Deserts of Vast Eternity
And yonder all around us lie,
Deserts of vast eternity
Andrew Marvell, To His Coy Mistress,
IN THE YEAR 2003, a cousin of mine who had a few months earlier retired after years in the internal administration of my native state of Bihar, trying to interest me in some scheme of his delivered a homily on the need to do something worthwhile for society. His question about what through all my travels and all my activities as a diplomat I had done or created which was of lasting value was devastating. I looked at what I had seen and experienced, what I have written in this book and what I have not written about and thought of much that I had been involved in, and many ‘achievements’ I had been happy with, even proud of, when they happened. One after another each looked puny in perspective. I gave no answer to that question. Instead, I sought escape from melancholy in reflections about the impact, the importance, the durability and the reach of what people do and make.
The desert sands of time are littered with the ruins of human activity. The most visible literally are edifices people erected, and the statues they made, thinking they were building for eternity. No building constructed, no statue made more than a thousand years ago, in whichever material, survives intact, unspoilt by air, water, trees or the hand of man. Painting is even more ephemeral and music and dance that people create are in all events for the fleeting moment. Poetry and letters do better than visual or plastic arts.
It is not the end of arts and letters to mould human character or change human life. Their purpose is to entertain, enrich and refine human sensibility. For this reason they are firmly rooted among the people in the midst of whom they spring. Kalidasa, Dante and Shakespeare are first of all and essentially fifth century Indian, fourteenth century Italian and sixteenth century English. Besides, creative art, including literature, is local. What is pleasing to an Indian eye may appear grotesque to a North American like Mark Twain. What is music to a Chinese ear may be raucous noise to an Austrian. To the extent that there may evolve a world culture in future there may also be created a world painting, dance, music and literature. As our present world is still fragmented and divided among nations, races and tribes, so are the arts and letters. To that extent, the impact of most creative art is limited in time and space and diminishes with distance in both.
Religion is not any more universal, in spite of claims about possession of universal and eternal truth. Numerous religious systems have arisen, prospered and then vanished. In our times it is religious systems and communities established by three teachers that have proven to be the most enduring and the most widespread: the Buddha, Jesus Christ and Mohammad. The oldest of these three is no more than two and a half millennia old, young compared to the temple at Karnak. In the case of the first two, the literal and complete rendering of what they taught, practiced and said is probably lost for ever, for in the case of the Buddha, his teachings were not compiled until a century or two after his death and in the case of Jesus Christ, the Gospels were not composed until eighty to one hundred years after his crucifixion. In the case of none of the three has there been agreement among his disciples and apostles about the meaning of his teaching and each of the three religious communities has, at different stages of its history, been bound up with the exercise of political power, with the inevitable worldliness and transience of influence political power entails. Each has evolved in ways that makes it very different from what it was in its original form, just as in the case of each—and others too—efforts to return to an imagined or officially defined ‘original’ create problems. In the teaching and practice of each, dominant but in the end temporary orthodoxies have ruled in different eras so that in each some teachers and independent interpreters of doctrine have been rejected or punished as apostates, false prophets or heretics. The reach of none of the three is all of mankind. The vision of reality and the version of morality preached by them have been contested not only by those outside their communities but also by people within. As with these three major religions so also with others. Besides, nine and a half out of ten faithful are that not out of conviction and choice based on analytical thought and reasoning but because they have been born into the faith, a fact which makes monkeys out of bigots.
Religions have bred piety and good moral conduct among individuals. They have inspired acts of courage, charity, altruism and much else that is noble, in people acting alone or in small closely-knit groups tied together by bonds of kinship or faith. Like Reinhold Niebuhr in his Moral Man and Immoral Society, I believe that collective man never ceased being slave to the nature that he has inherited from his evolutionary forbears. The selfishness, aggression, the will to power and inclination to violence in the behaviour of human groups have not diminished over the millennia. Religion and education have not changed this and are not likely to do so in future. Religion has been a weak agent of social change and failed to make a lasting impact because of its bias against change and progress. On the contrary, it is religious teachers who are forced to adapt their teaching to social changes brought about by other, independent forces.
