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His majesty Sultan Qaboos of Oman

On Friday the tenth January my wife and I, now in our late seventies and retired,  learnt of the sad demise of Sultan Qaboos of Oman at 79, virtually my age, after a long sickness with cancer, and subsequently of the succession of his cousin Hytham as the new Sultan. The news affected me personally as I had served as India’s Ambassador to the Sultanate of Oman for about five years  from 1994 to 1998 enabling me to interact and get to know both individuals fairly intimately. That indeed became my  ”Close Encounters Of The Diplomatic Kind”. It was a special privilege to serve in Oman where there were many Indian settlers and expatriates some of whom had been there for centuries. There existed numerous cultural links and intimacies even before the establishment of diplomatic relations. The Omanis held India and Indians in high regard. Yet the diplomatic links were limited and no major visit had taken place either way over the decades. I made up my mind to strive in every way to correct this omission.

At my credential ceremony I was ushered into his presence with due pomp and fanfare. I saw a kindly monarch waiting with a serious expression. I stood before him and presented my letters of credence which he graciously accepted with words of welcome.

Presenting Credentials to Sultan Qaboos

There were two gilded chairs in his throne room. I was made to sit on one and presently His Majesty arrived sat on the other with a smile of welcome.

Dialogue after presentation ceremony – Sultan Qaboos and i

He began by underlining the importance he attached to developing relations with India with whom there had been traditional contacts of a special nature. We discussed the present state of relations and I was emboldened by his encouraging demeanour to say that it was my dream that he  would make a state visit  to india during my tenure as Ambassador. He smiled charmingly and added Inshaallah and that it was his wish as well. In the years that followed not only was that important goal achieved but additionally there were state visits by the Indian President and Prime minister to Sultan Qaboos’ utter satisfaction as in the decades before there had been no such state visits either way. There were therefore many more rare encounters with him on a one to one basis and frank exchange of views on the opportunities that were coming up. Normally most envoys get to meet ruling Heads of state once or twice on arrival and departure. but my frequent interactions gave me a sense of the kind of personality he was.

Sutan Qaboos’ father and uncle were both educated in India at the Mayo College School at Ajmer, my Alma Mater also coincidentally. His father therefore decided to send him to Pune in India for schooling.

Young Qaboos

Later the British decided to send him to England and he completed his education there staying with a British family and  finally joined the prestigious  Sandhurst  Military Academy.

On returning to Oman he was placed under house arrest by his father.  He realised that nothing much was being done to take Oman out of its backward undeveloped state despite the emerging oil wealth and decided with British support to overthrow his father in a bloodless coup. In 1970 he became the Sultan and assumed full powers. He then began the process of modernising the state and development activity moved ahead with full force. Today after fifty years of his reign Oman can proudly claim to be reasonably well developed with the facilities of a modern state, people no longer suffering abject poverty that existed earlier and the state emerging with a neutral non interfering foreign policy with good relations with all and on several occasions as a mediator between gulf states and Iran. His shrewd and astute Foreign Policy earned the Sultan the respect of neighbours and big powers.

Qaboos was universally loved by his people who called him Baba Qaboos. equally the expatriate Indian community held him in high regard for his generosity towards them, love of India and unique tolerance for their spiritual values not only allowing the existence of a 200 year old Shiv temple in the heart of Muscat near the royal palace but overcoming objections to its existence and so called nuisance value by some orthodox elements by finding an amazing solution, allowing the building of a second modern temple with a great audience hall where Hindu Swamis could come and give discourses.All festivities on religious occasions were allowed with police support in the heart of Muscat and sweets on such occasions were gladly accepted at the palace and relished by the Sultan. Even in earlier times the Hindu settlers would send sweets on festivals to the ruler. this was not all. His personal staff had many Indians from butlers to barbers and one Hindu family of settlers became the source of supply of all provisions for the royal household from pins to Boeing aircraft. His Royal yacht was manned almost exclusively by Indians.

Unlike other gulf states many settlers who had been in Oman for centuries were granted Omani citizenship and allowed to wear Omani attire and turbans. All this impressed the Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee after assuming office to choose to visit Oman as the first state on an official visit. Earlier when Vajpayee had come to Oman on a visit as the leader of the opposition during my tenure, he expressed a wish to visit the ancient Shiv temple on a personal basis. I accompanied him and we sat in the sanctum sanctorum pouring holy water on the Shiv Linga in what is called an Abhishek ,with the help of a priest. Thus convinced of the extraordinary tolerance of the Sultan he made his next visit as Prime minister to Oman.

