A diplomat’s diary

From “teaching” the Prime Minister Chanakya Neeti to watching Arab princes make payments in gold bars, K. Natwar Singh recalls his early days in the Indian Foreign Service, which he joined 60 years ago.

July 27, 2013 04:29 pm | Updated July 28, 2013 11:13 am IST

After winning the Delhi University Inter-Collegiate tennis championship for St. Stephen's College.

After winning the Delhi University Inter-Collegiate tennis championship for St. Stephen's College.

In 1952, I took the IAS and IFS examination, which finished on October 15. I flew to England the next day. It was the pre-jet age. It took me 24 hours to reach London. From Victoria Station, I took the train to Cambridge. The term had begun on October 6. I asked the cab driver to drop me at Corpus Christi College. He said, “Are you not a little late, sir?” I said I was, but I had informed the college about my late arrival. I had gone up to Cambridge to read history. I soon acquired a gown and a second-hand bicycle that cost 12 shillings. The college was celebrating its 600th anniversary. I arrived just in time for the gala dinner held in the college dining hall to celebrate the historic occasion. A goblet, shaped like a horn, filled with some kind of a punch was passed around. I sipped it with some hesitation. From time to time, the goblet was replenished.

The Master of the college was Sir George Thompson, who had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics. My resident tutor was Michael Mc Crum who had served in the Navy during the war and spent some time in Bombay.

The term lasted eight weeks. For the Christmas holidays, I got a job in the post office for nine pounds a week. However, I did not join the post office, but went for a holiday to Holland, Belgium and France. On my return, on January 2, a telegram was waiting for me from the UPSC, asking me to present myself at Dholpur House, New Delhi on January 9 for an interview. The telegram also said that the UPSC would pay my inter-class train fare. I left Cambridge two days later, arriving in New Delhi on January 6. On the flight, Krishna Menon was my fellow passenger.

The interviews began at 10.00 a.m. The Selection Board was presided over by R.N. Banerji, ICS who was the Home Secretary. There were six others including B.H.F.B. Tyabji, Joint Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs and P.L. Mehta, IPS. I do not recollect the names of the others. I cannot say that I was not nervous. My fate was to be decided in the next 45 minutes. But I was not panicky. The Chairman said to me, “In your application to the UPSC, you have only mentioned the IAS and the IFS. Are you so sure that you will make it to either?” I answered, “Sir, I am not sure, but I am reasonably confident”. My nervousness was being eroded by the minute. Then Tyabji said, “Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains, who said it?” “Rousseau,” I said. My nervousness had almost disappeared.

I had been warned that a trick question would be put to me to trap me. The Chairman asked if I had read a book by … (I forget the name). I said I had not. The Chairman thundered, “What kind of history student are you, not to have read this important book by a well-known author?” My response was that if I had not read the book, I could not possibly say that I had. The final question was, “What are the three events in the last 12 months which caught your imagination?” “Could I, sir, take a minute or two before I answer?” Later I was told that this had made a deep impression on the selection board. I gave the three events and the interview ended.

In the first week of February, I was in Bharatpur spending time with my parents and my elder brother Bhagwat Singh. We were about to go in for dinner when my brother switched on the radio to hear the 9.00 p.m. news.

Halfway through, the announcer started reading the names of those who had qualified for the IAS and IFS. I was among the 15 names announced on AIR. Needless to say, my parents and my brother were immensely pleased. So was I. A big load had been taken off my shoulders.

At the end of February we were asked to report at Metcalfe House on April 14. If I remember correctly, in the middle of March, the seven IFS probationers were informed that the Prime Minister would meet us individually. The seven of us arrived in South Block. Our ages ranged between 21 and 24. We considered ourselves ‘the best and the brightest’ with some justification. After all, we had passed one of the most difficult competitive exams in the world.

How did a young man feel to be in the presence of one of the greatest men of the time? There was no question of the Prime Minister overruling the UPSC but he did, as Foreign Minister, wish to have a look at the young men who were eventually to serve in the Ministry over which he presided. I had a slight advantage over my six colleagues.

The Prime Minister’s younger sister Krishna Hutheesing’s sons, Harsh and Ajit, had been at school with me. In 1948, I joined St. Stephen’s College. Whenever Mrs. Hutheesing came to Delhi, I used to see her at Teen Murti House. The Prime Minister, on several occasions, came to meet her in her room.

On the first two occasions, he hardly noticed me but, on the third, he did put his hand on my shoulder, smiled saying to his sister, “Bring him along for breakfast”.

