Haksar and the making of Indira: Full text of the SV Kogekar Memorial Lecture delivered in Pune, May 26, 2017

I am privileged to be invited to deliver this year’s Professor SV Kogekar Memorial Lecture. He was a distinguished educationist and amongst the earliest generation of political science scholars in the country. He was Principal of a very famous college that has produced a number of eminent personalities, apart from having given the country two prime ministers.

This is the birth centenary year of Indira Gandhi who was compelling and charismatic on the one hand, and complex and controversial on the other. She continues to draw encomiums for her many enduring achievements, just as she continues to evoke criticism for her errors of judgment and action.

Deeply embedded in the Indian psyche, she presents a fascinating paradox. Much has been written about her and yet so little is understood of her as a human being going beyond her political persona. But today I wish to speak not of her but of a man who was her daily moral and ideological compass from May 1967 to December 1972, a time during which Indira Gandhi reached the peak of her glory.

This man was Parameshwar Narain Haksar.

He was in the Prime Minister’s Secretariat, first as her Secretary and later as her Principal Secretary. But he was not just a civil servant. Older by four years, he enjoyed an unusually warm personal relationship with her going back decades. She looked upon him as more than a bureaucrat, seeing him as a member of her extended family, some sort of an alter ego as it were.

As we celebrate her birth centenary, we should recall Haksar as well because he contributed so decisively to the making of Indira Gandhi in her magnificent phase. I should also add that after having completed an environmental biography of her called Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature which will be out early next month, I am now writing an intellectual biography of Haksar. What I have to say today forms part of that on-going work. I will be drawing upon the papers available in the Haksar archives at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi as well as primary material contained in Volume III of Avtar Singh Bhasin’s magisterial documentary study of India-Pakistan relations.

The Feroze Gandhi connection

How did Indira Gandhi become aware of PN Haksar in the first place? That, in itself, is quite a story.

It turns out that Haksar and Feroze Gandhi became close friends in the late 1930s in London and it was this friendship that brought Haksar to Indira Gandhi’s attention. The three of them came under the spell of Krishna Menon and became very active in the India League that was espousing the cause of Indian independence.

Subsequently, through the 1940s there appears not to have been much direct contact between Indira Gandhi and Haksar. As a leading lawyer in Allahabad he had, however, come to the attention of Jawaharlal Nehru and it should come as no surprise that, by late 1948, Haksar was inducted into the Ministry of External Affairs and soon thereafter into the Indian Foreign Service. Krishna Menon, who was then India’s High Commissioner in the UK, made sure that Haksar joined him in London. Haksar had a long stint there, followed by a stint as a political advisor to the Neutral Nations Commission that had been set up by the United Nations to bring peace back in the Korean peninsula. Incidentally, both Lt General KS Thimayya and Maj General SPP Thorat were key figures in that unique enterprise.

Subsequently, Haksar returned to New Delhi to build up the government’s external publicity division before being handpicked in 1960 as India’s first Ambassador to Nigeria, a posting that reflected the importance that Nehru gave to a newly emerging Africa. Thereafter, Haksar was Ambassador to Austria before landing back in London as Deputy High Commissioner in 1965. Haksar was to later remark to a colleague that while he got commiserations for his Nigeria posting, it was congratulations all the way for his London assignment. This mindset has not changed since then, I might add. With both Rajiv Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi studying in the UK, it was but natural for him now to be back in Indira Gandhi’s life in a more meaningful fashion.

Free, frank and fearless

Indira Gandhi became India’s third prime minister on January 24, 1966. Almost a month later on February 21, 1966 she wrote a “Dear Babooji” letter to Haksar about her younger son who was then an apprentice at the Rolls Royce factory at Crewe near London. Haksar’s pet name was Baboo. Very soon thereafter, on March 10, 1966, before she was to leave for her visit to the USA, she wrote a “Dear PN” letter to Haksar again saying :

I am anxious that you should accompany me to America not only because you will be such a help on various issues of foreign policy, but also because this may give some opportunity to talk about various matters.

It was clear that the prime minister had other weighty things in mind for India’s Deputy High Commissioner in London. In the midst of her election campaign in very early February 1967 she wrote to him to ask him if he would be willing to come to Delhi. Haksar sent her a three-page reply on February 10th, 1967 which is worth quoting at some length since it reveals much of him and has some contemporary resonance as well:

….Ambitions I now have none unless it be that I be treated with consideration and frankness and, perhaps, with a certain amount of respect to which I feel entitled if only for the reason that I have so far escaped from doing anything dishonourable….

The Secretariat in Delhi is a cruel place. I survived it for six years by playing the game according to the rules. And as all kinds of difficulties arise in making senior appointments…I would beg of you to let me have the first opportunity to make my submission before initiating any action..….

The election results will soon be out…..I hope that what you stand for would emerge clearly. Concessions one has to make. One has to show accommodation too for those one may not quite approve of. But if the Congress wishes to produce bread for the people, gradually adopt the tractor as its symbol rather than the Cow or the Bullock and do all this while preserving our national dignity and without sacrificing our liberty there is no other choice except one. Otherwise the Cow and its dung will overwhelm us.

All the controversies about private and public enterprise, of socialism and capitalism are somewhat arid….. But if some of our industrialists feel that we can in this latter half of the 20th century have orderly economic growth with political stability by applying the antiquated Manchester School of Economics, they must surely be warned against having a death wish.

This is truly an extraordinary letter and was vintage Haksar – free, frank and fearless, ruthlessly honest with his views and opinions. It demonstrates powerfully the type of relationship that Indira Gandhi and Haksar had as they started out in May 1967 when he finally joined as Secretary in the Prime Minister’s Secretariat. He had told her clearly that he would retire from service on September 4, 1971 on reaching the age of 58 and that

If during this short segment of time, I could be of any use I would regard such a possibility as an appropriate end of my ‘working’ life.

