The Farthest West
TRAINING IN THE INDIAN FOREIGN SERVICE was amateurish. Since I had already done the training programme common for all new entrants to all the numerous administrative services of India during the ten months I had spent in the Indian Audit and Accounts Service, I, and another colleague, who was in a similar situation, started, not repeating the same course and getting to know people from other administrative services of the same year of entry who would later man different departments of Government of India, but as aides to the secretary of a committee Government of India had set up to examine the working of the Indian Foreign Service and to suggest reforms. The chairman of this committee was Sir N. Raghavan Pillai, a retired member of the venerable old Indian Civil Service. Other members were different secretaries (in Government of India, from early days of the British Indian Government, the highest ranking civil servants, often heading departments or ministries, have been called secretaries) in the ministries of External Affairs, Home and Defense, all men from the Indian Civil Service. That was in July 1965. Two of the first things this committee did were to ask for information about the beginnings of the Indian Foreign Service and for a study to be made of a report prepared a little earlier about the British Foreign Service by a similar committee headed by one Lord Plowden.
While the secretary of the Pillai Committee, as it later came to be known, N. Krishnan, studied the Plowden Report and did other important work for the Committee it fell to my other colleague and me to dig out old files about the early days of the Indian Foreign Service. The other colleague collected and analyzed data about the earliest entrants into the Indian Foreign Service. His study was later expanded to include all entrants. I was asked to prepare from old files a brief history of the manner and the arguments on the basis of which the decision to establish the Indian Foreign Service was taken. It was instructive to learn that the first written proposal that, for independent India a diplomatic service be established, was made in a paper in 1946 by a man called J.G. Weightman, a British member of the Indian Civil Service, also of the Indian Political Service, who, as foreign secretary headed the Foreign and Political Department of Government of India. He asked the deputy secretary and under secretary in his department, both of the Indian Political Service and both Indian, for their comments, of which there were none, and sent his paper up to Jawaharlal Nehru, Deputy Chairman, and Member in charge of External Affairs of the Viceroy’s Executive Council. Even before the British transferred power in August 1947 all decisions about the establishment of the Indian Foreign Service, about initial and regular recruitment to it and other related matters had been taken.
Nehru was so keen to ensure that only the best came into the Indian Foreign Service that he wanted personally to choose new entrants from among those selected by the Federal (later, Union) Public Service Commission through a system of open competitive examinations. Being told that it would be illegal to tamper with the selection made by the Public Service Commission, he still wanted to meet those selected by the Public Service Commission for the Indian Foreign Service before they actually entered it. The practice of newly selected candidates for the Indian Foreign Service being given a once over, in a special interview arranged for the purpose, by the Prime Minister of India soon after the Public Service Commission had completed its selection continued till one or two years before Jawaharlal Nehru’s death. My group went through a pale imitation of that process. We were given the once over not by the Prime Minister or the Minister but by a group of, at that time, three secretaries in the Ministry of External Affairs. For me it meant three or four minutes of rather foolish, meaningless conversation with the three senior most bureaucrats in the Ministry of External Affairs.
IN AROUND THE MIDDLE OF AUGUST 1965, tensions between India and Pakistan began rising amidst reports that Pakistan had started sending armed infiltrators into Kashmir valley. From then, till the war and the ensuing cease fire in September and the handling of the post cease fire situation were over it became impossible for the members of the Pillai Committee, with, maybe, the exception of the chairman, to find any time for the Committee. They met very sporadically, if at all, during this period.
From August onwards the Committee’s secretary and his two aides became unemployed. Day after day, we would turn up in Krishnan’s room. Some members of the Foreign Service thinking the Pillai Committee would make recommendations on matters such as allowances (that perennial concern of diplomats from anywhere as I was to learn later), would meet Krishnan to argue for better allowances in the embassies they were in and others would come and brief him on personal difficulties over promotions or assignments or similar matters. I thus had glimpses of a large number of people in the Foreign Service. During those days of idleness we also read and discussed books. One of the books we discussed at length was V.S. Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness, which had appeared around that time and which was disliked by large sections of Indian intelligentsia and official India—in fact official India remained uncomfortable with V. S. Naipaul for a long time, even as it may now, post Nobel Prize for literature, be getting ready to fully embrace him. I remember making an impact during those days on those around me by the fact that I had been reading Cardinal Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua. Out of fear of being thought pompous or a show off I did not tell the others what else I was reading. Of an evening at Krishnan’s house, I met a senior member of the Foreign Service who talked of how in a capital he was ambassador in, the ambassador of some other country, every time they met, would wish to talk about some book he had read and how he, our senior colleague, had shut this ambassador up by saying that the only book he read was Wisden’s Almanac of Cricket. This person might just have been lightheartedly self-deprecatory, but in time, I taught myself not to discuss books or serious ideas except in small, private company.
By the time the Pillai Committee came to life again, we had moved on to be trained in several other places in India for another seventeen months. One part of that training was a stay of six months in a district in India, ostensibly to learn about ‘real’ India. I was sent to a district in Bihar, which I thought I knew well. That was between February and August 1966. Some of the training consisted of being told how the office of the head of the district was organized, knowledge which was going to be of little use in later life. The head of the district occasionally gave me work which was interesting, such as, for example, an enquiry into allegations that a local rural development official had raped a schoolmistress.
I was formally appointed an Assistant Magistrate Class III by the government of the state. That was routine for all those from the Administrative Service who went for training at the headquarters of a distict. That appointment gave me authority to imprison someone for upto one month and impose a fine of Rs. 100. With that office and authority came a peon whose services were at my disposal except that most of the time I did not know what to do with him. For a short while every day I sat in my office room like a king with power but no subjects and the peon, the most visible symbol of my authority, sat in attendance outside my office. In addition to performing a number of personal chores for me, in office he brought me water when I wanted and heralded my arrival in the room of some magistrate whose duties and functions I was asked to learn about or invite others to come to my room. One deputy magistrate threw him out of his room when he went to ask him if I could come and meet him. The head of the district whom I told about this incident scolded the deputy magistrate quite roughly. The deputy magistrate came to meet me at the circuit house where I had been given a room to stay. He apologized and as atonement offered to arrange for my wife and me to see free of charge any movie any time we wanted at any of the cinema halls in town. I declined the offer but he was so importunate that in the end my wife and I went and saw one movie, Satyajit Ray’s Charulata.
Towards the end of my stay in the district, there came a man from the Administrative Service to be trained there and was given the same rank and position as me, and a room in the circuit house facing mine. We introduced ourselves and asked questions about each other. Then he asked me how many peons I had been given, to which I said that I had one with whom I did not know what to do most of the time. He told me he had looked up some papers which said that people of our rank were entitled to two peons and he was going to ask for two. He probably got all that he was entitled to. I did not see much of the gentleman after that first meeting.
Talk among people about different heads of district being close to different politicians also caught my attention. This ran counter to the theoretical idea that in democratic India, the permanent civil services, to which tribe heads of district belonged, were required to be neutral between political parties and politicians. In principle they owed their allegiance to the state and the community and were expected to work for the public good, in accordance with the law, the rules and public policy, maintaining their independence as much from interference from special interests as from politicians and political parties. The head of the district under whose tutelage I was at that time had the reputation of being close to the Chief Minister of Bihar.
I asked him two questions about why it became necessary for a civil servant to seek proximity to a political leader and how, say, a district administrator could be useful to a political leader without violating the rules and the law. He said that when he began working in the administration he assumed that his ideas, his work or his achievements would be reported through the normal bureaucratic hierarchy to the political leadership, which is where real authority was located. He found that in fact that did not happen. He concluded that for survival he had to develop a channel of communication to the political leadership independent of the civil service hierarchy.
