6th January, 2023
7th August , 2022
The ‘Mister In-Between’: A Discussion on Vassanji’s ‘Vikram Lall’
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury
The travels and travails of the Asian migrant has long been a key focus of contemporary literature. As the same migrants now become more deeply rooted in their new ethos, their varied and diverse experiences often help them play an enriching role in their fresh environs. But a psychological sense forever abides with many that home is never a single place, or even that nowhere is home. Their present forever interacts with their past, and the result is often the cause of an emotional turmoil in their minds. Some can overcome them and forge ahead in their new lives, but some others, sadly, cannot.
The Reading Circle (TRC), the Dhaka-based literary club, recently deliberated on this subject, when it met to discuss the novel “The In-Between World of Vikram Lall” by MG Vassanji on 29th July. Members from home and abroad participated in the virtual event, chaired by Professor Niaz Zaman. The initial presentation, a thought- provoking analyses of the volume, was made by Nusrat Huq. It was followed by remarks by Asfa Hussain, Ameenah Ahmed, Jahanara Tariq, Sarazeen Ahana, and me. Thereafter there was a most stimulating exchange of ideas and views, with contributions by other attendees as well.
This essay is based on my own thoughts on the topic. In this regard, I wish to make three points. First, on the writer, and the genre of the writing. In the post-colonial era, a type that represented English writings outside the Anglo-American tradition emerged. This was broadly called The New Commonwealth Literature. It was very popular when I was a student in Australia. In the 1960s and 70s, a prime example was Vidyadhar Surajprasad Naipaul from Trinidad author of The Wounded Civilization. Another was the Fijian, Satendra Nandan, whom I had known during my years at the Australian National University in Canberra. His autobiographical novel, obviously influenced by Naipaul was called The Wounded Sea. This genre reflected the varying patters of human experience and cultural heritages of peoples. They were as diverse as those from India to Nigeria, Canada to Kenya and Australia to Pakistan.
What linked this disparate community together was the English language. This fact also prompted migrations from one constituent component of the English-speaking world to another. It was often from a less-developed part like Africa, India or Fiji to more developed ones like the UK-US Canada and Australia. I would place MG Vassanji as a contemporary member of that school. Like many of his ilk Vassanji experienced “two stage -migration.” It involved one from one colony to another for work, as from India to Africa. The next stage was migration from the place of work to the advanced metropolis. In other words, from Africa to Anglo-America or from the South Pacific to Australia.
So Vassanji’ s is a ‘homodiegetic’ novel. The expression “homodiegetic” means that it records the narrator’s personal experience. It is crafted in a style that is elegantly mellifluous and hugely readable. Vassanji’ s own recollections of real-life is reflected in the voice of the protagonist of the story Vikram Lall. It belongs to the broad school of what the Germans would call a “Bildungsroman”. Translated into English, “Bildung” means ‘education’ and “roman” is novel. This type of litert6ure is often about the life of a young person growing naturally and psychologically into adulthood. Examples we all would be familiar with are, say, young Pip in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, or little Scout, the daughter of Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
My second point is the content of this eponymous novel, named after the principal character, and the message conveyed. Lall is well and truly an “in-between person”. He is what is called a WAHINDI in Swahili, something akin to a metaphor of the “golden mean”, not belonging entirely to one side or the other. For instance, he is ‘in -between’ the Asian and the African, ‘in-between’ a moral and an immoral being, ‘in-between’ an actor and an observer. The work itself is an in-between tale of an individual and a nation. At one level, it is a historical metafiction (a metafiction is one that constantly reminds the audience that it is a fiction) of Kenya, about a struggle for socio-political liberation that went awry. Lall bemoans the experience of the ex-Mau Mau combatant, who lost his property and reputation in the struggle for independence, only to find his dream of UHURU (or ‘freedom’ in Swahili) betrayed by the politician. And who and what was this post-colonial politician? He was the “” Was it the destiny of the Kenyans to suffer so hard and so long in their struggle against colonialism, only to become a nation of ten millionaires and ten million paupers?
