Henry Kissinger and India: From sexist remarks at Indira Gandhi to bigoted opinion about Indians

The former US Secretary of State's hate-love relationship with India spanned decades including calling Indira Gandhi "b**tch" and terming Indians as "b*stards."
FILE - A collage of former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and ex-US Secretary of State and NSA Henry Kissinger. (Photos | PTI, AP)
FILE - A collage of former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and ex-US Secretary of State and NSA Henry Kissinger. (Photos | PTI, AP)

Henry Kissinger, the former US National Security Advisor and Secretary of State who died at the age of 100, garnered notoriety for his disparaging attitude towards India's leadership in the 1970s.

As the only individual to concurrently hold the positions of White House National Security Advisor and US Secretary of State, he wielded an unprecedented level of influence over American foreign policy, a feat seldom matched by those outside the presidential office.

On Wednesday, when the centurion died in his Connecticut home, he left behind a chequered legacy, which includes instances of employing racist and misogynistic language when referring to the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi.

When Henry Kissinger visited India in March 2012, nearly four decades after his voyage as America's top diplomat, observers noted a reconciled stance towards India's ascent. Many believed that he had become an advocate for fostering stronger ties between the United States and India.

Kissinger's ties with India started in the 1970s when he was in the US administration both as the National Security Advisor and Secretary of State.

As Bangladesh gained independence in 1971, Kissinger chose to ignore Pakistan's brutal crackdown on civilians because he thought it was in America's best interest to maintain Islamabad as a silent go-between with China. This resulted in a contentious shift in the US's relationship with India, particularly Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

As the crisis unfolded in East Pakistan, marked by severe atrocities and a continuous influx of refugees, India, led by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, took the significant measure of engaging in conflict with Pakistan in December 1971.

A month before India intervened in the Bangladesh liberation war, Indira Gandhi had met and held discussions with Kissinger and US President Richard Nixon. According to transcripts of conversations between Nixon and Kissinger, disparaging remarks were made about India and its leadership.

In the aftermath of the meeting, Nixon and Kissinger had reportedly called the Indian Prime Minister "a b**ch" with Kissinger accusing Indira of "starting a war" and referring to Indians as "b*****ds" and "the most aggressive people around."

In September 2020, the New York Times carried an opinion piece based on the then newly declassified trove of White House tapes that provided "startling evidence of the bigotry" voiced by then President Richard Nixon and Kissinger, his national security adviser in the 1970s.

Replying to a question by Nixon, the piece described how Kissinger sweepingly explained: "They (Indians) are superb flatterers, Mr. President. They are masters at flattery. They are masters at subtle flattery. That's how they survived 600 years. They suck up...their great skill is to suck up to people in key positions."

Detailing such insidious exchanges between the Nixon-Kissinger duo based on the declassified tapes, Gary J.Bass, a professor of politics and international affairs, explained how the full content of these tapes revealed how "US policy toward South Asia under Mr. Nixon was influenced by his hatred of, and sexual repulsion toward, Indians."

"For decades, Mr.Nixon and Mr.Kissinger have portrayed themselves as brilliant practitioners of realpolitik, running a foreign policy that dispassionately served the interests of the United States. But these declassified White House tapes confirm a starkly different picture: racism and misogyny at the highest levels, covered up for decades under ludicrous claims of national security. A fair historical assessment of Mr.Nixon and Mr.Kissinger must include the full truth, unbleeped," Bass concluded.

The transcripts of the declassified tapes of the conversation between Nixon, Kissinger, and the President's Chief of Staff in Washington on November 5, 1971, showed that both Nixon and Kissinger repeatedly described Indira Gandhi as a b**ch.

"(But), Mr President, even though she was a b**ch, we shouldn't overlook the fact that we got what we wanted, which was we kept her from going out of here saying that the United States kicked her in the teeth," Kissinger said in connection with their discussion regarding Pakistan, India, and troubles in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh.

