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More Questions than Answers

More Questions than Answers A Call to Honour: In Service of Emergent India by Jaswant Singh; Rupa & Co, New Delhi, 2006; pp 391+ three annexures, Rs 495.


More Questions

than Answers

A Call to Honour: In Service of Emergent India

by Jaswant Singh; Rupa & Co, New Delhi, 2006; pp 391+ three annexures, Rs 495.


n recent years, a few retired civil servants and officers of the armed forces, who had held high positions in government, have published their recollections of and reflections on their times, but, unlike in countries such as the US and UK, the same cannot be said of persons who have held high political offices in India. This has left major gaps in the understanding and appreciation of important issues and the political considerations and compulsions which weighed with the governments in taking certain decisions or pursuing a policy of drift. With the Official Secrets Act, 1929, still holding sway in India even six decades after independence, and the resistance of the government to making the files pertaining to any significant developments and issues in the field of external relations, defence and security, available to people, the writings of those who had held high political offices assume special importance. In this sense, Jaswant Singh’s book is a welcome addition to the very limited writings of such persons. Jaswant Singh’s book is also noteworthy for yet another reason. In a few cases when persons in political life write about their times in office, even if it is under an assumed name as P V Narasimha Rao did, they do so long after leaving office and are certain that there is no chance of their coming back to power. Some even wanted their writing to be published posthumously. In this sense too Jaswant Singh’s book is a welcome departure. There is yet another significant aspect of this book. Any writer expects that his book should receive serious attention and lead to public debate and discussion on the issues he has dealt with. The controversy regarding the leakage of information (dubbed as the mole by the media) by a person having direct access to prime minister P V Narasimha Rao, which resulted in abandoning the nuclear tests, led to brisk sale of the book but, due to the loss of credibility attributed to the author, the book failed to attract serious attention to the issues discussed in the book.

The book has three parts. Unfortunately, often the names of the chapters do not convey much. Book I, comprising three chapters, deals with the author’s childhood, the partition and the period after, till the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power. Book II consists of three chapters – Pokharan II: The Implosion of Nuclear Apartheid, Pokharan Looks East, and The Asian Two: India and China. Book III comprises five chapters, namely, Troubled Neighbour, Turbulent Times: 1999, Troubled Neighbour, Turbulent Times: 2001, Engaging the Natural Ally, The Republican Innings, and Some Afterwords. The three annexures are – the text of the US administration statement giving details of the sanctions imposed on June 18, 1998, full text of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s letter to Jawaharlal Nehru on his concerns and worries about the Chinese and the North-East dated November 7, 1950, and the statement and verbatim record of the author’s press conference at the conclusion of the Agra summit on July 17, 2001.

Jaswant Singh believes that the partition of the country was avoidable: “These gates dividing Attari from Wagah appeared so unnecessary, at least to my eyes” (pp 189, 194). This author has, however, taken a totally opposite view on this subject in his recently published book on partition.1

We shall now turn to some of the main themes of the book. These include Indo-US relations with special reference to the nuclear tests, the shameful Kandahar episode, the Kargil war and the Agra summit. The observations hereafter must be seen in the light of the fact that, apparently, the book is a collaborative effort and, as mentioned in the Acknowledgements, a number of persons seem to have helped in putting it together. In some cases, such as the 1962 war with China, the author delves deep, even going as far as back as 1950, by quoting Patel’s correspondence with Nehru to bring out how badly the situation was handled by the government at the time. But, he prefers to gloss over completely some other matters of crucial significance and particular relevance to assessing the performance of the BJP in power. Though he candidly admits that “on BJP’s scorecard, there are two main negatives”, the economy of words with which he dismisses them is breathtaking. “First, the getting out of hand of the Ayodhya Ram temple issue, the consequent vandalism at the site, the pulling down of it in December 1992. This failure of control over the Ram temple movement is accepted, and is greatly regretted” (p 107).

It is important to note that there is no mention of the Babri masjid and its demolition at all. The regret is not at its demolition but at the failure of control over the Ram temple movement! The summary reference to Godhra riots is equally disconcerting. Singh says, “the other (negative) is the loss of state control, in 2002, in Gujarat, after a train-load of pilgrims returning from Ayodhya were trapped and their bogie set on fire in Godhra. Just under 60 people, men, women and children, died in that ghastly attack. This triggered reaction rioting in Gujarat, killing as per figures provided by the government to Parliament in May 2005, 254 Hindus and 790 Muslims. The riots were a blot on Gujarat’s face, they sullied the BJP too….A mishandling of events, as a consequence of Godhra and whatever happened as a reaction, gave substance to the worst imaginings about the BJP….” (p 107) (emphasis added). It is interesting to note that this was a blot on Gujarat and not on the whole country. The riots were a reaction to the burning of the bogey and pilgrims killed therein. It was just a mishandling of the situation. There is no reference to state-sponsored

Economic and Political Weekly November 11, 2006 terrorism. The figures quoted are totally out of date and underplay the ghastly pogrom.