At the same time, it is also the soul-wrenching journey of a man who had to come to terms with himself and the future he had carved out from the past. This is by no means high- literature. But readers have reported a sense of emotional proximity they have sensed between this slow-moving but immensely readable work, and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, at least in the sense that it forces you to delve into history of Russia in the case of Tolstoy and Africa in the case of Vassanji.
The third and final point is the novel’s take-away lessons. It both teaches and cautions, as well as informs and enchants. Vikram Lall is every-man writ large. He is also everyman writ small. The futility in the search for perfection comes out in broad relief in the narration. The narratives are woven into the form of a novel that details hard work, traditional values, electronic transfers of ill-gotten money, and the slippery slope between moral living and corruption. But as in some similar stories of migration we have read at TRC, this is also often the perennial struggle of the migrant. Many migrants may want old memories erased and supplanted by new ones. They do so because they want to better cohere with the new life. But will it always help them be better integrated? Would it be possible for, say, a Rishi Sunak, now very wealthy, but also with Kenya-Uganda Railway background like characters in our novel, to be Prime Minister of the UK? It is one thing for him to be endorsed by his Oxbridge educated peers in Parliament. But can he obtain the support that he now needs of the 200, 000 common British members of the Tory Party, who are but ordinary men and women in the proverbial Clapham Omnibus? We shall see!
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is the Honorary Fellow at the Institute of South Asia Studies, NUS. He is a former Foreign Advisor (Foreign Minister) of Bangladesh and President and Distinguished Fellow of Cosmos Foundation. The views addressed in the article are his own. He can be reached at: isasiac @nus.edu.sg
The ‘Mister In-Between’: A Discussion on Vassanji’s ‘Vikram Lall’
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury
7th August , 2022
Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” comes to mind while reading Hemayet Uddin’s Diplomacy in Obscurity: A Memoir (University Press Limited, 2021). His illustrious walk from a junior Foreign Ministry official to becoming this country’s Foreign Secretary and donning the Ambassador/High Commissioner’s hat reveals eight platforms in 20 chapters where Bangladesh’s contours could have been reconfigured. Did our own idiosyncrasies/fallibilities hijack our own “giant leap” as it flew by our window?
Hemayet Uddin is no run-of-the-mill ambassador. Determined to “bring to light the life and work of a diplomat working in the shadows of obscurity”, he leaves enough food on the table for aspiring plenipotentiaries to get a head start. Yet it may be his constant invocation of a global framework with some sort of a cutting-edge leftover that invites Dhaka’s growing and increasingly thirsty pool of international/global relations students/scholars for a treat.
Each of his 20 chapters carries a nugget or two of contemporary relevance. From those 20, at least eight important platforms illustrate how learning about the past helps us understand the present more coherently (first lesson, dear neophyte). Putting his professional life in chronological order, those platforms include the United Nations, India, Myanmar, Europe, the 1990 Iraq War, the United States, Southeast Asia, and China. No dismay, mind you, if anyone interprets that to be a rough chronology of post-Cold War International Relations pressure points: the duty of a diplomat is arguably defined as much by his/her passion and circumstances as agendas and plans.
With the United Nations, Uddin alerts us to the historical roots of the currently imperative UN General Assembly Millennium Session of 2000 (Chapter 2). While Chapter 3 details two misperceptions in Bangladesh-India relations (over land boundary and Bangladesh as a security threat to India), Chapter 4 narrates two missed bilateral opportunities (the India-Myanmar gas pipeline through Bangladesh becoming a pipe dream and a gigantic Tata foreign investment evaporating). These set Chapter 5 up to dig out the roots of the current Rohingya influx from 1978, leaving chapters 6 and 7 to articulate why Cox’s Bazaar and the Chittagong Hill Tracts, a region crowded with Rohingyas, have long remained sensitive to Europeans, especially the Dutch, for quite different reasons: treatment of ethnic minorities and flood control.
