Question: Ambassador Gupta, your first posting to the Middle East was Cairo, where you served as Third Secretary from December 20, 1965 to late May of 1968. What were the choices and circumstances that led you to Egypt?

Answer: It was normal practice in those days for freshly recruited Foreign Service officers to have training in India for one and a half years and then to be sent on their first postings to learn the language that they had been allotted. They were considered as Probationers and would be confirmed in service only after they had passed the examination in the allotted language. I had indicated Arabic as my first preference.

Question: Why was Arabic your top choice?

Answer: There were several reasons. First, as university students in those days we had a natural inclination towards leftist and anti-Western tendencies because of our colonial experience, and I admired Nasser for robustly standing up to the West. Second, I was fascinated by Egyptian civilization and had a deep desire to spend time in Cairo — the cultural and intellectual heart and soul of the Arab world — and to attend the Al Azhar University to learn Arabic. Third, as I had a passionate interest in international affairs, I was convinced that having a good relationship with the Arab world was very important for India and would be even more so in the future.

Question: Clearly, then, Egypt, and Cairo in particular, had a special personal allure. But beyond the personal, what was the nature of the Indian Egyptian relationship in your perception as a young Foreign Service Officer?

Answer: Yes, indeed. Even before I left India for Cairo, I had the impression that there was a special relationship between India and Egypt. Indeed, within a few weeks of my arrival in Cairo, I found tangible manifestations that it was indeed so and discovered many more in due course. For example, despite huge financial constraints and severe restrictions on the use of foreign exchange there were four Indian journalists based in Cairo — the largest number in any capital in the world at that time. There was no other explanation for this unusual fact except that India had a special relationship with Egypt. There was a program for the joint development of a fighter aircraft, the only program of its kind that India had with any country apart from an Indian Air Force team being there for training the Egyptian Air Force. Nehru’s bond with Nasser was the closest and most enduring amongst all fellow leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Following the humiliation administered by China in 1962, India’s image and standing took a huge blow, particularly in the Third World. The reactions of India's ostensibly closest friends, leaders of the NAM, both on a nation to nation basis and leader to leader personal basis, were a very deep disappointment to Nehru and India. However, of the many reactions, Nasser’s was the nearest to reasonably satisfactory.

Both Nehru’s successor Lal Bahadur Shastri and Shastri's successor Indira Gandhi chose Cairo as the destination of their first official visits abroad as Prime Ministers. Cairo was the first developing country destination for Air India's international flights. The immense goodwill that India enjoyed within the government at all levels, amongst people in all walks of life and in particular from the common man was so palpable that colleagues from other diplomatic missions could not help but noticing and remarking about it constantly and enviously; for an Indian experiencing the depth of it in personal encounters and interactions was a commonplace everyday occurrence. Highly unusual in diplomatic practice, even as a mere Third Secretary, I requested and was granted courtesy calls on then Foreign Minister Mahmud Riad and Secretary General of the Foreign Ministry Mohamed Riad (more than once; and also unusually, he even came home for dinner).  

Question: What were your primary duties as Third Secretary?

Answer: For a Third Secretary- probationer-language trainee, the top work priority was learning the language. In addition, I was made the Embassy Protocol Officer. That, inter alia, meant that I spent on an average three nights per week at the airport right through my two-and-a-half year posting because there was a thrice weekly Delhi-Cairo-London-Cairo-Delhi flight in each direction.

Question: In those days, when Embassies had few diplomats and particularly in the case of newly independent, developing countries surely each diplomat should have been assigned a wider range of work. Did this happen later?

Answer: You’re absolutely right. Indeed, my professional life changed dramatically with the arrival of a new Ambassador, Apasaheb Balasaheb Pant, sometime in May 1966. He was a non-career, “political appointee” Head of Mission who had served earlier as Commissioner in Nairobi when the Mau Mau insurgency was at its peak, as Political Officer in Sikkim with responsibility for Bhutan also, and then as Ambassador to Indonesia before coming to Cairo. In the course of the previous two decades Ambassador Pant had acquired the reputation of being completely unconventional with his own way of doing things; the Ministry more often than not could do little about it and he got away with actions which no other Ambassador would have even considered doing. This was largely because of an excellent personal relationship with Jawaharlal Nehru and later with Indira Gandhi.

