The Russians were very keen to try and prise Pakistan away from the United States using the Tashkent talks as a lever and had exerted heavy diplomatic pressure on then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shashtri, says a new book which also notes that the Soviet ministers made strenuous efforts to see that India accedes to Pakistan’s demand for return of all territories in Jammu and Kashmir which had been taken by the Indian Army in the 1965 war.
The book ‘Reporting India: My Seventy-Year Journey as a Journalist’ by veteran journalist Prem Prakash, says that Shastri took the crucial and decisive decision during the 1965 war to move Indian forces across the international border to attack Lahore and Sialkot and the move took Pakistan leadership completely by surprise. .
It says Shastri’s popularity soared to new heights following India’s victory in the 1965 war.
“He was now the hero of India -the man who had dared to attack Pakistan and emerged victorious, thus restoring the reputation of the Indian Army which had suffered so badly in 1962.”
The author, who is Chairman of ANI, says that during his lifetime, Jawaharlal Nehru had “clearly indicated” that Shastri should be his successor.
The recently-released book has instances about Shastri’s reputation for probity and integrity in public life including his resignation in 1956 as railway minister taking moral responsibility for train crash in Tamil Nadu. It recalls Shastri pointing out that his own family “sometimes said that if they bought things without receipt they could avoid sales tax”.
The author, who was in Tashkent during talks between leaders of India and Pakistan after 1965 war, says that as talks opened, the question of vacating areas captured by India in Kashmir arose.
“India was firm. It was not going to vacate areas won in Jammu and Kashmir because they were Indian territory. But throughout the talks Soviet Union put heavy diplomatic pressure on Prime Minister Shastri,” says the book.
He recalls the conversation he heard between then Soviet Union Foreign Minister Alexei Kosygin and External Affairs Minister Swaran Singh in which Kosygin insisted on having “this thing signed and agreed”.
“Kosygin kept on insisting. I understood then what game the Russians were playing. They had a problem with the fact that Pakistan was now part of an alliance with the Americans, who had been allowed to set up a secret air base in Peshawar. From here, American U-2 spy planes flew over the Soviet Union. All Soviet nuclear facilities were in Central Asia. Their nuclear testing was done there and their future space program was formulated there.
“The Russians were very keen to try and prise Pakistan away from the United States, using the Tashkent talks as a lever to get Pakistan out of America’s embrace. This might have been farfetched, but in hindsight the Soviet Union and its ministers were surely making strenuous efforts to see to it that India accede to Pakistan’s demand to return all the territories in Jammu and Kashmir. The Indian Army strongly opposed the idea,” says the book.
It says that for India the question of the vacating Haji Pir Pass did not arise as it was crucial to the defence of India’s borders and the talks finally broke down “with Shastriji refusing to sign”.
He says the press party, which had gone shopping, was suddenly told that the agreement was about to be signed at around 4 or 4:30 pm.
“We were all taken a back. What had happened? I have never been able to figure out what pressure forced Shastriji and the Indian delegation to sign the Tashkent Declaration .One person whose mind I could not read was the Indian ambassador to the Soviet Union T.N. Kaul. He was supposed to be very close to and very friendly with, the Soviets. Was it he, perhaps, who had influence the Prime Minister? Or was there any bigger threat from the Soviet Union which had forced India to sign?”
The author says past midnight they were all woken up by telephone. “A voice told us: `Your prime minister is dead. Please come down.’”
“I couldn’t believe this. What had happened? Everyone was stunned. What could have caused the death of the prime minister when he had looked so healthy hours before? It was true that Shastriji was a heart patient and for a heart patient to go into the kind of cold climate and enter such negotiations under extreme mental pressure was risky. But one has to understand this in a historical perspective. What must have been playing on the mind of the prime minister when he agreed, against the advice of the army to sign the agreement?
“We waited outside the Prime Minister’s dacha all night in freezing cold. Early in the morning the body was brought out and the coffin was carried towards the plane. Ayub Khan also gave a shoulder to the coffin as the procession moved towards the airport. Thus ended the short tenure of a prime minister who had earned immense popularity. Here was this diminutive man who had achieved the impossible and registered his name in the Indian history for all time.”