Former Ambassador Hemayet’s professional “heart” is discernible from Chapter 8: his path-finding role in building Bangladesh-US. relations. While Chapter 8 informs us why dispatching Bangladeshi troops to evict Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1990 was pivotal in entering US policy-making networks in Washington, DC, Chapter 9 tells us of how he learned of Washington’s “lunch culture” (and why it is significant to foreign diplomats). In Chapter 10 the significance of being invited to US presidential election conventions (in his case, witnessing Bangladesh’s “dark horse” candidate, Bill Clinton, ascending from out of nowhere, eventually to win), is articulated. What is revealing about Chapter 11 is his reference to “the other South Asia,” to which Bangladesh was “relegated”, along with Nepal and Sri Lanka, in “Beltway” language. How Uddin made Bangladesh postage stamps “Unsinkable” exemplifies the type of nuances beginners must learn to be noted while climbing the diplomatic ladder. This is done in Chapter 12, while Chapter 13 exposes how bedfellows can be made even out of adversarial thinking (General Ershad’s nationalism meshing with Douglas Coe’s evangelism).
While Chapter 14’s “Tastes like chicken” title marked Uddin’s US sayonara, how it was officially praised by Congressman Gary Ackerman opened a window of enormous respect― especially as Uddin was China-bound (thus ideally placed to mediate anything between two increasingly fractious power contenders today). Nonetheless, chapters 15 and 16 inform us of his highly salutary presence in Thailand and Cambodia beforehand. Chapter 17 is about China, where he learned Bangladesh’s name to be “Munjala,” but more significantly promoted, as described in Chapter 18, Munjala’s credentials to host a Non-Aligned Movement conference. Even North Korea’s “mighty ‘K’ word” (the Kim dynasty) enters his picture in Chapter 19, leaving for Chapter 20 to take us through the illustrious Ambassador’s first post-career position, back where his career jettisoned, in the Middle East, this time with the Organization of Islamic Countries. Given his self-admitted “miserably paltry” pension (p. 169), this was as hearty an ending (or start of a new career?), as any.
Paltry may have been his pension, but former Ambassador Hemayet still leaves a feast for diplomatic and scholarly aspirants to digest in shaping their own career. Minus those two misperceptions and two missed opportunities, Bangladesh-India relations might have reconfigured the region. We could have had several infrastructural projects crisscrossing Bangladesh and reinventing long-lost channels with both South and Southeast Asian countries if the 1975 Bangladesh-India Land Boundary Agreement that was signed by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Indira Gandhi did not wait until 2015 to be ratified (by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Narendra Modi, though Manmohan Singh should be credited for signing the document in 2011, with Modi finding the votes needed). Similarly for the Myanmar-India gas-pipeline through Bangladesh: forget the royalties we would have collected, but just the idea of Myanmar taking a million-odd refugees back today would have had a solid anchor to stand upon.
More than that is the crucial learning our leaders make. Their bargaining is at the top, and trickling down to Main Street is usually very uphill. Uddin wasted no time in alerting us how breaking into the “lunch culture” or tapping into prominent vested groups, like Coe’s National Breakfast Prayer Group, is crucial for the country to knock on policy-making doors. Yet, if the lessons learned ripple to the public, populist sentiments behind the BJP-bashing of Bangladeshis, or more significantly, the Indian perception that led to this BJP-bashing―of Bangladesh being a security threat by harboring armed Indian dissenters (United Liberation Front of Assam’s Anup Chetia that Uddin talks about in pp. 32-4), dampens enormously. Indeed cultivating vox populi might have helped the Bangla-India Land Boundary Agreement not have to wait until 2015 to be ratified. Unfortunately Bangabandhu was not there to do it after 1975, nor too Indira for too long, but the larger issue of not just tortoise-like information-flows but also misinformation between ministries ought not to be there, not in this internet/social-media age when the public will get to know of such developments from other sources, often with distorted meanings. Dear Neophytes: Are your diplomatic juices still flowing given this touch of James Bond?!?!
Much more must be said about the immediate imperative of having the right infrastructures to suit the wish-list. Uddin noted how we could not host the world’s second largest international organizational summit (the Non-Alignment Movement’s quadrennial) because we did not have the hosting wherewithal (one by-product was the Bangladesh-China International Convention Center, hastily built for a NAM summit, but just a little too little and late). As Munjala aspires to become a developed country by the 2040s, we hope the necessary infrastructures necessary for “graduation” to that level can be installed now, not in the 2040s.
