A forgotten bandit and a lesson in India-Pakistan diplomacy

Whenever terrorists attack India, many Indians expect their government to condemn Pakistan, if not go to war outright. Politicians humour the public with belligerent words but the government’s own response — not to be confused with the Prime Minister’s speech in a poll-bound state — is always more calibrated. That’s the time-honoured way of diplomacy, and it is well illustrated in this 60-year-old true story.

Before Gabbar

In India, and maybe also in Pakistan, the word bandit brings to mind Gabbar Singh, the villain of Sholay. The only real bandit with instant recall in India was Phoolan Devi, who surrendered, and after some years became a member of Parliament. But long before them another bandit was making headlines.

Jagmal Singh and his gang operated on India’s western border in the 1950s. His reign of terror had started in Rajasthan state in 1953, and soon all the moneyed people in an area of 50-60 square miles had fled to safer places. Jagmal’s gang killed many people, and at times struck more than 100 miles deep on the Indian side, but each time Rajasthan Police failed to catch him.

On December 15, 1957, the deputy inspector general of Rajasthan Police gave a statement to the press, claiming they were helpless against Jagmal because they did not have vehicles to give chase. India was still a very poor country. The more shocking claim was that Pakistan not only sheltered Jagmal but also helped him retreat under cover of police fire from its side.

The government of Rajasthan state also sent a report to Government of India claiming that Pakistan was sheltering this gang.

Show of Restraint

India had complained to Pakistan about the help Jagmal got every time from police on its side, but when the matter was raised by Indian MP Jaswant Singh in Parliament on December 17, 1957, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru made a distinction between Government of Pakistan and its officials.

“The honourable member has possibly in his mind some local officials at the border or some local police at the border. That is not necessarily the Pakistan government,” he said, and asked the MP: “How is it possible for our government to say whether the Pakistan government is doing this unless they do it openly and publicly?”

Jaswant Singh wanted firm action on the ground — what’s called a ‘surgical strike’ these days — because Jagmal was from his village and the people suffering the most were his constituency. Nehru reminded him: “It is patent, sir, that we cannot enter Pakistan territory in chasing these dacoits or for any other purpose. The only arrangement we can make in their territory is through the Pakistan government.”

Seeing that Jaswant Singh was not satisfied with anything the government said on record, Nehru gave him a brief lesson in diplomacy: “When the answer is in diplomatic language, he should understand what it means. We do not use in matters concerning diplomacy language which is sometimes more precise.”

In other words, it is not always politic for the government to promise or prove a surgical strike.

***

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