Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 1:7 November 2001
Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Associate Editor: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.


M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.


In the second part of this essay (for the first part, click here), we dealt with the language policies of some Indian dynasties and showed that some of the early Indian dynasties used a language not native to their subjects as language of administration, but slowly they adopted the language of their subjects as their own. The Mughal rulers shifted from the Persian language to the Urdu language, but the British introduced their language as the language of administration and overall communication, with the tacit approval of their subjects. We argued that, from the point of view of the subjects, introduction of a language for administrative purposes becomes a domestic policy, but, if the rulers are from another nation, it becomes a foreign policy for the rulers.

We discussed how the concept of "foreign" is expressed in some Indian languages. The use of the concept "foreign" is more or less restricted to geographical territory and attendant consequences. In the contrast between the "domestic" and "foreign," the self and the other, the interior and the exterior, and the movement from within as opposed to the movement from without, seems to be the main focus. Although anything other than my own being is foreign to me, I need that foreign element to survive, and this seems to be the focus of the words in Indian languages. Connectedness appears to be an important element or characteristic of the concept "foreign" in Tamil, we argued.

We showed that there is a deliberate ambiguity in any foreign policy statement and the use of guarded ambiguity shows that a policy statement is well formulated. We concluded that a foreign policy statement is a product of conflicting demands made on the language skills of production and reception. A foreign policy statement is formulated via language, but it is to be judged or assessed via the consequences in the nonverbal mode.

The third part discussed, among other things, the co-ordination betwen formulation and interpretation of foreign policies in relation to language use. It dealt with the use of language in the foreign policy statements of ex-colonial powers, how these nations taught the languages needed for the successful implementation of their foreign policies, and how language teaching became an effective instrument of their foreign policies. We argued that the foreign policy of a nation is an extension of its domestic policy.


Indian diplomats have built a reputation for themselves as great draftsmen of communiqués. Even before India became an independent nation, Indian officials who worked for the British India government were involved in diplomacy around the world, especially with the neighboring nations.

The British system of education imbibed by the ruling classes in India has helped the Indian civil service officers to have a much broader perspective of the world around them, and, with the mastery of the English language, these officials were able to prove their worth in many fields including diplomacy. The Indian involvement in the Non-Aligned Movement challenged these officials to hone their skills in drafting statements and communiqués. The hostile environment in which India was placed since 1962 made it imperative that the Indian officials learn well the nuances of diplomacy.


This does not mean that it was a success story for Indian diplomats all along the modern history of India. Guided by their political masters, some of who were great statesmen, and some others very ordinary men, Indian diplomats had their own quota of defeat, humiliation, and utter disappointment. Although India was wedded to a leftist orientation in its foreign policy until the fall of the Soviet Union, the diplomats carefully cultivated a language of balance, without falling into the propaganda trap orchestrated by the Soviet Union or China.

The fall out from the 1962 conflict with China forced these diplomats to focus more on the national interests. The problem was that the leadership looked at the world only through the Non-Aligned Movement and with a leftist leaning, and held the progress and success of this movement identical to national interests. While the general mass of the educated classes in India looked towards sending their children for education and jobs to the western nations, the diplomats had to always contend with the ideology represented by the Western nations.

One may say that the fall of the Soviet Union coupled with the transfer of leadership from the Nehru family to other centers of power in the country has helped the maturity of Indian diplomacy. The silent death of the Non-Aligned Movement has released the burden on the Indian diplomats who can now work more vigorously towards achieving real national interests.


But with this change the diplomats are challenged to demonstrate how worthy is the content of Indian foreign policy. The draftsmanship of the past that used usual terms and clichés as well as ideological constructs is no more in demand. What is in demand is not the display of linguistic verbosity but how even the smallest details of Indian foreign policy closely follow the global trend for co-operation. The Indian diplomats are now required to show how India joins the rest of the world, even when it chooses to be distinctive.