The ‘stray thoughts’ note

The 1967 elections had broken the Congress’s hegemony. It had returned to power at the Centre with a slim majority but had lost power in six states for the very first time. Politics was in turmoil and within the Congress itself, the position of the prime minister was not exactly unassailable. Two other events of mid-1967 had a profound influence on the political thinking of both Indira Gandhi and Haksar.

First, there was the armed uprising of tenants and farm labour in Naxalbari spearheaded by Charu Majumdar, Kanu Sanyal and others. This was to soon spread to other states and I will mention it again very shortly. Second, was the fact that the Opposition parties led by the Jan Sangh and Swatantra persuaded a sitting Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to resign three months before his retirement and contest the Presidential elections as their candidate. This latter somewhat unusual move is rarely recalled in analysis of the later relationship between Indira Gandhi and her advisors on the one hand, and the judiciary on the other.

The second half of 1967 and 1968 saw an uneasy truce marked by Indira Gandhi’s belief that her party bosses often called the Syndicate were out to unseat her as prime minister and by the belief of these colleagues themselves that Indira Gandhi was not consulting them enough and giving their views adequate respect. By mid-1969, events reached their climax with the Presidential elections and Indira Gandhi’s famous call for a ‘conscience vote’.

Right through 1969 Haksar kept persuading Indira Gandhi to convert what appeared to be a clash of personalities into an ideological battle. She, of course, was more than willing to go along and abandon the caution and prudence that had characterized her first two and a half years in office. She sounded the bugle through her historic “Note on Economic Policy and Programme” that was circulated among delegates of the All India Congress Committee at Bangalore on July 9, 1969.

The note started by saying

The time has come to restate our economic policy and set the direction in which we have to move to achieve our social goal.

It went on to present a 10-point agenda for state-directed and state-managed economic transformation. In the backdrop of the Naxalbari rebellion and the view gaining ground that the Green Revolution could well become a Red one, the causes of agrarian unrest had undergone an extensive investigation in the Home Ministry. Based on that study, Indira Gandhi’s note to her party colleagues laid elaborate stress on land reforms and review of agricultural wages. It ended by saying

These are just some stray thoughts rather hurriedly dictated.

Consequently, this has come to be called the “stray thoughts” note. This changed the direction of the Indian political economy in a most fundamental way. Quite a few people contributed ideas, prominent among them being C Subramaniam and Chandra Shekhar. Indira Gandhi also confabulated with her close aides like Pitambar Pant and G Parthasarathi. Ultimately, however, it was Haksar who gave shape, structure and substance to the note. Ten days after it was circulated at Bangalore, banks were nationalised making one of Indira Gandhi’s “stray thoughts” an immediate reality. In his memoirs No Regrets, DN Ghosh a distinguished civil servant who was then in the Ministry of Finance and had been entrusted with the task has written on the pivotal role of Haksar in orchestrating the nationalization of banks.

Actually, bank nationalization and abolition of privy purses were first demanded in two sessions of the All India Congress Committee – in New Delhi in June 1967 and Jabalpur in October 1967. YB Chavan, the Home Minister was in the vanguard of these demands that were articulated forcefully by “Young Turks’ like Chandra Shekhar and Mohan Dharia. Indira Gandhi had preferred to put it off then. But by 1969 circumstances had changed dramatically and Haksar was badgering her to shed her circumspection and take a bold stance.

Between July and November 1969 a number of letters were exchanged between Indira Gandhi and the Congress President S. Nijalingappa. These letters have now become the stuff of Indian political history. Indira Gandhi’s letters were the handiwork of Haksar. He made these letters out to be a war of ideas and competing visions, making her confrontation with the Syndicate out to be a matter in which progressive values were at stake. The Congress finally split in mid-November 1969, after Indira Gandhi had been expelled from her own party by Nijalingappa and his group.

Refuting Field Marshal Manekshaw’s tale

Indira Gandhi’s finest year undoubtedly was 1971. She got a spectacular mandate in the elections that had been held a year earlier than scheduled. She electrified the country with her “Garibi Hatao” campaign. In the midst of her hectic campaign she wrote to Haksar a most intriguing letter. The letter reveals not only her private fears but also demonstrates what he meant for her not just as prime minister but for her as a mother and head of her family. She wrote to Haksar on February 2, 1971:

You know that I am neither morbid nor superstitious but I do think that one should be prepared. The thought of something happening to me has haunted me – not so much now, as during the last tour – and I am genuinely worried about the children. I have nothing to leave them except very few shares which I am told are hardly worth anything. There is some little jewellery, which I had divided into two parts for the two prospective daughters-in law (this was done before Rajiv’s marriage). Then there are some household goods, carpets, pictures, etc. It is for the boys to decide. I personally would like everything to be as evenly divided as possible, except that Rajiv has a job but Sanjay doesn’t and is also involved in an expensive venture. He is so much like I was at his age – rough edges and all – that my heart aches for the suffering he may have to bear. The problem is where they will live and how….. I can only hope and trust for the best. But I should like the boys and some to feel that they are not quite alone, that they do have some one to lean on.

Soon after being sworn in as prime minister a third time on March 16, 1971, she faced a crisis of epic proportions on India’s eastern border with Pakistan. This was also the time when Haksar showed his mettle. He and RN Kao had already got Indira Gandhi to establish India’s external intelligence agency, R&AW [Research and Analysis Wing] in 1968. Beginning end-March 1971, the brutal crackdown by the Pakistani army began in what was then East Pakistan. This created an enormous humanitarian crisis leading to millions of refugees – estimated at nine to 10 million – fleeing to India. It also led to huge pressure on Indira Gandhi to intervene militarily.

