T.P Sreenivasan retired from the Indian Foreign Services (IFS) in 2007 after 37 years of diplomatic experience. His illustrious career began in Tokyo and he has served in different capacities in Bhutan, Russia, Myanmar, Fiji, Austria and the U.S. He was the first Foreign Services officer to be posted in the three U.N capitals. He has pen down his Memoir in his inimitable style in ‘Words, Words, Words-Adventures in Diplomacy’. Presently he is the Director General of Kerala International Centre and Executive Director of IDEA 2020 project. Having tread the length and breadth of multi-lateral diplomacy, ‘the man for all seasons’ talks about the charms and challenges of a diplomat’s life.
Question: Sir, from the rural rice fields of Kerala to representing India across the world. What was the biggest motivation for you to join the IFS?
Ambassador T.P. Sreenivasan (retired): It was indeed a big dream for a boy from a village. In those days, the maximum one could hope for was to be a doctor or an engineer. In fact after I passed the SSLC with a 1st class people expected me to join the medical college but I didn’t go. My father was in Trivandrum and he had a friend who had made it to the foreign services. He was shot dead abroad. My father told me, “Now you must replace him”. So when I was 10 or 12 I knew I wanted to be in the IFS. In fact if I have another life, I would still choose to be in the foreign services.
Question: Your university education experience?
Ambassador T.P. Sreenivasan: I was the first graduate in the family. I came down to Trivandrum for my bachelors in English. Initially I found it very hard to understand English. But all my teachers were very sympathetic to my plight. We had Hridaya Kumari teacher, Kumara Pillai sir and Ayyappa Panikkar Sir (all great litterateurs in Malayalam). Then we had our principal Warrier sir whom I should have mentioned in my book. He used to discuss foreign affairs with me and whenever I raised slogans as a student activist, he would promptly inform my father about it.
Question: From Trivandrum to Tokyo, how was your first experience in the IFS?
Ambassador T.P. Sreenivasan: Tokyo was a great experience. We had Netaji’s (Subhash Chandra Bose) ashes there. So Indians have an emotional connection to Japan. I learned the Japanese language and passed the advanced level exams. When India beat Japan in the Davis cup, the Indian high commissioner was asked to come and congratulate the players. I was called in to translate. The entire country saw me speaking Japanese in their televisions at home.
Question: In 1997 you were handpicked by Jagat Mehta as a special assistant. How was it working with the Foreign Secretary?
Ambassador T.P. Sreenivasan: Jagat Mehta was far ahead of his times. At a time when we had good relations with USSR he concentrated on China, Pakistan and the U.S. In a way he was doing what we are doing now 30 years ago. I got an opportunity to see the highest level of policy making of our country in front of my eyes.
Question: Fiji and Nairobi were quite challenging...
Ambassador T.P. Sreenivasan: Yes, in Fiji Indians did business and the Fijians ran the government. Then an educated Fijian class emerged and they formed the Labour Party. For the first time, a multi racial government was set up. It did not last long. We had a military coup. In fact Rabukka, my golf partner had staged the coup (laughs). Every day the Prime Minister used to come and ask ‘now what shall we do?’ We did not recognise the new government. After two years they asked me to leave the country. In Kenya, I was assaulted. They wanted to show that even the High Commissioner was not safe. I broke my right leg and left arm. I was in wheel chair for some time.
Question: You also had a ring side view of the American foreign policy when you were the Ambassador to the U.S. How did they react to our nuclear tests?
Ambassador T.P. Sreenivasan: They were very angry. 6 days before the test, Foreign Secretary Reghunath T.S had visited Washington. It was an uncomfortable time for both the sides after the tests. There was silence in the embassy. We had nothing to talk.
Question: The U.S then came up with the 123 agreement...
Ambassador T.P. Sreenivasan: You must see these things in stages. From 1997 to 2000 things improved dramatically. We had Clinton proposals which asked us to sign CTBT and FMCT, lighten export control, have friendly relations with Pakistan and follow strategic restraints. It was on the last point that the talks broke down. Then the Republicans came and the policy changed.
Question: The Indians are sceptical of the Hyde Act...
Ambassador T.P. Sreenivasan: The Hyde Act asks us three things- not to test, comply with the U.S foreign policy and support their stand on Iran. The U.S has huge commercial interests in India. We have a burgeoning middle class of 350 million who are ready for the American markets. U.S wants India to join the non proliferation regime. As for our own national interests we need 40,000 MW of energy by 2020. This is huge- we have 22 nuclear plants, 6 more are coming up and we need thorium to keep them running. We need fuel and we have no other option to keep up with the growth rate of our country. Our stakes are high.
Question: After being a travelling salesman, with our National flag, National anthem and golf clubs what next?
Ambassador T.P. Sreenivasan: The same thing (laughs). I still travel a lot and meet friends around the globe. I still have the same Scotch whisky (laughs).
Question: Your message for the youth?
Ambassador T.P. Sreenivasan: As Karl Marx once said you have just three responsibilities- to study, to study and to study. If you have the right spark in your mind, the sky is the limit.
Submitted by: Deepa Kylasam Iyer