Krung Thep Mahanakhon
THE FULL OFFICIAL NAME of the city runs into two lines of a string of Sanskrit words one of which is Rachathani which means royal city or, as in current usage of its cognate, Rajadhani, in India, capital city. Krung Thep Mahanakhon, the abbreviated official name of the city means ‘The City of Devas, Great City’. Devas are celestial beings in Indian tradition who in most western translations are called gods. The popular name of the city is Bangkok, or the village of the kok—a word almost certainly of Chinese origin—or the wild plum. Thus in most of Thai culture the Sinic and the Indic elements co-exist, often parallelwise. The Indic is on the surface while the Sinic runs much deeper. Most educated and half educated Indians having been fed on literature about Indian cultural influence in Southeast Asia being ‘dominant’, or worse, literature about countries of Southeast Asia being ‘cultural colonies’ of India or forming part of a ‘Greater India’, have difficulty grasping this reality of Thailand or indeed of all of Indo-China.
Perhaps reflective of Indian Hindu attitudes towards Thailand was a message I received before leaving for Bangkok that the Shankaracharya of Kanchi, on a visit to Delhi at that time, would like to meet me. I met both him and his deputy and putative successor, in reverse order. When the Shankaracharya took his position to meet devotees and acolytes, I was ushered into his presence and was made to sit next to him, admittedly at a lower level than him. Between pronouncing blessings and advice to those who had come to seek them he would talk to me. In disconnected remarks he said things about the cultural and religious closeness between India and Thailand and about the importance of the work I was going to do. I could have sat there as long as I wanted during his morning audience but had to take leave half an hour or so later. I do not know if the absence of any sign of devotion towards him made the Shankaracharya rethink about me. My scepticism notwithstanding, I received the blessings of the holy man and some fruits. I should have thought that armed with the blessings of the Shankaracharya I was all set to make an auspicious beginning in my new mission.
We arrived in Bangkok, where I was to serve as the Ambassador of India, at the end of November 1997. My mind was filled with ideas about the strength of Indian cultural influence in Thailand or Indo-China. I had illusions about the ancient cultural links between India and the region being an important diplomatic asset for India. It did not take me long to understand that such direct knowledge as I had acquired about Thai and Lao culture during a two-year stay in Vientiane one quarter of a century earlier was superficial. A cursory reading of sections of Georges Coedes’ The Indianised States of Southeast Asia during our Laotian sojourn had done very little to cure me of my falsely grand view of Indian culture as a dominanant influence in the region. The process of my re-education started early.
Within four weeks of our arrival in Bangkok there was a meeting of junior ministers of foreign affairs of Bangladesh, India (Because of impending general elections in India, a secretary in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs came on behalf of India), Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand to launch a new international grouping, BIMST-EC, for building economic co-operation among the five countries. The Thai host, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs was the grandson of a son of King Chulalongkorn who could have been King of Thailand at the time of the restoration of Thai monarchy in the mid-1930’s. Since Kings of Thailand had traditionally founded part of their legitimacy in their being consecrated as Hindu Kshatriyas the Royal family tended to emphasize Hindu cultural links a little more than other sections of society. Yet this Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs in all his speeches during these meetings, talking of cultural links between Thailand and India said: ‘Whatever is not Chinese in our culture, is Indian’. Later, when I got to know Thanat Khoman who as the Thai man in charge for the time being had opened the Thai Embassy in Delhi in 1948 and who for years had been the Foreign Minister of Thailand, I heard him say often that all that concerned the ordinary people and their daily lives in Thailand was Chinese and all that was intellectual in traditional Thai culture was Indian.
Talk by Indians, living in Thailand or visiting, about ancient Thai-Indian cultural links was an industry. All manner of people held forth on the subject. Very few went deeply into history or linguistics. These talks would mostly amount to a listing of many words in current Thai usage, many personal names and many place names, which had Sanskrit cognates. Sometimes people got carried away and talked unfeelingly. A well-known Indian worthy on a visit to Bangkok decided to give a public speech on the subject. There came the inevitable listing of ‘Sanskrit words’ in use in Thailand and of the examples he gave was the name of the Queen of Thailand, Sirikit which he said was a ‘corruption’ of the Sanskrit word Srikirti—he obviously had not gotten out of the belief system of ancient Sanskrit grammarians who said that their language, a gift of the gods, had been corrupted by women, children and dasyus. Luckily the audience was almost entirely Indian. At other times people talked sheer nonsense. Another worthy, a former Indian ambassador to Thailand, in his talk said, after the usual listing of words and names, that King Chulalongkorn who had prescribed a uniform for Thai civilian officials had borrowed the design of the buttoned up jacket worn by Indian Rajahs. If only he knew that Chulalongkorn consciously and deliberately introduced western ideas and habits into the country, he would have known that the jacket in the Thai civilian officials’ dress uniform was none other than the tunic of Prussian military officers. This time too, about two thirds of the audience was Indian.
King Mongkhut of Thailand had been a Buddhist monk for 27 years before he became King in 1851 at the age of forty-seven. Having travelled on foot across his land, he knew his country well, was learned in Sanskrit and Pali and had a good working knowledge of English and French. He had an abiding interest in astronomy and other sciences and wanted to open his country to western ideas. Anxious to give his children and the women in his palace a grounding in English and modern ideas he appointed an English woman to take care of their education. Her writings were later converted into two Hollywood films—The King and I and Anna and the King, which many Thais find offensive.
Mongkhut’s son and successor, Chulalongkorn carried modernization and westernization much further than his father ever did. He himself travelled to a number of European countries, picking up ideas. He not only introduced the telegraph, the railway and modern military and administrative organization modelled on the West but adopted a combination of the Code Napoléon and the English Common Law as the basis of the Thai legal system replacing the Hindu Manu Smriti, known in Thailand as the Manu Thammasat. Western costume for men, many western habits and mores were also introduced during his reign. Many of his sons went to English schools and universities. One, Prince Mahidol, the father of the present King, was able to break with tradition, marry a commoner, study to be a medical doctor and actually practise as one. The beginnings of a westernizing Thai élite go back to the reign of Chulangkorn whose picture it is customary for modern educated Thais to bow to in reverence.
In 1932, a group of Thai intellectuals and military officers, nearly all of them western educated, under the leadership of two very unlikely colleagues in a group called the Promoters, Pridi Banomyong and Pibul Songkhram, successfully agitated to bring to an end the absolute powers of Thai monarchy and introduced parliamentary democracy. The king became the titular head of state. Pridi introduced leftist and socialist ideas into the government’s social and economic programme. In the mid-1930’s political authority and control passed into the hands of Pibul Songkhram who believed in strong Thai nationalism and wanted to create in Thailand a modern state. Much of what Pibul Songkhram did left an enduring mark on Thai society. Some of these were of symbolic value such as changing the name of the country from Siam to Thailand, banning the chewing of betel leaf and nut within a large perimeter round Bangkok, ordaining that gentlemen wear western style business suits and hats to office, and ladies wear skirts and blouses or dresses outdoors. I asked a friend if it was true that Pibul Songkhram had also ordered that gentlemen should kiss their wives good bye before leaving for work every morning. He told me no decree had been issued but Pibul had indeed given such an advice.
In 1957, Pibul Songkhram was replaced by a an army general and was thereafter ruled by the armed forces whose ascendancy coincided with deepening US involvement in Vietnam and their strong military and civilian presence in Thailand. The Thai urban élites whom I came to know at the end of the twentieth century had their worldview shaped by these diverse western and westernizing influences stretching over a whole century or more since the days of Chulalongkorn. At least in all external aspects of their lives they had discarded many of the old Thai traditions. The preferred dress not only of men but of women too was western—traditional feminine dress was reserved for formal social occasions or rural areas. A western musical recital, whether by a visiting group or by some local amateur group, an evening with Yale University’s student group Whiffenpoofs, or a soiree of amateur singing of Frank Sinatra songs attracted more interest among the élite than a recital of Indian music or classical dance. King Bumibol had a reputation as a saxophonist and a composer of western orchestral music. His second daughter had an interest in and actively promoted traditional Thai music—we have been in the audience when she played on Thai musical instruments and sang. At the home of a Thai government minister, an ethnic Chinese, his daughter played short pieces on traditional Chinese instruments from scores written in traditional Chinese styles. Even the most westernized Thai remained deeply attached to Thai or Chinese cuisine—especially Chinese cuisine when he wanted to give himself or his guests a treat.
To my chagrin—felt as much on my own behalf as on behalf of those Indians who talked of Indian culture in Thailand—I did not find any comparable attachment among Thai élites to Indian music, dance, literature, costume or food. Perhaps for the westernizing Thais, Indian cultural traditions belonged to the same world as some of the old Thai traditions the importance of which they wanted to minimize. In conversations with us Indian diplomats many in Bangkok would talk of old cultural links between our countries. It soon became clear that such remarks were little more than conversational gambits.
There could at times be expressed views and comments meant to minimise Indian influences on the culture and civilization of the region. An Indian lady sent across to me the text of a lecture given by an American scholar at one of the universities in Bangkok. The lecture was purportedly about the work of Georges Coedes, especially about his book ‘The Indianised States of Southeast Asia’. Arguing that Coedes had wrongly identified the area of Fu nan mentioned by Chinese chroniclers as modern Cambodia, the lecturer had gone on to suggest that Coedes’s historiography was defective. He had said that Coedes had exaggerated the importance of the movement of merchants, priests and workmen from India towards Southeast Asia and that the people of Java for example were much better shipbuilders and sailors than Indians. It is people from Southeast Asia, he had said, who periodically travelled to India from where they brought back ideas about temple architecture which they introduced into buildings they built. I wrote a letter to this lady suggesting that arguments about Javanese skills at shipbuilding or about regular traffic of people from Southeast Asia to India and back did not gainsay the undeniable and extensive presence of Indian influence on the architecture, language, religion, mythology and on the concepts of kingship and law in the entire region. I added that no serious scholar had suggested that the ‘Indianised’ states of the region were anything other than indigenous. The lady asked me if she could try to have my letter published in one of the local English language dailies. It was not published.
Vajiravudh, Chulalongkorn’s son and successor translated or got translated into Thai language a large number of Sanskrit literary works from their English translation. In those sections of the educated Bangkok society which I came across, there was little knowledge of or interest in even these translated works. Some of the Mahabharata stories had certainly passed into folklore through the centuries. And it was almost de rigueur to present masked dances based on sections of the Ramayana story on formal state occasions. I cannot remember any time when at the end of a Royal Banquet a ballet based on an episode of the Ramayana was not presented to the guests. But the Ramayana was particularly close to the heart of many of the Chakri kings—witnessed in part by the fact that all of them have titled themselves Rama. A contrasting and anticlimactical experience for us was when the Thammasat University of Bangkok presented in their auditorium Ramayana based ballets by troupes from Thailand, Myanmar, Indonesia, Singapore and India. In a hall, which could seat some five hundred people, there were not more than thirty present. The same hall was full when a group of students from the University of Utah sang or when a Chinese opera performed.
An Englishman, Michael Wright, a long time resident of Bangkok, used to write columns in The Nation, one of the two English language dailies published in Bangkok. He would often write about conversations between himself and his cat, Ganymede. In one of the pieces, which caught my eye, his cat had said to him that since India had failed to defend itself against foreign invasion, occupation and colonial rule Thai élites could not adopt Indian civilization as their model—at least that is how I remember what Michael Wright’s cat had said. I met him over lunch along with my embassy’s press officer. We had a pleasant conversation on many subjects. He was unwilling to discuss his cat’s views. But I was haunted by the cat during the next three years or so of my mission in Thailand, for there was in its opinion, for me, a central truth which, howsoever much I tried, I could not ignore. For Indian civilization and culture to be attractive, Indian society had to be seen as much more successful than it was then or is now. No official promotion of Indian culture could get round this truth.
AT THE ROYAL HOUSEHOLD in Bangkok there were nine ‘Court Brahmans’. They made their appearance on a few public occasions every year, one of the most notable being the annual ploughing ceremony performed in early May. The ceremony as it existed in my time in Bangkok consisted of the Permanent Secretary for Agriculture in the Royal Thai Government, bedecked in traditional finery, ritually ploughing a ‘field’ in the grounds next to the Grand Palace with the help of two prettily adorned brahmani bullocks, handsomer and better fed than I have seen anywhere in India, from the Royal Household, and sowing it with paddy. Two women, also bedecked in traditional finery, female employees of the Ministry of Agriculture, carrying basketfuls of grains of paddy walked alongside the Permanent Secretary. Behind this group walked a number of people including the court brahmans, complete with topknots, white tunics and short white dhotis. This procession circled the field several times. The brahmans did little more than blow on their conch shells at the start of each round. The King personally or the Crown Prince presided over this ceremony believed once to harbinger a plentiful harvest. I knew of nothing similar in Indian tradition other than the story of King Janaka, the father of Rama’s consort, Sita. At a time when his kingdom had had a spell of famine, Janaka had himself taken the plough and tilled the fields. That brought plentiful rain and a good harvest.