The Indian Ambassador to Egypt was also accredited as Ambassador to Libya and Ambassador to the Yemen Arab Republic. The day after his arrival, he made me in charge of all dealings with Libya including all reporting to headquarters relating to Libya. The other Third Secretary, Kuldip Sahdev, one year my senior, was similarly allotted Yemen. In doing so he also made it clear that these assignments would entail official tours to these countries. These actions were completely contrary to all norms. But the Ambassador summarily dismissed, with some annoyance, all suggestions by Embassy officers at various levels, including by the two of us that these instructions may not be in order. With Kuldip’s departure on transfer in September 1967 I was made in charge of all dealings with the Yemen Arab Republic too. These responsibilities remained till my departure on transfer in May 1968.

Question: In conjunction with these new responsibilities, did you have the occasion to visit Libya? And, if so, what are some of the most noteworthy recollections?

Answer: I paid three visits to Libya, the first and the third on my own, and the second visit accompanying the Ambassador when he presented his credentials to King Idris in the palace at Tobruk. Having seen the rather ornate presidential palaces in Cairo, I was struck by the simplicity and the relative smallness of this royal palace. In both my solo visits I met the Foreign Minister, the Ministers for Commerce and Industry; and during my last visit the Prime Minister and the Health and Labour Ministers too — the subject of larger numbers of Indian doctors and other medical personnel being deputed to serve in Libya was raised. All Ministers expressed their respect and admiration for India, its culture and civilization, its great leaders Mahatma Gandhi and Jahawarlal Nehru etc. Though there was limited interaction between India and Libya, according to the small but significant and particularly well received Indian community in both Tripoli and Benghazi, India enjoyed an enormous amount of respect, goodwill and affection amongst government personnel and particularly the people at large. All Ministers had made it a point to speak highly of the Indian community - they were all professionals in those days rather than labour, though small numbers had started being recruited.

Cairo had become a haven for dissidents and exiles from all over the Arab world and many parts of Africa. However, despite attempts I could not establish contact with any Libyan dissidents - the intention behind the attempts was only to get a holistic picture of the internal political situation in that country. During my visits to Libya I had heard complimentary comments about Nasser promoting pan Arab causes but I did not encounter any strong manifestations of anti-Western feelings despite the presence of large British and US bases, both of which I visited. I heard murmurings both from amongst government officials and people that the huge amounts of money that were being spent on shifting the capital from Tripoli to Bayda could be better used for improving education and health facilities and infrastructure. Ministers were constantly travelling between Tripoli, Benghazi and Bayda as the Ministries were being moved. I had visited Bayda also – it was a gleaming new small town; I was told that the King had a soft spot for Cyrenaica and hence the move to a new capital. In the muted debate those who held that Tripoli and Bayda could be joint capitals with Ministries functioning from both from time to time were gaining strength; however, the move to make Bayda the capital was abandoned after Gaddhafi took over in 1969.

Question: Following developments in Yemen must have kept you busy. After all, the 1960s were a very volatile period in that country’s history. How did you keep abreast of events in Yemen? Did you establish and rely mostly upon reliable contacts in Cairo?

Answer: Yemen had been wracked by civil war from 1962 when a military republican regime was established ousting the Saudi backed Imam. The Egyptians got progressively more and more involved in support of the Republicans and at the peak they had 75,000 troops in Yemen. Since Egypt was so heavily involved in the Yemen Arab Republic, other officers in the Embassy were closely following developments in Yemen. However, even though the Indian Embassy in Cairo had no jurisdiction over what had become the Federation of South Arabia with Aden as its capital, I happened to be following developments there fairly closely, more as a matter of personal interest since India had been directly involved in that region and it held potential of future importance for India. This hobby was to come in very handy.

The southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula and the Hadhramout area along the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea had been a part of the traditional Yemen but had come under British domination. Aden became part of the British Empire in 1839 and was administered by the Bombay Presidency till 1937 when a Governor was appointed reporting directly to London. Independent India’s diplomatic mission at the level of Commissioner was established in Aden in June 1950 reporting directly to Delhi.

The situation in that territory had been steadily deteriorating through the 1960s and became particularly nasty from the beginning of 1967 with increasing clashes between the National Liberation Front (NLF) cadres and the British on the one hand and between the NLF and the FLOSY (Federation for the Liberation of South Yemen) cadres on the other. The NLF was a communist outfit strongly supported by the Soviet Union and by China also. FLOSY was a secular, liberal, democracy-leaning outfit which was particularly strongly backed by Nasserite Egypt and had widespread support of the rest of the world including India. The Chief Minister had been a leader of FLOSY. The leaderships of both the NLF and FLOSY were now based in Cairo.

After Egypt’s humiliating defeat in the 1967 war Egypt withdrew its troops and the last soldier came back by December 1967. Egypt was in no position to continue to back FLOSY meaningfully and the NLF progressively gained the upper hand in Aden. The mutiny by the South Yemeni army and police in June 1967 was the last straw and finally persuaded the British to announce that they would be handing over power on January 9, 1968. In the context of this background, the leadership of the NLF established contact with an Indian journalist, the Cairo correspondent of the Indian Express, Mr. Punyapriya Dasgupta, with a view to seeking his assistance in establishing contact with the Indian Embassy in Cairo. Mr. Dasgupta had set up a meeting between the NLF President, Qahtan Al-Shaabi, and the Ambassador. Having just been assigned responsibility for Yemen, the Ambassador instructed that I should be present.

I kept in close touch with the NLF leadership thereafter, including socially — after working late once Mr. Qahtan Al Shaabi had actually spent the night at my flat — helping them, inter alia, with translations, cyclostyling, and distribution of their publicity pamphlets, etc. at my own initiative. This resulted in a personal bond developing between them and me. Several meetings took place between the NLF leadership and the Ambassador. Judging by newspaper reports, the Ambassador’s conversations with Mr. S. H. Desai, India’s Commissioner in Aden, and through Ambassador’s and my interactions with the British Embassy in Cairo, and my own strong personal advocacy, the Ambassador was persuaded that the NLF indeed will assume power. The Ministry of External Affairs was duly alerted of the Embassy’s assessment since it involved switching support from one protagonist to its adversary. We discovered that the immediate short-term motivation behind the NLF’s establishing contact with us was to seek India’s assistance in their talks with the British which would become inevitable, since we had long experience of negotiating with the British, their own experience of interaction with the British was virtually non-existent and they had no idea at all of international negotiations; moreover, the top leadership’s knowledge of English was rather limited.

Question: As you were drawn more deeply into your interlocutors’ confidence and as they, it seems, increasingly relied upon you, did your formal role and duties correspondingly change?

Answer: Immediately after the unexpected British announcement on November 2, 1967 that they intended to depart at the end of the month, Qahtan sought an urgent meeting with the Ambassador and in that meeting requested that I be deputed to be their Advisor in the “handing over power” talks with the British scheduled to be held in the third week of November 1967 in Geneva. The Ambassador immediately and unhesitatingly agreed without seemingly giving the request even a momentary thought. An extract from an unpublished account written by Mr. Dasgupta in his diaries, of which he has sent me a copy in the context of this interview with you, is relevant:

Question: Would you like to tell us a little bit more about Krishnan and Krishna Rao and of the mechanics of the interactions that went on during the talks, highlighting your personal involvement?

