The seventh non aligned meet (NAM) was held in New Delhi in March 1983 amid much fanfare. It was attended by 101 Heads of State (hereafter referred to as heads), each of whom was provided with an Indian aide de camp (ADC) for the duration of the meet. This applied even to those military heads who came with their own ADCs. Officers of the rank of major and their equivalents in the navy and air force were selected for this duty. Those who had not yet achieved this rank were temporarily promoted, so that no head felt slighted at being allotted an officer junior to some other head’s ADC. Officers proficient in French, Spanish, Portuguese and Arabic were given preference.
The heads, with the senior members of their delegations, were accommodated in four five-star hotels (Taj, Maurya, Ashok and Oberoi). The junior delegates were housed in the 1982 Asian Games Village. The Indian ADCs were required to stay with their presidents in the hotels. Security was understandably tight. Before the delegations arrived, all these hotels were cleared of their usual guests. Rings of bunkers and pickets manned by paramilitary forces were thrown round them. IAF helicopters hovered overhead from time to time.
I was a young captain posted in Bangalore when I received an urgent summons from Army HQ (AHQ) to report immediately to New Delhi for ADC duties. Besides my normal working dress uniform, I was asked to bring my regimental service dress (SD), mess dress and accoutrements. Before the NAM began, we ADCs were briefed by Army HQ and various government ministries on subjects ranging from military efficiency and security to diplomatic etiquette and protocol.
I was appointed ADC to the president of Niger because I speak French. According to my instructions, I had already taken up residence in Room No 812 on the eighth floor of the Oberoi Continental, when Brig Gen Seyni Kounche arrived with his entourage. This included, among others, his wife and his own ADC, Capitaine (Captain) Mallam. There was an anxious moment when the Kounches, about to enter their suite at one end of the corridor, were asked to wait by Mallam while he disposed of a mosquito he had seen lurking inside! The suite at the other end was allotted to President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.
Gen Kounche, who had served with the French Army in Indo-China, was tough, wiry and taciturn. Madame Kounche was the opposite. With due regard to her, I must say that she was possibly three times his size and talked nineteen to the dozen.
There was also a suite next to my room that covered a part of the seventh and eighth floors and had an internal staircase. It was occupied by none other than Gen Zia ul Haq of Pakistan and many of his relations. This propinquity with the Nigériens suited Zia well, as he was trying to buy uranium from them. He had brought three ADCs along – an air force officer, a major of the Punjab Regt and Capt Shahid Hayat, Fourth Cavalry*. However, we also gave him one of ours, from the Deccan Horse* (*tank regiments).
Some of the other countries located in our hotel were Jordan, Mozambique, Nepal, Nicaragua, Nigeria and Tunisia.
It amused me to see the delegates of Nigeria, Niger and Mozambique, all blacks, sitting together in the hotel lobby but unable to communicate with one another, because they spoke English, French and Portuguese respectively. It annoyed me, though, to see the foreigners act as if India was riddled with disease. One day Mallam asked me if it was safe to drink the tap water. He laughed when I said that if it wasn’t, I’d inform his relatives.
Gen and Mrs Kounche usually travelled in separate limousines unless they had to attend the same function. Each vehicle was preceded by a pilot car and followed by an escort car. Mrs Kounche had the disconcerting habit of suddenly deviating from the prescribed route without warning, sometimes to go shopping, thereby throwing her security staff into a tizzy. The Gen insisted on my accompanying him everywhere in his car – at all hours and at very short notice. I didn’t dare to take off my SD till late at night, for fear of being suddenly summoned by him. That’s why I couldn’t oblige Capt Mallam one evening, when he asked me to take him to a discotheque.
‘I don’t think we’d better,’ I said. ‘What if the president calls me? Besides, we need to have partners before they’ll let us in.’
‘Surely we can find girls there!’
‘That’s not the way it happens here,’ I said primly. (Or at least it didn’t then.)
‘Strange!’ said Mallam, genuinely surprised. ‘Come to my country and I’ll give you as many partners as you want.’
As I politely declined the offer, I received a message to be ready in two minutes to accompany Gen Kounche to the Maurya Sheraton, to meet Hafez el Assad of Syria. Saved by a whisker!
The inaugural session of the NAM was held at Vigyan Bhavan (VB), where the arrival of the delegations, in alphabetical order, was timed to perfection. By the time one lot turned up, the previous one had already entered VB. No one was kept waiting. Security personnel ensured that while the heads entered the auditorium by the door earmarked for them, the rest went in by other doors. However, when we drove up, we saw that the previous delegation had been held up. President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, looking far too young to be a head, was not allowed to enter by the appropriate door. He did not protest but stood aside meekly with his wife, till a senior MEA official, spotting the error, came rushing up to him with profuse apologies. I was struck by Ortega’s humility.