In answer to my second question he said that a district administrator had it within his powers to grant a hundred and one things to ordinary people. Many local notables regularly came to him asking him to grant this or the other to them or to their friends. Local notables often built their influence or power on their ability to get things done by the district administrator who soon found out which of these notables was close to which political leader. By the simple device of being more accessible to one notable than to another and accepting the recommendation of one rather than another he could strengthen the patronage network of one politician rather than another. That gentleman, decidedly a very capable man, rose very high in the civil service hierarchy. I do not think I drew any lesson for myself from that conversation, but that was one slice of ‘real’ India I learnt about.
AT THE END MARCH 1967, after some more training in India, it was time to go for our first assignments in Indian embassies abroad as Third Secretaries where we were expected to learn the native language of the country in question, —leaving aside oddities such as someone sent to a German speaking capital or someone else sent to Singapore for learning French. It fell to my lot to be sent to Morocco, Al Maghreb alAqsa, the Farthest West. As a Third Secretary in the Indian Embassy in Rabat, I would be expected to learn Arabic in addition to learning how an embassy functioned and what it did.
My wife, my one-year-old daughter and I arrived in Rabat on a spring afternoon in April 1967, into an unfamiliar world. We had never travelled outside India. Those days, no Government of India employee lower ranking than an embassy first secretary travelled on government account by air. A junior official like me would have travelled First Class by sea to Marseilles and then on by another boat to Casablanca. I had asked and was allowed to travel by air to Rome, by train along the côte d’azur to Marseilles and by air again to Rabat. Not all the scales had yet fallen off my provincial eyes. There was a sense of wonder and discovery in the way I looked at things around me.
A gentleman from the venerable old Indian Civil Service headed the embassy in Rabat. He was a keen philatelist. They said his collection of stamps was quite formidable and probably worth a tidy sum. He had outdoor interests such as travelling and golf. He would come to office for an hour or two every morning except on the day the diplomatic bag was closed, when he would also spend nearly the whole afternoon at office. He seemed cold and remote People in the Embassy talked of these ambassadorial habits with mild disapproval. I do not remember having any clear views on the subject and years later would probably have full-throatedly approved of the workday of the first Indian ambassador I served under, given the state of India’s relations with Morocco at that time. After a lunch at his house within a few days of our arrival, I had very few personal interactions with him, the closest being one around the time of his departure from Rabat about six months later when he sold me a slightly used tyre for a new Volkswagen Beetle which I had ordered but which was not coming until five or six weeks later; through some arithmetic which I did not pay much attention to, he fixed the price at 84 Dirhams (equal those days to 84 French Francs). I was probably too junior to get to know him any better.
At the embassy in Rabat, there were, in addition to the ambassador, two first secretaries and a third secretary. Like me, the third secretary had been sent to Morocco for his first foreign assignment and had, unlike me, to learn French. He had finished with that and was working as the commercial officer of the embassy. He was also busy resisting being sent to Kinshasa in what was then called the Republic of Congo, an endeavour in which he succeeded. He, a bachelor, shared a house with one of the first secretaries, also a bachelor. Some people in the Embassy whispered that they were not bachelors but grass widowers. Even though they had much in common the two were not the best of friends. I occasionally was the listener to their gripes against each other. The other first secretary, having come up from the junior branch of the Foreign Service was older. He, with his family consisting of his wife and two children, had the interests and preoccupations of a middle aged householder.
There were eight other members of supporting staff and their families and an embassy guard, all from India. This community was very helpful with many of the things we needed to do when setting up house. They were generous and welcoming. But, for social relationships and companionship, we were largely left to our own devices. We had slowly to find friends outside the circle of our own embassy, which in the case of Rabat meant outside the circle of Indians, as also to develop the ability to spend time with ourselves without feeling depressed or lonely. Our second child, our son, was born a month after our arrival in Rabat. Raising two young children and the struggles of a young couple setting up house for the first time kept us busy during the initial months. Having grown up in India and having always had domestic help in our families, we took domestic help to be the natural order of things. Looking back I now see what boon it was to have been able to have full time domestic help during those early years, because in a developing country like Morocco such help was easily available and affordable.
MY ARABIC LESSONS needed to be taken care of. No one in Rabat could tell the embassy of any institution that taught Arabic to foreigners. As an alternative, it was decided that a private tutor paid by the embassy would give me lessons three times a week. Since there was no space in the chancery (that is how the office of an embassy is called) for my Arabic lessons it was also agreed that my tutor would come home three afternoons every week. With the help of one of the translators at the Embassy, I found a tutor, a teacher at a lycee in Rabat, a Lebanese Muslim called Abdessalaam Dahrouj. He was a good teacher and a very likeable man. Though we had a clear contractual arrangement about his fee by the hour, he would come home at three in the afternoon three times a week, immediately on entering the house switch on to Arabic and continue with his lessons as long as he could keep me interested in what he was teaching. As if under the force of some law of nature, after the first few days we also started discussing politics so much so that we would not know when the language lessons had ended and the political discussions begun or the other way round.
As the month of May 1967, which is when my Arabic lessons began, advanced, so also did the Arab rhetorical build up towards the June 1967 war with Israel. Towards the end of May my Arabic teacher was full of anticipation and excitement. An Arab nationalist, nurtured on official Arab propaganda, he was confident about an Arab military victory. Nor were Arabs like him the only ones expecting one. A report sent just before the June 1967 war, by the Indian Ambassador in Cairo, an unreformed admirer of Gamal Abdel Nasser and his deputy Ali Sabry, was received by the embassy in Rabat towards the end of June that year as part of a system of exchange of reports among Indian embassies. In it he had extolled Nasser’s diplomatic masterstrokes in the weeks before the June war and had already consigned “the Husseins and the Faisals to the dustbin of history”. When the Arab military disaster came the disappointment in Abdessalam Dahrouj, my Arabic tutor, was so intense you could touch it. After, within six short days, it was militarily all over for the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian armies, the Arabs vowed a war until the liberation of all Arab lands.
One of those days in June the King of Morocco presided over a parade meant to mark the dispatch of Moroccan troops to ‘the front’. Those troops did not go very far. When, talking about this episode with Abdessalam Dahrouj I said that the King of Morocco claimed descent from the Prophet, he burst out saying: Kulluha khurafa, Syed Rai, kulluha khurafa (They are all lies Mr. Rai, they are all lies). He meant the claims of the Moroccan and the Jordanian royal families to descent from the Prophet. Later that year, Abdessalam Dahrouj left Morocco for Senegal. He found me a replacement, El Masri, a Tunisian, also a teacher in a lycee. With the new teacher too it was the same routine. When he had done with teaching me the intricacies of Arabic grammar and phonetics and introducing me to texts like Kalila wa Dimna which is a collection of the same stories which we find in The Panchatantra and in Aesop’s fables, he would discuss politics, especially Middle East politics. Both Dahrouj and El Masri firmly believed that Jews, being dominant in the financial, media and movie industries in the United States, had an unlimited capacity to manipulate United States policy in favour of Israel. I was to learn later that this was and still is a widely held view in the Arab world.
By around the middle of 1968, I had taken and passed the required examination in Arabic language and was fit to be considered a duly trained and initiated Indian diplomat. I knew French reasonably well from my university days but had had no occasion to speak it in India. In Morocco, nearly all educated people spoke French or Moroccan Arabic which, like elsewhere in the Arab world, is very different from literary Arabic, the language of books, newspapers, radio news broadcasts and formal speeches, which is what I learnt from my two tutors. The result was that my spoken French improved while my spoken Arabic, not at all. Between my departure from Morocco in 1970 and my return to the Arab world in 1992, I had no contact with the Arabic language. All I retain from Government of India’s investment in me and my own efforts during one year is the Arabic script and a vocabulary large enough for me to understand some Urdu prose and to create an impression on Arabs or on those knowing the Arabic language when I want to. I also retain the surat ul fatiha from the Koran.
