WHEN I TOLD one of the ambassadors in Vientiane that I was moving back to work at the Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi, he said: ‘ So, you are going back to the factory’. I started work at the factory in November 1972.
Before I go further, a brief guide through the Indian madarinate, the names and functions of its denizens and to the structure of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs may be useful, especially for those for whom this is unfamiliar territory. For a very long time people manning Government of India departments (after 15 th August 1947, ministries) have fallen into two broad categories: ‘officers’ and ‘staff’. Staff comprises the lowly and ubiquitous ‘peon’ who combines the functions of an usher, a courier and a general attendant at office and at home, an assistant whose task has traditionally been that of an archivist and to prepare on file a summary of a case requiring a decision, annotate it with reference to its history, precedents and rules and a section officer whose task is to supervise the work of several assistants. Through the years the assistant’s function has been stratified into that of an assistant, an upper division clerk and a lower division clerk, distinctions between the assigned roles of these people being so fine as to escape the comprehension of a man of ordinary common sense. Towards the end of British rule in India some of the senior section officers started being called assistant secretaries who differed from other section officers in that they had the authority to sign some routine communications going out of a department. There is a trend now for section officers to be called administrative officers in which capacity they sign a number of routine documents issuing from offices.
Officers in a Government of India department were initially only members of the Indian Civil Service or, in the case of the Foreign and Political Department they would be members of the Indian Political Service. Later, some other ‘services’ were also created and occasionally members of these services worked as officers in departments. After the Independence of India officers in Government of India ministries have mostly been members of the Indian Administrative Service or, relatively rarely, members of some other similar ‘services’. In the Ministry of External Affairs officers have been members of the Indian Foreign Service. With the passage of time it has become possible for an increasing percentage of members of the staff to be promoted to become officers.
Until around 1945, there were in Government of India departments three levels of officers: counting upwards, under secretary, deputy secretary and secretary. Thereafter another level, joint secretary was added between secretary and deputy secretary. After some time a distinction started being made between some very senior joint secretaries and others by calling the former additional secretaries, thus creating another level. Then, the Ministry of External Affairs added another level. Second or first secretaries in embassies came back to the Ministry of External Affairs as under secretaries, senior first secretaries as deputy secretaries and minister-counsellors, minister plenipotentiaries and some ambassadors as joint secretaries. Counsellors in embassies coming back to the Ministry were called directors. In time other Government of India ministries also created the level of director. Some of these levels serve no purpose other than ever so finely describing the seniority of a man. Another species that makes an appearance from time to time is an ‘Officer on Special Duty’ (better known by the acronymic OSD) whose true level can be any ranging from under secretary to secretary. Appointment of OSD’s is a device invented by bureaucrats to circumvent another device, also invented by them, which restricts the actual number of people employed at any level to the number of notional ‘posts’ authorized at that level, a useful instrument of budgetary control. Since ‘creation’ of posts is a complicated exercise, temporary berths are created for people who are called OSD’s ‘for the time being’.
Then there is a very important class of people called ‘Personal Assistants’ (or PA’s) whose duties encompass those of short hand typists, keepers of engagement diaries, telephone attendants, management of the personal papers (which can occasionally be stretched to include ‘personal affairs’) of officers they work with, purveyors of office gossip to those who are interested and general purpose advisers for those who wish to accept their advice. Personal Assistants have over the years been stratified into, counting from the bottom: PAs Grade II, PAs Grade I, Senior PAs, Private Secretaries and Principal Private Secretaries so much so that from the actual designation of a Personal Assistant you are not only able to judge his seniority but also the seniority of the officer he is working with. Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi uses the same designations and the same degree of stratification for its personnel as other ministries of Government of India.
This apparatus of a ministry is presided over by an elected official, a minister. Ministers are members of the cabinet which is the highest political and executive authority. The minister can have in his ministry one or more junior ministers, also elected officials but not members of the cabinet, who are called ministers of state or deputy ministers. The concerns, the worries, the ambitions and often even the world view of the elected officials, that is, the politicians are still largely different from those of beings with designations of secretary downwards who together form the ‘permanent’ bureaucracy.
The Ministry of External Affairs sprang out of the merger of two departments of the pre-Independence Government of India: the Foreign and Political Department and the Commonwealth Department, each headed by a secretary. Thus until about 1965, there was in the Ministry of External Affairs, a Foreign Secretary and a Commonwealth Secretary, with a Secretary General sitting atop. Soon after the death of Jawaharlal Nehru in 1964, the position of Secretary General was done away with but a new position of secretary was created.
Since then, for about two decades and a half, a trinity comprising the foreign secretary and two other secretaries, whose designations changed from time to time, headed the ‘permanent’ civil service establishment of the Ministry. The trinity was assisted by a waxing and waning number of additional secretaries. I had known from the days I had been a minor aide of the secretary to the Pillai Committee that the trinity (which now becomes occasionally even a hexad) plus the secretary in the Ministry of Commerce comprised what was and still is called the Foreign Service Board which took all the decisions about postings and transfers, and up to a certain level promotions too, of the members of the Indian Foreign Service. It was obvious that for his own good an Indian Foreign Service man ought to treat the trinity with awe and respect except that I never quite learnt how—‘And what do these secretaries do except indulge in mutual throat cutting?’ had asked one of our seniors who in August or September 1965 had dropped into the room of N. Krishnan, the secretary of the Pillai Committee and was expounding her ideas of what was right and what was not with the Indian Foreign Service.
All that apart, the Ministry of External Affairs is structured like most other Ministries of Foreign Affairs the world over. There are a number of what are called territorial or geographical divisions, covering different parts of the world. These geographical divisions are the main points of contact between the Ministry of External Affairs and the embassies located in the region of the world covered by them. They are also points of contact for foreign embassies located in Delhi. They receive reports from embassies, prepare briefing papers for ministers, deal with other departments or agencies of government in the management of relations between Indiaa and countries located in the region they cover and advise and instruct embassies in their region. Then there are divisions dealing with the United Nations and other international organizations, policy planning, publicity, legal and treaties and economic relations. And finally there are divisions responsible for various functions or all-important services such as protocol, passports and visas, personnel and property. In the Indian Ministry of External Affairs a joint secretary heads each of these divisions. He is assisted in his labours by a posse of directors, deputy secretaries and under secretaries whose numbers depend in theory on functional needs and requirements but in actual practice a host of other factors come into play as they do in any human organization anywhere.
In 1972, there were nine territorial divisions at the Ministry of External Affairs, including two one-country divisions, that is, the ones for Pakistan and Bangladesh. Two of these divisions were: Southern which included all of Southeast Asia starting from Myanmar and going on to the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji and WANA (West Asia and North Africa) covering a swathe of territory from Afghanistan to Morocco—Arab countries plus Afghanistan, Iran and Israel.
WHEN I WAS ASKED TO START WORKING AS AN UNDER SECRETARY in the Southern division, many advised me to ask for a change as the joint secretary in charge of the division was ‘very difficult’, an advice I decided to ignore. I was asked by the joint secretary to familiarize myself with Australia, New Zealand and other places in the Pacific, follow all the news about the ensuing elections in Australia and New Zealand and after receiving reports from our High Commissions in Canberra and Wellington on the results of those elections, prepare a briefing paper. I did not see the joint secretary again as he was busy with other matters. Some three weeks later and much before the elections down under I was asked to move to WANA division to work under another ‘difficult’ joint secretary. Once again I ignored the advice to ask for a change. After an initial period of three months when I had a comparatively light desk, I was asked to take over another dealing with Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq and, for part of the time, also Iran. This remained my desk as long as I stayed with WANA division, which was till September 1974. My promotion to deputy secretary in June 1974 did not change my responsibilities.
At the heart of all that I was concerned with in WANA division lay the Arab-Israeli conflict, for that was one subject on which the largest amount of briefing, drafts for speeches and drafts for answers to questions in parliament were asked for. Occupying, as I did, the lowest rung in the hierarchy of officers it fell to my lot to put together all the basic material and have the first stab at making a draft for whatever was to be sent up to higher echelons. For sheer survival, I had not only to have a personal understanding of the history of the conflict and of Indian policy towards it—it became clear that ‘policy’ towards the region meant for a large part adoption of public positions towards the issues of international concern in the region—but I had also to keep myself up to date with developments in the region, which meant reading carefully not only all that came from our embassies but also keep up with whatever else was available in print or in the ether.