A Thai friend, himself a distant descendant of Rama III, used to say that though Thailand was Buddhist, the country’s kings were Hindu. He said that the rituals at the coronation of kings were essentially brahmanical. Since the last coronation in the country, the coronation Rama IX, the present king, had happened half a century earlier, no one I knew in Bangkok could tell me anything about it. I now regret not having asked the court brahmans when I spent the best part of an afternoon with them and with some of their children. I asked them other questions. They told me their ancestors had come to Bangkok from the Kingdom of Sukhothai which had been founded in the thirteenth century and which had prospered for about two centuries until the Kingdom of Ayuthia supplanted it. They thought their earlier forbears had gone to Sukhothai from the southern Thai town of Nakhon Si Thammarat and even earlier from India, though they had no idea where in India. From their features they were obviously products of generations of miscegenation. They knew no language other than Thai and in their rituals they recited verses from a book written in Thai script but probably Tamil language which neither they nor I understood. They also said these were verses in praise of a Tamil goddess, Thippave. They knew no Sanskrit—for which I could not blame them, as there are fewer and fewer officiant brahmans in today’s India also who know much Sanskrit. They wanted some of their younger children to learn Sanskrit and some of the older ones to spend time in India learning Sanskrit, brahmanical rituals and business management.
A friend who wanted me to do all I could to help these brahmans told me their position in the Royal Household was little better than that of domestic servants. I could not tell but these people I met clearly lived modestly. I requested an Indian professor of Sanskrit sent to Thailand by the Indian Council of Cultural Relations and a Thai professor at Bangkok’s Silpakorn University to help with the teaching of Sanskrit to the younger children of the brahmans. I could not do anything about the studies in India requested for the older children.
AS IN MUCH OF THE WORLD, in Thailand too, religious practices come down from different sources and ages co-existed, sometimes making interesting amalgams. One of the commonest practices was spirit worship. People erected ‘spirit houses’ of different designs and sizes—most of them looked like mini towers—near their houses. Spirits installed in these towers varied but some of them could be Hindu deities such as Brahma, Ganesha or Shiva who was known in the country as Iswan (cf. Sanskrit: Ishvara). At the sight of every spirit house with Brahma, Shiva or Ganesha, a Hindu would swell with pride at what he saw as a sign that the Thai people were essentially Hindu, forgetting that the Thai had transformed these Hindu deities into spirits like any other and no higher: the local water or tree spirit or even the spirit of an ancestor. As in India, in Thailand too people would treat a tree, a river, a cave or a mountain as sacred. The Buddha and Buddhist monks were certainly the most important objects of veneration but it was quite normal for a person to leave some flowers or incense sticks at the foot of an image of Vishnu for example. I remember visiting a small but locally important shrine in the town of Lopburi, not far from the ancient palace of King Narai of Ayuthia, where the central image was that of the Buddha but on the side was an image of Vishnu. Devotees had left a chicken, a basketful of eggs, a bottle of whiskey, fruits and flowers as offerings in front of the Buddha image. They had also left offerings of flowers at the foot of Vishnu.
At another place in the northeast of the country, in the province of Loei, we visited a Buddhist shrine known as the Wat of the Two Kingdoms. It was a day of an important local festival. In the front area of the premises there was a small but typical Thai Buddhist shrine. Inside the shrine were seated a number of ochre robed monks. On one side of the shrine on a long covered platform were seated a large number of lay people and members of their families. They were waiting to be taken into the monastic order for varying periods of one week, one month or several months. But the really large crowds were waiting outside near a stupa like structure. They had been fasting all morning. At the appropriate time they would walk around the stupa a number of times, praying for their wishes to be fulfilled, asking for boons, asking for help in dealing with their sufferings. The person who administered the rites at these circumambulations was not a Buddhist monk. He was a ‘priest’ from the village nearby. He had been chosen because he was believed to have some special spiritual powers. He had succeeded his father, but his successor did not have to be his son. He was dressed in a white tunic and a white dhoti, exactly like the court brahmans of Bangkok but neither he nor anyone else said he was a brahman.
For most ordinary, simple people, being Buddhist meant ‘earning merit’ through good deeds such as giving gifts of clothes to monks, helping in the construction of a wat, helping the poor of the community or, for males, becoming a monk for a brief period. No one asked what they knew of the teachings of the Buddha. A monastery or a wat was an important part of a community. Monks lived in these more or less according to rules drawn up in the lifetime of the Buddha or in the centuries immediately following his death. On occasions such as a wedding or other celebration they would be invited to people’s homes to give their blessings. On such occasions people would offer them a meal.
The position of the monks and monasteries had inevitably evolved. So had the attitudes of monks. From what I saw in Bangkok at the end of the twentieth century, I could not see anything resembling my picture of a quarter century earlier when I was attracted by the early morning sight in Nongkhai in northeast Thailand of ochre robed monks silently filing past houses with their begging bowls and ochre cloth bags slung from their shoulders accepting alms from householders. It was more usual to see people in Bangkok standing by their cars near the entrance of a monastery waiting for someone to come out to accept gifts and go back. Practically every day around mid morning I saw one monk near our Bangkok house walking with a layperson—probably a disciple—who carried a large bag. A monastic acquaintance told me it was necessary to have some one carrying the bag of offerings because what people donated was difficult for one person to carry. Evidently monks and monasteries accepted much more than what was adequate for their daily needs. The expectations of some could be modest, even unusual. One monk in the northeast had constructed an entire hall with empty bottles of beer in the premises of his monastery. As he showed us around, he said he had thought of this idea because he wanted to make use of this waste material. Other monasteries gladly accepted donations of cash and ornaments. Some were quite wealthy too.
The head of one monastery in the northeast, whose seat was in a wat with a number of wooden structures in the middle of a forest, renowned for his spirituality, collected a large sum of money and jewelry to be given to the Bank of Thailand to help the country tide over its economic crisis of 1997-1999. Because of this contribution he took it upon himself to publicly air his views about the management of the economy, causing irritation in some quarters. Another monk by the name of Thammachayo having collected considerable wealth had started a separate sect, known as Thammakaya, which had a large following. For years Thammachayo had preached his doctrine and attracted people and wealth with which he had expanded his establishment and his activities. He was well left alone until in 1999 a controversy broke out about his activities, his wealth and his doctrine leading a friend of mine, a professor of computer science, to think of foreign and local conspiracies. It was said that he taught the existence of an atman, variously translated as self or soul, which was contrary to the very basic tenets of Buddhism. More bizarrely, he also taught that the state of nirvana was a measurable quantity. The controversy aroused strong passions so much so that authorities feared violence. The Department of Religious Affairs recommended drastic action such as confiscating the property of the monastery and derecognition of Thammachayo as a monk. The Sangharaja voiced his own disapproval. Yet nothing could be done as the majority of the governing council of the Sangha was opposed to any action. This had set tongues wagging about Thammachayo using the power of his wealth.
Thousands of other monks and monasteries by contrast lived and functioned in the tranquility of provincial Thailand. Some aspects of monastic life resembled mediaeval European Christianity. In rural communities monks were the best educated. Monasteries provided an honourable vocation for many poor young people, as they were also convenient places for acquiring basic literacy and education. At a monastery in Ubon Rachathani two young novices were sent to conduct us, as they were the only people around with a smattering of English. They would have been thirteen or fourteen years of age. When I asked, one of them told me that after finishing as a novice he intended to go to a lay university and work for a management degree. He said he was working hard at his English. The other said he intended to stay on and become a fully ordained monk. He was one of several children of his rather poor parents. We must have met scores of people in Thailand in different professions who had been full time monks at an earlier stage in their life.
Many monasteries kept a ‘museum’ attached to them where local memorabilia donated by people in the area were on display. There were many where remains or images of a monk known for his piety or learning were venerated in addition to the Buddha or his relics. In Thailand alone there were so many monasteries which claimed to have a relic of the Buddha that it was difficult to decide which of these was myth and which contained a grain of truth. There were others built around a ‘footprint’ of the Buddha—we visited one in the north of the country where the head of the monastery presented to us a miniature imprint on wax of the Buddha’s feet in his monastery, a talisman that visitors to the monastery normally bought. On the feet of the colossal image of the reclining Buddha in Bangkok—the posture of the Buddha when he attained mahaparinirvana, or the ‘great release’ from the cycle of birth and rebirth, associated in Thailand with Saturday—there are engraved many mystical symbols.
These and many others were part of Buddhism as it was practised as a living religion. To observe them was part of my education. With my half-baked and bookish understanding of the broad contours of Buddhist doctrine, I do not think I ever grasped the emotional content of the religion as it was practised in Thailand. Yet, like many other Indians and Hindus I could not always keep in check the temptation to hold forth on Buddhism as if being a Hindu and an Indian had given me a right to do so. I had to remind myself that apart from Ladakh, which I knew only from a four-day visit as a tourist, I had not seen any kind of Buddhism being practised anywhere else in India.
IN THE SOUTHERN ONE THIRD of the ‘trunk’ of Thailand, Islam is the dominant religion, making Muslims roughly one tenth of the population of the entire country. In Bangkok, the head of a Muslim Women’s organization kept in touch with me. They organized a number of events every year at which we were invited and in which we participated. The most important of these occasions was their annual fund raising event at which someone from the Royal Household, if not one of the princesses, presided. It is because of these events that I saw something of the Thai Muslim community in Bangkok. In all externals of dress or language this community seemed a fully integrated part of Thai society. These people in Bangkok for whom official patronage may have been essential, had an interest in suppressing all impulses towards asserting too separate an identity.
We made two separate one-week visits to eight southern provinces of Thailand where Muslims are between fifty and ninety per cent of the population. Islam in these provinces had a different face. As we travelled by road, which was our wont, we could not help noticing the large number of new mosques that had been or were being constructed, the remarkable regularity with which all young women and girls, school or college students, wore headscarves and the salwar-kameez of Punjabi women in India or Pakistan and the number of men who wore ‘Muslim’ skull caps, embroidered, or not. The further south we went the more we found that Muslims spoke Malayu, a dialect of the Malay language. In Yala we visited the Grand Mosque—an imposing structure in the city centre. The head imam had spent some years in Egypt learning theology. There were others who had spent their time in Egypt, Jordan or Pakistan studying Islamic doctrine. All this exemplified the attempt to ‘renew’ the Islamic faith and to keep it pure. Talking to these people I could see the strength of their adherence to dogma.
In the past, Pattani had been the centre of violent activities of an irredentist Islamic group. There had been terrorist activities not too long ago rousing suspicions about foreign money from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Abdul Halim, better known by his assumed Indic name of Surin Pitsuwan, the Foreign Minister of Thailand in the Chuan Leek Pai government of 1997-2001 counted the admission of Thailand in the Organization of Islamic Conference as an observer as one of his achievements. I understood the pursuit of this objective to be part of the Thai government’s policy of blunting the edges of Muslim irredentism.
None of the provincial administrators would say anything more than that the area was completely peaceful then. There were examples in all these predominantly Muslim provinces of the government promoting not only projects for the economic development of local communities, but also their religion. In Pattani we visited the main mosque, a brand new structure, built and maintained by the Department of Religious Affairs of the Government of Thailand—nonetheless, an older, smaller, one-and-a-half-century-old mosque had greater prestige among the Muslim population. There were many establishments of modern education too, which received government aid. In Yala we visited a secondary school for Muslim girls run by the government. We visited one Royal fishery project one day before the Queen of Thailand was going there. We visited another Royal project where the main activity was weaving and the participants were poor displaced people from the northeast of the country who had been settled there. All was calm so much so that the provincial authorities, usually very solicitous about our security whenever we travelled in the provinces, were completely unaware of our presence when we travelled unescorted after dark between six and nine in the evening from Narathiwat to Sungoi Kolok on the Thai-Malaysian border through territory, which was ‘disturbed’, we were later told.
At a fish-canning factory in Pattani, they used labels printed in Roman and Arabic scripts. The fish was proclaimed to be ‘halal’. I was surprised as from my limited and vanishing knowledge of Arabic I knew that halal, meaning a crescent, referred to a way of slaughtering an animal by slitting its throat, making a crescent-like shape. I asked them at the canning factory what a halal fish meant. They said that it meant that fish had been properly cleaned. They added that the labelling in the Arabic script was necessary because the products of that factory were exported to the Persian Gulf. Evidently the Arabic word ‘halal’ had come to mean the same as ‘kosher’ At the customs checkpoint at Sungoi Kolok on the Thai-Malaysian border the officials talked of border trade and low level smuggling between villagers on the two sides. I was surprised when I heard that the Thai villagers brought in palm oil from Malaysia because palm oil production in southern Thailand was quite large, leaving a substantial exportable surplus. I was told that the local Muslim population on the Thai side of the border had a preference for Malaysian palm oil as it was considered ‘halal’.
These images of Islam in southern Thailand stayed with me. I was not surprised at the reports of renewed violence in the region in the closing months of the year 2003. A question I have had since then is about the source and inspiration for these new ideas in a country like Thailand about a ‘Muslim’ dress code, ‘Muslim’ food and so on. Another question that has remained with me is about influences and ideas, also, may be, about ‘purification’ of Islam, that those who go to learn Islamic theology to Arab lands might be bringing back. Yet another question in my mind is about disruptions in the Thai Muslim society caused by these injections of ‘purer’ Islam by those who claim to be the true heirs of the doctrine. Southern Thailand, like Malaysia and Indonesia, had been Muslim for about five centuries centuries. Islam had become part of these societies, admittedly with some necessary local modifications and adaptations—I do not, for instance, see how ordinary people, who have not been trained in the matter, can pronounce the verses of the Koran in a manner judged accurate by the ulema in Saudi Arabia—which enabled them to live in harmony with their non-Muslim neighbours. Then came the purifiers of the faith serving I know not which interests, causing untold disruption in people’s lives.
