WHEN IN JULY 1992, over pre-dinner cocktails at our home in New York, I told an American friend from the media that I was going to Khartoum as the Indian ambassador, he, a well-built, big boned man rose from his seat, put his arms round me and said: ‘My dear boy, what have you done to deserve that?’ For him Khartoum was one of the dreariest places on earth. He told me that when he was following events in China, he had learnt about the cruelties committed by Gordon in China. He had gone to Khartoum out of curiosity about the place where China Gordon—I had till then known of him only as Gordon of Khartoum—had been killed. When I met the Permanent Representative of the Sudan to the United Nations, he talked of the political situation of his country and then of the travels of Herodotus in Nubia, saying that the Ethiopes mentioned by Herodotus were in fact Nubians. Towards the end of that conversation he said it was strange I was going to the Sudan after a stint in New York and wondered what kind of personnel policy Government of India followed. Clearly, it was not only in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs that people thought that a posting to Khartoum was something all sane people should avoid. But I had already decided to go there in good grace.
A colleague passed on to me an Adelphi paper, on security in the Horn of Africa, brought out around that time by the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London. The section on the Sudan in that paper was not only about the misdeeds but also about the difficulties of the régime of General Omar Hassan el Bashir who had seized power in 1989 in a putsch against the democratically elected government of Sadik el Mahdi. A little earlier a newspaper report about a potentially fatal attack by a Sudanese practitioner of karate on Hassan el Turabi, the Sudanese political leader at that time in alliance with General Bashir, at a Canadian airport had caught my attention. In an article that had appeared in the New Yorker which someone had passed on to me it was said that Hassan el Turabi and his men of the National Islamic Front, who were the real power behind the generals who had taken over 1989, were determined on establishing in the country an Islamic state based on the sharia. In Delhi, the prevailing view of the Bashir régime was the comfortable one, based on writings in the Egyptian press—a government run by backward looking Muslim fundamentalists which trained and harboured terrorists for operation in other countries and who were leading their country towards economic ruin. Such an Islamic government had to be so irredeemably pro–Pakistani and so antagonistic towards India that nothing could be done about it. Beyond that, no one in Government of India was interested in the Sudan.
My mind thus filled with negative comments about the situation in the Sudan, we arrived in Khartoum in the beginning of November 1992. Such was the unpopularity of Khartoum in the Ministry of External Affairs of Government of India that there had been no ambassador there for ten months. There was no residence to go into on arrival and no furniture to use when we found a house. As a result we were lodged in a suite in Khartoum Hilton during the first two and a half months of our stay. Our suite overlooked the White Nile. Looking out of the window we could see busy peasants, in this case vegetable growers, engaged in their daily labour on their small plots of land on the gently sloping banks of the river, their plots becoming larger, extending riverwards, as the floodwater receded with the onset of the cool and dry season. Often in idle moments, looking at those peasants, my mind would wander off into thoughts about the millennia during which similar peasants on the banks of that same river would have cultivated that land in almost exactly the same way.
On the other side, across a road in front of the hotel was the Blue Nile. The confluence of the two Niles was barely three hundred metres up the road from the hotel. Some one and a half kilometres down the road was the Presidential palace inside which Muhammad Ahmad el Mahdi’s men had killed Gordon some 107 years earlier—an event that led to the retreat of the British from the Sudan until thirteen years later when Kitchener reinstated their authority. We started life in Khartoum close to the most important geographical feature of the town and not far removed from the best-known landmark of the Sudan’s 19 th century history.
Khartoum and its twin Omdurman on the West bank of the Nile are unattractive cities, with no redeeming architectural feature. Streets in some of the older parts of Khartoum are tree-lined—the largest number of trees is neem, something that catches the eye of an Indian. Some of the newer middle class localities, one of them called Riyadh, built with money earned by the Sudanese working in the oil rich countries of the Gulf and Iraq, are characterized by nondescript brick and concrete boxes of the kind that abound in middle class ‘colonies’ of Delhi. The streets in these new localities were unpaved, plain sand and dust and treeless, giving the visitor the impression that these houses had simply been planted on the desert. It soon became clear that a city so close to so much of water was not greener because there simply were not enough resources to lift the water from the rivers. Wherever water could be taken, the place was green.
We found a house in a small locality, a narrow strip of greenery on the North bank of the Blue Nile. There were many trees and all the two dozen or so houses were surrounded by large gardens with well or badly tended lawns, flowerbeds and trees. A narrow street separated us from another row of houses facing ours, the back gardens of which opened on the Blue Nile. The average temperature in this area was a good one and a half or two degrees lower than in the centre of the town.
On one side our next door neighbour was a very friendly and talkative Arab, one of these fair skinned Sudanese, who liked saying that his ancestors had come from Egypt, selling horses. He was mildly critical of the Bashir régime but was on good terms with the people in power. His business prospered. On the other side were two Lebanese Greek Catholic cousins, Raymond and Guy who lived next to each other in spacious pre-fabricated bungalows. At a distance of about one hundred and fifty metres, on the other side of the street, in a house on the bank of the river, lived another, slightly elderly, Greek Catholic couple from Lebanon and Egypt, Pierre and Norma. Their family name K’ffouri had given the unofficial name of the locality, K’ffouri Estate. These three Greek Catholic families were truly polyglot, being perfectly at home in Arabic, English and French, and international in the sense that branches of their families lived in the Lebanon, France and Switzerland. Their businesses were trading or construction. They were good company too, prosperous and on friendly terms with the diplomatic corps, especially Western diplomats. The sharia prohibition against alcohol did not exist in their houses—the Sudanese knew it and left them alone.
They did not discuss local politics other than bemoaning the passage of good times though they were all concerned about peace and stability in the country. The closest any of them ever came to discussing local politics with us was Raymond who one evening over bridge at our house said that by the end of 1993 the Bashir régime would be out. My wife and I took separate 100-dollar bets with him saying not only that the Bashir régime would outlast 1993 but that it would outlast the next year too. In early 1994 he paid my wife’s 100 dollars; he never paid mine. Norma K’ffouri talked of a family orchard on the bank of the Nile, a few kilometres downstream from Khartoum, planted by her father where there were a number of Mango trees, alphonso and totapari, grown from saplings her father had got over from India. Helped by pumped irrigation water and the rich black soil, the mangoes did well, the hot dry climate notwithstanding. Facing the K’ffouris’ house was another, large and vacant, which, we were told, had been home to the World Bank representative in Khartoum. After the departure of the World Bank man the house had neither been lived in nor looked after, as a reminder perhaps of the economic sanctions against the country. Just like the Greek Catholics, and the diplomatic corps, the small Coptic community was left untouched by the ‘Islamic’ state. There was a problem of wine for the mass in Roman Catholic churches in the country for which the solution had been that the Papal Nuncio imported wine under diplomatic privilege—other diplomats were similarly able to import alcohol under diplomatic franchise as long as it was not declared to the customs—and distributed it to various churches.
Khartoum was about as hot and dry during four months—it could be six months if rains failed, which is what happened during one of the two years we spent there—as Delhi is between April and June. There was no shortage of water. There were occasional breakdowns of electricity supply, which were taken care of by diesel-powered generators we had at home and in office. The dry, cool, evening breeze—the open area around our house made sure it always blew over our garden and terrace—was a rare pleasure. Economic backwardness of the country and the capital made for clear, unpolluted and light air except when there was the occasional dust storm. The dust storms, a nuisance as long as they lasted, invariably brought the temperature down. When we did not go out or had people coming home, we spent the evening in our garden, under a clear sky in which the stars shone bright. During about one half of the year the Orion dominated the Northeastern sky in the evening, about one third of the way below the zenith. For me the Orion became a familiar figure, so much so that a modern Egyptologist’s thesis that the three Great Pyramids of Gizeh represented the belt of Orion has left an indelible mark on my mind—I have since then found it impossible to look at Orion’s belt and not think of the Great Pyramids.
Fruits and vegetables—delicious grapefruit, cantaloupe melons and watermelons—untainted by chemical fertilizers and pesticides, milk, meat and local white cheese, introduced it seems by the Greeks, were plentiful and tasty. A US manufactured dish antenna and receiver gave us access to a wide variety of television programmes—nearly anything aired on C-band from any satellite between about 90 degrees East and 5 degrees West was accessible. These simple pleasures, combined with the friendliness and generous hospitality of the Sudanese, fairly extensive travels in the country and a little bit of work left us no time to bemoan our fate. We had long ago stopped joining other diplomats in talk about the difficulties of living in a Third World capital—I have actually met European diplomats talking about problems of working in Paris saying how difficult the French were.