Indira Gandhi’s response to the crisis was calibrated in large part because of Haksar’s initial reluctance to advise large-scale and immediate military intervention. He met with a number of important Bengali personalities who had fled East Pakistan and who had become the torchbearers of an independent Bangladesh. These meetings are described evocatively in the memoirs of two persons – one Indian and another Bangladeshi. Ashok Mitra was then Chief Economic Adviser in the Ministry of Finance and his book A Prattlers Tale tells a wonderful story of how his official residence in New Delhi became the place where the “freedom fighters” from what was to become Bangladesh first established contact with Haksar. Rehman Sobhan, the distinguished Bangladeshi economist, confirms these meetings and more in his book Untranquil Reflections: The Years of Fulfillment.

Haksar was firmly convinced that no military operation by India would work in the absence of insurrection from the inside in East Pakistan. It was this that led to him and Kao to get Indira Gandhi’s approval to support the training and arming of guerillas – the Mukti Bahini – in order to create the conditions that could pave the way for Indian military intervention, if at all needed. This military intervention was to be the last, extreme resort after all diplomatic and political means had exhausted themselves.

Field Marshall Sam Manekshaw is an authentic Indian hero and he did much to deserve that exalted status. He has bequeathed to us the story that Indira Gandhi and her advisors were keen on an early military operation and that he put his foot down asking for more time. Without in any way wishing any disrespect to him, the documentary evidence seems to suggest otherwise. At no time did Indira Gandhi or Haksar betray any impatience for war even though many influential Opposition leaders and public figures like Jayaprakash Narayan were clamouring for it.

The most detailed refutation of Manekshaw’s view has come from a very scholarly retired foreign service officer Chandrasekhar Dasgupta. Based on a variety of primary source material in the Haksar archives at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, last year Dasgupta wrote an article entitled “The Decision to Intervene: First Steps in India’s Grand Strategy in the 1971 War” which was published in the journal Strategic Analysis brought out by the New Delhi-based Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA). He starts his seminal contribution thus:

One of the most popular anecdotes of the 1971 war is Field Marshal Manekshaw’s tale of how he restrained an impatient Indira Gandhi from ordering an unprepared Indian army to march into East Pakistan in April. The Field Marshal’s prowess as a raconteur fully matched his military skills but exceeded his grasp of the political and diplomatic dimensions of the grand strategy shaped by Indira Gandhi and her advisors. The prime minister had no intention of going to war in April since India’s political aims could not have been achieved at that stage simply through a successful military operation.

Dasgupta’s meticulous marshaling of archival evidence points unambiguously to just one conclusion: that, more than anyone else Indira Gandhi herself included, it was Haksar who masterminded what he calls “the framework of a grand strategy integrating the military, diplomatic and domestic actions required to speed up the liberation of Bangladesh”.

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A treaty with China?

Henry Kissinger’s path-breaking air-dash to China from Pakistan took place on July 9, 1971. The Indo-Soviet Treaty was signed exactly a month later on August 9, 1971. It is tempting to draw a link between the two and indeed there may well be one. But, in point of fact, the wheels for formalizing the bilateral agreement had been set rolling much earlier. The idea for such a treaty had first been mooted sometime in 1968 by Marshal Andrei Grechko the Soviet Defence Minister. It had actually been all but finalized by end-1970 itself, thanks to the untiring efforts of the-then Indian Ambassador to the USSR DP Dhar. “DP”, as he was called, was very much part of the Haksar circle –personally and ideologically. Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin had left it to Indira Gandhi to decide on the exact timing for signature by both sides. She, however, was not sure about the reactions such a treaty would evoke both within India and in Western capitals. She certainly wanted Soviet military hardware, particularly aircraft bombers but on the treaty itself she was careful not to make an irreversible commitment.

On March 23, 1971 Dhar called on Kosygin in Moscow and there is no mention of the treaty in the official record of that meeting. But on June 5, 1971 in his farewell meeting with Marshal Grechko, Dhar raised the issue of the treaty. Even so Dhar, echoing Indira Gandhi’s concerns, was himself ambivalent as his letter to T.N. Kaul of the same day reveals. He ended by confessing:

…..Once again I would like to mention here that I am not sure whether the conclusion of a treaty in the form in which it was discussed in 1969 would satisfy the needs of the present situation. Perhaps, an exchange of letters which would set out the same objectives as were contained in the treaty would be an equally good substitute for the treaty at the present juncture. Or, again we could think of a secret document which could emerge as a result of the joint consultations between the General Staffs of the two countries or as a result of consultations which could be held on a purely political basis.

My sense is that this ambivalence ended once and for all with Kissinger’s China gambit. A few days before Kissinger and Haksar had met in New Delhi on July 6 and 7, 1971 and spent over four hours with each other. The record of the meetings dictated by Haksar has him telling Kissinger at one stage:

I am a little puzzled by your saying that if we get involved in a conflict [with Pakistan] which is not of our choosing and the Chinese intervene in one way or another, United States, instead of assisting us, would feel some sort of discomfiture.

Kissinger’s trip to China stunned everybody. Obviously Haksar had no inkling whatsoever what Kissinger was about to do even though he had told Haksar in their meetings that:

As for China, we [the USA] are desirous of improving our relations. We think we can now quickly move forward in this direction.

How was Haksar even to imagine that Kissinger’s “quickly” meant three days flat? There was now an obviously a transformed geo-political situation confronting India. Haksar, Kaul and Dhar moved with alacrity to convince a now more-than-willing Indira Gandhi that the time for an Indo-Soviet pact had finally arrived. Dhar, who had become Chairman of the Policy Planning Committee in the Ministry of External Affairs on his return from the USSR, was asked to meet Kosygin to convey Indira Gandhi’s readiness to sign the treaty at the earliest. This meeting took place in Moscow on August 5, 1971 and four days later the India-USSR Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation was signed between Sardar Swaran Singh, India’s External Affairs Minister and his Soviet counterpart Andrei Gromyko in New Delhi.

There is a little-known sequel to the signing of the Indo-Soviet Treaty. On August 12, 1971 that is three days after the treaty had been signed, Indira Gandhi sent a slip to Haksar that read:

Should we not indicate to Misra [Brijesh Misra then India’s Charge d’ Affairs in China] that the Indo-Soviet Treaty does not preclude a similar Treaty with China?

