Interview of Mr. Ben Bott, former Dutch Foreign Minister

Bhupinder Singh interviews Mr. Ben Bot and presents his two monumental books

Bhupinder Singh Holland: 

Sikhs have fought in 19 Countries in the 1st World War. And in the 2nd World War in 25 Countries outside India, that is my work.

Books (143K)

I brought this for you and there is also one about the Dutch people because we have a good relation with the Dutch people since 1710 with Mr Ketelaar, he was Dutch East India Ambassador, he came to visit Lahore to meet the Mughal Emperor and met also many Sikhs, since then we have a very good relation with the Dutch people. So this is all for you, my work. And if you want to have one copy extra for your friends, for the government then I can give you the same.

Ben Bot: As I told you I was liberated by the Sikhs in Indonesia, I was 3 and a half years in the prison camp there, in Jakarta, it was then called Batavia and we were liberated by the Sikhs. My first memories of the camp, which of course were terrible. The first good things in my life were the Sikhs, because they invited me everyday to their camp, they had a camp a little bit outside our camp. I spent there, well, I think about 6-7 months together with them, it was the first time I got proper food, I got a little uniform that they made for me.

I always say, the best period after the war was the period that I spent with the Sikhs. I always had deep admiration for the faith that they were the ones who liberated that part of Java, especially of course that they liberated us after the hardships of the war. So you see there is more than just historical interest, there is also personal interest.

BSH:: Because it is part of our religion, it is our duty also, because our religion teaches us to help the poor people, the people who are in need, the people who are weak, and people who are under oppression. So they just performed their duty, they were there in Indonesia, so as a matter of respect for the human rights they did their duty. They were fighting for the British and you know Britain and The Netherlands were together, so the Dutch people requested them to go there and help the needy people.

BB: Very impressive, you have done a lot of research I presume, to write two big volumes it must have taken years.

BSH:: 18 years.

BB: And doing all the time also research into who or which units were fighting where, I presume you have also offered it here to the historical society and to the Dutch archives and so on, so that they are aware of your enormous work.

BSH:: I have presented my books to our honorable prime minister, Mark Rutte. Before that I have also presented it to Mr Balkende and also to some MP's and some Ministers. This is my work now to highlight the people that the Sikhs were there, they had nothing to do with the war, but as a duty, as they were fighting for Great Britain, so they were there and they performed their duty in a very good way and we are glad. And now that is the reason that I am here.

BB: I feel very honored that you have come here to offer these books and of course I cannot promise that I will start reading all the thousands of pages but I certainly will read it because as I say I have a personal interest in studying the situation of the Sikhs, seeing it all, what you did exactly and where, so it is also for my historical interest. In general, I say it is an enrichment. I am very glad that you came here and offered me the books, and wherever I can I will mention it to people.

This is World War I and this is World War II?

BSH:: In World War I, Sikhs have fought in 19 countries outside India and in World War II they have fought in 25 different countries outside of India. And they were 33 percent in the British Indian Army. And in the second world war they were 35 percent in the British Indian Army.

BB: That is very impressive, all the work that you have done, fantastic. How did you go, you went to all the archives and got it there together? The pictures also?

BSH:: I went to all the archives, also we have the Commonwealth War Grave Commission in England to maintain all those graves and monuments throughout the world so they have helped me a lot. But most of the cemeteries have been visited by me personally.

BB: Must have been fantastic work, you must be proud of what you have accomplished in this period. But you still have lived all the time in the Netherlands and did your research travelling around but also while working here for IBM. You were the same time dedicated to yourself to do this work.

BSH:: Yes, because I have worked as Accounting Analyst in IBM Netherlands, I have 42 holidays per year. And during those times I used to visit Europe and the Middle East and all those countries. It took me 18 years, but still there are lots of names of the Sikh soldiers who died but were not recorded, I am trying my best to locate them and in my next edition I will put them there also.

83,000 Sikhs have given their lives for the freedom of mankind in both World Wars. It is a pity that the western world that they did not know about it. And now I came to know that you were also involved with the Sikh army who helped you and rescued you and you have seem them, you have seen their behavior also.

