The VOA fiasco – New Delhi 1963

The gloom which had set in after the Indo China conflict of 1962 was slowly abating, but the mood in the country and especially the capital at New Delhi, was still downbeat. Nehru had been discussing additional support from America with the energetic Ambassador Galbraith who was the interlocuter between the US President Kennedy and the Indian Prime Minister. Small military aid, albeit temporary, was starting to flow in while at the same time, India had completed negotiations of the MIG 21 deal with Russia. Hoping to maximize the thaw in the hitherto cold relations between US and India, even though the US were miffed with the MIG 21 deal, and with Defense Minister VK Krishna Menon sidelined, Galbraith pushed for stronger ties between the two countries. In fact, the US saw an opportunity to woo India away from Nehru’s policy of non-alignment and towards the concept of a collective defense of the sub-continent, using a defense umbrella concept sponsored by America.

Today you can see news channels from anywhere in the world on your TV set in India and there is hardly any restriction and censorship, but there was a time when the only mass media tool was the radio and the airwaves were uncrowded. The technology was guarded and the limited time and bandwidth available, was carefully used to deliver calibrated messages. We now go to a time when there were just 400,000 or so radios among the Indian population and just one AIR service delivering news. The MW and SW sets also picked up transmissions from Europe, but of course English transmissions from the BBC were the mainstay.

The other news channel was a collection of newspapers and by 1962 there were dozens of papers and a large circulation. What the editor decided was what the reader saw, and they wielded some control on the politicians, this being the only checks and balance. English newspapers were popular mainly in Metropolises.  The cold war effect was also paramount, so which side a country, or its press supported was important and allies viewed transgressions seriously.

The US were embroiled in the Cuban missile crisis around the same time and it took a while for the USA to lend serious focus to the Sino India conflict and its aftermath. Nevertheless, there had been a lot of clandestine activity underway and we talked about it in some articles previously, concerning the US surveillance over China, the U2 missions and the establishment of the Charbatia base etc. We also glossed over the involvement of airman Biju Patnaik, his relationship with the CIA and the US administration, and of his being the go between for some of the direct discussions. Another high-level contact the US had in the Indian parliament, though not overly public, was Morarji Desai.

As David Devereux explains in his paper on Anglo American relations with India in connection with the Sino Indian conflict - The brief war was costly to both sides; China secured its frontier on its own terms, but lost a major potential ally in India, and the war also further fractured its already tense relations with the Soviet Union. India lost its credibility as leader of the non-aligned movement. The reasoning for the Chinese focus on the strategic Aksai Chin region in the west became apparent when China’s secret efforts at developing atomic weapons in distant Sinkiang province were exposed after a successful test there in 1964. The US continued to believe that Indian defenses needed to be strengthened, and was convinced that delicate wooing could persuade India to abandon nonalignment.

It was with this backdrop that a number of other schemes were hatched by Galbraith and others in the think tank, aided by inputs passed through Biju Patnaik and Morarji. November 1962 was a month of turmoil in New Delhi, the Chinese incursions were preying on the psyche of Prime Minister Nehru as well as his team and we see the following note of a radio station, in the Ambassadors journal dated Nov 13th. The Indians are asking us for help on presenting their side of the dispute to the world. The New China News Agency is getting an enormous amount of stuff out through Hong Kong; the Indians feel their side of the story is not being told. Perhaps we can give them some help in monitoring the Chinese propaganda and they could then send someone to Hong Kong to get out an answer. And we can get more of their position on Voice of America. Maybe we should lease them some time on V.O.A. I am not greatly impressed with the importance of this sort of thing, but everyone else is.

American interests are better explained in an old congressional hearing dating to Aug 1950 where the topic was ‘the Soviets have India’s ear” and in a discussion about VOA, Robert Turnbull’s report got tabled. Turnbull stated - Very few of India's 400,000 radio sets, one for every 8 persons—are ever tuned in on the Voice of America. It is not because listeners don't want to hear the American broadcasts. The fact is quite to the contrary. Indians are anxious to hear both sides, but so far as radio propaganda is concerned, the Soviet Union and its satellites have a virtual monopoly on the Indian air waves. This situation exists simply because the Voice of America has no transmitter near enough or with a sufficiently powerful beam to be heard at favorable hours, whereas the powerful Russian stations can be received with moderately priced sets virtually around the clock. The Voice of America is heard best in India late at night when few persons are listening in this early-rising country.