From the former Ambassador, we learn so much about doing the necessary homework, even disrupting vacations, as he did to promote Bangla-Thai relations. That might be an appropriate point to end on: how we are desperately negotiating free-trade agreements with Southeast Asian countries to fit our developed-country plans. To avoid “Johnny come lately” consequences, the foremost lesson for policy-makers from the book is to jump in, think ahead, galvanize the support-base, and only then await results, armed with wisdom and wit at all stages.
For all those aspirants, particularly of global studies who can help offset the diplomat’s workload, channels into the Foreign Ministry is an idea whose time has urgently come. Opening “desks” or “think-tanks” and recruiting bright university students can help any ministry to shine, its diplomats to glow a little extra, and every “mission impossible” task a delight to undertake. This may be the book’s most valuable lesson, so future efforts no longer remain in “obscurity.”
Professor Imtiaz A. Hussain is Advisor, Global Studies & Governance Department and Executive Director, Center for Pedagogy, Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).
The Definitive Story
Why Chandrashekhar Dasgupta’s book is the last word on India’s role in 1971
Shamsher M Chowdhury, BB
Fri Feb 11, 2022 12:00 AM – The Daily Star
Retired Indian diplomat Chandrashekhar Dasgupta’s recollection of the events of 1971, centring on the Bangladesh Liberation War as captured in his recently published book, India and the Bangladesh Liberation War: The Definitive Story (juggernaut, 2021), is indeed what the sub-caption of the book suggests—it is arguably the most definitive story. As the author says in his introduction, the book is not about the military operations of December 1971, nor is it a global history of the war; it is about India’s grand strategy in 1971 and how this was played out comprehensively and in a seamlessly coordinated manner, employing all the resources available to a state—diplomatic, military and economic—to achieve a political objective.
Dasgupta highlights that even the absence of an institutionalised coordination mechanism in the establishment did not stand in the way of its execution. Going through it, any reader would agree that the book is the product of lengthy research by, and sheer perseverance of, the author. This explains the minute details of the events of the period, both inside India and in the international arena. Dasgupta goes to great lengths to talk of the interactions and discourse between and among the major stakeholders—the government of India, the Bangladesh government in exile and the key players in the global arena. Dasgupta’s emotional attachment to the events is perhaps explained partly by his personal experience of being among the first few Indian diplomats to be assigned to the just-opened Indian diplomatic mission in Dhaka—an assignment any Indian diplomat would have coveted and cherished—and partly by his own desire to understand, and record, the entire gamut of what transpired at various stages during the nine months between March and December of 1971.
The book is, at once, illuminating and instructive. It starts off with a potent quote from Bengal’s highly-revered political leader, Abul Mansur Ahmad, on how little there was in common between the two wings of Pakistan. This reflects Chandrashekhar Dasgupta’s deep insight into the political, social and cultural reality of Pakistan. In the opening two chapters, Dasgupta expands on Ahmad’s quote to understand how the fissure that existed at the country’s very birth, tectonically morphed into a gaping fault line and then led to its inevitable disintegration, and how Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was a central figure in this historic passage. An entire chapter is devoted to the Bangladesh Mukti Bahini; its birth, its growth and its critical role leading to the final liberation of the motherland.