My interactions with Sultan Qaboos left me with the impression of an extraordinary man devoid of arrogance, warm and affectionate, tolerant of all faiths and visionary, an admirer of Omani culture, one who loved his people and wished earnestly to take them out of poverty and backwardness into the modern world. He set up numerous educational institutions and sought hard to introduce technological development and infrastructure. Today Oman has California style highways, the cities and streets are spotless clean and expatriate Indians have at least 20 schools, the one in muscat has 5000 students. There is no interference from the ministry of education and they are free to carry on their academic and cultural programmes. We have already spoken of his wise Foreign Policy. Such a leader, like Sheikh Zaid of the UAE must be reckoned as a gift of god for his people. He tried to inculcate the same values in the leadership and his ministers and the royal family and chose in his letter to be opened only after his death a personality much like him in thought and deed: his cousin Haithum Bin Tariq, a young royal who had been assigned to the foreign office as Secretary general and later as minister of Culture despite the fact that he was not the senior most of the royals. Qaboos’ universal respect and authority even after his death facilitated a peaceful transition given his secret choice of a successor who would ably follow in his footsteps. Being unmarried and issue less he did not make known a choice of heir apparent during his life time to avoid any power struggle when he was ailing.

When President Shanker Dayal Sharma decided to pay a state visit to Oman in October 1996 the Sultan was overjoyed. The connection with India had begun. He left no stone upturned to welcome the Indian leader. from the airport to the palace every pole carried Sharma’s portrait and horses and camels resplendent with decorations followed the state visitor with bands. At the palace he was allowed to greet all eminent members of the Indian community. The talks were most cordial. no wonder. Some Indian reports stated the little known fact that when Qaboos had been sent to Pune in India for education before the British decided to take him to the UK , Qaboos’ tutor was none other than Shanker Dayal Sharma. If true then this was not only a meeting between two Heads of State but between a former tutor and his student!!  President Sharma was shown every conceivable courtesy and taken in  royal boats on the high seas for entertainment. The visit was a great success with signature of several agreements – India’s relations with Oman had taken a strategic turn finally.

President Sharma and Sultan Qaboos tete a tete on arrival in Muscat

The Presidential visit decided the Sultan in favour of making a state visit to his beloved India which he barely knew despite the proximity of Omanis to the well liked Indian community. I met the Sultan’s uncle Syed Fahd who had been educated at Mayo College in India, formerly the school for Indian princes before independence. He had many Indian friends from the school who had taken excellent care of him during his stay there including an uncle of mine. They would be his guests to Oman every winter. The uncle never forgot that during his stay in India he had been so feted especially as at that time Oman’s resources were meagre. Later he returned to his Alma Mater and generously decided to set up a residential boarding house for students called Oman House much like the erstwhile Indian princes had donated houses for residence of students called Jodhpur House, jaipur House, Bhartpur House, Tonk house etc. He further in genuine gratitude donated a Guest House at that public school in Rajasthan, India  for eminent visitors to the school. We from mayo college were ever so grateful for this generosity as it made our visits to our school so convenient.

Meeting with Syed Fahd uncle of the Sultan who studied at Mayo College Ajmer

Oman house for residential student

Oman Guest house for visitors

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I mentioned this to Syed Haitham the Secretary General of the Foreign Office to underline the warmth in traditional relations that existed. I asked him to one day visit these monuments to our bilateral ties. he graciously agreed, little knowing that one day that opportunity could well arise when he as Sultan, no less, would visit India on a state visit.

Sultan Qaboos’ visit was finally scheduled in April 1997 but alas the jinx came into play. at the last moment because of weather conditions the flight had to be cancelled. There was great disappointment in India. I flew to New Delhi and urged all concerned that this was not some political glitch but a genuine weather concern. Visits that fail cannot be quickly resumed but i fought for it saying that we couldn’t let this opportunity pass heaven knew when it would arise again. Wisdom prevailed and the authorities found a slot from another cancelled visit and gave it to Oman just a week later. The preparations had all been made already and the Sultan finally flew without weather constraints to Delhi in his Boeing and we waited holding our breaths for his arrival.