OMDURMAN , in contrast to Khartoum, was much more of a desert city, almost purely native Arab. As if to underline its character, it housed the tomb of Muhammad Ahmad El Mahdi and his deputy, the Khalifa. Within practically half a kilometre West and Northwest of Omdurman you were on the fringes of the great African desert. Very little ever took us to Omdurman except that about one half of the Sudan’s miniscule Indian community lived there; another 40% were in Port Sudan while the remaining numbers were scattered in four or five towns in the Northern, Arab two thirds of the country. I am talking here of the permanent settlers and not of a small number of those who were there more or less temporarily, working in the university, or a large sugar mill, agencies of the United Nations or engaged in similar other occupations. The settlers all came from a narrow area of Gujarat lying between Rajkot and Porbandar. Many of them were related to each other. This small non-prosperous group—they had lived in the Sudan for seven or eight decades—in a country in which very few people in India took any interest was a lost community. Nearly all these people were traders or shopkeepers who knew how to deal with the administration. They rarely needed any help from the embassy, living in splendid isolation from Sudanese social and political life.
One of them thinking my views would be similar to those of Western diplomats initially used to drop in with talk about the difficulties of the government, against the policies of the National Islamic Front combined with praise for Sadek El Mehdi who symbolized at that moment political opposition to the Bashir government. Some of the older members of this community had one request, which was impossible to meet. They wanted Government of India to bring a ship to Port Sudan, take them to India so that they could visit the places of their origin and bring them back, without them having to spend any money. They obviously seriously believed in the parental obligations of the state. Heartless though it sounded, the answer had to be that it could not be done.
There were two or three unexpected ways in which India featured in the consciousness of ordinary Sudanese. Okra—widely consumed—and mangoes came in two distinct varieties: one considered superior, which was called ‘Indian’ and the other considered of plainer quality, which was called ‘of the country’. Then India was the land of sandalwood and sandalwood oil—sandalwood paste and sandalwood oil were very popular with all Sudanese women who could afford them. An old steel bridge over the Blue Nile was known as the Indian bridge because the steel structurals for that British built bridge had been brought over from India. And then it was interesting the number of people who either remembered or knew that during the Second World War the Fifth Division of the Indian Army had been based in the Sudan. Gedaref in Eastern Sudan has sorghum fields, which in season stretch as far as the eye can see. Taking us around in that area and explaining to us the features of a small irrigation dam and scheme, a local official who was not old enough to have personally seen the Indian Army in the country, still made it a point to tell us that sorghum plantation in that area was started for raising a crop to feed the Fifth Indian Army Division with. The Indians in Omdurman remembered or talked of a one-day visit to Khartoum from Cairo by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1957. None of these associations could be described as useful diplomatic assets.
THE TIGHTENING NOOSE of American, West European and Gulf Arab economic sanctions applied since the 1991 Gulf War had resulted in a difficult balance of payments situation and a mass of unrepaid foreign debt. There was a small debt owed to the Indian Exim Bank which meant that neither credit nor export insurance was available to Indian companies interested in exporting to the Sudan. There was very little for me to do to promote trade and economic relations. I believed in continuing to talk about our debt even though there was little possibility of our ever getting that money. I thought the total debt owed to us by different countries in Africa should be written off some day in one political move—it seems Government of India is now at the point of doing that. But I thought that till such time as we wrote that money off, the debt issue should be kept firmly on the bilateral agenda, which is what I set out to do, so much so that after some time some of my interlocutors started mentioning the debt issue to me first, even before I spoke, whenever we met. There was no worthwhile economic or commercial relationship to maintain or promote. I was left with only political issues to concentrate on. As I did so I found I had started swimming against a number of currents within and outside Government of India.
Either in my first meeting with him or at another soon after, the Foreign Minister, who in the 1960’s had served as his country’s ambassador in Delhi, berated me for India’s vote in the UN General Assembly in 1992 in favour of a US sponsored resolution critical of the human rights situation in the Sudan. India had also voted in favour of a similar resolution at the Human Rights Commission in Geneva in March that year. Already in New York I had developed my own views about the use of the human rights issue as an instrument of diplomatic pressure. I had ceased looking at Western campaigns against human rights violations in different places as politically and diplomatically disinterested. I was thus already conditioned to looking sceptically at the Western criticism of the Sudanese record on human rights.
ONE MONTH AND ONE DAY AFTER OUR ARRIVAL IN KHARTOUM, on 6 th December 1992 came the news that the Babri mosque in Ayodhya in India had been destroyed by a frenzied mob in the name of Hindu pride. In a country, which was described by our people as fundamentalist Muslim and entirely given over to Pakistan, there should have been hysterical protests, official and unofficial. There were barely one or two unofficial squeaks and no official comment. That silence set me thinking about and trying to understand the nature of the Sudanese régime.
In the Arab world the most vociferous critic of the Bashir régime was Egypt. But Egypt’s attitude looked suspect for two reasons. Ever since the 1991 Gulf War, militant Muslim groups had become very active in Egypt, organizing terrorist attacks against foreign tourists and Egyptians in positions of power and authority. The Egyptian government, while dealing with these groups as well as it could at home, seemed to be trying to externalize the problem by blaming the Bashir government for training and arming terrorists and sending them to Egypt. The second reason lay in Egypt’s atavistic fear that some day it might be deprived of the waters of the Nile. For this reason, Egypt had traditionally felt comfortable with a government in Khartoum, which was friendly, subservient or susceptible to manipulation. In Egyptian eyes the Bashir government was none of these. There were constant attempts by Egypt to promote unity among various political groups including the Southern rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army, which were opposed to the Bashir government. Western economic sanctions and the inclusion of the Sudan by the USA in its list of countries sponsors of terrorism fitted in with Egypt’s general policy towards the Sudanese government.
The Bashir government had angered the USA because in American perception, the Sudan like the PLO had sided with Iraq in the run up to the 1991 Gulf War. There was another, older reason for American antipathy towards the Sudanese government. Since the breakdown in 1983 of a 1972 agreement ending the Sudanese Civil War the origins of which went back to the country’s independence in 1956, the Khartoum government’s determination to suppress the Southern secessionist movement had grown fiercer by the year. The Bashir government did not start the campaign by Khartoum against Southern secessionists led by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army of John Garang. Nor was the Bashir Government the first to decide on the introduction of the sharia based legal system—it was first done under President Gaafar El Nimeiry who in his long Presidency had progressed from Nasserism to left-wing politics and cooperative relations with the Soviet Union and its East European allies, to close relations with Sadat’s Egypt and the West to Islamism. But the Bashir government’s talk of the introduction of the sharia and an Islamist agenda was described as an attempt at forceful imposition of Islam on the Christian South. John Garang had a ready audience among a number of Christian groups in the USA even when the administration did not willingly uphold his cause. Violation of human rights in the whole country, indefinite detention of political prisoners and their mistreatment, atrocities committed against Southern populations in the conduct of the civil war and atrocities committed against the Nuba rebels—a small tribal group in the mountains sitting astride the border between the provinces of Kordofan and Bahr el Ghazal—engaged in a struggle to preserve their way of life were part of the US list of complaints against the Bashir régime in addition to Egyptian complaints about the harbouring and training of terrorists, which the USA had embraced.
It did not take me long to see that talk about the establishment of an Islamic state based on the sharia was exaggerated. Paradoxically, the severest punishment given to anyone in the Sudan according to the sharia was execution of an Islamic scholar for apostasy when General Nimeiry was President. Some people blamed that execution on the National Islamic Front with which Nimeiry was in political alliance at that time. Under General Bashir there were occasional reports of flogging on charges of drunkenness or adultery and at least one report of someone’s hands being amputated for stealing. Neither media reports nor anything I heard in numerous conversations with the Sudanese we knew suggested that such punishments were widespread or endemic.
No attempt was ever made to force women behind walls or veils—usually the most visible sign of an Islamic state. In fact women were remarkably free. They worked in offices, drove cars, went to schools and universities, came to our home for meals accompanying their husbands, dressed in the traditional Sudanese sari-like costume, which meant they would always cover their heads. There were some in the armed forces, taking part in military parades, dressed in soldiers’ uniform. No woman wore a handkerchief over her nose and mouth and not everyone wore the hijab or the headband to cover the hair on the front and sides.
There was one occasion, rather late during our Khartoum stay, when the sharia based punishment of flogging for a man accused of adultery could have caused problems for me. A Saudi sheikh whose mother was Sudanese had started some agricultural development schemes in the country. He had a contract with a well-known Indian company which would provide know-how and technical manpower. The Indian company had posted an Indian manager in Khartoum to oversee the work on the agricultural projects. One day the Sudanese police searched the house of this manager looking for videocassettes, photographs and alcohol at his house. They had come in a van in which a Sudanese woman was sitting whom the police talked to from time to time as they went about their business. After the search, the police took the man away.
