NEW YORK (TIP): Two senior Indian diplomats posted in New York retired on February 28. Ambassador Hardeep S. Puri, India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations retired after a brilliant diplomatic career spanning 39 years. Mr. Puri had joined the Indian Foreign Service at the age of 22. Mr. Puri had joined as PR in March, 2009 and had superannuated in 2012. But he was given an extension for one year. During his tenure, India presided twice over the Security Council.
Known as an exceptionally dynamic diplomat, Mr. Puri can solely be attributed for the many successes India has found itself being lauded with at the United Nations. His vision and efforts have helped India play a pivotal role at the United Nations. It would take volumes to do justice to the man who contributed so much not only for India but for the world at large, during his four year tenure as India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations. One of the most loved and admired diplomats, he won many friends for India and minimized opposition to India which all contributed to India’s strength at the world body.
Ambassador Puri’s relentless working was much in evidence when The Indian Panorama team of Prof. Indrajit S. Saluja and Pooja Premchandran walked in to his office February 25. Ambassador Puri was working feverishly on a file, to meet a deadline. He was to give an interview to another news agency and then follow it up with a reception he had hosted for the media. And, as we learnt later, he was to proceed to Washington immediately after the reception which all meant he would hit the bed in early hours of February 26 and follow up with meetings in the morning. In an exclusive interview with The Indian Panorama, Ambassador Puri relived his diplomatic pilgrimage, speaking from the heart, of his experiences and moments of joy as well as despair. We found him reminiscing, with eyes closed for a jiffy, and then picking up the thread of conversation. Obviously, he was getting nostalgic. Here are the excerpts.
Q. How do you feel when you are ready to demit your office after having a distinguished career as a diplomat, and more particularly, as one of the best known Permanent Representatives of India to the United Nations?
This is not just handing over the PR of New York. This is the end to a 39-year old service to the ministry and the government. I have a deep sense of satisfaction, a sense of fulfillment that I have been able to devote the bulk of my life to the nation. I joined the Foreign Service at the age of 22. I am 61 now. So I have a deep sense of satisfaction.
Q. Was serving in the Foreign Service always your ambition?
Unlike most of my other colleagues I was born into the Foreign services. My father Bhagat Singh Puri was a part of the ministry for foreign affairs. I undertook my first journey accompanying him to Bonn when I was four years old. For me the ministry and the Foreign Service have been the only life I know. The kind of experience Foreign Service provides and the kind of opportunities that come your way lead to self-growth; it leads to widening one’s horizon. I have seen the country evolve. Slowly, but surely.
Q. Surely you have one too many wonderful experiences to share with our readers?
I have a very funny story to tell. When I was accompanying my father on an international posting, we underwent an internal form of McCarthyism. They suspected a Communist under every bed. My father was posted in Belgrade, former Yugoslavia. Those were the days when there was no air travel. We took ship to reach our destination. When we reached Geneva, there was a telegram waiting for my father diverting him to Bonn. The reason was that my grandfather was an educationist. He was a principle at a Khalsa school in Delhi. He had apparently reprimanded a teacher. To get even with my grandfather he decided to write an anonymous letter to the intelligence bureau stating that Sardar Kartar Singh Puri (my grandfather) subscribed to a paper titled Preet Larhi, which was a left of center newspaper. This lead to my father getting posted in Bonn instead of Belgrade. But Bonn was a wonderful experience. I studied in a Catholic school. My younger brother studied in a Protestant school. So everyone wondered, what kind of people are they? They wear a turban on their heads and have their children sent to different kinds of school. We had to explain to them that we were Sikhs. There were not too many Sikhs there back then. In all, Bonn was a terrific experience.
Q. Can you recall your journey in foreign services?
I married into the foreign services. We had postings together in Tokyo, Delhi, Geneva and in Colombo. Then we came back to Geneva where I joined the United Nations and she joined a mission. Even after that I traveled to many different places.
Q. You seem to have trained your staff well. But do you think, without you at the helm they will be able to deliver?
My staff was born well trained. Let me make that clear. I was very lucky to get one of the best teams there is. And even after I joined I had the opportunity to select a few exceptionally skilled staff members. At present, I am also in the process of completing a book about my selected speeches in the United Nations and many exclusive photographs. Therefore, I have decided to dedicate this book to my staff. They are the ones who write these wonderfully woven speeches and I thought it best to acknowledge them.