Looking at the history of the conflict over who between the Arabs and the Jews would get how much and what part of the British mandated territory of Palestine (which had in any case been reduced from the original by the separation of Trans-Jordan), I was struck by the excess at each stage of the estimate by the Arab leadership of their strength (armed or bargaining) over their actual capacity and by the extent to which this overestimate had at each stage resulted in a loss for the Arabs of Palestine. Thus, when in 1947 the United Nations plan for the Partition of Palestine was being discussed the Arabs would have been more than happy to get what had been offered to the leadership of Palestinian Arabs in 1937-1939 when British policy was decidedly pro-Arab: an Arab state of Palestine with a number of autonomous Jewish homelands inside. They rejected the UN Partition Plan of 1947 and when, in May 1948 David Ben Gurion unilaterally declared the establishment of the State of Israel, decided to fight. They lost—among the Arab fighters taken prisoner by Israel in that war was one Captain Gamal Abdel Nasser Hussein. Thereafter the Partition Plan was not heard of again as a serious proposal nor was there any talk any longer of handing over to the Arabs all the areas that the Partition Plan would have given them. After the armistice of 1948-49 the West Bank and Gaza passed under Jordanian and Egyptian administration ‘temporarily’.
The Israeli pre-emptive strike of June 1967, provoked by Arab action and overblown rhetoric ended with Israeli military occupation of not only the West Bank and Gaza but also of the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. The Yom Kippur War of October 1973, ending in an Egyptian-Israeli military stalemate, gave the Egyptians room for manoeuvre in the ensuing negotiations. Developments since 1973 have not favoured the Arabs in any manner either. Egypt has been able to regain control of a demilitarized Sinai Peninsula but it also had to sign a separate peace with Israel, abandoning in practice the Palestinian Arabs. Syria has yet to regain control of the Golan Heights and the Palestinian Arabs who would be happy with a Palestinian State in the territories that passed under Israeli Military Administration after the June 1967 War, are far from getting it. The return of the Palestinian refugees to their homes, promised under the famous Security Council Resolution 242, does not seem to be in the realm of the possible.
The Intefada of the 1980’s, which ended with the Oslo Peace Accords, does not seem to have given them much—a Palestinian State is not mentioned once in all the Oslo documents. And now, as I write this, the Ariel Sharon Government is able to send its tanks and soldiers at will into those areas which under the Oslo dispensation had passed under Palestinian self rule, bomb them, confine Yasser Arafat to his headquarters and, with the President of the United States, call for his removal. There is very little any of the Arab states can do to intervene effectively on the side of the Palestinian Arabs. But, I must go back in time.
Anti-colonial sentiments and a dislike for partition of political entities on the basis of religion or race (having itself undergone a partition inspired by political demands based on religion only a few months earlier) led India to oppose the November 1947 plan for the partition of Palestine. The same sentiments combined with calculations about national interest decided Government of India in favour of seeking the friendship of Arab states. Some Indian policy makers also reckoned that it was important not to leave the Arab world, overwhelmingly Muslim, as an open field for Pakistan to play its anti-Indian games in. Thus for forty years or so India was politically and diplomatically on the side of the Arabs in nearly all Arab-Israeli disputes.
This ‘pro-Arab’ bias did not however stop India from recognizing the State of Israel when David Ben Gurion proclaimed it. Nor did it stop India from granting permission to Israel to open a Consulate in Mumbai. One day in October or November 1948 there came a telegramme from the Foreign Minister of Israel to the Prime Minister of India saying that a certain gentleman was arriving in Bombay as the Consul General of Israel. On that telegramme there is a note scribbled by Leelamani Naidu (younger sister of Padmaja Naidu, who was a close friend of Jawaharlal Nehru), at that time deputy secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, which reads something like: ‘Spoken to PM. We may agree’. To my knowledge there is no record of any doubts or fears of Arab reaction, which might have preceded our agreement to the opening of the Israeli Consulate in Munbai. Perhaps there were none.
Increasing stridency in the Arab-Israeli conflict coupled with events such as the Anglo-French-Israeli misadventure of 1956, the June 1967 War and the subsequent lack of progress in the implementation of Resolution 242 made it difficult for Government of India to contemplate the establishment of normal diplomatic relations with Israel. For not doing this there were good reasons, despite the sundry Indian lobbyists whom Israel had cultivated for putting forward elegant but specious arguments in favour. One of these through the 1960’s and the 1970’s was that Israel could be an important source of technical assistance in diverse areas, above all dry land farming.
Yet India did not apply any ‘no contact’ policy towards Israel. Indian citizens were free to travel to Israel. Indeed the Indian Government had established a system of issuing special passports for travel to Israel because anyone with a passport with an Israeli immigration stamp on it would be in trouble at an Arab immigration post. This policy was followed in spite of the Israeli habit of bringing any Indian who was even remotely important on to some radio or television programme and each time any of the Arab states became aware of such visits its ambassador in Delhi would come remonstrating at the Ministry of External Affairs. Israel was generous with invitations to minor Indian celebrities. Israeli citizens were freely allowed to come to India. There was no trade ban and the Israeli Consul General in Mumbai was able to maintain regular contacts with the Ministry of External Affairs, questionings by Arab diplomats in Delhi notwithstanding.
Nor had India, for all its verbal diplomatic support to the Arab cause, ever engaged in any belligerent action against the State of Israel. In fact after Anwar Sadat’s dramatic expulsion of Soviet experts and advisers from Egypt in July 1972, Egypt needed spares and maintenance of the Soviet origin military hardware in its inventory. After the war in 1973 was over, Egypt approached India for a number of spares for diverse craft in its air force. Government of India regretted its inability, citing its obligations under the end user licences, which covered the supply of Soviet hardware to India. The Egyptians were not very happy.
A RESOLUTION ADOPTED BY THE NON-ALIGNED SUMMIT in Algiers in September 1973 calling on member states to sever all political, cultural, commercial, economic and diplomatic ties with Israel and the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War of October that year forced some small changes in Indian dealings with Israel. In November that year, a publication called, I think, Petroleum Weekly put out a list of countries that would be exempt from the embargo on oil supplies to different countries that the Arab states were going to impose. India was not on that list. This created a difficult situation for Government of India for two reasons. One was worries over the shortage of crude for our refineries in case we were subjected to an Arab oil embargo. The second was that if it became widely known in India that we would be subjected to an Arab oil embargo, Government of India would be under almost unbearable pressure at home to radically revise its Arab policy and in doing so complicate the situation even further.
Some of the Arab ambassadors in Delhi, the Iraqi being in the forefront, had convinced M. A. (Ishi to his friends) Rahman who was additional secretary in charge of this and many other regions, performing the functions of secretary, that India would need to close down the Israeli Consulate in Mumbai in order to demonstrate its complete adherence to the Non-aligned Resolution of Algiers and thus qualify for an exemption from the Arab oil embargo. Rahman recommended closure of the Israeli Consulate. Swaran Singh, the minister, thought we should not act under pressure but decided to refer the matter to the Prime Minister. Rahman told me at about six one evening not to go home but wait in office. Alexander, the joint secretary and Akbar Khaleeli the director had similarly been asked to wait. We were told at hourly intervals to continue waiting. We learnt that the matter went up to a Committee of the Cabinet, called by the Prime Minister, which at last started meeting at about 9 in the evening. At about ten the decision—in fact, a classic non-decision—of the Cabinet was handed down, which was that we should seek the advice and the opinion of our ambassadors in the region which in real terms meant the dispatch of telegrammes to our embassies and waiting for their answers. Even before all the answers came, the crisis created by the ‘Petroleum Weekly’ and the pressure on us to close down the Israeli Consulate in Mumbai had passed. The Arabs had for reasons of their own decided to limit the embargo to the USA and the Netherlands for their pro-Israeli policies.
While we were dealing with these pressures, we received word that the Israeli Consul General in Mumbai wished to come to Delhi and wished to meet some people in the Ministry of External Affairs. He was advised not to come for the moment. A few days later he sent another message repeating his request for appointments. He was requested this time not to come till he had heard from us. Persistent as he was, he followed with another message a few days later saying he was in any case coming to Delhi on a date named by him. When this message landed on Rahman’s desk, those of us who were dealing with this matter were annoyed with the Israeli and decided to tell him not to leave the State of Maharashtra without our prior agreement. A joint secretary responsible for an indefinable function like coordination, who also happened to be present, expressed the opinion that since the jurisdiction of the Israeli was the whole of India, we could not confine him to Maharashtra. His objections were set aside on the ground that we had before us far more important questions than nice arguments about a consul general’s jurisdiction, which would be what we would determine. I found in the late eighties that the Israeli Consul General’s jurisdiction at that time officially and formally was limited to the State of Maharashtra.