We found out that the charge against him was that he had made some unwelcome sexual advances towards a Sudanese woman working in his office. The police had acted on the woman’s complaint whom they had brought along as they searched the house. I learnt that there might be substance in the woman’s complaint. I could see that if a sharia court ordered public flogging for the man and if such an event got reported in the Indian press, there would be clamour. I said so in as many words to the senior most official in the Sudanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and requested that he did what he could to ensure that there was no flogging and added that if the Sudanese government decided to expel the man, I would make sure that he left the country very soon. On that understanding the man was sent back to India, his skin unblemished by flogging. I was told by the man’s replacement in Khartoum that his company, after an internal enquiry, had dispensed with his services.
Quite apart from controversies about the application of hudud laws, there was a simple, unaffected, pious quality to the way a Sudanese worker or peasant practised Islam. At prayer time, people working on construction sites or in fields would simply say their prayers wherever they were, spreading on the ground any piece of cloth they had with them. Since it is during daytime that most people were out of their homes, around the time of the midday prayer any day there could be sighted scores of scenes reminiscent of Millet’s Angélus. During the month of Ramadan, soon after sunset, people who had come far away from their homes could be seen in groups by the road, in parks, by the river eating together their first meal of the day, the iftar. It would not be unusual for them to invite a passer by to join them.
When I asked to see Sadik El Mahdi the first time he invited me to breakfast in his riverside house in Omdurman—for the working Sudanese, breakfast was the most important meal of the day. He was at that time the principal political opponent of his brother-in-law Hassan El Turabi and his men of the National Islamic Front. One of the points he made over breakfast was that it was silly for the government to talk of establishing an Islamic state in so profoundly Muslim a country like the Sudan. Up to a point I understood what he meant. It is the strong adherence of ordinary people there to Islam that had made it possible for the great grandfather of Sadik, Muhammad Ahmed El Mahdi to organize within three or four years people spread over a vast area from the North to the middle and the West of the country into a nationalist uprising against the British a little more than one hundred years earlier, using Islam as a unifying factor. The British recognized the power of the Islamic symbolism of El Mahdi name, so much so that after re-establishing their authority over the country, they kept on friendly relations with Muhammad El Mahdi’s descendants for the next three generations. In their own way Generaal Bashir and his allies from the National Islamic Front were also using Islam as a legitimizing principle for their power and authority. Economic sanctions gave them convenient ‘enemies of Islam’ in the shape of those who applied the sanctions.
NOT ONLY HAD THE SUDAN BEEN PLACED on the US list of countries sponsors of terrorism and therefore become ineligible for any US assistance other than humanitarian relief, more and more of which was channelled to the South through Nairobi based NGO’s, but also the World Bank and the IMF had stopped giving any assistance. West Europe, with the UK in the lead, and major Arab donors such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates had all stopped giving any assistance. It was not surprising for the country to try and do what it could to break out of its isolation and accept what assistance came its way. For some time it received assistance in the form of petroleum from Lybia. A few weeks before our arrival in Khartoum, President Rafsanjani of Iran had come on an eye-catching state visit to Khartoum at the end of a swing through Africa. These signs of friendly relations with Islamic Iran and Qaddhafi’s Lybia, both régimes unacceptable to the USA earned the Bashir government even greater hostility. Fears were widely and repeatedly expressed that Iran and the Sudan were going to collaborate in training and support for terrorists.
The USA and its allies were probably already caught in a vice of their own making. They had embarked on a policy of isolating and pressurizing the Bashir government with the minimum objective of forcing the government to mend its ways and the maximum of toppling it. At each stage, when these objectives still looked distant to the powers hostile to the Bashir government, they were obliged to ratchet up the pressure. Thus those applying these pressures were forced to think of increasing it at each stage when their objectives were still unmet. While these pressures meant to increase the economic and financial difficulties of the Sudanese government mounted, Western spokesmen paradoxically criticized the government for pursuing policies which had brought about economic ruin to the country. That economic sanctions were in great part responsible for the economic decline did not seem to be a matter of concern for those who supported those sanctions.
I came to look upon the Egyptian and the Western charges about the Sudanese government harbouring and training terrorists with scepticism. People who talked about the existence of camps for terrorists never said specifically where those camps were. In the flat open countryside of Northern Sudan it would have been the easiest thing to spot such camps in the most cursory aerial survey. Yet Egyptian media ceaselessly reported the existence of such camps. The only time Egypt made a specific charge against some Sudanese and the Sudanese Government was when there was an attempt on the life of Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa, many months after we had left Khartoum. In 1994, the USA announced its decision to shift its embassy to the Sudan to Nairobi because of threats of violence against it in Khartoum. I asked the US ambassador who would soon start operating from Nairobi what kind of dangers his embassy faced. He said that the information was so sensitive that he could not talk about it.
We travelled reasonably extensively in the country, going by road wherever we could. Very few foreigners travelled even on the much-travelled road connecting Khartoum to Port Sudan. Hardly any foreigner ever travelled by road to El Obeid in Kordofan, Roseires in the Southeast, or across completely uninhabited desert from Omdurman to Dongola in the North. No government official accompanied us on most of these journeys—except that the journey through the desert was on a four-wheel drive vehicle hired, with the chauffeur, from a government department. All the other journeys were in my official car driven by the embassy driver of that car, a Christian from Yeyi, almost on the frontier with Zaire, further south from Juba, and therefore a man with no reason to feel protective towards the reputation of the Khartoum government. If there were camps for training terrorists they must be well hidden away even from these remote roads. Near the Damazine dam on the Blue Nile we saw one camp, by the side of the road. It turned out that this was a camp for people who had been mobilized for works on a canal to bring water from the dam’s reservoir.
On another journey, in the Red Sea Hills, on the road to Erkowit, we passed by some barrack-like structures at a distance from the road. We were told that those were camps that had been built for Yasser Arafat’s men after the PLO had been driven out of the Lebanon in 1982. There were still some people in those camps in 1994 when we drove through that area. I could not find out who they were. We were told they were Palestinians. Whether they were from the Hizbollah or the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, whom the American ambassador had once told me the Sudanese government gave shelter to, I could not tell and had no means of finding out. These camps on the road to Erkowit were the closest I saw to a camp for ‘terrorists’. If these people were indeed from Palestinian groups hostile to Israel, I wondered why Israeli armed forces, so ready to strike at hostile armed groups near and far, had not struck at them. A surgical military action by Israel against a régime so politically isolated as that of Bashir would have carried no political cost.
An Indian in Port Sudan had told me on a previous journey that some Iranians lived in camps in the Red Sea hills. I had been sceptical from the beginning of reports that started appearing after the visit of President Rafsanjani that some Iranians were receiving training in the Sudan because first of all there could be no advantage in Iran sending its people for training in the Sudan and secondly that Suadanese capabilities, financial and otherwise, were limited. When I asked the Indian how he knew the people he had seen were Iranians he said they were fair-skinned. He could have been talking of Palestinians. Or he might have been telling me what he thought I might have wanted to hear. Some time before my visit to Port Sudan an Indian official had gone there looking for Iranian camps. In a subsequent visit to Port Sudan that Indian man kept himself as far removed from me as possible.
An oft-related tale in Kinshasa used to be about a European ambassador, afraid of snakes, who had told his gardener he would give him 100 zaires for every snake in the garden he killed. After that the gardener turned up with one dead snake every day and collected his money. It took the ambassador a few days to understand that he had been paying every day for the same one dead serpent. His gardener produced snakes because his master wanted to see them. I suspected that in the Sudan of that time people of the country or other Arabs would have talked of terrorists and camps for terrorists to those who wanted to hear about them just as in the run up to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, Ahmad Chalabi and his group of Iraqi exiles might well have been telling Donald Rumsfeld and company what they thought they wanted to hear about Iraq.
HASSAN TURABI AND HIS WIFE had come for dinner one evening. As he settled down in the sitting room he said that the terrorist Carlos, the Jackal had an hour or so ago been handed over by the Sudanese police to people from the French security services. This was surely going to be the big news story of the next day. I asked Turabi how Carlos had come into the country. He said Carlos was disguised and, travelling on a Syrian passport, he had taken advantage of the Sudan’s open door policy towards people coming on Arab passports. I asked whether faced with repeated American charges that the Sudan had become a haven for terrorists, the country would not be better off with a more restrictive visa policy. Turabi’s wife seemed to agree.
Soon after that evening, there were reports in the city about a shootout between security guards inside a house and some armed people who had approached in a car or a pick up van. The incident had taken place between guards inside the house where Osama bin Laden was living and the armed men in the car on the street. I had heard that Osama had been living in Khartoum but got to know of the exact house after this incident. It was not far from Turabi’s house. I neither got to know nor tried to find out the story behind the shooting. Some time after I left the Sudan I learnt from newspapers that Osama had left the country. I also heard after our departure that that shootout in Khartoum had been between men frpm Saudi security forces and Osama ben Laden’s guards.