MOROCCO IN 1967, eleven years after the departure of the French was far more French than India was British in 1958, eleven years after the departure of the British. French language had penetrated much deeper in Morocco than English ever did in India, so much so that even in the deepest interior of ‘the useful Morocco’ (that is how Lyautey, the best known French administrator of the protectorate of Morocco characterized the country between the Atlas Mountains in the east and the south and the Atlantic and the Mediterranean in the west and the north) we could find people to communicate with easily in French. Proportionately many more French lived in Morocco than did the British in India. Not only were there French men and women in higher echelons in Government and commercial offices, but also French secretaries in offices, French salesgirls in shops and French garagists, traders, industrialists as well as all manner of other French operators, were visible everywhere. In the centre of Rabat it was possible to buy as much of fresh French cheese and as much of fresh herbs used in French cuisine as you wanted. French cuisine, authentic French cuisine, was easy to come by. Wine, both French and Moroccan, was easily available and openly consumed in this Muslim country whose ruler probably expected from his subjects some of the reverence due to a descendant of Prophet Mohammed but did nothing to enforce ‘Muslim piety’ on them. In Rabat and Casablanca there were Galeries Lafayette, Les Nouvelles Galeries, Miprix and Monoprix. And if on a weekend you went to the rather pleasant stretch of corkwood forest just south of Rabat, which is what we did often, you would find it full mainly of French men and women, some in a state of post prandial repose, others playing pétanque.
In 1967 and 1968, Morocco still lived under the shadow of the ben Barka affair. Early during the reign of Hassan II, in 1965, Mehdi ben Barka, a left wing Moroccan politician had been kidnapped on the streets of Paris and was never seen again. It was suspected that Colonel Dlimi, the head of Moroccan security services, in collusion with some elements of French security services had organized the disappearance. It was also suspected that General Oufkir, Hassan II’s Minister of Interior had given his approval to and had prior knowledge. General de Gaulle was at the height of his power in France. When this affair broke out, the Government of France went into a holy rage. There was a trial and some Frenchmen were sentenced. The French Government demanded that Colonel Dlimi and General Oufkir be sent to France to face trial. The Moroccan Government refused. They were tried in absentia and one of them was found guilty of conspiracy. Oufkir and Dlimi, though, did not for a long time travel outside Morocco, above all, not to France. France reduced its diplomatic relations with Morocco to the level of chargé d’affaires, the French keeping a man in Rabat high ranking enough to be an ambassador but styling him chargé d’affaires ad interim, which is diplomatic gibberish meaning in plain language a man in charge for the time being. But the Frenchman in charge for the time being (the ‘time being’ in this case had already become two years in 1967) had easier access to the higher levels of Moroccan Government than most ambassadors of other countries in Rabat.
By the end of 1968, the French government had softened its position. In the spring of 1969 a new French Ambassador arrived, his arrival being heralded by two well organized and largely attended receptions given by him. My wife and I attended the one for diplomats and similar people to which we were invited. It was obvious that in this symbolic restoration of normal diplomatic relations, raisons d’état had been the driving force, for neither General Oufkir nor Colonel Dlimi had been removed from their positions, let alone being sent to France. Looking back at this episode after we had left Morocco, I also remembered that by the third quarter of 1968, General de Gaulle had been politically crippled by the upheavals of spring that year.
After we left Morocco, I read in the press about an attempt on the life of Hassan II in 1970 and another in 1971. General Oufkir who had been the subject of so many conversations in Morocco had died by the end of the 1971 attempt on Hassan II’s life, having been implicated in it. The circumstances of Dlimi’s death in a road accident were murky. Years later in another capital I met another diplomat who had been in Morocco in 1971 who said with confident assertion that after the failure of the 1971 putsch a very high Moroccan personality had shot Oufkir dead with his own hand at close quarters, administering summary justice.
In the wake of the ben Barka affair, genuine political opposition in Morocco had been driven underground. There were no elections. The press, such as it was, was censored. There were reports from time to time, printed clandestinely or circulated by word of mouth, of arrests of members of the socialist party and the workers’ party. People I met talked about these things in whispers as they did of corruption and the authoritarian nature of the régime. They talked of the close relations between Oufkir and Hassan II. Often, when many talked about Hassan II in private, they showed no enthusiasm or affection for him—in fact there were some who showed a measure of cynical disrespect; in their eyes Hassan had yet to outgrow the reputation of a playboy he had acquired as Crown Prince. Such admiration or affection as existed for the King in public was in part enforced and in part created by a whole infrastructure that monarchies habitually erect for this purpose.
In 1967, Hassan II was still looking for political legitimacy and the legitimizing principles for him and for people around him were both his claimed descent from the Prophet and his claim to be a moderate Arab nationalist, as much a defender of the Arab cause as any other. Not surprisingly the régime Hassan presided over was conservative. His affinities in the Arab world were with the monarchies of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Libya.
His father, Mohammad V, about whom most Moroccans I knew talked with respect, did not face the problem of political legitimacy, which he had acquired from his identification with the Moroccan aspirations for independence during the post-Second World War years, so much so that the French had removed him from the throne in 1953 and sent him into exile in Madagascar. For a brief period, until the reinstatement of Mohammed and independence in 1956, the French had installed on the throne a Berber chief called el Glaoui from the southern Atlas mountains, trying, unsuccessfully as it turned out, to play upon the difference between Arab and Berber. I remember visiting el Glaoui’s castle in the Atlas during one of our outings. Not only did the place look to have come from another age but also the guide took special pleasure in showing us dungeons where el Glaouis apparently kept their opponents in chains. Whether this was part of official Moroccan demomnology, I could not tell, but a fairly widely displayed photograph even in the late 1960’s was that of el Glaoui seeking Mohammed V’s pardon after the latter’s return from exile. In the eyes of most Moroccans I came across, el Glaoui was the quintessential quisling.
Most weekends we would set out on long drives. We thus saw much of Lyautey’s ‘useful Morocco’, the exceptions being the Northeast around the town of Oujda and the border with Algeria, the South around the town of Agadir and the Spanish towns of Ceuta and Melilla on the Mediterranean, which the Moroccans claimed as their own and to which they occasionally threatened to organize ‘popular marches’. We came to like the country and the people. There would be times when peasants in remote areas would stop to ask us where we were from and the name of India, El Hind, being part of ordinary Arabic vocabulary, no one ever asked where India was. Some would say something about Indian movies and Indian movie actors; sometimes someone would hum or chant a popular tune from some Hindi movie. In later years this kind of experience repeated itself for us elsewhere in the developing world in Africa and Asia, or even in the three Republics of the former Soviet Union which we got to know.
Occasionally, after we had told our interlocutor the name of our country, we would be asked whether we were Muslims. I do not remember any instance, with the exception of one, when the fact of our not being Muslims made any difference. During our second visit to the town of Fez, we wanted to see the famous Kairaouine mosque. At the entrance a man asked if we were Muslims. When I said we were not, I was told non-Muslims were not allowed in. It seems that was the general rule though we had been inside a mosque in Rabat. Any number of Moroccan acquaintances to whom I recounted this anecdote later told me we should simply have said we were Muslims and gone inside. I did not think I created much of an impression saying that we did not wish to enter a place of worship on false pretences.
