How Morarji Desai helped Pakistan become a nuclear state

In a telephonic conversation, he revealed details of the RAW network to Zia-ul-Haq.

 |  5-minute read |   24-06-2015
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The importance of intelligence network in inter-state relations, particularly between rival nations, is again being underlined with deadly revelations on the Kargil war by former Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf on what his country actually did in that episode 15 years ago. Along with other things, it also underlines India’s intelligence failure. But there is one episode that happened 37 years ago between the two countries that will remain a dark spot on the nation’s national security as well as the history of world spy networks.

Can you imagine an Indian prime minister sitting in South Block calling the Pakistan president and sharing with him India’s intelligence network in Pakistan? It happened in 1978 and the chief actor in that episode was the then prime minister Morarji Desai.

Burning with hatred for the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), skilfully floated by his predecessor Indira Gandhi on the lines of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), to keep an eye on foreign countries, organise counter security operations and secure Indian interests, and under the mistaken notion that she had used the RAW along with Central Intelligence Bureau against the opposition during the Emergency, Desai brought down the RAW budget by 30 per cent and caused its chief, the great RN Kao, who helped to found the RAW and earned praise from even world leaders for his excellent investigative skills, to go on leave. Next, he virtually shunted out Kao’s successor K Sankaran Nair who was replaced by NF Suntook.

But what Desai did after this was simply shocking. In a telephonic conversation, he revealed details of the RAW network in Pakistan to Zia-ul-Haq, the neighbouring country's then martial law administrator, and told him that the Indian government also knew about its secret nuclear bomb-making facility at Kahuta. Experts are divided over how Desai did it. RAW expert B Raman, who died last year, believed that Desai inadvertently gave in to Zia’s diplomatic kowtowing that the Pakistani leader thought necessary, not merely because former Pakistan prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was still in jail and Zia wanted world support and that he used to call Desai often and take instructions from him on Desai’s famous urine therapy ostensibly for improving his health, but actually to keep Desai in good humour. The other person Zia used to keep in good humour as part of his dilomatic strategy was Shatrughan Sinha. Zia’s daughter still keeps in touch with him.

The other view is that Desai, as a firm Gandhian, believed that truthfulness with neighbours was a must in keeping with the Gandhian philosophy. In any case, the results were disastrous as the fox-like Zia uprooted the entire RAW network in Pakistan soon after Desai’s revelation, got several RAW men killed and assets obliterated including the ones connected with Kahuta. This happened just before a mole in Kahuta had agreed to give the blueprint of the Kahuta nuclear plan to a RAW agent.

Surprisingly in this great Indian blunder, the nationalist members of the former Bharatiya Jana Sangh were also unwitting partners as Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the foreign minister in the Janata Party government at that time and Lal Krishna Advani the information and broadcasting minister. They could have stopped Desai from hitting at the RAW as soon as he took over. The worse part in that murky episode is that Desai showed magnanimity to a man like Zia, an orthodox Deobandi Muslim who laid the foundation of the later day Deobandi terror organisations like the Taliban, using the Russian invasion of Afghanistan as a platform, and who floated Operation Topaz to take revenge on India for its 1971 Bangladesh victory, by getting the ISI and Wahhabi groups to destabilise Jammu and Kashmir and later organise low intensity terror attacks to keep India bleeding from inside.

This sad Indian story began just before Indira Gandhi lost the 1977 polls to the Janata Party, when a RAW agent was given the task of finding out if Kahuta was the place where Pakistan's nuclear bomb was being developed, as reports suggested. The skilful agent sent a contact to a hair-cutting saloon next to the Kahuta facility. He picked up some hair samples from the place which the Kahuta scientists used to frequent. The scientific testing of the samples revealed the presence of high radiation and bomb-grade uranium, thus confirming the RAW’s worst fears. Next, the agent found a mole in the Kahuta plant who was willing to obtain a blueprint of the Pakistani nuclear project in exchange for a bribe.

The RAW rule book, since the time Indira Gandhi floated it, stipulated that any underhand money to be given by the RAW in a foreign currency was to have the consent of the prime minister as it involved foreign exchange regulations.

Accordingly, when Suntook went to Desai for permission, he refused it on the plea that it was wrong to meddle in the internal affairs of a neighbouring state. Reportedly, Suntook, a Gujarati speaking Parsi, tried to explain to Desai the importance of the operation purely in terms of national security. But Desai remained unmoved.

Around the same time and on the same plea, Desai also foiled the plan of Israel to destroy the Kahuta facility in an air attack when in a secret meeting with the one-eyed Israeli foreign minister Moshe Dayan in Mumbai, he refused to provide refuelling facility to the attacking plane in India which was the only thing Dayan demanded. Both the episodes are well documented in intelligence records.

An icon of Gandhism in politics, Desai should go down as one of India’s more acceptable prime ministers for his emphasis on transparency in public life and his innovative methods of running the economy and bringing down inflation. Desai’s good governance thoughts were obviously rooted in Gandhiji’s lofty and appreciable ideals like village self-sufficiency and development, trusteeship, cleanliness and minimum exploitation of national resources.

But his severe lapse on national security also had its roots in Gandhian beliefs which teach truthfulness even against an enemy in the name of complete non-violence. In a shocking episode during the Second World War, Gandhiji had said that Great Britain should lay down arms against Hitler and instead rely on its moral force, thus greatly irking Winston Churchill. Is it because of this ingrained Gandhian ideology that India is unable to defeat the antics of Pakistan? Clearly, an honest assessment of the impact of Gandhian ideology in the area of national security won't be untoward even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi sells Gandhi as an international icon in the remotest corners of the world.

Writer

Uday Mahurkar Uday Mahurkar @udaymahurkar

The writer is deputy editor, India Today.

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