Former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi linked the issue of alleged British inaction against economic offenders based in Britain with New Delhi agreeing to London posting two drug liaison officers during a terse exchange with his counterpart Margaret Thatcher in 1986.
Newly declassified documents reveal Thatcher’s frustration over the delay in posting the two officers in New Delhi and Bombay (now Mumbai) after Gandhi had earlier agreed in principle to the posting.
The exchange preceded Gandhi’s visit to London in 1986, and reflected India’s long-standing concern over economic offenders based in Britain.
Gandhi did not name the economic offenders, but wrote to Thatcher on July 29, 1986: “We have an equally pressing problem in relation to economic and commercial offenders, who operate from or seek foreign sanctuaries. Our parliament and people continue to be exercised on what is perceived to be lack of adequate action against such offenders.”
He added: “Our Finance Minister had sought some cooperation from his British counterpart on a particular case in January. Our External Affairs Minister had also been given an assurance by Sir Geoffrey Howe that our concerns will be accommodated. We are awaiting a suitable response from your people.”
Gandhi went on to link the two issues, and concluded: “I see no reason why mutually satisfactory arrangements should not be worked out for joint efforts in tackling the menace of drug trafficking and commercial offences.”
Following reports that heroin from Pakistan and Afghanistan was the “main hard drug used in the British Isles”, Thatcher wrote back: “Only the drug-pushers will gain if it seems that we cannot get ahead with arrangements for improving practical liaison in Delhi in just the same way as you have two customs liaison officers at the Indian High Commission who enjoy close cooperation with HM Customs.”
She added: “As regards Indo-British cooperation on economic and commercial intelligence, I was surprised to learn that your Parliament and people perceive a lack of adequate action on our part. We have already given full and unreserved assurances that we shall cooperate, as we have hitherto, to the maximum extent possible within our law. We could scarcely do more than that, or be expected to do so. We shall not do less either.”
In a telegraphic message to New Delhi, Thatcher wrote to Gandhi in July 1986: “I am very concerned that no progress has been made on the question of posting British Drug Liaison Officers to New Delhi and Bombay…I very much fear that making public the difficulties we have encountered in the matter will only give comfort to the drug traffickers and to those who would like to sow discord between us.”
The thinking in the British government at the time was that India had “reneged” on its original agreement to post the two officers, which threatened “to become another bone of contention in our relations with the Indians”.
Foreign Official R N Culshaw wrote to 10 Downing Street: “Mr Gandhi’s reply of 29 July is so unsatisfactory that we cannot afford to let slip the opportunity provided by his visit to try and persuade him to honour the earlier agreement in principle to our DLO proposal.”
However, India later agreed to the posting of the two officers, as indicated by a note dated November 28, 1986 that has Thatcher’s noting of “Excellent”.
Titled “India relents on drug liaison officers”, the note said: “After 31 approaches from and FCO ministers during the last 15 months, India relented on 20 November and accepted the appointment of two drug liaison officers from the United Kingdom in India.”
It added: “Early in the New Year, an officer will be appointed in Bombay and another in New Delhi, who will widen the useful work performed by officers in Islamabad and Karachi. It is timely because illicit heroin movement in India is at an all-time peak.”
A December 1985 note on former minister David Mellor’s visit to Pakistan stated he was “convinced that Pakistan, under President Zia’s leadership, was taking effective steps to tackle the problem of heroin production”.
“Mr Mellor believed that, as drug controls were increased in Pakistan, and particularly at Karachi Airport, much of the traffic was now taking the land route to India. This would inevitably have an impact on the extent of heroin used and production in India itself. India might replace Afghanistan and Pakistan as the major world supplier.”