Nothing happened in the two years of our stay in the country to modify my scepticism about accusations of the Sudan training and dispatching terrorists afield, far or near. Likewise I found it difficult to agree with those who campaigned on the human rights issue for their own political and diplomatic ends. I asked an Egyptian diplomat whether he did not think that the human rights record of the Saudi government was much worse than that of the Bashir government. He said it was, but for diplomatic reasons Egypt could not criticize the Saudis. I had earlier seen how very few Western governments ever spoke of human rights violations in Mobutu’s country. Besides, for India, in the hierarchy of principles, non-interference in the internal affairs of another country had to rank higher than absolute defence of human rights anywhere and everywhere.
On the question of atrocities committed in the Civil War against Southern separatists, I could not join the Western chorus not only because I represented a government which had had to deal with a number of separatist movements in India in the course of which bloodshed and violence were unfortunately inevitable but also because of the knowledge that the hands of the British, the French or the Spanish for example were not very clean when it came to their dealings with the IRA, the Corsican separatists and the ETA. A war of secession does create violence on both sides. From my angle of vision the Sudanese Government was fighting secessionist rebels in the South.
From the viewpoint which I thus developed on the Sudanese situation, it was necessary for India not to adopt the same stance and the same agenda as those of Egypt and the West. For me the tests were whether the Sudanese government had done anything harmful to our interests and whether developing friendly relations with that government would bring us political advantage. No one in Government of India was able to tell me that the Sudanese had ever harmed our interests. On the second question, I wanted to see if on the Kashmir question—the bread and butter of Indian diplomacy—we could win quiet Sudanese neutrality. I could see clearly that open espousal of our position on the Kashmir question by any government of the Sudan was simply not possible, particularly a government which professed adherence to Islamic principles and for which international Islamic solidarity was an important principle.
OTHER THAN PEOPLE IN THE MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS of the Sudanese Government with most of whom my initial meetings were empty formalities, the two most important early meetings I had were with Hassan El Turabi and Ghazi Salah ed-Din who at that time was in the office of the President as an adviser. Both men were articulate, patient listeners and explained their point of view rationally and efficaciously. There was nothing in them of the irrationality of the Jamat-i-Islami newspaper editor I had met years ago in Bangladesh. They were both said to be important leaders of the National Islamic Front—Dr. Turabi was reputed to be its topmost leader—which like all other political parties had no legal existence under General Bashir at that time.
Before I met Hassan El Turabi for the first time, trying to picture him, I thought, from what I had heard or read about him, of the following lines from Coleridge’s Kubla Khan:
“His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.”
The man I met in a modest, functional office with no trappings of power was suave, soft-spoken and devoid of demagogy. He was clearly the kind of man you would expect to meet if you were told that he had a degree from Manchester and another from the Sorbonne. His manner of speaking was that of a university don rather than a preacher. Calm and self-assured, he exuded authority in the most undemonstrative manner possible.
That meeting lasted a little more than an hour as did all the other meetings I had with him later except those occasions when I went to his house to greet him on the two Eids—the US Ambassador, like me was a regular on these occasions—when, in keeping with the Arab informality of such occasions people came in and out of the reception room, staying as long they wanted. One of the things he told me during that first meeting was that the Arabic word sudan was the plural of aswad which means black—something I should have known, had I not so completely forgotten whatever little Arabic I had learnt. The name blacks is appropriate for all the people of the country, Arab and non-Arab.
Turabi talked at length about the American and Western policy of establishing their dominance over the rest of the world. He talked about resistance to these impulses towards domination and solidarity among countries of the developing world as a means of that resistance being essential for their survival as sovereign independent entities. In his entire discourse, Pakistan, Kashmir or Islam figured nowhere. Islam came up when I asked him why he was described as a fundamentalist. He said that the word fundamentalism had been used in the early twentieth century to describe the beliefs of some Christian groups in the USA. His view of Islam had nothing in common with the nature of US Christian fundamentalism. He did view Islam as a principle of unification among the peoples of the Muslim world in their resistance to American and Western domination. I asked him about US hostility towards the Sudanese government. He said that behind it there was a deliberate misinterpretation of the position taken by the Sudan in the days preceding the 1991 Gulf War. In one of the last Arab League meetings before the commencement of military action against Iraq, the Sudan and one or two other countries had argued that the Iraqi aggression against Kuwait was a problem between two Arab states and therefore the Arab League should exhaust all attempts at finding a solution to the problem between the two before inviting outside intervention. By that time the US wanted a quick Arab League endorsement of its military action against Iraq. As I recall what Turabi told me at the end of 1992 about US attitudes in the days before the 1991 Gulf War, I am reminded of the US and the UK’s anger and impatience with France, Russia and Germany because of their resistance to the Anglo-Saxon move to get a second resolution through the UN Security Council explicitly authorizing military action against Iraq in 2003. In their expression of anger against Chirac, Schroeder and Putin, the Americans and the British did not stop to think that the three might after all have a point. American impatience with ‘opponents’ of their Iraq policy in 1990-1991 was similarly blind to the rationale for that ‘opposition’. In this first meeting Turabi also mentioned the injury to one of his ears, from which he was still recovering, in the physical assault against him at Ottawa in June that year. He said he was convinced that the assault was the handiwork of American agencies. The cold determination to hold firm against all Western pressure was clear in all that Turabi told me then or in all later meetings.
Ghazi Salah ed-Din was a medical doctor with a British medical degree and an experience of about ten years as a practitioner of his profession in the United Kingdom. I met him for the first time in his office in the Presidential Palace, not far from the spot where General Gordon had been killed. He told me in passing that practically all visitors from China, in whose eyes Gordon was a national villain, wanted to come and see that spot. Like Turabi, the Ghazi also talked about US and Western pressures and the determination to withstand them. At one stage the conversation turned to the Kashmir question, which I explained at length, saying that the problem was not of religious strife between Hindu and Muslim but one of separatism and of Pakistan encouraging that separatism. He asked me if I could send him a letter explaining the Indian position, which I did. I did not thereafter have to speak at length to anyone in the Sudanese government on Kashmir. The only other time I spoke in detail on this was to a surprisingly receptive audience of officers at the Sudanese National Defense College. After these two early conversations I could see the outlines of a political understanding between the Sudanese government and us. In an effort to move towards that understanding I started a longish correspondence with one of the secretaries in the Ministry of External Affairs.
One of my early statements that the Bashir government had a more than fifty per cent chance of actually making it in spite of the severe economic pressure it was subjected to by the international community was almost laughed out of court. I later added a refinement to this argument saying the very poverty of the mass of the population in the country gave it the strength to face sanctions. My next argument that the human rights question in the context of the Sudan was more complex than was suggested by the country’s Egyptian or Western critics drew the response that human rights were universal and their violation anywhere deserved condemnation. I answered this saying that human rights could be violated anywhere—in California (I had in mind the Rodney King affair), Europe or the Sudan. Non-governmental organizations like Amnesty International compiled reports about such violations. Media organizations highlighted and publicized chosen sections of these reports which were then picked up by politicians and governments to launch diplomatic and political campaigns.
These arguments were aimed at persuading people in Delhi to change the Indian vote on the human rights situation in the Sudan at the Human Rights Commission in Geneva and at the UN General Assembly. After some time I could see that my arguments were getting under the skin of the secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs to whom my missives on these questions were addressed. There came an angry letter which said among other things that the secretary found my optimism about future Sudanese behaviour on the Kashmir question misplaced. I was provoked into saying that while I would not be guilty of not acting according to my instructions, I would with equal rigour not be guilty of changing my opinions or assessments simply for the reason that they might be at variance with the opinions of people in Delhi. I added that I was not at all optimistic about Sudanese behaviour on the Kashmir question in future because I had no hope of persuading Delhi to do for the Sudan the one thing they would want from us, which was voting against the Anglo-American resolutions in the UN criticizing the human rights record of the country.
After that, the correspondence between the secretary and me became perfectly civil during the remaining two years of my stay in Khartoum. I heard nothing from Delhi about the way we were going to vote on the Anglo-American resolution on the Sudan at the Human Rights Commission in March 1993. The Sudanese asked me for India’s vote in favour of the Sudan which gave me the opportunity to ask that the Sudanese show understanding of our position on the Kashmir question when it was brought up in international gatherings. Pakistan had already begun to agitate the question of human rights in Jammu and Kashmir both at the Human Rights Commission and at the UN General Assembly.