During the nine months of the Liberation War, that Pakistan’s military leadership, and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, had their heads buried in the sand is all too well-known, that the Nixon administration—especially his principal analyst, Henry Kissinger—got it all wrong from the very beginning is also clear, and that, in the end, China’s posturing for Pakistan would not be matched by any military action also became evident. The book graphically elaborates on all of the above in finer details. What is illuminating in the book is its descriptive revelation of the process of convergence of minds between India and the then Soviet Union. This was not a given, as many erroneously thought it was. Dasgupta writes in great detail about how the process evolved. No denying that the prevailing Cold War played its part in this, but the driving force behind it was India’s well-choreographed diplomacy, anchored by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi herself, aided as she was by a highly-astute team of technocrats in the persons of PN Haksar, DP Dhar, TN Kaul, RN Kao, et al. The passage of the Soviet position—from one of initial circumspection to that of an ally, culminating in the historic Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation in August 1971—was clearly the outcome of deft diplomatic handling by India and an equally mature response from Moscow. Dasgupta carries the reader through the entire process of negotiations step-by-step, with focus on dealing with the tricky Article 9. The Treaty was a game changer in more ways than one. It hardened the Soviet stance towards Islamabad, starting with cutting off arms delivery. Dasgupta amplifies this in Chapter 10 where Andrei Gromyko, the crafty Soviet Foreign Minister, made it known to the visiting Pakistan Foreign Secretary Sultan Mohammad Khan in September that Moscow’s words to the Pakistani leadership to not provoke a war with a treaty partner and to ensure the safety of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was not a request. The strategically important convergence between India and the Soviet Union also gave the Nixon administration and China enough food for thought. For one, it served India to use this convergence as a countervailing tool against the emerging Sino-US entente. It also enabled Mrs Gandhi to talk with the leaders in Washington, London, and in other Western countries from a position of confidence. Importantly, it caused Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to recognise that the Bangladesh freedom struggle was a war for national liberation and also of the crucial role the Bangladesh Mukti Bahini played in this process.
The author quotes a senior Indian diplomat involved in the earlier stages of the negotiations, who aptly commented, “Article 9 has just the right amount of substance and shadow to confound our enemies and hearten our friends.”
In the book, Chandrashekhar Dasgupta explains that the impact of India’s role in the Bangladesh Liberation War, besides changing the geographical and political landscape of South Asia forever, was also felt on the critical issue of Kashmir between India and Pakistan. An important outcome of the 1972 Shimla Summit between the two countries was an agreement to take the issue out of the ambit of any multilateral framework (read: the UN) and confine it to bilateral arrangements. It also led to a rearrangement of the Line of Control in Kashmir.
Chandrashekhar Dasgupta’s book derives its strength from the fact that it is based on indisputable evidence, irrefutable logic and undeniable truth. It is objective, succinct in both its form and content, easily readable and even easier to absorb. The book also reaffirms the point made by current Indian External Affairs Minister Dr S. Jaishankar in his own book, The India Way, that India’s role in the Bangladesh Liberation War was the former’s greatest diplomatic and military triumph.
One could be excused for wondering why it took so long for such key details to emerge in their totality. The counterargument would be that the timing of the book’s launch coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Liberation War of Bangladesh, and India’s decisive role in it, makes the whole exercise more relevant.
Former Indian Foreign Secretary and National Security Advisor, Shiv Shankar Menon—undoubtedly one of the finest minds in India’s foreign policy establishment—describes the book in one word: “Brilliant.” He goes on to add that it is a must-read for scholars of history and geopolitics, diplomats and anybody willing to study the emergence of a different South Asia. Chandrashekhar Dasgupta’s masterful scholarly work is all that, and then some.
Shamsher M Chowdhury, BB is the former Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh.
Review of Diplomacy in Obscurity by Hemayet Uddin
Reviewed by Shahriar Feroze
I often compare the life of a diplomat to a captain of a ship.
It is all about a lengthy journey. The differences, however, the captain reaches his
destination through numerous ports, for the diplomat it is his or her assigned posts. One
travels over water, whereas the other travels by almost all modes of transport until he
reaches his destination. For the captain, he carries his country in the ship but for the
diplomat he himself is the country, irrespective of whether he is an ambassador or a third
As this reviewer mulled over the title Diplomacy in Obscurity, penned by one of our
eminent former diplomats, the mind engaged in a queer game of guesswork. But once I
had finished reading, it was laid bare – Hemayet Uddin craftily used the term obscurity as
a powerful metaphor to explain his all-inclusive diplomatic career.
Ranging from his successes, grievances, sharp and close observation of professional
events, scrupulous reading of local and international political leaders, to personal
comments to bold opinions, Diplomacy in Obscurity goes beyond the boundary of a
conventional diplomatic memoir.