Once, in 1990, three New York Jews led by one Ambassador Fisher, who had at some time been a member of the United States embassy to the United Nations, met me in New York where I was the Indian Consul General. They had come on behalf of a number of Jewish groups and they wanted to argue the case for normal diplomatic relations between India and Israel. I explained to them India’s attitude towards the Arab states and Israel as I understood it and also explained the various factors that shaped our policy. I said to them that India did not have an anti-Semitic past, nor had India ever done anything to hurt any legitimate Israeli interest, but that because of compulsions arising out of India’s interest in keeping the friendship of the Arab states, that moment was not yet opportune for normal diplomatic relations between the two countries. Then I added that not all Israeli consuls general in Mumbai had shown adequate sensitivity to India’s concerns. I cited, without going into all the detail, the case of the Israeli consul general in the months following the Yom Kippur War. I also cited the case of another Israeli consul general in 1982 who had said to one or two Indian newspapers that the main reason why India did not have normal diplomatic relations with Israel was the concern of the Congress Party, in power in Delhi at that time, with keeping the vote of Indian Muslims. This had annoyed Government of India, including Prime Minister Indira Gandhi so much that that consul general was asked to leave. At the end of our conversation, Ambassador Fisher’s group and I parted as friends, or so I thought.
In the atmosphere of the summer and autumn of 1973, Government of India thought it prudent to stop the travel of Indian nationals to Israel and of Israeli nationals to India. All requests of Indian nationals for passports to travel to Israel and of Israeli nationals for Indian visas needed to be cleared with the WANA division, which meant my desk. Dealing with Indian applications for passports for Israel was not easy because denying an Indian national a passport except for reasons and in a manner laid down by law is not permissible. To implement my instructions about not clearing passports for Israel, I had to lie and obfuscate and be heartless in a manner that I would be ashamed of if I were doing all that for my own benefit. But in my own mind, inured by the doctrine that actions in defense of ‘national interest’ are covered by a different and ‘higher’ morality, there were no doubts. Then one day there came a request from some members of a trade union affiliated to the Congress Party for passports for Israel to enable them to attend some meeting organized by the Labour Party of Israel. I thought it better not to take on such people by denying them their request, using my own methods and the little authority I had and therefore I took this case to my superiors. We were all persuaded that these people should not go to Israel but were not clear about how to stop them. We decided that we would request the minister to use his influence as a senior member of the Congress Party to persuade these trade unionists to drop their request. I was asked to write down that recommendation on a piece of paper which was sent up to the minister. I heard no more about this matter. Some two months later, the paper containing our recommendation came back from the minister’s office, with two cryptic remarks by the minister; one was an instruction to his private secretary to take that piece of paper to Parliament House and the other, written on a later date, to say in the briefest possible manner, that it was too late then as we were well past the date of the meeting for which the trade unionists wished to go to Israel. After that, with an even easier conscience, I continued stopping Indian nationals from visiting Israel as long as I stayed in WANA division.
Stopping the issuance of visas to Israeli nationals was easier, for in giving or denying visas a State uses one of its sovereign rights against a foreign national from which there is no appeal. Some Israeli nationals would no doubt come to India unnoticed, getting a twenty-one day ‘landing permit’ at an Indian immigration check post on arrival, a facility which was available those days to nationals of all but three or four countries. For visas for those Israeli nationals who were innocent enough to ask for them, we in the WANA division thought we had the final veto.
There was, though, one public occasion when this authority was severely challenged. Some time in 1974, Indian physicians, led by the Director and the Dean of Medicine of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, were organizing an International Conference. Some very eminent physicians and medical scientists, including a few Nobel Prize winners, from different parts of the world were expected. Among these there were a few Israelis too. The Indian hosts had got Indira Gandhi and a few other important people in India to extend their patronage to the International Conference. A director in the Ministry of External Affairs, a close adviser of the foreign secretary of the time, spoke to Joint Secretary Alexander who was head of WANA division about visas for the Israeli participants. Alexander, true to existing policy, said no to visas for the Israelis and nothing that this director said would make Alexander change his mind.
A prominent English language daily printed a front-page story a few days later not only about this International Conference and about the patronage extended to it by the Prime Minister, but also about the ‘wooden headedness’ of the Ministry of External Affairs in refusing visas to eminent Israeli participants. The director who had spoken to Alexander could well have had a hand in the newspaper story. Thereafter came messages from some of the invitees in Europe that the Conference would have to be called off if the invitees from Israel and Taiwan were denied entry. WANA division would evidently have to eat crow. In a meeting in Rahman’s office, at which I was also present, we considered how. We accepted the suggestion that if the Israelis came to India on landing permits, they would not have asked for Indian visas and would not have been denied them. All that was needed was to advise the concerned people that there was such a facility. I was asked to write down this recommendation. I was next told a few days later to pass on this suggestion to the doctors at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. I was also asked to pass on to them informally a draft for a message they could send to the international organizing committee accompanied by an oral warning that if ever the fact of the Ministry of External Affairs having made such suggestions leaked out, we would issue a denial and would under no circumstances issue visas to the Israelis. The doctors seemed happy at being given this solution to their Israeli problem. Some time later a friend of mine told me that the gentleman, who had once balked at the suggestion that we restrict the Israeli Consul General to the State of Maharashtra, was quite aghast at what he described as the machiavellian mind of the person who made that recommendation about advising the Israeli physicians to come to India on landing permits.
SOON AFTER THE YOM KIPPUR WAR broke out on 8 th October 1973, I was asked to produce daily situation papers. Obviously those who asked for such papers were too exalted to know that this could not be done. We used a very secure but very slow cryptographic system, so that the quickest an embassy cable became available in a clear form in Delhi was about thirty-six hours after it had been dispatched and roughly forty-eight hours after the event it reported on. Thus our most important source of information about developments in the region was not much use for keeping the situation reports I had been asked to produce, reasonably up to date. I had, therefore, to depend on our newspapers and whatever news broadcast and commentary I could listen to on my simple household transistor radio between return home from office in the evenings and departure for office the next morning. For such interpretation of events as had to be included in these reports, I had only my own comprehension to depend on.
Between the opening of hostilities and the announcement of a cease-fire I prepared six or seven such reports. In the first seven days of the conflict, developments were very rapid: the occupation of the Sinai Peninsula by the Egyptian Army, the penetration through Ismailia and occupation of large tracts in the Nile delta by the Israeli Army, the preparation by the Soviet Union and the USA to resupply respectively the Egyptian and the Israeli armed forces, the sailing of a few Soviet war ships through the Bosphorus towards the Mediterranean, the US convoy of air force transport planes from the USA to Israel via the Azores and the indication by the USA that it had placed all its armed forces on a world wide alert followed in quick succession. On October 15, the Soviet Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin arrived in Cairo.
In the situation report I prepared on October 16, I wrote that the Kosygin visit would in all probability lead to de-escalation and an early cease-fire. I was basing myself on my understanding of the nuclear balance between the USA and the Soviet Union. In a cable sent on the same day but available in clear form in Delhi two days later, the Indian Ambassador in Cairo, commenting on the Kosygin visit said that he thought the War would escalate to unpredictable levels. A first cease-fire on October 21 was breached and followed by another, more lasting, on October 23. In the absence of anyone else’s pat, I gave one myself on my back on my perspicacity. Looking back on this episode later, I laughed at myself, thinking I had not quite grown up yet. I should have known that in the institution I was working in, there was no mechanism for any methodical analysis at the higher echelons of information or forecasts of the kind I am talking about. Secondly, even if the appropriate people in Delhi consciously concluded that the Ambassador’s forecast or mine was correct, there was very little they could do to prevent the escalation of conflict or help the progress towards a cease-fire.