Answer: Dr. K. Krishna Rao was in charge of the Legal and Treaties Division of the Ministry of External Affairs and was an internationally respected legal expert. He was, as usual, attending the annual UN General Assembly session in New York and was asked to come from there. This exhibited the importance that Delhi attached to the whole event. Mr. N. Krishnan was India’s Consul General in Geneva, the head of the then only Indian office in Geneva, and was also the Indian Representative to all Geneva-based UN Agencies. After each two-hour session the NLF delegation would ask for a recess and were closeted with the Indian advisory team. After spending some time they would meet me. This convoluted arrangement was rather extraordinary but also a little personally embarrassing as I was not included in the official Indian team. Since I was no legal expert, basically I endorsed whatever they told me the Indian advisory team had told them. As people who have dealt with the Arab world would know very well if you win their trust and confidence then it did not matter whether you were an expert or not; my endorsement was the seal of acceptability of the advice that they were given. Much more than any substantive role, as Qahtan told me in Aden later, they were so nervous that my just being with them was very important as it boosted their self confidence psychologically. Being privy to the details of a negotiation dealing with the independence of another country was an absolutely fascinating and highly educative experience.

When I went to Yemen in January 1968, I had gone via Aden and spent a day there at the invitation of President Qahtan Al-Shaabi and was taken to the Palace with the Indian and South Yemen flags flying on the car and was given a Guard of Honour and a sumptuous lunch.

Question: Earlier in the interview, you had spoken about your visits to Libya. Did you pay any similar visits to Yemen?

Answer: To answer your question meaningfully, I would like to provide a little bit of background, which is rather interesting. In tandem with the withdrawal of Egyptian troops from Yemen the feeling grew that the Royalists would win the Civil War. Accordingly, United Nations offices were closed and all personnel and all experts were withdrawn and relocated in Cairo. The Soviet Embassy was closed lock stock and barrel and all personnel were withdrawn from Yemen. All other Missions closed their Embassies in Sana with several keeping skeleton staff in temporary offices in Taiz. The only Ambassador in Taiz was the Italian. Ambassador Pant had invited the Soviet Ambassador to Yemen for lunch for a briefing on developments in Yemen and prognosis for the future. As the officer dealing with Yemen I was invited for lunch. Since November the Royalist radio had been announcing that the Republican regime would fall on a particular day in January and any foreigner found in Sana’a would be publicly executed.

After the Soviet Ambassador’s presentation, which included a prediction of a Royalist victory and a bloodbath in the capital and discussion and Q&A between the two Ambassadors, I was asked for my comments. I said that the Soviet Ambassador was a seasoned diplomat and a well-known Arabist to boot and thus it would be extremely presumptuous of me to make any comments, never having been to Yemen and hardly being familiar with the internal politics of that mediaeval country. Ambassador Pant was not the sort of person who accepted this kind of response, and I was forced to be more explicit.

Influenced by the assessments provided to me by the rather sober Indian UN expert, inputs from my new NLF friends, probably also prodded by my ingrained leftist inclinations, I said that my gut feeling was that the Republican regime would not fall. The Soviet Ambassador, a portly gentleman, who was beaming on my earlier compliment, broke out into loud sarcastic laughter with his bulging belly going up and down and he made some comment that I didn’t quite catch but which was definitely impolite. That annoyed me considerably and with the rush of blood that characterizes youth, I was provoked into telling my Ambassador that he was aware that I had one daughter who is one year seven months old and another daughter who was seven months old but I volunteer to be present in Sana’a on the day that the Royalists say that they will take over and execute all foreigners in Sana’a. That ill-advised show of immature bravado somehow impressed Ambassador Pant greatly, and he patted me vigorously on the back and said, “that is the spirit, young man!”

Question: Well, I am pleased to hear that you served the portly Soviet Ambassador his just dessert. But what later transpired?

Answer: After the Soviet diplomat’s departure, Ambassador Pant rung up Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in my presence, and related the gist of the conversation that had taken place over lunch and told her that he shared my assessments and also of his intention of sending me to Yemen. He recommended that I be designated as Special Envoy of the Prime Minister for maximum impact and obtained her concurrence, thus short-circuiting the almost absolute certainty of the Foreign Ministry establishment not agreeing. The Ambassador had an excellent personal rapport with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. He had also recommended that consignments of blankets and medicines should be supplied. A letter from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi addressed to Prime Minister Lieutenant-General Hassan Al Amri duly arrived by bag. As I had mentioned earlier, I went via Aden. I picked up two large cartons of blankets and four cartons of medicines which the Ministry had sent to the Mission in Aden to be taken with me. The rest were to be sent later on.