The Nuclear Tests

As regards India’s nuclear ambitions, Singh quotes R Venkataraman, who was defence minister in the Indira Gandhi government and was later president of India, to assert how it was way back in the 1980s that Gandhi had made all preparations for conducting the tests but then had “changed her mind and called the whole exercise off” (p 122).2 However, the most significant statement is that “In 1996, when P V Narasimha Rao demitted office as prime minister, he took aside his successor, Atal Behari [sic] Vajpayee, and quietly said, ‘I could not do it [the nuclear test] though I wanted very much to, so it is really up to you now’” (p 122). Singh has argued that Rao had to abandon the plan as the US government got to know of it from a source “with direct access to prime minister”. He claims that this was based on a copy of the letter which had been sent in 1995 to a US senator and a copy of which was sent to him when he was in the opposition and was the deputy leader of the BJP in Lok Sabha (pp 125-26). He has referred to it in the context of his claim that, as compared to this sloppy record of the Rao government, planning and execution of the nuclear tests under the leadership of Vajpayee was done in total secrecy and neither Americans nor any others got any inkling of it. This appears quite logical but the reference to a letter written to the senator in 1995 raises a number of questions which remain unanswered. Who was the author of the letter? If the letter writer had access to the president of the US, why did he have to ask the advice of the senator on “how to proceed”? Why did Singh keep quiet all these years when an important matter concerning national security was involved? Would it not have helped if the enquiry to identify the “mole”, though he has not used that word, had been conducted soon after Singh had been sent the copy of the letter in 1995? Why did he fail to give more details of this important event in the book? The explanation that he gave in one of his interviews after the publication of the book that the publisher had asked him to curtail the length of the manuscript and hence he had to delete some portions of the earlier draft, is hardly convincing. His failure to give the requisite details to prime minister, Manmohan Singh, even after the controversy erupted undermined his credibility beyond repair.

Singh has graphically brought out the hostile reactions of a number of not just the western countries but even developing countries, after the nuclear tests by India. It is interesting to see how diplomatic, patient and low key he had to be in dealing with this hostile reception time and again. It goes to his credit that he handled the situation firmly but tactfully. It was as a part of these efforts that Singh and Strob Talbot had an unusually long and animated dialogue – constructive engagement – spread over a dozen sessions, held all over the globe, on wide ranging issues to understand each other’s positions. As Singh has described, the length of the time devoted to these talks was unprecedented in US-Indian relations. These sessions have been extensively brought out in the book. Questions were raised at the time how India, which had all along been so sensitive (and as some believed excessively sensitive) to matters of protocol, agreed to Indian foreign minister holding discussions at a level lower than his counterpart. Singh has not explained the genesis of this decision. After reading the lengthy account of these discussions, the reader keeps on wondering what was achieved by these discussions, for, right up to the end, on almost all matters the position of the American government remained practically the same as at the beginning of the dialogue (pp 305-06). In fact, all the benchmarks which Talbot had articulated, including “strategic restraint” by India have resurfaced in the current discussions on the Indo-US nuclear deal. It is claimed by Singh that sanctions were lifted by the US government as a result of his dialogue with Talbot. This may be true only up to a point since India went out of its way to announce unilateral moratorium on further nuclear tests and also made the announcement of “no first use” policy, thereby undercutting the basis of its concerns such as the Chinese threat referred to in Vajpayee’s letter to Clinton and the importance of nuclear deterrence as an integral part of Indian foreign policy. In fact, in his speech at the UN General Assembly in 1998, prime minister Vajpayee had announced that India “is now engaged in discussions with key interlocutors on a range of issues, including the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). We are prepared to bring these discussions to a successful conclusion, so that the entry into force of the CTBT is not delayed beyond September 1999” (p 311). Once these steps were announced, India had effectively signalled its acceptance of CTBT, whatever may have been the political rhetoric. Our position on these vital matters has all along been ambivalent and has shifted from time to time.

Just prior to 1995 when India was supposedly making plans to conduct nuclear tests, it had declared in the 680th meeting of the conference on disarmament in Geneva in 1994 that, “With the end of the cold war, we have witnessed changes of seismic proportions in the international political and security environment which has led to new imperatives for the international disarmament and security agenda. Accordingly, nuclear deterrence has lost whatever value its proponents claimed for it.” India had urged the plenary meeting that the CTBT should aim at the general and complete cessation of nuclear tests by all states, the ban should be comprehensive and not just establish thresholds, and that India would support the idea of closure of nuclear weapon test sites. For reasons which are far from clear, in less than a year, we changed our position on these issues. Looking to the dire economic situation which was facing India in the early 1990s, it is most unlikely that India could have been able to withstand the impact of sanctions by the US and the western world. The author gives credit for the Next Step in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) Agreement signed in January 2004 between the US and India after he left the external affairs ministry, and the Nuclear Cooperation for Energy Agreement signed by India and the US in March 2006 to the dialogue between him and Talbot. He claims that “Without that foundation of January 12, 1998 [when he first stepped into Talbot’s office], and all those early endeavours, this outcome would have been difficult”. This is quite in contrast with the opposition of his own party to the Indo-US nuclear agreement.

