External Affairs

In Tussle Between Conscience and Career, Diplomats Chose to Play it safe

Indira Gandhi with President Lyndon B. Johnson at the Oval Office in 1966. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Indira Gandhi with President Lyndon B. Johnson at the Oval Office in 1966. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Since the onset of the current phase of globalization which more or less coincided with the end of the Cold War, democracy all over the world has registered significant progress. But this has been mainly horizontal in the sense that it has extended to more countries in different regions. In terms of quality, democracy has, in fact, suffered a distinct deterioration, including in Western countries. India is no exception to this general trend. Since the adoption of the democratic system of government after Independence, the quality of democracy in India has gone down beyond recognition. Those responsible for the making and maintenance of law and order have become its habitual violators. All the benchmarks of democratic conduct have become blurred and the basic constitutional provisions are being observed more in breach than in adherence. There is a real danger of the country slipping into chaos, leading to the rise of authoritarianism.

The recent trend in the country, particularly the treatment of minority communities and institutions and increasing intolerance towards dissenting opinion, confirm this apprehension. These trends coupled with the experience of the Emergency imposed 40 years ago indicate that we cannot take our democracy for granted. The recent revival of hero worship, cronyism and personality cult constitute a real threat to democracy. Eternal vigilance, combined with fearless defiance, is the price we must pay for preserving our democracy.

A diplomat’s burden

When the Emergency was declared on June 26, 1975, I was outside India, working for the UNDP in New York on deputation from the Indian Foreign Service. I, therefore, did not face the moral dilemma of being against it and at the same time required to justify it before foreigners. I was convinced that the Emergency was a massive aberration from the democratic system of governance put in place after great sacrifice and nurtured painstakingly by the leaders of India’s independence movement, particularly Jawaharlal Nehru. It cast a dark shadow on the future of the country and jeopardised the dignity, safety and security of every citizen.

It also severely dented our stature as a nation and position in the comity of nations. I frequently used to articulate these views in discussions on the subject among a group of Indians occupying senior positions in the UNDP. Two of us, i.e.  myself and IG Patel, the then Deputy Administrator of UNDP, in this group were Government of India officers.  IG was in the beginning inclined to give the benefit of doubt to Indira Gandhi but as more and more reports of arrests and harassment of political leaders and censorship of news came through the media, he became greatly disillusioned and unreservedly opposed the Emergency. But we expressed our views only in private and under the safety of the distance we enjoyed at that time, from the Government of India.

The general feeling among the Indians working in the United Nations in New York and NRIs in the city, except a handful of those who are prone all the time to behave as lackeys, was one of unmitigated opposition to the Emergency. A group of eminent Indian academics in the city was actively mobilising opinion against it and issued statements condemning it and demanding its immediate withdrawal. I was in touch with them, particularly with a group of academics in the City University of New York. I was also one of the first persons to meet  Subramanian Swamy on his arrival in New York after his escape from India.

Business as usual in MEA     

After completing my assignment in the United Nations, I returned to Delhi in June 1976 and joined the Ministry of External Affairs as Joint Secretary in charge of the Bangladesh Division, while the Emergency was still on. The atmosphere in the MEA was one of business as usual. Nobody was involved in work relating to enforcing the Emergency. Our main task was to husband the bilateral or multilateral relations as assigned to us. In the area of the work assigned to me,  the Prime Minister’s Office under Prof. P.N. Dhar,  assisted by the R&AW Chief, Shankaran Nair was playing the decisive role. MEA was assigned the role of only implementing the decisions taken in the PMO.

The government’s general attitude towards Bangladesh at that time was tough and unyielding. We were insisting on diverting at Farakka not less than 40,000 cusecs of Ganga water and were clandestinely supporting the violent attrition against the government in power in Bangladesh by tribals on both sides of the border led by Qader Siddiqui. That was the time when the Bangladesh government, in an extraordinary move, took the Farakka issue to the General Assembly where it was discussed in the First Committee, i.e. the Political Committee. We were able to extricate ourselves from further and continuing embarrassment on this issue by agreeing to discuss this issue seriously with Bangladesh with a view to finding an agreement on sharing, preferably before the 1977 session of the General Assembly.

By the end of the year, revulsion against the Emergency had become widespread. So was the urge to get rid of its suffocating burden. Foreign Service officers by and large were no exception to it. Therefore, the withdrawal of the Emergency and the holding of Parliamentary elections in March 1977 came as a great relief to most of us. We were exhilarated by the outcome of the election and the change of government. There was a dramatic change in the new government’s attitude towards neighbours. So far as Dhaka is concerned, we withdrew our support to Qader Siddiqui and his groups fighting against the Bangladesh government along the border. A five-year agreement on the sharing of the Ganga waters at Farakka was hammered out before the ensuing session of the General Assembly.

A telegram must have been issued by the Foreign Secretary to our Heads of Missions giving justification for the imposition of the Emergency and instructing them to explain it to the governments of their accreditation and to other influential sections of public opinion in the respective countries. Normally the Foreign Secretary would have drafted that telegram. Unless he decides to resign in protest, the FS has no alternative to sending such an instruction. A Head of Mission who receives the telegram is obliged to point out to the Indian government how the  government and people of his host country reacted to his demarche on the subject.

Of course, ambassadors have the discretion to adopt their own method of presenting the government’s case and in the process to modify some of the arguments conveyed in the instructions. Subordinate officers in the missions have the opportunity of expressing their views in writing to their head of mission. It is up to the latter to decide whether he conveys such views to the government.

Playing it safe for career reasons

Only thorough research based on access to internal notings and telegrams exchanged during the Emergency period can reveal whether any Foreign Service officer working either at headquarters or in a mission abroad protested against the Emergency in writing. To the best of my knowledge, nobody did, and some supported it enthusiastically and out of turn. This is partly because of a natural instinct to play safe in their career interest. This is rationalised as discretion being the better part of valour. It is also partly because Indian bureaucrats, except a handful, are not concerned with the ideology of the government they serve; what matters to them is the outcome of the work that is assigned to them.

Ironically, Indian diplomats would not have had much difficulty in  justifying the Emergency abroad. The vast number of developing countries at that time themselves had a dictatorial form of government. In the West, governments are really concerned about democracy within and not without, where it is primarily their national interest that counts. The account given in Kuldip Nayar’s book on Emergency under the title “The Judgement” indicates that almost all Western democracies and other major powers were in favour of working with Indira Gandhi in spite of her proclamation of the Emergency.

Things have changed very significantly since 1975. The protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms has come to the forefront of the foreign policy agenda of many countries in the world. Therefore, any relapse of a well established democracy like India into authoritarian rule will provoke widespread protests and even sanctions. But in the ultimate analysis, the national interests of foreign powers would prevail and they would get reconciled to the fait accompli of any emergency-like situation if it lasts long enough. Therefore, the onus of preserving our democracy and preventing the imposition of another Emergency ultimately devolves upon us – the citizens of India.

Muchkund Dubey is a former foreign secretary.