With the ideology cover totally removed, it becomes imperative for the Indian diplomats to practice a different kind of diplomacy and use of language. The increase in its military arsenal requires justification, but this justification cannot be couched in a language that would offend its neighbors. The problem of security and terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir should be presented in the light that is understood by the ordinary taxpayers in the powerful western nations to counteract the propaganda against India. Nepal needs a language that is inclusive but that clearly demonstrates the recognition of its independence. Forced by the terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir that emanates from outside its borders, India appears to keep its interests in the Tamil cause in Sri Lanka on its back burner.

How do the diplomats assuage the ruffled feelings felt all around within India and in its neighboring nations? When the religion card is displayed by the Muslim nations, how do the diplomats ensure that Indian Muslims are not affected by it?

Each and every incident is to be presented and described in a language and style that is not only understood but also appreciated as a reasonable response, reaction, or action. And these words should be accompanied by actions not at variance with each other. Diplomacy fails when it is found out that there is a wide gap between the words and actual deeds. Diplomacy also fails when people begin to feel that their demands are not reflected in the diplomatic efforts pursued.


The word diplomacy is used rather loosely. Some understand it as the policy of a State towards other States. Some construe it to be the methods, the ceremonies, and the practices in negotiations with foreign countries. Some others use it to refer exclusively to mean the practice of international law in international relations.

The goal of diplomacy is to advance the nation's interests in such a way that beneficial relations between nations are established. Harmony between nations is achieved through proper diplomacy. Efficient and convincing presentation of a nation's case relating to political, economic, defense, and social affairs, and pursuit of suitable negotiation to achieve the goals are an integral part of diplomacy. Sometimes the word may be used to refer to the methods of negotiation that achieve the ends without hurting any nation or individuals in the process. Diplomacy is the process by which a nation conducts its affairs in relation to other nations. Tact, politeness, patience, and use of guarded language mark diplomacy. Arguments are not presented in an argumentative manner, but in a manner of elaboration and assertion of one's viewpoint. The possibilities for multiple interpretations of the language and phraseology used abound in the oral and written presentations. Diplomacy helps the conduct of business between nations in a peaceful manner. But diplomacy is only an agency that carries out the policy; it is not a policy in itself.


There are established universal procedures and characteristics expected in every act of diplomacy. Greetings, presentation, turn taking in the dialogue, address terms, the level of noise, voice modulation, subdued nonverbal responses, anger management, carefully chosen phrases, metaphors, stories, parting ways in a good manner, protocol terms for the papers exchanged, identification of the limitations of the diplomatic steps, and revelation of what is absolutely needed, nothing more nothing less, for the diplomatic efforts to progress further are some of the essential points of the business of diplomacy. Diplomacy is the outward means to communicate the internal contents of the policy of a nation. Diplomacy is the agent that presents and clarifies the policy of a nation. If the diplomats of a nation are not well trained in the diplomatic procedures, they can always be outsmarted by the other nations.

Some are born diplomats. They can always use a sweet language, cover their back so well even in times of stress and emergency, and will have an eye for the future even as they try to protect the present. But in the process these people may lose their innocence and simplicity. If innocence is not a virtue in diplomacy, feigning to be innocent is certainly a great virtue. But simplicity is always needed. People are impressed by real simplicity exhibited by the diplomats in showing a true interest to understand the viewpoint of others. Simplicity flows from the heart. Intelligence and tact are always considered to be the essential characteristics that a diplomat must possess.


Kautilya's Arthashastra and Tiruvalluvar's Tirukkural speak about the characteristics that an ambassador and diplomat should possess. Arthashastra is an elaborate treatise on diplomacy. It presents us the qualifications and functions of an envoy. It deals with the methods and principles that the envoys or diplomats may pursue in achieving their goals. It becomes clear to us in Arthashastra that not everyone can work or function as a diplomat. An insightful understanding of how a State functions, not only the State that a diplomat represents but also the State to which he is an ambassador of some sort, is required for anyone who wishes to function as a diplomat. Knowledge of the language and culture of the State is a must. Even if one cannot speak the language of the State he or she should have an insightful understanding of the communication nuances adopted in the country and within the government. Often significant information is gleaned simply by observation of the communication strategies adopted.


Over the centuries, knowledge of French was considered an essential preparation for a successful career as a diplomat. English fulfills this need to a great extent now. And yet the terms and concepts essential for the diplomatic deliberations are still borrowed from the French language. A bilingual diplomat is certainly more highly valued than a monolingual diplomat. A polyglot diplomat is more highly valued than a bilingual diplomat.