BY THE END OF OCTOBER 1967, a new Indian Ambassador had come to Rabat. As a first time ambassador, he was full of enthusiasm for his work and of the desire for concrete achievement. There were narrow limits to any success in reducing the coolth in political relations. In theory non-alignment and India’s declared friendship with the Arabs should have been strong enough political bonds between India and Morocco. But though Morocco was non-aligned it maintained close military relations with the U.S.A. A few kilometres north of Rabat, at Kenitra, there was an American military base. And Morocco was neither emotionally nor materially seriously involved in the central political problem of the Middle East, the problem between Palestinian Arabs and the State of Israel. Indian leadership felt greater affinity with Nasser’s Egypt and Ba’athist Syria and Iraq than with the monarchies and the westward looking republics like Tunisia. There were influential people in Delhi who divided the Arab world between ‘progressives’ and ‘conservatives’. Morocco was part of the second group while Indian foreign policy establishment felt at home with the other. King Hassan’s Morocco reciprocated with equal coolness. Besides, the Moroccans displayed considerable warmth towards Pakistan, a grave sin in Indian eyes then and in the years to come. For the new ambassador, eager for achievement, other areas of diplomatic work offered greater opportunities than political. Promotion of trade was one.
Around the same time as the arrival of the new ambassador, the other third secretary in the embassy, by then a second secretary, left on assignment elsewhere. I was asked to take over from him as the commercial and consular officer even though my official apprenticeship would not be over till I passed a test in Arabic language eight months later. Nearly all the work as the consular officer meant signing passports, visas and diverse other instruments such as birth and death certificates and admitting affidavits; nothing that required great skills in problem solving. In 1968, though, there was one incident that, while demanding no great mental exertion, showed me the importance of a consular agent.
In the late 1950’s there turned up in Delhi a smooth talking and smart-alecky gentleman called Dharma Teja, better known as Dr. Teja. With his talk about establishing a ‘national’ shipping empire he created a deep impression on some of the most powerful people in India in the manner in which other glib talkers have not unoften impressed and duped the mighty in Delhi. Government of India’s backing became available to Dr. Teja in generous measure. With that backing came easy availability of loans from financial institutions and banks. Dr. Teja used this easy money to buy second, third or fifth hand tubs from wherever, with which to establish his ‘shipping empire’ called Jayanti Shipping Company. All the ships of the company were called ‘(Something) Jayanti’. For a few years Dr. Teja became a celebrity entrepreneur. Then came his fall which was a little slower than his rise. By 1965, his company caught in a web of unpaid bills and unrepaid bank loans, personally accused of all manner of financial skullduggery, he became a fugitive from Indian law, taking shelter in Costa Rica. Government of India accredited the Indian Consul General in New York as the Indian Ambassador to Costa Rica so that Dr. Teja could be extradited to India. He never was, dying an unsung death in foreign lands. His insolvent shipping company went into receivership, passing under the management of the state owned Shipping Corporation of India.
On a foggy morning in 1968, one of these Jayanti ships ran aground on the coast of Morocco about 100 kilometres south of Casablanca and had a split bottom. Its crew, mindful of the need to save money, decided to avoid having to have the ship towed to Casablanca. They struggled and succeeded in re-floating it at high tide and brought it into Casablanca harbour on its power. Its master, a Parsi gentleman married to a Red Indian lady (I did not at that time know that that appellation which we other Indians so routinely use sounded odd to American ears, nor had the modern politically correct expression, ‘Native American’ yet passed into common usage) and some other senior members of the crew met me, the consular officer of the embassy, in the afternoon so to make before me a certain number of declarations, including the all important Declaration of General Average. The master told me, probably hyperbolically, that the night the ship got caught in a storm and ran aground even the one radio instrument on board, the chief engineer’s household transistor radio receiver was not working. The ship’s main navigational equipment was the human eye aided by a telescope, a compass and a few other similar simple implements. Consular formalities such as getting my precious signatures on appropriate documents over, the next set of problems before the master and his superiors in the Shipping Corporation of India was about the future of the ship and its cargo. The ship laden mainly with a cargo of some 5,000 tonnes of long staple Egyptian cotton was on a voyage from Egypt to India. With the Suez Canal closed to international shipping in the aftermath of the 1967 war, this ship like many others was circumnavigating Africa.
To be repaired, it would need to be towed either to Cadiz or to Algeciras in Spain. The quite considerable expenditure on all that was thought infructuous by the Shipping Corporation of India, which decided in the end to sell it as scrap in Casablanca. I had the impression that on hearing the news of this decision of the managers, the vultures all got together to make an easy picking. Armed with a power of attorney executed for this purpose in my favour, I signed the deed selling this large ship for 150,000 Dirhams, equal at that time to 30,000 American dollars. I had no part in the decision to sell, nor in the negotiations, yet I was asked to sign the sale deed because of the value of my signatures I thought. I could not at that time know that some twenty-one years later, because of this same value of my signatures, I would be asked by one Indian politician to put those signatures on another set of documents which placed me at the centre of a national political scandal in India.
Over the disposal of the approximately 5,000 tonnes of cotton, the vultures were equally active. Under the orders of the fire department of Casablanca Port the cotton had to be quickly unloaded from the ship because, apparently, wet cotton in an enclosed space is highly inflammable. It seems water and raw cotton when in contact with each other undergo a chemical reaction raising the temperature of the cotton, thus creating a fire hazard. The cotton in the ship’s holds had got wet because of the split bottom. Later, officials of the fire department argued that wet cotton on the wharves was as much a fire hazard, and unless it was removed from there very quickly, it would be reloaded into the ship and the crippled ship would be towed out to the open sea. It was clear the cotton would have to be sold to whoever came forward. As usual in such circumstances, not many came forward and the cotton went, I suspected, for some trifling sum. As I did not sign the sale deed for this, and as in any case the insurers were there to take care of their interests, I did not know the price. Nor did I ask if wet cotton, when dry once again, would be as good in a spinning mill as virgin cotton.
Aside from selling a crippled, old ship, which had once been the property of a rotten ‘shipping empire’, my job as the commercial officer was also to promote trade ties between India and Morocco, mainly Indian exports to Morocco. I did what commercial officers of embassies generally do which is to pore over the trade and economic statistics of the country, write reports, write ineffectual letters about complaints from exporters and importers in the two countries and take care of visiting Indian groups trying to sell this product or that, not asking if any of this actually produced trade. I quite happily accepted being cultivated and entertained by officials in the export department of the Office Chérifien des Phosphates, the Moroccan Government agency dealing with the mining and marketing of rock phosphates, of which Morocco was a major producer and exporter. India, a large prospective market but a minor importer of the product from Morocco, was attractive; so were the Indian ambassador and his commercial officer. In addition to telling us about the superior virtues of the rock from Morocco in comparison to phosphatic rocks from elsewhere, the men from the Office also argued that it was uneconomical to transport rock all the way from Morocco to India and that it would be much more sensible for India and Morocco to jointly produce phosphoric acid in Morocco and transport the acid for use by the fertilizer industry in India. We in our turn transmitted all this to people back home. There were at that time no buyers in India for the phosphoric acid idea. Such rock phosphates as Morocco actually exported to India was done through the efforts of the Indian agent of the Office and not because anything we at the Indian Embassy did.
When I started as the commercial officer of the embassy which was at the same time as the new ambassador started his work there (in the solemnity of the language of diplomacy I should be saying ‘started his mission’), the ruling view on the Indian side, encouraged no doubt by the embassy, was that India could export large quantities of green tea to Morocco but the Moroccans were difficult. Now, the Moroccans, for reasons which I never found out, drink green tea of which the only other real consumers—and producers—are the Chinese, the Japanese and the Vietnamese. In those days they consumed between eight and ten thousand tonnes of the product annually and imported nearly all of it from the People’s Republic of China. Rich Moroccans drank fine Chinese green teas without adding anything or with very small quantities of sugar. Poorer Moroccans drank plainer green teas in large quantities with fresh mint leaves and large dollops of sugar—if a drink were to be described as Morocco’s national drink, it would be this. A share of this market looked very attractive to the new and enthusiastic Indian ambassador to Morocco and his equally new and enthusiastic commercial officer.