Equally academic and futile was the claim, once the cease-fire was established and the UN Security Council had adopted its Resolution 338 (which was in essence a call for a Geneva Conference on the Middle East in addition to a reiteration of Resolution 242 of 1967), by at least three gentlemen I knew of having played a pivotal role in the drafting of and the negotiations over 242. One of these was a member of the Indian Foreign Service who made that claim in a discussion in the electronic media in Delhi. The second such claim came in the form of a cable from the Head of the Indian Mission to the UN Offices in Geneva offering his services for playing a role for India in the forthcoming Geneva Conference since he had been quite involved in the drafting of Resolution 242. He was advised to try and see what he could do, keeping in mind the sensitivities of all the Arab states, Israel, the United States and all the other parties to the conflict—we were conscious that in sending that advice we were in effect asking our man in Geneva to do nothing. And the third was a minister-counsellor at the Australian High Commission in Delhi whom I encountered at the house of a senior colleague. He argued that the omission of ‘the’ in the expression ‘ withdraw from territories occupied’ after the June 1967 war in Resolution 242 was deliberate and reflective of an actual unwritten understanding between the parties concerned when that Resolution was adopted. I argued that the ambiguity caused by that omission may have helped the adoption of the Resolution but gave the Arabs as much right to interpret it to their advantage as it did to Israel to interpret it to its own, adding that after all these differing interpretations were among the reasons why 242 had remained unimplemented. I also added that for years French representatives had said that in the French text there was no ambiguity and basing themselves on that argument the French had supported the Arab interpretation that the Resolution called on Israel to withdraw from all the territories it had occupied in the June 1967 War. Then the Australian claimed superior understanding saying he was in New York when the text of 242 was negotiated and adopted and became quite angry with me when I held on to my opinion.
But, the Geneva Conference was one of the least important events that happened after the Yom Kippur War. Much more important developments were the negotiations over Disengagement Agreements between Egypt and Israel and Syria and Israel. I was not aware of any pundit in India claiming any understanding of these processes, nor of any expert who foresaw the changes in political alignments already under way in the Middle East. In my own lowly status, I had no choice but to keep myself informed as best I could and to develop my own understanding of the direction in which the current of events was flowing. By end 1973, I was convinced that both Egypt and Syria were going to sign Disengagement Agreements with Israel which would make it impossible for either country to launch a surprise ground attack again against Israel through the Sinai Peninsula and through the Golan Heights. My forecasts about these Agreements had better luck than those about the cease-fire in the sense that I had at least a one-man audience.
Alexander, the joint secretary, had the habit of calling the concerned under secretary to sit in while he drafted (actually dictated to a shorthand typist) some important briefing paper. Around the 9 th or 10 th of January 1974, I was present in his office during one such exercise. He had dictated a paragraph recounting the slow progress towards a first disengagement agreement between Egypt and Israel, suggesting that the negotiations were turning out to be difficult. When he asked what I thought, I said that in about ten days’ time such an agreement would be signed. He was at first very sceptical but decided to modify his draft to incorporate my view. When the first Egyptian-Israeli Disengagement Agreement was concluded almost exactly around the time I had suggested, I was firmly established as an oracle in the eyes of Alexander on the question of these disengagement agreements. He had no difficulty accepting my view in the beginning of February that a Syrian-Israeli Disengagement Agreement was a certainty though it would take a little longer than the Egyptian-Israeli Agreement. By around the third week of March that year his faith in my oracular powers was wearing thin. During one meeting about that time he said he did not know why I was so confident about a Syrian-Israeli Disengagement Agreement but did not throw out my suggestion that the conclusion of such an agreement was a matter of two to three weeks. The first Syrian-Israeli Agreement was concluded around mid-April.
By the time these agreements between Egypt and Israel and Syria and Israel were completed, it became clear that the USA had become the main Great Power player in the Middle East and that Soviet influence, on the ascendant since 1956, was in decline. Henry Kissinger and his people had brought about an armistice between Israel and two of its militarily most significant Arab neighbours with whom it had common land boundaries. In the case of Egypt the armistice would in time lead to a peace treaty. Syria has yet to sort out its problems with Israel, but the armistice of 1974 endures and from time to time Syrian-Israeli negotiations are resumed. Not all the later developments in the politics of the region could be foreseen then but the outlines of the major changes were already visible. I was not aware then of any public or private discussion in Delhi of any of these developments.
There was a curious optimism in some quarters in Delhi about the Geneva Conference set up under the aegis of the UN Security Council. I was asked in late 1973 or early 1974 to draft a letter to Indian embassies abroad about our assessment of the prospects of an Arab-Israeli settlement. In my draft I listed out the various issues that would have to be dealt with in any settlement: territorial questions between Israel and the neighbouring Arab states, a homeland for Palestinian Arabs, the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes and the status of Jerusalem. My draft was set aside as too pessimistic. In 1991, some time after the opening of the Madrid Conference on the Middle East, when I was in New York, some one in our embassy in Washington, probably more concerned about dispatches to be sent to Delhi—another of the habitual obsessions of diplomats everywhere—than anything more important, asked me what I thought of the prospects of Madrid. I told him that the issues involved were so complex that it would take a long time to reach a settlement. I added for good measure that we should not spend too much time speculating on the daily changes in the prospects of Madrid. Even as I was speaking these thoughts I knew that what I was saying was unpalatable to my interlocutor.
In 1973 and 1974 India was rightly more interested in ensuring oil supplies for itself than in the larger questions of shifts in the political balance of forces in the Middle East. Relations with Iraq, with which there was a long-term oil supply agreement, were good and important. The Indian Minister of External Affairs visited Iraq in 1973, some time before the Yom Kippur War. He was a little annoyed that there could be no agreement over the text of a joint communiqué at the end of his visit. He held the Indian officials who had accompanied him on this visit responsible for that failure. In April 1974, Saddam Hussein came on a visit to India. He was at that time Vice-Chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council of Iraq, the Chairman and the President of the Republic being Ahmad Hassan El Bakr. Since, quite obviously, most of real executive power was already in the hands of Saddam Hussein he was treated like a Head of Government; Indira Gandhi was his principal interlocutor on the Indian side. A Joint Communiqué on an occasion like this was de rigueur. Additional secretary Rahman decided to personally negotiate the text and called me in to assist him. As usual with such documents, this one also intended to record not only the subjects discussed between the two leaders but also their agreement on a number of problems and issues the world over of which the problems of the Middle East.
In the paragraph dealing with Israeli withdrawal from Arab lands occupied in June 1967, there was a disagreement in the sense that the Iraqis would not have the name Israel in the text saying they did not recognize the state and we were not prepared to talk of Zionist occupation of Arab lands, which is what the Iraqis suggested. They were not prepared to accept our compromise proposal to drop both Israel and Zionism and simply talk of withdrawal from Arab lands occupied in June 1967. At this point Rahman stood up and said to the Iraqi Permanent Secretary: ‘Excellency, do you see how loosely my trousers hang? If you do not agree, I shall lose my job and grow thinner and my trousers will become looser. I cannot afford to get a new pair.’ The serious, dour looking Iraqis did not react for a full minute or so but then their faces lightened with broad grins. They agreed. Our disagreement over whether to call it the Persian or the Arab Gulf was dealt with by our agreeing to simply call it the Gulf. In reality the only importance of the Joint Communiqué was that the absence of one would have been noticed by all manner of exegetes.
FLOODS AND CYCLONES and the damage caused by them are so frequent in India that it is not always possible to recall some years as the year of the flood, say, in Orissa or the year of the cyclone, say, in Andhra Pradesh in the same way as people in North Bihar used to talk of the ‘year of the earthquake’ or people elsewhere in North India used to talk of the ‘year of the plague’. I cannot recall whether it was in 1973 or in 1974 that floods and cyclone caused extensive enough damage in India to attract international attention and offers of help from various governments, including the Government of Iraq. When the cable from our ambassador in Baghdad transmitting the offer of help from the Iraqi Government arrived, for reasons I could not fathom, particular efforts were made to ensure that our response to our ambassador was carefully worded. Word came down that the Prime Minister wished personally to see the response we proposed sending. We collected basic facts about the extent of the damage caused by the floods and about the kind of goods out of those offered by the Iraqis that would be the most useful for the relief efforts in India. A draft of an answer prepared by additional secretary Rahman was sent up to the Minister of External Affairs who in his turn sent it to the Prime Minister for her approval. When the draft came back after the Prime Minister’s approval, given over her own signatures, Rahman’s Private Secretary asked me to look at it again saying that Rahman’s instructions were that I should be shown the approved text again to re-check the contents against any errors. When a few days later these papers came down to me to be filed away I found the effect so amusing that I would have kept a copy as a memento had there been easy facilities for photocopying.