The meeting in South Block was, however, a very formal affair. His first question was in Hindi. “Do we have any fear from China?” My answer was, “Sir, we do and we do not, because our closest neighbour is our best friend and also our worst enemy”. The Prime Minister smiled, “You are teaching me Chanakya Neeti”. He asked one or two other questions. One related to the situation in South Africa and the second one was about the first Five Year Plan.

On April 14, 32 IAS and seven IFS probationers reported at Metcalfe House. Each of us was allotted a room, which was anything but luxurious. A bed, a writing table, a chair and a table lamp. I shared a bathroom with one of my IFS colleagues. The 39 of us had come through one of the most difficult competitive examinations in the world. In many ways, we would be partaking in the great adventure of serving independent India in our various capacities at home and abroad. Our salary was Rs.350 plus an allowance of Rs.90. We were hard put to spend it. Petrol cost 12 annas a gallon. In Connaught Place, the well-known restaurants were Alps, Kwality and Volga. Of the seven IFS probationers, two came from Punjab, one from Rajasthan, one from Delhi, one from Madhya Bharath and one from Travancore-Cochin. One of the benefits of our training in Metcalfe House was that the IAS and IFS probationers got to know each other well. This was an education for all of us. During our careers, many of us reached the top posts in our profession. India had been independent only five and a half years. It was an exciting time to be young.

The IFS probationers stayed in the Metcalfe House for five months, while the IAS probationers spent one year there. Our daily programme did not tax us too much. We had one or two characters. The one I remember vividly was Pen Anthony who had a store of very risqué, if not obscene, jokes that he came out with at breakfast, lunch and dinner and some times during the lectures. The IFS probationers were taught History and International Affairs. The IAS probationers had different courses. Our teachers came from Delhi University and were paid handsomely for their labours. From time to time, distinguished and not-so-distinguished visitors came to lecture us, including the Chief of the Army Staff, the Foreign Secretary, two or three ambassadors and high commissioners. The Principal and the Vice Principal, S.B. Bapat and V.C. Shukla, were both ICS men. The striking thing was that they were not on talking terms. So much for espirit de corps. Principal Bapat was a part-time Principal. He was Joint Secretary in the Ministry and spent most of his time there. Vice Principal Shukla was in residence. He belonged to the UP cadre of the ICS. He was an amusing little man who combined gossip with History, Geography, Poetry, Administration, Law, etc. Of Foreign Affairs, he knew very little. He gave a dinner for the IFS probationers at the Delhi Gymkhana Club, to which he invited the Deputy High Commissioner of the U.K. and the Ambassador of Iran. The two countries were not on the best of terms. They sat facing each other and did not exchange a single word. Mr. Shukla had really put his foot into it.

Several senior officers of the Ministry of External Affairs came to speak to us. I still remember how small the Ministry of External Affairs was. All the top posts were held by the ICS. The officers, including the probationers, could be accommodated in the conference room on the first floor of the Ministry of External Affairs. We had only 30 embassies and high commissions abroad and a similar number of embassies and high commissions in India. There was no diplomatic enclave. The Ashoka Hotel was built in 1958. Beyond Teen Murti House, it was semi-jungle.

Metcalfe House had one memorable feature. All 39 of us were eligible bachelors and much in demand. I distinctly remember a Rashtrapati Bhavan car arriving to take an IFS probationer to meet the Rashtrapati. He ended up marrying the granddaughter of the President Dr. Rajendra Prasad.

In the first week of August, the IAS and IFS probationers were on a tour of Kashmir. We called on the Chief Minister, Sheikh Abdullah, at his Srinagar residence overlooking the Dal Lake. For the last several months, he had been acting as if Kashmir was already an independent country. New Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru in particular, had given him a very long rope. The Sheikh paid no heed. More than half his cabinet was against him. He was arrested in Gulmarg on August 9, 1953. The arrest was made in the middle of the night. Nehru wrote about this development to the Chief Ministers, “We learnt of the event after they had taken place”. This reflected very poorly on B.N. Mallik, head of the Intelligence Bureau.

All of us, while in Srinagar, felt uneasy. Two flags flew over the Chief Minister’s house and other buildings, Indian flag and the Kashmiri flag. We also got to know that Adlai Stevenson, the defeated candidate in the 1952 U.S. presidential election had met Abdullah, and discussed with the possibility of an independent Kashmir.