Neither word power nor diplomatic niceties alone will make a foreign policy successful in the international arena. Military and economic might still continue to be the strong contributing factors for the success of the foreign policies of nations. If smaller nations such as Norway and Denmark are valued highly in the international arena as trustworthy peacemakers, it is because they have the backing of more powerful western nations. The diplomat of a powerful nation functions as a powerful diplomat. His words and actions are more seriously taken and keenly observed. The diplomats from the weaker nations are often at the receiving end. Some nations like India are fiercely independent and they have to expend most of their energies to remain independent. In the process, often this alone becomes the focus of diplomacy with very little concrete benefit to the nations the diplomats represent.

Harold Nicolson, in his book Evolution of Diplomatic Method, writes that in the past a diplomat:

Must be a good linguist, and above all a master of Latin, which was still the lingua franca of the time. He must realize that all foreigners are regarded with suspicion and must therefore conceal his astuteness and appear as a pleasant man of the world. He must be hospitable and employ an excellent cook. He must be a man of taste and erudition and cultivate the society of writers, artists and scientists. He must be a naturally patient man, willing to spin out negotiations and to emulate the exquisite art of procrastination as perfected in the Vatican. He must be imperturbable, able to receive bad news without manifesting displeasure, or to hear himself maligned and misquoted without the slightest tinge of irritation. His private life must be so ascetic as to give his enemies no opportunity to spread scandal. He must be tolerant of the ignorance and foolishness of his home government and know how to temper the vehemence of the instructions he receives. Finally, he should remember that overt diplomatic triumphs leave feelings of humiliation and a desire for revenge: no good negotiator should ever threaten, bully or chide.


It is wrong to assume that a successful diplomat is a past master in the art of deception.

The word lying is defined as follows in the dictionary: "marked by or containing falsehoods." Dishonest is given as a synonym. A lie is defined as "an assertion of something known or believed by the speaker to be untrue with intent to deceive; an untrue or inaccurate statement that may or may not be believed true by the speaker; something that misleads or deceives." To lie is to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive and to create a false or misleading impression." To lie is to "prevaricate, equivocate, palter, and fib"!


If we follow the characterization presented in this analysis of the word lie and its variants, a person who tells a lie must himself know that what he says is untrue, that he should have the intent to deceive the person or persons to whom the lie is told, and that he intentionally tries to make a misleading impression. In other words, unlike in some other languages, the focus is not merely on the act or on the non-existence of the information given, but it includes also the intent of the person who tells the lie and the result of the act.

Let us explore the additional shades of meaning that accrues to the word lie or lying through its synonyms. This would help us to understand the meaning in certain concrete terms. To prevaricate is to walk crookedly, to straddle, bent and knock-kneed, to deviate from truth. To equivocate is to make utterances subject to two or more interpretations and usually used to mislead or confuse, to use equivocal language with intent to deceive. To palter is to haggle, to act insincerely or deceitfully. And to fib is to tell a trivial or childish lie.

The additional shades focus more on the act than on the intent of the speaker who tells the lie.


Lying is an act of communication, verbal, nonverbal or both. It is a deliberate act of communication. That which is not existent (truth being existent, and false or lie or untruth is something not existent) or real is communicated. In this sense lying is related to imagination. And imagination as well as lying is made possible by human language. For most of us it is through the use of human language that we speak lies. It is a moot point as to whether the animals have this characteristic at all. (Within Christian theology, God that cannot lie is a contrast of Man that can lie. Man lies and imagines not only because he is a sinner but also because he cannot see the future in its entirety. God need not lie because He knows all of future. He is sure of what lies ahead, and hence is not in need to imagine, prevaricate or lie.)

An important characteristic of human language is arbitrariness - there is no one to one correspondence between the word tree and the real object tree. The real object tree may be referred to as tree in English, but maram in Tamil, ped in Hindi, thingphung in Thadou, and so on. The characteristic of arbitrariness along with the characteristic of displacement makes human language a powerful medium that could be used to speak about the present, past and future, and about things and events not present or not in existence. The very same power of arbitrariness becomes the basis for lying as well.


