The Washington Diplomat / June 2002
By Larry Luxner
As ambassador of the world’s largest democracy, as India likes to call itself, Lalit Mansingh says that he’s “publicity shy but media friendly.”
Given recent events, it has become increasingly hard for Mansingh to avoid the limelight.
Over the past six months alone, the 61-year-old diplomat has had to confront one crisis after another. In December, gunmen allegedly linked to Pakistan stormed the Indian Parliament, killing 14 people.
Then in March of this year, simmering unrest between Hindus and Muslims boiled into bloodshed that claimed more than 750 lives. And on May 14, an attack by Islamic militants left more than 30 people, mostly women and children, dead in Kashmir, an area claimed by both India and Pakistan—leaving the rest of the world wondering whether this latest incident would push the two nuclear powers to the brink of full-scale war.
Against this rush of events is the backdrop of human misery. Despite significant strides made against malnutrition, poverty and illiteracy in the last two decades, India is still a desperately poor nation where religious and ethnic differences often suddenly turn violent.
“When you’re dealing with a country that has 1 billion people speaking 18 languages and believing in eight major religions,” says Mansingh matter of factly, “issues are bound to come up.”
Actually, India has more than a billion inhabitants. It reached that milestone back in 2000 and continues to add more people. Even with the annual growth rate slowing to 1.8 percent in recent years, India is nevertheless expected to surpass China sometime in the first half of this century as the world’s most populous nation.
Case in point: Mansingh’s native Orissa state is relatively small by Indian standards, with “only” 30 million people—slightly fewer than the population of California. By comparison, Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, has 190 million inhabitants—more than Brazil.
Besides having strength in numbers, India also possesses nuclear weapons, as does Pakistan. In 1998, after both nations frightened the rest of the world by conducting atomic tests, the Clinton administration imposed sanctions prohibiting weapon sales to the region. President George W. Bush lifted those sanctions in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks as a reward for both countries’ cooperation in the war on terrorism.
Yet Mansingh says India has suffered more from terrorism than any nation on Earth. The ambassador estimates that in the last 20 years, at least 60,000 Indians have died in terrorist acts carried out by Muslim fanatics operating from bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Calling those two countries “the world’s breeding ground for terrorists,” the diplomat claims that “Pakistan alone has 11,000 schools called madrasas, and they train 750,000 young people a year.”
And even though the United States appears to have finished off al Qaeda in Afghanistan, he said networks continues to flourish in Pakistan.
“You have not destroyed the al Qaeda of tomorrow because they’re still being trained in Pakistan,” he says, explaining that the problem began when the United States decided to finance Islamic fundamentalists battling Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
“The mujahideen was largely a creation of the Western allies, and a considerable amount of funding was provided. They succeeded in driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan, but after that, the mujahideen were left without a holy cause. So these heavily armed holy warriors were diverted to Algeria, Egypt and the United States.”
He adds: “Since we are closest to Pakistan and Afghanistan, we have faced the heat the most. We have been battling with terrorism coming across our borders for the past two decades. Along with terrorism has come a bundle of other evils, like religious animosity and fanaticism. Why else would there be so much religious tension and violence?”
Mansingh says that although he supports efforts by Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, to act against fundamentalists at home, it’s not nearly enough.
“What we expect Pakistan to do, now that it has joined in the war against terrorism, is to stop sending terrorists across the border into our country. Secondly, we expect Pakistan to hand over to us those terrorists and criminals who have escaped from India and found shelter in Pakistan. We have given them a list of 20 top terrorists and criminals.”
And if the Pakistanis don’t comply with the demands, what will India do?
“That’s the question we’re grappling with,” Mansingh says. “People sometimes don’t realize it, but our policy is to have a stable and friendly Pakistan as our neighbor. We believe in the territorial integrity of Pakistan. However, the biggest threat we are facing to our own territorial integrity is cross-border terrorism coming from only one source: Pakistan.”
India has been on a high state of alert since the Dec. 13 attack on the Parliament, which left 14 dead including the assailants. Mansingh says the attack “has been established as the work of Lashkar-i-Taiba,” whose founder, Hafiz Saeed, was arrested May 17 by Pakistani authorities. Saeed had been arrested earlier in January after Gen. Musharraf—under international pressure to clamp down on Muslim militants—outlawed the group.
Saaed was released in early April, however, and is said to have played a key role in the May 14 attack in Kashmir that has so inflamed Indian passions. As of press time, Indian and Pakistani troops were exchanging heavy mortar fire along the Line of Control, which separates the Indian- and Pakistani-controlled portions of Kashmir, and the ambassador was recalled to India to deal with the increased fighting.
Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee faces considerable pressure at home to retaliate, though Mansingh declined to speculate on what form that retaliation might take.
“We have a whole range of options,” says the ambassador. “We have been very patient and very restrained, and we have used diplomatic options so far. But we are rapidly running out of options. The mood of the Indian public is increasingly impatient. We can’t be a sitting duck for terrorist activities.”
India and Pakistan have already fought three wars, two of them over Kashmir—12 million of whose 15 million inhabitants profess Islam.
“Pakistan says that because the majority of the population of Kashmir is Muslim, it should be part of Pakistan. This is ridiculous,” Mansingh argues, blasting the use of the term “freedom fighters” to describe terrorist groups fighting to wrest Kashmir from Indian control. “Pakistan became independent in 1947. If being Muslim is the only criteria for statehood, then it didn’t work in the case of Pakistan itself, because in 1972, East Pakistan seceded and became Bangladesh. We have more Muslims than Pakistan. Ours is a better homeland for Muslims than any other country in the world.”