If I remember correctly, those days there were only two photocopiers in the entire Ministry of External Affairs, the use of which required special permission and if you wanted to copy papers which were classified ‘secret’ or ‘confidential’ which is what these flood papers were—there are some set rules about classifying papers which can be understood only by the initiated—permission would be that much more difficult to get. Taking them out to get them photocopied in the market would have been a serious violation of the Official Secrets Act. I have thus been deprived of the pleasure of showing around a copy to others in later years. On the notepaper on which Mrs. Indira Gandhi had signed her approval, Rahman’s Private Secretary had written, ‘ Shri Rai has seen’, immediately after Mrs. Gandhi’s signatures, so much so that to anyone familiar with the way papers in Government of India are handled but not aware that Shri Rai was but a lowly under secretary it would appear that not only was this person required to clear a text already approved by the Prime Minister but he was too busy to clear it over his own signatures. As, with the passage of time, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO if you wanted to show due respect, just as PM rather than Prime Minister, EAM rather than the Minister of External Affairs or simply the Minister and FS rather than the Foreign Secretary) became more imperial and remote, it became the habit for some official in the Prime Minister’s Office to record the Prime Minister’s approval or otherwise on papers that went up from lower down almost as if the Prime Minister’s signatures were a rare commodity not to be put on display for all and sundry to see.
ANOTHER COUNTRY with which Government of India wished to improve relations was the Shah-in Shah’s Iran. After the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent country, for which the Iranians like many others blamed Indian ‘machinations’, anti-Indian feeling and rhetoric within the Iranian Government and the controlled Iranian media was strong and sharp. People in India had resented the Iranian characterization of Indian attitudes as ‘beggar imperialism’. By mid-1973 the two governments had found enough common ground for an ice-breaking visit by the Indian Minister of External Affairs, Swaran Singh to Teheran in July 1973. During that visit he made such a strong impression on the Shah-in Shah that he later described him as the best Foreign Minister anywhere. This visit was followed two months later by the visit of Princess Ashraf Pahlavi, the sister of the Shah-in-Shah, to India. In addition to Delhi, the princess was also visiting some other places in India. On three previous visits of the pricess there had been embarrassing contretemps. Everyone concerned was anxious to ensure that this time round she should go back pleased.
It was the practice in Delhi to ask an official from the concerned territorial division, in addition to protocol officials, to be in attendance on high dignitaries during their stay in India, from arrival until departure. I was told that I would be the official in attendance. In the evening before the day of the Princess’s arrival, additional secretary Rahman telephoned at home to say that the decision ‘from above’ (which I took to mean the Prime Minister) was that a woman officer should be in attendance on the princess and that I should ensure that the next morning such a person was present at the airport at the princess’s arrival. After finding out that there were at that moment in Delhi only two women members of the Indian Foreign Service I had to find their telephone numbers. The first, some seven years my senior was in another department. It took me all the remaining evening to finally discover that she was out of town and the second, junior to me and, like me, an under secretary, was not on the phone. I was able, before going to bed that evening, to find out her home address. The next morning, three or four hours before the expected time of the Princess’s arrival, an untidy looking me drove down some four or five kilometres and appeared at the house of this lady, not far from the Qutb Minar. I had not met her ever before nor her rather surprised husband who opened the door. I told her, half untruthfully, that I had instructions to ask her personally to be in attendance on the princess and that she would be expected to be at the airport at the time of the princess’s arrival. She demurred and said that air travel was difficult for her because she used to get severe attacks of airsickness. Being at that time more anxious to unburden myself of the immediate responsibility of finding an officer of appropriate gender and go back home than to sympathize with other people’s physical infirmities, I told the lady that I had only been asked to pass on instructions and it was for her to deal with the concerned people. In office I moved on to other things on my desk, which was always full. I have never met this lady since then but from all I knew, Princess Ashraf’s visit went off well. Indo-Iranian relations prospered too though I stopped making any contribution to them after October that year at my own request due to some organizational difficulties within the territorial division.
REPORTING AND COMMENTING on events becomes a habit with most diplomats. Sending well-written, insightful reports quickly enough is a concern that drives many. One of the routine reports that Indian embassies were required to send till the mid 1970’s was the monthly political report which was not only a narration of the main events of the month but it also contained the embassy’s comments and interpretation of the meaning of those events. It was the task of undersecretaries in our territorial divisions to highlight important portions of these reports and send them up the hierarchical ladder. From some of the countries in my area of responsibility, I received some news magazines or periodical news digests also in addition to the embassy reports, which I read with as much care as I read the embassy reports. In the case of one embassy, I noticed striking similarities between the contents of the embassy reports and those of a news digest (let me give it a fictitious name, ‘Middle East Diary’) from the same capital. Early in 1973, while sending up one monthly report, having done the usual highlighting, I wrote in the margin against one section: ‘Stuff from the Middle East Diary. Our embassy often plagiarizes from the Middle East Diary’. This report came down with the instruction from the joint secretary asking me to bring to his attention other similar instances. Though I had been noticing examples in which the ambassador’s special dispatches were verbatim copies of comments in the Middle East Diary, I did nothing about them because of the habit of having them filed away after reading, myself being the last person in the hierarchy to read these dispatches. There were no instructions about highlighting sections of special dispatches and sending them up as they tended to be in the form of personal letters addressed to the joint secretary or others of more exalted rank. Besides, there was so much else to keep me fully occupied that the thought of pointing out these other examples to my superiors did not come to me. Then, one day in November 1973, additional secretary Rahman was on the phone to ask me if it was true that one of our ambassadors copied his dispatches from a periodical publication and then asked me if I could bring some examples. I told him I could but it would take me about an hour. He gave me, as was his wont, ten minutes during which time I was able to fish out from the pile of yet to be filed papers on my desk, four of the Ambassador’s dispatches and four of the original articles in the Middle East Diary which had been copied and took them to Rahman. He, whose eyes could have popped out of his head, kept these papers with him. A few days later I was asked to produce some more examples, which I did. Then there was another half-hearted request for more, which I found excessive and decided to ignore until I was reminded, and I was not.
Some time later, when I would have moved on to something else, I was given a cup of tea and roundly berated by a friend who was a director in the same territorial division for ‘playing their game’ against this ambassador. When I asked if I should have lied, he told me that in my zeal I had unwittingly become a participant in an intrigue against a very fine man. I did not quite overflow with admiration for the ambassador because of the cheapness of what he was doing but I was completely ignorant of any game and said so to this director, to which he said that after all practically all such dispatches were based on material culled from newspapers and other publications and then he told me that some people had used my discoveries to stymie a perfectly good proposal that this ambassador should come to the Ministry of External Affairs as one of the secretaries. My friend who had worked with the man would quite happily have seen him back in Delhi. I had never met him till then, nor did I meet him ever after. I knew very little about him other than his reports. He would have known even less about me. Yet he sent me a nice and brief personal note to wish me a happy year at the beginning of 1974. He sent me another personal farewell note later in 1974 when he was moving to another embassy in another region. Some people had told him that I had discovered his secret.
BY THE END of 1972, when we came to Delhi, the euphoria, first of Indira Gandhi’s impressive election victory of 1971, won on the promise of removing poverty, and then of the military defeat of Pakistan in December 1971, had started dying. Though the Economist of London had crowned Mrs. Gandhi ‘The Empress of India’, the Simla Agreement of June 1972 looked like another truce, another Tashkent Agreement, to many people. In 1973, Sanjay Gandhi’s ascendancy already appeared to be the most important fact of domestic politics. People whispered about his many deeds. The departure of P.N.Haksar in mid-1973 from his position of Mrs. Gandhi’s Principal Secretary was openly attributed to Sanjay’s influence. Then, a bridge over the railway on the road from Safdarjung’s tomb to the Qutb Minar, though completed, was not opened for traffic for about three years. Common people said that that was because of a disagreement between the contractor and Sanjay Gandhi and his friends over some payment they had proposed.
There was the case, reported in the press, of two brothers and one sister having sauntered on to the lawns of Indira Gandhi’s official residence. Delhi police had arrested them. People, again, whispered that in fact the sister was no stranger at the Prime Minister’s residence and there was some dirty quarrel between Sanjay Gandhi and these siblings. No one seemed to take seriously the claims that Sanjay Gandhi would indeed be able to make a motorcar. The number of people in Delhi those days who talked of Sanjay Gandhi as a wastrel would have been thousands. An engineer working for the Water and Power Consultancy Corporation of India, whom I had encountered in Vientiane had described Sanjay Gandhi to me as a bully and a hoodlum. He said he had seen his behaviour when he and his brother had accompanied Indira Gandhi on a visit to Afghanistan. I had not paid much attention to what this engineer had said at that time but his remark came back to me in the midst of all that was being whispered about Sanjay Gandhi in Delhi in 1973. Another subject of public attention was corruption in public life. Some of Congress Party’s fund managers, especially one of Indira Gandhi’s ministers who later died a violent death, featured prominently in all that talk about corruption.
