I was posted in Geneva as Counsellor in the Permanent Mission of India (PMI) to the UN organizations based in Geneva from April 1985 to May,1988. I handled work relating to the International Telecommunications Union, the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), the Commission for Environment and Development, the World Meteorological Organization and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Concurrently, I also held charge as the Indian Consul-General (CG) in Geneva.
As the Counsellor in the PMI, I worked under the Indian Permanent Representative (PR) to the UN Organizations in Geneva and as the CG, I took orders from the Indian Ambassador to Switzerland, who was based in Berne, the capital. Ego and jurisdictional clashes between the two often created difficult situations for me. Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Geneva in June, 1985, was mainly to address the annual session of the International Labour Organization and to visit the headquarters of the ICRC. It was not a bilateral visit to Switzerland. The PR was totally in charge. Hence, I had no problem.
A Swedish non-governmental organization had alleged that the company had paid commissions to certain persons, allegedly close to Rajiv Gandhi and his family.
R.Venkatraman, the then President of India, visited Geneva in 1987, to inaugurate a Festival of India. After doing so, he visited Berne before returning to India. It was a purely bilateral visit and he had no engagements connected with the UN. The then Ambassador in Berne said he would handle the entire visit to Geneva and Berne, but the PR refused to let him handle the visit to Geneva. He insisted that since he was the representative of the President of India in Geneva, he would handle the Geneva part of the visit.
Caught between the two, I went through many tense moments. The PR would forbid me from going to Berne to attend the co-ordination meetings held by the Ambassador, who insisted that I would take orders only from him in respect of the President’s engagements in Geneva too. Somehow, I managed and the visit went off smoothly.
The President’s visit came at the height of the controversy over the Bofors deal of the Government of India with the Bofors company in Sweden. A Swedish non-governmental organization had alleged that the company had paid commissions to certain persons, allegedly close to Rajiv Gandhi and his family. It had also been alleged that the Hinduja brothers, a Sindhi business family, were one of the beneficiaries of the commission payments. The headquarters of their business ventures were located in London and looked after by Srichand Hinduja, the eldest brother. They had a big office in Geneva, which was being looked after by Prakash Hinduja, his brother. Srichand used to visit Geneva often.
I knew Prakash quite well. Frankly, despite the allegations against the family, I found Prakash and Srichand to be likable and patriotic persons. The entire family had very wide contacts at very high levels in Iran, where they had originally started their overseas business career, Europe and the US. They never hesitated to be of any legitimate help to the Government of India, whenever they were approached. Even though they had been living abroad for many years, they were Indians by heart and by mind. Even if they had accepted commissions from the Bofors company as it was alleged they had, it did not make them any the less Indian or any the less patriotic. I do not hesitate to put this on record even at the risk of being misunderstood and vilified.
Even if they had accepted commissions from the Bofors company as it was alleged they had, it did not make them any the less Indian or any the less patriotic.
The Hinduja brothers —particularly Prakash— were in the permanent list of invitees of the PR in Geneva and the Ambassador in Berne and were invariably invited to any reception or dinner hosted by them in honour of visiting dignitaries from India. A few weeks before the visit of the President, H.K.L.Bhagat, who was then Minister for Parliamentary Affairs in the Rajiv Gandhi Cabinet, had visited Geneva to attend a meeting of the IPU. I had co-ordinated the arrangements for the visit under the guidance of the late Alfred Gonsalves, the then PR. The PR requested Prakash to host a dinner for Bhagat and invite all the senior members of the Swiss Federal Cabinet in Berne and of the Cantonal Government in Geneva. Prakash happily agreed and issued the invitations. Everbody invited by him accepted.
Before the PR asked Prakash to host the dinner, I had drawn his attention to the controversy relating to the Bofors and pointed out that it might not be advisable to ask Prakash to host a dinner for Bhagat. I suggested to the PR that he should ask Bhagat whether he would have any objections to attending a dinner hosted by Prakash. The PR summarily rejected my suggestion saying: “ Raman, I know more about our politicians than you do. I have handled more foreign visits by our politicians than you have. They are all corrupt without exception. They all like to wallow in the comforts and riches provided by businessmen. I know Bhagat. He will happily go to Prakash’s house.” I kept quiet.
All the senior officials from Delhi and all the officers of the Permanent Mission guessed that Bhagat’s decision not to attend must have been due to the Bofors controversy.
Gonsalves and I received Bhagat at the airport and took him to Hotel Inter-Continental where he was put up. Gonsalves hosted a lunch for him at a hotel restaurant, which was attended by senior officials of the IPU. After the lunch, the PR took him on a sight-seeing visit to Lausanne. The PR and Bhagat traveled in one car. I followed them in another. When we were half way to Lausanne, the PR’s car stopped. My car also stopped. The PR came literally running towards me. I came out. He said: “ Raman, you were right. The old man was furious when I told him he would be attending a dinner hosted by Prakash. He said I should not have accepted the invitation and has refused to attend. You go back to Geneva and tell Prakash that the Minister is indisposed and hence would not be coming. Tell him, I also won’t come because I have to look after the Minister.”