At the end of our five months, there was a dinner at Metcalfe House to bid us farewell. It was an emotional moment for both batches. I have kept in touch with several of the IAS colleagues till today. Of the seven IFS colleagues, only two have survived, N.P. Jain and myself. We also spent two or three days in the Ministry of External Affairs. We were required to call on the Secretary General, the Foreign Secretary, the Commonwealth Secretary and the Special Secretary and several Joint Secretaries. All of them were from the ICS. Each one was politely indifferent.

In the second half of September, we set sail for London. I was horribly seasick till we docked at Eden four days later. Syam Sunder Nath disembarked at Port Said to travel to Beirut to learn Arabic. A.K. Damodaran had already proceeded to Harvard. Of the five remaining, four went up to Cambridge. Ashok Chibb to Oxford.

At the end of our stay in Cambridge, we spent six weeks in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London. Beside us, there were probationers from Pakistan, Malaya, Ceylon and Hong Kong. Four became Foreign Ministers. The Foreign Office course was instructive in some ways and disappointing in others. Most of the senior Foreign and Commonwealth officials were still living in the past and not quite reconciled to the independence of India, Pakistan and Ceylon. Several were condescending and a few tried to patronise us. They did not succeed. I took an instant dislike to one or two over smart mini-John Bulls. The one person who had something worthwhile to say was Harold Nicolson. He lectured us on diplomacy. Most of us were acquainted with his well- known book, Diplomacy . I still have an autographed copy of the book, which I found very useful throughout my career in the Foreign Service.

In the Ministry of External Affairs, we were attached to Under Secretaries and Deputy Secretaries for two weeks each. We lived in the barracks of Constitution House on Curzon Road. Each of us had a room to ourselves. The Constitution Club no longer exists but, at the time I was there, it resembled an impoverished pinjrapole. Two lady Congress Members of Parliament were constantly bickering. There were several other unalluring females who were looking for young men, who were not forthcoming.

For reasons unknown to me, I was deputed to accompany various foreign delegations to different parts of India. The first was a large Chinese cultural delegation, which gave breathtaking performances at Delhi, Bombay, Madras and Calcutta. I had never been to Madras and Calcutta. The artists all were carefully escorted by Chinese officials and, as far as I remember, were unable to see much of these four cities. But their performances and discipline were noteworthy. In 1955, I had the exciting experience of being attached to the King of Cambodia, the crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and the Egyptian leader Col. Gamal Nasser, and His Majesty Ibn-e-Saud of Saudi Arabia.

His Majesty was 6’ 4” inch tall and totally oblivious of time. Four senior Cabinet Ministers, including Pandit Pant and C.D. Deshmukh called on him. The time given was between 11.30 a.m. and 12 noon. The ministers arrived, one after the other. No King. Our Chief of Protocol spoke to the grand Chamberlain, telling him that all four ministers were busy men. His Majesty was already 45 minutes late. “His Majesty is never late. Your ministers have come before the time allotted,” thundered the royal Chamberlain.

This was not all. His Majesty was accompanied by a dozen young princes. At Agra, they visited an establishment where they paid in gold bars for services rendered. The authorities could do nothing — diplomatic immunity. The matter was reported to the Prime Minister, who sent Deputy Secretary Mohd Yunus to tactfully bring the matter to His Majesty’s notice. This Yunus did. His Majesty said, “Give me their names and I will send their heads to Mr. Nehru”. The non-violent Prime Minister was more than horrified. The names were not sent to His Majesty King Ibn-e-Saud.

Finally in December 1955, I was among other IFS officials attached to the Soviet delegation led by Khrushchev and Bulganin. My duty was to make sure that the baggage of these two distinguished gentlemen was not mislaid.

On January 1, 1956, I flew to Madras and spent the next four months in district training. It was a very exciting and useful experience to learn how district administration was run and also to familiarise ourselves with the history, geography and social conditions of Madras Presidency. My two colleagues were N.P. Jain and Ashok Gokhale (1955 batch). Each one was allotted a peon and a cook. Our Collector at Tanjore was Panapalli Kunchithappatham. He had risen from the ranks to make it to the IAS. A joke about him was doing the rounds. The Kunchithappathams were celebrating the silver jubilee of their wedding. At their reception held to mark the occasion, their closest friend, Sadhasivam asked Panapalli, “How does it feel after 25 years of marriage?” Panapalli Kunchithappatham drew himself up and said, “When I married Hema, she was awfully simple. Now she is simply awful”.

On July 2, 1953, I arrived in Peking to take up my post — Third Secretary. My diplomatic career had begun.

This article has been corrected for spelling errors.

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