Prince who was envoy in '47

Narendra Modi's whistle-stop in Belgium, which would otherwise have been a mere blip on India's diplomatic radar, has turned into a celebration of what is, in fact, a unique link in the evolution of India's place in Europe in the early years of independence.

By K.P. Nayar
  • Published 31.03.16
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Narendra Modi in Brussels on Wednesday. (PTI)

Narendra Modi's whistle-stop in Belgium, which would otherwise have been a mere blip on India's diplomatic radar, has turned into a celebration of what is, in fact, a unique link in the evolution of India's place in Europe in the early years of independence.

The terrorist attack in Brussels on March 22 affected Indians deeply with the loss of one of their own and because flight attendant Nidhi Chaphekar's bloodied face became the haunting image of the Zaventem airport bombings.

Almost overnight, support for Belgium became a popular cause from Mumbai to Madurai and from Bangalore to Bhopal. Precious nuggets of information, long forgotten - or ignored - in New Delhi's quest for big power status on parity with European nuclear weapons powers like France and the UK or with economic powerhouses like Germany and Sweden, unexpectedly moved to the centre stage of the Prime Minister's conversations with Belgian leaders on Wednesday.

How many people in both countries - even among those who ought to know - were aware until last week that Belgium was the first west European country to send an ambassador to India in 1947 itself, within months of the first Independence Day!

The envoy was a prince in the best conventions of diplomacy until after the World War II era: Prince Eugene de Ligne. When the prince arrived in New Delhi to take up his assignment, the Netherlands, for instance, had only a charge d'affaires in the newly free capital, notwithstanding the historic Dutch connections with the sub-continent.

France, which historically vied with other European powers for dominance and is justly proud of its long diplomatic traditions, also had only a charge d'affaires in New Delhi. The UK, of course, had a high commissioner from the very start, but the reason was obviously a transition from colony to self-rule that was under way.

Typically, Jawaharlal Nehru was impressed enough by the pedigree of the first west European ambassador to India to immediately dispatch an Indian of equal pedigree - Badruddin Tyabji - as his envoy to Belgium.

To match the prince's pedigree, Nehru expressly instructed the "Ministry of External Affairs and Commonwealth Relations" - as MEA was then known - to inform the Belgian ambassador on November 30, 1947, that "Mr Tyabji was educated at Bombay and Oxford". He was a member of the Indian Civil Service, the "steel frame of India".

Tyabji, to quote first President Rajendra Prasad, "acquitted himself of the high mission entrusted to him so as to obtain Your Majesty's (Belgian King) confidence and thus merit my approbation".

Tyabji was an unqualified success in Brussels. Proof: the strikingly tall Tyabji, resplendent in a turban, similar to the one Modi sported during his first Red Fort speech as Prime Minister, and his demure wife Suraya in a white sari and velvet stole was the toast at Prince Eugene de Ligne's daughter's wedding at Chauteau Beloeil, home of the princes of Ligne, within a year of his arrival in Belgium. His recollections of Brussels in Memoirs of an Egoist are a delight to read.

Many Indians were in awe of the Belgian mission in New Delhi in those days because the ambassador's wife, Philippine, had French ancestry with name recognition worldwide. Her father was François Joseph Eugène Napoléon de Noailles.

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Within three years of independence, relations with Belgium had scaled such heights, chemistry between interlocutors on both sides at all levels was so good that Nehru felt comfortable enough to address the King of Belgium as a "great and good friend". This in Europe, where the royalty is exalted and the right to rule is divine. Protocol was set aside with ease as comfort levels in bilateral engagement with Belgium rose.

Modi likes to address by first name leaders whom he is comfortable with, such as "Barack" for the US President. On Wednesday, at the time of writing, it appears that he did not address his Belgian counterpart as "Charles," his first name. It is anybody's guess what to make of the difference between Nehru's "great and good friend" and Modi's "Mr Prime Minister" and "Your Excellency".

It may surprise many Indians today that the first President, Rajendra Prasad, took a personal interest in relations with Belgium. When Tyabji's successor, N. Raghavan, was nominated to go to Brussels, Prasad wrote to the King that "the qualities which distinguish him (Raghavan) assure me of the care which he will take to acquit himself of the high mission entrusted to him so as to obtain Your Majesty's confidence and thus merit my approbation".

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Recent research into South Block's archives, an initiative by Manjeev Singh Puri, the present ambassador, to produce a book, India and the European Union: Milestones, has thrown open fascinating details about how diplomacy was conducted in the early years of independence by the ICS prior to the arrival of the Indian Foreign Service.

When Nehru decided to open an embassy in Brussels, it was to the British high commissioner's office in New Delhi that the Ministry of External Affairs and Commonwealth Relations turned to for finding suitable accommodation in the Belgian capital.

P.A. Menon, a South Block official, wrote to L.A.C. Fry, First Secretary at the High Commission in New Delhi in December 1947. "We would greatly appreciate if His Majesty's Ambassador in Brussels could be requested to make enquiries regarding suitable accommodation for the chancery and staff," according to documents at the National Archives of India dug up for the book project by Puri.

In Memoirs of an Egoist, Tyabji confesses that "their ideas of what an embassy should be were extremely old-fashioned. I was, therefore led on by them to negotiate for the renting of a large mid-nineteenth century mansion in Brussels for our embassy there. The house we had taken...belonged to Lady Phipps, widow of a former British Ambassador...After an uncomfortable few months stay we were lucky to find two small houses within 10 minutes walk of each other...One of them we took for our residence and made the other our Chancery."