At that time, two important conferences of the ILO and the World Health Organisation (WHO) were going on in Geneva. Half a dozen senior officials of the Government of India had come to Geneva to attend them. Prakash had invited all of them and also all the diplomatic officers of the Permanent Mission. Gonsalves asked me to ring up all of them and tell them that the Minister would not be attending the dinner due to indisposition and that it was up to them to decide whether they would attend or not.I did so. All the senior officials from Delhi and all the officers of the Permanent Mission guessed that Bhagat’s decision not to attend must have been due to the Bofors controversy. They all rang up Prakash’s office and said they would not attend due to indisposition.
On coming to know of this, I contacted the PR in Lausanne and told him that this amounted to humiliating Prakash. I told the PR: “Prakash did not offer to host this dinner. You asked him to do so because you thought that if he hosted the dinner senior leaders of the Federal Government would attend. All of them have agreed to attend because they were told it was a dinner in honour of a senior Indian Minister.If they find that neither the Minister nor the PR nor any Indian official was attending the dinner, they would start wondering what had happened. There will be unnecessary gossip.” Gonsalves agreed with me and said: “You contact all visiting officials from Delhi and all officers of the Permanent Mission and tell them that this is an important dinner and that I desire that they should attend.” I did so. Some officials from Delhi and some diplomatic officers attended. Many did not. What a messy situation it was !
Farooq Abdullah started criticizing the R&AW in very strong language, “Kuch nahin karthe hain. Secret service paisa kathe hain (They dont do any work. They just eat the secret service money),” he remarked.
Another VIP who visited Geneva before the President was Dr.Farooq Abdullah, the then Chief Minister of J&K. I got a message from the Indian High Commission in London that Dr.Abdullah and his staff officer would be visiting Geneva for 24 hours. The message did not say why they were coming, whether it was an official or a private visit and whether any hotel arrangements for them were required to be made. I contacted the Indian Mission in London. They replied: “ We have told you what we were asked to communicate.The Chief Minister’s staff officer did not tell us anything about hotel bookings.”
As the Consul-General, I went to the airport to receive him and waited for him at the place through which normally VIPs exit. He and his staff officer did not come. I made enquiries with the airport Police. After checking, they told me that a member of the staff of the Hindujas had taken a car to the tarmac and taken them directly to the hotel. I then went to the hotel and called on him.
A diamond merchant of Indian origin, with some links to South Africa, hosted a lunch in honour of Farooq Abdullah attended by a small number of dignitaries from the local Indian community. I was also there. It was a sit-down lunch. During the conversation, there was a reference to the situation in India and the role of the intelligence agencies. Farooq Abdullah started criticizing the R&AW in very strong language, “Kuch nahin karthe hain. Secret service paisa kathe hain (They don’t do any work. They just eat the secret service money),” he remarked. He did not know I was from the R&AW. I just kept listening to him without reacting.
Abdullah replied: ” So what? I would myself inform the Government of India that I had attended a dinner by the Hindujas”¦”
The host was embarrassed. He wrote something on a piece of paper and passed it across to Abdullah. He had obviously written that I was from the R&AW. Abdullah was not the least embarrassed. “Raman Saheb, you are from the R&AW? Kao is a great man. Your organization taught the Pakistanis a lesson in 1971. The time has come to do it again. Otherwise, they will keep interfering in Punjab.” I replied that I would convey his views to my headquarters.
That evening, he had been invited by the Hindujas for a dinner in their house. As he was discussing his programme with his staff officer, the latter pointed out that there could be a controversy if it came to be known in India that the Hindujas had hosted a dinner for him. Abdullah replied: “ So what? I would myself inform the Government of India that I had attended a dinner by the Hindujas. He has been my friend for long. I can’t suddenly boycott him socially just because there has been a controversy over his role in the Bofors deal.”
Dr.J.S.Teja, the then PR in Geneva who had succeeded Gonsalves, hosted a reception for the President when he came to Geneva. He intended inviting, among others, the Hindujas too. I mentioned to him what had happened when H.K.L. Bhagat had come and suggested that he should consult the President’s office before inviting the Hindujas. He sent a message. Prompt came the reply that they should not be invited.
The next day, Prakash rang me up and said that the President’s office had asked him to arrange a check-up for the President by a local ear specialist since he wanted to change his hearing aid. Prakash requested me to keep an empty slot in the President’s programme for this. I immediately sent a message to the President’s office asking them to confirm that they had asked Prakash to arrange a check-up for the President. His office replied denying that they had made any such request to Prakash and told me that there was no need to include this in the President’s programme. I informed Prakash suitably. After inaugurating the Festival of India in Geneva, the President went to Berne and from there returned to India. Later on, I came to know that the ear specialist had gone to Berne and examined the President there. The President’s office was apparently embarrassed when Prakash told me that he had been asked to organize the check-up. They, therefore, decided to have it in Berne instead of in Geneva, without the knowledge of the Indian Embassy in Berne.
While visiting dignitaries thus started exercising caution about interactions with the Hindujas after their names cropped up in connection with the Bofors scandal, I did not notice any inhibitions coming in the way of the interactions of senior officers of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) with the Hindujas during their visits to Geneva. Even after the scandal broke out, I had occasionally seen senior CBI officers having lunch with Prakash or Srichand or both in Geneva restaurants. After the scandal broke out, Narasimha Rao had once come on a visit to some West European countries.