The sting in the Generals’ tale
My father was always wary of foreign diplomats. Although he knew several and they were frequent dinner guests he never let himself become close to any. I always felt Daddy kept himself a little aloof.
Last week I was shown an article by AG Noorani published by Frontline in February 2003 — it’s called ‘Our secrets in British archives’ — which illuminates and justifies Daddy’s sense of wariness. It’s about two army chiefs who chatted a little too freely and openly with western diplomats, not realising their conversation would be recorded and sent back as a dispatch to the diplomat’s capital. Thirty years later, when such papers are declassified, the conversation — which was intended as confidential if not secret — has become public knowledge. The article illustrates just how far the two chiefs went.
Sometime in early 1966, General JN Chaudhuri had a long chat with John Freeman, the British High Commissioner in India. He told him about an earlier conversation he had had with YB Chavan, India’s defence minister. And what was the subject? As Freeman wrote to the British Foreign Office, “the possibility that circumstances might arise in which the Army would seize power from the civil authority. COAS (Chief of Army Staff) told me that they had discussed the matter at some length and that he expressed the categorical view that such a possibility didn’t exist”. Chaudhuri’s reasons are particularly illuminating. Again, as Freeman reported: “If the army were to attempt a coup against the Union government without seizing power in the States simultaneously, the Congress machine would remain operational and the coup would almost certainly be ineffectual” and, secondly, “the Army commander who directed such a coup would place a critical strain on the loyalty of (the) Army, since State loyalties and rivalries are a real factor in the Army”.
There was nothing that General Chaudhuri told the British High Commissioner that was improper except that he was reporting a conversation he had with his Defence Minister to a foreign diplomat and that, in itself, was not right. Mr Chavan was consulting his army chief in private. That privacy was not honoured.
The same Frontline article also gives details of a conversation SHFJ Manekshaw had in 1966, when he was Army Commander Eastern Command, with the American Consul General, William Hitchcock. It happened during a flight from New Delhi to Calcutta on the 12th of October. Three days later Hitchcock reported back to the State Department. Thirty years later this document has also been declassified.
This is what Noorani writes: “Manekshaw forgot that he was an Army Commander talking to a foreign official and let himself go … when Hitchcock urged a ‘realistic’ line on Vietnam, Manekshaw wished he had spoken to him a month earlier. He was in Delhi then and ‘would have been delighted to have advocated such a line of action’. Also ‘he said he was deeply concerned over the degree to which India is becoming militarily dependent on Soviet equipment’.”
Later, as Noorani relates, Manekshaw told Hitchcock, during the same conversation on the plane from Delhi to Calcutta, that if he didn’t become Army Chief “he would be unable to take effective action to redirect Indian military thinking away from the Soviet Union”.
Manekshaw, it would seem, went further than Chaudhuri. He appears to have indicated a willingness to advocate a pro-American line on Vietnam and, additionally, expressed his disagreement with India’s military dependence on the Soviet Union. He also suggested that if he didn’t become army chief he wouldn’t be able to change this. One assumes that means he wanted to do so.
I dare say both Chavan and Manekshaw thought they were talking to friends. No doubt Freeman and Hitchcock reciprocated the sentiment. But the latter two were also diplomats. They had a further job to do and did it. Today their accounts of these conversations have returned to haunt their Indian interlocutors.
All of which leaves me to wonder what indiscretions I’ve shared with British High Commissioners and American Ambassadors? Are there documents in both foreign offices giving juicy details of silly things I’ve said? Or were my utterances so foolish — or am I so unimportant — that they passed without notice? And tell me which would be worse — to be revealed in dispatches and embarrassed 30 years from now or to be ignored because your host thinks you are just a pleasant twit? I wonder how Chaudhuri and Manekshaw would answer that question.