Secret Diary 2019

Shashi Tharoor's college days and UN career with Kofi Annan

Secret Diary of Shashi Tharoor — Part 2

Vishal Koul

At St Stephen’s College, I was keen on studying history than economics, and I am grateful to my father who was broad-minded enough to say, ‘do what you want’. College was a lot of fun except for the initial periods of ragging, which were awful. During my stay at the campus, my mother had ordered a special kind of milk to be delivered every morning to my room. There was a senior across the corridor who would impound that milk and force me to drink when it turned sour. I once wrote an article in an in-house magazine under the pseudonym Ashok Banjara to highlight the ragging issue. However, a lot of seniors who had read my articles earlier, knew my style of writing. So, whenever Ashok Banjara wrote an article against ragging, I would end up getting ragged!

Two years later when I became the university president, I did something that many seniors would never forgive me for — shortening the ragging period from six weeks to three weeks. As a result, a lot of freshers got saved from ragging when I was president.

As my term drew to a close, my parents wanted me to make the switch to IIM. They said, “At least take the entrance exams because that’s a way to make some real money in this world.” I managed to get into both the IIMs — Calcutta and Ahmedabad, topping the list in one and coming second in the other.

Though my parents weren’t too happy about my inclination, thanks to a full scholarship, I got through to the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts, Massachusetts; its degree certificate lists both Tufts and Harvard. It’s an autonomous school where I completed my MA, Masters in Law and Diplomacy, and then a PhD.

In an era of forex curbs, I left Indian shores with $8 in my pocket, and my scholarship was exactly calibrated towards my tuition, room and boarding charges. After paying my tuition and room charges, I was left with $1,000 and the meal plan of eating three meals a day at the campus would have consumed all of it. So, I went onto one meal a day, occasionally had a second meal when I could afford to. I even gave up shaving so I could save money!

Being a vegan meant all I would get were salads. Though I detested it then, I’ve since developed a taste for it. But in those days, I felt what’s the point of eating leaves for a meal. I was missing my Indian spicy food. In the second year, I moved into a rented accommodation with two friends. But the problem was that I’d never learnt to cook, and like any typical Indian son, the only time I would enter the kitchen was to ask when food would be ready! But my dad eased the pain for me by sending me a step-by-step instruction through post on how to prepare my favourite dish, ‘Urulakazhanga Uperi’, made of potatoes sauteed in a chilli-onion paste. It was a great learning phase, and an extraordinary experience indeed.

At the university, I structured my courses in a way that I would be eligible to write my PhD. Since I had won the best student award at Fletcher, I applied for an academic condition under which I would take the oral exams in order to qualify for my PhD. They are normally two separate exams separated by six months to a year. But one of my professors told me, “Listen, I don’t know why you’re doing this, because I’m going to fail you.” I asked, “Why? You’ve given me an A in all my papers.” He said, “Because nobody can pass a PhD oral without studying six months for it.” My heart sank, but I thought I’d take a chance, because I was also terrified of running out of scholarship money — as it is, I had spent one year living on one meal a day! I managed to get a distinction from the very professor who was to fail me, and I finally got my permission to pursue the PhD.

The thesis was on a theory called ‘political development’ — a popular theory then, but completely out of fashion now. It was basically being used by American political scientists to trace the evolution of developing country policies towards what the Americans approved as their model.

I took those theories and applied them to foreign policy, particularly to the development of personnel institutions and practices in the making of Indian foreign policy during Indira Gandhi’s first term in 1966–77. I was incredibly lucky, as she lost the election in March ’77. She was not willing to talk to journalists but gave me a two-hour long interview right after she lost. I had met her once before, when I was president of the students’ union society of St Stephen’s College.

Interestingly, around the same time I met Aroon Purie, who had just started ‘India Today’. He was like: “Gosh, no one can get an interview with Indira! Can you publish it?” Out of a sense of ethics, I telephoned Mrs Gandhi and sought her approval. She replied, “You told me you were writing a book?” I replied, “Ma’am, I said I am writing a PhD thesis, which I hope, will become a book one day. But I thought, in the meantime…” She said, “No, this is what I’ve given you permission for.”

Initially, I defended the emergency stating that what Mrs Gandhi had done wasn’t really all that bad, because its only victims were people like me — who could publish articles or agitate politically and make speeches and statements — but that the real beneficiaries were the common men. But I was to be disillusioned very soon.

