In this excerpt from ‘Memoirs of A Maverick: The First Fifty Years (1941-1991),’ Mani Shankar Aiyar reflects on his tenure as Consul General in Karachi
I was on a brief family holiday in London in the summer of 1975 when the idea of seeking a posting in Karachi first came to my mind — although the Karachi office had remained virtually shut since the 1965 war and definitely shut at the start of the 1971 war. Speculating about future postings is a civil service disease. We were in the garden of a foreign service colleague and my old college friend Chandrashekhar (Shekhar) Dasgupta pointed out that besides the importance of Pakistan, there was a grand residence and a beach cottage at Hawkes’ Bay in Karachi attached to the post. Most excitingly, I would be the Boss, my own titular boss being a thousand miles away in Islamabad.
But as no agreement had been reached with Pakistan on reopening the Karachi office, I found myself heading out to Baghdad in October 1976. In March 1977, Indira Gandhi was comprehensively defeated, the Emergency I hated had ended, and Morarji Desai took over as prime minister. He appointed Atal Behari Vajpayee the foreign minister. I was deeply disappointed, for I thought Vajpayee, as an RSS man, would base his Pakistan policy on the deep-running anti-Muslim prejudices of the saffron brotherhood to which he belonged. Instead, to my delight, he promoted a most constructive approach to Pakistan.
Then, on a late October evening in 1978, I turned on the radio and was stunned to hear that the government had decided to open our consulate general in Karachi, and that too almost immediately. I had been in Baghdad only two years and that meant at least a year more in Iraq. Someone else would get the posting on which I had placed my hopes and my heart. Imagine, therefore, my delight on receiving a telegram about a fortnight later announcing my selection for Karachi! I was to immediately report for a briefing to Delhi and prepare to leave for Pakistan.
At about 1 p.m. on 14 December 1978, I landed at Karachi airport. I was slightly taken aback to be introduced to a Pakistani called Mubarak Shah who was in the small welcome party. He said he had been expressly sent to invite me to the home of his boss, Abdus Samad, chairman of Premier Tobacco Company, who was originally from Madras. I said I could not possibly go there directly from the airport but would make my way soon after settling in. Mubarak Shah insisted on accompanying us to Hindustan Court where I would be staying until they got India Lodge, the official residence, ready.
I went straight to my new office at India House. This was a soaring four-storey building with numerous rooms but totally dilapidated. It had been utterly neglected, like all our vast properties in Karachi, since 1965 when the capital was moved to Islamabad and war had broken out. My team — comprising two clerks temporarily deputed from our embassy in Islamabad — and I huddled into a small room with one telephone between us, while workers swarmed over the premises.
The phone rang. It was from the office of the deputy commissioner of Sukkur. At the other end was an unfortunate liaison officer escorting a Hindu sadhu who, at L.K. Advani’s pleading, had been permitted by the Pakistan authorities to return to Sadh Bela, near Sukkur, to provide spiritual succour to the relatively large community of Hindus who remained in Upper Sind.
The poor man stammered that he had a terrible problem on his hands that only I could solve. I hesitantly asked what the trouble was. He cried out that the Muslim mureeds (followers/devotees) of the Hindu saint were insisting that they meet the visiting Hindu priest to secure his blessings. Would I please give him permission to let them do so? I could barely believe that this was going to be my first task as consul general. Somewhat grandiloquently, I granted the permission.
It was my first — and lasting — lesson in how gaping was (and is) the abyss between the stereotype of Pakistan and Pakistanis that most Indians carry in their heads, and the ground reality. It was also the first lesson I learnt in how much the ordinary Pakistani (particularly the immigrant, the muhajir) identifies with us. That alone explains the liaison officer bypassing proper diplomatic channels and directly communicating with the representative of a ‘foreign power’. This would never have happened with the Brits or the Americans, nor even with the Iranians or the Chinese. I was seen as indistinguishable from the local bureaucracy, largely because I looked like them and was passably fluent in their everyday language: Hindustani, not formal Persianized Urdu. This lesson was to be dinned into my head over and over in the next three years.
I finally gave in to Mubarak Shah’s desperate pleas for me to accompany him to Abdus Samad’s home. I had learnt that Samad was one of Pakistan’s more prominent industrialists, running his Premier Tobacco Company in competition with Pakistan Tobacco (the front for the former Imperial Tobacco Company that in India had changed its name to India Tobacco Company and then to ITC). So I was not surprised by the immensely long circular drive up to his magnificent mansion.
Samad was at the door to receive me and escorted me down a long corridor that had a number of young men lined up to my left and an equal number of young women lined up to my right. As he went through the introductions, I found that they were all his sons and daughters-in-law, or his daughters and sons-in-law. What struck me was that all the Karachi siblings were married to spouses from Madras. So the first thing I said to Samad as we seated ourselves was, ‘But why have you married all your children to Indians?’ His astounding response was, ‘Because I am an Indian!’
Before I could quite digest his reply, he went on to explain that he had been seventeen or eighteen years old at Partition. His father’s Hindu agent in Sukkur, who ran the marketing of their beedi and chewing tobacco manufacturing units in Tamil Nadu, had ‘fled to Indore’. His father, therefore, asked Samad to proceed immediately to take over the retailing at the Sukkur end. He had done so and was quite happy as he could frequently visit his family in Madras.
But, in September 1949, in retaliation for Pakistan not having devalued its rupee along with India after the pound sterling was devalued vis-à-vis the US dollar, India banned almost all trade with Pakistan. Samad was thus left with nothing to do and decided, with his family’s consent, to pack up and come home. He applied to the Indian High Commission for the issue of an Indian passport and became extremely worried when the High Commission informed him that as, in the meantime, he had become a Pakistani citizen and acquired a Pakistani passport, the Government of India would refuse to let him change sides. Samad informed his family who were among the strongest financial supporters of the Congress in Madras province. This led to Kamaraj and other Madras Congress leaders calling on Nehru in Delhi and ‘saying that if Samad was not an Indian, neither are we’. Nehru apparently calmed down the irate Madras Congress leaders with the assurance that he would find a way around this.