Around the beginning of the meetings of the Human Rights Commission in Geneva in March that year, a first secretary in the British Embassy in Khartoum came and met the first secretary in my embassy. He left two papers. One was the text of a resolution critical of the Sudan’s human rights record that the British and the Americans were tabling in Geneva and the second was a copy of a message from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London to the British High Commission in Delhi informing them that a counsellor in the Indian High Commission in London had been summoned to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to be informed of the importance Her Britannic Majesty’s Government attached to that resolution and of their expectation of Indian support for it. Not wishing to tax my mind trying to understand the meaning of that British move in Khartoum, I had those papers filed away.
I learnt later from the Sudanese that our delegation to the Human Rights Commission had abstained on the Resolution on the Sudan, which was a change from the previous year. When in late autumn that year a similar resolution came up for vote in the UN General Assembly, India voted against it. It was not until a few days later when the delighted Sudanese told me of India’s vote that I learnt I had won my argument with Delhi more convincingly than I had hoped for. One semi-government Sudanese organization wanted to organize a kind of thanksgiving reception in honour of my wife and me— our problem was that we could not find time for the reception before going on mid-term home leave.
EVEN WHILE I WRESTLED WITH DELHI over Government of India’s attitude towards the Bashir régime, Hassan El Turabi travelled to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the summer of 1993. I had sent a routine report in the form of a letter. In response I received a cable asking me to invite Turabi to come to India either on his way to Afghanistan or on his way back. Turabi had left by then, which is what I told Delhi and added that inviting Turabi to make a swing through India while he was on a visit to Pakistan would have reduced the value of our invitation and exaggerated the importance of Pakistan. I was berated for my lack of foresight in not having informed Delhi by cable of Turabi’s tour. Then followed a long exchange with Delhi over a separate invitation to Turabi and his wife to come on a visit to India.
By the time that exchange came to a definitive conclusion with authority to me to extend an invitation to Turabi sans wife, it was already merely two days before the opening of an Islamic conference Turabi had called in early December 1993. This was preliminary to the establishment by him of the Popular Arab and Islamic Conference. Non-official Muslim delegations from many countries including Bosnia had come. There was a ten-member delegation from Pakistan, which included Mirza Aslam Beg, a retired army chief, Hamid Gul, a retired chief of the ISI and Qazi Ahmad Hussein, the chief of Jamat-i-Islami, an old personal friend of Turabi and a frequent visitor to the Sudan. I could see what they would try to do. My wife was meeting Mrs. Turabi in the afternoon before the opening of the conference. She told her that I had wanted to meet her husband to extend to him an invitation on behalf of Government of India but I knew how busy he would be and therefore had not asked for a meeting.
When the first announcement of that Islamic conference in early December was made several weeks earlier, I had a meeting with Turabi at which I had said to him in conclusion that I hoped he would keep our sensitivities in mind. I knew that I had a receptive interlocutor. India’s vote on the human rights resolution against the Sudan at the Human Rights Commission in Geneva in March-April 1993 had changed. Not hopeful of getting any official visitor from India, I requested Abid Hussain, who had been the Indian Ambassador in Washington D.C. for much of the time I was consul general in New York to visit us at Khartoum in summer 1993. The Sudanese Council for International Friendship and Cooperation paid his airfares. In his three-day stay Abid Hussain met a number of people including Hassan El Turabi. The Sudanese were very happy with the visit as well as with what he had to tell them. That visit had helped change the flavour of the relationship between the two countries. When I met Turabi in connection with the December conference he talked of the ineffectiveness of the OIC as well as his belief in Islamic and Third World solidarity as a means of dealing with Western domination. He said nothing about respecting Indian sensibilities.
As I went to the inaugural session of that conference in December, aabout one dozen Pakistanis stood at the entrance holding small hand made placards about ‘Indian atrocities in Kashmir’. One of them was a businessman resident in Khartoum who had been delighted when I had authorized an Indian visa for him across the counter and had thanked me profusely. When afterwards I asked him what he was doing at the conference hall that day with that placard, he grinned and said: ‘You know one has to do these things at times.’ Inside the conference hall I found myself sitting next to the Pakistani Ambassador. Between speeches he asked me if we had invited Turabi to India. I told him the literal truth that we had not. In his speech at the Conference, among the numerous other issues he touched upon, Turabi regretted that ‘international legitimacy had not found a solution to the problem of Kashmir’. Kashmir, India or the treatment of India’s Muslim minority were not mentioned directly or indirectly in any of the Resolutions adopted there. Someone from Delhi had cautioned me that we could expect from this conference strong anti-India positions.
I was told afterwards that when before the opening of that conference the Pakistani delegation met him, Turabi had expressed to them his unhappiness that as Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto could not find time to meet him on his summer journey to or from Afghanistan. He seemed to have told them that their government was too amenable to American influence and spoken about the independent position taken by India on the human rights question in the Sudan, saying in passing that he had been invited on a visit to India. Interestingly, Benazir Bhutto as an opposition politician had visited Khartoum in 1992 and met many in the Sudanese political leadership including Turabi. For not being roasted by that conference in December 1993, Government of India should appropriately have thanked two persons: Hassan El Turabi and Benazir Bhutto.
SOME TIME IN EARLY 1993 a Sudanese man called Hassan came and met an attaché in my embassy. He told him an intriguing tale. He said that the Iranian Embassy in Khartoum had at one time employed him. He dropped in occasionally to meet his former colleagues in that embassy. He had on the last few occasions noticed that some Sudanese and some Pakistanis had been having meetings there. They would often talk in hushed tones but Hassan had oftentimes picked up ‘ India’ and some other words from their conversations. He could make out that these meetings in the Iranian Embassy were about some anti-Indian terrorist violence in Khartoum or elsewhere that was being planned. I asked the attaché to write down whatever Hassan had told him and then had that note filed away, reserving my opinion about the story.
A few months later we had planned a visit to Damazine and Roseires in the Southeast of the country. A dam on the Blue Nile and a hydel power station there supplied the bulk of the country’s electricity. I had routinely notified the local authorities of our travel plans requesting them for help in organizing our programme, meetings and stay in government guest houses—there were no hotels in a number of places. We had planned to travel by road in my official car.
Two days before we were to leave, the attaché and the first secretary of my embassy called at home to say they wanted to see me urgently. They had another tale for me. Hassan had come and met the attaché again—he had insisted on meeting him immediately, even in off duty hours. He had told the attaché that he had picked up more pieces of conversation in the Iranian Embassy suggesting that some Ethiopians had been hired to kill me on the road journey to Damazine. The attaché and the first secretary were worried about my safety and suggested I cancelled the tour. I telephoned the First Undersecretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to say that I needed to see him immediately. My wife and I drove to his house that afternoon, post siesta time. I told him Hassan’s tale and said that to me it sounded like a hoax but I wanted him to check out. I said that we would travel if he advised us to do so. About four hours later he called back to say that there should be no difficulty with our travelling according to our plan. We motored down to Damazine, fears of the first secretary and the attaché of my embassy notwithstanding.
On the road to Damazine, my wife or I imagined every pick up van or truck laden with people that passed us to have my potential killers ready with their guns cocked. We made our visit to the region. One fixture during our stay in Damazine was watching a football game at the local stadium where at one stage my presence was announced and I was asked to stand up and be acknowledged by the crowd. On my return to Khartoum I wrote a report to Delhi about the ‘assassination plot’, saying that I was ignoring the ‘plot’ and had asked people in the embassy not to talk about it. Delhi agreed with me and sent a copy of my report to our embassy in Cairo.
Hassan resurfaced some time later. A fierce diplomatic row had broken out between the Sudanese and the Egyptians. The Sudanese authorities had come out with details of an Egyptian ‘plot’ of sabotage in Khartoum with plans to destroy with explosives some Sudanese installations. Sudanese newspapers published photographs of some people in the Egyptian embassy saying that they were the planners of these acts. The Egyptian Ambassador was also publicly criticized. Some Egyptian diplomats were expelled and some Sudanese accused of collaborating with the Egyptians arrested. In the midst of all this the First Undersecretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs telephoned to ask me about the Sudanese man who had told our attaché of the ‘assassination’ plot and asked me if I could send the attaché to his office. When the attaché went there he was asked to confirm whether a Sudanese man in the Undersecretary’s office was the same man who had told him of the ‘assassination’ plot. The man present there was Hassan whom our attaché identified. This gave the Sudanese authorities more ammunition against the Egyptians. They claimed that Hassan was one of the agents used by the Egyptians in their plans of sabotage in Khartoum.
The Sudanese press campaign against the Egyptians intensified. Some newspapers suggested that the Egyptian Ambassador in Khartoum be declared unacceptable. I went and met the ambassador and told him of the circumstances in which our attaché had identified Hassan. I also told him briefly of Hassan’s earlier contacts with our embassy. The Egyptian, resting at home with indisposition, was very touched that I had gone to meet him. He told me that the British was the only other ambassador who had taken the trouble. Other diplomats in Khartoum shunned him while the Sudanese press campaign against the Egyptian embassy was on.
