Distinguished Lectures

India's Foreign Policy

  • Amb (Retd) K.P. Fabian

    By: Amb (Retd) K.P. Fabian
    Venue: National Law School of India University, Bengaluru.
    Date: May 05, 2018

As I see the rows of radiant faces before me, faces mirroring the souls as they say, symbolizing good character, high intelligence, and true search for wisdom, I am glad indeed to say that my faith in India’s future, in humanity’s future, in the future of the biosphere, gets fortified.

This Law School has established an enviable reputation for excellence ever since its foundation in 1998. It isindeed a high privilege and honor to be here as part of the Distinguished Lecture Series of Ministry of External Affairs.

I have a request to make. With your kind cooperation, we can make this an interactive session and not a monologue. You are most welcome to interrupt me at any time.

I have found that students of law perform better than others in the civil services interviews. Now I know why.

We are in May 2018. That reminds me of the nuclear tests carried out on 11th and 13th May 1998. I was in Rome. A demonstration by Italians that included five Senators and six Members of Parliament was held in front of the Embassy. I got to know of it as I was attending an FAO meeting. I told my social secretary to go down to the street and request the Senators and Members of Parliament to come up to my office and to give them tea, adding that I was cutting short my meeting at FAO and rushing to the Embassy to meet with the demonstrators.

Upon reaching my Embassy, I got out of the car and greeted the demonstrators and held the big flag they had with an appeal for universal nuclear disarmament. As I held the flag, I told them that India was proud to join hands with them in the cause of nuclear disarmament, universal, verifiable, and non-discriminatory. I sought and obtained their permission to go up to my office and explain in detail India’s position to the Senators and Members of Parliament. We had a cordial conversation. The Embassy lacked an auditorium big enough to accommodate all of the demonstrators.

Later that day, I was summoned to the Foreign Office by the Foreign Secretary who talked down to me. I heard him without interrupting him. I told him that what he told me would be conveyed faithfully to my Government. I explained to him the rationale behind our decision to test after campaigning for decades for nuclear disarmament; reminded him gently that Italy was protected by US nuclear weapons; MEA was watching this storm in a tea cup and how the different European capitals were reacting; drew attention to the reaction from Paris; I did not want to see Rome topping the list of those who reacted harshly; and India expected a long standing friend like Italy to understand the situation holistically. My interlocutor was marginally moved by my words.

Earlier, while waiting for my appointment, the Canadian Ambassador who too was waiting for his appointment, started shouting at me, even without greeting me. He couldn’t understand how and why India tested. The Foreign Office receptionist was aghast seeing an ambassador shout at another.I greeted the Canadian adding that my office would get in touch with his for a meeting when I could explain the matter to him.

We should take note of the early technical assistance extended to us by Canada in the field of nuclear energy and that might partly account for Canada’s anger.

We may also note the cultural difference between Japan and Canada. We may remember that Japan is the only country against whom the atom bomb was used.

The same day I had to attend a luncheon at the Indonesian Embassy. It was the monthly luncheon of Asian Ambassadors. My Japanese colleague pulled me apart and told me sotto voce that he was under instructions from Tokyo to convey Japan’s deep regrets. I replied that I would promptly convey the message to Delhi adding that I would shortly call on him for an in-depth discussion.

The next week, there was invitation from European Federalists in Turin to address them. I went, but my Pakistani colleague did not go. He sought permission from his Foreign Office and didn’t get it. An Ambassador should be ready to speakup for her or his country 24/7 and there is no question of seeking permission.

(At this point, some hands went up in response to my question: How many want to join IFS?).

We need to distinguish between Diplomacy and Foreign Policy. Foreign Policy is the broad frame work setting the goals for the next 5 to 10 years after doing a SWOT analysis of oneself and other actors. Diplomacy is the instrument to reach the goals. Essentially, it is the art of persuasion. The purpose of diplomacy is to take care of one’s interests.