Q. Of all the issues that you faced, which one was the most significant to you?
I joined the Permanent Mission at the UN in March 2009. When I came here, clearly the highest priority was to get a seat in the Security Council. In 2006, it was an act of courage by my predecessor and his team to recommend contesting election for a seat on the Security Council. On the previous occasion in 1996, we contested an election against Japan and we were traumatized. We received only about 40 or 45 votes whereas Japan got about 140. It was a complete misjudgment. And in the last election we received 187 out of 190 votes in total. But our critics questioned our performance and undermined it saying that we did not have any opponent. To that I would like to reply that Kazakhstan contested the elections twelve years before I joined. So it was an act of courage by my predecessor to recommend participating in elections in 2007. When I arrived we had about 37 reciprocal votes. We needed 120 to win. At this point I felt awkward to meet and talk about the elections with my Kazakhstan counterpart. I always found myself wondering what I would tell her with just about 37 votes in my kitty. I was always nice to her but we never discussed the election issues. Eventually we received half of the total number of votes. So we crossed the fifty percent mark. At this point I knew that Kazakhstan did not have enough votes as us to win. I was now more confident about India winning the elections. Subsequently, we contested and received 187 out of a total of 190 votes, a miss of just three votes. It was a record of sorts. It will surely stand in the books. We worked extremely hard. We fought many elections. The election at ACABQ (Advisory Committee on Administrative Budgetary Questions) was one of the toughest elections. It was a straight fight between India and China to join the inspection unit. Our contestant was UN Ambassador to Geneva, Mr. Gopinathan. For three seats we had 5 candidates. In an electoral college of 192, India received 165 votes, Japan got about 140 and China got 137. Saudi Arabia withdrew its participation and Pakistan lost. It is indicative of India’s popularity and strength. We have won every election we contested. This also proved that India is a constructive part of the UN. We played an important role in establishing (albeit behind the screens) UN Women. We have helped in bridging gaps between the West and many other democracies. On the Security Council we couldn’t have done more. We had two Presidencies of the Council, in August 2011 and again in November 2012. We took up key issues such as peacekeeping, terrorism, women, peace, piracy and development, etc. We received excellent reviews. We left the Council extremely gratified. We acquitted ourselves with dignity. After 19 years we have a more enduring presence in the Security Council. My advice would be that we must continually contest for reelection or we must continually fight for Security Council reforms.
Q. What is India’s position on Syrian crisis?
On Syria, to date the only common position remains the Presidential stand that we received in August 2011. The operative part is that both sides need to walk away from violence. We also need to note that our stand during the Libyan crisis makes sense with the passage of time. During the peak of this crisis, the perception was that Gaddafi was a tyrant tormenting peaceful protestors. But now we know that the protestors weren’t that peaceful. There were scores of jihadists involved in the fight. Libya was the second largest contributor to Al Qaeda. The grievance against Gaddafi was strong and he did not receive any support from the Security Council either. After all, he was the leader who walked into the Security Council and tore up the UN Charter before the representatives of UN. So our question is that if there is a crisis should the immediate response be an attack from the international community? Or should we not try and solve the problem? In Libya, we had none of the defined war crimes. And now similarly in Syria, we have about 20000 tons of arms coming from the gulf. These are used to destabilize Syria, Algeria and Mali. At the end of the day, when the history is written we will notice that India has always been a voice of moderation. Many countries acted under media pressure and opted for more violent response. Yet when the death toll keeps mounting, can we expect the two parties to resolve the conflict? Especially when this was a part of the Six-point plan formulated by Kofi Annan? In any negotiation its take two to tango. If we tell Assad to have a discussion he will probably do that too. And someone needs to do that with the armed opposition as well. Opposition is not a group who are peaceful and innocent. These are armed jihadists.
Q. We had Lakhdar Brahimi approaching the opposition as soon as he took office. Nothing sufficed out of that either?
I was hopeful that maybe he could have done something but unfortunately he couldn’t. Currently, the situation in Syria looks bleak. The consequences are going to be disastrous. There will be sectarian violence and it will spiral down further. Kofi Annan said brilliantly that when Libya exploded it will destabilize the country, but when Syria explodes it will destabilize the whole Middle Eastern region. Syria constitutes a different kind of demographics and so do many other countries in the region. We can only hope that better sense prevails soon and there is an end to the meaningless violence.
Q. What are your plans for the future?
I am not leaving New York; just the office. I am extremely excited. I now plan to reinvent myself. In my whole career, I never took a proper leave. I will also write exclusively for The Indian Panorama. So I look forward to this now. The
Indian Panorama wishes Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri all happiness and fulfillment in his new avatar as a retired career diplomat.