Ideas, it is said, move people. Historically, merchants of religious or political utopias have been able to mobilze people for military conquest, political domination or for creating new social and political organizations. Sooner or later utopias fail in the real world. The Puritan Revolution in Seventeenth Century England, the French Revolution, and the Marxist and Nationalist Revolutions of Twentieth Century Europe each caused violence and bloodshed and each ended with dictatorship, stasis and collapse. It is unlikely that modern merchants of political or religious utopias will have better luck in future. Such movements leave behind nothing more than ripples in the sand, to be effaced by newer and later winds of change.
The agent of the profoundest, the most enduring, the most widespread and truly irreversible changes in people’s physical environment, their lives, their social organisation and their moral values has throughout man’s history been technology. Tool making, extraction of metal from ore, plough agriculture, spinning and weaving, use of explosives, the steam engine, the internal combustion engine, electricity generation, the telegraph, the telephone, sound recording, photography, vaccination, the radio, antibiotics, atomic fission, the manipulation of the electron, the television, the birth control pill, the computer, satellite communication and the internet for example have each brought about profound mutations in human society making it unrecognizable to previous generations. A technological revolution releases forces too strong for Luddites and guardians of morality to stanch. In time a major new technology comes to affect all the people everywhere.
Science, with its dedication to the discovery of truth in the physical world, has in the realm of thought been an even greater agent of change than technology. Harvey, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Pasteur and Max Planck have changed the way thinking people view the external world and man’s place in it more deeply, lastingly and widely than generations of religious and spiritual teachers, philosophers, or metaphysicists. Science, by extending the areas the human mind can explore, raises the human spirit to ever-higher levels. By making possible the development of sophisticated modern technology, science changes life, morality and society in ways no religion or social and political theory has ever been able to.
Science and technology have been as much part as instruments of the advance of civilization. Modern science flowered in the age of Renaissance and Reformation in Europe, spurring technological and social revolutions of great proportions. Europe raced ahead in its march towards better and richer life for its people. In mid twentieth century the United States of America picked up the baton. On the other hand societies in which science and technology did not thus burst forth remain caught in the mire of material and intellectual backwardness, taking refuge in their ‘glorious’ past and in ‘advances’ made by their ancestors in ancient science, medicine, religion, spiritualism and, above all, in astrology, palmistry, magic and witchcraft.
POLITICS IS APART from the world of the arts, letters, religion, philosophy, technology and science. At one level it is about acquisition and retention of power to control the destinies of people. At another it is about conducting the affairs of human groups we call states, a necessity from which there is no escape except in anarchic utopias sprung out of the minds of dreamers. Political leaders, when not engaged in self-aggrandizement, self-perpetuation or self-indulgence with the fruits of political power—the political head of a modern affluent state enjoys a lifestyle that would be the envy of Louis XIV—or, as in much of the developing world, self-enrichment at the expense of the people whose destinies they control, must needs concern themselves with the management of the here and the now. Their greatness in the end is measured by the good they do for the people on whose behalf they exercise political power. Their grandest, the most benign and the noblest achievements belong to the context in which they function. The greatest success of the most capable statesman passes into history or, as often, into oblivion, with the passing of the times in which he lived and worked as societies change through the operation of forces no politician can hope to control. It is a sad irony that poltical leaders who brought ignominy and ruin to their peoples are remembered as often as those who brought prosperity and happiness.
ACHIEVEMENTS OF DIPLOMACY, which is a handmaiden of politics, cannot be less ephemeral than those of politics. In much of diplomacy, the accent is on crisis management, working out immediate, short-term arrangements—a truce, an armistice or an agreement to talk. Very often short-term solutions become alibis for not dealing with the causes that created the crisis to begin with. One of the best examples of what I am saying is the Palestinian problem. Many very capable people have negotiated, arranged and managed the diverse Arab-Israeli truces—by whatever name they be known—since 1948. Yet the problem of what to do about a people whose lives have been disrupted because another people, persecuted and maltreated by generations of Europeans, had to be given a homeland, remains unsolved. Beyond the armistices, the attempts to find a lasting solution to the problem have all collapsed. The ‘Oslo Agreements’ signed on that bright September afternoon on the lawns of the White House, producing such a rich crop of Nobel Peace Prizes, are dead. Their successor, the Road Map is on its deathbed. The violence in the region continues and the anger and the hatred felt by Israelis and Palestinian Arabs towards each other increases by the day. I do not know if we should salute the truces arranged between the two since 1948 as successes of diplomacy or look upon the situation in the former mandated territory of Palestine as one grand failure of diplomacy and politics.