Import of tea and sugar was managed by a state monopoly called the Office National du Thé et du Sucre (The National Office for Tea and Sugar). The ambassador decided that we should concentrate our energies on promoting the sale of Indian green tea and for this purpose cultivate the concerned people at the Tea office. One of the key individuals was the Technical Director, for without his approval no tea could be imported. It became my task to cultivate this gentleman, about twenty years older than me. I had the freedom to make the 95-kilometre road journey to Casablanca whenever I wanted. Many of these journeys were to the Tea Office and a not inconsiderable number ended with lunch at the home of the Technical Director. Both he and his wife were Casablanca Jews who were equally fluent in French, Spanish and the Moroccan dialect of Arabic. His family, he told me, had come to Morocco in the 15 th century, escaping persecution by the régime of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic, whose name he never pronounced without the epithet la salope. At home, he said, they still spoke an archaic form of Spanish (I believe it is called ladino). He talked about the numerous Fez families such as Bennanis and Benjellouns who were originally Jewish refugees from the persecuting Ferdinand and Isabella, who had later converted to Islam. He said that the 150,000 or so Jews living at that time in Morocco felt quite secure under Hassan II, adding that he was personally very close to a number of Jewish families. I was surprised to learn in later years that roughly half the population of Moroccan Jews had migrated to Israel in the decade of the 1970’s. I wondered if they left out of a sense of insecurity—I could not imagine Hassan II’s government threatening the life or livelihood of Moroccan Jews—or simply in search of better opportunities. I am reminded of a visit in 1991 to the old synagogue of Kochi in India when I asked the question why the Jews had left. I also asked if they had felt threatened. The elderly gentleman (he looked at least eighty), a Cohen, who showed us around at the synagogue told me there were only twenty five White Jews, all quite old, left in Kochi. The younger people had gone, mostly to Israel, in search of better opportunities, he said.
In the spring of 1968, the Government of Morocco was angry with the People’s Republic of China. A shipload of green tea and other merchandise meant for Casablanca had also, it was said, brought tonnes of Mao’s little red book. This had, not surprisingly, outraged Moroccan authorities. I do not remember if some people in Morocco were arrested, but the Moroccan Government took a policy decision to diversify its sources of green tea. We were told that there was no limit within Morocco’s requirements to the quantity of green tea Morocco was prepared to buy from India. The Indian ambassador and his commercial officer were naturally excited at the possibility of pushing India’s exports to Morocco several fold. We had, we felt, worked hard at befriending the right people. We also thought the atmosphere was right. There was one problem though. India did not produce much green tea. The small quantities of some very ordinary green tea that were produced were all exported to Afghanistan. After a whole year of trying very hard the small Indian producers were able to scrape together no more than four hundred tonnes. During this same period, the Soviet Union was able to bring in two or three thousand tonnes of the commodity from the Republic of Georgia. The Technical Director at the tea office showed me some of the Georgian tea, which even to my unpracticed eyes looked poor compared to the teas from China. Evidently, the Soviet Union was especially making green tea (making green or black tea is no more than a matter of treating the tea leaf differently) for Morocco, trying to take advantage of the opening created by the little red book. I was not aware yet of the bitterness and animosity that already defined the relations between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. A little less than three decades later when, as the Indian Ambassador to the post soviet Republic of Georgia, I was taken to some tea plantations in the Kutaisi province of Georgia, I learnt that the Georgians or anyone else in the Soviet Union were not consumers of green tea, nor had they been in the past.
During that year of trying to increase our export of green tea to Morocco, we at the Indian Embassy in Rabat became both recipients and purveyors of ideas about how to succeed in our efforts. One Moroccan entrepreneur suggested that he would invest money in existing or new tea plantations in India to make green tea for Morocco. There were no takers for this idea in India. I did not know at that time that India was able to easily export all the tea it had available for export and that the country needed to increase its production to keep up with rising domestic demand. We bemoaned the inability of people back home to understand and to do something to seize the opportunity created for us by China’s cultural revolutionaries. We then received a request for some tea saplings or cuttings for an experimental tea plantation that the Moroccans ran. People back home turned down this request saying that the export of tea saplings or cuttings from India was not permitted—a policy designed apparently to preserve our already non-existent ‘monopoly’ as producers and suppliers of fine teas.
We did not make much success, though we splashed about a great deal, because we did not have the product we were trying to sell. Some years and other failures later I reflected, in private musings, on the hubris of salesmen and advertisers, (to which kinship diplomats also partly belong) who believe they can sell anything. On one occasion, when I expressed an opposing view on the subject, I was made to feel like a lout.During the years of Rajiv Gandhi’s Prime Ministership of India, it was fashionable to talk about packaging. Some former advertisement men were reputed to be his close personal friends and people who had been salesmen of paints, chemicals and other sundry products formed part of his political entourage. There was in this ambience even talk of properly ‘packaging and selling’ Rajiv Gandhi to the people of India, particularly when Rajiv Gandhi’s Indian denigrators talked of his ‘lack of experience’ and his ‘ineptitude’. Apparently salesmen believed that their day had come as the new people who ‘did’ things in India.
In one of those years, in 1987 or 1988, I was invited to a luncheon in Delhi organized by an association of advertising companies or of advertisement professionals (I do not remember which). I was seated at a table at which there were two ladies and one gentleman each of whom seemed to have been a success in the profession of advertising. Much of the conversation naturally was about successes and failures of people in the field and some of the talk was about what good advertisement and salesmanship could achieve. There was the by now familiar refrain that with good packaging and presentation anything could be sold. Conversation became lifeless, almost ceased, when I said that in order to sell it was necessary to have a product, a proper product. Mercifully, by then dessert had been served and eaten, all the speeches made and, at that time of the day, I could plausibly say that I had to run along for a meeting.
IN MARCH 1969, there was a new Indian ambassador to Morocco, a gentlemanly, humane, cultivated and physically well built Sikh, Gurbachan Singh. A second secretary, Ishrat Aziz, had replaced one of the first secretaries. It was decided that when the other first secretary left, I would take over his responsibilities as the press and information officer of the embassy along side whatever else I was doing. This latter job meant that, in addition to putting out cyclostyled newsletters containing information about India and her achievements, I had to do my share of countering whatever Pakistan said against us, particularly on the question of Jammu and Kashmir.
Ever since the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, Pakistan had acquired renewed importance in Indian diplomatic efforts. Indian members of parliament were as ready to go out to many countries to explain India’s case against Pakistan, as they were to criticize Government of India and its Ministry of External Affairs for not doing enough to explain India’s case to the world. In 1965, there was a meeting of Arab Heads of State in Casablanca and the Indian Embassy in Rabat had at that time made strenuous efforts, in the event successful, to ensure that Pakistan’s friends in the Arab world did not use the meeting for taking positions unfavourable to India whether on the Jammu and Kashmir question or on the treatment of India’s Muslim minority. Through the 1960’s as indeed at all other times, the ability to counter Pakistan was one of the crucial standards by which India’s diplomatic success was measured by the people and parliament in India.
In 1967, Zakir Hussein became the President of India. In the armoury of Indian diplomacy, this was another means with which to answer persistent Pakistani propaganda—of special importance for both India and Pakistan in the Muslim world—about the treatment of the Muslim minority in India. But also because of the personal stature of Zakir Hussein, his election as President of India made an impression on the Muslim world. When, in the summer of 1969, a fire in Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem created an outcry in the Muslim world, a proposal, at first for a meeting of Arab Heads of State and then for one of Muslim Heads of State, to discuss the incident was made and rapidly received support. The King of Morocco offered to host this meeting. Because of the impact created by Zakir Hussein’s election, many in the Arab world favoured India being invited to this meeting, although Zakir Hussein had died in May that year. It took about a month for the idea of a meeting of Muslim Heads of State to discuss the fire at Al Aqsa Mosque to be tossed around and set. In the second half of September that year the summit idea became real and preparations moved apace.