IN THAILAND, it was very difficult to say who was pure Thai, who of mixed Thai-Chinese blood and who pure Chinese. The Thai ‘race’ according to many, had come down from Southern China around the middle of the first millennium after Christ. Others said that the Thais were autochthones, having descended from the people who created the Ban Chiang culture in the northeast of the country, and painted on rock faces in the Mekong valley around 1000 B.C. These anthropological debates apart, the influx of the Chinese and their assimilation with the local population in the area covered by the modern Thai state never ceased. Yet often a distinction in modern Thailand is made between the Thai and the ‘ethnic’ Chinese, recognized by both the Thai and the Chinese. In Bangkok, there is a ‘ China town’, but there certainly are more Chinese outside the China town than in China town itself. Not only the Governor of Bangkok and his father, a Deputy Prime Minister, but also a handful of other Thai government ministers identified themselves as Chinese—all but a small number of them had Indic names like most other people. It was a common experience that people in government, academia or in business whom we came to know or met, told us early during our acquaintance that they were Chinese or half Chinese. When Jiang Zemin was leaving Bangkok at the end of a state visit, a score of Bangkok businessmen had come to join in the official send off. At the ceremonial lounge at Bangkok airport I was talking to the brother of the Governor of Bangkok who was also the Honorary Consul of Nicaragua. He told me all those businessmen, like him, were Chinese. He went on to say that in all of Thailand there were ten million Chinese divided into ten clans and one and a half million of them belonged his clan, tang.
The Chinese often adopted as their names Thai/Indic words with the same meaning as their Chinese names. The reason was an officially inspired ant-Chinese movement in the early years of the Twentieth century. There was no way to tell most of those, who identified themselves as Chinese, from their names or the language they spoke at home—many of them spoke no Chinese. We met a middle-aged lady during a journey to Nakhon Si Thammarat who said she was Chinese. Her great grandparents had come from China. She then said she had been learning how to read or write Chinese at the university there, as at home no one knew the written language. Others like her simply did not wish to make the effort. Very broadly those who identified themselves as Chinese were descendants of those who had immigrated in the closing years of the nineteenth or the early years of the twentieth century. They were involved in all aspects of Thai life—trade, industry, banking, politics, administration, universities and the liberal professions, being much more integrated than the Chinese communities in Malaysia or Indonesia, for example.
I KNEW NO MORE THAN HALF A DOZEN Thais in Bangkok engaged in promoting knowledge about India and its language and culture. Of these the three most prominent and active, Kusalsaya Karuna, Sulak Sivaraksa and Dr. Pridi Kasemsap were all Chinese. They were different kinds of people with different interests and different political attitudes, but could often be seen together. Karuna had travelled on foot to India as a thirteen-year-old novice Buddhist monk in 1933 and had stayed on, learning Hindi and Sanskrit at Varanasi and later acquiring a degree from Visva Bharati University. During the Second World War he ended up in a camp for enemy aliens in Delhi as he came from Thailand—the Thai government, anxious to preserve the independence of the Kingdom, came to collaborate with the Japanese Army much the same way as the Vichy régime in France did with the Germans. On returning to Thailand Karuna took a job at the Indian diplomatic mission in Bangkok. He also became involved with a group which was ‘secretly’ sent in 1955 by Prime Minister Pibul Songkhram—no communist, he—to the People’s Republic of China to establish contacts with the leadership there. This group met Mao Dze Dong and Zhou En Lai among others. When Sarit Thanarat and a group of generals friendly to the USA overthrew Pibul Songkhram in 1957, the authorities imprisoned those of this group who had travelled to Beijing, under an anti-communist law. Karuna, who thus spent the next eight years in a Thai jail, used his time there to translate Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali, Mahatma Gandhi’s Autobiography and Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India into the Thai language. He participated in nearly all the activities of the Thai Bharat Cultural Lodge, which had been established in 1927, and of the India Studies Centre of the Thammasat University, established in 1992.
One day in early 1998, Karuna came to see me with a senior Buddhist Monk, Phra Raja Ratnamouli who had been Rector of the Mahachulalongkorn Buddhist University and was even at that time involved in its governance. He had taken a Ph.D. degree in philosophy from Banaras Hindu University under his lay name, N. Khempali. Phra Raja Ratnamouli had translated Nehru’s Glimpses of World History into the Thai language and wanted my help in getting it published. The Indian Council for Cultural Relations readily agreed to finance the printing. At the request of Karuna, Khempali and Dr. Pridi, the Dean of the School of Oriental Languages at the Thammasat University, I wrote a foreword in English while Pridi wrote an introduction in Thai. I was reluctant to write the foreword, thinking it was not for ambassadors to pretend being scholars—re-reading that foreword I find it is not a piece I can be proud of. After the book came out, Karuna, Pridi and Khempali came to thank me. One of them said that I should have used my official letterhead for the foreword. I objected that I did not want excessively to flaunt my official position in a foreword for a book of that kind by a senior Buddhist monk. Pridi, who was much more obviously Chinese than Karuna, then said, and Karuna agreed, that I must remember that Thai society was Confucian and people in Confucian societies were taught to respect authority. They saw nothing wrong with people with authority proclaiming their position. He added for good measure that my attitudes smacked of Anglo-Saxon values. Pridi’s remark became for me a key to understanding the way Thai society functioned.
At the Embassy we thought of making an occasion of launching the Glimpses of World History. In August 1998, the yearlong celebration of the fiftieth year of India’s independence was coming to a close. We had money for organizing an event. To be correct, we decided on a function for 14 th August 1998, because, among other reasons, at any function organized on 15 th August, the date of India’s independence, or any function to celebrate the anniversary of independence we could not serve alcoholic drinks according to our rules. The afternoon event would be in three parts: the presentation of a copy of the Glimpses of World History to Princess Sirindhorn, the second daughter of the king, a dance recital by a troupe from Manipur in India and a cocktail party. Princes Sirindhorn had accepted our invitation but her staff had told us that she would leave after the presentation of the book and the dance recital, even telling us that she would not be able to spend more than seventy minutes with us. Khempali had said he would come with thirty other monks from his university but all of them would leave immediately before the commencement of the dance recital as they were prohibited by their monastic rules to indulge their senses in profane activities such as dance and music.
Inviting a troupe to present dances in the style of Manipur was my idea based on the belief that because of what I thought to be its slower rhythms—compared to other Indian styles—the music and dance of Manipur bore some resemblance toThai music and dance and thus would be more accessible to Thai audiences. I was wrong about Manipuri dances. The style, the rhythms and the themes were strange for the Thai audience most of whom commented neither on the dance style nor the quality of performance but that the dancers ‘looked like us’. We had been told that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister would come to these functions. They did not. They never told me why but I guessed they must have decided to follow the American lead in showing their disapproval of the Indian nuclear tests in May that year. No ambassador from the British Commonwealth came, which gave me a good reason to stop going to any of the Commonwealth Ambassadors’ luncheons, then on and not organize any myself.
I thought I could not have done better than presenting a copy of the Thai Glimpses of World history at a public function to Pricess Sirindhorn to mark its publication and to make it known. For the next two years or more the book became a standard gift I carried with me on my tours to the Thai provinces. Yet no one ever talked to me about the book except Tarin Nimmanhaeminda, the Finance Minister of the country who told me in a brief encounter at a reception at the Government House that he was enjoying reading it and a newspaper editor who at an evening at his home made me dedicate his copy to Prime Minister Chuan Leek Pai saying he would present it to him. A Thai lady who read Thai with difficulty asked for a copy of the English original. Karuna told me later that the sales of the book, of which we had handed over all but two hundred of the two thousand copies that had been printed to Mahachulalongkorn Buddhist University, to sell and to keep the earnings, were very slow. Most of the people I knew in Bangkok were pronouncedly indifferent about it.
I felt there were reticences about Phra Raja Ratnamouli. Karuna had told me he had translated the Glimpses while serving time as a political prisoner in the 1960’s. I never enquired what he had been punished for. But also he and the senior monks at his university belonged to mahanikaya, numerically the most important order of monks in Thailand and yet it was thammayuthnikaya, which had been founded by King Mongkhut during his days as a monk, which had been closer to the Thai crown. The Mahasangharaja or the ‘Supreme Patriarch’ of the time also belonged to that order and had his seat at Wat Bovornives, the ‘headquarters’ of the thammayuthnikaya and which had been the place of residence of the Royal monk Mongkhut for many years and where King Rama IX had spent his one month as a monk. The competition between the two orders was such that there had been in place an understanding that the Supreme Patriarch would come alternately from the two orders. I suspected that Phra Raja Ratnamouli did not quite warm the cockles of establishment hearts in Bangkok.
Karuna passed on to me a little book by a monk, Bhikkhu Buddhadasa, about Thailand’s debt to India. The monk listed in it different aspects of Thai life from philosophy and language to social values and cuisine for which Thailand owed a debt of gratitude to India. Buddhadasa was influential and a reformer (d.1993) with an interest in re-establishing Buddhist thought and practices based on the Buddha’s original teachings. We stopped at his establishment at Suan Mokkh in southern Thailand. This was in woods on the flank of a hill. On one outside wall of a hall, which then served as a museum, there were a number of panels of symbolic representations of the Buddha reminiscent of early Buddhist iconography as on the Great Stupa at Sanchi in India. These panels in their way also told the story of Buddhadasa’s interest in reviving early Buddhism, bereft of ritualism and other later accretions. There were many visitors from home and abroad at Suan Mokkh. Buddhadasa or his ideas did not figure much in the consciousness of the Bangkok élite.
SULAK SIVARAKSA who had written a preface for Karuna’s autobiographical work, Life Without Choice, was, unlike Karuna a political and social activist. He championed many causes ranging from alternative lifestyles based on Buddhist principles, the environment and ecology, opposition to wasteful consumption, freedom of speech, human rights, democracy, Pridi Banomyong, the Dalai Lama, Abdul Rahman Wahid, Aung San Su Kyi and Gandhi. I met him for the first time within some days of our arrival in Bangkok at a private dinner someone organized for introducing me to him and Karuna. My second meeting with him, very soon afterwards, was in the presence of the Mahasangharaja. A group of the Dalai Lama’s followers had come to Bangkok from Delhi, courtesy, in part, Sulak. The Mahasangharaja had gifted one thousand images of the Buddha to the lamas for a monastery they were building in Delhi. Sulak wanted my help in ensuring that these Buddha images were allowed in without any difficulty at Delhi airport with the Indian Customs. Thus started my three and a quarter yearlong acquaintance with Sulak. He was a regular visitor to the Gandhi Peace Foundation in India and I knew of at least one occasion when he received Ravindra Varma of the Foundation in Bangkok when Sulak invited me to a lunch at which Karuna and Pridi were also present. Sulak was a quintessential anti-establishment figure. He had been twice in the past accused of the crime of lèse majesté by military governments in Thailand, forcing him on one of those two occasions to take shelter abroad. Yet he was also on good terms with such establishment figures as General Sannan, then the Interior Minister of Thailand, and Anand Panyarachun, a former Prime Minister of the country, himself a man for all seasons. It was not surprising that such a person as Sulak should also at times espouse causes with which the Indian state would be ill at ease—one cause he sympathised with at one point was that of rebel Nagas of India. I found Sulak’s friendship useful for my mission and was not prepared to let minor problems come in the way.
Once in 1999, Sulak brought to me a Tamil ‘poet’ who was one of a group engaged in organising a World Tamil Conference in Bangkok. The poet showed me a file containing letters of endorsement from a number of people which included Thondaman, the seniormost Tamil minister in the Government of Srilanka and some prominent Indian Tamil politicians—notably, M.K.Stalin, the Mayor of Chennai—from a political party which at that time was in the ruling coalition in Government of India. The poet said the organisers would depend on my help. After that they neither asked for any help from me nor were given any.
One of India’s intelligence agencies had concluded that this Tamil Conference was a façade for the Tamil Tigers of Sri lanka who had by then been promoted to the rank of the highest security threat to India. Thailand was supposed to have become a major base for the operations of the Tamil Tigers. It is not unusual for secret services to invent and magnify security threats. Nearer the date of the opening of the Conference, Sulak had asked me if I could come to the inaugural meeting. Out of a habit developed in New York of accepting invitations from any of India’s regional or linguistic groups to their gatherings I said to Sulak I would go to the inaugural. At least two of my subordinate officials sent reports to Delhi almost suggesting I was endangering India’s national security. They received ready support from some people in Delhi. I also wondered if in the eyes of some ‘patriots’ in Government of India, I was guilty of more serious crimes. I was advised from Delhi saying I should reconsider my decision. Not being a Tamil patriot it did not break my heart not to be at that inaugural. I was travelling outside Bangkok at that time and delay due to mechanical problems with a car is not a very original excuse for not being somewhere. I could, nonetheless, not understand how a public conference attended by a Sri Lankan Government Minister—Tamil Tigers were a more direct threat to the Sri Lankan state than they were to the India—and some Tamil journalists from some prominent newspapers in Tamilnadu in India could be a security threat to India.