The Egyptian then said to me that if he had known of the history of Hassan’s contacts with us earlier it would have been of great help to him. He then talked of the great difficulty he had in managing relations between Egypt and the Sudan and how his work was made more difficult by Egyptian security and intelligence services. Hearing his lament about the role of the Egyptian security services I remembered an encounter at a diplomatic dinner in Khartoum with an Egyptian diplomat, who made no secret of his being an intelligence operative, who had boasted that he could have his own ambassador in Khartoum thrown out if he so wanted. I also thought of a book called ‘The Game of Nations’, written pseudonymously by an American, mainly about Nasser’s Egypt, in early 1960’s, which I had read many years ago. Discussing Egyptian security services, the author had said that security services everywhere in the world attracted only the kind of people who, well, become security men.
BEFORE THE END OF 1993, Government of India had invited the First Under Secretary in the Sudanese Ministry of Affairs on a visit to Delhi to, among other things, sign an agreement setting up an Indo-Sudanese Intergovernmental Joint Committee on Economic, Technical, Scientific and Cultural Cooperation—the visit and the agreement happened in April 1994. During that year, Mustapha Osman Ismail, the Secretary General of the Organization for International Friendship and Co-operation, and the Editor of a newspaper considered close to the Sudanese political leadership went to India on other visits. Early in 1994, the Indian vote became decisive in depriving the Sudan of its voting rights at the International Monetary Fund. The Sudanese were very unhappy. Later in the year India made up for this by similarly casting its decisive vote against a move to expel the country from the IMF. By 1994, we had moved towards a more or less normal relationship with the country.
We were not alone in having such relations. The People’s Republic of China for one had perfectly normal, even friendly relations. But two Western diplomats in Khartoum asked me questions around that time, trying to understand what is it I did there. The first was the delegate of the European Commission, an Englishman, who asked me of an evening whether the Indian community in the country was large and whether they needed any help and support from Government of India. When I said no in answer to both those questions, he asked me whether the volume of our trade with the Sudan was large, I told him it was not. He did not ask me more, but a few weeks later, at a dinner at his place, I was seated next to the US ambassador who asked me the same two questions about the Indian community and trade and received the same answers. He then asked me what our interests in the Sudan were. I gave him not the obvious short answer, Pakistan, but a long one. I said that 12 ½ % of my country’s population was Muslim. They had an interest in developments in the rest of the Muslim world. Our foreign policy could not but reflect that interest. He asked me if we had embassies in all the Muslim countries. I said we did except in two or three countries in Africa such as Mali, Niger or Mauritania. The American thanked me saying I had answered his question. I encountered no other explicit or implicit questions or comments on the normalization of our relations with the Sudan.
Not every state followed the Western policy of treating the country like a pariah. In February 1993, the Pope visited Khartoum. He was received with full honours due to a sovereign on a state visit. In a large open ground in the middle of Khartoum a very tall cross, a marquee and an altar had been erected. Late in the afternoon General Bashir escorted the Pope to this place in an open limousine. In the presence of around 150,000 people, Catholics, non-Catholics, Muslims and other non-Christians, he celebrated an open air mass in Islamic Khartoum and spoke of freedom of worship and religious tolerance. The Sudanese government was happy. The Vatican would have understood very well the significance of the Papal visit for the Sudanese government. Such anxieties as the Pope might have had about the plight of Roman Catholics in the country were expressed in private conversations. The visit was successful in the manner of state visits—more important for their symbolic significance than for the substance of any understandings reached
Later in the year the British started planning a visit by the Archbishop of Canterbury. When the Archbishop came to the Sudan we were away in India. We learnt about that visit from newspapers. There were a number of disagreements between the British and the Sudanese over the Archbishop’s programme. Apparently the British would have liked the Archbishop’s visit to be an encouragement to the Anglican Christians of the country without diminishing the British government’s disapproval of the Bashir régime. There had been much wrangling about the Archbishop’s itinerary. The British conduct over that visit enraged the Sudanese government, which expressed its anger by declaring Her Britannic Majesty’s Ambassador in Khartoum unacceptable, asking him to leave, once the Archbishop had come and gone. The British were left, in their turn, to express impotent rage saying futilely that they would not accept a new Sudanese ambassador to the UK, there being none in London at that time to expel. The Sudanese government would not be distracted by any of this from its chosen course in its domestic sphere, in the North or the South. When we returned from home leave, we found in our mail an invitation card to a reception the expelled British ambassador had organized to take leave of his friends. He had already left. Another ambassador who had left a little unexpectedly before our return was the Pakistani. We missed this decent and friendly man.
IN 1988, RAJIV GANDHI TRAVELLED TO ISLAMABAD to participate in the annual summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation. On the margins of that summit, he and Benazir Bhutto, who had by then become the democratically elected Prime Minister of Pakistan, discussed India-Pakistan relations. The ambience of their Islamabad meeting was so good that it showed in the demeanour of the two prime ministers. A Pakistani friend, a maimon from Karachi who worked for an American bank and whom we had known in Kinshasa, caught up with us in Delhi not long after the Islamabad meeting of 1988, and came home for an evening. Talking about the Islamabad meeting, he remarked that it was interesting to see Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto on the television screens, ‘casting lustful glances at each other’. By ‘lustful’ he almost certainly meant ‘loving’. He might not have been entirely wrong in gathering such an impression as, describing the Islamabad meeting, one of the junior ministers in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs was said to have remarked privately to a number of people how touching it was to hear Rajiv and Benazir talk of the Simla Agreement reached between ‘my mother and your father’ or ‘my father and your mother’, depending on who was talking. Many people in the Indian foreign policy establishment were full of the friendly attitude of the two Prime Ministers towards each other. A few years later, in mid 1996, talking to one of our retired foreign secretaries about the old illusion in diplomacy that deep seated differences between nations can be dissolved by the personal charm of heads of government—or, to use a more modish expression, the ‘personal chemistry’ between them—or of their representatives, I said that people in the Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi were going bananas in 1988 about that Rajiv-Benazir meeting. My interlocutor said that he was also one of them. He said that he believed that the good ‘rapport’ between the two leaders would help bilateral dialogue forward.
Proof of how hollow such illusions can be, was given by Benazir Bhutto herself, who after her return to power in 1993 introduced a degree of bitterness and stridency into Indo-Pakistan public discourse rarely seen after 1972. Her Indian apologists attributed it to the weakness of her domestic political position—a proposition of doubtful relevance at the best of times. It is now known that the Pakistani policy of bolstering and helping the Taliban in Afghanistan—a policy India considered inimical to its interests even before the commencement of the American ‘war on terror’ because of its overflow into Jammu and Kashmir—was started and sustained by the second Benazir government. That government threw itself into a campaign against India on ‘human rights violations’ in Jammu and Kashmir by the Indian security forces and a campaign for reintroducing the Kashmir question as a subject of debate in the United Nations General Assembly. Both these campaigns came to a crescendo in 1994. The Indian diplomatic machinery was fully mobilized for thwarting them. Defeating the Pakistani move to have India censured by the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva in March 1994 became such an important national cause that an Indian minister who had been fully engaged in ‘that battle’ thought the ‘victory’ at Geneva important enough to merit an entire book.
The Pakistani tactic was to get an endorsement of its position on Jammu and Kashmir from the 54 member Organization of Islamic Conference, the OIC for short, and on the strength of that support from 54 countries try to get resolutions to its liking passed in UN bodies. For Pakistan the problem was that countries behaved differently in the OIC and in the United Nations. For promoting support for the OIC position on Jammu and Kashmir, the OIC had established a contact group before the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly in 1994. The Sudan, which had been named a member of that group by the OIC, left it some time before the commencement of the General Assembly session. Ever since 1993 the Sudanese had told me that without taking public positions they had privately been opposing Pakistani moves. No one in Government of India told me that this was not so.
Thwarting the Pakistani move to have the situation in Jammu and Kashmir discussed in the General Assembly became as important a diplomatic objective for India as defeating the motion in the Human Rights Commission had been earlier that year. In the diplomatic mobilization in August and September, during the weeks preceding the General Assembly meeting, a number of special envoys were sent to different capitals to explain the Indian position. I was asked to travel to Sao Tome and Principe for that purpose. Airlines connections in Africa being what they were, I embarked on a week long journey that took me to Cairo, Barcelona, Lisbon, Sao Tome, Luanda, Harare, Addis Ababa and back to Khartoum, for a meeting of an hour and a half at the most with the Foreign Minister of Sao Tome and Principe, a country with a population of around 135,000 at that time and a declining economy dependent on cocoa, fishing and foreign aid. As I sat talking to the Foreign Minister explaining to him the details of the Simla Agreement and the advantages of India and Pakistan resolving their differences through bilateral discussions, in one part of my mind I thought over the irony of a representative of about 900 million people of India effectively asking the representative of a country, whose population and economic output were no more than a fraction of those of a middle-sized Indian city, to sit in judgment over a dispute India had with another country with a population of around 140 million, a large and considerable country by world standards. I also pondered over the magnitude of the failure of diplomacy, statesmanship and statecraft on the part of two nations that take pride in being the inheritors of some of the richest traditions in the history of mankind, which had led to the situation I found myself in at that moment.
