Memoirs of an Indian Ambassador to the Netherlands (2010-2013)

Country Focus By Ambassador Bhaswati Mukherjee*


As India’s Ambassador to the Organisation of Prevention of Chemical Warfare (OPCW), I was elected as Chairperson of its Executive Council, ten years after the first Chairperson from India (Ambassador Prabhakar Menon) was elected. It was a challenging tenure since chemical weapons had been discovered in Libya and there were systematic reports of the use of chemical weapons by both parties in Syria.


I vividly recall my arrival on a sunny summer day in early July 2010 at the Netherlands. Since I had been Ambassador to UNESCO, Paris, I was driven to the Dutch border by my UNESCO colleagues and welcomed by my new colleagues a few minutes later! My first impression was of windmills, canals and riotous flowers everywhere. It was like a mini-Switzerland, where I had spent six happy years working for the UN, but without the mountains! The only country below sea level which has mastered the art of water management, the magnificent dykes are a fitting testament to the determination of the Dutch to build a model nation despite every adversity of nature.

The official residence of the Indian Ambassador (India House) is Villa Meyland in Wassenaar. Built in 1914, it is an iconic heritage monument with a dark history. during World War II it was occupied by the head of the Gestapo. It was later purchased by the Government of India on 27th March 1953. Among the many famous Indian Ambassadors who have lived here include the late Maharaja of Patiala.

For a single woman Ambassador, accompanied by a housekeeper and a beloved cocker spaniel, Rusty, the size of the residence with its sprawling 12 acres including a tennis court, a lotus pond, a dog house, a gate keeper’s cottage and stables which now accommodate the flag car and chauffer’s accommodation, was initially quite intimidating! Build in Tudor style; with wood panelling and six functional chimneys which provide much comfort during the long winter, I spent some of the happiest moments of my life in that house and gardens.

Dutch footprints in India go back more than 400 years when the first ship of the Netherlands East India Company reached the famous Malabar Coast in Kerala, known as a Spice Coast. There was no looking back.The history is fascinating. The Dutch East India Company founded in 1592, sent Admiral Van der Hagen to India in 1603. By 1713 the Dutch had brought the erstwhile state of Cochin under their political control. Succumbing to pressure from the British, the Dutch withdrew from India.

Off the beaten track, one can find remains of the Dutch period in our history along the entire coastline from Surat to Kolkata and from Visakhapatnam to Kochi and Pulicat. This includes the historic Bolgatty Palace in Kochi, now a heritage hotel. Today this ancient connection is being developed by India and Netherlands through the ‘Spice Route’ which seeks to bring together 22 other countries that had travelled the oceans in a quest for the famous spices of Kerala.

It is no wonder that successive Dutch envoys to India proudly recall that when India attained Independence on 15th August 1947, the Dutch Ambassador was one of the only three Ambassadors present in Delhi at Prime Minister Nehru’s famous “Tryst with Destiny” speech. At a launch of the coffee table publication ‘Dutch East India Company in India’ and the shared heritage by Bauke van der Pol, the former Dutch Ambassador H.E. Alphonsus Stoelinga, a dear friend, noted: “Our shared heritage is both a compelling and tangible reason for us to ponder on the past and on its significance for the present and the future. This can lead to mutual understanding, a reinforcement of ties and the intensification of fruitful cooperation between India and the Netherlands.”

Netherlands is a founder and an important member of the EU. Despite its size, the Netherlands continues to exercise considerable influence over decision making within the Councils of the European Union. This is not only due to the size of its economy, but also because it has managed to maintain, through fiscal prudence and financial discipline, a marginal growth of its economy, despite the austerity measures and an economic slowdown.

At a time when the EU is in crisis, due to the rise of populism and populist parties, who are increasingly questioning liberal democratic values based on tolerance, respect for minorities and multiculturalism, Netherlands remains firmly committed to the values enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty including democracy, the rule of law and human rights. This is despite the challenges posed by terrorism and uncontrolled migration.

The Netherlands is an important strategic partner of India. This strategic partnership has its basis in strong business and economic links. India is the 5th largest source of FDI into the Netherlands and the Netherlands is the 4th largest source of FDI for India. Over the years, Dutch firms, more than 115 in number, have discovered new investment opportunities in India. Philips has a 150-year presence in India. In fact, many Indians believe that Philips is an Indian company!

There are more than 400 Indian companies in Amsterdam. With a looming Brexit, the numbers are increasing with companies relocating from London to Amsterdam. With Rotterdam as Europe’s biggest port, Netherlands is increasingly India’s ‘Gateway to Europe’. The profile of Indian business has become progressively diversified. A notable trend is the merger and acquisition activities, with Indian companies taking over some important Dutch business portfolios such as Tata Steel and Corus, Apollo Tyres and Vredestein, along with TCS.