PRIDI KASEMSAP did not know India nor any Indian language. He had taught law at Thammasat University and was at the Oriental Languages department of the university. He participated regularly in the activities of one Indian community group. As a Vice-President of the Thai-Bharat Cultural Lodge he was there at all their functions. I also tried to participate in them whenever I was at Bangkok. Pridi was considered sufficiently indophilic to be asked to write an introduction to Phra Raja Ratnamouli’s translation of Nehru’s Glimpses. What I know about the moving figure behind the Thai-Bharat Cultural Lodge during the 1930’s, Swami Satyanand Puri, was what Pridi told me. The story of the Lodge was that when Rabindranath Tagore visited Siam in 1927 at the invitation of some Thai intellectuals he received a request from people in Bangkok for his help in establishing an institution there to foster the old civilizational links between Siam and India. Tagore persuaded a fellow Bengali with the assumed name of Swami Satyanand Puri to come to Bankok. The Royal Government gave him an extensive piece of land on which he built the Thai-Bharat Cultural Lodge which for the next two and a half decades or more functioned as a meeting place of visiting Indians and eminent Thai personalities. Satyanand Puri ran the place till his death in a plane crash in the early years of the Second World War. He was trying to mobilise Indians in Southeast Asia for the anti-colonial struggle against the British. In the years after the War, the Thai Bharat Cultural Lodge continued for some time to attract important Thai personalities. In the offices of the Lodge there were many group photographs from the late 1940’s in which there were senior people from the Thai establishment.
At some stage in the 1960’s a group of Bangkok based Punjabi Hindu businessmen took over the property of the Lodge to build a Hindu Temple, Dev Mandir. They shifted the Thai Bharat Cultural Lodge to its present, narrow piece of land and its straitened circumstances. Some people told me that in this move greed had overtaken nationalist sentiment. The Lodge as I knew it was a decrepit and declining institution. Year after year they organised poorly attended meetings to mark the birth anniversary of Gandhi and Subhash Chandra Bose, and Buddha Purnima, the day of the birth, enlightenment and death of Gautama the Buddha. Pridi, Karuna and Chirapat Prapandvithya, a humble, dedicated and likeable professor of Sanskrit at Silpakorn University with a Doctor’s Degree in Vedanta from one of the universities in Gujarat were there as moving spirits at most of these functions. Of these the most pathetic, even tragi-comic, events were the anniversaries of Subhashchandra Bose. Year after year on 23rd January , Karuna would speak and I would speak inanities about Subhash Bose, a Thai gentleman, who was biologically very old and who had been a Deputy Director of Information during the Second World War, would talk about how he had allowed Subhash Bose the use of Thai Radio, an Indian businessman who looked the oldest the gathering, talked about how he used to drive Subhash Bose around in Bangkok on his occasional stops there during the War and another Indian businessman talked about how he had joined the children’s section of Subhash Bose’s Indian National Army. It would, I concluded, have been impolite to suggest that in Subhash Bose’s plans of organising those members of the British Indian Army who had surrendered to the Japanese into an anti-British fighting force, Singapore and Malaya were central while Bangkok served as no more than a small town to transit through from time to time. The audience consisted of around two dozen Indians and a little less than half a dozen Thais—all very humble folk. I went to these functions because I felt I had to earn my pay. I was also afraid of hurting the sentiments of ‘patiotic Indians’.
THERE IS A WIDELY RECOUNTED LEGEND that the town of Nakhon Pathom—literally, the first city—west of Bangkok, and not too far removed, was established when two missionaries sent by the third century B.C. Mauryan King Ashoka, travelling through Myanmar, first brought the teachings of the Buddha there. The historical truth of this and similar other legends is probably lost for ever in the mists of time. Most educated Thais accept the firmer historical fact that in the 13th century King Ramkhamhaeng of the Sukhothai Kingdom invited a number of Theravadin monks from Sri Lanka for reviving Buddhism in his kingdom. In the process Theravada Buddhism became the religion of that kingdom and its successors. Thai Buddhists identify their theravada tradition as Lankavamsa, or the lineage of Sri Lanka. This form of Buddhism became so firmly established that some two centuries later a king of Sri Lanka invited a group of Thai monks to revive Buddhism in his kingdom. One of the ambassadors of Srilanka in Bangkok told me that to this day in Sri Lanka, the most numerous order of Theravada monks is known as Siam nikaya. Before the rise of the Sukhothai kingdom most of Thailand was part of the Khmer kingdom. Some of the southern regions were part of the Sri Vijaya or other kingdoms of Malaya, Java or Sumatra. Before the rise of Sukhothai, the dominant religion in the area of the modern Kingdom of Thailand was Mahayana Buddhism.
While in the minds of all educated Thais India is no doubt important as the land of origin of Buddhism and the land of King Asoka, it is with Sri Lanka that they see their closest Buddhistic and spiritual links. Because Buddhism in time disappeared from India, being replaced by Brahmanism or other doctrines and religious practices known by the label Hinduism, the relationship between Buddhism and Hinduism was seen in Thailand as one of antagonism—which is completely opposite to the way this relationship is perceived in modern India. I was rudely shaken out of my Indian view of this relationship in an encounter within the first three weeks of my Bangkok stay. At a dance recital in mid December 1997 at the Thai Cultural Centre by two Indian danseuses come over as part of the centenary celebrations of India’s independence from colonial rule, I met the Secretary General of the Thai National Culture Commission. He asked me why Hindus had destroyed the ancient monastery at Nalanda. No answer from me that the monastery had been destroyed by external invaders would make him change his view. He expatiated upon his opinion that Hindu society had in a concerted manner destroyed Buddhism in India. I did not know if his opinion was based on accounts of the destruction of some Buddhist monasteries by one of the Sen kings of Bengal. It became from now on one of my self-imposed tasks to persuade people that there had been no organised physical assault on Buddhism in India. No matter how much I argued, I could not convince.
One of the most sympathetic attitudes was that of Dr Chirapat. He saw the relationship between Hinduism and Buddhism as similar to the one between Catholicism and Protestantism, Hinduism like the former representing orthodoxy and Buddhism like the latter representing a reform movement. Views about adversarial relations between Hinduism and Buddhism were sufficiently widespread for some people to have encouraged passionate opposition to a conference on Hinduism and Buddhism an Indian industrialist with close links to right wing Hindu groups was proposing to organise in Bangkok in 1996. Local opposition grew so strong that the conference had to be abandoned. Continuing with my efforts to dispel what I thought was a mistaken notion, I talked on the subject wherever I had a willing listener. On one occasion, towards the end of our Bangkok stay I said to a young official in the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs that many in India worshipped Gautama the Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu. He sternly corrected me saying that for Buddhists, the Buddha was a superior being, superior to all. As such he could not be placed at the same level as other human beings or deities. Not all my inventiveness could help me come up with a winning argument.
Sometimes people found ignorance among Indians of the basics of Buddhist practises amusing if not irritating. At a lecture our embassy had organised in Bangkok in 1998, some Buddhist monks had come to listen. Some Indian ladies including one from the embassy who had already spent some time in Bangkok went and sat next to three of the monks. The monks looked distinctly uneasy, were too polite to request the ladies to move away and were looking around for help. It was left to a Thai lady to come up to the Indian ladies to ask them to sit elsewhere. As I write these lines, there is in progress in Delhi a ‘Conference on Spiritual Tourism’. Many Buddhist monks from southeast and east Asia have been participating, some as guests of Government of India and some on their own. An Indian businessman from Bangkok who also has come for this Conference came to meet me. When a monk and a nun whom I had known in Bangkok heard that the businessman was coming to meet me they also came with him. The nun had been a professor at Thammasat University in Bangkok, had taken her postgraduate degrees in India and had done some research on the exact location of Kapilavastu, the capital of Gautama’s father’s kingdom—historians cannot agree on which between one location in modern India and another in modern Nepal is the real place. She knew what she talked about.
As the businessman and I ate our dinner, the monk and the nun who could not eat, as it was evening, sat at the table and did the talking. They said they had not eaten lunch at the Conference as it was a buffet. They said the organisers had evidently forgotten that Buddhist monks or nuns did not eat standing and that they did not help themselves to food but food was given to them in their plates. Discussions then turned to the plane of ideas and the nun said at one point that people in India were ignorant about Buddhism. What was worse was that they did not know that they did not know, she said. The tendency of Indians in India, of those living in Thailand or of those visiting, to ignorantly and fatuously talk of Buddhism as an extension of Hinduism did not help my cause when I was in Bangkok.
There were people who talked as if they saw an Indo-Nepalese tournament over the ‘nationality’ of Gautama the Buddha. I do not know if there are Indians who enter that compettition. I myself never did because I found such talk silly. A monk I met in a monastery in northern Thailand of which he was the head, seemed to have decided that he must once and for all sort out with me the issue of Gautama’s ‘nationality’. He showed us around his monastery, pointed at a big bo tree grown out of a sapling from the bo tree at the place of Gautama’s enlghtenment at Gaya in India, and said the sapling had been presented by an Indian Ambassador to Thailand many years ago. He also asked for some more. In the middle of all that talk, he asked : ‘But the Buddha was from Nepal ?’ I said yes indeed he was but added that in the period of the Budda’s birth and life, there was no India and no Nepal, no state boundaries and no concepts of Indian and Nepalese nationalities. The literature of the period mentioned sixteen janapadas in what are the north Indian plains. The monk said that was true and recited the names of all the sixteen, but, he said, the Buddha was Nepalese by birth. That conversation ended when I said to him that I agreed, as the Buddha had been born in Lumbini which is in Nepal.
Within the first six months or so of our Bangkok stay I had come to the conclusion that for the purposes of the ordinary task of diplomacy of managing relations between the states of India and Thailand, the old civilizational links were not very relevant. Those links were there and they could not easily be destroyed. They were best left to historians, archaeologists and linguists to take care of, which neither Thais nor Indians were doing. Whatever I saw during the rest of our Bangkok stay did no more than confirm me in these views. Talk of Buddhistic links could as often be problematic as helpful. Facilitating travel to Gaya, Varanasi, Kushinagar, Shravasti and numerous other places such as Nalanda, Rajgir, Sanchi (which very few in Thailand knew about) and Ajanta and Ellora was certainly important and will probly always be so. Preserving and maintaining these places in India, important landmarks in the history of Buddhism, is something India should be doing on its own both for its national self-esteem and for promoting its tourist industry. What was problematic was illiterate and insensitive pronouncements by Indians of all hues about Buddhism.
There was one occasion when the Thai Government tried to use Buddhism as an instrument of diplomacy in their dealing with us. Some time before the meetings in Bangkok in July 2000, of the ASEAN Summit and of ASEAN Regional Forum, the Foreign Minister of Thailand told me that he wished to go to Delhi. He said that among other things he wanted to secure India’s endorsement of what he called the Suvannaphoum Project (Sanskrit : Suvarnabhumi or the land of gold). He said that there were four countries in Southeast Asia, that is Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar where Theravada Buddhism was the dominant religion. Treating Theravada Buddhism as their starting point, they and India which was the original home of Buddhism could start programmes of cultural and educational cooperation which could also embrace tourism. Even as the dates of the Thai Foreign Minister’s visit were being negotiated, the Lao let India know that they would not be part of this project if it went under the name proposed by the Thais, quietly adding that they saw in the name of the project old Thai ambitions of dominating Indo-China. A senior person in the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs told me, without naming the Vietnamese, that it was the Vietnamese who were Mahayanist and who did not wish to be excluded who were behind the Lao objections. The proposal thus becamee policized even before it was formally made. When the Thai Foreign Minister put forward his ideas to his Indian counterpart in Delhi in July that year, the Indian Foreign Minister suggested the name Ganga- Mekong Project and that is what was launched in Bangkok at the time of the ASEAN meetings. The event did not attract much attention then or later.
IN JULY 1997, about four months before our arrival in Bangkok, Thailand was hit by what was later labelled the Southeast Asian financial crisis. Delinking of the international price of the Thai currency from the US dollar, its depreciation, collapse in the value of stocks of Thai companies, bankruptcies, a glut in the real estate market, accumulation of large portfolios of bad debts by Thai banks, increase in unemployment and flight of short term capital came in a cascade. The financial crisis produced political change—a new government and a new constitution. The IMF put together a bailout package in which the USA did not participate, a fact about which some Thais tried to score anti-American political points. The new government decided to accept and implement all of the IMF prescriptions about restructuring the economy. By 1999 the country had gone over the hump of the crisis.
For most of our stay in Thailand the financial crisis, which later spread to the entire region, dominated all the news and discussions. A senior colleague with whom I had a chance encounter before leaving for Bangkok said, almost commiserating with me, that Thailand was a good country which was in a terrible situation then. Others in India talked about the mismanagement of the economies of Southeast Asia, about these countries having followed wrong development models and about the virtues of prudent economic management practiced by Government of India. A few months into our stay in Bangkok, a visiting Indian economist who met me said I must find it exciting following the unfolding of the financial crisis. International media talked of the wages of financial indiscipline, bad governance and of the evils of crony capitalism. Yet in the same circles Malaysia which introduced a modicum of control over the movement of capital quickly became a black sheep and Indonesia was repeatedly advised not to establish a currency board. One refreshing voice was that of a World Bank economist who in a talk he gave at Bangkok disagreed with much of what was being put forward as diagnosis of the ills of the region. He said notably that what a few years earlier had been trumpeted as successful examples of government-business partnership in Southeast Asia was, after the crisis, denigrated as crony capitalism. The truth, I suspected, was that no one—no politician, no establishment economist—knew the causes of the crisis until it was nearly upon the Thai government. Almost all the talk about the causes of the crisis was based on hindsight. One definition of an economist I came upon those days was that he was someone who after an event discussed why his predictions went wrong.
Much of what was being said about the Southeast Asian financial crisis reminded me of the bursting of another financial bubble in the USA in 1990-91 when I was in New York. Then also, as in Southeast Asia, there had been a period of plentiful supply of money with banks and financial institutions, banks soliciting people to borrow money, overinvestment in real estate, collapse of the real estate market and criticism at least of Savings and Loans establishments for their lack of prudence, complete with a presidential son having his name bandied about in the media for supposedly using a Savings and Loans establishment, in the management of which he was involved, for personal benefit. One visible consequence was a large number of collapses of banks and their mergers.