In Delhi we lived the ordinary life of an impecunious, reasonably hard working junior government functionary in one of the least powerful ministries of Government of India. A great many of our concerns were those of daily life or with receiving visitors from family and clan. There was hardly any money, time or energy for socializing or for developing important contacts. There was no question for us to have any inside knowledge of what happened at the apex of the power structure. What we knew or heard about Sanjay Gandhi or Indira Gandhi’s ministers was what was printed in the media or what other ordinary people talked about. As the year 1973 progressed, the mood in the country turned against the government. This was made worse by rising inflation and frequent shortages of necessities for daily living. There was, for example one month, when there was no cooking oil in the shops in Delhi. I remember telephoning, out of sheer desperation, the general manager of a newly opened government owned Super Bazar, an Indian Administrative Service officer, whom I knew, for help. He asked his people to give us as much as we wanted of the stuff—I had no money to invest in a large stockpile for myself and thus add to the shortages. The near quadrupling of crude oil prices by OPEC meant not only the near doubling of the price of petrol at the pumps in India but it also spiralled more inflation. Life in Delhi in 1974 had become more difficult. The air became markedly darker. In May of that year there was the Indian Railway strike. Both the strike and its brutal suppression increased the feeling of crisis. Jayaprakash Narain’s anti-corruption drive had begun attracting ever-greater support. There was much that was not right in the country.
IN THE MIDDLE OF THAT YEAR, there came my way an opportunity to be away from October to June next at Oxford University on a British Government fellowship under the Colombo Plan, which I seized. The fellowship was for attending what was called the Foreign Service Course. The person from the Ministry of External Affairs who had gone the previous year was a few years my senior. I assumed this was going to be something serious. Besides, I was getting a chance to be out of the depressing circumstances—both for personal living and politically—of India. In administrative technicality, the time spent at Oxford still counted as my tour of duty in Delhi. Thus my wife and I arrived in Oxford in October 1974. I was admitted as a student at Balliol College and the fellowship brought with it membership of Queen Elizabeth House which at that time was located at St.Giles’. We lived in a largish bed-sitter rented from the British Council, not far from St.Giles’ and within almost shouting distance of the Ashmolean, the Playhouse, Balliol and St.John’s.
Aside from the initial bemusement at some of the quaintness of British life—the quaintest being the British post code— and of a few of the Oxford customs such as the walking in procession for the matriculation and St. Catherine’s Night dinner at Balliol, getting used to life at Oxford was, at a certain level, not difficult but at a certain other not easy either. Within about a fortnight of the start of the Foreign Service Course, not only I but also John Hays (dead since then) of Keble, who lectured on politics to the whole group of participants and organized tutorials in politics for smaller groups at a time, decided that the Course, as structured, was too elementary for me. It was agreed that I would no longer be required to go to lectures and tutorials with the rest of the group but write one paper for submission before the end of Trinity Term. I chose ‘A Consideration of Some Security Concerns in West Europe’ as the title and subject of my paper—European security was at the core of many a discourse in Europe at that time. I do not think I wrote a good paper, though they gave me a ‘Certificate in Diplomacy’ with ‘Distinction’ (probably out of politeness). But the reading I did for writing that paper gave me an understanding not only of many political developments in West Europe in the years since the Second World War but also of many contemporaneous events. Moreover, this arrangement about my academic work at Oxford gave me the time to read indiscriminately whatever my mind turned to.
Half way through Hilary Term, Paul Streeten, the Warden of Queen Elizabeth House and a Fellow of Balliol, who was my moral tutor, said that he and some others at the College felt that my position there did not give me the opportunity to make the best use of my time. They could not make me a Fellow or even a Research Fellow but they would see what to do. At the end of that Term, Kenneth Garlick, the Curator of Ashmolean and Secretary of the Senior Common Room at Balliol wrote a note inviting me to accept dining rights with the Fellows. Although, unfortunately, this invitation came so late during our Oxford stay that I was able to use these rights only three or four times during the last term I found it both gratifying and flattering to have received that note, so much so that I, no collector of letters, kept this one.
On the first day of Michaelmas Term, there was a dinner for all the members of Balliol College. A man who, after years in the Army, had decided to take a B.A. degree and I were two students invited to sit at the High Table. I found myself sitting between Alistair Buchan, with whom I had a very pleasant conversation about India and about some of the people in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs whom he knew, and another Fellow of the College, a Political Science don, with whom also I had a very pleasant conversation. At one point he said I must find the difference between India and Britain unsettling. I said, perfectly sincerely from my point of view, that I did not because I was used to much greater contrasts within India than between some parts of India and Britain. It did not occur to me to give the more pedestrian answer that I had been around a little and was a bit more aware of the world outside than an Indian straight out of the woods might be. That don never talked to me afterwards, looking past me if we happened to run into each other in the street or in College. Did he think I was too foolish to bother about? Or did his behaviour have anything to do with my failure to admit being an Indian in a state of overawed amazement at the chasm that separated Britain and India? If the latter, it was interesting behaviour from the Fellow of a College which prided itself on having been home to John Wycliffe and on its tradition of dissidence. At Queen Elizabeth House, an institution quite used to being home to foreigners from Asia and Africa, there was a lady with whom I had a polite disagreement on some similar issue. She never talked to me thereafter. The Indian Foreign Service colleague who went on the same programme the next year, a person with greater polish than I and far more urbane, told me of the identical experience he had with this same lady.
A few months later, in the autumn of 1975, I was attending the ‘International Wine Festival’ at Dijon on behalf of the Indian ambassador in Paris who had been invited. There were, likewise, counsellors, ministers and first secretaries from other embassies in Paris, including a counsellor from the British Embassy, a Scottish Peer, obviously hereditary, and his wife who told me she had been a secretary in an embassy before marrying her aristocratic diplomat husband. The wine was good and aplenty. There were several meals over two days at which the diplomatic invitees were fed and entertained to satiation. At lunch on the first day I sat next to the wife of the British Embassy counsellor, the peeress. She asked me if I knew Great Britain to which I said that I knew whatever I did of Great Britain from a nine-month stay at Oxford and then told her what I had been doing there. She asked me if I liked my stay there, to which I said that I had liked most of it. Then she asked if there were things I did not like. I said that there were some people I met there who seemed to think I was an ignoramus and it was this that I found irritating. I do not know how much of wine forces out the truth, but at that stage of the conversation I had not quite finished half a glass.
That was the last conversation I had with the counsellor’s wife—I had none with her husband—though our Dijon tour lasted another day and a half during which we sampled so many different varieties of Burgundy that my poor Indian taste buds were left quite confused. At the end of the second day the only quality of yet another Burgundy from yet another vineyard that I could notice was its headiness. I was nevertheless happy to have gone there. I do not know if another such was organized the next year, for the newspapers reported a few months later that the French Police had arrested the main organizer of that festival on charges of fraud.
At Oxford, I was a good twelve to fourteen years older than the average undergraduate and at least ten years older than the average post-graduate student. It was very difficult for my wife and me to fit in with the student community, no matter how much we tried. One such attempt took us on a walking tour in the Lake District at Christmas time in 1974 with what was known as the Ramblers’ Club of the University. We walked with the others and stayed with them in youth hostel dormitories and ate and drank what they ate and drank but there was nothing we could do to shed the years from our minds and bodies. Such residual romanticism as one may have about being able to recreate William Wordsworth’s ‘Nature’ during a visit to the Lakes in modern times soon evaporates in the face of the motorcar, modern roads, modern urbanization and modern tourism. Even a visit to the Dove Cottage feels like a visit to any other place of tourist interest. But there are two things I retain from that walking tour. One is the altogether wonderful memory of the walk on the moors and in the hills, often shrouded in fog and mist, often very windy, bleak and cold, which took us to Helvellyn Top and Helvellyn Greenside. The second is the understanding that it is very foolish to pretend to yourself and to others that you are younger than you are.