There are interests and principles. At times some scholars confuse the matter and argue that it is imperative to pursue interests without wasting energy over principles. They are wrong. The art of diplomacy consists in pursuing one’s interest and adhering to one’s principles at the same time. Let us not forget that the maintenance of a rule-based international order where International Law is respected is an essential part of India’s interest.

If every country pursues its narrowly defined interests with single-minded insistence,we shall witness bellum omnium contra omnesas described in Thomas Hobbes’Leviathan published in the 17th century. Surely, humanity has moved on from that stage when European powers fought incessantly and expanded their imperial domination over the rest of the world.

Let us look at the relationship between war and diplomacy. Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831), a Prussian general , asserted that war was merely continuation of state policy through other means. He is right, but it does not follow that diplomacy does not focus on resolving inter-state differences through non-military means. Clausewitz expounded his thesis in his classic study Von Krieg (OnWar) obviously taking into account the European politics of his time.

Once again, the tendency to accept European theses of an earlier era to the 21st century is frankly unscientific and should be resisted.

It is interesting to look at the etymology of the word ‘diplomacy’. Diplomaticus in Latin means state documents. Diploma in Greek means license issued by the state. Diploun means folded as such documents used to be folded. It was only starting from 1787 that diplomat was associated with International Relations. In 1826, diplomat meant someone tactful and adroit.

The idea that diplomacy and study of International Relations originated in the West is historically unsound. Lord Hanuman was the first Indian Ambassador and certainly one of the earliest in the world history. He was the best ambassador of India too. He argued the case for Sita’s liberation with consummate skill at Ravana’s court; when Ravana tried to set fire to Lord Hanuman, Lankadhahan was the result. Hence, India’s first Ambassador was formidably powerful.

The Sanskrit word Rajdhoot is much more apt than the word Ambassador.

Incidentally, ancient India anticipated the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations bymillennia. When Vibhishana, Ravana’s brother, argued that a Rajdhoot should not be injured, and should always be treated with respect he did anticipate the Vienna Convention.

Let us look at another area in International Law where ancient India had advanced considerably.

Bishmaparvan says:

"A person who fights with speech should only be opposed with speech during battle. One doesn’t kill a person who has left the battle field. A charioteer should fight only a charioteer; an elephant rider by (one who rides an elephant; a horseman against a cavalryman; and an infantryman by one in the infantry…One is allowed to strike another according to usage, heroism, power and age by (first) calling out, (but)not at one who is unwary, or in trouble, or fighting another, or is looking the other way, or without armor or whose weapons are exhausted. One does not hit (those who provide services, such as charioteers, weapon-helpers, those who blow conches and beat drums.”.

Question: How many of those who sat down to draft the Geneva Conventions on War knew about Bishmaparvan?

The sad part is that the non-West knows more of the West than vice versa.

There is another side to this discussion. Countries once under colonial rule were rendered free post-World War 2, with India’s independence earned through a long non-violent campaign under Mahatma Gandhi marking the beginning of the end of colonialism. That was political liberation. Economic liberation followed, but not yet completed in the case of some countries. Coming to intellectual liberation, where are we? The intellectual liberation is lagging even the economic liberation.

India currently attaches high importance to educating the rest of the world about India’s contributions to the human civilization. Of course, this has to be done with savoir faire.

What does a diplomat do? Primarily, solve problems, not necessarily always with foreign governments.

Let us look at an example. In August 1990, Saddam Hussein, President of Iraq, invaded and occupied Kuwait. India tried hard along with a few Nonaligned countries to get Iraq to withdraw and thus restore Kuwait’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. But, US was keen on a military intervention. Accordingly, India decided to evacuate its nationals, 176.000 plus, from Kuwait and Iraq. Foreign Minister I K Gujral went and met Saddam Hussein. The latter walked up to him and embraced Gujral and an ignorant media blamed Gujral for ‘embracing’ Saddam Hussein.