Since the end century crisis in Southeast Asia there have come stories from the USA both of criminal misappropriation of money in large companies as well as of cosy relations betwween government and private corporations—during the years of the the Southeast Asian crisis there was a great deal of largely western-inspired talk about the need for good governance. I knew of no liberal democracy in the indusrtralised world or indeed elsewhere where private capital and government did not exist in comfortable, even incestuous, relations with each other. I found it that much more difficult to understand the media and more serious criticism of ‘crony capitalism’ in Southeast Asia.
There were conspiracy theories too. A Bangkok Indian with pretensions towards political insight, with a bagful of doomsday predictions about the country put forward the view that American fund mangers had deliberately engineered the financial crisis in order to hurt Chinese interests in the region as there was unease in the USA over the growing influence of the People’s Republic of China. It could perhaps plausibly be argued that the crisis hurt the interests of a section of Thailand’s Chinese community—the majority of private banks were Chinese owned as were some large industrial units. No important interest of the People’s Republic of China was hurt. Some people expressed the view that the finacial crisis would get worse if China allowed the external value of its currency to depreciate. Appeals to the People’s Republic not to do so became a commonplace. The People’s Republic adroitly made political capital by repeatedly undertaking to maintain the external value of its currency at a time when, with China’s overflowing foreign currency reserves and large current account surpluses, there was an economic case for actually revaluing it. Other conspiracy theorists blamed George Soros. Thanat Khoman, long time Foreign Minister of Thailand and a respected elder statesman frequently talked of foreign raiders who brought the Thai economy down. Sometimes in innuendo and at others more explicitly he criticised the USA and its policies as being responsible. In a number of small ways he began to sport anti-Americanism with a corresponding special love for France.
Some time in 1998, at a diplomatic reception Thanat Khoman talked to me of the dangers of a single Great Power dominating the world. He praised Jawaharlal Nehru for his perspicacity in organising an Asian Relations Conference in Delhi in 1947 and then taking another initiative which fructified in the Afro-Asian Conference at Bandung in 1955. He said India should take the lead once again and launch a similar inititiative. For me he, who as Foreign Minister of Thailand had in a hundred and one ways helped in the development of close relations between Thailand and the USA, was an extremely unlikely anti-American. I did nothing. Some weeks later, on another similar occasion, he raised the question again and talked of the need for India, Japan and China working together for Asian solidarity vis à vis outsiders. He suggested I take up his proposal with Government of India. I said that if he, with his prestige and status as an elder statesman, were to write to the Prime Minister of India, I was sure his letter would carry great weight. He asked me if I could draft such a letter for him. A few minutes later when the Chinese ambassador joined us he repeated the same views to him and added, embarrassingly for me, that he had asked me to draft a letter from him to the Prime Ministers of India, China and Japan. For me the proposal was dead from then on, if ever it had a chance of flying. Having never thought much of modish anti-US harangues as useful exercises, I was clear that I was going to be no part of one then in Thailand.
Thanat was not the only Thai politician to talk and think of Asian solidarity. General Chavalit, Prime Minister when the financial crisis germinated and sprouted was Leader of the Opposition in the Thai Parliament when I met him, some time in 1998. He asked me how India’s relations with the People’s Republic of China were developing. He then expressed the hope that the two countries would come together saying close relations between the two would be good for Asia. He even recommended that I work closely with the Chinese ambassador in Bangkok. Chavalit was careful not to attack the Americans. In those crisis years talk about an Asian financial architecture, even about establishing an Asian Monetary Fund, surfaced every few months. Inspiration for these proposals almost certainly came from Japan whose financial investments and loans in the region were higher than that of any other country. Clear and determined U.S. opposition to any talk about an Asian Monetary Fund deterred the Japanese from pursuing such ideas more energetically.
Bangkok Bank of Commerce was one of the early casualties of the financial crisis. An Indian financial manager at that Bank, Rakesh Saxena, apparently come from Hongkong or from nowhere and shot into prominence when everyone was trying to become rich on borrowed money, was accused of many crimes that brought the Bank down. He had left the country and was living in Canada, pursued there too by Canadian and Thai law enforcement agencies. Some of the things he said while in Canada travelled to Thailand and were reported. At one stage he seemed to have riled Banharn Silpa Archa, a Prime Minister of Thailand in the mid 1990’s, excessively.
Banharn was reported by one of the English language dailies of Bangkok to have roundly denounced Rakesh Saxena at a press conference addressed by him and his daughter, adding that Saxena reminded him of an old saying that when you saw an Indian and a snake you should kill the Indian first. This was one offshoot of the finacial crisis I could not ignore. There were hotheads in the Indian community in Bangkok who would not allow me to ignore what Banharn was reported to have said. Some people wanted to take out processions to Banharn’s office. Others wanted to start other kinds of protest. Some of the elders in the Indian community wanted to calm tempers and asked for my advice. I suggested that people must not do anything to embarrass Banharn publicly.
On the other hand I could not ignore such an explicit racist remark against Indians by so prominent a politician. I wrote a letter to Banharn saying I hoped he had been misquoted by the newspapers, that I had nothing to say about Rakesh Saxena who I hoped the law would take care of, and that the Indians in Thailand were acknowledged by most people to be a quiet, hard working group, not creating trouble, and making useful contributions to the economic life of the country. I also sent a letter to the Foreign Minister enclosing a copy of the letter I had written to Banharn and expressing the hope that the government would not permit any racist hysteria against Indians. I also apoke to the Foreign Minister and one of the Deputy Prime Ministers suggesting that the least Banharn could do was to issue a denial. They said nothing to me nor made any promises—perhaps they could not because their government’s survival was dependent on crucial support of Banharn’s party in the Thai parliament. For fear that people would unnecessarily talk and make matters worse, I told no one in the Indian community of Bangkok what I had done.
Besides, I did not know if all that activity of mine made any difference. I had no means of making a judgment. I might after all have been overreacting. I had met Banharn once before for a tête a tête. It was a friendly meeting in which I explained to him the reasons why India had exploded nuclear devices. I met him about one year after his anti-Indian outburst outside his favourite Chinese temple in his political fastness of Souphanburi. A Thai senator from there who had for long been a critic of Banharn on a radio programme he ran was conducting us around. This was election season and one of Banharn’s sons was a candidate from the area. I had a perfectly civil conversation with father and son even as we were escorted by someone he did not like.
BETWEN 1972 WHEN WE HAD MOTORED THROUGH THE LENGTH OF THAILAND and the end of the twentieth century the country had been transformed. There was surplus of electric power. It was possible to travel to all but the remotest of villages by well surfaced asphalted roads. Some of the buildings—residential complexes, hospitals, public buildings such as the newly constructed one for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or the head office of the Siam Commercial Bank, the airport at Don Muang, or hotels—not only in Bangkok but also in provincial towns approached First World standards. With the exception of a few of the poorest areas of Bangkok and some remote villges in the hills of the north, there was very little visible sign of Third World poverty and degradation. In all our quite extensive travels through the country—almost invariably by road—we never came across a halted road or bridge construction project even at a time when the economy had reached its trough. The 700 kilometre stretch of the divided highway between Bangkok and Chiengmai was extended from about one third of its length when we first travelled on it in early 1998 to its full length by the end of 1999. Likewise we saw progress on the dual carriageway south of Bangkok going down to the Malaysian border which was about four fifths complete when we last travelled on it. The construction of an elevated railway in Bangkok remained on schedule. The government had made up its mind that the infrastructure for the Asian Games in December 1998 must be completed in time and it was. The Foreign Minister once told me that through all the cuts in public spending the government never reduced its outlay on infrastructure or on education. From all I saw, I could say that his was not an empty boast. One kind of traffic from India, that of government officials coming out to study this or that aspect of the development and management of transport infrastructure by Thailand, never ceased, talk about the poor state of the economy and crisis notwithstanding .
Greed, or, more elegantly, pursuit of wealth, drives capitalism. In the easy days of the first half of the decade of the 1990’s when exports were expanding and the economies of Southeast Asia were growing at dream rates some people created new real assets and became rich while others speculated, created paper assets, and also became rich. The wealth of the second group was like froth on the surface. When the growth in exports slowed down for reasons external to the region and current account surpluses first diminished and then evaporated not only money that had come in from outside was taken out but local economic operators also, anxious to preserve the value of their liquid assets, moved their funds to safer havens, thus aggravating the problem they were escaping from. All that was inherent in the economic model adopted by Southeast Asia—but even in the deepest moments of the crisis, none of the countries of the region consideredabandoning that model. When the collapse came in Thailand, much of the paper wealth vanished. Newspapers delighted in reporting stories about luxury cars being taken over by financiers of hire-purchase arrangements or senior managers of yesteryear selling soup in the streets. In the real economy, manufacturing shrank, though it was not clear whether the shrinkage was caused by decline in external demand or by the reduction in bank credit. Industries and industrialists were indebted. But there were no serious social disturbances. The agricultural economy continued to function reasonably and the tourist industry actually expanded after an initial period of shock. It was not as if the country had fallen into pre-1985 standards of development. Even though the dollar value of the per capita GDP was halved, Thailand in the year 2000, after one year of negative growth and another of near no growth was much better off than India on any important economic or human development index. Even visually the country was more prosperous, better organised, neater and less squalid than India. I found the smug, superior and all-knowing tone that Indians adopted those days when talking about the Thai crisis irritating, even nauseating.
FOR ME THE FIRST MAJOR DIPLOMATIC PROBLEM to deal with in Thailand was the reaction to the Indian nuclear tests in May 1998. Official and media reactions were initially muted but became shrill after the Pakistani nuclear tests seventeen days later. For a few days, Thai newspapers printed stories saying that the Indian and Pakistani ambassadors were to be called by the Thai Foreign Minister to be told how unhappy the Thai Government was with the actions of the two governments—one newspaper, established and initially controlled by Lord Thomson of the Fleet, likened Indian and Pakistani actions to those of testerone charged teenagers—and how their actions had endangered peace and security in the entire region. The summons to me for a meeting with the Thai Foreign Minister came after full four days of such reports in the newspapers. In what the Thai Foreign Minister had to say to me, there was a curious lack of passion and conviction. He said what he had to and I gave my response with a little bit more spirit than him. When I came out of the meeting, the television, the radio and the newspaper were there to ask me what the Minister had had to say. I disappointed them saying that it was for the Minister and his office to tell them. What the media reported the Minister as telling me was a highly ‘sexed up’ version of what he actually said to me.
In a later meeting the Deputy Foreign Minister threw Gandhi at me saying that it was disappointing that India, the land of Gandhi, ‘the apostle of non-violence’ should have taken this path towards nuclear arms. I countered saying that for Gandhi an even greater principle than non-violence had been the refusal to accept injustice and as far as we were concerned the régime established by the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty was unjust. Later that year, the Thai Deputy Foreign Minister, speaking about India’s nucluear tests in his address at the Non-aligned Foreign Ministers’ Meeting said that fight against injustice could not justify acts of terrorism. All this was verbal jousting, an enjoyable sport in itself. At least one of the English language dailies in Bangkok wrote as if it was speaking for the Thai Foreign Ministry. We engaged them also in verbal exchanges. Even while such exchanges went on, I could not help feeling that the Foreign Minister and his Deputy were posturing with their eyes turned backwards over their shoulders looking for nods of approval from I knew not where.
In June I had an appointment with Chuan Leek Pai, the Thai Prime Minister for my first formal official meeting with him. I saw this as a useful opportunity to present our case on nuclear weapons to him. I asked the Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi for authority to tell the Prime Minister that India would not use its nuclear weapons against the states of Southeast Asia which were all non-nuclear and that India would respect the Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone. I was basing myself on comments I had come across in Thailand and thought saying these things would be one way of meeting the point some made that the Indian weapons affected the security of Southeast Asia . I was advised to stay within my general brief on the nuclear question. Later at that year’s ASEAN Regional Forum meeting the Indian Minister did articulate the views I had wanted to present to the Thai Prime Minister. In my June meeting with him, Chuan, one of the most mild mannered men I have known, heard me patiently on the nuclear question giving me all the time I needed and did not react other than thanking me for my presentation.
Some time later I presented our case to the President of the Privy Council. In his reaction there was not a word of disapproval, no critical question and no suggestion that India’s action would cause security problems for Thailand. Some people in the National Security Council whom I had gone to see in another connection asked me to brief them. After I finished, the reaction of one of them was to say that Pakistan had obviously been sitting ready to test its weapons the moment India tested, because there was no way Pakistan could conduct its tests within seventeen days of India’s unless it had made prior preparations. They also told me they fully understood our position. These private reactions gave me the confidence that Indian nuclear tests were not going to have any real effect on bilateral Indo-Thai relations.
There was no action of the Thai government other than one that could possibly be taken to mean an expression of disapproval. Some time in May that year the Thais had suggested dates around the middle of June for an official visit by Chuan Leek Pai to India. By the time I could convey the Indian agreement, the Thais had decided not to go on with the visit citing the Prime Minister’s other preoccupations which was a plausible reason as at that time the country was in the midst of a first class economic crisis and discussions in the parliament later that month on a no confidence motion. I had decided to treat the postponement of Chuan’s visit as not being related to the nuclear tests. There was no other instance of our routine bilateral intercourse having been affected by the Thai position on the Indian nuclear tests.