Haksar’s response was uncharacteristically delayed by a week but he was stunningly forthright saying:

I would respectfully submit that a Treaty of the kind we have just concluded with the Soviet Union reflects, in time and space, a particular coincidence of interest. In all the Chanceries of the world the Treaty has been interpreted in this light and I believe rightly so. For us now to go round saying to all and sundry that we are prepared to sign a similar Treaty would appear either unrealistic, or if I may so, something lacking in seriousness…. I think we have to be quite clear in our mind as to which countries might sign such a Treaty and then we should quietly work for it and not publicly state, day in and day out, that the Treaty with the Soviet Union is so routine that we are ready to sign it with everyone….As for signing a Treaty with the Chinese, even a talk about it would not bring about a Treaty with China and it would certainly attenuate greatly the effect of the Treaty which we have signed with the Soviet Union.

“Awesome” is the only word that comes to mind while reading this response to the prime minister’s suggestion by her top adviser. As it turned out about four months later Indira Gandhi wrote to the Chinese Premier Chou Enlai on December 11, 1971 in the midst of the Indo-Pak War explaining in considerable detail the background to the conflict and suggesting that the Chinese use their leverage with Pakistan to bring about an end to hostilities. But there was to be no reply at all to her letter.

Gana Prajatantri Bangladesh

While going through the Haksar papers, I was quite taken aback to find something that was not widely known even then. Haksar’s last day as Secretary to Prime Minister was September 4, 1971. The previous day, he proceeded on two months leave preparatory to retirement. He and his wife went to Geneva, Paris, London, Moscow and Warsaw. While in Moscow, he was informed that without him Indira Gandhi’s impending six-nation visit to Western capitals was in jeopardy and that she wanted him to accompany her. Indira Gandhi’s itinerary was Brussels, Vienna, London, Washington, Bonn and Paris. Technically on leave, Haksar joined her on this trip that was to become epochal by their meeting with President Nixon and Henry Kissinger in the White House on November 4th and 5th, 1971. Indira Gandhi dealt with Nixon in a manner that made all of India proud. The only time Haksar intervened was when President Nixon suggested that some disengagement by India forces back from the border to lessen tensions. Haksar, the record of the meeting says,

noted the difficulties for India by the displacement [that is, disengagement] of Indian forces.

Pakistan attacked India on the evening of December 3rd, 1971. Indira Gandhi was then in Kolkata, the Defence Minister Jagjivan Ram was in Patna and the Finance Minister YB Chavan was in Bombay. She rushed back to the capital that very night giving instructions for Cabinet meetings to be called on her return and for Haksar to be present as well. Orders appointing him as Principal Secretary to Prime Minister were issued on the morning of December 4, 1971 when India was at war with Pakistan. On December 6, 1971, Indira Gandhi formally announced India’s recognition of Gana Prajatantri Bangladesh. Her caution and that of Haksar can be gauged from the fact that a sovereign, independent Peoples Republic of Bangladesh with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as its head had been first proclaimed on March 26, 1971 and a request for India’s recognition of it had first been made on April, 24, 1971.

On December 11, 1971 when the war was in full swing Haksar sent a telegram marked “Personal” to India’s Ambassador to the USA, LK Jha that read thus:

…We have no territorial claims or ambitions as far as Bangladesh is concerned. If we had any, we would not have accorded recognition to that Government. The act of recognition means self-imposed restraint on our part against making any claims whatsoever.

We have no claims against the territory of West Pakistan. However, this does not mean that Pakistanis can continue to savagely attack our forces and occupy our territory and that we should, in advance, declare to them that they can do all this and we shall sit with our hands tied and surrender meekly to their attacks.

As far as Azad Kashmir, the [US] State Department ought to know that for a period of 24 years India has consistently maintained that this territory legally belongs to us. Pakistan, on the other hand, has not only seized this territory, but continues to advance claims on our state of Jammu and Kashmir. And yet we have in the past said that we will not alter the status quo by force…..

The next day Indira Gandhi wrote to President Nixon a letter that must be amongst the most unique in world diplomatic history. The letter was quintessential Haksar in his sweep of history and politics. It began this way:


….I am setting aside all pride, prejudice and passion and trying, as calmly as I can, to analyse once again the origins of the tragedy that is being enacted.

It ended with this dignified admonition:

Be that as it may, it is my earnest and sincere hope that with all the knowledge and deep understanding of human affairs you, as President of the United States and reflecting the will, the aspirations and idealism of the great American people, will at least let me know where precisely we have gone wrong before your representatives or spokesman deal with us with such harshness of language.

On December 13th, 1971 Haksar wrote to the Defence Secretary KB Lall:

…All the reports we have received yesterday from Washington, London, Moscow and sources close to China point to the fact that the United States and China have only one dominant interest, namely to preserve the integrity of West Pakistan. Anything that we may do or say which gives the impression that we have serious intentions, expressed through military actions or dispositions and propaganda that we wish to detach parts of West Pakistan as well as that of Azad Kashmir would create a new situation.

Haksar sent a copy of this letter to RC Dutt, Secretary, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting for his ‘information and guidance” and added the following instruction:

It appears that PIB [Press Information Bureau] had prepared some material calculated to stimulate Sindhi irredentism in West Pakistan. The PIB Release was picked up by the PTI [Press Trust of India]. Such a publicity within our country has to be stopped forthwith and all PIB releases fanning Sindhi, Baluchi or Pathan irredentism must be withdrawn.

Indira Gandhi was at pains all through December to make clear that India had no ambitions whatsoever to dismember Pakistan. She called a meeting of the Political Affairs Committee of the Cabinet on December 14, 1971 two days before Pakistan accepted defeat to get the approval of her colleagues to her viewpoint. The note for the Committee was prepared by Haksar. He submitted six principles for its consideration, the sixth of which read:

Recognising the principle that territorial gains made by the application of force shall not be retained by any party to a conflict, Governments of India and Pakistan through their appropriate representatives of the respective armed forces shall immediately commence negotiations in the Western theatre of the war as soon as possible.