I was later asked to make two visits each to Guinea Bissau and Mauritania and one to Eritrea which had just been established as an independent state and whose government was struggling with the very considerable internal and external problems of an incipient state. During my first visits to Guinea Bissau and Mauritania, I was very well received. In the former I was able to meet the President in addition to the Foreign Minister, both of whom heard me with great attention. In the latter the Foreign Minister heard me attentively, volunteered the information that a Pakistani envoy had just visited them but Mauritania had not yet decided what position it would take at the General Assembly and organized a trip for me to the Southern Mauritanian town of Rosso where the governor gave a lunch in my honour and took me to some agricultural schemes nearby. In both the capitals they talked of their desire for closer relations with India. I later learnt that a previous special envoy of India had promised formal invitations to the presidents of the two countries to visit India and it was probably the expectation in the two capitals that I would bring such invitations. I had neither those gifts nor any other in my baggage; only requests for support. When I returned a few weeks later to the two capitals, I was still treated with courtesy and heard with attention, but I could also sense the stifled yawns of the people I was talking to. In Asmara in Eritrea, meeting me was quite clearly a chore my interlocutor had to go through, to quickly be done with and over—it could be because of the subject I was talking about, or because I was Indian or because I had come from the Sudan with which Eritrea’s relations had begun to deteriorate. He told me nothing about what his government would do. His only response was that he would submit a report to higher authorities.
At the United Nations General Assembly, Pakistan abandoned its quest for a resolution against India for want of sufficient support. This was another ‘victory’ for India. Like other members of the Indian diplomatic service, I also basked in the reflected glory of that victory. Yet, I was left with a feeling of sadness—a feeling that has stayed—at the infructuousness of all that jousting between Pakistan and India and a feeling of irritation that in the pursuit of such ‘victories’ taken so seriously by Pakistani and Indian politicians and diplomats, we forgot that our great diplomatic struggles might look like burlesque to the rest of the world.
In parallel with these diplomatic campaigns, India launched a counter-offensive too, which was to ask for Pakistan being declared a state sponsor of terrorism, presumably by the USA, as no International organization followed the practice of branding countries thus. Like other ambassadors of India I also received instructions to speak to the government of my accreditation asking for their support for such action. It would be absurd for me to speak to the Sudanese on those lines and I said so to Delhi. Not only did the Sudan resent being placed on the US list of states sponsoring terrorism and questioned the legitimacy of that action but also pointed out that five of the seven countries on the US list were Muslim. It was inconceivable that such a country would even hear of a suggestion that another Muslim country, Pakistan, be placed on that list.
I gave two other reasons to Delhi why I thought we should not campaign for the USA declaring Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism. One was that in asking for such action against Pakistan, not by the United Nations but by one of the great powers we were conceding a kind of legitimacy to unilateral action by that power and thus undercutting the moral basis of our own general position that the international system should be based on the rule of law and not on the power of a few nations. My second reason was that the objective of getting Pakistan included in the US list of countries sponsoring terrorism was unattainable. I argued that through all the ups and downs, the substratum of the strategic partnership between Pakistan and the USA had remained intact. Pakistan was a useful ally in the US policy of containing the Soviet Union, as it was when the USA embarked on its policy of bleeding the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. A competition for influence between Russia and the USA in the Russian ‘near abroad’ was bound to develop if it had not done so already and in that competition in Central Asia, Pakistan because of its geographical and religious contiguity—I actually used that clumsy expression then—with that region would have a useful role to perform in aid of US policy. My letter to Delhi drew the response that in the pressure of the moment it did not occur to people that making that démarche in Khartoum would not be appropriate. On the other points made by me there was no echo. Two thirds of a decade later, Indian government spokesmen continue to ask for Pakistan being placed on that list whenever they feel frustrated with Pakistani behaviour in Jammu and Kashmir or elsewhere in India.
DURING A VISIT TO EL FASHER in the Western province of Dar Fur, we were taken to a villa, described as a palace, which had been the house of a local Fur chieftain called Sultan Ali Dinar. At the commencement of hostilities in the First World War, he had not only declared he was on the side of the Ottoman Sultan but had also been in communication with him. The British, having decided to deal with him sent an expeditionary force to El Fasher in 1915. The Fur chief assembled a force of five thousand men, armed with muskets, lances and swords. Although they were obviously outgunned by the British, they took a stand at Sela, a few kilometres Northeast of El Fasher and fought till all of them perished. A small obelisk marks the place of that battle. The Sudanese official who conducted us to the spot told us the story of that battle with pride. I have not known if stories of this kind, in addition to the history of the storming of Khartoum by el Mahdi’s men in 1885, have given rise to the British legend of ‘the fighting’ Sudanese.
In Tokar on the Red Sea I met a Sudanese government official who asked me if I could find for him the full text of Kipling’s poem about the Fuzzy Wuzzy. On my return to Khartoum I found the text and sent it to him but while still in Tokar I asked the man why he was interested in the poem. Fuzzy Wuzzy, he told me, was a name given to the Hadandwa, an Arab people who inhabited the Northeastern regions of the Sudan. They wore their frizzy hair long, giving the impression that they wore some large, fluffy headgear. This government official said that Kipling’s poem celebrated the warrior like quality of the Fuzzy Wuzzy who ‘broke the English square’. Kipling had never visited the Sudan but had obviously heard of these Sudanese tribesmen, he said. For the nationalist self-esteem of the Sudanese official, the Kipling poem seemed important.
At times I suspected that the latter day British and American talk about the Sudan, ‘a haven for fundamentalist terrorists’, a danger to peace and stability, might in part be rooted in the ‘the fighting Sudanese’ legend. The Sudan, a backward, underdeveloped country mired in a civil war since independence in 1956, had been weakened and made poorer by the various economic sanctions that had been put in place since 1989. I could find no clear answer to the question how such a weak country could pose a danger to the much more powerful countries in the Arab world and in the West intent on keeping the country in isolation. I asked a number of political leaders from the group in power in Khartoum at that time. All of them said that after the Islamic Revolution in Shi’ite Iran, the Sudanese Islamic Revolution was the first of its kind among Sunni Arabs. The West and its friends in the Islamic world feared the cascading effect of the Sudanese revolution among Sunni Muslim countries, which were the larger part of the Islamic world. That was why they wanted to destroy the Revolutionary régime of Khartoum. The Sudanese political leadership, exaggerating the influence of their country in the Islamic world, seemed to believe in this explanation.
There were other Sudanese myths. A friend of ours in Khartoum, whose family came from Wadi Halfa, just South of Lake Nasser, on the Sudanese side of the border with Egypt never missed an opportunity to tell us with a trace of pride that she was Nubian, implying that she was different and superior to other Sudanese. I did not pay much attention to this feeling of Nubian distinctiveness until I heard from Hassan Turabi that during one of his terms in jail as a political prisoner in solitary confinement he had taught himself the Nubian language, which is apparently spoken even now in North Sudan. On a trip up the Nile valley, which took us as far as an Egyptian Sun Temple at Suleb, a little North of the Third Cataract on the Nile, we visited a number of other archaeological sites on our upward journey and return. Near Dongola there was a massive and high adobe structure from the fourth millennium B.C. at Kerma, which must originally have been two-storied. For the Sudanese who conducted us, this was ‘proof’ that the Nile valley civilization had originated in Nubia—facing Dongola on the East bank of the Nile began what is called the Nubian Desert. Further up the Nile, close to the town of Atbara there were thirteen of what are called Bajrawiya pyramids: small, slender structures built around the beginning of the Christian era. Not far away was an archaeological site marking the seat of authority of some Nubian rulers. Outside the ruins of a ‘palace’ was the marble head of a Roman figure. We were told it was the head of Augustus Caesar. Our guide told us with a mixture of pride and amusement that a Nubian queen who had led a successful military expedition deep into Lower Egypt had brought that head as a trophy. She had made it a habit to step on the head of Augustus whenever she went into her palace or came out of it. This story was good for the national pride of the Sudanese who otherwise were indifferent to their country’s pre-Islamic past. As in much of Asia and Africa, Western men and women had first discovered these archaeological remains and their accompanying history. Local pride and interest in these, such as they existed were latterly acquired attitudes.