Also, the Voice of America's wavelength is so close to that of All-India Radio, the Soviet stations and the big transmitter in Ceylon, that it suffers constant interference aside from Soviet jamming. So, we are letting the radio war go by default. If it is not possible to build a transmitter sufficiently close, or to penetrate the wall of interference, the next best proposition is to purchase time on Radio Ceylon, which is heard clearly in this whole area. This is under consideration.

Robert Turnbull added - We suffer another disability in this propaganda war that the Russians do not. Indians do not like to feel that they are being propagandized. Therefore, American operations in this field are suspect and sometimes have an effect opposite to the one intended. But somehow the Russians get away with it. Probably that is due partly to innate leftist tendencies in the Asians. Closely related to this is an underprivileged people's resentment of American prosperity. Our demonstration of the benefits of free enterprise must be handled with extreme tact.

No records exist of the discussions prior to the signing of an agreement between the US and India, notably between the AIR and the VOA on the 9th of July 1963, but I understood that it was VOA director Edward Murrow’s plan, in order to replace the ageing transmitter located at Ceylon.  Anyway, Galbraith pushed home his idea and Nehru accepted it in the heat of the moment, after all, Galbraith and America had helped him out of the Sino India situation and Nehru owed him one. So we can conclude that the agreement was mooted with Galbraith’s gentle prodding is clear, and it was signed on the eve of Galibraith’s return to the US after his Ambassadorial tenure (He returned to take up his position at Harvard in July 1963).

But once it was done and the news got out, the uproar in the news media as well as in political circles and the parliament was not only acerbic, but persistent and vocal. There were some supporters, but much more against and critical about the entire affair as well as the secretive decision process. Interestingly, even Krishna Menon who had until his ouster been Nehru’s biggest supporter and friend turned publicly against him over the agreement, calling it ‘a piece of national humiliation’! Why so? Let’s try and find out by looking at the so-called VOA deal (copies of the deal are still not available and only extracts available in Brecher’s paper).

The timeline and rationale are explained by Nehru in his August 13th reply to the parliament (fifth session – vol XIX). He tells us - The need to strengthen All India Radio's external broadcasts' had been repeatedly brought to Government's notice and this need became more urgent after the Chinese aggression towards the end of 1962, more particularly in the context of the vicious and venomous propaganda against the Government of India by Chinese broadcasting services directed in various languages to bordering areas of India and to various Indian regions, as well as the countries in South East Asia and Africa. A decision was taken in November 1962 to explore the possibility of obtaining high powered transmitters on reasonable terms from countries where such transmitters were available.

The preliminary enquiries made in pursuance of the decision to explore the possibility of acquiring a high-powered transmitter showed that the only transmitter of this kind readily available was with the Voice of America, who mentioned in March, 1963 the possibility of their offering the transmitter on certain terms to the Ministry of information and Broadcasting. As we felt strongly the need for a high-powered transmitter to counteract the Chinese propaganda, the Government of India decided to ascertain the terms and conditions on which such a transmitter could be acquired from the Voice of America.

We note from Brecher’s study that the people involved were: Secretary of India's Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I & B), Nawab Singh; his minister, G. Gopala Reddy; the Foreign Secretary, M.J. Desai; Prime Minister Nehru; and some technical specialists, notably, the Chief Engineer of All-India Radio. The chief U.S. negotiator on the VOA Agreement was William H. Weatherbee (Counsellor for public affairs - US Embassy) while Loomis represented the VOA.