Muslims might disagree. In March, tensions between Hindus and Muslims—triggered by the murder of 58 Hindu nationalists trapped on a burning train—erupted into riots and bloody rampages throughout western Gujarat state. In the end, 750 people of both faiths were dead and thousands injured. The government, whose ruling coalition is led by a Hindu nationalist party, was widely criticized at home and abroad for not doing enough to stop India’s worst ethnic violence in over a decade.
“It was horrifying,” Mansingh says. “We don’t accept it. Our prime minister called it a blot on our nation, so we’re not downplaying what happened. It was horrible because of the atrocities committed by both sides.”
Yet the ambassador justified his government’s response to the crisis, saying that “such quarrels can take place in any part of the world, but because we are in India, this incident—which could have sparked a holocaust—was contained within 72 hours. The police were given orders to shoot on sight.
With the firm action we took, it was possible to bring the situation under control.” However, within those 72 hours, Hindus retaliated for the train murders with a three-day rampage that resulted in the deaths of more than 400 people.
At present, around 80 percent of all Indians are Hindu. Another 11 percent are Muslim, and the remaining 9 percent consists of Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs and Christians.
“We are a country which subscribes to eight major religions, four of which were born on the soil of India: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism,” says Mansingh, noting that Christians, Muslims and Jews have also been part of the fabric of Indian life for centuries.
“My father converted to Buddhism, so I’m part Hindu, part Buddhist,” says the diplomat, who along with wife Indira has two children: a 24-year-old daughter, Pallavi, and a 22-year-old son, Aditya. “But religion in our country is a matter of personal faith.”
Mansingh, who’s been ambassador here for just over a year, has enjoyed a long and distinguished career in the Indian Foreign Service. Since his first posting in Geneva in 1963, the diplomat has served as deputy chief of mission in three overseas capitals: Kabul, Brussels and Washington. He has also served as ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and as India’s high commissioner to Nigeria and the United Kingdom. In December 1999, Mansingh returned to Delhi and took over as foreign secretary, a job he held until his current appointment as ambassador to the United States.
Despite the rising tensions between predominantly Hindu India and predominantly Muslim Pakistan, Mansingh describes his relationship with Pakistani Ambassador Maleeha Lodhi as very cordial and friendly.
I had a dinner last month where I invited all the ambassadors from our region,” he says. “A few days later, I went to the Pakistani Embassy to take part in one of their activities—no problem at all.”
Mansingh says he’s devoted a considerable amount of time trying to bring the United States and India closer together—a switch from the 1970s and ’80s when India was seen as a proxy of the Soviet Union.
“We haven’t had such close relations at any other time in the past,” he says. “This is a recent phenomenon. The Cold War created a kind of distortion. Now, the Cold War is over, and we are appreciating our common values of democracy, the rule of law, the dignity of human beings and a common front against terrorism. My priority is to make sure that this time, it’s not up and down. We must have a sustained and steady bilateral relationship.”
To that end, Mansingh worked diligently to remove the U.S. sanctions imposed against India in 1998—finally succeeding last year in what he calls his most important accomplishment as ambassador.
“The sanctions didn’t hurt India as much as they hurt the U.S.,” Mansingh says. “India went shopping all over the world and indigenized certain things that weren’t available. It’s been our policy to manufacture everything in India, but we have to modernize our armed forces, and we have to get technology from wherever we can.”
He adds: “Business was completely suspended, but now it’s picking up. We’re a large market, and we’re interested in American technology. We have also made a significant change in our investment policy. Today, India’s defense industries are open for private investment and foreign investment, so there is considerable interest.”
Mansingh says Lockheed Martin Corp., The Boeing Co., and Litton Industries are among the U.S. defense contractors most eager to do business with India.
To assist them and other companies hoping to get a foot in the door, the Indian Embassy has 150 people on staff, including 20 diplomats. It also oversees four consulates in Chicago, New York, Houston and San Francisco. That’s not much, considering there are at least 1.7 million people of Indian origin scattered throughout the United States, including 100,000 in the Washington metropolitan area.
“We would like to open more consulates,” Mansingh says, especially in regions where there are large concentrations of Indo-Americans, such as Florida, Texas and southern California.
Meanwhile, India has made considerable progress in reducing poverty since achieving independence from Great Britain 55 years ago.
“In 1947, we were perhaps the poorest country in the world. About 75 percent of our people lived below the poverty line, we had massive illiteracy, and we could not feed our own people. We were completely dependent on charity,” he says. “Today, only 25 percent of our people are below the poverty line. We ave an embarrassment of surplus food production. We have the largest stock of food grains in the world, about 60 million tons’ worth. Our literacy rate is close to 70 percent, and life expectancy has increased from 27 years in 1947 to 62 years now.”
A big factor in India’s success has been reducing the birth rate, says the ambassador. “Our family planning methods, which are democratic in nature—persuasive, not coercive—are finally having an effect,” he notes. “We have discovered one of the keys to the population problem: education—and particularly female education. In states where female literacy is highest, growth rates have come down considerably.”
As a consequence, India’s economy has grown at an average 6 percent to 7 percent per year over the last decade, far outstripping growth in most African and Latin American nations. The most successful sector is information technology, which has been expanding by an astonishing 50 percent a year. In 2001 alone, India exported $9.5 billion worth of software—close to $4 billion of that to the United States.
“One of the most remarkable things about India is the explosion of information technology,” Mansingh says. “What started this in America was the success of Silicon Valley. But Silicon Valley itself is an Indo-U.S. joint venture, because of the large number of very skilled Indian professionals there.”