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Madhuri Gupta maligns the Foreign Service

By TP Sreenivasan
April 29, 2010 14:43 IST
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Someone just told me at a function in Thiruvananthapuram that it should be a dark day for the Indian Foreign Service since an Indian diplomat was caught as a traitor in an enemy State. After I recovered from the shock of that statement, I explained at some length to the assembled group about the composition of our missions abroad. I said that it would be wrong to assume that everyone who worked in our missions abroad belonged to the elite Foreign Service. In fact, no member of the IFS has ever been accused of spying. My listeners were surprised that all diplomatic personnel in our missions were not from the Foreign Service.

The national media, particularly the news channels, which takes the credit for breaking the story, has been bandying about words like "senior diplomat", "Foreign Service officer" and "top official" etc to enhance the seriousness of their scoop. It was also reporting that Madhuri Gupta was present at all the important and confidential discussions with Pakistan and about the possibility of her having befriended a Research and Analysis Wing officer in the mission. The viewers of our 24X7 news channels must be imagining her to be next only to the high commissioner in the mission hierarchy.

I have never met or heard of Madhuri Gupta, the second secretary in our high commission in Islamabad, but with my familiarity with the system I can certainly assert that describing her as a diplomat is totally misleading. She may never have been trained in diplomacy, particularly secrecy and discretion. She apparently belongs to the interpreters' cadre and her language is Urdu. She did not have to make any extra effort to get posted to Islamabad with her language proficiency. Her reported postings to Baghdad and Kuala Lampur should be more of a mystery.

Since the interpreters do more or less the same job for years together, they are given career advancement by giving them senior diplomatic designations. "Second secretary" is a designation an IFS officer gets within three years of entering the service, while she may have got it after 20 years. This designation for an interpreter is a mere acknowledgement of his or her having spent many years in the government. Interpreters have been designated as counsellors and ministers in large missions just to indicate that they are senior and competent interpreters. Their job continues to be interpretation and translation.

The only disadvantage in giving them such high designations is that they will not serve the junior officers in the mission, who need interpretation the most. It is embarrassing for a "counsellor" to interpret for a mere "first secretary".

Many innovative ideas have been discussed to make the cadre of interpreters attractive to good people. One of them is to select some of them to the regular Foreign Service with real diplomatic responsibilities. But very few of them have been found fit enough to be elevated to higher levels. One celebrated exception was Vasant Paranjpe, a highly competent Chinese interpreter, who retired as ambassador to the Republic of Korea. His services were eulogised by many colleagues when he passed away recently.

Our missions abroad, particularly the larger missions, are staffed from a variety of ministries and departments of the Government of India. For instance, during my time in Moscow, we had only about half a dozen IFS officers in a list of a hundred diplomatic officers. Not only the representatives of the various services, but even of public sector undertakings like Bokaro and Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd went around as first secretaries and counsellors. Professors were designated as ministers, not because such high dignitaries were required for the kind of work they did, but because even former vice-chancellors were willing to go on assignments abroad.

Some of these "diplomats" were accused of indiscretions like currency speculation, but the bad name went to the Indian Foreign Service because they operated under the cover of diplomacy. The same thing is happening with Madhuri Gupta, who had a diplomatic designation in one of our most sensitive posts abroad. Since the international system of diplomacy works this way, the Foreign Service will continue to be maligned by such functionaries. This is particularly sad as no IFS officer has yet been caught spying for another country, while those from the other services have been caught red-handed.

The extent of the damage that may have been caused by Madhuri Gupta may also be exaggerated. Indians and Pakistanis are proud of their proficiency in English and they hardly do business in Urdu. So Gupta may have spent her whole career translating obscure articles from the Urdu press or making telephone calls to plumbers and electricians. Even if she was privy to some official conversations between India and Pakistan, the ISI would not be interested in gaining access to her. Only some third countries may have been interested in those conversations. The CIA will not have to compromise the likes of Gupta to get the information as they normally have sources in the Pakistan army.

To be an effective and useful spy, Madhuri Gupta had to get access to secret documents with the connivance of another colleague in the mission and she may well have accomplished it in some way. The key lies, therefore, in identifying her collaborators at sensitive desks in the mission. These contacts may be the supporting staff in important offices in the mission. Such weak links in high places have been exposed even in the prime minister's office in the past. Financial incentives are very attractive for relatively junior officials, who handle sensitive information. Madhuri Gupta may well have found financial gratification tempting, but there may be other temptations like "love jihad", a recent phenomenon, which has ensnared spinsters who are in search for partners. Only a thorough investigation will reveal the whole conspiracy.

The damage done by the sordid Madhuri Gupta saga to national interests may well be serious. The damage it has done to the reputation of the Foreign Service must also be of concern. The system of staffing of our missions and designations cannot change, but the public needs to be educated more about the diverse composition of our diplomatic corps abroad. Such diversity also explains the general reputation of unhelpfulness of our diplomats. Very often, the public comes across untrained personnel from domestic services and make judgments about the Indian Foreign Service, which is patently unfair.

T P Sreenivasan is a former ambassador of India to the United Nations, Vienna, and a former Governor for India at the International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna. He is currently the Director General, Kerala International Centre, Thiruvananthapuram, and a Member of the National Security Advisory Board

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TP Sreenivasan