As I recently passed the Iranian consulate in Hyderabad my mind was drawn to the city’s connections with that country and the larger questions of the establishment of consular representations and contacts with foreign communities that have a special connection with a country.
Hyderabad was founded in 1591 by the Qutb Shahi sultans who ruled the kingdom of Golconda from 1519 till it was conquered by emperor Aurangzeb in 1586. The Qutb Shahis came to India from Iran and initially sought to infuse their kingdom with Persian cultural traditions which are reflected in the city’s monuments such as the Charminar. Indeed, Hyderabad itself is said to be inspired by Isfahan. The Qutb Shahis were Shias and observed Muharram expansively and with great solemnity. Hyderabad became a prominent Shia centre and remains so. This is so though neither the Mughals nor the Asaf Jahi Nizams, formally Mughal governors but virtually independent with the collapse of the empire in the 18th century, were so.
The Iranian impulse to have a consulate in Hyderabad is no doubt on account of the Shia connection. After the Islamic Revolution in 1979 the Iranian system has given particular attention to strengthen its web of relations with Shia communities the world over. South Asian communities have not been excluded. In some cases, the attention given to a Shia community has contributed to Iranian interests as in Iraq. In other instances, such attention has made the relationship complex and given rise to major irritants as in Pakistan. However, in many the question of why Iran is expending resources on maintaining links with the Shias inter alia through the setting up of consulates such as in Hyderabad do not lend themselves to easy answers. India is in such a group of countries.
Hyderabad is a centre of the Indian hi-tech industry but with US sanctions and furthermore with no early end to these sanctions in sight it is unlikely that the Iranian consulate could play a role in promoting bilateral contacts in this important area. It is equally unlikely that the Shia community would like to or is capable of playing a major role in lobbying for Iran in developing Indo-Iran ties. Certainly, Iran would like influential groups to speak on its behalf in its on-going problems with the US and with major Peninsular Arab states. This would be a critical factor, especially these days, when President Trump is going all out after Iran. Departing from diplomatic practice, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Iran a terrorist state during his recent visit to India and that too with his Indian counterpart sitting beside him. The role of supporting the Iranian view will be played, if at all, by Indian political forces that are traditionally opposed to US global policies and not the Hyderabadi Shias.
The presence of the consulate would be useful to those in Hyderabad who wish to travel to Iran and Iranian students and families in the city. Often such a reason is taken as sufficient to set up consular representation. Indeed, in terms of classical diplomatic practice embassies are meant to maintain political contact while consulates’ functions are the promotion of people-to-people and trade and economic ties. In recent times this water-tight distinction has largely broken down.
Thus, Indian consulates in important US centres such as San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Atlanta are expected to maintain contacts with prominent national political players who can play an effective role in promoting India-US ties. It is here that the Iran’s Hyderabad consulate would serve only a limited purpose except on the rare occasion that a leader from Hyderabad becomes prominent on the national stage as in the case of Narasimha Rao. Of course, consulates also provide insights into thinking on issues of current importance in the areas where they are located. Iran’s Hyderabad consulate would be taking soundings in the Hyderabad Muslim community on the triple talaq issue and conveying it to Iran. This comes within its normal functions.
That some community lobbies in major countries succeed in locking in important foreign policy positions on an enduring basis is best exemplified by the Jewish lobby in the US. It has ensured that the US maintains the closest of ties with Israel. More significantly it has also ensured that often the US looks at the West Asian situation through Israeli eyes. The Jewish lobby has great influence in important segments of US national life including academia, media, finance and the professions. The Israeli consulate in New York among other Israeli representations plays a co-ordinating role in this continuous and successful endeavour.
India too maintains close links with expatriate Indian communities. The BJP led governments have put an enormous emphasis on them as a resource which contributes to India’s foreign policy objectives. In the US the Indian community has acquired substantial political influence in Congress as well as the executive branch to push for closer Indo-US ties and in the process advocate opinions which coincide with Indian views. This was clearly witnessed during the Indo-US nuclear deal negotiating process. Thus, Indian consulates maintain close contacts with the communities. This helps in mobilising them and serves Indian interests.
Ultimately the utility of consulates and the mobilisation of communities of a country’s origin has to be judged on the anvil of national interest. Nostalgia and evoking the past may create a good atmosphere in inter-state interaction but is seldom able to achieve more.