The inaugural session of the NAM was addressed by Mrs Indira Gandhi and others. In the afternoon, the heads were invited to tea at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. On subsequent days, they were allotted time slots in which to make their speeches. Needless to say, they were uniformly boring. However, most leaders came to listen to the others, at least for some time, lest they find the hall empty when their turn came! Most of us, including the heads, frequently sneaked out to the adjoining hall, where beverages and various delicacies were served throughout the day.
One day the Gen and I entered VB to find Samora Machel of Mozambique rattling on in Portuguese. We put on our headphones to listen to the French translation. After half an hour, Kounche turned to me and said, ‘Let’s go. We’ve heard enough.’ I came to know later that the speech had lasted three hours!
I observed another lesson in humility when the French ambassador to India came to the hotel to meet Kounche. As only I could give the initial security clearance, he met me first. I immediately walked with him to the door of the presidential suite, where two burly blacks informed me that the ambassador would have to wait – for how long, they couldn’t say. They gave him a stool to sit on! I was astonished. I asked him to wait comfortably in my room but he smilingly declined the offer. Then he sat on the stool and waited.
Since the ADCs were kept occupied by their heads, civilian interpreters were provided to translate for the senior delegates. An attractive, young girl named Anusmita Deshmukh (first name changed), who had lived for many years in Pondicherry and spoke fluent French, was allotted to Niger. When I first met her, I asked her casually which part of Maharashtra she came from. She replied that she was a Bengali. When I queried her surname, she replied patiently that she had been asked this question hundreds of times, but she was, nevertheless, one hundred per cent Bengali. Perhaps her ancestors had migrated from Maharashtra a few centuries ago, she speculated.
Since we got on well, we contrived to spend our free time together conversing in French.
One evening she asked me if I was married.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘we have two children.’
‘Oh! I know a girl who would have been ideal for you.’
‘Really?’ I asked, without much interest. ‘Never mind, she’ll find someone much better than me.’
‘You think so?’ she asked softly, lowering her eyes.
‘Yes, I do,’ I said airily, not recognizing the signs. ‘Come on, let’s go to the restaurant for a snack.’
A few days later, another ADC remarked that Anu had “fallen for me”. Deeply embarrassed, I told him not to talk rot.
Whenever I was in my hotel room, I usually left the door open to keep a watch on the people moving in the corridor.
One afternoon I saw Anu flash past. I hurried out and called her back.
‘Where do you think you are going?’ I asked.
‘Some of the delegates asked me to come up and keep them company. They grumble that everyone here speaks English,’ she stammered nervously.
‘I see. Funny they don’t ask for my company!’
‘And last night,’ she continued naively, ‘I went to see a film with Monsieur W (the only one who spoke English). He…he insisted!’
‘What! Are you daft? That’s not part of your job. And aren’t you required to take my permission first?’
‘Yes, yes, I’m really sorry. I’ll never do anything without asking you,’ she said, clearly flustered.
I hate being officious, but for her own good, I decided to bring Anu to heel.
‘Does your “grey” allow you to go above the ground floor?’ I asked.
‘No, it doesn’t. I forgot. I’m sorry, truly I am,’ she pleaded.
Only an ADC, with his “red” pass, was authorized to go everywhere.
Anu was now close to tears.
‘It’s alright. Now calm down and relax,’ I said gently, looking at her stricken face. ‘Look, if you like, I’ll join you a little later for tea and cake downstairs.’
‘Yes, do,’ she beamed. ‘I’ll be waiting for you.’
Forgetting the lift, she hurried down the stairs.
Later, I asked Mallam to have a word with the delegates.
One afternoon, when I entered the lift at the ground floor to go up to my room, I saw Gen Zia approaching from the hotel’s main door, followed by several of his hangers – on. I kept the doors open and as he entered the lift, I saluted him smartly. He acknowledged the greeting with a nod. Then he held up his hand to indicate to the other Pakistanis that he didn’t want them in the lift. I let the doors slide shut. Alone with Zia, I noticed with surprise that he was only a couple of inches taller than my five feet six. As the lift began its ascent, he looked at my shoulder badges and asked: ‘Rajput Regiment?’
‘Yes, your Excellency.’
‘Good, good!’ he exclaimed, smiling in approval.
He got out at the seventh floor and I went one above.
Like all good things, the NAM finally came to an end.
Besides the ceaseless oratory and behind the scenes diplomacy, the days had gone by in a whirl of cultural shows, lavish feasts and convivial camaraderie. At the end of the day, I felt I had been lucky to be a part of a once in a lifetime experience.
On the tarmac at Delhi airport, beside the presidential jet, I took leave of the Nigeriéns. Mrs Kounche pressed me to her ample bosom in an embrace that left me gasping for breath. Gen Kounche, more restrained, shook my hand warmly and thanked me for my company and whatever little I may have done for him. He invited me to be his guest in Niger.
A few days later, the excitement over, I took the train for Bangalore.