BB: One of my mates in Harvard law school was also a Sikh. We had a lot of contact and of course I know a lot about your religion and your view on the world because of that friend of mine.

ben bot 1 (263K)

BSH:: That is an honor to hear all this, because our religion is not so old, 500 years old. But we are trying our best to follow the principles of the Sikh Religion, which believes in equality, respect for woman and work hard and share with others. Our life is for the weak people, for the people who are in need and that was the reason that twice, in World War I and in World War II we came all the way from Punjab, we helped the suffering people.

BB: After the second world war, were you amongst those asking and demanding freedom and independence from the British or was that largely more the Buddhist side?

BSH:: It is unfortunate that in 1947, when the time came for our freedom, but leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru they promised us, they said that we will create a state in North of India where you can also have glow of freedom. But, unfortunately they did not keep their promises and the time was over. Then you have seen that we were demanding more autonomy, more rights for the Sikhs and then they sent the Indian Army to our holy place, the Golden Temple. They have nearly killed 200,000 Sikhs so far. They wanted to teach us a lesson, they wanted to break our bones, that we will never ask for independence or for freedom. And that is what happened.

BB: I presume that this is also well received in India, as a contribution to the effort by India as a whole and specifically by you to promote peace in Europe.

BSH:: It has been delivered to mostly the Ambassadors of India in Europe, even in Turkey, Because the Gallipoli is very famous.

BB: Everyone knows the battle of Gallipoli, yes.

BSH:: So, we fought together with Australians, New Zealanders, French people, English people, so we fought that war for 9 months. We pushed the Turkish people out of that region. So, the book has also been presented to the Ambassador of India in Italy and in France and in England. And also, I was invited by the Dutch Embassy in New Delhi.

BB: I saw the pictures of Mrs Kuhling.

BSH:: She told me that you were her brother.

BB: No, that goes a bit far. She worked for me many years ago, as the Minister of Foreign of Affairs I had always personal assistants and she was my personal assistant for a while. In a kind way she was like a sister to me. Not in blood relation.

BSH:: Well she has a lot of regards for you and the first thing she told me was "Mr Singh, you are welcome here. You know Mr Bot, he is my brother." In this way. In order to show me her respect for you she told me that you were her brother. I was well received there and they have also released my books with the whole embassy, the whole embassy was there and the press was there. It is also on their Facebook now. Royal Kingdom of The Netherlands. In India it has been well received by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, that is the organization of the Sikhs that controls all the Gurdwaras in India.

BB: So it has been distributed all over India. The advantage of course is the whole world speaks English and reads English. So you have a tremendous audience and leadership, which is very encouraging for any author.

BSH:: The strange thing is that we were less than 1 percent of the Indian subcontinent. Whole of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh. So that was one Indian Subcontinent. Less than 1 percentage but our contribution is so much. 8 Victoria Crosses and many many IOM, that is the Indian Order of Merit. Indian distinguished services medal that has been won by the Sikhs, even more than the Canadian people or even the Australian people. We have won more.

BB: That is a testimony to the courage, perseverance, of the Sikhs which partook in this terrible war. As I say, personally I owe a lot to you. Very much gratitude recalled. When you are nine or ten years old, these are the things that even when you are young you retain. Also because of they inaugurated the better times of my life after the bad times. I will always be grateful what you have done in Indonesia, what you have done for us, my family.

Especially for me, because I was very well received. I remember still there was a very nice Sikh commander, since I used to come there everyday they said after a while that "We'll make a uniform for you and you will really belong to us." I am someone who appreciates this very much, I am very grateful that you took the trouble of coming here and presenting me this book. I will see Mr Balkenende. I occasionally see Mr Rutte. So, I will tell them that I too received this book.

BSH:: They have my books and I also got a letter from them, thanking me. They have a lot of respect for the Sikh Community. Because, you were liberated by the Sikhs. How old were you ten?

BB: Nine years old and that's why I say that at nine you already have a very clear memory of all the things that are happening around you. Although, I was very young. It was also one of the first good moments after a terrible camp period. Many hardships, lack of food, cruelty etc. We survived that and to be strengthened again was also because I got very good food. I still remember eggs and bacon. What they used to call corn beef. So I also went there and took my meals with the Sikhs which was a very different experience. So you see, I strengthened mentally and physically because of what you did in those first months after the war was over in Indonesia.

BSH:: Were there also some other European communities there?