My initial ambition was to take the foreign service examination in India. But what put me off was when the Indian embassy in Chicago refused to renew the passport of an Indian student who had spoken out against the emergency. I couldn’t believe that such a thing could even be possible in India that I had known, grown up in, cherished and valued. But then fate would work in a queer way. 


 It was in Calcutta during the summer of ’75 that I had first met Virendra Dayal, a UN official from the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), who was impressed with my writing in ‘The Statesman’. He was on a family holiday to Calcutta and through a common acquaintance, I got to meet him at a house party. He took me aside for a chat and later told me, “When you come to New York (NY), do look me up.”

It was luck or destiny that during my last term at Fletcher I hitched on to a ride with a couple of friends to NY and got a chance to meet Dayal at the delegates lounge of the UN office. By the end of the conversation, he asked me, whether I had thought of applying to the UN. Though he was not part of the interview process, his senior officers did write a favourable report that led me to Geneva for the second round of interview. By the time I’d gotten there, they had spent enough money on me that they had to hire me! I began my job at the UNHCR on May 1, 1978.

My first major assignment was in Singapore from 1981 to 1984, which was like trial by fire, as I kept getting involved in one crisis after the other. It began with leading the organisation’s rescue effort in the ‘boat people’ crisis and resettling a backlog of Vietnamese refugees, followed by the Polish and Acehnese refugee cases. During the peak of the ‘boat people’ crisis, refugees picked up in the high seas were being brought in, and it was my job to help negotiate their disembarkation, get them into refugee camps, look after them, negotiate their acceptance by other countries for resettlement, and set them up for a new life.

Singapore was a tough posting as the country had become quite hostile to the idea of Vietnamese coming on to its shores. As prime minister Lee Kuan Yew had famously said then, “we must grow cactuses on our heart, or we will bleed to death.” He was anxious to turn people away as by 1981, there were already 4,000 refugees living in a camp, which was previously a British military base designed to house only 100 people. Each room was housing 25 people and things had turned so bad, that people were literally living on trees by propping up a few planks!

So, my task was to completely energise the resettlement process. If we could prove to the Singaporeans that we’re moving these people on, then they would allow more to disembark. Thereupon, during my weekly meetings with immigration officers from other western embassies, I would persuade them to take cases of people who were otherwise not eligible. It was a very intriguing exercise. In every other Southeast Asian country, either the government or the military ran refugee camps, while the UNHCR was merely a service provider. In Singapore, the government wanted nothing to do with these refugees. In those days, the UNHCR had a dogma that they would be non-operational. I was stuck, because I had to run the camp but didn’t have any means or authority from the UN to do so. I, thus, had to create a fictional operational partner.

It’s here that I cashed in on my Jesuit education by approaching one of the Fathers in Singapore and explained to him my predicament: I was lucky that he agreed to have a camp administrator who was not really reporting to me as he was being paid by the Catholic Fathers! Meanwhile, I also got the Vietnamese refugees to elect their own leader. There was an elected leader who would look after the affairs of the community and administer the camp.

I still remember a Vietnamese refugee family who had left their country in a small boat but were found adrift in the South China Sea. They ran out of food and drinking water, surviving merely on rainwater, hoping that somebody would rescue them. The family had two children — a baby and a two-year old toddler. Since the two couldn’t live on rainwater, the parents had slit their fingers and made the children suck their blood to get some nutrients into their system to survive! It worked, and when an American ship rescued them, I broke every rule to rush them to the hospital. To see the same family a few months later — healthy, well-fed, well-dressed and heading off for a new life in the US — was an amazingly satisfying experience that nothing could possibly match.

I was also involved in a very interesting non-Vietnamese refugee situation. It was around the time that the Polish government had banned the Solidarity (Polish trade union) after martial law was declared in December 1980. Quite a few Polish seafarers turned up at the shores of Singapore, some even swimming their way after jumping from ships anchored close to the port. When the first batch of refugees came, I had to wake the director of international protection up at around 4 am in Geneva. I asked him, “What do I do?”, to which he responded, “You just follow your mandate.” It was easier said than done, because the Singapore government wouldn’t like this. But I had interviewed the Polish folks, and since they were members of the Solidarity, the UN was obligated to help. Singapore was furious with the UN and me, but they were helpless.

The first lot come under my protection, and I put them up in a local hotel. By then, Singapore had banned the entry of the Polish. So, any Polish ship that came too close to shores had to stay onboard. But on one such ship, a Polish refugee was determined to swim to freedom. He saw an American destroyer parked at the harbour and swam towards it. The vessel rescued him, but the Singapore president ordered his release. The Americans said, “We will not release him. He is a hero for us.” The Singapore authorities were peeved and declared that the ship couldn’t sail out of the harbour until it released the man, as they were clear that they did not want a precedent to be set.