However, why the author selected the title with small letters is yet another ‘obscurity’.
What we usually read in a diplomatic memoir is a diplomat’s chronological development,
family, travelogues, interactions with culture and people, professional experiences good or bad, successes and failures – but most diplomatic biographies rarely discusses how
political governments play a critical role in manoeuvring the course of a country’s
diplomacy to ensure their sustenance in power. And also how diplomatic ambitions of a
country, in this case Bangladesh, transformed with need of the times.
Former Diplomat Hemayet Uddin has complimented his new book with a series of untold
insights of Bangladesh diplomacy of the 70s, 80s, and 90s while stepping into the new
millennium. For instance, during the Cold War era when Bangladesh was heavily
depended on foreign aid and being branded as a country of natural disasters, our
diplomats back then were instructed to pursue a fixed set of aid oriented diplomacy.
The point, however, unless politics and diplomacy of the land do not compromise with
one another and blend to achieve a greater purpose, it is the nation that suffers.
Therefore, it is imperative our diplomats enjoy some degree of professional Carte
Blanche in critical decision making.
Subsequent to the fall of former Soviet Union and restoring of parliamentary democracy
here in 1991, our diplomatic goals transformed quickly. However, the process took over a
decade and the author had been a firsthand witness to that shift as one of our illustrious
This reviewer also admires the writer’s courage, in terms of giving details of how our two
successive military regimes pursued their diplomatic agenda to benefit the country as well
as to justify their military regimes internationally.
On that note – politicians often convert diplomats as strategic tools for good and also to
deceive the international arena. Also the fact that foreign ministers, in most cases,
turn bete noire to foreign secretaries is not a new phenomenon in Bangladesh.
In particular, I enjoyed reading the author’s witty, informative and curious anecdotes
during his postings in India, USA, China and Cambodia. From all aspects, the book is a
pleasant read since the author markedly followed a non-conformist style in detailing out
His professional and personal understanding of diplomatic ties with India has underlying
messages for our diplomats today. One simply needs to read between the lines.
Let’s not forget – due to bureaucratic red tapes and needless official secrecy – majority of
our diplomats ‘play it safe’, in terms of penning a memoir even long after their retirement.
Hemayet Uddin is an exception in this regard.
Another fascinating element of the writer is that he not only chronicled his diplomatic
career by highlighting on major events in our bilateral ties with respective countries – he
noticeably has linked how regional and global geopolitical order and international politics
of that time were directly impacting our policy making mechanism. Apart from a diplomat
he is also a history buff narrating his tale.
Bangladesh has come a long way in the past 50 years and as far as our diplomacy is
concerned, the new buzzword for our diplomats today is economic or commercial
On one hand, this form of diplomacy is very important to promote trade , business and
direct foreign investments and some of our diplomats are doing pretty well for sure ,
while on the other innovative , strategic and multidirectional approaches in our diplomacy
are visibly missing – strictly a personal remark.
Another point I felt obligated to touch upon, how come it took 28 years for a diplomat to
assume his first ambassadorial post?
Not that much has changed since, it is time to quick curtail political preferences and
replace it with deserving candidates. In any manner, a diplomat serves the government as
well as the country.
Nevertheless, Hemayet Uddin conceivably is a believer in Middle Power Diplomacy but
never undermined the significance of Soft Power.
Consisting of 20 chapters with all additional features, Diplomacy in Obscurity is a revealing
read not only as a memoir – but also as a tale encompassing our diplomacy, history and
The simple but subtle cover image of an obscured King standing behind the clearly
depicted Knight somehow reflects the gray line between our government and foreign
office. The author perhaps chooses to stay in between.
Published by the UPL the book is overpriced at BDT 800 and lacks eventful photos of the
author’s diplomatic career. Concurrently, the annexure section of the book is also
enriched with a few declassified documents. A separate photo section would have added
an extra value.
In the end, I can’t help making a gastronomic comparison of the book with a freshly baked
Pizza as a diplomatic memoir. It is locally baked with local cheese but with Italian dough,
and Hemayet Uddin added a large variety of toppings according to his taste.