BB: It was mainly Dutch, because of the Dutch East Indies were under control of the Netherlands, later on we had the British who came over from Singapore. My father for example was a POW and built the river bridges. he built the Burma Siam line as it was then called. So he returned after the war in 1946-47 but via Singapore came many British. In The Netherlands, East Indians there were only Dutch, basically only Dutch, I worked for Germans, Swedish and British.

The usual sprinkling of nationalities. But, let's say 98% Dutch and of course the Indonesian people itself, large majority. Fortunately at the moment the relations between the Netherlands and Indonesia, like India and Great Britain. As Minister I was the one who made the last step to improve the relationships by acknowledging the date of independence as 1945. So, we had excellent relations. Here in the Netherlands, since we started in Indonesia around 1580-1590 we had of course a very long relationship and many Dutch people, because we used to inter-marry, many Dutch men that were sent to Indonesia (?).

Were alone so they got married to Indonesian women and vice versa. So you see here in the Netherlands we always say there is not a family that does not have a special link with Indonesia. Either because they got married, or they worked there or whatever. There is a huge Indonesian society, I am myself a member of the board of the Indonesian Netherlands society, we have regular meetings. The Indonesian Ministers come here to receive them and we organize things for them and vice versa I think Dutch Ministers go to Indonesia there is also a parallel. So you see that sometimes good things come out of bad events.

BSH:: That's true, but Indonesians and the Dutch people had very good relations, till now they are very friendly I must say, but when the independence movement started there.

BB: That was a very bad period.

BSH:: What happened? Was there any role of the Sikhs also to protect your people?

BB: The Sikhs protected us against the Indonesians because the rebellion almost broke out immediately after the 15th of August 1945 was the date that the Japanese declared cease-fire, a bit later on the peace agreements. Then you get the period that lasted about till about 1949 that many of the younger generations started a very brutal and a very cruel rebellion, killing everybody that did not agree with them, a little bit like IS nowadays. They killed Dutch, fellow Indonesians, etc.

BSH:: Even the mixed families also.

BB: yes, even their own people if you did not agree with Sukarno or etc. They were mostly young men between 18-22-23 who took out the arms that the Japanese had left behind. The Japanese armed these people on purpose in the hope that they could the remain or retain. That failed, we fought them basically 3 what they called police actions that were not police actions. Basically far more worse.

That has been of course a very black page in our history. We should have divided like the British and then have said. "It's over." But for us, Indonesia was so much part of our own country, of our own structure that we could not imagine surviving without Indonesia. And then finally 1949 we signed what they called the Table Agreement, my father was part of that. Because when he returned he was immediately involved in this whole transfer of sovereignty initiative. He was one of the 12 signatures of the agreements. But of course it lasted a long time because we never acknowledged that 1945 had been the date of independence when Sukarno proclaimed Indonesian independence. I was the one who in 2005 went to Indonesia to officially declare on the 60th Birthday of Indonesia that the Netherlands acknowledged as the formal date of Independence. So in that way we turned the last page of the colonial period. And since the relations have been excellent between the Dutch. So even the little annoyances. This was a big annoyance, this really was a hindrance in understanding working together. As till today we understand each other very well, when I go to Indonesia I am very well received. I have many friends there. I always say your motherland, you never forget it. It is part and parcel. Where you are born and spent your young years, even if they were not likeable years. It still leaves a mark on your soul, that is something you will retain. Just like you will retain and remember the good things like being liberated by your people.

BSH:: There was a line of control between the Dutch people and the Indonesian people?

BB: Well, there was not. Yes there was a border like in every country. Indonesians who wanted to continue the relationship with the Dutch. A special setup, a sort of a congregation formula. Indonesia taking care of its own internal affairs and the Netherlands still being as a sort of commonwealth power. Then Sukarno who was a communist more or less refused any deal, any compromise. So after these bitter wars in which we had many many losses. We finally said in December 49 "It's over, we hand over sovereignty to the Indonesians." For us the birth date of Indonesia was December 49, for the Indonesians it was 45'. So I was the one who said "Okay, the Dutch people acknowledge and recognize Indonesia as existing as of 1945, we have made a mistake." I offered apologies on behalf of the Dutch population to what had happened there. That marked a new era. We turned the page and started all afresh.

BSH:: I have found some documents that the line of control that was protected by the Sikhs, I have many photos that the Sikhs were patrolling that area.