For reasons which I have never got to know but can make guesses about, Government of India decided to lobby for an invitation to this summit. I guess the most important reason at the back of the minds of policy makers in Delhi would have been that it would be of advantage to India to be able to meet Pakistani arguments on Jammu and Kashmir and on the treatment of the Muslim minority in India headlong within a conference of Muslim Heads of State. Contrariwise, people would have calculated, as was their wont, that they must not leave the field open to Pakistan if they had the means. Looking back at these developments, I have wondered whether the Indian decision to lobby for an invitation to a conference of Muslim Heads of State was not also in part due to the temptation of diplomats to pursue ‘victories’ for the sheer pleasure of winning, for after all for the Indian Ministry of External Affairs it would have been a great ‘achievement’ if India were to participate in a meeting which, from the perspective of Indo-Pakistan relations, gives Pakistan a ‘natural’ advantage.
Gurbachan Singh was on home leave in India from mid-July onwards and was due back in Rabat towards the end of the third week of September. Ishrat Aziz was our man in charge for the time being . One afternoon in September Ishrat and his wife had dropped in at home. I told him in passing of news that was given out that morning by Le Petit Marocain , a morning tabloid of ordinary quality which gave us the staple of our daily news, factual and sterilized, that a preparatory committee to decide on various details including the countries to be invited to a summit meeting of Muslim States due to open in Rabat on September 23, was set for some day two or three days thence. Ishrat said: ‘Oh God, I must meet some people in the Moroccan Ministry of Foreign Affairs very quickly’ or something to that effect. I guessed that Ishrat had received instructions from Government of India about making some démarche to the Moroccans about our participation in the summit, though, conscious of his responsibilities under the Official Secrets Act, he did not tell me so.
As soon as Gurbachan Singh came back, he had a series of meetings and, on September 22 or in the morning of September 23, Ahmad Laraki, the Foreign Minister of Morocco informed him that India had been invited to the Rabat summit Conference of Islamic States. Gurbachan Singh, from what he told me, said to Laraki that, while a full Indian Delegation probably led by an Indian Government minister would be coming, it could not come in time for the opening of the Conference for which he proposed a partial Indian delegation led by Abdul Alim, Vice Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University who was at that time on a visit to Morocco. Laraki said that the Rabat meeting was inter-governmental and the Ambassador of India should appropriately lead the partial Indian delegation. Thus an Indian delegation led by Gurbachan Singh and comprising Abdul Alim and Ishrat Aziz participated in the second plenary session of the first Conference of Heads of Islamic States in Rabat at the end of the afternoon of September 23, 1969. As it turned out that was the only Indian governmental delegation ever to have sat in a Conference of Islamic States.
There had been around the same time Hindu-Muslim riots in Ahmedabad in the Indian state of Gujarat and elsewhere in India—ironically, as I write this in the year 2002, Hindu-Muslim riots in Ahmedabad and elsewhere in Gujarat have gone on for the best part of two months amid accusations that the state authorities in Gujarat have actively connived in the killing of Muslims. In September 1969, though the riots were brought under control swiftly enough, many Muslim lives were lost. There was expression of concern in the Islamic world over the killing of Muslims in India but the feelings were not so strong as to come in the way of India being admitted into the Rabat Conference, of which the opening and second session passed off without any incident, each delegation making a brief, formal and general statement, as is the custom on such occasions. Gurbachan Singh also made his statement saying all the right things about the importance of the Conference, about the importance of the serious questions the Conference was going to deliberate upon and adding that the next day, in sha’ Allah, a full Indian delegation led by the Indian Minister Fakhr-ud-Din Ali Ahmad would participate. In the evening, after the plenary session, the partial Indian delegation met at the Embassy Residence (in plain language, the Ambassador’s house, which sometimes the French insist on calling simply the Residence), where I was also invited to join in, to discuss the day’s events. When we parted that evening, we went to sleep contented sleeps.
On the next morning, Abdul Alim and Ishrat Aziz went directly to Rabat Hilton, the venue of the Conference. On his way there, the ambassador stopped by at the Embassy. It being understood that I would mind the shop while the others were away at the Conference, I was at the office early. It was also my job to scan the newspapers. Our attention was soon fixed on a news story in Le Petit Marocain of that morning which reported that India, which had been invited and was attending the Conference, had given an undertaking about the proper treatment and protection of its Muslim minority. The newspaper quoted Laraki as having said all this. We drafted a press statement saying that under its Constitution India was bound to protect all its citizens equally irrespective of their faith and that the question of giving such guarantees to outside powers did not arise. I was asked to keep a sufficiently large number of copies of this press statement in both English and Arabic ready till the ambassador returned to office an hour or so later. The ambassador returned much earlier than I had expected and asked me to hold back the press statement. He had taken up with Laraki the report about Indian guarantees on the treatment of Indian Muslims. Laraki had told the ambassador that the Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia had given such assurances to King Feisal. ‘Feisal would not lie’, Laraki had added. In this meeting, Laraki had said something else to Gurbachan Singh, which I got to know later.
Early that afternoon the main Indian delegation led by Fakhr-ud-Din Ali Ahmad, Indian Minister of Industry at that time and including Syed Ali Zaheer, a prominent Muslim politician from Uttar Pradesh past his political prime, I. P. Singh from the concerned territorial desk in the Ministry of External Affairs, Rana K. D. N. Singh, a senior member of the Indian Administrative Service and Special Assistant to the Minister (in other words, the head of the Minister’s Office) arrived in Rabat. I accompanied Gurbachan Singh to the airport to meet the Indian Delegation, which was received on behalf of the Moroccan Government by their Minister of Commerce, the reception being complete with the playing of national anthems and a military guard of honour. From the airport the Indian minister and his entourage drove straight to Rabat Hilton.
There was some confusion as we arrived there. Even before Fakhr-ud-Din Ali Ahmad could get down from his car, Badr-ud-Din Senoussi, the Moroccan Minister of Information, a big black man, hurriedly squeezed into the Indian minister’s car, and in haste we drove off from the Conference site to the bungalow where the Indian minister and some of his entourage were to be lodged. Senoussi told the Indian minister that the Conference had not resumed its meetings that day and that Senoussi would himself inform the Indian minister when the time for him to go to the Conference came. But very soon afterwards, Senoussi was back, this time to inform Fakhr-ud-Din Ali Ahmad that Pakistan had raised objections to India’s participation in the Conference and the Moroccans were trying to resolve the difficulties. Meanwhile, we should patiently wait, we were advised.
Soon afterwards, Tunku Abd-ur-Rahman of Malaysia came to meet Fakhr-ud-Din Ali Ahmad to tell him that the Conference was deadlocked because of Pakistani objections over India’s continued participation and that he who had come as a friend of India wished to request India, as a friend of the Islamic world, to make a gesture such as for example not going to any further meetings, so that the Conference could deal with its main business. Fakhr-ud-Din Ali Ahmad declined unequivocally, locking himself into a position from which there could be no easy departure.
That was already late in the afternoon. At the end of the afternoon there came a delegation comprising Tunku Abd-ur-Rahman, Anwar Sadat of Egypt and the President of the Republic of Niger. Formally, on behalf of the Conference, they explained the difficulties and requested India to make a grand gesture by voluntarily withdrawing. Fakhr-ud-Din Ali Ahmad, after consultations with Minister of External Affairs Dinesh Singh, in New York at that time for the annual UN General Assembly meeting, declined. Hassan II of Morocco, who had an obvious interest in the Conference continuing without glitches towards a successful conclusion sent Ahmad El Slaoui or Reda Guedira(I do not remember which), the Head of his Office for a meeting with Fakhr-ud-Din Ali Ahmad mainly to repeat the proposals that had been made earlier. This was a longish meeting, interspersed by consultations, over the telephone, between Hassan II and his Head of Office. By the time this meeting ended it was already time for the banquet hosted by Hassan II to honour the delegates to start. Fakhr-ud-Din Ali Ahmad who had no invitation to the banquet ate his dinner in the quiet of his bungalow, accompanied by the members of his entourage. Quite clearly, at some stage during the day even while the consultations with Fakhr-ud-Din Ali Ahmad were going on, the Moroccans had decided to proceed without the Indian delegation.
