If the relations of the first Indian prime minister with socialist nations were cordial, his daughter and third prime minister, Indira Gandhi, went all in. Moreover, her pronounced friendship and extensive bilateral ties with the USSR, and advocacy of a socialist development model irked Washington – Indo-US relations fell to a low during her tenure. Hence, political development and turmoil in Chile became a major point of the socialist premier’s attention.
In September 1974, CIA director William E. Colby’s classified House Armed Services subcommittee testimony was leaked, making details of the CIA’s covert operations in Chile public. These conspicuously corroborated the United States’ underhanded manipulation and clandestine involvement in the violent usurping of President Salvador Allende. This was extensively covered by the Indian press, and Indira Gandhi, soured and taken aback, remarked on the watershed event on numerous occasions.
Remarkably, she even alleged a foreign hand in the bedlam. In a speech on September 9, 1974, she asserted “reactionary forces, helped from outside, were using the current difficulties to whip up the people against the government and in this context it had become necessary to make India strong.”
Indira Gandhi and Foreign Minister Swaran Singh condemned the military coup and the uprooting of democracy in Chile. Ghandi even had a foreboding of “big external forces,” an allusion to the USA, coupling with “internal vested interests” to emulate the overthrow in India. The country’s ambassador to Chile voiced his disturbance at the human rights violations suffered by Chilean citizens at the hands of their military. Two months after the coup, he wrote: “It is hard to believe that the well-educated, civilized Chilean army officer…is responsible for all this. Yet, the evidence cannot be denied.”
India then temporarily revoked the recognition of the Chilean ‘government’, keeping it retracted for the rest of 1973. However, Indian diplomats were not in favor of letting the junta’s acts get in way of recognition of the government, while vocally acknowledging the atrocities and deploring them. Over time, relations normalized but remained highly strained.
Meanwhile, dictions by Indian bureaucracy, media and above all, the vocal prime minister, provoked responses alluding to a politico-ideological then diplomatic unrest, compelled the US ambassador to India (and future Senator from New York) Daniel Patrick Moynihan to draft a transmission to the State Department back home, titled “The United States as a Counter-Revolutionary power – The Case of India and Chile.”
The US’ Hand
Moynihan strongly criticized the CIA’s role and murky dealings in Chile, stating that he believed such actions would cause the Indian premier to develop nuclear weapons. He wrote:
“She [Gandhi] knows full well that we have done our share and more of bloody and dishonorable deeds. This as such is not her concern. She knows all too much of such matters. It is precisely because she is not innocent, not squeamish and not a moralizer that her concern about American intentions is real and immediate…Do not think, fellow Americans, of beguiling Indira Gandhi with talk of cultural exchange, joint industrial undertakings or a few shiploads of cheap food. Her concern is not economic. It is political. Nothing will change here till she is satisfied that the United States accepts her India. She does not now think we do. She thinks we are a profoundly selfish and cynical counterrevolutionary power. She will accordingly proceed to develop nuclear weapons and a missile delivery system, preaching non-violence all the way.”
Moynihan’s cable leaked to the media, probably at his own hand. It churned a tumult on either side. Indira Gandhi, an ideologue and with firm conviction, was of a cynical predisposition regarding her power. Constantly panged by the insecurity of eviction from power by internal and external powers, factions and rivals, she took preemptive measures to nip dissent in the bud.
A rigid advocate of her hard-and-fast ideological principles, Indira seldom backed from something she determined to pursuit, disregarding collaterals and expenses at stake. Possibly, she was rendered perturbed by this arbitrary foreign muddling that deposed a democratically-elected socialist head of state. Meanwhile, a number of powerful political rivals, some within her own party, were suspected to be CIA agents – convenient right-wing puppets who had vested interests in displacing her with US backing. Her concerns were bolstered with 1954 Guatemalan coup.
Moyniham‘s frank piece threw bilateral relations and mutual trust into a tailspin, irking both sides. India’s nuclear test in May 1974 was a major point of contention between the two nations and the US backed India’s arch-enemy Pakistan openly during the Indo-Pak war. India was adamant that its nuclear test was for peaceful purposes but the US didn’t believe any of it and imposed sanctions and cut some diplomatic channels.
However, over time both sides dismissed any connection between the two incidents, not to rule out obvious vested interests of either side in doing so.
But the gap between two successive high-level Indian visits to Chile, Indira Gandhi in 1968 and Transport and Communications Minister K.P. Unnikrishnan in 1990, allude to the extent and persistence the bilateral strain ran, taking decades of economic and political reform to thaw.
The author is a columnist, journalist, researcher and writer having previously written in The Telegraph, Asia Times, The Hindu, The Gulf
News, The Sunday Independent, The New Delhi Times, Cape Times, and The New Sarawak Tribune, amongst others.