My South Block Years:
Memoirs of a Foreign Secretary
UBS Publishers and Distributors, Delhi, 1996 INR 395, ISBN 81 7476 132 2
Indira Gandhi listened attentively as Henry Kissinger urged her to comply with Washington´s wishes, implying that otherwise US aid to India might be at risk. When he had finished, without a word, she reached for the telephone and spoke to a senior official. “Mr Kissinger has just told me that he has no further need for his aid office in Delhi,” she said. “Please arrange for it to be dosed down within 24 hours.” She beamed at the Secretary of State. “I think that deals with your problem, Mr Secretary.” For once, the great man was reduced to stuttering protest. But another, less elevated, Indian official sitting in the comer of the Prime Minister´s office could scarcely repress a chortle. Years later, he tells the tale with relish. The exercise of power in defence of India´s interests comes very gladly to J. N. Dixit´s heart—and he has had experience of that himself. Not for nothing was he known in Sri Lanka as “The Viceroy” at the time when the Indian Peace-Keeping Force was operating on the island.
After 34 years of service in missions from Washington to Tokyo and all over South Asia, as well as in international organisations, and with an unrivalled reputation in the Indian Foreign Service, Mr Dixit was the natural choise for the top job of Foreign Secretary. This came at a time when the world was in turmoil and India virtually had to create its foreign policy anew, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of Cold War certainties.
Now he has published his memoirs, though only for the 26 months that he was Foreign Secretary. All the same, the book is a tour de force; in his preface Mr Dixit says he wrote it entirely from memory, jogged only by his daily engagement diaries. Consulting official documents could have brought him up against the Official Secrets Act. The details he recalls from his hectic schedule and the immense variety of topics, places and people he dealt with is vast—perhaps too vast, and at times repetitive. Thirty-six years as a civil servant, however distinguished, does little for one´s literary style and, except for a few hilarious anecdotes, much of the book reads like a series of official reports. But on hearing how Mr Dixit defended their country´s interests—at least as he and his political masters saw them, with skill, guile and at times the ferocity of a tiger—many Indians will conclude that he was indeed the right man for the job.
Other South Asians may not be so sure. But none can deny that Mr Dixit was one of the most brilliant, likeable and flamboyant foreign secretaries India has had. And there is more than enough meat to chew on in this book for anyone interested in how India tried to cope with the new problems of a world in ferment. The comforting political and economic support of the utterly reliable Soviet Union was gone; there was now only one super-power and it wanted to impose its world agenda, which did not include independent-minded countries like India developing their own nuclear weapons and missiles; the Non-Aligned Movement was a broken reed; and although “there were no overt threats to our territorial integrity and security, covert threats persisted through violent, secessionist subversion in Kashmir and the Northeastern states” backed by— you guessed it—Pakistan.
Dixit the Hawk
For all the complex negotiations and new tasks around the world, the book demonstrates with blinding clarity that Pakistan and Kashmir constitute the two poison weeds that entwine and often throttle India´s foreign—and, indeed, domestic—policy. Dixit, confesses himself frankly and unashamedly, to being a hawk on Kashmir. He would take the battle into Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, and even Pakistan proper, if necessary. He once advised flooding the Kashmir Valley with Hindu settlers—an extraordinary view for a man who witnessed at close quarters the catastrophic consequences of settling Sinhalese villagers on former Tamil lands in Sri Lanka.
But the fear, verging on paranoia, of losing one´s country´s unity and territorial integrity can drive even brilliant and liberal-minded men to extremes. The former Foreign Secretary even suggests that India should go ahead and develop nuclear weapons, which some observers regard as mere threatening propaganda that India finds useful for others to believe. Strangely, enough, Germany and Japan, for instance, do not seem as worried as Mr Dixit is for India, about their position in the international community. (Bizarrely, he also quotes the then Japanese Prime Minister, Kiichi Miyazawa, as having “acknowledged to Prime Minister (P.V. Narasimha) Rao that Japan possessed nuclear weapons…” during Mr Rao´s visit to Tokyo in June 1992. This is hard to credit.)
But Mr Dixit is far too intelligent to be a hawk on all subjects. He virtually accepts that in various parts of the country and aspects of life, the real threats to India´s security and unity come from within, merely enabling external forces to exploit them. As for the Subcontinent´s two bitter rivals, he quotes an old friend of Jawaharlal Nehru´s,
Mazhar Ali Khan, as telling him before he (Dixit) left Islamabad as High Commissioner that the suspicions and misunderstandings bom of Partition “can only be removed when the people of India and Pakistan can meet each other without the restrictions imposed on them by the power structure in both countries. He added that these power structures sustain these restrictions only to safeguard their interests.”
At the micro-level, I once witnessed this on the border crossing at Wagah in Punjab, on the only road still more or less open between the two countries. The sole regular military cooperation between the two countries takes place at sundown when the Indian Border Security Force and the Pakistani Rangers put on a show of precision drill to bugles as they lower the national flags across from each other. A crowd gathers on each side and waves to the other across the divide. On this occasion, a stern sergeant admonished a Gujarati woman: “Stop waving. That´s the enemy over there.” But Mazhar Ali Khan “was right in objective terms,” Mr Dixit writes dryly. “The limitations of my professional experience prevent me from reaching the high moral ground from which he spoke.” Realpolitik is the name of Mr Dixit´s game. But one could not help feel a pang of sadness back in 1994, as this warm, loyal and courageous patriot stepped for the last time out of his South Block office and drove away from 36 years´ service. Could not the government find him, as it has for so many other retired IFS men, a post where his vast knowledge, experience and intelligence could be put to good use?