I had gone with Foreign Minister in my capacity as Joint Secretary (Gulf). When we landed up in Kuwait, our Ambassador told Gujral that there were about 5,000 Indians gathered in a maidan; Gujral should not go there as they could turn violent. The Minister turned to Additional Secretary (I P Khosla)and me and we said that as we had come all the way to meet our nationals we should go there.

Let me tell you that within 3 to 4 minutes, Gujral made the angry crowd chant Bharat Mata ki Jai. There was no podium. We got a chair and the 70- plus Gujral stepped on to the chair and then to the bonnet of the jeep.

Later we arranged with Air India to fly in our nationals from Amman where they reached by road. The generous Jordanian government arranged for our nationals to stay in schools. It was holidays. I visited a camp. Our people told me that there was shortage of drinking water. I rang up our Ambassador Ranjit Sethi in Abu Dhabi and spoke to his wife who was president of Indian Women’s Association. She did not need any persuasion. A few phone calls from her and in hours a lorry with bottles of drinking water reached the camp.

We had another more serious problem. I was staying in Amman. The Air India Manager came to me with a long face in the breakfast lounge. The Air India crew had walked out on him the previous night. He was so upset that he refused to take breakfast. He begged me to talk to the crew.

The passengers come in late as the Jordanian police stops the bus and checks the passports. Th policeman cannot read English and he stares at the photo and the face many a time. As luck would have it, another policeman can stop the same bus 3 kms later and so on. The crew was ready at 7p.m. and as the last passenger walked in at 10p.m. the crew decided to walk out as they did not want to be on duty for more than the stipulated hours. The Air India manager had to find accommodation and food for the passengers.

I reflected over the matter. There was no point in talking to the crew. They might not listen to me. I also concluded that it was not worth disturbing the Foreign Secretary/Foreign Minister.

I had to think out of the box. I called up my friend, Firdous Kherghamwala, the correspondent of the Hindu covering the region from Bahrain. Told him that we all should be proud of Air India; the passengers can come late by one hour or five hours, but AI crew will receive them with a beaming smile as they knew that the passengers were not responsible for their late coming; it does not matter to the AI crew whether they work non-stop 15 or 18 hours as the nation is facing an emergency. We all, those of us in the Government and others too, must admire and follow AI’s lead.

Firdous laughed and asked: Is it happening? I paused and said it was not happening, but it would happen tomorrow if he carried the story. He hesitated and asked: How can I send a story that is not true? I responded: He only had to quote me verbatim and nobody will find fault with him for believing a senior Joint Secretary.

The next morning the AI manager came with a beaming face and joined me at breakfast. The crew had assured him that they would never again walkout on him even if the passengers are late by hours. Asked why, he said that there was praise for AirIndia in the media and a meeting of the guild of the pilots and another of crew decided to do whatever was needed for retaining the high reputation.

Dear young friends, it pays to flatter at times. Do remember diplomacy is the art of getting what you want by talking smoothly when possible and less smoothly when necessary.

Now let me tell you of one or two problem-solving cases involving foreign governments. Our President was coming to Sri Lanka in 1980 or 1981. I was Deputy High Commissioner. The President was spending a day at Rathnapura, a beautiful city famed for jewels; he wants the news papers along with morning coffee at 5 a.m. First Secretary (Information) arranged for delivery by newspaper vendors at 4.45 a.m. He asked the Sri Lankan security to let in the delivery boy and the security refused arguing that they couldn’t take responsibility for the security of the President if a delivery boy gets in.

I spoke to the Chief of Protocol about the weather and thanked him for the excellent arrangements he was making in Colombo and Rathnapura. I wondered whether I could make a request: My President wants the newspapers along with morning tea at 5 a.m. Would it possible for the Protocol to take care of it? He said, "of course” and requested me to send the list of papers. The lesson to learn is that there is no problem that cannot be resolved.

Incidentally, I said "morning tea” to imply that my President wanted the world famous tea of Sri Lanka.