Sultan Qaboos greeted on arrival in India by P, M, Deve Gouda

The new Indian Prime Minister H. D. Deve Goeda was there to receive him. He stayed with President Sharma at Rashtrapati Bhavan the presidential palace in Delhi and was given a grand welcome such as only Indian courtesies provide. He witnessed a polo match and had dialogues with all concerned and after being banqueted and honoured, returned home a thoroughly satisfied man,  Syed Haitham  the future Sultan also accompanied him on the visit.

Ceremonial welcom at Presidential Palace

pomp and pageantry for the sultan and a polo match in his honour Haithum is sitting with him.

Official State banquet by his former ‘ tutor’ President Sharma at the presidential Palace

 

I bidding farewell to the Sultan – Our dream had come true.

A year later Vajpayee became the Prime Minister with the BJP winning the general elections. He had not forgotten his visit to Oman as leader of the opposition and the unique tolerant ambience of this Islamic state. He decided to make his first bilateral State visit to Oman!!

The Sultan welcomes PM Vajpayee to Muscat

Vajpayee  the great orator at  his best

”Both of us believe in moderate politics and decry all forms of extremism, particularly religious fundamentalism. Our vision is for India and Oman to set up a strong, mutually beneficial partnership in diverse fields. We are united by common perception of bilateral, regional and international issues and indeed, enjoy a strategic partnership.”

The visit was a grand success at the close of my term in Oman as Ambassador. We had succeeded in breaking the jinx of stalemate in relations and elevated relations to a strategic height. Many more agreements were signed. In parting Vajpayee the great orator declared:

”For more than 250 years, businessmen from Kutch ( in Gujerat)  have settled in Oman and today enjoy the rights of citizenship and the privileges of your patronage and support. In recent years, over 300,000 Indians have found employment in Oman. We are proud that these Indian have contributed their mite to the development of this great country as skilled workers, doctors, engineers, bankers, businessmen.”

Alas Sulltan Qaboos is no more. But he has ensured that his cousin groomed in his frame will continue to honour his legacy and take Oman forward into the future with or without oil revenues. His chosen successor is yet another close encounter of mine in the diplomatic sphere.

 

New Sultan Hatham Bin Tariq

Sultan Haitham bin Tariq is in the same mould as was Qaboos. Warm, affectionate, caring, compassionate, tolerant, balanced, charismatic, friendly and not the least arrogant. He has the same love for his people and equally welcoming of foreigners who settle in Oman and seek to develop it,  Particularly, ancient Indian settlers and present expatriates. Some of the events that took place during my tenure as Ambassador vouchsafe for that belief. He has also committed himself to neutrality of Oman and to friendship with all neighbours and other countries. Looks like Oman will continue to be the Switzerland of the Gulf. He will also follow the policy of mediation in regional disputes and keep ties with Iran to enable such mediation. His religious toleration will no doubt follow the example of his mentor Qaboos. He happens to be an Oxford graduate speaks English fluently and has good relations with both East and West. He is also a keen sportsman which speaks of his character and orientation.

I was fortunate as Ambassador to have Syed Haitham as the Secretary General of the Foreign Ministry. I therefore had the privilege to call on him often in the context of our bilateral relations. He was kind enough to give me even an hour at times for discussion particularly as apart from routine issues there were important visits taking place bilaterally. But that was not all. We sometimes discussed the Indian community, even philosophy, spirituality, poetry and literature. I was indeed most touched that he should find the time to digress from diplomacy into these realms. Indeed it was a friendly gesture and showed his broad vision and curiosity borne of a deep intellect. I didn’t know then 20 years earlier that one day he would be chosen as the next Sultan!!! In all the time i spent with him there was only consideration, interest and curiosity to know, never any arrogance or impatience  on his part. Therefore one day i felt bold enough to ask him a special favour. I had just published a book of poems in English and asked him if he would kindly launch it at a public function. He readily agreed with what appeared to be pleasure as we often also discussed poetry and the arts and music. I couldn’t believe my luck – my book of poems published in Oman being launched by the Secretary General of the Foreign Office and cousin of the Sultan:

My wife Amrita and I receiving Syed Haitham for the launch of my book of poems in Muscat

 

Haitham launches my book

 

Report on launching at Muscat

 

My poem on Oman news report.

The invitation to the launch

My wife facilitates me as Syed Haitham smiles

That episode of interaction with the future Sultan was indeed most gratifying and what I reaffirm ”A Close Encounter Of the Diplomatic Kind!!

