The diplomatic pouch found on the slopes of Mont Blanc
New Delhi, Sept. 13: The contents of a 46-year-old Indian diplomatic pouch found in the Alpine wreckage of a 1966 Air India crash haven’t revealed any privileged information.
Except for an open secret: it seems India’s babus used to be as sluggish about their work and deadlines half a century ago as they appear to be now. Aptly, the evidence comes from a stack of old government calendars preserved in the Alpine snow.
Mountain rescue worker Arnaud Christmann and his neighbour Jules Berger had stumbled on the type “C” diplomatic pouch, a kind that carries non-confidential documents, on Mont Blanc’s slopes on August 21.
Apparently, a third secretary of India’s Vienna mission was on the flight carrying the bag but was killed with all the 116 others on board, including physicist Homi Jehangir Bhabha, in the crash on January 24, 1966.
On the jute bag was stamped “On India Government Service”, “Diplomatic Mail” and “Ministry of External Affairs”. Christmann and Berger, who found some personal mail and Indian newspapers inside it, contacted local authorities a week later and India’s Paris mission was alerted.
Only after the bag was handed over to second secretary Satwant Khanalia at the Indian embassy in Paris did anyone notice the calendars, printed for the year 1966 and meant for distribution among the missions in the region.
In those pre-email days, these government calendars were the only source for Indian officials in foreign missions to learn about holidays and festival dates in India. The matter was of little official importance but it allowed these mandarins to plan their holidays or send greetings to people back home.
The central government calendars are now published at least a couple of months before the end of the preceding year and distributed in advance among government offices in India and abroad. However, the Alpine discovery suggests that in this instance, the calendars were being sent nearly a month late.
“Even this was early, knowing how slow we used to be those days. I know of instances when we would get these calendars somewhere around May,” a foreign ministry old-timer said.
South Block officials vehemently contested that they worked as tardily now as their peers did in 1966. Still, certain recent developments relating to matters more important than despatching calendars might suggest the contrary.
In end-March, the Sheikh Hasina government honoured the people of India and several Indians for their support to Bangladesh’s liberation war. It took the foreign ministry nearly a week to officially thank Dhaka — after repeated nudging from former diplomats, army officers and the media.
Lethargic decision-making has forced India to cede strategic space to China in the neighbourhood. When Myanmar asked India to be part of gas exploration in that country, New Delhi dithered, unsure whether it should be seen as supporting the junta. Sure enough, China stepped in.
Similarly, New Delhi wasted precious months deciding whether it should help Sri Lanka build a port at Hambantota. Colombo then requested the Chinese, who readily agreed.
The Alpine diplomatic pouch was part of the wreckage of the Kanchenjunga, an Air-India Boeing 707 flying from Mumbai to New York that crashed on the southwest face of Mont Blanc while preparing to land in Geneva.
In 1966, Indian diplomatic pouches came in three types: A, B and C. Bags designated “A” contained top-secret information and were carried by officials as cabin luggage. Type “B” bags contained official communication and were transported amid tight security.
Type “C” bags usually contained personal letters for officials abroad from their relatives and friends, and other kinds of non-confidential mail. Type “A” and “B” bags are still there but South Block officials said type “C” pouches were no longer in use in the Internet age.
“Nobody really writes personal letters any more. Everything else like official calendars or other information of general nature is emailed to our missions,” an official said.