Some of the pages in the file are torn but held together by sellotape. They look and smell old; the font is not one you’re familiar with today. You can tell it was typewritten. A pink subject card on the file reads: Love affair with Indian in West Berlin. Flip the pages and stop at the one dated 2 November 1981.
The Berlin Wall, a defining symbol of the Cold War, is still standing. Both sides of the city are cut off from each other. And yet, a young Indian man named Christopher, who lives in West Berlin, falls in love with Barbara, a German woman from East Berlin. With the bravado of someone truly in love, he manages to get his lover smuggled to his side of the world using an Indian contact: a diplomat at the Indian embassy in West Berlin who enjoys diplomatic immunity. Barbara sits in the boot of this envoy’s car and crosses over to the west, possibly through Checkpoint Charlie, to be safely reunited with Christopher.
We know about this surreptitious operation today because it was kept on file by the Stasi—the secret police of the repressive German Democratic Republic (GDR), also known as East Germany. The Stasi’s mission was to make sure the GDR's population was free of western influences and was kept under surveillance to eviscerate counter-state activities.
To carry out the mammoth task of watching over a population of about 17 million people, the Stasi boasted over 91,000 full-time employees and 190,000 unofficial collaborators or spies. The information gathered was assiduously recorded, filed and stored in cupboards. In the case of the love affair, the spy was someone who had been close to the couple.
The Stasi file on the romance began in 1973 when Barbara met Christopher in Prague. She is reported to have said to someone: “I will marry this Indian man even if I have to take the illegal path.” This declaration put her on the Stasi’s radar. Barbara didn’t want to resort to unlawful means from the beginning, though. In April 1977, she applied to the government for permission to leave East Berlin for the West, but she was refused. Twenty days later, her mother got a call: “I am now near my husband.” In December that year, the Stasi closed the file.
In Frankfurt (Oder), a small town in Brandenburg along the German border with Poland, stands a building that had once been occupied by the East German army. Today, this is the Stasi Records Agency, an upper-level federal agency of Germany that preserves the archives and studies Stasi crimes—12 such offices exist across the 16 district towns that had been under the oppressive GDR regime.
After the GDR fell, the Stasi tried to destroy evidence by tearing their records. In the early 1990s, the Stasi Records Agency began to reassemble the torn pages. “So far, 1.5 million pages from 500 bags have been manually reconstructed, indexed and archived. There are still 400 to 600 million fragments, adding up to 40-50 million pages that remain to be built,” said regional head Rϋdiger Sielaff.
In the dank shelves of this office, 10 files with a mention of India can be found. The most interesting perhaps is one that has at its centre then prime minister Indira Gandhi.
A year after she declared the Emergency, Gandhi made an official trip to East Germany between 1 and 4 July 1976. The visit was of such great importance to the GDR that it termed the operation “Gastfreundschaft”, or "friendly guest". Obviously, the Stasi kept records on it.
“The visit of Indira Gandhi is of great political importance to us. It will help foster a relationship between East Germany and India,” said the memo signed by the Stasi officer in chief at the Lϋbben regional office in the Lower Lusatia region of Brandenburg. “We have to make sure that the trip goes smoothly.”
To that effect, the officer asked for two things. First, “Make sure there are no enemies of the state who want to make contact with Gandhi to discredit the GDR” (they were afraid that GDR citizens would talk to foreign delegations about their oppressive rulers). Second, “There should be no terrorists, weapons or provokers. Take normal security measures. We need to work with our informal collaborators to make sure it is achieved.”
Why was the GDR interested in India? “During the Cold War, West and East Germany were competing for legitimacy. As a large, non-aligned developing country, India’s position mattered considerably,” explained Dhruva Jaishankar, fellow in foreign policy studies at Brookings India in New Delhi and the Brookings Institution in Washington DC.
“In general, East Germany and other Warsaw Pact countries were keen on economic and technological cooperation with India, which was often seen as a sympathetic partner country and a ‘prize’ in the global competition between communist and non-communist ideological forces,” he added.
It was only in the early 1970s that India was able to establish formal diplomatic relations with both Bonn (West Germany’s capital at the time) and East Berlin, said Jaishankar. “This was enabled by West Germany’s Ostpolitik (new eastern policy), as part of which West Germany’s chancellor Willy Brandt indicated that countries would not face economic, diplomatic or other consequences for recognizing East Germany.”
Brandt’s Ostpolitik was embraced by his Indian counterpart Indira Gandhi. The popularity of Gandhi—a symbol of the Second and Third World’s resistance to US neo-imperialism—was therefore not surprising.