Thus, contrary to the canard spread by Kissinger himself and accepted by many, India had never any offensive ambitions on the western front, other than to maintain the territorial status quo.

India won the war decisively by the evening of December 16, 1971. A month later, Haksar persuaded Subimal Dutt India’s longest serving foreign secretary to come out of retirement and become India’s first High Commissioner to Bangladesh. Dutt is perhaps better known as the chairman of the Industrial Licensing Policy Inquiry Committee whose report in 1969 had led to the enactment of the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices (MRTP) Act, something Haksar had approved of enthusiastically. On March 19, 1972, Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman signed the bilateral Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Peace in Dacca. Haksar had played a critical role in bringing about this accord.

‘Young man, Versailles yaad hai?’

While Haksar’s contributions to the emergence of Bangladesh are beyond dispute and are acknowledged handsomely in that country itself, his role in Simla thereafter has come under criticism. The Indira Gandhi-Zulfikar Ali Bhutto summit started on June 28, 1972 and four days later the Simla Accord was signed under dramatic circumstances. PN Dhar who was then Secretary to the Prime Minister and was present has given an account of what happened in those four days in his memoirs “Indira Gandhi, the ‘Emergency’ and Indian Democracy”.

The charge against Haksar is that he let Pakistan get away scot-free at Simla. Shankar Bajpai the venerated diplomat recently told me that while he was a great admirer and friend of Haksar, he still believed that Haksar allowed Indira Gandhi and himself to be fooled by Bhutto. Dhar also is pretty much of the same opinion. Even Natwar Singh, who edited a volume of tributes to Haksar on his 75th birthday, said to me that “on Simla PNH was naïve”. What all three of these very distinguished gentlemen were peeved with was the so-called “concession” made by India to discuss with Pakistan the modalities and arrangements for a final settlement of Jammu and Kashmir. Presumably, they would have not minded Bhutto returning empty-handed without an agreement at Simla. This, we must acknowledge, would have been unacceptable not only to the USA and China but also the USSR.

From Bhasin’s treasure trove the following picture emerges. On July 1, 1972 India handed over a draft agreement to Pakistan which said, among other things, that


……officials of the two sides will meet to discuss further the modalities and arrangements for the establishment of durable peace and normalization of relations, including the question of Jammu and Kashmir……[italics mine]

A day later in the morning India handed over yet another draft agreement to Pakistan marked “Final Indian Draft” which, among other things, said

…representatives of the two sides will meet to discuss further the modalities and arrangements for the establishment of durable peace and normalization of relations, including question of repatriation of prisoners of war and civilian internees, a final settlement of Jammu and Kashmir….[italics mine]

This formulation forms part of the final agreement that was signed. The argument being made by Haksar’s critics is that this gave locus standi to Pakistan on the Jammu and Kashmir issue at a time when it was completely down and out.

Before leaving for Simla, President Bhutto had addressed his nation on June 27, 1972. A day later, Haksar sent a detailed assessment of that speech to Indira Gandhi along with what he thought might be a structure of negotiations at Simla. He ended his analysis by saying:

The terrible legacy of the past has to be got over. And this can be got over if we are able today to enunciate the broad features of our [that is, India and Pakistan] future relationship in which the strongest element should be our firm resolve not to use force is settling our differences either as they exist, or might arise in future. Such a declaration accompanied by some concrete steps towards implementation of this resolve would put us on the new road to life of peace, amity and good neighbourliness. P.M. might then ask President Bhutto: how do we set about it?

Negotiations started on June 28, 1972 with DP Dhar chairing the Indian side and Aziz Ahmed, Secretary-General of the Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs heading the Pakistani team. They continued the next day when Haksar, according to the official record of discussions, made the following two points:

  1. that we should not allow ourselves to be influenced by the echoes of the past but come with new ideas and new approaches which can help us solve our problems ourselves, instead of either going to war or involving distant countries into our disputes.
  2. Indian politics has its own compulsions and complications. We consider it our business to manage our obscurantist and hard-core elements. We are similarly hopeful that you will be able to manage yours. But we cannot permit our individual internal compulsions to affect the settlement in favour of either party.
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Haksar took over as head of the Indian delegation on June 30, 1972 since Dhar had all of a sudden suffered a heart attack and had to be hospitalized. Indira Gandhi and Bhutto met along with their respective delegations on July 1, 1972 and exchanged draft agreements and communiqués. The officials of the two sides met again at 3.30 pm on July 2, 1972 but the meeting did not yield any agreement. But late that very night after a conversation, Indira Gandhi and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto signed the Simla Agreement.

The Accord has been both hailed and attacked. Interestingly this is true not just in India but in Pakistan as well. This in itself should impart great value to the agreement. I had only one conversation with Haksar a few years before he passed away in 1998 and when I asked him about how he responded to his critics on the Simla Accord, his laconic reply was – “young man, Versailles yaad hai?” Conceivably, he did not want Pakistan to leave as an embittered foe hell-bent on taking revenge for being humiliated so comprehensively.

There is a lot of retrospective angst on the Simla Accord, especially in view of the bilateral relationship that has existed between India and Pakistan since the mid-eighties. It is this, in my view, that has given that agreement a bad name in India. But admittedly not all of Indira Gandhi’s opponents were critical. Her bitterest political foe, C Rajagopalachari had been, according to his biographer Rajmohan Gandhi, “delighted” with the Simla agreement calling it the “Pact of Good Hope”. Rajaji had gone further and asked for an early second summit for resolving the unsettled issues.

