Indian diplomacy has a well-deserved reputation for conservative understatedness. You’ve rarely seen a professional Indian diplomat grandstanding or headline-hunting. Not even Mani Shankar Aiyar, when he enjoyed diplomatic immunity. Probably no one after Krishna Menon’s days of acid filibustery more than half a century ago. Not for any “proper” Indian diplomat the arrogant, stupid swagger of the occasional Pakistani — if anybody can recall an Indian insult to rival the unspeakable Munir Akram (later Pakistan representative to the UN) dismissing Salman Khurshid as a rented Muslim, and India as the sick man of Asia, please do let me know and I will stand corrected. To my recollection, the funniest Indian diplomatic comment came from K. Natwar Singh. When asked if he was a hawk or a dove, he said, “I am running foreign policy, not a bird sanctuary.” For someone who represented Bharatpur in the Lok Sabha, that was really smart. And the most cutting in recent memory was also possibly the most subtle. As India and Pakistan seemed to be drawing close to war in 2001-02 following the attack on Parliament, Pakistan responded by test-firing several “new” missiles, all named after medieval invaders of India: Abdali, Ghazni, Ghori, etc. Asked for comment at her daily press briefing, Nirupama Rao, then MEA spokesperson, simply said, “We are not impressed”. Just four brilliant, inoffensive words were enough to infuriate Pervez Musharraf.
What is to explain such a radical shift in the style and manner of such a classy, sophisticated and patient foreign service bureaucracy? Words like barbaric, despicable, inhuman, perfidy, betrayal, withdraw-all-charges-and-apologise and so on do not belong to the usual diplomatic vocabulary. These are the last resort of editorial writers and TV anchors always short of ideas or a clever turn of phrase. The same foreign service has handled three relatively recent incidents that amount to enormous perfidies — the torture and killing of Captain Saurabh Kalia and his patrol of five in Kargil (June, 1999), the beheading of an Indian soldier and disfiguring of the other on the LoC (January, 2013) and, in between, the greatest and continuing betrayal of all, the American double games over David Coleman Headley — with such mature equanimity.
It is not even as if Indian diplomats haven’t been put through harassment and worse in the past. Ravindra Mhatre, our assistant high commissioner in Birmingham, was kidnapped and killed by the JKLF to free Maqbool