There were other occasions when he showed special favour for India and Indians. He came from time to time being a sportsman to join us at Cricket matches organised by the Indian Community.

Syed Haitham at our Cricket match Muscat, welcomed by me

 

At the end of 1998 almost 20 years ago I left wonderful Oman and its loving people and amazing leaders for my next posting as Ambassador to Morocco where i had similar close encounters which probably i will report another day.

When I was being hosted farewell by some expatriate friends I got a summons from the Royal Palace. I hastened to the palace and found the Chief of Protocol ushering me in. When i entered I was amazed to find that Sultan Qaboos was already present. I sat on a sofa next to him and we had a warm conversation in which he thanked me for my efforts to elevate our bilateral relations. After the pleasantries he rose as did I in deference and to my surprise he approached me and handed me an ornate box which later I learned contained the highest civilian award of Oman. I will never forget the gracious smile and handshake of Sultan Qaboos as he bid me farewell and bid me God send as I left the palace with his blessings and good wishes. What an amazing tenure in Oman from start to finish, indeed with ”Close encounters Of The diplomatic Kind”. AMEN.

Farewell from Sultan Qaboos

For all the above reasons Oman retains a special place in our career of 37 years in the Foreign Service and these close encounters with rare souls, Sultan Qaboos and Sultan Haitham have left an indelible mark in our hearts and thoughts which we will never forget. Thus in our retirement and advancing age all these memories rushed back when we heard of this rare monarch passing away and the legacy of the ablest successor being chosen by him as he departed, one with whom we had a close relationship. may he succeed in achieving great heights of development for his people and maintain the same warm ties with India and Indians as his predecessor. i do hope one day on his state visit to india he visits Mayo college our Alma Mater to see the generous gifts his Uncle Syed Fahd had given to the school.

 

Credit: yogananda.com.au

Credit: yogananda.com.au

yoga nanda

Yogananda was a remarkable Indian sage who took upon himself  the arduous task of introducing Hindu mystical thought and esoteric practices in Yoga to the West. He traveled to America in 1920 to attend a Congress of Religious Liberals in Boston but stayed on for over 30 years spreading his message from coast to coast. He founded the International Centre for Self Realization Fellowship (SRF) in Los Angeles to disseminate his teachings and practices. A large following of disciples developed over the years with numerous celebrities. Yogananda thus became the first pioneering Indian mystic to set up base in the USA and spread the teachings in the USA rather than in India. The second notable personage to do so was Prabupadh who founded the Hare Krishna movement with branches all over the states and thereafter in most parts of the world including India.

Yoganand’s ‘’The Autobiography of a YOGI’’ ( First Edition Copyright Paramhansa Yogananda) is an extraordinary story of his mystical life full of incredible miracles that gives one a fresh perspective of reality and shakes to the roots our settled beliefs about the ‘Natural Material Order’’. The book relates incredible accounts of Great Master Yogis materializing and vanishing, healing miraculously incurable ailments, bringing back people from death, walking on water, bringing trains to a halt through sheer will power, levitating and even resurrecting themselves.

What particularly struck me in the book was his explanation of our material reality as a grand illusion whose veil has to be penetrated to arrive at the true nature of reality. The Indian Master Yogis and sages appear to have succeeded in piercing that ‘veil’ and learned to become one with the quantum reality thereby performing what appear to be incredible feats. He quotes from Sir James Jeans’s book ‘The Mysterious Universe’ – ‘’the universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine.’’ An analogy he made impressed me deeply. Holding that the material world and we with it are aspects of light, he likens our ‘real world’ to the projection of images by a projector on a cinema screen . He relates his mystical experience in which his body lost its grossness and acquired an astral quality. While the walls and furniture remained gross, the ceiling of the room  became a blinding mass of light. From within the light a voice appeared to speak out saying ‘’ This is the cosmic motion picture mechanism …. It is producing the picture of your body…. Your form is nothing but light’’.

yogananda youthIn the book Yoganand as a youth refuses to conform to an ordinary life despite his father’s every effort and barely graduates before he continues his avid search for masters and Gurus. In the process he finds strange and amazing beings in remote corners of India engaged in their incredible and ‘magical’ feats which appear to give the lie to our settled beliefs about the nature of the reality in which we live, and the natural physical laws which appear to govern us.

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