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Lessons from History

B.G. Verghese

By Jagat S. Mehta
Manohar Books,New Delhi, 2006, pp. 296, Rs. 750.00


There are many facets of diplomacy. Ambassadorial memoirs most often offer a ringside view of the great political, security and economic issues of the day. Jagat Mehta, a former Foreign Secretary, has a lot to tell in this genre and has, indeed, done so elsewhere. But this volume dwells on seven episodes of conflict resolution in which he played a major role and provides a useful compendium of case studies in this regard.   Among the most interesting is the tortuous and continuing saga pertaining to the India-China Boundary Settlement that came to notice in the mid-1950s and is currently in an advanced stage of patient negotiation. On attaining Independence, India published its maps depicting its northern boundary as inherited from the Raj. This was based on customary usage, the watershed principle and Anglo-Chinese treaties. A mute response by the Chinese, with a throwaway remark that it had still to correct its old maps, papered over the claim to most of Arunachal up to the foothills in North Assam and left matters ambiguous. The Dalai Lama’s flight from Lhasa in 1959, after Nehru had persuaded him to return home from India in 1956, and the hostile comment in the People’s Daily virtually accusing the Indian Prime Minister of instigating the revolt in Tibet, was, in Mehta’s opinion, the turning point. Previous warmth, built around the Panch Shila, gave way to conflict and confrontation.   Mehta, then a middle rung officer, was pitchforked into becoming the pointsman handling China relations in the External Affairs Ministry. He subsequently led the Indian side at the India-China boundary talks that ended in a stalemate. It is his view that Nehru’s decision to grant the Dalai Lama and some 100,000 Tibetans asylum in India helped save the Tibetan language and culture from possible extinction. After years of acrimony and stalemate, India-China relations are now on the mend, but a final resolution of the boundary question is still awaited. Indo-Pakistan relations were, if anything, even more prickly. The separation of Bangladesh had been a searing experience for Pakistan. This had been preceded in January 1971 by the hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane to Lahore and its destruction there. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had applauded the hijackers and Pakistan refused to hand over the culprits. India thereupon suspended Pakistan overflights across India, compelling Pakistan aircraft to fly from Karachi to Dhaka via Colombo. Pakistan had responded by filing ...

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