Lieutenant General Satish Nambiar, former director general of military operations, had made a strong plea in 2011 to declassify the records of our 1962, 1965 and 1971 wars. One year earlier, the late S.N. Prasad, the doyen of our military historians, had criticised our bureaucracy for standing in the way of prompt publication of our war histories. Since then, The India-Pakistan War of 1971: A History, edited by the late Prasad, has been released in 2015 by a Delhi think-tank with the tag: “Sponsored by the ministry of defence”. Is this our official 1971 war history?
The major lacuna in this book is that it has had no access to intelligence records.
It is a mere chronicle of military operations. Srinath Raghavan’s 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh gives a better account of the role of intelligence in this war. No history of a major war is complete without an official account of how intelligence helped. The World War II history compiled by the British government has five volumes describing their intelligence services’ contributions. We have waged four wars with Pakistan and one with China. Of these, the 1971 war was the most decisive.
Other books about 1971 give only fragmented pictures of our operations. Some are hagiographies. Brigadier Behram Panthaki’s biography of his boss, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, the hero of the 1971 war, only casually refers to the role of intelligence. One month after the war, then PM Indira Gandhi handed over a RAW file to Manekshaw that documented transgressions by a handful of senior Indian army officers in East Pakistan. He took prompt action. This would give the wrong impression that the RAW acted only as a vigilance department during the war.
Our intelligence was active in East Pakistan well before 1971 and much before our composite intelligence structure was divided into separate internal and external organisations in 1968. The late R.N. Kao had led these silent operations. Our armed forces came into active mode only after the Pakistan army’s March 25, 1971 crackdown. In fact, our army took advantage of the ground conditions created by our intelligence, which facilitated their operations during the war. Their important role was mentioned in several books, including the memoirs of the late P.N. Dhar, the PM’s advisor and later principal secretary. He mentioned that Kao was trusted by all East Pakistan leaders, just as they had full faith in Gandhi.
The late Kao was initially the head of our external intelligence organisation, RAW, from 1968 to 1977. This was followed by a stint as senior security advisor to the cabinet from 1981 to 1985, during which he constituted a team under Colonel V. Longer, a military historian, to compile an official chronicle of the role of intelligence before and during the 1971 war. Longer had served in the RAW and knew its operations well. This task was completed sometime in 1984 or 1985, but the volumes were kept in sealed envelopes in the personal custody of the RAW chief’s staff officer. There was no decision on whether to publish these files or transfer them to the National Archives. In January 1986, I inherited these sealed envelopes when I became the staff officer. I handed them over to the late B. Raman, who took over from me in September 1990. Since then, these envelopes must have been mechanically handed over and taken over by relieving officers.
Kao used to appreciate published articles on the contribution of intelligence to our national security by some of his junior colleagues like Raman or me. He used to encourage us by sending appreciative comments, although he would not agree to write his memoirs. He had gently brushed aside my offer to go through his papers and write his draft memoirs as I felt that it was in the national interest that there be a record of his contribution to India’s strategic security.
In my homage to Kao in 2003, after his first death anniversary, I had demanded that these volumes of the “intelligence history” of the 1971 war be taken out of cold storage and published. But this was not done. Perhaps this reticence was due to a bureaucratic lapse or on account of the traditional assumption that the role of intelligence should not be publicised.
This lapse had led to an RTI application in 2010 that these files should be obtained from the RAW and published. Worryingly, there was an allegation that they “are not with RAW any longer”. Former Central Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi had heard this case and also its appeals in 2010. He had ordered on July 22, 2011 that the organisation should confirm that the allegation was false.
The publication of the Kao files will be in keeping with the directive of the PM that the intelligence and police community should “share” their history with the people of the country. As a result, the IB has declassified 3,000 documents on the meetings between top police officers with PMs and home ministers since Independence, including some important meetings prior to and during the Emergency.