Nepali Times
Guest Column
A metaphor for the Indian state


I had known Jyotindra Nath (Mani) Dixit ever since he moved to Sri Lanka as India's High Commissioner in 1985. My last meeting with him was in October 2004 at a media gatekeeper's workshop as part of a peace building exercise between India and Pakistan at Bentota in Sri Lanka.

In this interregnum, both of us have switched careers. I quit active journalism and to the surprise of many, including Dixit, I moved out of Chennai into Kathmandu.

Dixit had become a columnist and joined the Congress, and when the coalition it led returned to power, he was appointed National Security Adviser. We never agreed on anything but shared a very cordial and warm relationship.

I opposed the Indo-Sri Lankan accord of 1987 and he was its architect. I did not subscribe to his antagonistic postures during his tenure in Islamabad and he called me a "na?ve peacenik". I was appalled by his decision, as India's foreign secretary, to court Israel and he said that I was "ideologically blinkered" to the post-cold war reality. He firmly believed that India's nuclearisation was a stepping stone to a permanent seat in the UN Security Council and I have spent all my adult life campaigning against the nuclear establishment. When I heard about his death on Monday, there was lump in my throat.

Why am I missing a person who never saw eye-to-eye with me on any issue? What is my loss? For three years, between 1995 and 1998, Dixit and I worked for the same weekly magazine, Outlook. And when I was hosting my weekly show In Focus: South Asia for Sun TV, Dixit was one of it's frequent panellists.

Posthumously, I realised the importance of J N Dixit. He is the most obvious metaphor of the Indian nation state. He symbolised all that is good, bad, ugly and indifferent about India. And as an Indian diplomat and the arm of the Indian state, he put the country's interest above everything else, including the people's wish and regional aspirations.

His notion of national security, the country's interest, progress and regional leadership as a stepping stone towards a centre stage at the global arena all flowed from the cold war logic and he was successful in assimilating the hegemonic strands of both the Warsaw Pact Countries and NATO. Devoid of any ideological stand (in fact he was fond of saying ideology of any variety is a trapping that limits elbow room for both diplomatic and political navigation) his approach was straight, overbearing and pragmatic from the Indian point of view.

This pragmatism helped both Dixit and the Indian state get out of many messy situations, though it was India's unilateralism that created the mess in the first place. Nothing exemplifies this more than the Indian involvement in Sri Lanka. From the bloody deployment of the Indian army in the late 80s, which resulted in one of the country's biggest diplomatic disasters and led to the assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, India became a completely passive observer in the 90s. Dixit was instrumental in the former as Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka and he authored the latter as India's foreign secretary.

Dixit is undoubtedly the most South Asian among the entire corps of career diplomats in the region. He has served in all South Asian countries except the Maldives but including Afghanistan. One area in which he was consistent with all countries in the region was the question of refugees. He aligned with Soumyamurthy Thondaman to fight statelessness among the Indian Tamils in the Sri Lankan plantation areas, he was instrumental in providing basic amenities to Bangaleshi refugees after the 1971 war, he tried his best to impress the royalties of Bhutan and Nepal to treat Bhutani refugees in Nepal with dignity and even suggested during the post-People's Movement in Nepal to create a system where these refugees could be assimilated into Nepali society.

Talking to him always helped me understand the direction in which the Indian state was moving at any given point of time. Now, I am not sure who I can touch base with.

A S Panneerselvan is the Executive Director of Panos South Asia based in Kathmandu.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)