Morarji Desai | Wikipedia
Morarji Desai | Wikipedia
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New Delhi: When the Modi government awarded the Padma Shri to singer Adnan Sami, an Indian citizen of Pakistani origin, last month, the opposition was up in arms, with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) calling it an “insult to 130 crore Indians”.

Sami’s father was a fighter pilot in the Pakistan Air Force and part of the raid that destroyed the Pathankot air base during the 1965 Indo-Pak war. London-born Sami himself, however, acquired Indian citizenship in 2016 after the Pakistan government didn’t renew his passport a year earlier. 

The opposition may have expressed anger at the government honouring a Pakistani with India’s fourth highest civilian award, but this was not the first time such a thing happened. Three decades earlier, Pakistan had conferred its highest civilian honour on an Indian — a former prime minister no less.

Morarji Desai, who served a two-year stint as India’s first non-Congress prime minister in the immediate aftermath of the Emergency, was awarded the Nishan-e-Pakistan in 1988. 

The award drew the ire of the Congress, but Desai paid no heed to the criticism and accepted the award anyway. 

On Desai’s 124th birth anniversary, 29 February 2020, ThePrint looks back at Desai’s relationship with Pakistan, and why he won their highest civilian honour. 

Also Read: Indira Gandhi vs Morarji Desai: How JNU was at the centre of battle to capture academi

A challenging time for subcontinent

When Desai came to power in 1977, India-Pakistan relations were on the mend after the 1971 war, which had led to the creation of Bangladesh. 

It was a challenging time for the subcontinent: In India, the Emergency had come to an end with Indira Gandhi’s election defeat. In Pakistan, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had been overthrown in a coup by General Zia-ul-Haq, and in Bangladesh, President Ziaur Rahman was battling coups to stay in power. 

India’s relations with both countries softened under Desai’s “straightforward” approach, several senior diplomats told ThePrint. His goodwill towards Pakistan and his “firm belief in honest, transparent relations are what earned him the Nishan-e-Pakistan in 1988, which he graciously accepted”, said one of them.

Desai and Zia’s relationship

There are many rumours that Desai and Zia-ul-Haq were close friends who often spoke on the phone. A senior diplomat who worked closely with Desai conceded that they corresponded a handful of times, but denied they were very close friends. 

According to the diplomat, they only met once, for a few minutes, at Kenyan President Jomo Kenyatta’s funeral in 1978.

“They basically wanted to solve the India-Pakistan problem, and resolved to cooperate with one another,” said the senior diplomat. “They held each other in good esteem.”

Desai and Zia never met again, but bilateral relations did improve. Between 1978 and 1980, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then the Minister of External Affairs, travelled to Islamabad to improve people-to-people contact, and a direct train line from Delhi to Lahore was established.

“Desai made a real effort with Zia to maintain peaceful relations with Pakistan. Zia didn’t feel Indira Gandhi was as forthcoming,” said T.C.A. Raghavan, former high commissioner to Pakistan. 

‘Leaked information on RAW operations’

Desai is considered among India’s most controversial leaders because of his decision to “weaken” the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), the country’s external intelligence agency. His suggestion that its budget be slashed by 30 per cent was viewed at the time as naive and belligerent, or a means to establish his power.

According to former diplomat Prabhu Dayal, Desai “hated” the RAW because he saw it as an agency created by Indira Gandhi to spy on opposition leaders.

In 1978, Desai is rumoured to have “slipped” vital information about RAW’s intelligence operations in Pakistan to Zia over the phone. Celebrated RAW officer B. Raman wrote in his book, The Kaoboys of R&AW“Zia was a past master in the art of flattery. Often, he would ring up Morarji Desai under the pretext of consulting him on native medicine and urine therapy. Nothing flattered Morarji more. Zia would ask him with seeming earnestness in his voice: ‘Excellency, how many times one should drink the urine in a day? Should it be the first urine of the morning or can it be any time of the day?’ In a disarmed and unguarded moment one day, Morarji told him that he was aware that Pakistan was clandestinely trying to develop a military nuclear capability. Indiscreet political leaders are the unavoidable occupational hazards of the intelligence profession.”

The senior diplomats ThePrint spoke to, however, rubbished any claims of Desai having, unwittingly or wittingly, leaked intelligence to Zia.  

“He was too shrewd, and he was a mature politician who had been in public life for a long time. There’s no question of him having been indiscreet in that way,” said one of them.

Also Read: Morarji Desai, the prime minister for whom time in PMO was ‘tougher than prison’

Being awarded the Nishan-e-Pakistan

Desai’s Nishan-e-Pakistan, according to the award citation, sought to recognise “his abiding commitment to peace and improvement of ties between the two countries”. 

In his autobiography, The Story of My Life, Desai recounted a conversation with a Pakistani minister about his leadership style: “The Pakistani foreign minister once told me that they didn’t expect as much help from Nehru as from me for making peace between the two nations. The policy of threat and blackmail is wrong. I was clear in my mind that friendship can’t be achieved by pampering our neighbours. Pampering would make them more aggressive.” 

Raghavan, however, said the reasons behind the award could have gone deeper. He noted in his book The People Next Door that Desai was conferred the award soon after freedom fighter Abdul Ghaffar Khan aka Frontier Gandhi, who opposed the Partition but chose to live in Pakistan, was awarded the Bharat Ratna in 1987.

“They may have felt like they had to return the favour, although it is undeniable that relations between the two looked up when Desai was in power,” he said.

Even though the award was announced in 1988, it was only given to Desai in 1990, when he was 95. Zia’s death in a mysterious plane crash in 1988 and Benazir Bhutto’s subsequent rise had put the award “on the backburner”, Raghavan wrote in his book.

Critics saw the award as an attempt by Zia to meddle in India’s internal affairs, and even labelled it a show of Desai’s “formidable public relations skills”. But Desai never hesitated to accept it, Raghavan wrote.

“It’s the duty of the biggest country to keep good relations with all its neighbours. That’s the way I thought and that’s what I did,” Raghavan’s book quoted Desai as having said.

Also Read: How an Indian officer helped an enemy captain win Pakistan’s highest gallantry award


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  1. A PM whose birthday gets celebrated once in four years escaped death more than once. The last was Bagdogara where pilot and others died, but Desai came out without a scratch.


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