Interview: Thomas Mathew

Recording events for posterity

Print edition : May 27, 2016

Dr Thomas Mathew. Photo: PTI

Interview with Thomas Matthew, Additional Secretary to the President.

DR Thomas Matthew, Additional Secretary to the President, is a man of many interests. Apart from being a prolific commentator on national and international issues, he is an accomplished photographer and an enthusiastic birdwatcher. The enthusiasm with which he talks about Rashtrapati Bhavan and its characteristics reflects his strong passion for India’s syncretic culture and heritage. His published works include In Search of Congruence: Perspectives on India-U.S. Relations under the Obama Administration, Development of Nuclear Energy Sector in India, and Winged Wonders of Rashtrapati Bhavan, the most comprehensive documentation on the birds at the presidential residence. In this interview with Frontline, he speaks about his latest book, Abode Under the Dome, and explains what inspired him to write it and the efforts he and his team had to make in the process. Excerpts:

What prompted you to write this book?

The honourable President is a historian who likes to record things for posterity. After he became President, he wanted to record the history of Rashtrapati Bhavan, how it has been at the centre stage of international diplomacy as far as India is concerned. Until about 1975, all the visiting world leaders stayed in Rashtrapati Bhavan. It was a matter of prestige for them to stay in Rashtrapati Bhavan. We looked at some documents which were here with us and then stitched the story around it. If you see the bibliography, it includes 10-20 newspapers. We looked at banquet speeches, declassified documents of the United States, autobiographies and biographies.

A new nation, the second most populous country, had broken free from the colonial yoke; India interested the world. The West did not know on which side the huge human resources and great natural resources would be. India, under the leadership of Prime Minister [Jawaharlal] Nehru, became a powerful voice in international diplomacy. The New York Times called us the hotspot of diplomacy.

The idea was to befriend India because it was a great democracy. People were astounded by the mysticism of the country, the pluralism of India, and what the future held for the country. In that context, we have tried to document as much as possible the views of foreign leaders, what they saw in the country, and how they would help it build its democratic traditions. People were curious about the future of this country. For instance, the AIIMS [All India Institute of Medical Sciences] was constructed with the help of the New Zealand government. Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker ensured that India got nuclear technology.

Similarly, the Indo-Soviet friendship treaty was extremely crucial for India’s political crisis with Bangladesh because of the millions of refugees who had migrated to India. The Soviet government helped India a lot in managing the crisis. The Western nations also helped India, but from the records available I found that the kind of assistance the Western nations gave India was not as much as what the USSR gave.

Soviet President [Leonid] Brezhnev came at very crucial phases of Indian history. He came as the President and when he was the party secretary and also when he was holding both positions. We created the conditions that made all of them feel at home. That is the Indian traditional concept— atithi devo bhava. That is why we call the book Abode Under the Dome.

The book comes across as a visual history of international diplomacy from 1947 to 1967. Was it meant to convey a certain message about India’s initial political history?

India had to become a major player in the Non-Aligned Movement. There was an intense desire of both superpowers, the U.S. and the USSR, to get India into their respective camps. India chose to steer clear of the Cold War mechanisms and follow its own foreign policy to ensure its own enlightened interests. Josip Tito and Gamal Abdel Nasser played a very dominant role, along with India, to chart out its own diplomatic path. We have tried to document that period and its rich history.

Tito came here many times. Every visit has its own interesting features. For instance, the first time he came in a yacht called the Ghalib, which means seagull. He came to Bombay and was received by our staff. From Bombay to Delhi he took a train. They say it was the most well-appointed train ever. It had its own theatre and many other facilities. I have quoted The New York Times, which said that although Maharashtra was a dry State, a special permit to serve alcohol in the train was given. Then the cutlery and crockery were specially imported from London. The railways handpicked about 40 trained personnel for Tito’s hospitality.

He was one of the most important leaders of the NAM, so was Nasser. I brought out an instance of how highly influenced Nasser was by Nehru in a meeting on the Nile river.

The book also extensively highlights the visits of Pakistani leaders. At a time when India-Pakistan relations are not at their best, the book becomes important.

I cannot comment on the contemporary relations, but historically I find that there was a desire on the part of the leaders of both countries to settle their outstanding issues. At least this is what the records say. It was the personal friendship of the leaders from both countries that helped a lot in making serious attempts to settle the boundary issues.

The book, in many places, quotes world leaders praising the welcome they were given by the Rashtrapati Bhavan’s staff. Could you talk a little about that?

I met bearers, butlers and many other officials who, after retirement, have settled in places outside Delhi. I was curious about their sense of duty in the initial days of an independent nation.

In fact, I have interviewed one of the persons who opened the door for Eisenhower. He remembers that Eisenhower put his hand out to greet him and thanked him for opening the door. Most of the guests went back with great memories.