Celeste goes on to add how, in a meeting with Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif shortly after this, Clinton asked him to “withdraw troops” from Kargil.(ANI file photo. Representative image)
Celeste goes on to add how, in a meeting with Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif shortly after this, Clinton asked him to “withdraw troops” from Kargil.(ANI file photo. Representative image)

When Pakistan failed to get support during Kargil

In a new book, Life in American Politics & Diplomatic Years in India published by Har-Anand Publications, Richard Celeste, the US ambassador to India between 1997 and 2001, reports a visit he received from Pakistan’s Ambassador to India, Ashraf Qazi.
By Sunetra Choudhury, New Delhi
PUBLISHED ON FEB 27, 2021 12:54 AM IST

The role played by US President Bill Clinton in helping end the Kargil conflict is well documented but what isn’t is Pakistan’s diplomatic efforts to get the US to back its position — which flopped.

In a new book, Life in American Politics & Diplomatic Years in India published by Har-Anand Publications, Richard Celeste, the US ambassador to India between 1997 and 2001, reports a visit he received from Pakistan’s Ambassador to India, Ashraf Qazi.

“He was seeking our help to persuade the Indians to ‘cease their aggressive actions in Kargil.’ I pointed out that the Indians had held these posts for some time. Ashraf repeated the claim that civilian ‘freedom fighters’ had occupied the positions. ‘Ashraf,’ I said, ‘I’m going to let you tell me what your government wants you to tell me. But I know that it is not true and I am embarrassed for your sake. I’m your friend so I’m going to be honest with you. We know who trained and equipped those troops and we know how they are being supplied and directed. Our government cannot accept your plea’,” Celeste writes.

He goes on to add how, in a meeting with Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif shortly after this, Clinton asked him to “withdraw troops” from Kargil. Then came a call from the US president to Indian PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee, “That call from Clinton to Vajpayee was without precedent in Indo-US relations,’’ the former ambassador writes. Indeed, some experts mark it as a key turning point in India’s relations with the US. Celeste’s book is slated to be formally launched in September.

Celeste did two stints in New Delhi, first as an assistant to Ambassador Chester Bowles in the late 1960s and then as ambassador from 1997-2001. The second period was a crucial one for the relationship between the world’s two largest democracies, and saw a presidential visit by Bill Clinton in 2000, the first by a US President in 22 years. In the book, Celeste reveals how that visit almost never happened because of India’s nuclear test in May 1998. The US was apparently caught off-guard by the Vajpayee government because when special envoy Bill Richardson met Jaswant Singh soon after the BJP government was sworn in to convey this apprehension, Singh, to quote celeste, used classic “obfuscation”.

“Richardson met Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh ...and spelled out the Administration’s concerns regarding an Indian test. Jaswant Singh, who was to become a dear friend of mine, listened carefully and gave an obliquely worded reply. As we parsed his language, we concluded that testing would not take place in the near future,’’ writes Celeste.

They were wrong. The tests took place less than a month later, in May 1998. “We chose to hear what we wanted. Secretary [of State, Madeleine] Albright had urged the Indian Government not to test... We were completely caught off guard. I believe the nuclear tests felt like such a slap in the face to the Clinton Administration because it was as if they had not been listening to a word that we were saying and were willing to jeopardise, among other things, the first visit by a US President in more than twenty years.’’

The most interesting bit in the book, though, has nothing to do with US politicians. It involves one from the USSR, and dates back to Celeste’s first stint in India.

In 1967, Stalin’s daughter Svetlana Stalin landed up at the US embassy in India unannounced. She was the common law wife of an Indian, Brajesh Singh, an uncle of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s aide Dinesh Singh. She told the Americans that she’d come to India to immerse Singh’s ashes in the Ganga but also wanted asylum in the US.

The vegetarian Stalin told the Americans she wanted to defect to the US because the Russian ambassador had invited her to lunch, served ham, and then abused her for turning vegetarian.

The Americans decided to buy her a half-way ticket to Rome because Ambassador Bowles, Celeste’s boss, said it would be un-American to turn a woman down. It was only when she reached Rome that the news leaked and the Russians wanted to know how India allowed Stalin’s daughter to be “kidnapped’’.

Celeste writes that Indira Gandhi had to send her principal secretary LK Jha to meet Svetlana Stalin in Switzerland and convince her to go back to Moscow. When she refused to budge, he had to travel to Moscow to mollify the angry Russians.

“He (Jha) met with the Deputy Foreign Minister, and apologized for what had happened... He explained that he had met with Svetlana and done his best to persuade her to go home, but she had refused,’’ writes Celeste.

Svetlana Stalin did eventually travel to America and “the brouhaha in Delhi subsided’’.

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