There is a small error on page 3 in the first para. The sentence reads:
"The overlap of the Suez and Hungary crises in October 1956 saw a debate, both in the public domain and also in the MEA, that India was prepared to be critical of the US and French intervention in Suez but not so about Soviet intervention in Hungary....."
US is an error. It should be UK.
T C A Raghavan
Ed. note: Author's comments in response to the review by T. C. A. Raghavan, published on H-Asia on March 5, 2018.
Ambassador T.C.A. Raghavan has been so kind to review this book, summarize its chapters and comment on some of the foreign policy aspects of Subimal Dutt’s career. Given that the reviewer is a leading expert on Indo-Pakistani relations, one can understand his disappointment with Dutt having been so little involved in this crucial aspect of Indian foreign affairs. This alone, however, does not make Dutt a mostly irrelevant figure as the reviewer indicates – in his comments he has touched a few trees instead of assessing the forest as a whole. It remains a most remarkable fact that an official with such an outstanding career has not made it into Indian historiography, in particular that of foreign affairs. The reasons for this lapse have been explained in the book. Dutt himself, reticent, modest, and seeing himself in serving capacity – see the title – is responsible for this in the first place (pp. 572-6). Furthermore, even today, there is a tendency against modifying the established narrative, which due to lack of access to documentary evidence has been based mostly on public statements and memoirs. Allegedly, Indian foreign affairs in the Nehruvian years were mostly the making of Nehru himself, assisted by his main advisor V.K. Krishna Menon. Other ministers and diplomats are given a role only in so far as they have highlighted their contribution in their recollections. This view ignores decision-making processes not only in democracies. As a matter of fact, the highest ranks in the Ministry of External Affairs played a crucial role. Dutt was working next door to Nehru for a full 12 years, longer than any other official, and his diaries, therefore, provide an insider story of a hitherto unknown quality. Dutt was by no means a mere observer, but a most influential advisor. Downplaying his role once again, as the reviewer does, fits into the pattern, but stands in the way of a better understanding of attitudes and driving forces in the formative years not only of Indian foreign policy.
It starts with the comment on the subtitle, emphasizing that in those years in the Ministry of External Affairs there was a Secretary General on top of the hierarchy, the Foreign Secretary being but the number two. This well-known fact, first, does not shorten Dutt’s term as Foreign Secretary. Furthermore, second, in quite some (so little appreciated) detail, the biography elaborates the professional and to some extent also the private relationship between Secretary General N.R. Pillai and Foreign Secretary Dutt (pp. 201-2). Pillai treated Dutt as an equal, and the two divided many tasks relating to Indian foreign affairs. The Secretary General was responsible for relations with the UK and many other western countries, whereas the Foreign Secretary soon focused on China and the German question. Dutt never worked under Pillai. Had this tandem not been highly efficient, it would be difficult to explain why Nehru kept both of them for more than half a decade. Notwithstanding Krishna Menon’s massive resistance, the careers of his favourites, first of all M.J. Desai, came to a standstill until Dutt’s transfer to Moscow in April 1961.
Ambassador Raghavan’s comments are most striking when discussing the boundary conflict between India and China. Immediately after the signing of the Tibet Agreement in 1954, Chinese patrols turned up in areas claimed by India. Whereas Nehru and numerous Indian diplomats saw a mere misunderstanding, it was Dutt who warned of ‘the truculent attitude taken by the Chinese’ as early as May 1956 (p. 276) and suggested to negotiate the disputed area of Bara Hoti to get ‘an inkling into the Chinese mind in regard to frontier questions in general’ (p. 324). The Foreign Secretary convinced Nehru, and his assessment was proved right when China delayed those talks for two full years and in September 1957 announced the construction of a road built through Aksai China. In 1959, Beijing declared the border as a whole not demarcated and – apart from Aksai Chin – claimed large parts of India’s North East Frontier Agency. It was again Dutt formulating a counterstrategy – collecting archival evidence supporting Indian claims and thereafter asking for a summit of the prime ministers. Once the summit had failed and India had no other means to impress its stand on China, Dutt informed the world of the rightfulness of Delhi’s claims via white books. Since archives have gone open, this topic especially has attracted the attention of a new generation of scholars, and not many stones have been left unturned. Dutt’s diaries, together with the vast collection of official papers which he left with the Nehru Museum, in this biography has been combined with the existing body of academic literature. The combination beyond doubt proves the Foreign Secretary’s important role in developing an Indian strategy from 1955 onwards (pp. 320-355), and one wonders for which other views Ambassador Raghavan is hoping for to draw a different picture, even more as he does not name any.
It might be added here that there is also a sort of misreading regarding the Indian response to the Hungarian crisis in 1956. As it is only too well known and, in all detail, recorded in Dutt’s diary, that no one, including Nehru, was able to stop Krishna Menon from voting with the Soviet Union. Like in so many other cases, he took the decision on his own. A bewildered Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister learned the news by telegram (pp. 254-5). Dutt and N.R. Pillai – after some consideration - did not resign in protest but took care that India’s policy vis-à-vis Hungary took a major turn thereafter, pressing hard for the release of political prisoners (pp. 262-6). In the long run, other than the reviewer holds, Dutt and Pillai came out on top of Krishna Menon, who including the failed summit of April 1960 was deliberately kept out of Sino-Indian relations by Nehru for his pro-communist bias (p. 325). That India kept quiet later on when the Soviet Union intervened in Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan does not truly fit into the picture. 1956 showed the blindness of India’s leading leftist when it was about Soviet imperialism. His vote was to the detriment of India, damaging the image of a moral great power. The Indian silence regarding Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan, on the contrary, had little to do with a differentiation between various types of imperialism – one hopes that Ambassador Raghavan a quarter century after the collapse of the Soviet empire does not want to belittle Soviet imperialism only because it took take place in the immediate neighbourhood. Mrs. Gandhi in 1968 and 1979 chose opportunism over solidarity with suppressed people, or, if one wants to formulate in a more positive manner, realpolitik.
There is no other leading official having left such a dense collection of official and private papers, but there are more biographies of Dutt’s contemporaries in the Indian Civil Service and the Indian Foreign Service on the way. Together with this monograph, they are prone to modify the old and old-fashioned image of Indian foreign affairs and politics in general as being the nearly exclusive business of prime ministers. The same is true for other parts of Dutt's life and career, which have not been discussed at all in the review. At least for scholars, evidence counts more than established narratives which have to be questioned.