Question: I would be curious to learn more about the circumstances and details of the trip, as well as what lasting impressions you have of Yemen during those days. 

Answer: I drove to Taiz in a UN vehicle which had come from Sana’a and which was returning to Yemen. At Taiz I had called on the local Governor, the Italian Ambassador, the CDAs of the US and Germany and four or five Arab countries. The Governor and the Italian Ambassador — it is worth recalling that Italy was the first country to establish a diplomatic mission in Sana’a way back in 1911 — were confident that any royalist onslaught would be successfully repulsed but all others were uncertain of the future outcome.

I took a Yemen Air flight from Taiz to Sana’a, the airline having three ageing overworked Dakotas flown by Yugoslav pilots. As the Sana’a airport had been under the control of the Royalists for many months, planes to Sana’a landed on a relatively flat piece of ground on the outskirts of the city. I was received by the Foreign Minister and a few other Cabinet Ministers since I was the Special Envoy of the Prime Minister; they were palpably surprised to see a young man emerging somewhat shakily after a rather bumpy flight and a bouncy landing. Having told me that the two or three hotels were the kind of accommodation that one would have got in a small mofussil Indian town in the 1950s, the Indian UN expert gave me the keys to his house and the contact particulars of his Ethiopian houseboy and told me to stay there. I had told the Ministers that I would stay there — they all knew the expert — and as we were driving towards the house we discovered that a part of the house was smoldering, a rocket apparently having landed on it a few hours earlier. Despite all the chaos, they managed to organize something to have the smoke doused but the Ministers were not in favor of my staying there for security reasons.

The next morning there was a grand parade in the Midan Al Tahrir and two captured royalists were paraded on a flatbed truck and thrown down. Dozens of bullets were pumped into their bodies, they were decapitated and their heads taken to be nailed to the gates of the old city. While this was going on, there was deafening cheering and massive outbursts of celebratory firing into the air. Everybody seemed to have a weapon. The Foreign Minister had taken me by car to the old walled city but cautioned me strongly and urgently as I took out my camera that photography was to be strictly avoided “if I did not want my head also to be nailed to the city wall.”

I had delivered the Prime Minister’s letter to Yemeni Prime Minister Gen Hassan Al Amri in a cavernous hollow in a hill overlooking the town since that was deemed to be safe and was his temporary office. The General’s reply was typed in the cave and handed over to me and was duly transmitted to Delhi after my return to Cairo. The Prime Minister’s message, blankets, and medicines were received with a sense of immense satisfaction and all of them just completely bursting with sentiments of thanks and deep admiration for India and its invaluable moral support at a time when they needed it most. The next day we went to the airport duly escorted by the Foreign Minister when the plane was sighted but after landing we were told it was going to another destination on military duty and because the plane came only once a day there was no option but to stay for another day; the next day the Dakota, upon landing, burst into flames, and they were left with only two. On the fourth day — by which time I was quite exasperated, uncomfortable, and running short of money — I was determined to leave, come what may, and conveyed this to the Minister in no uncertain terms. The plane had brought a full consignment of crates of ammunition and other armaments, which meant that the plane was merely a hollow shell with all the seats having been taken out. Brushing aside all suggestions about discomfort, I urged the Minister to ensure that it went to Taiz and said I would be quite happy to sit on the metal floor. My fellow passengers were about seven or eight tribal shepherds and a few sheep. It had been an absolutely memorable but difficult time.