The revisionism on the Simla Accord simply does not take into account the full facts. There were definite limits on what India could accomplish after the military victory on the eastern front on December 16, 1971. Haksar was painfully aware of these constraints. We could not keep over 90,000 prisoners of war forever nor could we hold on to West Pakistani territory in perpetuity. And we should not forget the pluses from Simla – the Cease Fire Line being replaced by the Line of Control and the Pakistani commitment to bilateralism. There has been criticism of Haksar that he did not insist that this Line of Control become the international border, although even Shankar Bajpai admits that to expect that would happen at Simla was totally unrealistic.

I should also mention here that revisionism on Simla fails to take into account what Bhutto himself wanted and what he ended up getting. Here is how another participant at Simla TN Kaul described it much later:

He [Bhutto] wanted India not only to vacate all West Pakistan territory occupied during the war, but also the immediate return of 90,000 Pakistani prisoners of war. He was reluctant to give up the use of force (as at Tashkent) or to accept the actual line of control in Jammu and Kashmir, which gave back to India about 400 sq. miles more of her own territory than the old ceasefire line. He also wanted to bring in the UN machinery under Article 33 of the Charter – of arbitration, mediation, etc. to settle bilateral disputes. And what is more he did not want to mention Kashmir at all. He also wanted immediate restoration of diplomatic relations with India but would not recognize Bangladesh.

Sovereign and Chamberlain

By mid-December 1972 Haksar had decided to finally quit. Indira Gandhi made no special effort to hold him back. But she did write to him a most unusual “Dear Haksar Saheb” letter on December 25, 1972 which reads thus:

I have hesitated to write or to speak. Some things are too deep for words or it may be that I am not enough of a writer to find the right words. I have no new or better phrases in which to tell you what so many have been repeating – much to your annoyance – all these days and even months, whenever the question of your leaving us has arisen.

During a period which has spanned so many crises you have stood like a rock. Your wise guidance has been invaluable in helping us negotiate the obstacles and steer clear of the many pitfalls endangering our onward journey, and even our survival.

There is perhaps no dearth of worthy, intelligent, even sincere or conscientious persons. But the need is for something over and above that – as you yourself are well aware. These qualities can be useful only if they are combined with a depth of judgment which is based on long experience of men, especially in government, and affairs of India as well as the world; on an insight into trends and forces. There can be no doubt that your retirement will greatly diminish the efficacy of the PM’s Sectt and will be a great loss to me.

Starting with the salutation itself, this letter says it all about the relationship two had shared. But the letter also makes it abundantly clear that Haksar himself had wanted to exit from the prime minister’s innermost circle for quite some time.

Why did this happen? What caused the rift between the two? Was it a case of familiarity breeding contempt, proximity creating distance? Three persons who worked in the Prime Minister’s Secretariat have written about Haksar’s departure – PN Dhar in the book I have just mentioned, BN Tandon his two-volume PMO Diaries and HY Sharada Prasad in his obituary of Haksar. Sharada Prasad put it the best of all. He wrote that the reason why Indira Gandhi and Haksar, who were so close to each other for decades, drifted apart was because

there was growing friction between sovereign and chamberlain over the doings of the prince.

I think all of you know the allusions. Nothing more need be said of the matter except that from early 1968 itself Haksar had kept telling Indira Gandhi what he thought of Sanjay Gandhi’s overweening ambitions to be the Henry Ford of India.

PN Haksar (left) and PN Dhar (right) at Haksar farewell hosted by Indira Gandhi, January 1973.
PN Haksar (left) and PN Dhar (right) at Haksar farewell hosted by Indira Gandhi, January 1973.

‘It will mean a great deal to me’

On January 15, 1973, Haksar finally bid farewell to the prime minister. Two days later he wrote to Govind Narain, the Union Home Secretary:

Dear Govind:

You spoke to me over the RAX yesterday morning and asked me, with a rare sense of delicacy, if I would accept the Award of Padma Vibhushan for the Republic Day of 1973. You said that it was PM’s desire that I should do so. You were good enough to give me some time to think it over. And this I have done. May I, first of all, say that the very thought that I should be given an Award is by itself a great reward for whatever services I might have rendered as a public servant. I am grateful for this to PM. However, I have a difficulty in accepting the award: All these years, I have often said to myself that one should work so that one can live with oneself without regret. This gave me a measure of inner tranquility and even courage. Accepting an award for work done somehow causes an inexplicable discomfort to me. I hope I will not be misunderstood. I repeat I am grateful for the thought that my services should be recognized. For me this is enough. I would beg of you not to press me to accept the award itself. I shall be grateful if you kindly convey to PM my deep and abiding gratitude for the privilege I had to serve under her.

This letter has everlasting relevance and should guide anybody in public life at any point of time. There have been some people who have refused such awards but after they have been announced. I really cannot think of anyone else who has politely and quietly declined at the offer stage itself and that too with such high-minded sense of values.

But Indira Gandhi was not done with him. A few days after refusing the Padma Vibhushan, Haksar was in Iran as the prime minister’s special envoy to help build a new bilateral relationship. His visit was a turning point although the Shah of Iran was himself to be overthrown six years later. In July 1973, Indira Gandhi once again turned to Haksar. India and Pakistan had agreed to open talks to resolve what were referred to as “humanitarian” issues arising out of the 1971 war that were not settled in Simla. These included the repatriation of detained Pakistani citizens from Bangladesh to Pakistan, the return of Bengalis detained in Pakistan to Bangladesh, the trial of Pakistani prisoners of war held in Bangladesh and the return of prisoners of war held in India.

Haksar engaged in shuttle diplomacy going first to Rawalpindi and Islamabad and then to Dacca. Although the talks were between him and Aziz Ahmed, the Pakistani Minister of State for Defence and Foreign Affairs, at every step he had to keep Bangladesh in the picture as well. Haksar was thus actually negotiating on behalf of both India and Bangladesh since Pakistan had not yet formally recognized Bangladesh.