While language facilitates lying, lying emerges in children not as a part of the acquisition of language. Normally the child's ability to recognize lies precedes his ability to create and use lies. Lying "usually peaks between the ages of 5-6 and 8-9." At this time, language acquisition is almost complete but for the mastery of some aspects such as past and future perfect tenses. "Children's lies are often make-believe lies ("A teddy bear flew in my window") or lies of confusion, though they develop into a moral understanding through lies of selfishness ("I don't have the toy") and fear of punishment ("I didn't break the lamp")" (Schuurman, D.L., in David G. Banner (ed.) Baker Encyclopedia of Psychology, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1985). Some do become pathological liars, given to frequent, vague, purposeless and excessive lying. A pathological liar often has nothing to gain from his lying, but cannot avoid doing it. One of the reasons suggested for this condition is that the concerned person has failed more than he has succeeded and that this results in telling lies to bolster his ego and to resolve the conflict that arises as a consequence. A pathological liar often "may half-believe his own lies and often forgets former lies" (Schuurman 1985).


Throughout the ages, men had proposed that lies were warranted when they were seeking security, concealing hatred, and fearing other men. However, it has also been noted that lying leads to discord, betrayal, mankind's ruin, and worthlessness. It has also been claimed that the concealment of truth does not necessarily constitute lying. Man is not always obligated to reveal everything. Man can even refuse to answer. The Hebrew midwives (Exodus 1:19-20) and Samuel (1 Samuel 6:1-2) did not lie. They were not obliged to disclose information to their questioner or observer. Intentionally leading an aggressor astray in battle or by censorship is not also considered lying: one is not obligated to divulge military intentions.

Neither is deception through ignorance or mistake a lie. And yet, it is well known that lying never brings about good.


Deliberate lies or deceptions have been practiced in greater number when a government or society or group wants to push it ahead of others. It appears to me that growing business transactions, political campaigns, international dealings, aggressive efforts to persuade people to any political ideology, and a general tendency to dominate decision making processes of any institution often encourage the practice of lying and deception. The facility to prevaricate offered as an integral part of language comes very handy in all these. Lies are more easily transmitted these days because of the availability of mass media.


Lying and deception are inimical to the successful conduct of foreign relations. Deliberate misrepresentation will bring more harm than good. But the greatest danger is in the area of domestic affairs. Transparency is not demanded in most democracies. People seem to assume that lying and deception are necessary for the conduct of national affairs. Misrepresentation is taken to be an important element of any government. We have begun to insist on transparency to ensure truth but this is not pursued with all force. Relativity has come to dominate our thinking.

President Clinton exemplified the notion of relative lying when he flatly denied having any sexual relation with "that woman." Some were willing to accept his statement as not lying because the definition of having sex, in "scientific" definition and understanding, may or may not include oral sex. The society at large and fifty-one US senators were willing to divorce Clinton's sexual behavior and consequent prevarication or straddling, or fibbing, about sexual behavior from his performance in his job. Intent to misrepresent may now be considered acceptable. But ultimately this is going to be disastrous. The foreign policies adopted by many nations have tried to take advantage of the changing social mores, but time and again these nations have been forced to reap what they had sowed in the past.

A diplomat needs to be loyal to his nation and government. But, as an individual, his loyalty to his nation should be so orchestrated that it does not conflict with truth. He or she must convince his higher-ups and political masters about the need to follow a course of action that is based on absolute truth. This may be an old fashioned way of looking at international relations, but this is the safest course of action. Through deception and lying, no real trust between nations and individuals can be built. Once truth comes out, the diplomat's career as a diplomat is lost forever. In addition the nation he represents becomes a loser.


Language of diplomacy is a language of concealment, rather than a language of revelation. It is a language of glossing over, misrepresentation rather than representation, multiplicity of construction to suit exigencies, bending the original intent, and so on. And yet I would say that a diplomat wins when he ensures that yea is a yea, and no is a no. Let not the Indian diplomats be misguided by some of the mythological stories that seem to glorify cleverness rather than simplicity.

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M. S. Thirumalai, Ph. D.
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