Kandahar Episode

Singh has dealt at great length with the hijacking of the Indian Airlines plane to Kandahar and his anguish at having to carry with him the dreaded terrorists who were to be released. In an account pertaining to such a shameful chapter in the country’s history, one would have expected more details of how and why this decision had to be taken, why he had to go personally to Kandahar and whether

Economic and Political Weekly November 11, 2006

this ignominy could not have been avoided. It is significant that in spite of the bridges of understanding supposed to have been built with the US, though it was “the virtual ruler of Afghanistan” it failed to hand over Muttavakil for prosecution in India. So much for the joint fight against terrorism (p 247)! It was abundantly clear that the hijacking of this plane was neither the first terrorist act nor was it going to be the last. One would have therefore expected to see some discussion of the lessons learnt for the future and the steps which were considered by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government to deal with them. Unfortunately, there is none. The NDA government could have taken the opportunity to deal with the threat of terrorist attacks and the holding of innocent citizens to ransom. One, to announce a clear policy that in future the government will not enter into any negotiations with terrorists. Such an announcement would have underlined national resolve and helped create public opinion in favour of dealing firmly with terrorists. Second, the media was responsible in no small measure for bringing enormous and continuous pressure on the government to do anything to get the hostages released. In fact, it would not be wrong to say that the media, and particularly the electronic media, behaved in a most irresponsible manner and forced the government to concede the preposterous demands of the hijackers. It was in 1992 that, when this writer was the union home secretary, effort was made to evolve, in consultation with the press council of India (PCI), guidelines for the media for dealing with such situations. Unfortunately, the then chairman of the PCI was not prepared to do anything in the matter. Perhaps, the time had not come for the idea but, after the Kandahar fiasco, opportunity should have been taken to evolve and announce a national policy on the subject. With the climate which was prevailing at the time, this would have been possible. This golden opportunity was lost by the NDA government. Third, the then union home minister and deputy prime minister had promised to place before Parliament a white paper on terrorism. This promise too was never fulfilled. Fourth, though India has been a target of heinous terrorist acts for at least 15 years, we still do not have a national policy on dealing with terrorism. Surely, there must have been some discussion on these issues in the government while dealing with the Kandahar episode. Sadly, the book sheds no light on these matters.

Kargil War

Singh has dealt with the Kargil war at great length and has tried to project how successful the NDA was in winning the war. By now, there are more than four versions of the events leading to the Kargil war. One version is the report of the Kargil Review Committee appointed by the government of India.3 Unfortunately, it leaves a great many questions unanswered as to whether the occupation of Indian territories by Pakistan forces should have come as a surprise. The report makes no effort to fix the responsibility for this inexcusable lapse. The same is true of the account in Singh’s book which focuses mainly on how the areas were recaptured by the Indian army and international diplomacy which had to be engaged in. The third version is that of general V P Malik, who was then the chief of Army Staff.4 Interestingly, the title of the Kargil Review Committee report as also Malik’s book contain the same word – surprise! But, the central intelligence agencies, namely, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and the Intelligence Bureau (IB) claim that their intelligence reports were overlooked by the army and other concerned agencies, and the charge of intelligence failure is totally baseless. The fourth version is that of general Musharraf contained in his autobiography released in September 2006. Equally relevant is the manner in which India responded to the crisis in terms of decision-making processes. Malik’s book brings out some interesting aspects which have considerable significance for lessons for the future. The then defence minister, George Fernandes, had briefed the media on May 14, 1999 and stated that the infiltrators would be thrown out in the next 48 hours. This reminds one of Nehru’s declaration at the commencement of the Chinese invasion in 1962 that he had ordered the Chinese to be thrown out immediately! Looking to the time which was taken to recapture the Kargil heights, it shows how little we have learnt from the past. Malik has written that when the army had asked in the meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) on May 18, 1999 permission to use helicopters and offensive air support from the Indian Air Force (IAF), the CCS rejected the proposal. Instead, the army was “asked to exercise restraint and avoid an escalation of hostilities…It is possible that the need to exercise restraint may have been engendered due to the ongoing dialogue between India and Pakistan…R K Mishra (India’s Track-2 interlocutor with Pakistan) was in Islamabad on May 17. The Indian Army was not aware of the Track-2 dialogue process” (p 116) (emphasis added). This is shocking and is completely in contrast with the situation in Pakistan where the army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) are fully involved in the Track-2 diplomacy, indirectly. Malik has also brought out how the CCS was reluctant to escalate the conflict. “Its members had either not received full information and the correct assessment of the Pakistani army involvement or had some other political reservations which we (the heads of armed forces) did not know yet” (p 120). Yet another observation of Malik needs to be noted. “I had been told that, at the political level, the minister for external affairs, Jaswant Singh, had opposed the use of air power in the CCS meeting on May 18 [when Malik was on a visit to Poland]. While seeking permission this time [May 23], I recall, looking more at him than at the prime minister or anyone else. To my surprise and great relief, there was no objection from anyone… Jaswant Singh insisted that our forces should not (emphasis in the original) cross the LoC or the international border” (p 126). It is interesting to note that Singh hardly ever makes a mention of the role and work of the national security council which was established by the NDA governmentwith such a fanfare. In the light of the above, an authentic, dispassionate and objective historical account and analysis of Kargil war is imperative. However, such a war history must be made public in a reasonable time and not kept in the archives for ever, as has been done in respect of histories of war with China in 1962 and the four previous wars with Pakistan.