Another example. I was Ambassador in Rome. PM A B Vajpayee was coming. The security team got a no from the Italians when asked about the ADC of PM accompanying him to the palace of the Italian President. The Italian side said that it was their responsibility to ensure the Indian PM’s protection and they wouldn’t allow anyone else to be involved with it. Our security team came to me with the problem. In their presence I called the Secretary to the President; talked about the weather and thanked him profusely for his cooperation for the VVIPvisit. Told him that my PM needs a man close to him always; that man carries pills and whatever else the PM needs. Hence, that official will come with PM to the palace. My interlocutor agreed.

The security team asked me whether the man can carry a weapon. I said that there was no need, but if he carries one and questions are raised I would stand by them.

There are more stories, but we must move on.

The idea that India’s foreign policy came out of Nehru’s head as Pallas Athena came out of the head of Zeus ‘fully grown and fully armed’ is absurd. It was Gandhi who spoke on foreign policy on behalf of India for the first time. With his support for the Khilafat movement, Gandhi announced that the people of India did not endorse the British Government of India’s foreign policy. This was in 1919-20. Gandhi also exhorted young Indians not to get recruited and get sent to Mesopotamia to fight for the British imperialism.

As Vice Chairman of the Vice Chairman of the Viceroy’s Executive Council, five days after he took over, Nehru told the world on 7th September 1946 what India’s foreign policy will be: We propose, as far as possible, to keep away from the power politics of groups, aligned against one another, which have led in the past to two world wars and which may again lead to disasters on an even vaster scale… We believe peace and freedom are indivisible and the denial of freedom anywhere must endanger freedom elsewhere and lead to conflict and war. We are particularly interested in the emancipation of colonial and dependent countries and peoples, and in the recognition in theory and practice of equal opportunities for all races… The world in spite of its rivalries and hatreds and inner conflicts, moves inevitably towards closer cooperation and the building up of a world commonwealth. It is for this One World that free India will work, a world in which there is the free cooperation of free peoples, and no class or group exploits another.

In South Africa racialism is the State doctrine and our people are putting up a heroic struggle against the tyranny of a racial minority. If this racial doctrine is to be tolerated it must inevitably lead to vast conflicts and world disaster…

In these 170 words, Nehru laid the foundations of independent India’s foreign policy.

Was Nehru right in opting for Nonalignment? Could India have aligned with US, got economic and military assistance and emerge as a Great Power? No. The option was not there. If India joined the Western bloc led by US, then India would have sent soldiers to fight in Korea and Indo-China; India could not have championed the cause of freedom for the colonized. India couldn’t have fought against the pernicious practice of Apartheid as the White government of South Africa had the blessings of the West.

Describing the Cold War, Kissinger said:

The superpowers often behave like two heavily armed blind men feeling their way around a room, each believing himself in mortal peril from the other, whom he assumes to have perfect vision. Each side should know that frequently uncertainty, compromise, and incoherence are the essence of policymaking. Yet each tends to ascribe to the other a consistency, foresight, and coherence that its own experience belies. Of course, over time, even two armed blind men can do enormous damage to each other, not to speak of the room.

India under Nehru chose to follow neither of the two blind men. One of them, US was particularly angry with Nehru and he was projected as ‘assuming a moral posture’.

The Korean War started in June 1950. In July 1950, Nehru advised Truman that US should let PRC (People’s Republic of China) take its seat on the Security Council and agree to a cease-fire on the 38th parallel. Truman ignored the advice.

On 2nd October 1950, India’s Ambassador K M Panikkar was summoned to the Chinese Foreign Office at midnight by Chou En Lai and told that if the UN forces advanced towards the border with China, the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) would enter the war. Panikkar sent an urgent telegram to MEA at 1.20 a.m. Nehru passed on the message to Washington and London and once again urged an armistice along the 38th parallel. Truman rejected Nehru’s advice once again. Secretary of State Dean Acheson made fun of ‘panicky Panikkar.’