The Dutch are aware of the need for a shift from their ‘Eurocentric’ foreign policy and to move to a new focus on Asia and notably India. They remain defensive about their close links with China, linkages which have endured despite occasional glitches on human rights, and acknowledge privately the need to focus on India. Successive Indian envoys to The Hague, including myself, have tried to shift the focus to India, with limited success.

Netherlands has the largest community of Indian Diaspora in Continental Europe, outside the UK. Numbering 220,000, they are referred to as the Hindustani community, who came to the Netherlands from India via Suriname. They are proud of their Indian heritage and culture and very supportive of India. The former Deputy Mayor of The Hague, Rabin Baldewsingh, was awarded the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman in 2014.

In May 2011, the Dutch joyfully commemorated the 150th anniversary of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore. A prolific traveller, Tagore was much influenced by Western liberal thought. He had visited the Netherlands late in his life. ‘Gitanjali’ (an offering of prayers) for which he received the Nobel Prize, was translated into Dutch in 1913 by Fredrick van Eeden. Impressive bronze busts of Tagore were installed in the Town hall at The Hague and in Leiden during the commemoration.

With the support of the Diaspora and the Indian Government, I was able to fulfill the dream project of the Indian community, the establishment of an Indian cultural centre. The Gandhi Centre was inaugurated on the birthday of the Father of the Indian Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, on 2nd October 2011. This was indeed one of the highlights of my stay there.

As the Indian Ambassador, I was able to bring together the Bengali Diaspora to celebrate Netherlands’ first ever Durga Puja. It is a matter of pride for me that so many years later, this tradition thrives. The Durga Puja celebrations in the Netherlands are now attracting Diaspora from the Benelux and the UK.

As the Ambassador, I was accredited to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). We successfully ensured the victory to the ICJ of India’s Judge Bhandari. The success was unprecedented in many ways. India had been absent from the World Court for 22 years. The election process is complex since the successful candidate is required to get an absolute majority in both the General Assembly and Security Council where the polling takes place concurrently.

I was also able to persuade the Government to engage, like other non-signatories to the Rome Treaty, including the USA, Russian Federation and China, with the International Criminal Court (ICC). This ensured that our views and perceptions were taken into account informally during the proceedings of the Court.

As India’s Ambassador to the Organisation of Prevention of Chemical Warfare (OPCW), I was elected as Chairperson of its Executive Council, ten years after the first Chairperson from India (Ambassador Prabhakar Menon) was elected. It was a challenging tenure since chemical weapons had been discovered in Libya and there were systematic reports of the use of chemical weapons by both parties in Syria. As the Chair, I am proud of having negotiated a consensus text on Syria, which remained the only international consensus on this issue until the Security Council agreed on a text two years later.

I was Ambassador when the Nirbhaya gang rape occurred. I awoke one morning and discovered flowers at the gate of the Residence. These were offered by the Dutch who were horrified at this inhuman act and wished to sympathize with me as they perceived me to be an Indian woman who had succeeded despite such odds in India. This was a complicated issue for me. With the approval of the then External Affairs Minister, I opened a Condolence Book in the Embassy so that the Dutch and Embassy colleagues, including myself, could grieve together. I explained to my Dutch friends that this was an aberration in our society, not a common occurrence.

Today, I continue my long association with the Netherlands and The Dutch through the Dutch Embassy, the Hindustani Diaspora and periodic visits to Amsterdam and The Hague. The Dutch Embassy, located in the iconic Jinnah House in APJ Abdul Kalam Marg, is like a second home. We recently celebrated the International Women’s Day with great joy on 8th March 2019.

My Dutch friends remark that I am very Dutch! This is indeed a compliment since they are generous, open-hearted, and frank with tremendous appreciation for India’s culture, civilisation and values. Dutch Indologists have ensured that Indology continues as an important subject in the many excellent Universities all over the Netherlands. Indian students are now flooding to the Netherlands.

Let me conclude by citing from the noted Dutch scholar and Indologist, Professor Dirk Kolff: “Why it should be India, and not another place on the face of the Earth, that should claim so much of the curiosity of the Dutch?” He answered his own question: “India represents Europe’s most fascinating ‘Other’.” Indeed, having had the privilege of representing India in this beautiful country, I do believe that it appropriately sums up the enduring fascination of both countries for our histories and cultures and concerning India, an attraction for our antiquity and diversity.

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