Since I had spent four days in Sana’a instead of the planned one day, I had a lot of time on my hands. I had been taken to pay a courtesy call on the President, Abdul Rahman Yahya Al-Eryani, a soft spoken, urbane and impressive gentleman. I spent a little time in the Foreign Ministry which was in a considerably disorganized state. Ministers and senior officials were understandably heavily preoccupied with their work and day-to-day developments; I only met them in the context of attempting to leave Sana’a. I spent most of the time in the company of an Ethiopian local recruit employed by the United Nations office. He had been in Sana’a for many years, had an MA degree and spoke English well, was very well informed about the country, its politics, personalities and its culture and mores. He was using a UN vehicle and took me around the city, walked me around the old town, etc. I was utterly captivated by Sana’s bazaars and fascinating architecture. Given that this was a country going through a dreadful civil war my being able to do this all this was quite surprising. Of course, every few hours one heard the thud of a rocket crashing somewhere and the sound of gunfire in the distance was ever present throughout the four days. A very large number of buildings were pockmarked with the damage inflicted by bullets and artillery shells. The Sana’a I saw on a brief one-day visit in 1983, when I was the Head of the Division in the Ministry dealing with the Arab world, and a few months later as Ambassador, was quite different from the Sana’a of 1968, with all signs of damage and devastation completely removed; it had become much more of a modern city. The one thing that had not changed was the ubiquity of weapons which everybody seemed to be carrying and the frequency of celebratory firing into the air.

On my report on my return to Cairo, I recommended, amongst other things, the setting up of a diplomatic mission since Yemen is a country of great strategic importance given its location and linkages with India forged through the Bohra community, and particularly given the immense goodwill we had just garnered.

The Indian Embassy in Yemen was established in 1970 at Sana’a at the level of Charge d’ Affaires, and the first Ambassador was posted the 1981.

Question: Finally, what is your assessment of the evolution of relations between India and Egypt since you were posted there?

Answer: From my own personal experience, what I have read and what I have been told by a variety of people over the entire length of my career, India’s image, influence and standing took an enormous blow due to the military humiliation inflicted by China on India in 1962. India has never really recovered from that because it has left long lasting effects in its wake. Even countries and personalities that had been particularly friendly towards India were affected, including Nasser and Egypt though there was no particular love for China. Though Egyptian reactions were perhaps the best amongst the non-aligned leaders, they fell short of even tangential endorsement of the Indian position. Nehru's demise further impacted the relationship. Despite some attempts by Nasser, he could not develop a personal rapport with Nehru’s successor, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. Shastri’s fervent appeal at the Non-Aligned Summit in 1964 in Cairo to send a non-aligned delegation to China in the context of its impending test of an atomic bomb had no takers. The Third World was notably mostly silent and privately the more anti Western elements were not unhappy about China's entry into the nuclear club. A Turkish vessel carrying arms for Pakistan during the 1965 war between India and Pakistan was allowed to pass through the Suez Canal despite India's strong representations, including to Nasser personally.

Anwar Sadat was at best rather indifferent to India. He was the only leader who never came to the Ambassador’s residence even for official social occasions and even when Nasser came during the two and a half years that I was in Cairo. Due to the strong bilateral Air Force connections that I have spoken of earlier, the Ambassador and particularly the Indian Defence Attache had a very close relationship with Hosni Mubarak; though I was a rather junior officer, I remember meeting him more than a dozen times — senior Indian diplomats knew him quite well. However, due to a variety of reasons particularly Mubarak’s pronounced pro American attitudes and policies, the bilateral relationship continued to drift and nosedived after Mubarak felt slighted when he was not seated at Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s table at a luncheon she hosted mainly for Third World leaders in New York in 1985. Despite India's efforts to reach out to him, including by means of the Nehru Award in 1995 — to accept which he came only in 2008 after much effort — his only earlier bilateral visit had been in 1982; in 1983 he came to Delhi for the Non Aligned Summit. Things hardly improved, though Prime Ministers Rajiv Gandhi, PV Narasimha Rao and IK Gujral paid official visits to Cairo. However, I would go so far as to suggest that the bilateral relationship between India and Egypt under President Morsi are poised to become meaningful once again.

Note: This is the first installment in a series of interviews conducted by MAP Director Dr. John Calabrese which follow the career of one of India's most distinguished former diplomats, Ambassador Ranjit Gupta. These exchanges focus on some of Ambassador Gupta's most memorable experiences and firsthand accounts of developments in the Middle East during his several postings to the region.