When she was assassinated in 1984, the people of GDR collectively mourned. The evidence is found in another Stasi report dated 5 November 1984, a week after her death, based on discussions by residents of Lϋbben.
In general, people condemned and criticized the murder of Gandhi, whom they saw as a great politician, committed to the “principles of freedom and friendly coexistence”, the Stasi officer's memo read. They hoped that the culprit(s) be caught soon. Some thought that the American secret service was involved in the murders because “US imperialists did not like the Indian prime minister”.
The Lϋbben populace was happy with the news that her son “Raschid” Gandhi had taken over as prime minister, was hopeful that he would continue the politics of his mother. “Some of them were worried that he might become victim of the same forces, as he shared the goals of his mother,” the document read.
Earlier in the Cold War, although an East German trade mission had been established in India in 1954, the country continued to work closely with West Germany, which became a source of aviation and defence technology.
A new relationship was born with East Germany after it recognized the formation of Bangladesh, following India’s intervention in the then East Pakistan in 1971. This step was an extension of diplomatic friendship with Delhi, and resulted in a kind of “quid pro quo”, writes Srinath Raghavan in his book 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh, wheedling India to formally recognize the GDR as a sovereign state in 1972.
At around the same time, India began tilting towards the Eastern bloc. “In 1971, India signed the Treaty of Peace, Friendship, and Cooperation with the Soviet Union, a necessary step in the context of the Bangladesh War,” said Jaishankar.
The perpetually financially starved Stasi then became naturally involved in the expansion of business possibilities in India. In their documents, one finds mention of several companies across India, mainly related to coal, mining and electricity, sectors in which the Soviets had gained expertise during the post-war reconstruction and infrastructure revival. In the Stasi files, there is a recurrence of such projects and companies as the Bokaro Steel Plant, Central Electric Authority, ICB Limited Constructions, MN Dastur & Co., Rajasthan Electricity Project Board and so on.
The Panandhro mine in Gujarat, famous for lignite or brown coal, seemed to have been of great significance to the GDR. Tensions and rivalry towards West Germany were palpable in Stasi reports that discuss the export of three excavators to India. “Until now only West German firms have supplied and erected stuff for mining in India... GDR wants this project to be the first prime example to get further contracts in the future... The general feeling is that the GDR electronic industry is not able to work according to international standards. One has to consider that West German firms are trying to tarnish the image of East Germany equipment via Indian firms,” the Stasi officer said in the memo.
Later it was found that a collaborator’s recce to Panandhro turned out to be vexing. “We are not allowed to drink tap water, so we had to boil it. We don’t understand how people drive in India. If we go by cars, we are afraid we will leave our lives there. It is not clear if Indian drivers have licences. Not even sure if the cars are technically sound,” he noted, ending his report by saying that the “Indian partners were extremely polite”.
In 1987, an unofficial collaborator with the code name Jochen Haake (all unofficial collaborators and spies had code names to protect their identity) visited coalfields in Wani, Maharashtra, and he too found the conditions trying: “In April and May, the weather is extreme, over 46 degrees Celsius. The Indian partners warned us to be careful about heat strokes and told us to drink about six to eight litres of water daily.”
The relationship between India and Germany was not just limited to the economy. The countries saw a lot of cultural exchange as well. Ranjit Hoskote, a cultural theorist, said, “As a satellite of the Soviet Union, the GDR had very limited powers of interaction with the world. With India, the connections were largely cultural and, to an extent, technological. Indian filmmakers during the 1960s and 1970s used East German ORWO film stock. There was at least one GDR television brand that was imported into India. GDR publishing houses such as Aufbau Verlag and Lotos Verlag brought out German translations and studies of Indian writers including Nirmal Verma and Dilip Chitre. The GDR theatre magazine, Theater der Zeit, was attentive to the work of Indian playwrights such as Girish Karnad. Theatre director Vijaya Mehta developed a robust, progressive collaboration and dialogue with the GDR theatre director and Brechtian exponent Fritz Bennewitz, which resulted in numerous outcomes, including a production of Kalidasa’s Shakuntala in Leipzig in 1980, with its emphasis on the gender issue.”
But from the perspective of the GDR state officials, cultural contacts with India were state-initiated and clearly “political” in their objectives, writes Anandita Bajpai, a faculty member at the department of Asian and African Studies at Humboldt University in Berlin, and research fellow at Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient. “Bertolt Brecht was popularized in India as the ‘face of the GDR’. The cultural relationships were seen as a means, a soft tool to stage and realize the political ambitions of official recognition,” she said.
A trove of information, the Stasi files will likely throw up more hidden connections between India and the GDR. But only when the task of piecing together the giant puzzle is through.
Sukhada Tatke is a freelance writer
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