Agra Summit

Finally, a brief reference must be made to the fiasco of the Agra summit which was held without any preparations and discussions at the official or foreign ministers’ level. Singh has admitted in the press conference in Agra that the two sides could not arrive at an agreed text of a joint communiqué “on account of the difficulty in reconciling our basic approaches to bilateral relations” (p 402). If this was so, why was the Agra summit held in a hurry?

Economic and Political Weekly November 11, 2006 Singh had told the BBC earlier in 1999 that proper environment for dialogue with Pakistan “would require an abjuring of violence by Pakistan; a recognisable demonstration of giving up/stopping all cross-border terrorism, currently encouraged by the state of Pakistan and agencies of that state. What was being waged against India was not a proxy war, I said, it was a clandestine war” (p 319). If this was so, what was the justification for holding the Agra summit which served no purpose so far as India was concerned except providing “photo-ops”, as the Americans would have put it? But, for Pakistan, it meant a great deal. India gave Musharraf official recognition as head of the state. He held forth at the press conference and projected himself as the sole spokesman of Pakistan. As Singh has noted, Musharraf even refused to accept “the presence of terrorism as an issue, continued to emphasise only the centrality of Jammu and Kashmir, was almost dismissive of Lahore, would not at all accept the reality of what Kargil was, what he had done, and he seemed almost to dismiss the Shimla Agreement” (p 255). The fascination of both the NDA and the present United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government to hold summit meetings with Pakistan without any of the basic issues getting resolved is difficult to fathom and has led to India being perceived as a soft state. The summit meeting in Havana in September 2006 was no different.

To sum up, this is a well written book and is a must read for all those interested in understanding the critical issues and choices facing the country. What comes out clearly is the author’s courage of conviction and his capacity to see the larger picture, without getting bogged down with minor details. He was an effective foreign minister and was an articulate spokesman of India. His shift from external affairs ministry to finance was as ill-advised and unsuited as that of Y B Chavan from the home ministry to finance in the early 1970s. One had expected to read the reasons which led to the shift but Singh is at his diplomatic best in avoiding to take the reader into confidence! The reason that he gives, “The finance ministry having run into some rough weather”, is far from convincing (p 357). While writing about China, however, he drops his guard and states, “I do even now sometimes wish that I had had some more years to add to this bilateral relationship” (p 150). The last chapter, ‘Some Afterwords’, shows that he is out of depth in writing about financial matters. This chapter is journalistic and could have been omitted or curtailed substantially. Finally, it would have been better if the relevant date and year had been mentioned as the text moves from one event or subject to another. The use of words such as attitudinising echoes, deflective ambiguity, strategic restraint, uncharacteristic burn, coercive diplomacy, bathos and jejune often leave the reader at sea.




1 Madhav Godbole, The Holocaust of Indian Partition: An Inquest, Rupa & Co, New Delhi, 2006.

2 B G Deshmukh, who was cabinet secretary andlater principal secretary to prime minister duringthe Rajiv Gandhi government, has brought outhow Gandhi had ordered the commencement of the integrated nuclear weaponisation programmeand how he was monitoring it closely (see,‘Keep the Faith’ in Hindustan Times, New Delhi, September 7, 2006).

3 Government of India, From Surprise toReckoning: The Kargil Review CommitteeReport, Sage Publications, New Delhi, 1999.

4 General V P Malik, Kargil: From Surprise toVictory, HarperCollins, India, New Delhi, 2006.

Economic and Political Weekly November 11, 2006

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