The writer is assistant editor,
The Daily Observe
Diplomacy in obscurity a memoir
By Hemayet Uddin
First Published: 2021
Hemayet Uddin depicts the positives, the thrilling, and as well as exasperations in the
conduct of diplomacy. In this transcendental diplomatic memoir, Hemayet Uddin uses an
aphorism– diplomacy in obscurity– to explain the life of a diplomat in making and
Hemayet Uddin’s diplomatic career crisscrosses many of the significant political events
spanning between the 1970s and the millennium that witnessed quantum leaps. In those
formative years – when the country was struggling with resource constraints, economic
backwardness,fragile social infrastructure, and some in the outside world yet to visualize
the potential of the newly independent country—-efforts by the country’s professional
diplomats played a big role in securing a seat in the global stage which did not receive
due appreciation. While for many practitioners, this was one of the reasons for sever frustrations, Hemayet Uddin never relented in sharing his knowledge and experience and
offering his advisory notes from a neutral platform. This book is a dispassionate analysis
of the events and policies taken by governments on global and regional issues that had
direct or indirect impacts on Bangladesh.
8th April, 2021
‘The India Way’ by S. Jaishankar:
Review by Shamsher M Chowdhury, BB
In “The India Way”, published by Harper Collins, India’s External Affairs Minister Dr. S.
Jaishankar catalogues India’s journey in the arena of its external relations over a period
spanning more than seven decades. Having been a career diplomat for more than four
decades, Jaishankar has had a ringside view of the evolution of India’s foreign policy as it
moved and adapted to the various twists and turns on the global stage, both near and far,
since the country’s independence in 1947. His representation of India as an ambassador
in key missions like Beijing and Washington, DC—both of which form an integral part in
India’s foreign policy—and his assignments in Moscow and Japan, among others, have
served to enrich his first-hand knowledge and his experience as a diplomat. All this
culminated with his appointment as India’s foreign secretary in 2015, an assignment that
put him in the position of a kingpin in the execution of its foreign policy. This coincided
with a period when regional and global geo-politics continued to shift at breakneck speed
and, more often than not, followed an unpredictable pattern, while India’s relevance
continued to gain currency in all these theatres and through all these stages. Now as its
External Affairs Minister, Jaishankar has graduated from being a foreign policy practitioner
to a maker of foreign policy. This ensures a continuity of his pivotal role in the domain of
the management of India’s external relations. The book is pre-Galwan, and so the part of it
that relates to India-China relations needs to be seen in that context.
The richness of the book derives from the fact that the author has dwelled not so
much on his own experiences as a diplomat, as many tend to do, but on India and the
choices it made in the realm of foreign policy over a considerably long period of time.
Jaishankar has been most objective and candid in his assessment of where it did right and where it did not. As an example, he mentions, on more than one occasion, the positive
impact that India’s role in Bangladesh’s Liberation War in 1971 had on India’s stature as a
player not just in the immediate and peripheral region but also on the global stage, with
an emphasis on the manner in which it was executed diplomatically and militarily. In the
same breath, he describes India’s Sri Lanka exercise as a “misadventure”, one that failed
to take into account the ground realities of local political and social sensitivities and the
adverse military realities on the ground.. In the early part of the
book, Jaishankar prescribes, from his vantage position, that the current time is one when
India must engage America, manage China, cultivate Europe, reassure Russia, bring Japan
into play, draw neighbours in, extend the neighbourhood and expand the traditional
constituencies of support.
