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Sunday, December 6, 1998
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The tightrope walk of diplomacy

By Manohar Malgonkar

DIPLOMATIC slurs are never taken lightly because of a conviction that they are never unintended. As a rule, every slur is countered by what is described as a measured response.

The classic case in point is the strained relationship between India and the United States of America during the presidentship of Richard Nixon. Nixon had come to India a year or two before he became President. He had paid what might be called a courtesy call on our Prime Minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi, who, for reasons best known to herself, or to her advisors, had made him wait for a few minutes before showing up.

So, when a few years later, Mrs Gandhi went to Washington and called on President Nixon, she, too was made to wait in a reception room at the White House, for maybe, only a minute or two longer than the time Nixon had spent waiting for Mrs Gandhi in Delhi. And when, finally, Nixon did appear, he chose to be standoffish, if not uncooperative.

Which may have been more than what might be called a "measured response", but then Richard Nixon was not particularly known for his courtly manners.

But even for those seasoned in diplomatic etiquette, a measured response is not always possible. For instance when Adolph Hitler became the dictator of Germany, he sent one of his closest associates, Jaochim Von Ribbentrop as Germany’s ambassador to Britain. At the time of presenting his credentials to the British King, George VI, Ribbentrop quite shocked all those present, to say nothing of the British public, by greeting the king with the Nazi salute and a yell of ‘Heil Hitler’.

This sort of boorishness, the British could not bring themselves to match. Either that, or there just was no occasion for a suitably measured insult, because the whole drift of Britain’s diplomacy at the time was directed to the single cause of preventing Hitler from invading Austria and Poland and thus preventing war.

And it was in this background that, in 1938, Ribbentrop was recalled to Berlin to become Germany’s foreign minister, and Neville Chamberlain, Britain’s Prime Minister, gave a lunch in his honour at No. 10 Downing Street. Winston Churchill, who was also a guest, has described what happened.

The head of Britain’s Foreign Office, Sir Alexander Cadogan, was also at the party. While they were at the table, a message was delivered to Cadogan. After reading it, Cadogan had got up to show the message to the Prime Minister and gone back to his place. No one could have discerned from "Cadogan’s demeanour that anything had happened," Mr Churchill tells us.

Well, something had. That message said that Germany had invaded Austria, and that meant that Britain had no other option but to go war against Germany.

The party went on, the host and the head of his foreign office kept making light conversation. The chief guest, for his part, must have also known what the message said, but he too behaved as though everything was normal and, if anything, prolonged the duration of the lunch by "engaging the host and hostess in voluble conversation."

Churchill gleefully concludes his account of this luncheon with the following comment: "This was the last time I saw Herr Von Ribbentrop before he was hanged."

Which remark somehow brings out the essence of civilised diplomacy: appearances must be kept at all cost — even as you are entertaining a man whose death by hanging (as though he were a felon in primitive times) gives you a feeling of pleasure.

Needless to say it was not always so. Diplomats in foreign countries were required to play a double role: to maintain good relations with the host country without compromising the interests and dignity of their own country. Their greatest hazard was the quite humiliating court protocol of absolute monarchs who were quick to take umbrage at the slightest lapse in the observation of protocol.

Indeed, in our own history there is an example of how they dealt with the sort of violations of court etiquette indulged in by Von Ribbentrop at the Court of St James. When Aurangzeb proclaimed himself as the Mughal Emperor, the Emperor of Iran, Shah Abbas, sent an embassy to Delhi, headed by one of his grandees, Budak Baig.

With Budak Baig, the Emperor of Iran had sent rich presents: twentyseven fine horses complete with rich horsecloths, 18 camels, seven boxes of rose-water, and 20 of other perfumes which were a speciality of Iran, four crates of embroidered silk and as many as 12 carpets.

All very well, but did Budak Baig know the precise way of salutation when he would be presented to Aurangzeb?

Well, whether he did or didn’t, Aurangzeb was taking no chances. He sat on the Peacock Throne as the Iranian ambassador was brought into court. And when, in conformity with Iranian custom, Budak Baig placed both hands against his chest and bowed his head, four strong men who had been especially kept ready to act in just such a contingency grabbed hold of him and made him go through the motions of a proper Mughal Kurnisat, the right hand touching the forehead and the head bent below knee-level.

Aurangzeb who, of course, had planned the whole thing, kept his head turned away from the ambassador and pretended to carry on a conversation with his son Muazzam. Some five years latter, Aurangzeb sent a return ambassador to Iran. It was headed by Tarbiyat Khan, a nobleman known for his magnificent figure, scholarship, good manners but, above all for his flowing beard of which he was immensely proud.

This ambassador, too, carried valuable gifts such as bolts of brocade, elephants and most notably, a carved seal encrusted with precious stones and a picture. After keeping it waiting for several months, Shah Abbas ordered that it should be presented at court on a certain day long after the hour of sunset, so that the ceremony took place by the light of candles and open-flamed torches held up by attendants.

The seal that Aurangzeb sent said that Aurangzeb, the world conqueror had stamped his authority on it as visibly as the sun and the moon themselves. And the picture showed Aurangzeb, mounted on a horse, receiving a sword from an angel. As these gifts were proferred, Shah Abbas told Tarbiyat: "Will you read out the words inscribed on the seal."

Tarbiyat, who must have known the inscription by heart, made as if to read its words, and as though to help him see it properly, one of the torch-bearers brought its flame so close to his face as to set his beard on fire.

After the consternation had died down, the emperor taunted Tarbiyat. "Never mind. We have barbers here who will trim your beard to its proper size." Then he picked up the picture, spat on it, and flung it away. "Rub your shoes on that picture," he ordered his courtiers.

As a return gift, Shah Abbas sent 49 horses to Aurangzeb with the message: "Tell the world conqueror to attack Iran if he dares. In case the lack of a cavalry is his excuse for not attacking us, I am even sending him horses."

And when, after his return, Tarbiyat reported these happenings to his master, he was livid with rage. "Why did you not protest in some manner? You stood and watched helplessly, surely you had your dagger in your belt! You should have killed yourself!"

As punishment, Tarbiyat Khan was forbidden entry to the court. He did not long survive his disgrace.Back

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