Finally after over a month of tortuous negotiations, Haksar and Aziz Ahmed signed the agreement on August 28, 1973 which took the Simla Accord forward. The verbatim transcripts of Haksar’s discussions in Rawalpindi, Islamabad, Dacca and New Delhi reveal Haksar at his supreme best mindful at every step of the national interest but always looking for avenues for mutual accommodation. I cannot help but take a diversion here and quote from the conversation that took place on July 27, 1973 between Haksar and Bhutto at the latter’s residence in Islamabad:

Haksar: Finally, if you permit me, Mr President, I would like to say something most respectfully. I am not a historian. (Pointing to the picture of a Buddha on the wall). What do you feel about the picture? Is, or is not that a part of Pakistan?

President Bhutto: I respect Buddha.

Haksar: Then, Mr. President, May I humbly ask, why do you talk of confrontation of thousand years? Are you in conflict with your own history? Is Pakistan in conflict with its own personality? To talk of confrontation has impact on the minds and hearts of people in India and Pakistan. It will be picked by the wrong type of people in India. Is that a contribution to durable peace in the sub-continent……You said Sindhi language is 5,000 years old. Is there a confrontation in Sind between the last one thousand years and the previous 4,000 years? I beg of you, Mr President, to thin it over the implications of the pronouncements about confrontation of a thousand years…..

President Bhutto: I will say less of it in future (President looked embarrassed and confused and said “ it was for internal….” but did not complete the sentence”.

Not only did Haksar speak to Indira Gandhi without holding anything back but he also treated Bhutto in the same fashion. His exchanges with others like Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and Henry Kissinger are also marked by their provocative pointedness.

The negotiations shifted to New Delhi in late-August 1971. There appeared to be no satisfactory solution in sight. Even as the talks meandered along, Indira Gandhi wrote to Haksar:

I have been wanting to speak to you for some time but waited for the Pak delegation to return to their country. However the talks are dragging on. Hence this hurried note.

I am a little worried about the Algiers Conference [4th Non-Aligned Summit]. I foresee all kinds of pressures and currents and I do not know if the delegation that is proposed is really equipped to give any kind of lead.….

The thought struck me that your being in Algiers would make an enormous difference to India’s role. I always hesitate to put such thoughts to you….

Will you at least think about it? I do sincerely hope that you can come.

This letter shows that Indira Gandhi may well have been in awe of Haksar. But her postscript to the letter is even more amazing. She added:

It will mean a great deal to me.

Haksar obviously agreed but before Algiers, there was a task to be completed at home. Finally, the India-Pakistan agreement was signed in New Delhi on August 28th, 1973. This was as momentous as the Simla accord itself on which it was based. Indira Gandhi wrote to Haksar the same day:

Neither of us care for formalities. But I must express my deep appreciation of the manner in which you have handled the whole delicate business of talking with the Pakistani delegation. The going was often tough and exasperating and entailed a great deal of hard work. The result has justified all the effort which you and your colleague have put in. I sincerely hope that the implementation will go smoothly and that the Agreement does in fact lead to peace and better relations in our sub-continent. I should like to thank you on my own behalf and on behalf of the Government.

Nuclear and space programmes

The foundations of India’s extensive science and technology infrastructure were laid in the 1950s when Nehru was at the helm. He was passionate about science and obsessed with the cultivation and propagation of a “scientific temper”. In this regard, Indira Gandhi consolidated and expanded on what was achieved during the Nehruvian era.

As highlighted in Ashok Parthasarathi’s memoir Technology at the Core Haksar’s influence was very visible in the nuclear and space programmes. Parthasarathi was Indira Gandhi’s Special Assistant for science and technology between 1970 and 1975. He writes that Haksar reveled in “institutional engineering”. His choice of three key people was inspired and invaluable for the country. He knew them personally very well. The first was Satish Dhawan who was persuaded by Haksar to become Chairman of the Space Commission in early 1972 after the untimely demise of Vikram Sarabhai. Haksar and Dhawan shared many common interests, including photography. The second was Dr. Raja Ramanna who Haksar had known since 1949. Haksar ensured that the piano-playing nuclear physicist became Director of the Bhabha Atomic Energy Centre with the mandate to start preparing for India to become a nuclear power. The third was Dr. Brahm Prakash a great metallurgist who, unfortunately, has not got the full public credit he deserves for his yeoman contributions to India’s nuclear and space programmes. Haksar shifted him from the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and had him appointed as Director of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC).

Over almost a two year period between 1970 and 1972, Haksar played a key role in persuading Indira Gandhi to go ahead with Pokhran-I on May 18, 1974. On that milestone of a day, Raj Chengappa writes in his gripping narrative of India’s nuclear quest entitled Weapons of Peace, Haksar was actually in London giving a lecture on Jawaharlal Nehru. But that his mind was elsewhere is revealed by the fact that he kept asking BK Nehru, India’s High Commissioner there, whether there was any news from Delhi. His face apparently said it all when the High Commissioner confirmed that India’s first “peaceful nuclear experiment” had taken place successfully. It bears mention here that Haksar continued as Member of the Atomic Energy Commission and the Space Commission even after he left the Prime Minister’s Secretariat in January 1973 – obviously the prime minister knew his intellectual value only too well even though their relationship had changed by then.

Haksar was a great believer in bringing professionals into administration and giving them full powers so that that did not have to play second fiddle to the ICS/IAS bureaucracy. IG Patel and Haksar had different ideological temperaments. But Patel himself has written in his memoirs Glimpses of India’s Economic Policy about how Haksar intervened on more than one occasion to “protect” his interests and address his concerns. Another example is that of MS Swaminathan who, in early 1972, was appointed Director General of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and also given the status of ex officio Additional Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture. Haksar called him and told him not to take over till he – that is Haksar – had given the green signal. That signal came some weeks later in April 1972 when Swaminathan found to his pleasant surprise that, in addition to being Director General of the ICAR, he was now designated as Secretary in the Department of Agricultural Research and Education – a practice that has continued ever since. Haksar had got Indira Gandhi’s approval for this change to send a signal of the prime minister’s strongest possible commitment to agricultural research. She had agreed readily.