Many other diplomatic successes have had surprisingly short lives. The famous Briand-Kellogg Pact of 1928 looked ridiculously idealistic to students of politics and diplomacy within less than half a generation of its signature. The Munich Agreement supposed to harbinger ‘peace in our times’ was dead within months of its signature. The Geneva Accords on Indo-China did not do much better. The Lancaster House Agreements of 1980, which brought about the independence of Zimbabwe are now all but buried among recriminations between Robert Mugabe and the United Kingdom. Now that the Cold War has ended, not many people would like to hold up the agreements of Yalta and Potsdam as instances of great diplomacy. Stories of negotiations for the removal of nuclear weapons from the territories of Ukraine or Kazakhstan are already buried in diplomatic archives. The McBride report and the New International Information Order, the Brandt Report on North South Cooperation, the work of Julius Nyerere’s South Commission and other such grand designs for the future of mankind have all gone into the dark within the last quarter century. Seen thus, many diplomatic successes are little more than nine-day wonders.
EARLY IN MY CAREER I saw that I was engaged in a trade and working in an establishment in which the possibility of creating anything of even moderately lasting value was non-existent. I have ever after taken a modest view of my position in life: that of a component in a governmental apparatus, performing given tasks for the moment. For my own survival I had to try and be as efficient as possible. My position was no different from those of numerous others who made up the apparatus. My happiness and pride would lie in the good performance of the machine.
That happiness and pride have eluded me. I have spent most of my adult life hearing and talking about the great potentials of my country. I have read, heard and talked about the role India is destined to play in the comity of nations. I have in part earned my living as an Indian diplomat by expatiating upon the greatness of my country, suppressing all doubt. From around 1970, I have known at least five phases of officially inspired euphoria in India and as many occasions when the euphoric bubble has burst. If it were not for the tragedies of the social and economic failures, I would have thought of the euphoric bubbles and their bursting as so much flatulence and, the peasant that I am, I would have laughed.
Official India boasts, as I write this, of India’s successes: the nuclear weapons, the much-more-than-above-average rate of economic growth, the swelling foreign exchange reserves, the seating of the Prime Minister of India next to the US President at the dinner table at the tricentennial celebrations of St.Petersburg, the invitation to India with nineteen other developing countries to be a marginal participant at a summit of the eight most advanced countries of the world, and the growing ‘strategic’ partnership with the US. I must beg forgiveness for being a spoilsport when Government of India has been celebrating ‘shining’ India. This festive mood would not have been there if in the interregnum between two elections, the rulers of modern India had looked at the peasants and the workers whom William Howard Russell barely noticed in his journey from Kolkata to Lucknow in 1858. In the midst of the adulation and the garlands of flower India’s rulers receive from their bands of supporters they do not even notice the landscape.
I have been part of a governmental apparatus which has over half a century failed to ensure safe drinking water, adequate food, essential health services, proper and accessible primary and secondary education and employment opportunities to very substantial sections of its population—I do not cite statistics for fear of getting caught in futile discussions about whether 33%, 25% or 20% of the country’s population lives below the officially defined ‘poverty line’, for example. From year to year India has lost in the human development index and gained in the corruption index. Sectarian violence continues to erupt from time to time. Scientific and technological research languish. Different governments have failed to deal with the problems of illiteracy, widespread diseases, the dysfunctionality of public services and of the infrastructures of transport, power and water management, the degradation of the environment and the decline of the moral and social order, all caused in great part by overpopulation, widespread poverty, illiteracy and evil social practices. Yet, despite all, the party goes on in the Durbar of Delhi, as it has done in the past.
Noises from that party have sometimes tempted me. I have thus far not asked for an invitation, knowing that nothing comes unasked for. In the Durbar city of Delhi where seeking and dispensing favours is a way of life, and a person’s worth is measured by his proximity and access to those with political power or by the badge he carries, official, one tenth official or any other kind, I am occasionally asked the question what I do these days.’Nothing’, I invariably answer provoking a reaction laced with pity and contempt. But, like a monk in the Carthusian or the Hinayana Buddhist order I pray, meditate and pursue my personal salvation, as it were.