The author recalls that prime ministers never took special flights in those days and An Air India flight to London was specially diverted to Tashkent.
The book says that the nation was already in serious economic crisis when Shashtri took over as prime minister. “Following the war with China in 1962, expenditure on rebuilding the armed forces was increased. It began to hurt the economy and prices began to rise.”
It says Pakistan President General Ayub Khan started creating trouble on the western frontier. “The general used to make fun of the new Indian prime minister and thought he could now easily deal with India because ‘this diminutive fellow’ would lack the will to handle a border incursion.”
He launched his first adventure into Rann of Kutch in April 1965 and it was successfully repulsed. Disappointed with the failure of his campaign in Rann of Kutch, Ayub Khan turned his attention to Kashmir.
“The Pakistanis had seen the Indian Army lose the 1962 war against China but thereafter had been kept in check by Nehru’s diplomacy and denied another chance of military aggression during his lifetime,” says the book.
It says Ayub Khan sent sent regulars of Pakistan Army (dressed as Pathan tribesmen) into Kashmir hoping to foment revolution from within under what was to be known as `Operation Gibraltar’.
The book notes that infiltrators had reached the outskirts of Srinagar but failed to enlist support of local population and it was evident that Paksitan gamble had failed.
“As the Indian Army began clearing the infiltrators, it moved towards Haji Pir Pass from where the infiltrators had moved into Kashmir. It began to push Pakistanis behind to clear the area and succeeded in capturing the pass. It was great victory,” says the author who had climbed to the top of the pass.
The book says that with Haji Pir Pass gone, the Pakistan Army tried to make an all-out effort to capture ‘chicken’s neck – a tiny area which connects Indian mainland to Jammu and Kashmir.
“It was at that point that Shastriji took the decision to move Indian forces across the international border to attack Lahore and Sialkot. With this decisive move, Lal Bahadur Shastri took Ayub Khan and his people completely by surprise. They had not expected India to raise the stakes. I rushed from Haji Pir Pass to cover India’s move into Pakistan at Sialkot.
“For the very first time in its history the Indian Army had crossed an international border, and it showed that India was in an aggressive state of mind . The army moved swiftly towards Lahore and Sialkot. The Pakistanis were being beaten and their incursion into Kashmir had been successfully repelled.”
The author recalls that a small press party was conducted by the army towards the battlefield and a group accompanied Major General Rajinder Singh ‘Sparrow,’ to an active tank battle, during which he very proudly showed the outskirts of Sialkot.
He says suddenly four Pakistani Sabre Jets appeared in the sky and they made a dash for nearby trenches. For over next 20 minutes, the jets dived and fired and when they turned back and all-clear was sounded, it was found that all they had achieved was a few bullets into the jeep of the general’s aide-de-camp, who also took some bullets in the leg.
“That was the extent of the damage inflicted by the much-vaunted Sabre jets. The Pakistani fighter pilots had failed even to hit the tanks that were like sitting ducks in that area,” says the book.
It says that during the 1965 war, very small Indian planes like the Gnat fighter jets, made a mark by bringing down a number of Pakistani Sabres. “In the end what mattered was the man behind the machine rather than the machine itself,”
The book also touches on the relationship between Nehru and Shastri.
“Shashtriji was often compared with his predecessor and criticized for his perceived shortcomings though he was very tolerant of such criticism. This was evident even when Panditji was alive. Shastriji was comfortable in allowing Panditji to take the lead”.
The author also cites an instance, of which he was an eyewitness, when Nehru fetched his own overcoat and gave it Shastri who was to go to Kashmir.
The book says that Shastriji’s sudden death in Tashkent shook India badly and once again Gulzari Lal Nanda became caretaker prime minister.
Prem Prakash is a pioneer in Indian journalism and in his long career has covered some of the most important stories of post-Independence India including the 1962 war with China, 1965 and 1971 wars against Pakistan, Emergency and the assassination of Indira Gandhi. The book provides a detailed account of his professional life and stories he covered from Nehru’s demise to rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The 225-page book is available on Amazon and Flipkart.