By October we started preparing for the state visit to India by the Crown Prince of Thailand with his two daughters. The visit actually happened in the last week of December 1998. By then, India’s diplomatic activity in Southeast Asia in relation to the the nuclear tests had shifted to preventing the inclusion of words too critical of India in declarations emerging out of meetings of the ASEAN Regional Forum which were considred so important that they had to be handled by envoys from Delhi. There was another concern, part of the staple of Indian diplomacy, which was to block moves to admit Pakistan as a full dialogue partner of ASEAN and as a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum. On these questions my role was no greater than that of making an occasional representation to the Thai government.
The weeks and months after the Indian and Pakistani tests were heady days. I even enjoyed them. Television channels wanted to interview me. Newspapers asked questions. Others wrote critical articles which needed to be dealt with. Groups fixed speaking engagements. There was one independent television channel with a wide viewership which had scheduled an interview with the Pakistani ambassador and me. As I arrived at the studio for recording the interview I found the Pakistani ambassador there. He had just finished his interview. I shook hands with him and we had a brief chat mixing English words and Urdu. The interviewer, Suthichai Yoon, a senior television and print journalist was fascinated and asked me if he could have us on screen, shaking hands. I said I had no problem but the Pakistani demurred.
Some time later Suthichai was a guest at a dinner we had organised in honour of the Pakistani ambassador before his departure. When the time came for toasts, I said my piece and the Pakistani his, except that the Pakistani at the end of his little speech walked from his end of the long table towards mine, we clinked our glasses and hugged. Suthichai who had come with his digital camera was clicking away all evening. He took a shot of the Pakistani and I hugging. The next day a worried Pakistani telephoned me saying he hoped our journalist friend would not print that photograph. I spoke to Suthichai who thought the chance of publishing a photograph of the Indian and Pakistani ambassadors in such a friendly pose too good to let go. He was adamant and gave in only when I requested him not to put out anything that would embarrass one of my dinner guests. He published a good story about that evening printing two separate busts of the Pakistani and myself. These were days when Nawaz Sharif was ‘Islamizing’ Pakistan and probably the Pakistani was afraid that someone might send a photograph to his government as ‘proof’ that he violated the Islamic injunction against alcohol. A Bangkok hostess told us later that she found the news story about that dinner so charming that she kept a clipping in her collection.
Generally, in Bangkok I had to spend very little time and energy on the staple of Indian diplomacy : countering Pakistan. There was only one occasion when due to the foolish insistence of some anti-Pakistani hardliners in Delhi I had to raise at a meeting of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific a question that had been settled a long while ago. This had to do with a section of the Asian Highway project, still more concept than reality, which passed through territory in Jammu and Kashmir under Pakistani control. I was required to enter a caveat saying that that territory was legally ours. Pakistanis then countered stating the totality of their political case on the Kashmir question in a UN meeting dealing with technical matters. Our hawks, possibly mindful of their anti-Pakistani, Hindu credentials with the ‘Hindu nationalist’ politicians in power in Delhi, forgot the basic Indian opposition to a discussion of the Kashmir question in a United Nations forum. They also forgot that such exchanges belittled us in the eyes of people at an international gathering. Having raised the question I quickly reached an understanding with the Secretariat about closing that discussion and not letting that exchange go on record. I do not know if for doing all that I was accused somewhere of being soft on Pakistan.
INDIA’S NUCLEAR TESTS were reported by the Indian media to have created a deep friendship beteen the Indian Minister of External Affairs and Strobe Talbott, Deputy Secretary of State in the Clinton Administration. Since the tests the two had met and talked several times in Washington D. C. or in other locales, ‘secretly’ or publicly, to work out an understanding between the two governments over these weapons. It was obvious that, given their stated public positions on the question of nuclear weapons in the hands of all but the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, any understanding or the lack of it between them had to be kept secret—an ideal situation in which both the Government of India, claiming success in being accepted as a nuclear weapons power, and its critics alleging failure, could say they were right.
In the last week of July 2000, there were scheduled in Bangkok, the ASEAN summit, ten plus one discussions between the ASEAN and its dialogue partners and meetings of the ASEAN Rgional Forum. One of the fixtures during these meetings was a call in a group by the twenty-three foreign ministers, who would be in Bangkok for these meetings, on the King of Thailand. For understandable reasons of logistics, the Thai government had arranged for the ministers to travel in luxury coaches to Hua Hin on the Gulf of Siam, about two and a half hour’s drive from Bankok, as the King was staying there at that time. On this fixture, my embassy received a comment from the Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi saying that the minister who had been injured in action in the knee ( or the back, I do not remember which) when he was with the Indian Army had difficulty travelling long distances by road. I had it conveyed to Delhi that a call on the King could not be missed by him without causing serious offence. My embassy was then asked to find out if the minister could travel to Hua Hin by the special aircraft—a Gulfstream Jet—by which he was coming to Bangkok. After enquiries the embassy told Delhi that the runway at the small airport at Hua Hin could not take the kind of aircraft the minister was travelling in. When the minister arrived in Bangkok the question of his journey to Hua Hin was still unresolved.
In the car in which we drove from the airport I asked him what he had decided about going to Hua Hin. He told me he had this old war wound in the back(or the knee, I do not remember which) which made long road journeys painful for him. I then told him that we had a message from Strobe Talbott—he had come for the first half of those meetings while Madeleine Albright was to participate in the second half—that while he would travel to Hua Hin in the coaches arranged by the Thai government, he would return to Bangkok either in a US embassy car or in the US Military Attache’s aircraft. He would be happy if the Indian minister drove or flew back with him. I would have barely finished saying all this when our minister shot back : ‘Oh, Strobe is here ? I shall tell him when I meet him this evening’. The minister travelled to Hua Hin in coach and flew back with Strobe Talbott. ‘But if the while I think on thee, dear friend/All losses are restor’d and sorrows end’. Thus wrote the bard some four centuries ago.
NUCLEAR TESTS, disarmament, security, international economic cooperation, relations with the ASEAN and other similar bodies, and, for Indian diplomats, Pakistan, all belong to the world of high diplomacy handling which is the stuff successful diplomatic careers are made of. There are many low level diplomatic activities which occupy plodders. One of my tales from the nether world of criminality will bear recounting.
In the year 2000, there lived in Bangkok, unknown to me, an important person from Mumbai’s gangland. He was known by the name of Chhota Rajan. One day the story of a shooting incident at a Bangkok apartment which Chhota Rajan was visiting and in which a woman and a man were killed and Chhota Rajan was wounded broke out in newspapers. There were conjectures about the people who had shot at him. The press then reported that the assailants belonged to a gang, based then in Dubai but originally from Mumbai, led by a certain Chhota Shakeel. The press also reported that Chhota Shakeel owed his allegience to Pakistan and that he was in league with another star of Mumbai’s gangland, Dawood Ibrahim, who was sought by Indian police which had charged him with organising a series of explosions in Mumbai in early 1993, soon after the felling of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya in early December 1992. Dawood Ibrahim had gone over to Dubai and then on to Karachi—Pakistani authorities from General Pervez Musharraf down have denied any knowledge of him being on Pakistani territory. I was quite unconcerned about all this , perfunctorily reading newspaper reports and comfortable in my belief that if a criminal act had been committed on Thai territory, that was for the law enforcement agencies of Thailand to worry about. The embassy would have a responsibility if Rajan as an Indian citizen sought its help. The consular and press officers in my embassy gave me a low down on the latest developments from time to time.
But one day a woman journalist from Mumbai who wrote for a large circulation Indian newsmagazine came and met me. She wanted to know the ‘real’ story behind the Bangkok shootout. Being ignorant of any ‘real’ secrets and having no talent for invention I told her I knew no more than what had appeared in the press. She did not believe me but either out of frustration—she tried to draw ‘secrets’ out of me in the next two or three meetings with me—or as a bait she told me that in some circles in Mumbai, particularly in circles close to one of Indian government agencies, people thought that since Pakistani government agencies such as the Inter Services Intelligence were using Muslim members of Mumbai’s gangland such as Dawood Ibrahim and Chhota Shakeel against India’s security, it was right for branches of the Indian government to use Hindu members of the same gangland of the same Mumbai such as Chhota Rajan against the Pakistan backed Muslim gangsters. In brief, according to her, Indian agencies were using Chhota Rajan, a Hindu leader of a Mumbai crime syndicate, against a Muslim led crime syndicate supported and used by Paksistani secret services and to that extent, she said, Chhota Rajan was a protégé of those Indian agencies as he was performing a ‘patriotic’ duty. The lady wrote reports about the incident in her news magazine.
While under treatment in hospital, Chhota Rajan, otherwise known as Vijay Kadam, in which name he had a valid Indian passport issued in Chennai or as Rajendra Sadasiv Nikhalje was given full protection by the Thai police. Chhota Shakeel’s people were reported in the media as having issued threats against Rajan. Around this time the deputy of the Pakistani Ambassador in Bangkok, a minister-counsellor, an affable man who was on friendly terms with me, joked saying that not only were our armed forces at war from time to time but now our gangsters also were fighting each other.
The first request that we were instructed to make to the Thai authorities was that Rajan should be deported to India. The Thai police asked us for information which we could only get from India. These enquiries generated a certain volume of telegraphic traffic between my embassy and the Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi. At an early stage in these exchanges I was advised over the telephone by a senior official in the Ministry of External Affairs that the thinking in Delhi was that Rajan should not come to India.
I concluded that Government of India had two opposite approaches to the Rajan problem : one to be put down in written communications and the other to be spoken over the telephone. I decided to ignore any communication that could not be written down. Statements started coming out at different levels in the state government in Mumbai, occasionally critical of Government of India for not acting forcefully enough to bring Rajan over to India, and then expressing the determination of the state government to have him brought over and tried for his crimes—different political formations, opposed to each other, were in power in the state and federal governments. From time to time, the Thai police asked the embassy to send someone across to interpret from Thai to Hindi and the other way round during Rajan’s interrogation. At the request of the Thai authorities we checked with the passport office in Chennai and confirmed that Vijay Kadam’s passport was genuine. Some weeks later, on instructions from Delhi we cancelled and impounded that passport on the ground the it had been obtained under false pretences. As all this went on I was again told by the same official in Delhi, in reaction to some telegramme I had sent, with, I magined, a hint that my telegramme was not appreciated, that the thinking in Government of India was that Rajan was well left alone outside India. I had to say to this official that if the Thai police asked us questions to which answers could only come from Delhi, there was no way I would not relay the question. I would likewise ask for clarifications in case Delhi’s answers were not clear.
Around this time a state government minister in Mumbai made a public statement that the Indian embassy in Bangkok had been asked to request for Rajan’s extradition. It was not until a few weeks after that statement that we were instructed from Delhi to make a proforma request.Within a day of our making that request the Thai government received a similar proforma request for Rajan’s extradition to the United Arab Emirates from the government of that country. Our formal, fully documented request for extradition was made much later.
Thai law required that any request for extradition to be valid had to be accompanied by a Thai language translation. There were some four hundred pages of documents to be translated. Between the time we submitted the English version of the extradition papers and their Thai translation, news came that Chhota Rajan had escaped from the hospital under the noses of the Thai police. One account suggested that he had prosaically slid down a rope hanging out of his hospital room. Another, more romantic account, had it that he had simply walked out unnoticed from the hospital through the front door almost like a character in one of G.K.Chesterton’s Father Brown stories. In the days preceding the escape, stories of all kinds wafted their way up to me. The embassy performed its legal function of helping in the repatriation of the dead body of the woman who had died in the shootout. In the process one of Rajan’s associates had become a regular visitor. This person delivered a threat to some of the embassy officials involved in the cancellation of Vijay Kadam’s passport. On another occasion Rajan’s people tried for his release from police surveillance arguing that he had committed no breach of Thai law. This associate of Rajan had also let it be known that an aircraft had been kept ready to fly him out of the country. The stories that came to me would almost certainly have travelled to people in Delhi too. At one stage two officials from Mumbai police came and stayed in Bangkok for a few weeks trying to conduct their own interrogations of Rajan and those around him—not very successfully, I thought. Once the extradition request had been duly introduced, the Mumbai police chief thought it useful to thank me personally over the telephone for the emabassy’s help and co-operation.
After Rajan’s escape from Bangkok, all the noise in India ceased—no outrage, no anxiety, no blame game, no accusing finger at the Indian ambassador or his colleagues, no surprise that this person, accused of more than a dozen serious crimes committed in India whose extradition to India was being sought officially, should have escaped so easily. For those few months before Rajan’s escape there was excitement in the embassy. And then the usual routine. Some weeks after Rajan’s escape we received in the embassy a copy of a warrant of arrest issued by a Thai court in response to the extradition request. I did not know what the real story behind the escape was. I do not know now. I had my suspicions, which if correct, would make this story a good instance of the due processes of law being subverted in the pursuit of national security.
FOR A CONSTIRUTIONAL MONARCH, the King of Thailand has very real authority. It was said to flow out of the affection and reverence for him that the Thai people had. Initially, largely because of my own republican convictions, I treated all claims about personal popularity and reverence for the King with scepticism. Gestures of reverence and public acclamation were habits that could have easily been created by social and other pressures, I thought. In a context in which the King was held above all criticism and was talked about only with the greatest of adulation or not at all, when a law treating lèse majesté as a crime not only existed on the statute books but was also enforced, it was impossible for an outsider to make an independent judgment about the genuineness of the King’spopularity—there was a small number of books about the monarchy and about the King personally, published outside Thailand and circulated privately and semi calndestinely in the Kingdom. It took me a while to understand that my questions were wrong. The most important political fact was that the King’s authority was such that it was inconceivable for anyone in government or outside it to diregard it. Questions such as whether that authority was based in genuine popularity and respect or whether it sprang out of , what two friends had told me once, the Confucian values of Thai society are irrelevant.