He then goes on to elaborate on these goals in greater detail in
the subsequent chapters. Such a broad tapestry, needless to say, presents a major
challenge for the policymakers, more so when some of the goals appear to be
paradoxical, if not contradictory. However, the author strongly feels that if India were to
continue to emerge as a consequential player in a multi-polar Asia, and in a shifting global
order, it must be able to multi-task its foreign policy operations in a manner that will
enable it to achieve its objectives and meet its own national interests in the short, mid and
long terms. He says that such a bold approach may call for “plunging into the unknown”,
which requires both judgement and courage. In a nuanced assessment of the past, he
says that while the past may be an influence, it can no longer be a determinant of the
future. In the same vein, he states that timidity cannot be passed off as a strategy nor
indecision as wisdom. Jaishankar expands on this by referring
to a failed opportunity to settle the boundary and territorial issues with China in the early
1950s when the People’s Republic was globally more isolated, or for delaying India’s arrival
on the nuclear platform until 1998 and not shortly after 1974.
On the positive side, he
describes the nuclear deal with the United States following long and hard bargaining as a
major feather in India’s cap. On the latter, India demonstrated its determination to keep
its options open while not being seen as a threat or a source of further nuclear
proliferation. He also advocates that when it comes to matters of security, the country’s
idealistic commitments, like the one to non-alignment, must not act as an impediment to
India adopting a robust, proactive stance. He appropriately cites India’s position and its
firmness to act, as it did in 1971 on the Bangladesh issue, as a case in point. In
chapter 4 of the book, titled “Dogmas of Delhi”, Jaishankar spells out the evolution of
India’s foreign policy making in six phases, starting with the time of independence in 1947
and reaching up to the present. This is basically a collage of its successes and failures. His
description of failures includes the military defeat to China in 1962, and the inconclusive
war with Pakistan in 1965. The triumphs include the victory in 1971 leading to the birth of
an independent Bangladesh, the 1998 nuclear empowerment, and the 2002 nuclear deal
with the US. This particular chapter, at least to me, represents the soul of the book,
especially because of its prescriptive form. He suggests that a power that is serious about
self-improvement should not shrink from undertaking an honest introspection regarding
missed chances and shortcomings. Only through such an exercise, he believes, can the
future courses of action be better planned and executed. He explains the seeming
dichotomies in India’s multiple trilateral or multilateral arrangements as a willingness to
look beyond dogmas and enter “the real world of convergences”.
As is to be expected, a complete chapter of the book talks of India’s long and most
troublesome relationship with China, its neighbour to the north. He traces the history of
the passage of this critical relationship, one whose ramifications do not remain limited to
the two players only but spread deeply into the neighbourhood and far beyond, both on
the land and in the sea. While covering the undulating nature and the difficult bilateral
trajectory of this relationship in the current complicated global context, Jaishankar states
that the challenge for India is to manage a more powerful neighbour while ensuring its
own rise. The Galwan skirmishes in May this year, leading to military casualties on both
sides for the first time in many decades, have thrown in a very different element into an
already difficult equation. In the face of hardening nationalist sentiments on both sides
following Galwan, policymakers may need to go back to the drawing board to face the
future. In the book, Jaishankar describes the multifaceted nature of India’s
relations with the United States and the challenges and opportunities therein. India’s
difficult ties with Pakistan, both bilaterally and in the context of China’s place in it, find due
mention. The author argues strongly for a sustained and vibrant engagement
with Japan by India that will augment the existing diplomatic ties with security
arrangements. For an India that is moving forward in the Indo-Pacific region, this makes
perfect sense. Importantly, the book balances well the importance of its relations with the
bigger global players as much as it should with its immediate and smaller neighbours. He
emphasises that an India growing in strength needs a friendly neighbourhood.
The book is aptly rounded up with a summary of the imponderables that the coronavirus
has thrown up globally. Jaishankar argues that the pandemic that still shows no sign of
letting up has made it abundantly imperative for all to find common ground on the very
questions that are today sources of contention. “The India Way” is a wellchoreographed compilation of taking stock of past events and actions, placing them in the
present context, and helping them shape the future course of India’s foreign policy. Given
the richness of its contents, its objective form and candid expressions, it’s a must read as
much for the current and future generations of India’s foreign policy practitioners as it is
for the policymakers. Diplomatic and global political analysts outside the country will also
find it a very useful book to study. Dr. S. Jaishankar does not hesitate to admit that
while India may be a rising power, it clearly has a long distance to go. It is this sense of
pragmatic realism that makes the book a product of high quality scholarly work.