PERHAPS BECAUSE HE HAD BEEN A TUTOR AT ‘MY’ OXFORD COLLEGE, I decided to read or reread some of E. H. Carr’s work—not quite a la mode at a University where political opinion seemed at that time to take a swing towards the right. One of these books quotes a passage from a 1927 article in the then Foreign Affairs Quarterly by Count Sforza, the Foreign Minister of Italy, which also I read in order to fully understand the meaning of that passage. Count Sforza commented on the good fortune of the Anglo-Saxon nations of having in their midst clergymen and intellectuals who were able to find the highest moral justifications for the most practical foreign policy actions of their governments. This observation has long been in my repertory of ideas about the relationship between political leaderships and intellectuals—writers, journalists, and academics—not only in the Anglo-Saxon countries but also in other Western democracies. I do not know if other Western democracies have learnt from the Anglo-Saxons since Count Sforza wrote or whether Count Sforza’s envy of the Anglo-Saxons was borne out of anger with some antipathetic Italian intellectual. Julien Benda in La Trahison des Clercs discusses at length how so many European intellectuals, particularly during l’entere deux guerres, let themselves be co-opted in the service of their nations and laments the abdication by the intellectuals of their larger duty of disinterested and dispassionate adherence to truth.
Oxford, it seemed, is one place where the relationship between the political and intellectual leadership of Great Britain is created and nourished. It draws its sustenance from the commonality of perceptions and idioms used in political discourse. It allows for numerous unspoken compacts. People like Roy Jenkins or Edward Heath would be in and out of their colleges to spend some time with the dons for no reason that needed to be discussed in public. That did not mean that the University was not also an important platform for the public airing of views and for moulding opinions. If, someone like Elliot Richardson, Attorney General in the collapsing Nixon Presidency came, he would, aside from a quiet meeting and discussions with the academics, also give a formal public speech at the Sheldonian.
Oxford University’s decision in 1974 to give an Honorary Doctor’s degree to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, at that time President of Pakistan, in recognition of his ‘statesmanship’ looked to me to be part of the British national policy, already at least one year old, of repairing British- Pakistani relations which had been damaged during the nine-month long Pakistani military campaign of 1971 which resulted in the independence of Bangladesh. In the atmosphere of 1974, to people in India, including myself, any description of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as a ‘statesman’ would have seemed strange, as, two years after the Simla Agreement, he was perceived as someone not worthy of trust.
Bangladeshis at Oxford and elsewhere in Britain, were simply angry at the proposal of the University and protested noisily. There was also a Pakistani, pro-Bhutto campaign, though relatively quiet—Benazir Bhutto was also at Oxford at that time. One afternoon, during those days of Bangladeshi anger, two or three Bangladeshis whom I knew slightly joined me in the lounge of Queen Elizabeth House as I had coffee and skimmed through some magazines. They asked me what I thought of this Bhutto affair, probably thinking that I would be opposed to the doctor’s degree for him. Without stopping to think what kind of answer the Bangladeshis expected of me, an Indian diplomat, putting aside all habitual diplomatic circumspection about words and expression, I said candidly that I did not understand the two campaigns. As far as I was concerned what should matter for a democratically elected politician like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was the support of the people of Pakistan and not the recognition of his qualities or lack of it by a University in far off Britain. I could see from the faces of people in the lounge, some of whom would have overheard me, that I had dropped a truckload of bricks. Eventually, Oxford University had second thoughts and decided not to give that degree.
Absence of an Honorary Doctor’s degree from Oxford did not seem to have affected Bhutto’s fortunes in Pakistan. In the events within Pakistan in the next few years Bhutto’s international standing was no factor at all. His political party, the Pakistan People’s Party quite successfully built a mass base for itself. His populist economic and social programmes, like those of Indira Gandhi a few years earlier in India, brought him enthusiastic support of the people. Yet all that popularity evaporated within the space of a few months. There can be no explanation other than hubris for some actions of Bhutto and his men in the 1977 general election in Pakistan which provoked protests against fixing those elections. Those happenings so damaged Bhutto’s standing in Pakistan that when in July 1977 General Zia-ul-Haq overthrew the democratically elected Government of Pakistan and with it Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, he met with little popular resistance.
One and a half years later when, many wondered whether the Pakistani Military Government would execute Bhutto, when many world leaders appealed to General Zia to spare his life, I, like some people I knew in Paris at that time, still believing in Bhutto’s popularity among the people of Pakistan, was convinced that Zia-ul-Haq would not in the end dare hang him, and if he did, there would be a conflagration. When in early April 1979, Bhutto was hanged, nothing happened in a country in which in the 1960’s two military dictators had been driven out of power by popular protest. About one year after Bhutto’s execution I encountered in the house of a friend in Dhaka a Punjabi politician from Pakistan, scion of a prominent Pakistani Punjabi political family. He was critical of the military régime in his country and talked about the return of democracy in Pakistan. I asked him why people like him had helped in the overturning of a democratic régime in 1977, if they so greatly valued democracy. He said that by that time Bhutto had become so arrogant and dictatorial that it seemed to many people like him that almost anything would be better than his autocratic régime.
One of the people that year at Queen Elizabeth House was Neville Maxwell. He had been the correspondent of the Times, London in India for many years. I remembered a 1967 episode about him. In February 1967 the first Indian general election, both for the legislative assemblies of the states and the federal parliament, after Jawaharlal Nehru’s death and after the assumption of India’s Prime Ministership by Indira Gandhi had been organized. The Times, presumably on the basis of Maxwell’s reports had written that these elections were going to be India’s last. Counting of votes had started and the results as they came in were posted on a largish blackboard at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, a part of which was used by the Press Information Bureau of India. Nine of India’s 16 states had voted against the Congress Party as a result of which opposition parties would now rule them. As the tally for the federal parliament came in, it was uncertain till the end whether the Congress Party would have a clear majority. On the crucial afternoon of tension and uncertainty, just before the final tally, a senior member of the Foreign Service, offered to take me back to office in his car at the end of a lunch at his house to which he had invited me. On the way, we stopped by at Hyderabad House to look at the latest tally. People there talked in whispers about an outburst of Indira Gandhi earlier that afternoon there against Neville Maxwell. They said Mrs. Gandhi who had briefly dropped in at Hyderabad House spotted Maxwell and was quite free with her expression of anger, seemingly at prejudiced reporting. I was still a trainee in the Foreign Service and ignorant of many things. From what I heard afterwards it became clear that Neville Maxwell made himself unpopular with many people in Government of India at that juncture.
Later, in 1970, I read Neville Maxwell’s India’s China War. Having lived in Kolkata through the months and weeks in 1962 when tension on the border with China mounted leading up to Jawaharlal Nehru’s statement at Madras airport on September 11 that he had ordered the Indian Army to throw them (the Chinese) out, the weeks of news of the rout of the Indian Army leading up to the fall of Bomdi La and the preparations for the evacuation of Tezpur, and the weeks of news about practice anti-air raid sirens and blackouts and construction of trenches in Kolkata (it was argued that if Tezpur fell and if the Chinese came down to the Assam plains, Kolkata would become vulnerable), my view of the 1962 border conflict with China, fed on Government of India’s story, was chauvinistic. I believed in the justness and irrefutability of our territorial claims. I also believed that the Chinese had in some monstrous fashion deceived us, that they were unreliable and aggressive. Doubts arising from the fact that the Chinese withdrew more or less behind their claim line in the Eastern Sector of the border after the fall of Bomdi La when practically nothing could have stopped their descent on to the Assam plains nor unease over what was to me excessive emotional reaction of an Indian newspaper to a simple observation of Bertrand Russell’s that on the border question the Chinese also had a case were not allowed to dilute my ‘patriotism’. For a brief while I had also been nurtured on a certain kind of American and American-inspired writing in which it was said that India and China represented two alternative models for the nations of Asia and Africa, which were emerging from colonial rule. In this body of writing democratic India was preferable to communist China. China with its ambitions for dominating Asia could not bear to see the rise of a rival power, it was said.
A former Indian Ambassador to China and Egypt, himself a Nehru, cured me of my chauvinism on the subject, when he talked to my group of Indian Foreign Service trainees in the cold season of 1965-1966. He talked of mistakes made on the Indian side and of missed opportunities for a settlement of the border dispute with China before the fighting broke out. From then on there were questions in my mind about the handling of the border dispute with China by India’s political leadership. India’s China War seemed to me a well-documented, well-argued, accurate and educative book and cleared many doubts. But such was the strength of prejudices against Maxwell in sections of the Indian Government that when I expressed my favourable opinion of Maxwell’s book to the ambassador I was working under in 1970, he closed the discussion saying it might be a good book but written by a bad man!