The roots of the present King’s authority lay in the previous six and a half decades of Thai history. Two years after the Promoters had introduced a new constitution in 1932 with the King as a titular Head of State, there was an attempt by Royalists to restore the old absolute monarchy by force. They lost out and King Prajadhipok, Rama VII, and some of his supporters had to go into exile. The Republicans who had taken charge of Thailand, feeling that the country still needed a King, and on the strength of a resolution of the Thai parliament, sent emissaries to Lausanne where the widow of Prince Mahidol and her two young sons were living. It was agreed that the elder son, Anand, just a little more than nine years of age at that time, would become King. The family travelled to Thailand with the new young King, and after a brief stay went back to Switzerland so that the young King and his brother could continue their studies. They came back at the end of 1945. In June 1946, King Anand, not yet crowned, was found dead in his bed with a bullet wound in his head—one of those political deaths about which questions never ceased being asked. When Anand’s younger brother, Bhumibol Adulyadej became King at the age of a little more than eighteen years, the institution of monarchy had been badly dented. Though King Bhumibol was crowned Rama IX in 1950, real power and authority was wielded by a succession of politicians or military strongmen between 1946 and 1957 when Field Marshal Pibul Songkhram was overthrown. There was very little room for the monarch to perform any role other than the purely ceremonial and symbolic. But the necessity of the institution of monarchy had been established since 1935.
In 1957 started the development of a national consensus among the civilian and military élites of the country and people around the monarch that the King was above politics, that he was the focus of all loyalty, that the incumbent monarch possessed all the qualities of a good king including having a paternalistic interest in the welfare of all his subjects and that his position, prestige and image must be upheld. This consensus was no doubt helped by the need of conservative Thai élites and successive US administrations to support each other in the face of communism in China and Vietnam. By the time, in 1993, King Bhumibol personally intervened and reprimanded in front of the television cameras the organisers of a military coup d’état overthrowing an elected government his authority had become unquestioned.
A friend in Bangkok said in 1999 that King Bhumibol had restored for the monarchy the same authority as it had before the 1932 constitution. A Thai government minister, half royal, said to me on another occasion that they, the Thais felt protected by the King, so much so that when the King left Thai territory for a few hours at the inauguration in April 1994 of the Friendship Bridge over the Mekong between Laos and Thailand ‘we felt helpless as if a great protecting hand had been removed from over our heads.’ Both the statements were perhaps hyperbolic but there was no gainsaying the underlying truth in one while the second illustrated the many ways those in the ruling class of Thailand created the aura of the King.
For achieving this position the King and most members of his family made personal efforts so that they could be seen as being worthy of the roles that had become theirs. Without great skills and self discipline it would not have been possible for the King to navigate through the rocky waters between the theoretical abstinence from interfering in the governance of the country and the practical necessity, from the King’s point of view, of maintaining and strengthening the institution of monarchy. In the process, the King, and in a smaller degree, his family had been made prisoners of the Royal Court and its traditions to an extent I found difficult to understand.
At one of the annual ploughing ceremonies in May the King was presiding. Keen photographer that he is reputed to be, the King had brought a small camera and was taking photographs. The difference was that he would keep the camera at the level of his lower torso as he sat, and not bring it up to his eyes as a photographer would normally do. Sitting close to him, slightly diagonally behind, I like other diplomats could see what he was doing, but the people in front, at a lower level and at some distance, could not. It seemed the concern was with the form demanded by the solemnity of the occasion. While, inevitably, some of the Royal customs had been modified, some others, abolished by the present King’s grandfather, Chulalongkorn, were reintroduced during his reign. One such custom was that of Thai nationals prostrating themselves when they were ushered into the presence of Royalty. The King’s eldest daughter lost her Royal title and all her rights as a member of the Royal Family when she married an American citizen.
When the Crown Prince visited India in December 1998, the invitation to the King to come on a state visit to India was renewed through him publicly and privately by both the Vice-President and the President of India. At the beginning-of-the-year dinner for the diplomatic corps given by the King in Chiengmai in January 1999, a key member of the Royal Court, seated next to me, gave me an indirect but clear answer. He said that the King had never travelled outside Thailand after 1967, so much so that some time in the 1970’s he had expressed his curiosity about the experience of travelling in the new wide-bodied aircraft like the Boeing 747’s. To give him that experience, the Thai Government had arranged for a Boeing 747 to fly the King at a low level for several hours, never leaving Thai airspace.
Travelling through Thailand, I became aware of the extent to which the Kingdom of Thailand in its present boundaries had been established and shaped by the Chakri Kings in the two centuries of their rule. Their memories were kept alive through numerous local stories. A visitor would be told how Rama I had fought a battle at this place and how Rama V had spent some time by a stream in the jungle at such other place. Different monarchs of the dynasty left their mark on the attitudes of the élite or on different other aspects of life. In modern times, for example , King Bhumibol’s name is linked with the eradication of poppy cultivation and numerous crop substitution schemes in the north of the country. Beyond the inevitable myth making, monarchy as a political device has served the country well. Expectedly it has been a factor of stability, so much so that it is difficult to imagine Thailand without a monarch. It has also been used for mobilising people for different purposses. Officials in one province showed us a whole swathe of land which had been reafforested in a very short period. They explained to us that the Queen during a visit had suggested that reafforestation would bring many benefits to the area. There were numerous such projects implemented under the impulse of a royal command. And except in matters relating to the customs and usages of the Royal Court, the Thai monarchy, unlike an Arab monarchy like Saudi Arabia, has not been a barrier against social and political change, nor against the forces of modernisation.
One part of diplomatic life, raising money every year for the Thai Red Cross Society by embassies in Bangkok—mainly through the effort of embassy wives—took place under the benign eyes of the Queen. The embassies believed and acted as if this would win them the approval and appreciation of Thai authorities, especially the Royal Family. We had been in three other capitals where embassy wives likewise raised funds for the local Red Cross or Red Crescent societies. In these places this activity was low key, informal and with little or very insignificant involvement of authorities from the host government. There was competition among embassies about who would raise more money, though the amount of money embassies thus raised formed in all the places a ridiculously low proportion of the needs.
In Bangkok, this activity was much more formal. The Queen of Thailand was the President of the Thai Red Cross Society. Its Secretary General was a former Permanent Secretary in the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a former Secretary General of ASEAN. Within the Thai Red Cross Society there was a Diplomatic Participants’ Committee, complete with a President, a Vice- President , a Secretary and a Rapporteur. All these office bearers were embassy wives, in fact ambassadors’ wives except in the case of the US embassy where the ambassador’s wife usually nominated the wife of a junior diplomat of her embassy who functioned either as Secretary or as Rapporteur. This Committee met with all the formality of any institution : agenda, its approval, minutes , their approval and so forth. The proceedings were recorded. A very friendly lady, a deputy of the Secretary General of the Red Cross Society acted as a facilitator for the Diplomatic Participants’ Committee.
An important event in Bangkok’s social calendar every year was the annual fair organised by the Diplomatic Participants’ Committee to raise funds by each embassy in its national stall selling things brought over from home—the Srilankans sold tea, the Russians Mishka dolls, the Pakistanis onyx, the Japanese electronic gadgets and the Indians brassware, printed and embroidered textiles and miscellaneous other handicraft. I do not remember what the Americans sold. The British held their own separate fair and the Spaniards and the Swiss organised sales in their embassies. Some other embassies subcontracted the job to local merchants who brought in goods under diplomatic exemption from import duty with no one knowing what part went to the Red Cross and what was private gain. Before this main fair there was a pre-sale event where whoever of the Bangkok élite did not want to be seen with the populace or whoever wanted to buy the best that was on offer before the goods were offered to the masses came to a restricted event. The main fair was officially inaugurated every year by a Royal personage. Ambassadors were invited. Speeches were read by the Secretary General of the Thai Red Cross and the President of the Diplomatic Partcipants’ Committee. The Royal personage then toured the fair, stopping at each national stall, receiving a gift and occasionally also buying. At some stalls their excellencies the ambassadors joined their spouses in welcoming the Royal personage. Both the pre-sale and the main fair were covered by national television. After the fund raising had been completed, the President of the Committee would seek an audience with the Queen to hand over that year’s contribution to her. In most years the Queen would grant the audience and also give a medal to the President of the Committee and some others.
There was competition among ambassadors’ wives—with the exception of the wife of the US Ambassador—over who would be the President or the Vice-President of the Diplomatic Participants’ Committee or hold other offices. And, where there is competition there is intrigue. Neither my wife nor I knew how or why she was approached within the first six months of our Bangkok stay to join the Diplomatic Participants’ Committee as an office bearer. My wife said she would not mind being a Vice-President which is what she became for 1998-1999. She found that though she was Vice-President, she was systematically kept out of many of the activities of the Committee. She nonchalantly accepted the situation.
When the new one year cycle of the Committee began in April 1999, it seemed that the husband of the President of the Committee was leaving in a few months. My wife was asked to become the President. Very soon afterwards, at a reception organised at the opening of the new building of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a senior Foreign Ministry official, a Director General who had been friendly to us, congratulated my wife on becoming the President of the Committee but also added saying that she would have no support ‘except that of your husband.’ All that happened during that year of my wife’s presidency proved this friend right. It became a challenge for my wife to continue working in spite of numerous signs of non-cooperation. When the year was up she did two unprecedented things in February or March 2000. One was to let it be known that Government of India’s general instructions precluded her accepting a decoration from a foreign government and the second was to say that she was not going to continue as President, though she could have, given the time we could still expect to spend in Bangkok. She had her audience with the Queen where she presented a cheque for an amount larger than any previous year’s collection by the Diplomatic Participants’ Committee. The money in question was a mere six million Thai Baht. All that blood and sweat for that money, a memento in the form of a photograph of my wife presenting a cheque to the Queen and the impish satisfaction of making a record contribution despite all the non-cooperation !
BANGKOK, I knew, was my last station. On 31st March 2001 I would reach the statutory age of retirement as an employee of Government of India. Occasionally my thoughts turned to retirement. I had vaguely considered writing a letter, for the benefit of whosoever was willing to read, a long piece containning my views on different aspects of our foreign policy before I went—a kind of swan song. I hesitated because I thought that in doing so I would appear ludicrously self-important. My doubts would simply not go away. They became irrelevant when an opportunity presented itself.
In the middle of December 2000, the Indian Minister of External Affairs circulated with a ‘Personal and Confidential’ letter addressed to a large number of officials in India and outside a paper remarkable for its scattiness, glibness and lack of intellectual rigour and depth. It purported to be the minister’s views on many aspects of India’s foreign policy and of the mangement of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs. I also received a copy. The addressees were asked to react. I responded in two longish letters, one on policy and the other on management. My comments touched on as many issues as were considered in the minister’s note. Some of these questions related to small matters of detail in the management of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs and of India’s diplomatic apparatus, of no interest to anyone who does not know that institution. Some of the other issues touched on great national questions. I reproduce below, without changes other than corrections of typographical and obvious grammatical mistakes, not even changes to correct stylistic infelicities, some of what I wrote on the larger questions, in January 2001, in response to the Indian minister :
‘You have, very rightly I think, emphasised at the very beginning of your note the need to maintain our economic growth as a matter of the highest national priority. We need rapid economic growth so that we can, beside dealing with the problems of poverty, poor health, illiteracy, high population growth, environmental degradation and poor infrastructure (all of which are interlinked), also set aside resources to be able to build technological and industrial strength, even independent strength in scientific and technological research and development. This is a daunting agenda and for that reason we need as a nation to have not only the determination to implement in a sustained manner a programme over a ten or fifteen year period for dealing with these problems, but also the sense of urgency to make a beginning immediately. Perhaps we have already made a beginning. But, with your permission, may I ask whether we have a clearly defined programme for dealing with just two of the problems I have listed above, which also are linked with each other : population growth and illiteracy.. Several years ago, the Narasimha Rao government talked of devoting six per cent of our GDP to education. If I am not mistaken the present government has also talked of moving towards that goal. I wonder how far we have moved. I also wonder whether we have a more energetic population control programme now than we have had in recent decades.
‘You have again very correctly suggested through a question that in this age of globalisation and of open competition it is going to be important to be efficient just as it is important to be strong. There is an underlying Darwinianism in all talk about free competition and globalisation ; it is usually the more powerful who advocate free competition and globalisation. In the 19th century, Great Britain was the stongest advocate of free trade just as since the beginning of the decade of 1980’s, the United States of America has been the strongest advocate of both free trade and globalisation. At this moment it seems unlikely that any one country or group of countries will be able to stop these globalising trends. From our national perspective, the only possibility seems to be to retard the negative effects of globalisation on our economic and social fabric. This brings us back to the need to work with determination and in a sustained manner for building our economic strength. We have the basic wherewithal—size of the country and its market, natuaral and human resources among others—for us to believe that we can become significant participants in a globalised international system if we make the effort.
