Megasthenes ponders what makes for good neighbours
James Burke/Of Life
In his season of mellow fruitfulness, the late Ataur Rahman Khan was a delightful raconteur. His tales were very often snippets and foot-notes of history, laced with the personal touch and inimitable self-deprecatory humour.
In late 1981, or perhaps early 1982, he visited New Delhi as part of a parliamentary delegation headed by the then speaker of the House, Mirza Golam Hafez. After a particularly crowded day, he reminisced about an earlier visit of his to New Delhi, in the decade of the 1950s, as chief minister of East Pakistan. He had gone to Karachi for an official meeting, and on his way back made a brief stop-over in New Delhi for a specific purpose.
in what was surely a gesture of goodwill, he and his wife were accommodated in the guest wing of the Rashtrapati Bhaban. His program included, at his request, a meeting with the Indian commerce minister, Morarji Desai, and also a dinner hosted by Pandit Nehru in Rashtrapati Bhaban.
He had a special reason for meeting Morarji; there were fears of a serious fertiliser shortage in East Pakistan and he wished to explore the option of supplies from India. Morarji was sympathetic but unable to help; India had no surplus of fertiliser that year, and would in fact need to import a considerable quantity.
In the evening of the same day, as Ataur Rahman left his suite for the official dinner, he saw the Indian prime minister pacing up and down in the corridor outside. Pandit Nehru had come to personally escort his guests to the banquet room, a gesture that touched, almost embarrassed, Ataur Rahman.
There were only five people at the dinner; the main guests, Mr. and Mrs. Ataur Rahman, the host, Pandit Nehru, Vijaya Laxmi Pandit, and Indira Gandhi. It was a cozy and relaxed gathering; somewhat exacting though for Ataur Rahman as he took it upon himself to intermittently interpret for Mrs.Rahman.
At one point, possibly because his attention was divided, he inadvertently broached an issue -- the fertiliser shortage in East Pakistan -- the Indian position in respect of which, he thought, he already knew.
Nehru's response was spontaneous and unequivocal; certainly India should be able to extend every cooperation and assistance. Ataur Rahman was puzzled. Was the prime minister not aware that India herself faced a shortage and needed to import?
He immediately mentioned his discussions with Morarji. Nehru was unperturbed. It was no problem; India would simply import more than was planned and help to meet the deficit in East Pakistan. The Indian prime minister was more concerned about core issues; how could bilateral relations between India and Pakistan be reinforced. In interstate relations, the bigger picture may not be overlooked.
There is another story that I heard at second hand, which conveys an underlying message of a similar vein.In April of 1979, Indian Prime Minister Morarji Desai visited Bangladesh. Shortly afterwards, the then president, Ziaur Rahman, addressed a letter to him which was sent to the Bangladesh high commissioner in New Delhi with instructions to hand it over at the highest possible level.
In "Diplomatese," this meant the addressee if possible. The letter touched upon a few issues, including the concept of regional co-operation in South Asia. This was ahead of the letters to South Asian heads of state or government that were sent in 1980, formally mooting a forum for such cooperation.
The high commissioner sought an appointment with the Indian prime minister and was received by him a week later. The president's letter was opened and read in the high commissioner's presence. Prime Minister Morarji Desai wholeheartedly concurred that regional co-operation would be a positive development for South Asia. India, he assured, would welcome an initiative in this regard, and he would be replying to the Bangladesh president.
The high commissioner could not resist the temptation to score a subtle debating point. Thanking the Indian prime minister, he said that Bangladesh attached great importance to the matter, which was why he had sought an urgent appointment about a week back, so as to personally hand over the president's letter.
Morarji got the point. Looking the high commissioner in the eye he fired off rapid questions:
Q: Where did the high commissioner serve before India?
A: The high commissioner gave the name of the country, an important Western station. Q: For how long?
A: A little less than two years.
Q: How many times during his tenure was he received by the prime minister of the country?
A: Twice, after arrival and prior to departure.
Q: Why then did the high commissioner seem surprised, even a little unhappy, because he had to wait for a week to see the prime minister of India?
A: The high commissioner thanked the prime minister for receiving him. True he had been received only twice by the prime minister in his previous station, but his British, French, German, and American colleagues would see him whenever they needed to. Surely, this was the sort of relationship that should exist between India and Bangladesh, indeed between all South Asian countries.
Morarji pondered the response, and then nodded in vigorous assent. He agreed, he said, with the high commissioner. Gesturing at the External Affairs Ministry official in attendance, Morarji added matter-of-factly that it was on his advice that the appointment was given a week or so after the request.
As with many second-hand tales, this may be, if not fiction, an embellished account of events. Morarji, though, could be prickly and painfully blunt. Incidentally, a former Bangladesh high commissioner to India, in a recently published book on his tour of duty there, recalls being formally advised by the Indian Foreign Office that he would not get, and should not seek, any meeting with the Indian prime minister. This was at a time, when the Indian high commissioner in Dhaka had ready access to the prime minister of Bangladesh.
The Bandung Conference had endorsed ten principles for the promotion of world peace and co-operation. These were largely an extension and reformulation of the Panch Sheel or Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence worked out by India and China, and which constitute part of the preamble of the 1954 Sino-Indian treaty on "Trade and Intercourse between the Tibet Region of China and India."
The five principles are: mutual respect for each other's territorial integrity and sovereignty, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-interference in each other's internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful co-existence.
Benefits, equal or equitable, should surely accrue to all parties from friendly relations. Between unequal neighbours or countries, however, great finesse, understanding, and patience may be needed to build and underpin such ties; and this for reasons that may not be ignored.
In a situation of gross asymmetry, perspectives, perceptions and priorities of the states may differ, which in turn could impinge on mutual confidence and trust. There is also a paradox to contend with. In relative terms, the smaller state should benefit more from friendly co-operation. It is the dominant power, however, which needs to be more forthcoming if such a relationship is to be forged. US-Cuba relations are an obvious example.
The Gujral Doctrine, which took shape during I.K. Gujral's second stint as foreign minister of India, was an innovative, Gandhian, approach to the subtleties and nuances of an asymmetric relationship between states. It emphasised the role and responsibility of the dominant power in the development of mutually beneficial relations between states that are not equally endowed. The five point doctrine derived essentially from the Panch Sheel, and was geared to the South Asian context.
A successful diplomatic overture would need to accommodate concerns and allow for sensitivities. There is, to be sure, more to an effective foreign policy than being nice, doing the right thing, and expecting others to be supportive. The broad object would always be to make common cause with others.
Porfirio Diaz is not exactly an edifying figure of history. Between 1876 and 1911 -- minus a gap of four years during 1880-84 -- he wielded near absolute power in Mexico. He would eventually die in exile in Paris. A dry comment attributed to him gives a sense of the distrust and lack of confidence between two unequal neighbours in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
In his heyday or in exile, Diaz is said to have lamented wearily: "Pobre Mexico! Tan lejos de Dios y tan cerca de los Estados Unidos." In English it would read: "Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States."
Magasthenes is a columnist for The Daily Star.