Three years and millions of deaths later, the armistice was on the same 38th parallel. Those who criticize Nehru based on ‘realism’ should ask themselves who was the realist, Nehru or Truman.

It is because the 1953 armistice was not followed up by a peace treaty primarily because US did not want it that we now have a nuclear-armed North Korea.

Nehru’s Nonalignment did not mean keeping a line equi-distant from either Superpower. Do note the words "as far as possible”. When the nation’s interest required US military help in 1962, Nehru asked for it from Kennedy.

The 1962 invasion of India by China showed that India had failed to take care of its territorial safety. Even more significantly, India had failed to assess correctly China’s intentions and capabilities. The naïve faith attached to Panchsheel signed with Mao who believed that political power comes from the barrel of the gun was rewarded by military attack in 1962.

It has been wrongly argued that it was Nehru’s ‘forward policy’ of sending troops nearer and nearer to the area of Chinese deployment thatcaused the war. China had abused Nehru as ‘a running dog of imperialism’ in 1949 at the time of his visit to Truman. Nehru had advised Truman to talk to China and Mao’s way of thanking Nehru was to shower abuse on him. Nehru showed saintly patience and still signed the Panchsheel in 1954.

When Nehru granted political asylum to Dalai Lama in 1959, Mao decided to teach ‘a lesson’ to Nehru. Mao waited for an opportunity that came in 1962.

The liberation of Bangladesh by military action is the high point of India’s foreign policy. Indira Gandhi was the daughter of Nehru. Equally, she was the grand daughter of Chanakya. Lined up against India were Pakistan, China, and US. India was alone. Indira Gandhi invoked USSR by signing a treaty on 9th August 1971.

It is interesting to note the impact of the treaty on China. When Kissinger made his first secret visit to Mao, the Chinese told him to tell Pakistan that China aware of Pakistan’s tension with India and that China would support Pakistan if there is war. Kissinger had visited before India signed the treaty with USSR. You might recall that he went to Pakistan from India and while in Pakistan he had ‘diplomatic illness’ as the journey to China was to be done secretly. When he went again after the treaty was signed, the Chinese did not repeat the message to Pakistan.

The 1987 military intervention in Sri Lanka when Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister was abig mistake. India should not have signed an agreement with Sri Lanka binding the LTTE if Delhi had no control over it. President Jayewardene tricked Rajiv Gandhi into sending the Indian Army without a clear military purpose. Every military intervention should be seriously thought through and there should be a clear goal.

In 1988, India intervened decisively in Sri Lanka to foil a coup which had almost succeeded. Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister.

Diplomacy can make a big difference to a military operation. Take the 1971 war. India came under diplomatic pressure from USSR to complete the operation as soon as possible. The signal from USSR came on 10th December 1971. Swaran Singh spoke for two days in the Security Council to give time to the Indian Army. As it happened the first indication of Pakistan’s decision to surrender came through the US Department of State. But, Swaran Singh continued and concluded only after the Indian Army confirmed that Pakistan had surrendered.

It is immature diplomacy to boast. Swaran Singh forbade any Indian diplomat from going to the bar at UN for the next 48 hours. He instructed that the Indian diplomats should not appear triumphant; and they should project that the dismemberment of Pakistan was a self-inflicted tragedy. India never had any aggressive designs on the western front.

Indira Gandhi made a serious error in signing the Shimla Accord with Bhutto. She gave away a lot and got nothing in return. She herself admitted this within months of signing the accord.

Coming to our times, personal rapport between heads of government is important. Prime Minister Modi has successfully established that rapport with several of his counterparts. The recent informal meeting with President of China should push bilateral relations in the right direction.

If you are thinking of joining the IFS, this is a good time. India is rising and rising and smart diplomacy can make it rise faster.

[ There were many questions indicating deep interest in India’s Foreign policy and in the IFS.]

Disclaimer :-The opinions/views expressed in the Lectures are author's own and do not represent the views of the Ministy of External Affairs.