When Queen Elizabeth House announced a lecture by Neville Maxwell, I went to listen to him more out of curiosity about the man than any real interest in the subject matter of the lecture, which was some aspect of domestic governance in China. At one point he compared the Bolshevik Revolution with the Maoist Revolution in China, suggesting that the former was imposed by force by a tiny minority on a vast country and its population, while the acceptance of the latter by the Chinese came without any of the repression, the bloodiness and the use of force that accompanied the former. I remember asking Maxwell whether there was anything in Chinese history or culture that made possible the easy acceptance of the Maoist Revolution by the Chinese people—some seed ideas that were akin to Maoism, for example. Maxwell’s answer was obfuscatory and unconvincing. I also remember wondering whether Maxwell’s argument connected in some way to the political context of the moment: in 1974-75, the West’s suspicion and fear of and hostility towards the Soviet Union was approaching one of its peaks while the People’s Republic of China was being rediscovered and reinvented after Richard Nixon’s visit to China. In that political context, it suited the West’s political interests to paint the Soviet Union in dark colours and China in brighter hues. Maxwell’s characterizations of the Bolshevik and Maoist revolutions looked to me suspiciously like the action of a typical Anglo-Saxon journalist Count Sforza had written about.
Oil, one year after the OPEC had quadrupled the price of crude had become a major subject of political concern. In the United Kingdom the North Sea offered hope for the future. Nonetheless there was as much anxiety there as elsewhere in the West about the newfound muscle of the OPEC—the economic consequences of the increase in oil prices had begun to be felt. Seminars and symposia to discuss the ‘oil problem’ were frequent in Oxford. There were some engaged in discussions about the nature of cartels—how they are sustained and how they can break up. Of particular interest to people who discussed these questions was the OPEC cartel. Not in the least surprisingly, many Western governments also wrestled with these same questions around that time.
News from Bangladesh that autumn and winter was of crisis and trouble. Some British newspapers predicted widespread famine and starvation. There were daily questions about the economic viability of the country. Prospects looked so gloomy for Bangladesh that a German couple at Wolfson College we knew told us once, their voices filled with contempt, that they could not stand the sight of a Bangladesh diplomat who was in Oxford on the same programme as I, always overdressed and nearly always making a show of smoking expensive cigars and driving a brightly painted medium-sized Toyota. The Germans were offended that while there was talk of the world, including the Federal Republic of Germany, coming to the rescue of a Bangladesh in a situation of near famine, one of the country’s diplomats, taking time off from his normal duties, should live so ostentatiously—the dress and the cigar were only part of the ostentation—in a university town where ostentation was not the most prized virtue.
We could also judge from changes in his attitude towards us that the difficulties of the Mujib-ur-Rahman Government in Bangladesh were increasing. Mujib was considered friendly towards India both within Bangladesh and in India. Initially, in his dealings with us, this Bangladeshi was warm and forthcoming. By Trinity term, he would barely acknowledge our presence as if his future in a post-Mujib Government would be determined by the nature of his relationship with us—it seemed, he was anticipating events in his country, and quite accurately, as it happened.
He was not the only one to anticipate. In the vacation between Hilary and Trinity in 1975 came Dr. Kamal Hossein, the Foreign Minister of Bangladesh since the country’s independence, and his family. Dr. Hossein became a Fellow of St. Anthony’s. None of the claims made on his behalf that he had come for a short period, that he continued to be the foreign minister could conceal the brutal reality that he had abandoned ship.
Six years later, he was the Presidential candidate of Mujib-ur-Rahman’s Party at the November 1981 election in Bangladesh. I was serving then in our High Commission in Dhaka. I did not see Kamal Hossein winning. I lost the friendship of a lady in Dhaka for asking her in the months before that election why her friend Kamal Hossein wanted to ruin his political future. Soon after that election at which he was convincingly trounced, I left Bangladesh for another continent and have not gone back since then to see if that friendship could be revived. Kamal Hossein, I believe, now leads his own political party: someone told me its name, but I cannot remember.
News from India was not very encouraging either. The country seemed to be in a crisis, though not of the same proportions as Bangladesh. At tea at the Lodge of the Master of Balliol one day someone asked me why India was in such a mess. I ventured the opinion that India was not quite used yet to the idea of a modern state. Then this man asked me why we could not work towards some alternative form of political organization. I asked which and added that in today’s world no other form of political organization was known which could substitute for the modern state. With time I have also come to hold the view that these questions lie at the heart of the problems of so many countries in the Third World.
INDIA ’S CRISES OF THAT YEAR continued getting worse. Many of the Indians at Oxford were very critical of Indira Gandhi. Her prestige and authority back in India were low. Then came the court verdict annulling her election to Parliament on some minor illegality, followed by rallies and counter-rallies in Delhi. On June 25, 1975, soon after take off from Heathrow, on the Air India flight on which I was travelling back to Delhi, someone I knew came up and said that a State of Emergency had been declared in India. ‘But’, I said, thinking of the Declaration of Emergency at the time of the conflict with China in 1962 which was still in force, ‘we have been in a state of emergency all these years since 1962’. Mrs. Gandhi had declared a state of internal emergency, my friend said, and added that all those leading the opposition to her, including Jayaprakash Narain had been arrested.
Back in Delhi, trying to understand what was happening, I asked two joint secretaries in the Ministry of External Affairs whom I knew quite well. One said, ‘The less we talked about it, the better’ and would not elaborate. The other, a cad, defended the Declaration and described the action of the political opposition in the days before June 25 as irresponsible. He railed against them saying there would be chaos if there was no Declaration. I knew he was the kind of man who would be vocally critical of Mrs. Gandhi’s emergency régime when she lost power. These brief conversations were no help. It took me some time to understand what was happening.
Even before I left Oxford I had orders moving me to the Indian Embassy in Paris. I would not be able to leave for Paris until the last week of September that year, as I needed time to wind up. For three months between the last week of June and the last week of September, I worked as deputy secretary in Africa division in the Ministry of External Affairs. The joint secretary was a delightful eccentric, not taken seriously by the weightier personalities around. One day he said to me, and not in whispers, that when Mussolini took over, it was said that trains in Italy had started running on time. He was referring to claims made during the early days of Mrs. Gandhi’s emergency régime that it had brought much needed discipline into public services: government employees went to their offices on time, mail was delivered on time, trains ran on time and so forth.
In a few weeks three things became clear to me. One was that, though many political leaders had been sent to jail and newspapers had been gagged, at least in Delhi there was no sense of popular anger or outrage at ‘the rape of democracy’, leave alone popular resistance. Secondly, there was widespread gossip about Sanjay Gandhi having practically forced his mother’s hand into declaring the state of emergency, about Siddhartha Shankar Ray having discovered or invented the legal bases for doing so and, more wildly, about consultations with some unspecified Soviet advisers, a reflection perhaps of the fact that the Communist Party of India came out quite early in support of the emergency measures. And, thirdly, very few people took seriously the official line that Mrs. Gandhi had been forced to declare emergency in order to avert a grave national crisis—most saw it for what it was: a move by Mrs. Gandhi and the people around her to keep their hold on power. Yet, in spite of all their scepticism, people accepted the emergency régime in the same way in which through centuries they had accepted changes of rulers. They did not even take much notice, not in those initial months. For ordinary people in Delhi, of which number I counted myself, life ran its normal course. There was political gossip aplenty, of which there is rarely any dearth in Delhi at any time but no great undercurrent of popular anger at the new dispensation.
Those three months, between end June and end September 1975 at the ‘Factory’ were spent dealing with routine—no major events other than the rush to establish diplomatic relations with Mozambique which became independent, and no accidents. In the neighbourhood of India, the most important event from our viewpoint was the assassination, on August 15, of Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman and most of his family. It was said at that time that the news was brought to Mrs. Gandhi as she was giving her customary Independence Day public speech at the Red Fort, her first after the declaration of emergency. Part of her speech was a justification of the emergency régime. She later mentioned the assassinations in Dhaka as evidence of an international conspiracy against which India had to be on guard. I remember being struck by the absence of any outburst of public anger in Bangladesh against the killing of so hugely popular a leader as Mujib. Either the putschists weree so efficient that they had put lids on all possible protest or Mujib had made himself so unpopular that the people of Bangladesh did not care. Looking back I now ask myself if in fact it was rather an instance of the habitual indifference of people in the Indian subcontinent to the passing of political power from one set of rulers to another.