Ground reality in the country had very little to do with legend, history or archaeology. In El Fasher, we were taken to a water reservoir originally built by the British. It could store enough water to irrigate a large area in the region. The officials there told us of a plan to rehabilitate the reservoir and its pumps. They had their financial estimates for works involving the removal of silt about two metres deep and the installation of new pumps. Because of the lack of resources, the reservoir could not be rehabilitated and the large number of small farms in that area, growing fruits and vegetables barely survived. We were also taken to a water pumping station in the middle of desert country. None of the two pumps was working. Some mechanics and engineers were trying to repair them. Spare parts were not available. The engineers thought they would temporarily cannibalize one of the pumps. They had been at it for the past one day, and, while they worked, a large number of people waited outside patiently with water containers of various shapes and sizes. An even larger number of thirsty animals—cattle, camels and donkeys—waited in surrounding areas, some of them half dead. There were some carcasses too. A little further on as we moved away, there were other signs of harsh living conditions. People, mainly women, walked on footpaths in the arid land under the hot merciless sun, carrying small burdens of dry twigs and bushes, fuel to cook their evening meals with.
Dar Fur had for long been a land where two major ethnic groups had competed for land use. There were the more advanced Fur, a settled agricultural community, and there were the nomadic Arab who moved with their animals from one place to another in search of pasture. The government in consultation with local tribal chiefs had determined the boundaries of farmland and pasture and put in place a system under which the Fur cultivators and the nomadic Arabs would each keep to their own separate and designated areas. When resources became scarce there were clashes between the two communities, requiring intervention and mediation by the government. One year, President General Bashir had to mediate personally. There were good reasons for the Arab dominated government in Khartoum to humour the Furs.
Passing one village in Dar Fur, the local government official accompanying us said that that was the village of an important Fur chief who had been in all the early elected Sudanese parliaments. He asked me if we would like to meet him, making it clear by manner and tone of voice that he would be happy if we did. We stopped at the chief’s house, which was a number of separate huts. My wife was taken to one of the women’s huts where she had breakfast with the women amidst broken conversation made possible by one of the girls in the family with limited English, doing her best to translate. I was taken to a largish ‘men’s’ hut where we had breakfast, sitting on low stools or on the mud floor. The chief talked of life in his area, saying generally that in most years the crops were good as the area skirted the southern slope of Jebel Marra. As we made to leave three quarters of an hour later, the chief disappeared in the jumble of the other huts of his house and came back with a large snakeskin. Giving me the snakeskin to keep as a souvenir he apologized that he was left with no leopard skin which in fact was what he wanted to gift to me. Concerns with ecology were as far removed from this setting as economic sanctions or the world of great powers and their politics. The only disturbances known in that setting were those caused by clashes between settled agriculturalists and nomadic tribes. They were all Muslim and all black.
PETROLEUM WAS THE GREAT HOPE out of penury for the much sat upon Bashir government. In the decade of the seventies, soon after the 1972 agreement ending the Sudanese Civil War, a number of oil companies with Chevron in the vanguard had explored the Southern one third of the country for petrol and found it. Then the oil companies left. Some Sudanese in Khartoum said that Chevron had in fact drilled some wells, pumped out some oil and then capped them, keeping their whereabouts secret. Some conspiracy theorists said that the oil companies left the Sudan under Saudi pressure. Others said that the companies left because at that time it did not suit them to bring the Sudanese oil to the market. A Pakistani friend working for a United Nations agency in Khartoum told me that the Sudanese reserves formed a continuous subterranean lake with the major Saudi oilfields and subterranean rock formations were such that if the Sudan started pumping oil out, all the Saudi reserves would flow towards the Sudan. He said that for that reason Saudi Arabia had been opposing the exploitation of Sudanese reserves.
Behind these tales of fantasy was the reality of at least modest reserves of oil. The government was determined to start exploiting them. By the end of 1994 the government had announced the putting on stream of a small oil well near El Muglad in Kordofan, pumping 5000 barrels per day. Since then the country has become a much more substantial producer of oil. Its economy has become more viable. Bashir in cooperation with a number of former colleagues of Hassan El Turabi continues to be in power in the fourth quarter of 2003. Hassan Turabi is incarcerated, not for the first time in his long political career. In 1993, a West European ambassador in Khartoum had told me confidently that by the end of that year General Bashir would have stripped Turabi of all his power, influence and authority. That prediction seems to have come out true with a delay of ten years.
KHARTOUM WAS ALSO FOR ME a place where I discovered how out of tune my own views on many matters of national importance in India were with the views of those with an audience in English speaking groups in India. Abid Hussain, who had become a Vice-Chairman of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, had taken to sending me copies of occasional papers brought out by the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies. Many of these papers dealt with large issues of national concern ranging from the need to adjust India’s policies to the new situation created by the end of the Cold War to the necessity of administrative reforms. I wrote my comments on some of them in the hope that they would provoke responses. None of them did. Looking back at what I wrote on one paper in which the writer had said that in the new situation created by the end of the cold war India needed to adjust its policies without saying how, I find that I discussed the many things India needed to do if it wanted to make up for its economic and social backwardness. I said that the task was so immense that we would need to rid ourselves of the numerous ‘distractions’—among these I listed the question of Jammu and Kashmir, a grave sin against orthodoxy. I emphasized the need for not only building our economic strength but also for inculcating the respect for rule of law and a sense of discipline in our society. A strain of pessimism ran through what I wrote. I concluded, saying:
‘Finally, the list of priority questions that we have to deal with is so long and the problems are of such magnitude that the future looks almost gloomy…it is unlikely that without strong and purposeful leadership we can deal with these problems. By leadership I do not mean individuals at the apex of our governmental and political structure alone, though they play a very important role in setting the tone of public life, but the entire political class, the civil service, the intelligentsia and the class of managers of business and industry. History knows of no major state built without a cohesive, clear headed and purposeful leading class working for a clearly envisaged project for the nation and willing to rise above the pettiness of ordinary life.’
In another comment on a similar paper I argued that India’s economic reforms, which till then had consisted of changes in the country’s laws and rules would founder unless changes were introduced in the management style of the bureaucracy. There was an exchange with someone else on whose newspaper article I had sent a comment. I concluded that exchange by writing that it was important to develop a consensus about what was wrong with our society and what needed to be done, because, if discussions of issues in newspapers or in various groups and seminars in Delhi or elsewhere in India did not help in the development of such a consensus, they would have no greater social relevance than other intellectual pursuits such as a game of chess or an evening of poetry reading. Such opinions were, I began to suspect, too ‘negative’ for the taste of India’s self-contented élite.
There also came a sign that in official Delhi, it might already in early 1993 be profitable to flaunt respect for ‘Hindu’ values and a corresponding denigration of Islam and Muslims. A senior official in the Ministry of External Affairs at that time had taken to having transcripts of interviews he gave to media people from different places the world over sent out to Indian diplomatic missions abroad. The transcript of one interview given to a French newsman in May 1993 had the following:
‘…We have also to take into account that Islam is an intolerant religion characterized by aggressive proselytizing. It is highly dogmatic and theocratic, which has many stipulations, which deny human rights. Hinduism on the other hand is a tolerant religion, which recognizes the validity of other religions. Hinduism is also the only religion of the world which does not have the concept of the infidel or kafir.’
Commenting on this passage, I wrote not to the person who had given the interview but to the official who had circulated the transcript. I said that apart from thinking that it was not right to characterize Islam as a religion of intolerance—history would disprove such a view—I also thought we could not claim among ourselves and to the rest of the world that our Muslim minority was an equal, fully accepted section of our community and also express views characterizing their religion as theocratic, opposed to respect for human rights, aggressive, intolerant and proselytizing. I asked if the transcript accurately recorded what was said. I received an answer from the person who had been interviewed saying that the transcript was accurate, except that one nuance had been missed which was that he had intended to say that those were the views about Islam held by many in India. I did not swallow that explanation.
Savvy bureaucrats are good weathercocks. This high official had probably correctly read the mind of the Indian political leadership of the time. He was reflecting their opinion, I thought. As someone who over the years had grown incapable of feeling any hostility towards collectives— caste, religious or national—I found such views about Muslims impossible to understand, much less to sympathize with and even less to express.
BY THE BEGINNING of 1995, I had been seized with the desire to move on. We felt we had lived a full and busy life in the Sudan, gotten to know the country and its people and thought we had developed an understanding of them. We had managed to make ourselves popular with people in the Sudanese government and those close to it and, to our amusement, equally unpopular among Western diplomats. Staying longer would mean easy routine, much less strenuous than swimming against currents during two years had been. I was afraid of the ennui that might overtake me if I had to stay longer in the country. This fear more than anything else was the reason why, when the time came to leave, I felt equanimous about going to another unpopular capital, Kyiv, where there had been no Indian ambassador for six months. We even looked forward with anticipation and excitement to living in a different world, the world of the former Soviet Union.