners of war   from India, including 195 prisoners originally wanted by Bangladesh for war crimes trials. “Bhutto and Minstate Aziz Ahmed have hailed the April 9 agreement as a major move toward a durable peace with India, but the continuing drumfire of anti-India comment in the media reflects the strong emotional suspicion of India still prevalent here,” the cable reads. The cable adds that even in the top leadership in the Pakistani government, there is “exasperation” over what they perceived as India’s continuous efforts to hamper Pakistan from obtaining military supplies. While the U.S.  diplomat foretold a thawing of relations between the two countries, he said “continuing mutual suspicion” would hinder diplomatic efforts.

Rajiv Gandhi, left, with his mother Indira Gandhi, center, and younger brother Sanjay Gandhi in New Delhi on March 21, 1977.Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesRajiv Gandhi, left, with his mother Indira Gandhi, center, and younger brother Sanjay Gandhi in New Delhi on March 21, 1977.

Indira Gandhi said she was proud that she “resisted pressures to destroy Pakistan in 1971″

In an analysis of India-Pakistan relations after the 1971 war, a cable sent from the U.S.  Department of State says that Indira Gandhi felt that she showed restraint during the war. “Mrs. Gandhi was proud, and we believe sincere, in explaining she resisted pressures to destroy Pakistan in 1971,” reads thiscable, dated March 1, 1974. “We believe that she wants détente on the subcontinent and she feels she made concessions at Simla to achieve this. She also insists – plausibly we think – that further disintegration of Pakistan would not be in India’s interest.”  The cable says that while Pakistan’s recognition of Bangladesh improves the short-term prospects for better India-Pakistan relations, there is continued suspicion on both sides. The document argues that while India feels that Pakistan must “adjust to Indian power and influence” there is little likelihood of that happening in the near future.

The Indian takeover of Sikkim in 1973 might have been intended to send a message to Nepal and Bhutan:

This cable sent on April 25, 1973, from New Delhi the U.S. ambassador relays the impressions and opinions of the then Times of India correspondent Sivdas Banerjee. He says that Mr. Banerjee had received his information from a senior West Bengal Congress minister who had been briefed by a high-level official from the Ministry of External Affairs. “There was an important and deliberate message to Nepal and Bhutan in prompt Indian action in Sikkim,” reads the cable.

The cable adds that according to Mr. Banerjee’s source in the Ministry of External Affairs, Nepal and Bhutan had been reluctant to cooperate with India on defense matters and “Nepal’s position in particular had irked Mrs. Gandhi during her recent visit there and she was sending direct message to King Birendra.”

@NYTIMES

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