(The writer is a former Chief Justice of the High Court of Delhi)
THE disclosure about Nixon and Kissinger using foul language against Indira Gandhi calls for closer analysis as to why both of them hated her so much. The obvious answer, of course, is that they somehow found her personality tougher than they expected. Most probably, in the arrogance of US military power they thought that it was easy to browbeat India which was economically weak. But they forgot that they were dealing with India which had its history of independence and with Indira Gandhi who was the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, the top-most freedom fighter.
Even Nehru could not withstand her stubbornness, as she had shown in 1957 when in a planned manner she had the Communist Party government of Namoodiripad dismissed notwithstanding Nehru’s opposition. At that time, it was reported in the press that Nehru, when asked whether he was going to impose Article 356, had stated “no”, but when Indira Gandhi was told about this, her immediate response was that the Namboodiripad government has to go, and that Pt. Nehru might be the Prime Minister but she was the President of the Congress and the party had so decided. It is in this background of personality traits that the following event may be helpful in understanding the Nixon-Indira Gandhi confrontation.
As is known, Nixon and Kissinger first visited India in 1971 when conditions in East Bengal were very serious. Mass fleeing from East Pakistan and acts of terror by the Pakistan Army were creating havoc in West Bengal and the rest of the country, especially in West Bengal. There was great disruption and a very serious situation had arisen. Millions of people coming over to India were causing great strain on the economy and Mrs Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, was obviously under much pressure. At that time Nixon and Kissinger were in Delhi and were invited for breakfast by her. I am repeating the story and I have it from absolutely authentic sources that it is true.
It is stated that on the eve of the breakfast meeting at her residence with Nixon and Kissinger, Mrs Gandhi phoned General Manekshaw, the then Commander-in-Chief of the Army. She just told him to come for the breakfast in the morning. She did not disclose as to who her other guests were. She further told the General that when he comes for the breakfast, he should come in uniform. Naturally, the General felt surprised and asked whether he had heard rightly that she wanted him to come in uniform because it was naturally a very strange suggestion.
Mrs Gandhi was straightforward and told him “yes, she wanted him to come for breakfast but in uniform. So, General Manekshaw went for breakfast and soon they were joined by Nixon and Kissinger. Mrs Gandhi was persistent in pleading with Nixon that he should try to restrain Pakistan for what was being done in East Pakistan because the conditions there were becoming intolerable and it was almost becoming impossible for India to remain silent at the mass migration from East Pakistan following the atrocities being committed there.
Nixon and Kissinger were prevaricating and would not really give a straight answer. Rather they tried to underplay the situation. Mrs Gandhi, however, still insisted, but of no avail. Rather, Nixon in half annoyance is said to have told her that the US could do nothing about it. Obviously rattled, she made a last minute appeal to Nixon to do something otherwise she might have to do something herself which she was reluctant to do. At this Nixon again expressed his inability to do anything and asked her rather ironically as to what she intended to do. At that time she stood up and, pointing towards the General (who was in full military uniform), told Nixon that if he could not control the situation then she was going to ask him (meaning the General) to do the same.
There was stunning silence for a minute and the sharp message was conveyed to Nixon in a very stark manner. As a matter of fact, the General was himself surprised and suddenly understood the purpose as to why he had been asked to come in uniform rather than in civilian clothes at an apparently harmless function. Obviously, Nixon and Kissinger had their egos deflated and were not going to forgive Mrs Gandhi for such an attitude.
There is no denying that the Nixon-Indira Gandhi confrontation shows her strength when facing a very hazardous situation. But I wish equal attention was given to an equally important aspect of open society in a democracy. Here are the lapses which are so damaging to the highest in public life in the US and also could create some strain in the diplomatic circuit but are nevertheless being made public on the formidable and accepted wisdom that in a democracy, citizens are the ultimate sovereign and no secret can be withheld from them for all times to time — that is because the highest in the government must be held accountable to the “Little man with pencil” (a phrase made popular by Winston Churchill) in a democracy. But, unfortunately, in our country, political parties of all hues treat government information as a special preserve of the elite rulers for the time being.
Is it not time that all the political parties unanimously demand of the government that a similar rule of archives being available for public inspection after a period of 30 years be applied in India. We have too many secret closets which the Congress government never allowed to be opened. Even when the NDA was in the government openness was denied. The same situation continues even under the UPA government.
Maybe, governments, whatever is their colour, have a tendency, even though unnecessary, of trying to conceal the facts of which quite a number are fairly well known. Thus, in India, the inside working as it happened at the time of the 1962 war with China, the Henderson Brook’s report — “The Secret Talks on Kashmir Still continue to be Kept Under Raps” — all this false, secret mania must go if the government’s claim to be people-oriented is to be accepted.