FILE - This undated image from 1971 shows India's former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi meeting with then-US President Richard Nixon. (Photo | PTI) 
FILE - This undated image from 1971 shows India's former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi meeting with then-US President Richard Nixon. (Photo | PTI) 

Speaking about the issue in India in March 2012 at a media conclave, Kissinger defended his use of unparliamentary language while referring to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, said: "I was under pressure and made those comments in the heat of the moment. People took those remarks out of context." He also added that he had the highest regard for Indira Gandhi.

Historians indeed say that both Kissinger and Nixon did not have a healthy relationship with Indira Gandhi and they turned their attention to China.

However, despite the not-so-healthy relationship with the then-Indian leadership, as early as 1972, Kissinger had advocated for India and Japan to be permanent members of the UN Security Council, archival diplomatic conversations available publicly show.

Speaking at the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum (USISPF) event in 2019, Kissinger, then 96, said the Bangladesh crisis pushed the two countries to the "edge of confrontations."

"India was at the beginning of a historic evolution and not all of the problems that concerned were of equal importance to India. India was heavily involved with its own evolution and the policy of neutrality," he then said in New Delhi.

"If you look at the world, there are upheavals in almost every part of the world and you cannot necessarily develop a general concept for each of them but you can work together on the essentials of peace and progress. Then I would say no two countries now are better situated to evolve their friendship," Kissinger said.

A day after Dhaka was liberated on December 16, 1971, then President Nixon was told by Kissinger that he had "saved West Pakistan," according to confidential papers since declassified by the US State Department.

Kissinger told then-President Gerald Ford after his meeting with Indira Gandhi in October 1974, a few months after India's first nuclear test, that she had felt an "almost pathological need" to criticise the US but at the same time desired an improvement in Indo-US relations on a "more equal" basis after Washington recognised India as an "important country in the world."

"Our relations with India are friendly and aloof. It's a fortunate thing the Indians are pacifists, otherwise, their neighbours would be worried. The first time we were in India, they told me that Kabul belonged to India too," Kissinger has been recorded as having said, according to a White House Memo.

Post the Cold War era and India's ascent as a formidable power in the past decade, Kissinger's perspective on the country underwent a transformation. Across successive administrations, he has consistently advocated for robust ties with India.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi engaged in several meetings with Kissinger during his visits to the United States. Notably, during Modi's Official State Visit in June this year, Kissinger, despite facing health challenges, travelled to Washington specifically to attend Modi's luncheon address at the State Department.

The luncheon was jointly hosted by Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and it took place in the historic Benjamin Franklin Room on the seventh floor of the Foggy Bottom headquarters of the State Department. Due to his health condition, Kissinger was brought in a wheelchair. During the luncheon, the veteran American statesman attentively listened to the prime minister's speech and engaged in an interaction with him.

Kissinger publicly expressed his views on India in June 2018 during a fireside appearance alongside John Chambers of the US-India Strategic and Partnership Forum, marking the organization's first anniversary. Although the fireside chat was not open to the press, attendees recall the vigour with which he championed the India-US relationship.

"When I think about India, I admire their strategy," Kissinger had said during a rare appearance in Washington to attend the first annual leadership summit of the USISPF in June 2018.

Initially expressing derogatory views about India, Kissinger's attitude transformed over time.

This change of heart was once again evident during his 2013 visit to New Delhi, during which Kissinger told India Today: "For me, for all of us, the events of 1971 were a tragedy. We didn't want them, but we felt that we had no choice. But as soon as the crisis was over, we worked energetically to restore good relations and I came here in 1974. I wouldn't be here today if I weren't interested in good relations with India. I have no other motive for being here."

He had also stated in that interview that India and the United States were capable of bringing about a change that could last until the end of the century if both nations acted with foresight, adding, "...then what happens in the twenty-first century is difficult to predict, but I hope we can bring about a qualitative change in relationships."

Kissinger's change of heart can be traced to the strategic importance of cultivating stronger ties with India, given its growing influence in the region, despite the glaring hypocrisy that characterised his public life and his infamous practice of realpolitik and shuttle diplomacy.

(With additional inputs from the US National Archives, PTI and AFP)

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