While these consultations were on, inside the Indian delegation there was confusion. At one stage, Rana K. D. N. Singh, who, when not worrying about the wardrobe or the blood pressure of his master the Indian minister, worried about his public standing, decided that the Indian delegation should become active. He fumed and fretted that we were not doing any lobbying with our friends in that Islamic gathering—forgetting that the leaders of delegations from two countries in that gathering with which India had the best of relations had already advised Fakhru-ud-Din Ali Ahmad that India should voluntarily withdraw—and that nothing could be gained by our simply idling at the bungalow. Gurbachan Singh, who was getting tired of K. D. N. Singh’s wringing of hands and stamping of feet (in one whispered comment to me, he called him a ‘pain in the neck’), allowed himself to be persuaded to go to Rabat Hilton, accompanied by I. P. Singh and Rana K. D. N. Singh in order to ‘lobby’. They came back very soon, Gurbachan Singh looking flustered.
A little later I, who had a card as the press officer of the Embassy, giving me access to the Conference venue, was asked to go to Rabat Hilton to scout around and find out whatever I could about what was happening. There I ran into some newsmen whom I knew who told me that after the plenary the previous day at which an official Indian delegation was present, General Yahya Khan had received pressing and threatening messages overnight from Pakistan saying that he must not agree to continued Indian participation in this Islamic Conference, or else. Thus on the second day in the morning, even before the arrival of Fakhr-ud-Din Ali Ahmad, Yahya Khan had let it be known that he would not sit at the same conference table with India while Muslims were being killed in India (a reference to sectarian violence in Ahmedabad). Hussein of Jordan saying that he would not participate if Pakistan were not participating followed this. And thereafter Feisal of Saudi Arabia and the Shahinshah of Iran took the position that they did not see much point in going to a meeting, called to discuss the fire in the mosque in Jerusalem, if Hussein of Jordan was not taking part in it. There was very little we could achieve by lobbying against such a combine, it would seem by hindsight. The people at Rabat Hilton also told me that Laraki, the Foreign Minister had, earlier that evening, said to the Indian Ambassador, loudly, within the hearing of many people: ‘Mr. Ambassador, I had advised you not to come to the Conference site. Why are you here? I shall send a message to your Foreign Minister declaring you persona non grata’. This had happened when Rana K.D.N. Singh had dragged Gurbachan Singh and I.P.Singh to Rabat Hilton for‘lobbying’. It also seems Laraki had said to Ambassador Gurbachan Singh that morning when he met him over the reports on Indian guarantees about the treatment of Muslims in India, that there were some difficulties because of which he would request the ambassador not to go to the Conference venue for the time being. Our ‘lobbying’ having ended thus and what I had heard about that day’s happenings having been reported to my superiors, there was nothing for me but to go home to sleep.
The next day the Conference continued with its work, everyone pretending that the Indian Delegation was not in town. The Indian Delegation, having refused to ‘voluntarily withdraw’, had to tarry yet for a while in Rabat, eventually retreating in confusion, without being taken much notice of, though accorded all due courtesies at departure. Hassan II at the conclusion received praise from many, claimed success, also declaring in his concluding statement that his heart bled for Muslims wherever they were dying or suffering, in Palestine, Kashmir or in India. Expectedly, this reference to the suffering and death of Muslims in Kashmir and in India angered us Indians. When Gurbachan Singh took up these references in the King’s speech with Laraki, he denied that such remarks had been made and as ‘proof’ sent the official text of Hassan II’s statement from which those words about India and Kashmir were missing; yet there was no doubt that those words had actually been uttered, not at least in my mind—three different people who had either heard the statement broadcast live over the radio or was present at the conference had independently repeated to me the exact words spoken by the King.
We all felt so offended that it did not matter for us whether the King of Morocco had departed from the prepared text when he made that pronouncement or whether, after the fact, those words were edited out of the ‘official’ version of the King’s speech. India, annoyed at the way its delegation to the Conference was treated and by the ‘unfriendly’ attitude of Moroccan authorities reflected in the King’s references to the condition of Muslims ‘in Kashmir and in India’ reacted by recalling its ambassador on consultations. Early in October that year Gurbachan Singh was back in India.
Ishrat Aziz, still a second secretary, was once again our man in charge for the time being. Myself, also a second secretary was the only other diplomatic official, so much so that a friend of mine, a diplomatic official from another country, often said to me that ours was a very democratic embassy. That was in jest. On one occasion, though, I did exercise my ‘democratic’ rights. Announcing the decision to recall the Indian Ambassador to Morocco, the official spokesman of the Ministry of External Affairs cited two reasons: mistreatment of the Indian Delegation and the King’s remarks about the condition of Muslims in Kashmir and in India. When we received the text of the spokesman’s statement, I suggested we circulated it to all those who were on our mailing list for our press releases and news bulletins, arguing that though no one would print what we circulated, at least some people must know the reasons for our reaction.
Ishrat demurred, feeling that we would unnecessarily cause offense. I felt strongly enough about the episode to insist we must circulate the statement. I suggested that we circulated the statement as a ‘press release’ typed on plain paper, in covers without any sign that they had been dispatched by us and if someone in the Moroccan government raised an objection, we would deny having had anything to do with it. I wore Ishrat’s resistance down, saying at one stage that I was in any case going ahead with issuing the release, and go ahead we did. A few days later, Ishrat was summoned to the Moroccan Ministry of Foreign Affairs by the concerned director who said that at that juncture our duty was to repair the relations between our two countries and that the circulation of statements like the one made by our spokesman (he had with him his copy of the issue, as he was also on our mailing list) would only create problems. Ishrat expressed surprise, said that the Embassy had nothing to do with it and added for emphasis that there were many who would have an interest in muddying relations between our two countries. Ishrat reported all this to the Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi and to Gurbachan Singh, earning us a mild word of disapproval.
After the Summit of Rabat, there were obviously repercussions in Delhi with attempts by bureaucrats and politicians not only to decide who was to blame but also to find scapegoats. I encountered a curious instance of particularly long memories about this episode in the Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi, an institution that cannot be held up as an example for the keeping and management of its records. That was in 1985. Government of India was at the point of a decision to give formal diplomatic recognition to the Sahraoui Arab Democratic Republic, which was supported by Algeria and opposed by Morocco, claiming the former Spanish Sahara as its own. I was not in any manner involved in any of the discussions about this decision but a colleague, in a key position, was. I thought such a decision would be wrong. In personal, informal discussions with this colleague I argued against the impending Indian decision, saying among other things that we ought not to take sides in what was essentially a dispute between Algeria and Morocco. This friend’s final conversation stopper was that the Moroccans deserved to be paid back for what they did to us in Rabat in 1969. By this time my own views about the Rabat episode had become ambivalent; in any case the sharp edges were all gone.