Nehru & Galbraith
Nehru continues - Discussions between the officials of the Government of India and the U.S. officials concerned continued, with some intervals, from March to June, 1. While it was known that the possibility of Voice of America broadcasts being made through the transmitter under Indian control presented a difficulty, it was agreed to go ahead with the discussions and see what the terms and conditions relating to the offer were. I was consulted on two or three occasions but did not go into the whole matter at any particular stage. The matter was, however, briefly mentioned to me before the agreement was signed and, in that context, I must assume responsibility.

So, we see that the officials discussed and signed an agreement on July 9th. What exactly did it entail and why would it snowball into a controversy? Why was Nehru suddenly defensive and expressing that ‘he was responsible’? Did he not involve the rest of the 20 persons in the think tank? If so, why?

As it transpired, the Weatherbee-Loomis response was that the US could help only through an agreement involving shared time and the joint operation of technical facilities. About a dozen sessions took place in June, by the two teams of civil servants and technicians: on the U.S. side, Weatherbee, a government lawyer, a VOA executive, and an engineer; on the Indian side, Nawab Singh, the Secretary of the I & B Ministry, the Chief Engineer of All-India Radio, and two other experts. The discussions were quite interesting. The U.S. offered to build the transmitter, pay much of the cost, and share its operation. India insisted that the U.S. sell it the transmitter for one rupee, in return for which VOA would receive three hours of prime radio time daily to relay its programs to Southeast Asia, but only in languages of that region. It appears that the US agreed to most of the Indian terms and the final draft was notated ‘I agree’ by Nehru.

The agreement can be summarized thus – The US would sell a 1000KW medium Wave transmitter and related equipment for Rs 1/- in exchange for 3 hours of radio time, to relay Voice of America programs to Southeast Asia in Southeast Asian languages only, for which the US will pay India Rs 1/- per annum, for five years, the duration of the agreement. The station was to be built near Calcutta, and mentioning further that the contents of VOA programs "will take into account the friendly relations which exist between the Government of India and other countries and that a schedule of programs and texts would be provided to Indian officials for any review”.

A week after the signing of the agreement, Nehru spun around in a volte face when he stated in parliament, on July 13th that ‘it would be a mistake to go ahead with the agreement’. The cabinet also agreed that the agreement could be implemented only if the US gave up its shared time!

The new US ambassador Chester Bowles arrived after Galbraith’s departure and tried to get the ball rolling again, in a meeting with Morarji Desai, but realized that it was sinking, noting thus later in his memoirs (Promises to Keep) - An indication of this paradoxical new relationship was Nehru's agreement that the United States be permitted to set up a Voice or America radio station on Indian soil which would carry both Indian and American broadcasts to Southeast Asia. At the breakfast table on our first day in New Delhi, I read in the newspaper that India had withdrawn from this agreement. Although some pressure had been brought to bear by the Communists, the most effective opposition came from individuals and newspaper editors who were normally friendly to America, but who questioned the wisdom of such a close tie to the United States. Perhaps the average nonaligned Indian’s mind was on a little overdrive, I guess, in those days.

It quickly became clear that the changed situation was due to the opposition parties, such as the left leaners and added pressure from Moscow. Continuing with Nehru’s statement to the parliament on August 13th, we see - Immediately thereafter, it became clear that this arrangement was not in consonance with our general policy and will, if further pursued, not only make Indo-U.S. relations a subject of controversy inside India but will prejudice our main objective of counteracting anti-Indian propaganda broadcast from Chinese radio. We have taken up these matters with the U.S. authorities and are discussing with them how the difficulties mentioned above can be met. These discussions are going on. Any decision will have to be in consonance with our basic policies. 

To get to the involvement of Moscow in these deliberations, we have to look at the parliamentary papers once again. On Nov 13th Nehru, quizzed again on the agreement, replied that talks were still underway about modifying the agreement. At this juncture, Nath Pai asked - May I know whether any protests were received from any countries after the announcement of this agreement with the U.S.A., and if so, the names of those countries, and whether in reply to the protests from the Soviet Union, the Indian Ambassador in Moscow offered by way of mollifying Soviet objections. that the Soviet Union, in order to maintain quid pro quo could set up a transmitting station in Bombay?

