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Mainstream, VOL LX No 31, New Delhi, July 23, 2022

IFS Officer Recalls Charms, Challenges | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Friday 22 July 2022, by M R Narayan Swamy

BOOK REVIEW

Indian Foreign Service: Charms and Challenges
by T.P. Sreenivasan

Current Books
ISBN : 978-93-5482-615-3
Pages:108
Price: Rs 250
https://ebooks.dcbooks.com/indian-foreign-service-charms-and-challenges

Nawaz Sharif told Inder Kumar Gujral that neither could India give Kashmir to Pakistan nor could Islamabad take it; most Indian expatriates may have their minds in India but do not want to live there; Foreign Secretary Jagat Mehta was eased out of office by a pro-Soviet lobby; the Soviet Union was as disturbed by India’s 1974 nuclear test as the West…

These are some of the most interesting vignettes that veteran Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officer T.P. Sreenivasan shares with us after serving for over 37 years as a diplomat. The slim book is written primarily with a view to serve as a guide to those wanting to become a diplomat and those seeking to discover what it means to be a member of the Indian diplomatic service.

Sreenivasan has been an evangelist for the IFS since he retired in 2004. Naturally. In a distinguished career that began in 1967, he held a variety of posts including in Japan, Bhutan, the Soviet Union, Burma, Fiji (from where he was ousted by its racist government), Kenya (where he was physically attacked), the United Sates and Austria besides the South Block in New Delhi.

In Moscow, Sreenivasan served under two well-known ambassadors who were naturally inclined towards the Soviet Union: D.P. Dhar and I.K. Gujral. He says that Indo-Soviet relations were at their best when the 1974 nuclear explosion came as a bolt from the blue. “The Soviet Union was as unhappy as the other nuclear weapon states but their objection was subdued because they had no sense of any threat from a nuclear-capable India.”

When Indira Gandhi led the Congress to a rout in the 1977 elections, nothing appeared about the loss in the Soviet media for three days. Finally, the news was broken that Morarji Desai, the new Prime Minister, was a Congress leader! When Moscow decided to send long-time Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko to Delhi on a familiarization trip, he looked uncomfortable as he boarded a flight to India.

Sreenivasan complains that many Indian military officers posted in Moscow did not respect government rules, particularly in financial matters. They were accustomed to cut corners and take liberties in the guise of operational requirements. “Their willingness to tell lies or to doctor documents for small monetary benefits was appalling. My respect for the armed forces went down a notch or two after my Moscow experience.”

Sreenivasan is full of praise for then Foreign Secretary Jagat Meta, to whom he was attached in South Block. He admits that Mehta’s thought processes were pretty complex and caused considerable misunderstanding among his colleagues. It was at Mehta’s initiative that Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was Foreign Minister in the Janata Party regime, went to China – but cut short the trip after Beijing attacked Vietnam when he was visiting. “I witnessed the way Mehta was eased out of the post of the Foreign Secretary mainly because of the Soviet lobby for what they perceived as India moving away from the Soviet Union towards the US and China.” He said the government did “a lot of injustice” to Mehta.

Sreenivasan was posed in Rangoon (now Yangon) when Indira Gandhi was assassinated in October 1984. No one knew if the military strongman, General Ne Win, would attend Indira Gandhi’s funeral. The next day, the General disappeared to points unknown. Later, when he flew to Delhi, Ne Win told Rajiv Gandhi “that he was so grief stricken by the assassination that he left for a remote island to meditate for a few days”.

When a military coup took place in Fiji and the constitution was changed to the detriment of the local Indian population, relations rapidly worsened between New Delhi and Suva. Sreenivasan was the Indian High Commissioner. “I received various proposals from Australia to help to sabotage the government in various ways, but I rejected them as pointless.” Sreenivasan was later given 72 hours to leave the country by downgrading the Indian embassy.

Sreenivasan says his interaction with the Indians in Fiji made him realize that “they are not comfortable to think of India as a place worth living in… They love India as an emotional anchor but they do not want to put up with the size, the population, the crowds and the lack of development. This explains why the overseas Indians have their bodies and wealth abroad and minds in India.”

It was in New York that then Prime Minister Gujral told Sreenivasan that Nawaz Sharif had “told him that neither India could give Kashmir to Pakistan nor Pakistan could take it”. In Nairobi, three armed men barged into Sreenivasan’s house at night and grievously injured him and his wife. The attack was said to be a warning to the Indian community to support the opposition in elections and not President Daniel Arap Moi. But the Indian diplomat maintained in public that it was a burglary attempt gone wrong.

Sreenivasan frankly admits that the career of Indian diplomats can often depend on factors like political masters as well as regional, caste and communal prejudices. Some postings, he says, occur due to typographical errors. For example, a diplomat got posted to Vienna although he was to go to Vientaine (Laos)! He also recalls an apocryphal story that Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi wanted to make Madhav Rao Scindia the External Affairs Minister but Madhav Sinh Solanki was sworn in by mistake!

This is an educative and fun book to read.

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