PN Haksar: The Prime Minister’s special envoy

Of PNH, it has been written “he was not only the most powerful civil servant but also the second most powerful person in the country”. <b>Intertwined Lives</b> is the story of an extraordinary man

Photo courtesy: Simon &amp; Schuster India
Photo courtesy: Simon Schuster India

Jairam Ramesh

On 15 January 1973, Haksar finally bade farewell to the prime minister. He had been at her side for five-and-a-half years. She would soon discover that ‘a Haksar with power is not the same as power without Haksar’, as the nuclear scientist Raja Ramanna was to put it almost three decades later.

But for now, in an unusual gesture reflective of the huge respect she continued to have for him, she insisted that he continue as a member of the Atomic Energy and Space Commissions and as vice president of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) which was an executive job.

On 17 January 1973, he wrote to Govind Narain, the union home secretary—one of the ICS officers he was genuinely fond of, and with whom he would remain in touch for another two decades:

“Dear Govind: You spoke to me over the RAX [restricted telephone line] yesterday morning and asked me, with a rare sense of delicacy, if I would accept the Award of Padma Vibhushan for the Republic Day of 1973. You said that it was P.M.’s desire that I should do so. You were good enough to give me some time to think it over. And this I have done.

May I, first of all, say that the very thought that I should be given an Award is by itself a great reward for whatever services I might have rendered as a public servant. I am grateful for this to P.M. However, I have a difficulty in accepting the award: All these years I have often said to myself that one should work so that one can live with oneself without regret. This gave me a measure of inner tranquility and even courage. Accepting an award for work done somehow causes an inexplicable discomfort to me.”

“I hope I will not be misunderstood. I repeat I am grateful for the thought that my services should be recognised. For me this is enough. I would beg of you not to press me to accept the award itself. I shall be grateful if you kindly convey to P.M. my deep and abiding gratitude for the privilege I had to serve under her.”

This letter has everlasting relevance and should guide anybody in public life at any point of time. There have been a few people who have refused such awards but only after they have been announced. I really cannot think of anyone else who has politely and quietly declined at the offer stage itself and that too with such high-minded sense of values.

Actually, this does not seem to be the whole story on these coveted awards. The nation’s highest honour—Bharat Ratna—is usually decided by the President in consultation with the Prime Minister. Other national awards including the Padma Vibhushan are announced every year, but the Bharat Ratna is rare and there is no annual ritual associated with it. After India’s magnificent victory in the war with Pakistan in December 1971, President Giri had decided to award the Bharat Ratna to Indira Gandhi—an honour which she undoubtedly deserved for her remarkable leadership that year.

One of Haksar’s colleagues in the Prime Minister’s Secretariat, B.N. Tandon, who maintained a daily diary from November 1975 until August 1976, was to write on 17 January 1975: “When Haksar saw this [Giri’s letter] he said that Giri should not have done so. He advised her to tell Giri that she should not be awarded the Bharat Ratna. But the PM did not like this advice one bit and she remained annoyed with him for a few days…” Indira Gandhi did get the Bharat Ratna on 26 January 1972, at a special ceremony. But Haksar was able to extract one concession from her. Fifteen days earlier, he had told the prime minister that ‘there should be no citation unless President himself so desires. Such a citation should be a brief one.’ There was to be no citation read out on the occasion.

Even though Haksar had finally exited from her daily side, Indira Gandhi was not done with him...

In early-April 1973, Haksar was again the Prime Minister’s special envoy and this time to Bangladesh. This was part of an Indian initiative to deal with ‘humanitarian’ issues left unresolved at Simla and that required all three countries—India, Pakistan and Bangladesh—to be on board. Pakistan had yet to formally recognise Bangladesh and, therefore, what could have been dealt with bilaterally under normal circumstances between Pakistan and Bangladesh had necessarily to be coordinated by India. These included issues related to prisoners of war held by India and also those prisoners of war whom Bangladesh wanted to put on trial for war crimes.

Bangladesh was also understandably very concerned about the fate of some 400,000 Bengali nationals stranded in Pakistan. Also included in Haksar’s brief were the next steps needed to deepen the economic and political relationship between India and Bangladesh. He spent three days in Dacca meeting Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from 2 April 1973. Foreign Minister Kamal Hossain was his main interlocutor from the Bangladesh side. This was to be the beginning of shuttle diplomacy for Haksar since Bangladesh had to be brought around on the war crimes trial matter with India wanting to close the chapter and wanting the three countries to move ahead in a positive frame of mind.

Haksar went first to Rawalpindi and Islamabad and then to Dacca. Although the talks were between him and Aziz Ahmed, the Pakistani minister of state for defence and foreign affairs, at every step he had to keep Bangladesh in the picture as well, and ensure that its concerns were addressed to its satisfaction. Haksar was thus, actually negotiating on behalf of both India and Bangladesh. The first round of negotiations took place in Rawalpindi and Islamabad from 24 July 1973 to 31 July 1973. Haksar had called on President Bhutto at the latter’s residence in Islamabad on 27 July 1973, and at the end of the conversation, this exchange took place:

Haksar: Finally, if you permit me, Mr President, I would like to say something most respectfully. I am not a historian. (Pointing to the picture of a Buddha on the wall). What do you feel about the picture? Is, or is not that a part of Pakistan?

President Bhutto: I respect Buddha.

Haksar: Then, Mr. President, May I humbly ask, why do you talk of confrontation of thousand years? Are you in conflict with your own history? Is Pakistan in conflict with its own personality? To talk of confrontation has impact on the minds and hearts of people in India and Pakistan. It will be picked by the wrong type of people in India. Is that a contribution to durable peace in the sub-continent … You said Sindhi language is 5000 years old. Is there a confrontation in Sind between the last one thousand years and the previous 4000 years? I beg of you, Mr President, to think it over the implications of the pronouncements about confrontation of a thousand years …

President Bhutto: I will say less of it in future (President looked embarrassed and confused and said “it was for internal …” but did not complete the sentence).

Then Haksar went to Dhaka for discussions with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from 15 August 1973 to 17 August 1973. The record of discussions held on 16 August 1973 with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his colleagues had this to say: Mr Haksar stated that he was one of the most brutally frank civil servants. His approach to problems was to speak up his mind and to give his clear advice to the political leaders with whom he worked. After giving such advice, it was his practice to carry out whatever instructions he received to the best of his ability.

Mr Haksar expressed the hope that Sheikh Saheb would give him the same liberty to be as frank as he has always been with his own Prime Minister … Sheikh Saheb said that he was aware of the tremendous problems that India was facing today and added that much of it was because of the sacrifices that India made in 1971 and 1972 for Bangladesh. Mr Haksar stated that Sheikh Saheb should not mention anything about sacrifices. Whatever India did was on the basis of shared ideals with the people of Bangladesh. Mr Haksar added that apart from the magnitude of the problems that India is facing, the Indian leadership has to resolve them by democratic methods. To work a democracy is problematic. A leader ruling by democratic methods should have “three hearts, two brains and six kidneys”. But somehow India will meet these problems…

Extracts taken with permission from Intertwined Lives: PN Haksar and Indira Gandhi published by Simon and Schuster; Pages 560; Price ₹ 799

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