Nehru replied - I do not think that any formal protests were received from any country. It may be that in the course of informal conversations, something might have been said. I do not quite recollect what the Indian Ambassador in Moscow said in reply, but possibly he did say that it was open to any country to , enter into the same type of agreement with us. A news release later reported that Ambassador Kaul had informed Moscow that the Soviets could supply a transmitter as well, if they questioned the political propriety of the Indian deal with the US.

In September, Krushchev’s letters to Nehru were published – The release added "India's professed policy of nonalignment, although tenaciously defended by Nehru before Parliament, no longer seemed to have any meaning, as India sought and received Western arms aid, scheduled joint air exercises with the United States and Britain for November, and almost agreed to set up a Voice of America transmitter near Calcutta."

The news was by then all over the press. As expected, some were supportive, but the left leaners like the FPJ and a few others were critical and seemed aghast at the deal made ‘with the devil’. As Nehru vacillated, Menon sulked, the opposition made merry on the situation (Interestingly, Menon would harp on this, years later as an example of mismanagement). Nehru decided to disassociate himself from the case entirely, stating ‘The matter was not processed in the normal way, and the Agreement was signed without the Cabinet having considered it.... The Agreement should be revised radically’, he declared. "If that cannot be done, we should do without it! In his support, news reports also stated - "At the crucial decision-making stage the main actors in the drama were a handful of top civil servants."

Gopala Reddy, the administrator and a Shantiniketan product as some observed, and an ineffective minister as some others noted, was the obvious scapegoat for Nehru’s error in the Voice of America fiasco earlier that summer as Brecher noted in his book - Succession in India. But to be fair, Nehru did not throw Reddy to the dogs." He rejected 'the demand that the officials be punished, reiterating: “It is as 'much my fault as theirs”. But in the end, the deal was scuttled, and the US also dropped the discussion. But the VOA deal resulted in Nehru getting further weakened politically, and Washington, red faced. Eventually, arrangements were made with BBC’s Singapore station to relay AIR programs to SE Asia.

Nevertheless, the Kamaraj’d Reddy did resign and after the passing of Nehru in May 64, the new I&B minister was none other than Indira Gandhi. She announced on Sept 14th that, according to the technical experts, a 1000 KW medium wave transmitter would not be of much use in combatting Chinese propaganda in Southeast Asia; further, that an easily-obtainable 250 KW short- wave transmitter was more suitable, because of its wider range and because it could be used day and night.

MO Mathai, Nehru's one time private secretary would acidy remark later, in his memoirs - I have never suffered from over-humility; and I am vain enough to assert that if I were with Nehru officially, the deal with the United States about the installation and partial use of a high-power radio transmitter in eastern India by the Voice of America, would have been nipped in the bud at the initial proposal stage. It was a bewildered man, ill-advised by incompetent and unimaginative officials, who allowed this deal, which would have compromised our sovereignty, to be entertained and almost finalized. I guess we know by now, how Mathai had this tendency of attaching all importance to himself, so we can discount some of  the matter. Interestingly Mathai himself was accused of being an American mole, at that time.

But this was not the end of US-India cooperation and later projects were handled differently, such as the ISRO, TERLS, the satellite and space program as well as the efforts of Vikram Sarabhai (see an earlier article). The Charbatia project and a few others were put into place, but the Bokaro steel plant aid request would not pass the US Congress and eventually the Soviets took over the financing for the plant.

In the end, it amounted to a fleeting shift from non-alignment towards closer ties with the West, this resulting in a blip on the Indo-Soviet friendship. It was quickly corrected, and the ship quickly righted to an even keel, but still facing stormy waters. Decision making in the parliament after this event carefully considered press reactions, the public and the opposition, to a certain extent.


Ambassadors Journal – John Kenneth Galbraith

The Sino-Indian War of 1962 in Anglo-American Relations - David R. Devereux

India's Decisions on the Voice of America: A Study in Irresolution - Michael Brecher

US Congressional records Vol 96, Part 10

Promises to Keep – Chester Bowles

Daily Report, Foreign Radio Broadcasts, Issues 141-142, 187-188

Charbatia and the CIA

Terls Thumba



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