At another place and another time I told an Ambassador of Morocco who had also in the past served as his country’s Ambassador to India, briefly, with suitable editorial omissions, the story of the first meeting of Heads of State and Heads of Government of Islamic States as I knew it. He had said something which provoked me into saying that I was present at the birth of the Organization of Islamic Conference. That Organization, which has ever since been an irritant for India on Indo-Pakistan questions, was one of the lasting creations of the Islamic Conference of Rabat which had been called at the initiative of the monarchies of the Arab world and the Shah of Iran in the name of Islam, trying to outbid Arab nationalists in the mould of Gamal Abd-en-Nasser. Whether such moves had the support of outside powers can be a matter of inconclusive debate. At the Rabat Conference, Hassan II of Morocco played a role that suited his domestic requirements—he sat on a throne the occupants of which had for generations styled themselves Emir el Muslimeen (the Commander of Muslims). Paradoxically, one of the star attractions at Rabat was the youthful Moammar El Qaddafi who on the first day of that September had overthrown the Senoussi King of Libya. Hussein of Jordan with his claims on Jerusalem had good reasons for seeming to be the most concerned over the fire in the mosque, as indeed had Feisal of Saudi Arabia with his claim to a special position in the world of Islam.
How comic the Indo-Pakistani side show would have appeared to others in the midst of all that interplay of different forces in the Arab world, I have wondered in later years. Looking back I have also tried futilely to understand the usefulness of Conferences such as the one at Rabat, for it did nothing to influence or change the course of events around the central political problem of the Middle East. Nor did this or its successor conferences or their creation, the Organization of Islamic Conference, do anything to temper or canalize the anger of the poor, the semi-literate, the disenfranchised and the disempowered in the Arab and Muslim world which has been responsible for so much violence and so many tragedies in the Islamic world and elsewhere, an anger which in the two decades or so from 1980 has threatened to engulf or actually engulfed so many of those who were active at the Islamic Conference of Rabat. The assassination of Anwar Sadat, who participated in the Conference at Rabat perhaps because he was considered close to various ‘Islamic’ groups in Egypt and elsewhere, by angry Egyptian soldiers in the name of Islam was almost symbolic of the failure of whatever process the Heads of Islamic States sought to initiate in 1969. A republican but Islamic revolution in Iran swallowed the Shahinshah. Feisal was killed in a palace intrigue, but the House of Saud, while managing to keep off pressures from Wahabi groups partly by exporting Wahabism, has yet to come fully to grips with them at home. In more uncharitable moments I have felt that in that September in 1969, Hassan II, Hussein, Feisal, the Shahinshah and Sadat were all faking. Kulluha khurafa, as my Arabic tutor had said.
After it was all over with the Rabat Islamic Conference and Gurbachan Singh had been recalled ‘on consultations’, life in our ‘democratic’ embassy settled down to placid routine, isolated from the blame game in Delhi. There were no surprises. My duties as the press officer of the embassy required me to deal with adverse commentary in the media about India. In the controlled Moroccan media there was relatively little such commentary except in one Arabic language daily, run by the Istiqlal (Independence) Party, which from time to time would write things about the Jammu and Kashmir question unpalatable to India, apparently basing itself on Pakistani briefing. I reached an understanding with the editor of the daily, a stern looking, white haired and white bearded man, that while an important daily like his would evidently have an independent opinion on major questions including the question of Jammu and Kashmir, like other important independent publications, his daily would publish my views in case I had a difference of opinion. In the event I wrote a few long letters to the editor expounding the Indian case on Jammu and Kashmir. In doing so I not only got to know thoroughly all the nuances of the Indian case, but also started seeing that compared to that of Pakistani, the Indian position is so complex that our foreign interlocutors either find it too tiresome or unconvincing. Later, as a way around this problem, I devised my own short version of our case on Jammu and Kashmir and stuck to it. Once when, in 1995, in a conversation with Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia, after I had presented to him my Letters of Credence as Ambassador of India to his country, and in answer to a question from him, I lapsed into the old habit of beginning from 1947, he cut me short after the first two or three sentences with a dismissive wave of hand, saying: ‘That is an old story’.
ABOUT THE MOST EXCITING STORY from our days in Morocco belongs neither to the realm of politics nor to that of diplomacy, nor to that country. It belongs to the world of science and technology. Even at a time when rapid progress is being made towards the exploration of the Mars, it is difficult to forget the thrill and the excitement in 1969 of seeing men from our earth walking on the surface of the moon. I remember how we sat transfixed in front of television screens to watch the adventures of Apollo 11 and 12. There are not in my experience many spectacles to match those scenes, nor much to equal that thrill.
Looking back at that moment of excitement, I remembered that these were very early days of satellite communications. When, in 1968, INTELSAT established its first earth station in Morocco, not far from Rabat, it became a special occasion. The King of Morocco decided to inaugurate it at a ceremony organized for that purpose. Ambassadors were invited. The Indian ambassador took the embassy first secretary and me with him. In the car, on the return journey, the ambassador, a golf playing, pipe-smoking man who did not mind showing off suits he had got tailored many years ago in London’s Savile Row, expressed his sense of wonder at the advance of science. He then said that science had advanced so much that people could pick up echoes of words spoken in the Indian epic Mahabharata because they reverberated in the universe even as we spoke at that moment. I suspected he was uttering some fourth hand version of the 1964 discovery by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, of cosmic background radiation and to the explanation given by popularisers of science that that was the echo of the ‘big bang’. I said nothing. The first secretary said nothing. The ambassador, persisting, asked if we had not read science. The first secretary said he had. ‘You say nothing, then?’ the ambassador asked. The first secretary said the reason was he knew some science. An awkward silence followed. Sitting in the front, next to the driver and being the junior most of that group I was not compelled to participate in that exchange. I looked straight ahead and, with the assurance that my face would be invisible to the ambassador and the first secretary in the back seat made no effort at keeping it straight.
About two decades later I managed with some effort to sit impassively through speeches by another hierarchical superior with a little more intellectual sophistication who habitually equated the Vedanta doctrine that behind all the multitudinous forms in the world there was one underlying, immutable reality with the conclusions of modern physics that all matter was made of a limited number of fundamental particles. He forgot or did not or could not see that for the proponents of Vedanta their conclusions were in the nature of dogmas while the theories of modern physics are tentative just as the world view of modern physics was ever being modified, ever coming upon new phenomena that needed to be explained, that the unified field theory so assiduously pursued by physicists for three or four decades was still elusive, or that the world of particle physics was one of ceaseless motion while the reality preached by the Vedanta was one of absolute calm. For me this gentleman was intellectually no different from the one who would hear far off ancestral voices in the cosmic microwave background radiation. Both were typical of a large number of modern educated Hindus, superior perhaps to many others who preach weirder varieties of voodoo science.
IN THE MIDDLE OF JANUARY 1970, on the day after news came of the fall of Biafra in the Nigerian war of secession, I received a letter, signed some ten days earlier, asking me to move to serve as second secretary in the Indian High Commission in Lagos. For a little over one year and a half, I, like other newspaper readers, had become used to pictures of the sufferings caused by that war which was fought by the Ibos (I now understand that the correct name is Igbo) of Biafra led by Col.Ojukwu who wanted a sovereign state for his region, against the Nigerian federal government headed by the Yoruba General Gowon who was fighting to preserve the unity of the Nigerian Federation. I had also been aware that in this conflict, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union sympathized with and supported General Gowon while the sympathies of the Vatican and of General de Gaulle’s France were with the Roman Catholic Ibos. Biafra had the misfortune of being rich in oil. I had read about the activities of organizations like Caritas in the Biafra war and seen that the activities of ‘humanitarian’ organizations were not exactly as a-political as they would have people believe.
On receipt of my orders I not only set about reading up on Nigeria but also started thinking about the time of our departure from Rabat. In the mean time Gurbachan Singh, thinking he would soon come back to Rabat, asked me to delay my departure till his return which kept on being postponed as did my own departure. I stayed on till the end of April that year. In the middle of March there came another message asking me to go to Vientiane, in the Kingdom of Laos and not Lagos in Nigeria—I had not requested for that change. I was as equanimous about going to one place as I had been about the other.
Thus, on to the Kingdom of One Million Elephants, not to one country where a civil war had just ended, but to another where one had gone on for some years and would continue for some more.