‘To my mind economic development is basic to our capacity to deal with some of the other questions you have touched upon—the need to preserve our ancient civilizational personality, the open tolerant and pluralistic nature of our society and our national integrity. Communal tensions tend to be high in the poorest parts of our cities and villages ; the greatest threat to democracy comes from poverty, economic backwardness and unequal distribution of wealth. From a different perspective : the single most important reason why the Soviet Union broke up and slid from being a Super Power to a seeker of economic aid and financial assistance was the poor health of its economy. Another lesson to be learnt from the disintegration of the Soviet Union is that military strength without economic power is hollow. Most diplomacy without the backing of economic and military strength is even hollower….
‘….Flow of foreign investment into India will be determined by the perception of the investing community of : our economic policies, the profitability of investment in India, the bureaucratic management and implementation of policies, and general environment such as the availability of skilled manpower, mobility of labour, availability of power and other essential inputs. Foreign investors of whatever origin are likely to behave in the same manner. It is unlikely that foreign investors of Indian origin will be guided by emotion, setting aside considerations like those above because their real or imagined grievances are taken care of or because some of their long-standing demands such as dual citizenship or representation in Parliament are met. In the early 1990’s the bulk of foreign remittances into India came from Indians living in the Middle East and the Gulf. It is the same group that made the largest investments in the Resurgent India Bonds. I wonder how much of the time of our NRI unit [a section in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs established to deal with the problems of and to help Non Resident Indians and people of Indian origin living outside India] goes to dealing with the problems of people of Indian origin resident in North America or the United Kingdom….
‘….Whether or not India’s colonial rulers deliberately engineered the partition of India in order to keep a new India in check can be debated for a long time and yet there will be no conclusion. The existence of Pakistan has in actual practice acted as a check and a drag on India, at times because Pakistan has acted autonomously at others because Pakistan has been encouraged to do so. The Anglo-Saxons, the Chinese and the Russians have by turns behaved as if they looked upon Pakistan as a counterbalance to India. Till such time as we build up our power (always economic power to begin with) several fold and diversify and deepen our international linkages (above all economic) Pakistan will be an irritant. We shall have to live with and deal with it the best we can. Yet, in spite of reverses, initiatives like Lahore will always be worth the effort, for the attainment of the eventual goal of détente and rapprochement with Pakistan is worth paying some price for….
‘There are two changes in our own attitude to Pakistan we can still try to bring about. The first is that we privately and in our own minds start recognizing the validity of the Pakistani position that Kashmir is the core issue between India and Pakistan…The perception of Kashmir as the core issue between India and Pakistan is a very important part of Pakistani political reality. Another recognition we need to make is that our own argument that even if the Kashmir issue were solved to the mutual satisfaction of India and Pakistan, Pakistan would invent another cause for hostility towards India may not be valid. These changes in our own point of view could conceivably help us explore various possibilities of finding an Indo-Pakistani solution to the Kashmir question. Of course we should not give away Jammu and Kashmir to Pakistan and independence of the territory should and must remain ruled out. But one of the most open secrets of the world is that in 1963 (in the Swaran Singh-Bhutto talks) and in Simla we did discuss partitioning Kashmir between India and Pakistan. The question should be the location of the line. Most of the world had up to 1988 forgotten about Jammu and Kashmir. It is largely due to our own failures that the issue is back on the international agenda.
‘The second attitude we need to change is to discard our habit of countering Pakistan anywhere and everywhere out of the by now atavistic fear that Pakistan might win this country or that other group of countries to its side in the numerous Indo-Pakistani arguments, including those on Jammu & Kashmir. It would not be a bad thing if when the next time Pakistan threatened to introduce a resolution on Jammu&Kashmir in the UN General Assembly, we just ignored it. Similarly, if a body like the ASEAN Regional Forum wished to admit Pakistan, we could profitably just sit back and let it happen, leaving it to the ARF to rue its decision later. You have talked of the world looking at us only in the context of the Indian sub-continent. What you probably mean is that the world tends to look at us in the Indo-Pakistani context. This may be because even now our diplomatic machinery is mobilized to its maximum efficiency to explain our position in an Indo-Pakistani context. No country in the world bears greater responsibility for exaggerating the importance of Pakistan than India….
‘The primacy of the Indian subcontinent [in India’s foreign policy calculations] cannot be overemphasized. India’s importance and role in the world outside will vary in direct proportion to its role and influence in the Indian subcontinent. Ideally India should be the single most important partner in the developmental efforts of each of the countries of the subcontinent. I said to a retired American diplomat now working for the Rand Corporation whom I met about two years ago that to my mind the only real example of functioning regional cooperation in the world was the European Union. He agreed but added that the second most likely one was the SAARC. When I pointed at what according to me were political and psychological difficulties he countered by saying that if India were to make an economic success of itself, it would exercise such a magnetic pull on members of the SAARC that the impulse towards ever increasing regional cooperation would become irresistible. Food for thought….
‘No human, social or political institution has yet been invented which can be above the people who run it. The ultimate solution to most management problems lies in intangibles of human behaviour. This is a large philosophical statement which I would…keep out of the present discussion….
‘I am tempted at the end to make a broad general remark. A scrap from a reading that has stayed at the back of my mind for a long time is that there are two kinds of societies: those that are based on loyalty and those that are based on contract. The former tend to be traditional societies where institutions are run by people whose relationships are determined by a feeling of loyalty based on caste, creed, personal patronage or (as in the case of the former socialist countries of East Europe) ideology. Personnel decisions about deployment and advancement tend to be governed by considerations of loyalty. In a country like India the temptations offered by the warmth and coziness of relationships of loyalty are irresistible.
‘Modern societies tend to be based on relationships of contract in the sense that it is rules, considerations of performance and efficiency that determine relations between individuals in an institution. That is not to say that there are no elements of personal loyalty in modern societies but the effort on the part of everyone is to try to move as much as possible away from considerations of loyalty to considerations of rules and so on.
‘You started your note by talking about the need to adapt ourselves to the conditions of the modern world. The paramount need is to emphasize efficiency above all. In a Darwinian world efficiency is necessary for survival. We would do well to constantly try and move from being a society based on loyalty towards being a society based on contract.’
I do not know if whatever I wrote in that letter was read or whether it was read and set aside. By the time I put down my thoughts and sent them across, my unacceptability to the politicians in Delhi was well established. I had no illusion that my opinions would have any impact. If I decided to send a detailed response to the Indian minister, I did so because I thought I must express my views—especially on matters of larger interest—when they were asked for.
IN 1987 OR 1988,a colleague in the Ministry of External Affairs told me of a conversation he had had a few years earlier with one of the most influential aides of Indira Gandhi. This aide had said to my colleague: ‘You do not know how many secretaries in Government of India ministries would be prepared to do anything at all for a six month government assignment after retirement. It is this that gives ‘us’ [in the political class] power [over the permanent civil service].’ To anyone who knows the extent of protection given to an Indian civil servant, the import and the accuracy of this remark will become clear. The purpose of the protection was to ensure the independence of the civil service from the whims and fantasies of the political masters. The lure of employment after retirement had been used by the political class to subvert that independence. I remember, after pondering the significance of what this aide of Indira Gandhi had said, thinking to myself how nice it would be if when my time came I did not have to be prepared to do anything at all to get an additional six months of feeling of power, salary and perquisites. I had earlier been deeply impressed by one of the Indian ambassadors I had worked under who, when his time of retirement came, came to office on his last working day, signed off, went home, got behind the steering wheel of his car and drove away. I had hoped that when my time came, I would also sign off, get into whatever vehicle would take my wife and me to the airport and fly off into a world of my own which would have nothing to do with Government of India.
As the time of my departure on 31 st March 2001 approached, I looked back at my career—in the Latin sense of the path traced by an advancing chariot—and felt I had three reasons to be satisfied: I had honestly tried, sometimes successfully and often not so, to do whatever I could for the public good in whichever circumstances; I had not taken from the public treasury anything which was not legally my due with the exception, may be, of some sheets of paper or a few jotter pens or pencils or some journeys in an official car which were not unquestionably official; that I had in no way been party to the spoliation of my country and my people by the bureaucratic and political leadership. I had done nothing improper to please any of the people who controlled my destiny. I had not behaved improperly with people; I had even quixotically kept to my own code of conduct and honour. I knew that I could have no hope of getting any reward for services rendered. I was happily looking forward to a quiet departure.
I was not so fortunate. In June 2000, some people in Bangkok started whispering that my (pre-mature) departure was imminent. A friend who worked for the Siam Commercial Bank even fixed a farewell luncheon for us on 20 th July at the Oriental. Learning that we would not say we were leaving soon—perfectly honestly from our point of view as I had heard nothing directly or indirectly from Delhi—he decided not to call it a farewell luncheon, probably ‘in deference to our feelings’. I had the by now established habit of not keeping track of the goings on in the Ministry of External Affairs nor reacting to rumours, not even to rumours about what was happening to me. We went about our business in Bangkok as usual.
Towards the end of July, the Indian Minister of External Affairs and his largish entourage came to Bangkok for the annual meetings of ASEAN and its dialogue partners and of the ASEAN Regional Forum. Neither the Minister nor anyone in his entourage said anything about any proposal to move me out of Bangkok earlier than expected or to even faintly express any disapproval of anything I might have done. At the airport where I had gone to see the Minister off a retired ambassador of Thailand had also come to send him off on behalf of the Thai government. As the three of us were seated in a lounge, waiting for boarding time to be announced, this Thai ambassador, turning to me, said that he had heard I was leaving soon. I said, once again perfectly honestly, I knew nothing and that the Minister had told me nothing. The minister, in whose presence and hearing this exchange took place, said nothing then or later when there was no one else around.
About one month later, towards the end of August, an agitated Indian High Commissioner in Ottawa telephoned to me at Bangkok to say that he had received a surprise message telling him that he had been appointed the next Indian ambassador in Bangkok and that he had been advised that he should move there in December. I told the High Commissioner that I knew nothing about this. But I did telephone the foreign secretary of the day to ask if all that was true. He confirmed it was and that they were moving me to Delhi.
I decided to do nothing till I received something formally and in writing. That gave me time to think over alternatives before me: I could challenge the legitimacy of Delhi’s decision or I could plead for mercy and ask for forgiveness for sins I did not know I had committed. Then the thought came to me that if I was not interested in trying for some kind of government employment after retirement, by the same measure I should be prepared to leave a few months earlier than the statutory date of retirement if that became necessary. By the time I received a written communication from Delhi, I had made up my mind to ask for premature retirement. On 6 th September I received a letter telling me that the Prime Minister had approved of my transfer to Delhi on ‘compulsory waiting’ on completion of my tenure in Bangkok. In plain language it meant that I should go to Delhi after 25 th November when I completed three years in Bangkok and that when I went there I would be paid my salary but would be given no work. On 12 th September I wrote to the foreign secretary saying I was not interested in asking for the reasons of that decision nor was I going to say what my merits or deserts might be. I was left with no desire to continue beyond the minimum time necessary for me to leave decently and in an organized manner. I was also required to give three months’ notice (which was what I was doing by that letter) and that I would leave Bangkok on 20 th December and go into premature retirement the next day.
Then I waited, beginning to plan my departure. For the next twelve weeks or so I heard nothing from Delhi other than some technicalities about the rules, which I responded to while maintaining my decision about departure. From time to time some other stories travelled to me through which I could hear the sound shuffling feet in awkwardly performed minuets. In the beginning of December, a gentleman, a former secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, who was in Bangkok for a meeting asked why I was being treated so unfairly. He even suggested the name of someone, a former colleague whom I should call and ask him to help me—I had never had much of a relationship with this other gentleman. I told this visitor from Delhi that I was not looking for help but leaving. He then said that I should stay on and vindicate my honour. I said to him that since I was leaving, it no longer mattered to me what people in the External Affairs set up thought of my honour. He then said that he hoped I knew that there had been a serious move to transfer me out of Bangkok in 1999. I told him a very senior Indian visitor to Bangkok in September 1999 had proffered me advice on the advantages of not staying on till the date of retirement but leaving earlier to seek an opening outside government. I could only then in December 2000 understand the full import of that advice.
I have never found out what I could have done in Bangkok to so annoy people in Delhi. In the summer of 2000, the wife of a colleague who has been enormously more successful than me stayed with us in Bangkok. She remarked to my wife that some of the Indians in Bangkok were very wealthy. My wife, expressing her own views which were similar to mine, said to her that as far as we were concerned we treated all Indians the same way in our official capacity without stopping to ask if they were wealthy or poor. Only a very small number could be our personal friends, but we maintained correct relations with all. This lady then said that some of the wealthy ones had access to people in power in Delhi. My wife said that that could hardly be a reason for us to seek their friendship. I do not know whether our fault in Bangkok was not to have cultivated these people with access to those with political power in India. Or maybe I had not taken sufficient care of food and drinks and other comforts of visitors from Delhi. My misdeeds were clearly such that they could not be named either because they were very serious or because they were so trifling that people did not dare name them.
Then came a telephone call on 5 th December from an official in the Ministry of External Affairs asking me in a voice dripping with affability why I was not staying on in Bangkok till 31 st March 2001, the date of my retirement. I said to him that the Ministry of External Affairs would have to cancel its orders about my transfer. He said that would cause great embarrassment. I said that I would have to very quickly cancel a number of requests I had made for farewell calls and therefore I would need a message from him that evening itself saying I should stay on. I had such a message, citing foreign secretary’s authority, in less than two hours of that telephone conversation. I marvelled at the speed with which the foreign secretary had reversed an order taken three months earlier with the approval of the Prime Minister of India. I stayed on. Early in the afternoon on 31 st March 2001, I signed off in office. We took our westbound flight to Delhi at about six in the evening, almost literally flying into sunset.