Of diplomatic ties & Sompal's date with Saddam

Of diplomatic ties & Sompals date with Saddam

Overcome domestic issues first, goes the Telugu saying, before facing the challenges posed by the outside world. For some reason or the other, the policies India has practised in the field of external relations appear to have resulted in precisely the opposite happening.

Overcome domestic issues first, goes the Telugu saying, before facing the challenges posed by the outside world. For some reason or the other, the policies India has practised in the field of external relations appear to have resulted in precisely the opposite happening.

The recent introduction of a Bill in Nepalese Parliament, seeking to include, within Nepalese territory, some areas belonging to India, has come as a painful reminder of how we have been neglecting the need to preserve and protect relationships with our neighbours. Thanks to border issues and political misunderstandings, a time-tested relationship is now in jeopardy, damaged on account of mismanagement of foreign policy. That a people, and a polity, considered among the closest to India, should have developed distrust and suspicion towards the Indian counterparts is a matter of great disappointment indeed.

The somewhat ill-advised recent intrusion into Myanmarese territory by Indian forces, ostensibly to counter oppression of Rohingyas by the government of that country, expectedly soured our relationship with another neighbour, the considerable provocation provided by the massive influx of injuries notwithstanding.

And when we look at India's relationship with Bangladesh, one finds that sharing of Hooghly river waters from the Farakka barrage continues to be an issue of contention. The dispute over transfer of the Bigha corridor to Bangladesh also persists. Bangladesh has yet to concede transit facility to the landlocked north-eastern regions of India and India is now forced to confine its passage to the narrow Siliguri corridor. The killings of Bangladeshi citizens by Indian border guards, aiding of illegal immigrants, fake money transfers and illegal trade from both sides, are also irritants which are yet to be addressed satisfactorily. Fortunately, however, overlapping claims over the same seawaters in the Bay of Bengal were settled quickly before they could escalate.

Even with a friendly neighbouring country, such as Maldives, things came to a head for a short period when, in 1976, Maldives appeared to have claimed the Minicoy Island as a part of its area. The matter was, however, quickly resolved with the President of Maldives categorically stating that the island was recognised as part of India's territory.

The continuing conflict with China in respect of border, trade and defence related issues, is a saga on its own.

And, as regards Indo – Pakistan ties, the less said the better, as neither country has covered itself with glory in the manner in which the relationship has been treated on various fronts and at various levels.

In the ultimate analysis, whether by design or by default, it would appear as though Mauritius and Bhutan are the only neighbours with whom India appears to have maintained a more or less steadily comfortable relationship.

As regards India's position in the SAARC is concerned, we have first to note that cooperation and conflict have coexisted in that organisation, right from the beginning. Although it was an arrangement which was to have facilitated constructive cooperation, for mutual benefit, unfortunately, the atmosphere has been dominated by acrimony and contention. Many issues, including disagreements about borders, import/export arrangements, and suspicions relating to interference in internal political matters have stood in the way of the creation of an atmosphere in which goodwill and understanding can pave the way for mutual reinforcement and synergy, between the efforts of the member countries. Self-interest prevailing over common good has often created conflicts rather than harmony weakening the purpose the SAARC.

All in all, reverting back to the Telugu saying with which this piece started, it would certainly look as though the time has come for us to pay greater attention to our relationships with neighbours and to start working on putting into practice the "union is strength "principle. In a world in which relationships are extremely dynamic, and given to volatile changes, depending on conditions relating to trade, politics and economic fluctuations, there can be no greater strength than the consolidation of one's ties with neighbouring countries and the organisation that binds them together.

And, before I sign off, here is an interesting incident that took place when I was working in the Ministry of Agriculture.

In 1998, while I was working as a Joint Secretary in the Ministry of agriculture, Minister of State for Agriculture Sompal and I visited Iraq to participate in an agriculture exhibition organised at Baghdad. Sompal was very keen on calling on Saddam Hussain, the then President of Iraq. My own feeling was that, the President being a controversial personality, the meeting may create complications. The Minister, however, felt that it was precisely because Saddam Hussein was a complicated and controversial person, that one must see him. After all, said the Minister, the President was a man who had changed the entire agricultural scene in that country and caused tremendous strides in the development and growth of that sector.

When consulted, however, the Iraqi officials advised that it was not so easy to meet the President who was surrounded with impregnable security and was averse to entertaining visitors. We, however, put in a request. And waited for a message, or a telephone call, to intimate us about the appointment having been fixed.

The Minister and I, as scheduled, went to visit the exhibition. I saw an interesting exhibit and turned to point that out to him. But there was no Minister to be seen! Desperately I searched all over and enquired with the security staff deployed to look after the Minister. None had a clue. Recalling our request for the appointment with the President, I guessed that perhaps he had been whisked away for that purpose, without the knowledge of even his own personal security staff. The next few hours were probably among the most tense and anxious moments in my life. Just as tension had mounted to an intolerable level, the Minister appeared, back in the exhibition, quite as suddenly as he had originally vanished!

The explanation finally turned out to be quite simple. Sompal had been taken away, blindfolded, in a jeep. He was then made to walk some distance. Then the blindfold was removed, and he was face-to-face with the President of Iraq! The Minister was extremely gratified with the time he spent with Saddam Hussein, whom he described as a pleasant and well-informed person. Sompal's wish had been granted and, finally, I was at peace!

(The writer is former Chief Secretary, Government of Andhra Pradesh)

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