It was a logjam with the Americans stuck, the Polish ship stuck, and the Singaporeans adamant! I remember it was a long weekend and I was under the weather, when the foreign secretary, SR Nathan, rang me up. This was the same Singapore-Indian gentleman who was anxious to demonstrate that he was not particularly sympathetic to Indians and was particularly rough and harsh on me. But here was a situation where he needed my help to diffuse the crisis. “What can you do?” Nathan asked me. I replied, “I will ask the Americans to hand him [the Polish] over to me as the UN representative and then you can let the American ship go.” I spoke to the US Consul James Lassiter, who agreed on one condition. “Here’s the deal. We won’t give him to you. Initially, we’ll bring him to our consulate so that he’s on American territory. You can meet him at the Consulate.” Though slightly irregular for a UN official, I agreed to the deal. With the help of an interpreter, I realised that his case was genuine and put him at a flophouse across Bencoolen Street. Many years later, I got a wonderful postcard from him, after he eventually ended up in San Diego: “I never no forget you.” This satisfaction, that I had changed someone’s life, was just inexplicable.

When I look back at my tenure, it was just an extraordinary period of learning. I believe there is no art of manoeuvring or set rules that define diplomacy. In the end, it’s all about individual judgment, your ability to think on your feet and how well you can leverage your relationships.


Back in Geneva, I first became the deputy chief for the secretary, and then the president of staff within two years. It was a headquarters tenure that was relatively uneventful except when, towards the end, I got into a face-off with the high commissioner himself, who was an official from a Red Cross background and didn’t understand the UN culture. He didn’t understand foreigners and began to resent the popularity of his deputy, my boss. He blamed me for that, partly because we were accessible, friendly and always coming up with new ideas and initiatives.

So, he and I began to clash quite often. I was clear that we are all equally qualified professionals and we’re just representing each other’s collective interests. But the situation wasn’t proving to be conducive and I decided to leave the UN. It’s also when I had published my first Indian novel that had immediately become a bestseller in India. But when I announced my departure to Dayal, he spoke to the undersecretary for peacekeeping, who was then called political general for special affairs. “Don’t make a snap decision. Work here for a couple of months,” advised Dayal.

When I joined the division, we were just five civilians and three military personnel in the department, but by the end of 1997, we were 100,000+ strong. I remember I was working 16-18 hours a day quite often. It was a great learning experience working with Kofi Annan, the under-secretary-general for peacekeeping between March 1992 and December 1996. We got along very well, he trusted me and often delegated to me the responsibility of signing on cables to the commander in the field.

But Kofi fell out of Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s favour. He was an Egyptian politician and diplomat who was the sixth secretary general of the UN from January 1992 to December 1996. Kofi was highly respected by foreign governments, and Boutros-Ghali realised the Americans were bypassing him in the most sensitive issues. In 1995, he transfered Kofi on a field assignment. But Kofi managed to put pressure on Boutros-Ghali to bring him back to the headquarters, within a year. It was also the final year of Boutros-Ghali’s tenure in 1996.

During a chat with Kofi, I suggested that he put his name forward for the secretary general. It was an election year in America and I had heard speeches that said if a Republican was elected as president, decision regarding American soldiers and security would be made in Washington and not by unelected Egyptian bureaucrats in New York. 

Incidentally, Boutros-Ghali’s French was much better than his English. So, whenever he came on American television, he appeared like a hectoring, bullying, ranting person, but in French, he appeared suave and sophisticated. I realised how eloquence can make such a difference. You could come across exactly the way you want to if you are 100% comfortable with a language. But if you are, say 85% comfortable in a language, you can really destroy yourself if something goes wrong — vocabulary, tone, choice of words, expressions or even the stress on your face. That’s what really happened to Boutros-Ghali.

When the balloting started, the Americans vetoed Boutros-Ghali. So, he pulled out and the moment the race was thrown open, Kofi formally entered. I am proud to state that I drafted the diplomatic note that the Ghanaian government sent out to all foreign countries soliciting support. He was elected unanimously with a huge majority and became secretary general in 1996. He didn’t even ask me if I wanted to go with him to the secretary general’s office, and just assumed that I would accompany him.


This is the second of a three-part series. You can read Part 1 and Part 3 here.


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