October 24, 2000


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Kuldip Nayar

The Yahya Khan file

I was a stringer for The Times, London, when its news editor rang me up on the night of July 12, 1971, to check whether Henry Kissinger, then the US Secretary of State, had gone to China. I had reported on his talks in New Delhi five days earlier and his departure to Islamabad. But I had not the faintest idea of his visit to China.

I checked with our foreign office, which characterised the query as a figment of my imagination. I informed the news editor in London that there was no confirmation available. Subsequently, I came to know that Farrukh Humayun Beg, the Islamabad stringer of The Daily Telegraph, London, had filed a story on Kissinger's departure to China by a Pakistan Air Force plane on July 9. But the story was killed at Islamabad itself. Why I am telling this now is because the entire episode can be pieced together on the basis of the file maintained by the then President Yahya Khan. He was a go-between and the file has been made public.

That Kissinger feigned illness in Pakistan and went to Beijing for two days, July 9 and 10, to arrange a meeting between President Nixon and the Chinese leaders, is known. What is not known is how Yahya Khan helped arrange the meeting between two enemy countries through handwritten letters. Both America and China were so beholden to Pakistan that they promised action if Indian forces ever went to East Pakistan to assist the Bangladeshis in their struggle for liberation. There are some nasty remarks against Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. The Memorandum of Conversation, kept in the National Security Archives, Washington, reveals them.

Let me first take up the arrangements about the meeting. A blow by blow account is available in a book, From a Head, Through a Head, To a Head, by F S Aijazuddin, a chartered accountant by profession. The secret channel between the US and China through Pakistan was coded as 'Moonglow' and the correspondences back and forth spread over two years, from 1969 to 1971.

Messages from the White House were either dictated or typed on unmarked plain paper and handed personally to Agha Hilaly, then the Pakistan Ambassador in Washington. He would then type the oral message or transcribe it in his own hand. The message would then be sent by diplomatic bag to Yahya Khan. The Chinese Ambassador in Islamabad communicated the reply to Yahya Khan personally. This procedure was adopted because both the Americans and the Chinese insisted on absolute secrecy.

There is no doubt that Chou-En Lai, then the Chinese premier, promised Islamabad that Beijing would intervene in case there was a war between India and Pakistan over the creation of Bangladesh. But he did not keep his word. Lt Gen AAK Niazi, who was heading the military operation in East Pakistan at that time told India, when he was a prisoner of war, that Islamabad had assured him China's assistance but it did not come. Pakistani forces in the East had long been expecting foreign intervention. In fact, when Indian paratroopers were dropped in one area near Dacca, many Pakistani soldiers came out of their bunkers to cheer them, taking them to be Chinese who had come to their rescue.

When Chou-En Lai met Nixon, he blamed Yahya Khan for not leading his troops in East Pakistan. "Even though we assisted with armaments, we didn't send a single military personnel, what the Soviet Union calls military adviser. We only sent some people to train in the use of the planes and guns we sent, and afterwards brought those people back."

Nixon said: "We have a problem with regard to military assistance because of our Congress, and as I informed the prime minister and as the deputy foreign minister (Qiao Guan Hua) knows, American public opinion opposes military assistance to Pakistan. Incidentally, in retrospect, it is my belief that had we been able to provide more assistance to Pakistan, it would have averted war, because India would not have been tempted to win what they thought was a cheap victory. But that is water over the dam." (Kissinger had conveyed a strong warning against starting war when he met Indira Gandhi at New Delhi on July 7.)

China would stand by Pakistan in the present crisis. This position began to develop with a rather low-key remark at a dinner on the first night that China "could not but take some interest in the situation." The dinner between Chou-En Lai and Nixon ended with a request to the US President to convey assurance of Chinese support to Yahya Khan.

Nixon has been recorded as saying: "I told Chou that we were trying very hard to discourage an Indo-Pak war. I assured him that we were bringing all the influence we could to try to prevent a war from developing. Chou said this was a good thing, but he inferred that we might not be able to do too much because we were 10,000 miles away. China, however, was much closer. Chou recalled the Chinese defeat of India in 1962 and hinted rather broadly that the same thing could happen again." The Chinese detestation of the Indians came through loud and clear. Conversely, China's warm friendship for Pakistan as a firm and reliable friend was made very plain. The Memorandum of Conversation recorded on February 23, 1972, narrated that.

Nixon said: "Nehru would certainly rank among the most intelligent. He could also be arrogant, abrasive and suffocatingly self-righteous, and he had a distinct superiority complex that he took few pains to conceal." He had also met Mrs Gandhi in 1953 when she was her father's hostess and found her 'charming and graceful'. "When I encountered her years later, however, when she was prime minister and I was president, there was no doubt that she was her father's daughter. Her hostility toward Pakistan was, if anything, even stronger than him."

Nixon shared the perception of "Mrs Gandhi's genetic inheritance" with Chou-En Lai who, in their meeting together in 1972, expressed the though that it was a "great pity" that she had taken "as her legacy the philosophy of her father embodied in the book, Discovery of India." He asked Nixon whether he had read it.

Kissinger, sensing that his president had not, intervened by saying: "He was thinking of a great Indian Empire." Chou-En Lai replied: "Yes, he was thinking of a great Indian Empire -- Malaysia, Ceylon, etc. It would probably also include our Tibet. When he was writing that book he was in a British prison, but one reserved for gentlemen in Darjeeling. Nehru told me himself that the prison was in Sikkim, facing the Himalayan mountains. At the time I hadn't read the book, but my colleague Chen Yi had, and called it to my attention. He said it was precisely the spirit of India which was embodied in the book. Later on when I read it, I had the same thought."

What the conversation between the Chinese premier and Nixon underlined is the 'disdain' for India felt by both sides. Both promised Islamabad that they would intervene but did not. Even on December 14, 1971, a day before Niazi's surrender, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, then Pakistan's foreign minister, called Yahya Khan to hold on since America was about to intervene. Nixon first sent a 'warning' signal to India and then ordered the Seventh Fleet, led by nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Enterprise to go to the Bay of Bengal. China did not even go over the exercise to help Islamabad. It turns out that both were interested in 'saving' West Pakistan. Mrs Gandhi had no intention of taking the war there.

Kuldip Nayar

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