Public sector wallah

I must now turn to economic policy without which this lecture will be incomplete.

Indira Gandhi was no doctrinaire ideologue as she is often portrayed. She came to power convinced that something dramatic had to be done to revive the economy which was in the grip of stagnation. She was committed to planning of course largely because it was her father’s legacy. Her one great obsession in her initial three-four years was food self-sufficiency. The droughts of 1965 and 1966 made her even more determined in this area.

The initial months of her tenure were consumed by debates and discussions on devaluation of the Indian rupee. Actually, the need for devaluation had been talked about for over a year but a final decision kept getting postponed. Finally, Indira Gandhi bit the bullet on June 6, 1966 and the sharp devaluation was also accompanied by a substantial liberalization of the international trade regime and loosening of industrial controls. In some ways, what was to happen in a much bolder manner in July 1991 happened in June-July 1966 – a quarter of a century earlier.

But things came unstuck soon thereafter. The promised $ 900 million or so of programme assistance from international institutions did not materialize because of India’s vocal stance on American bombing of targets in North Vietnam. In addition, the devaluation and opening up of the economy caused deep fissures within the Congress party with most of the party establishment critical of Indira Gandhi’s decision.

Haksar was, of course, not in Delhi in 1966 and that year Indira Gandhi was largely guided in economic matters by pragmatists like C Subramaniam, Ashoka Mehta and LK Jha who was then her Secretary, a holdover from the earlier Shastri regime. But mid-1967 onwards there was a definite shift in economic thinking. The Congress debacle in the national elections may have forced a rethink. Certainly, the replacement of Jha by Haksar in May 1967 brought a strong “public sector wallah”, an unabashed leftist, a man who had close and long-standing links to the Communist Party of India into the Prime Minister’s Secretariat in the most pivotal position.

Politically too, Indira Gandhi was under threat from within her party and she looked to the left parties and some regional parties like the DMK for support. This was particularly important after the Congress split of November 1969. By this time, a younger group of left-leaning Congressmen had also emerged and had started asserting themselves. These were soon to become famous as the Young Turks to whom I have already drawn a reference. The bugbear of the Young Turks was the then Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Morarji Desai and big business houses, especially the Birlas.

Did Haksar steer Indira Gandhi leftward? Decidedly so. Did he do it against her wishes and better instincts? I don’t quite think so since Indira Gandhi, when push came to shove, was a natural leftist if by being a leftist meant primacy to the public sector, belief in some form of licensing and planning, controls on inflow of foreign investment and growth of large companies. But at the same time she was not dogmatic. After all, PN Dhar whose economic instincts were diametrically opposite to that of Haksar had been inducted into the Prime Minister’s Secretariat in November 1970 with the understanding that he would take over from Haksar when the time came. Incidentally, Dhar himself has written in his memoirs I have mentioned earlier that the move had the full backing and support of Haksar.

Haksar placed his ex-Communist friends into positions of authority. They were all nationalists who had been educated in England in the late 1930s and had returned to India thereafter. Some were lawyers, some were academics and some were in the private sector. The best example of coterie was Mohan Kumaramangalam – an active member of the CPI and a noted lawyer – who finally switched over to the Congress Party in 1969. Kumaramangalam whose brother had been Chief of Army Staff a little while earlier contested the 1971 elections and won from Pondicherry. He went on to play the lead role in the nationalization of the coal industry and in the formation of the Steel Authority of India (SAIL) as a holding company for the public sector steel plants. Unfortunately, Kumaramangalam had a most untimely demise in an air crash in May 1973 at the relatively young age of 57. Indira Gandhi’s letter to her American friend Dorothy Norman on his death makes for very poignant reading and shows the regard and respect she had for him.

Some liberals and political centrists like the noted historian Ramachandra Guha feel that Haksar’s zeal in placing fellow travellers in key institutional positions is as bad as what has happening in recent times – packing institutions with those sympathetic to the ideology of the ruling establishment in New Delhi. I do not agree with this “equidistance” view. The earlier generation was one where ideology certainly mattered but scholarship and academic rigour also held value. Today, there is a premium on mediocrity, polemics and lack of academic standing.

Perfect understanding

It is not my intention to suggest that for the period he worked with her, Indira Gandhi was a largely blank slate on which Haksar could write anything. Far from it. She had her own views and opinions on issues and individuals. Although her worldview had been profoundly shaped and moulded by her father over the decades, she was very much her own person. And she differed with Nehru on occasions and got him to change his mind as well – one example of which was the creation of Maharashtra with Bombay as its capital.

My own take is that Indira Gandhi and Haksar functioned as a jugalbandhi for almost five and a half years. They had perfect understanding of each other – except, of course, on the matter of Maruti. That understanding came from their personal friendship going back to London in the late thirties, from the fact that Haksar had been a close friend of her husband as well, from Haksar’s deepest admiration for Nehru and his belief that the daughter would carry forward the great man’s legacy, from her own firm view that Haksar was a man of incorruptible intellectual, moral and financial integrity and her knowledge that whatever happens Haksar would be loyal to her. Her faith was not misplaced. He never spoke or wrote anything against her in public even though his family was subject to harassment during the Emergency in July 1975. Indira Gandhi continued to consult him off and on and in the early eighties wanted him to get involved in Jammu and Kashmir matters. He kept his distance although he would keep writing to her on different subjects including rapprochement with China. This was something that pre-occupied him after the Simla Summit itself going by what two of his closest friends – KR Narayanan and HY Sharada Prasad – have written.

Every head of government requires a Haksar – a counsellor who can stand up to power, speak the truth as he sees it and gives advice according to the dictates of his conscience, not a courtier who tailors what he says to what he thinks would want to be heard. That Indira Gandhi had such a truly remarkable man by her side for so long is as much a reflection on him as it is on her. He not only gave her the strength of his convictions but in the process helped her discover hers as well.

Thank you.