BB: Oh yes, they were patrolling. And that is, I say, they guaranteed our security, our safety against the Indonesians rebellious forces that went on to other parts of Java where the Sikhs were not present and the British were not present either. Many people were slaughtered indiscriminately because there was normally no control.

BSH:: Yes. I have here some pictures from that area, maybe you know this gentleman also.

BB: Ah, Mr Luns.

BSH:: He was your colleague?

BB: Well, I was still a young diplomat at that time. I knew Mr Luns.

BSH:: Because our foreign minister was Sardar Swaran Singh, so he was very intelligent. I came to know from Mr Hans van Mierlo. From D66, because he was foreign minister and he met Swaran Singh many times and he was a great admirer of him.

BSH:: I have somewhere those pictures, but where.

BB: I see that there are many pictures in the book.

BSH:: Yeah, that's true. I will come to that point later on, I will find them. You have been foreign of the Netherlands, from which time to which time?

BB: From 2003 till 2007. Ten years ago I finished as foreign minister.

BSH:: As a foreign minister, you have heard also about the problem in India, especially the Sikh problem. Because as I told you that they have attacked our holy place with tanks and helicopters and killed thousands and thousands of innocent pilgrims. So what was your reaction when you have seen all those attack on the golden temple and killing of Sikh people by putting tires on their neck.

BB: I have seen all the pictures. Well, strong condemnation and appeal to respect in order through the United Nations and Human Rights Conventions. I remember pleading for giving the Sikhs. I think we still follow that policy, a status inside India, not of self-control or self government because India does not want to accept. But a larger degree of autonomy. We have always pleaded for more autonomy for groups like the Sikhs. Also because they were a peaceful group, they were not rebellious, they don't try to tear India apart. Also at that time, they instructed me that Indian Ministers and Indian Diplomats can be so arrogant at times because they think that they are a very important, big nation. So it is not easy to communicate with them. And of course everything in that time was concentrated the troubles with Pakistan.

I visited India and visited Pakistan and because were then very much against them, Afghanistan had about 15,000 men deployed. Since Pakistan was a country that shielded many of the Taliban rebels we of course were then attacked by people from Pakistan. And Pakistan then said already "That is not true, we have a lot of troops, that is impossible." But we knew that the Taliban fled over the border into Pakistan and at night they went back into Afghanistan territory. But at the same time we had the troubles of Kashmir, so, most of the discussions I had there was about Kashmir and of course about the spy, Mr Khan who then resided in Pakistan. Of course he had stolen all the documents here from The Netherlands. We knew that he was living in Pakistan, but he was being protected by the military.

I talked to the generals, I talked to the President, but to no avail. We tried to mediate a little bit in the issue around Kashmir, but that is something I think that is something like the Middle East conflict. Eventually it will be solved, because it is my third conviction. I have lived through so many things like Cyprus, I have lived through Indonesia, all these things which we solved. South Africa and still time in the end corrects these kinds of situations, but it needs a lot of patience, a lot of wisdom and willingness on both parties to be really reasonable. You see it with the formation of the Dutch government at the moment, how difficult it is if people say no, to get them on the right track. So that is what they keep working for.

BSH:: Dutch government or Dutch people would also like to help or negotiate, take part in any sort of negotiation to solve the Sikh problem also.

BB: No, I don't think so, we have a basic philosophy of not getting involved in internal matters of other countries that is the same principle that you find everywhere, in other words that is something that has to be arranged internally by the Indian people.

If you see what's happening with Syria, Iran, Iraq and what you see what's happening with Mr Putin on their eastern borders, threat towards the Baltic countries. And if you reach European countries then all the attention political speaking is going towards how do we keep Europe afloat, how do we deal with Brexit, how do deal with Mr (?). Who I spoke this morning and is travelling to Hamburg for the G20 meeting. These are colossal problems that we have to solve first. We try not to meddle too much. Also as a former colonial power in Indonesia, we have to be very careful in the way we interfere, or try to intervene. That does not mean that we are very much on your side, as far as feelings are concerned, support. Yes, I think the Dutch government has always been on the side of the Sikhs. Because we know your religious convictions, we know that you, politically speaking, are a true ally, a peaceful ally. So there is nothing wrong with that. But to get mixed in or to get involved in internal conflicts is not something that we will do.

BSH:: Well, you have mentioned about the Kashmir problem, you said that the problem will be over, will be solved.

BB: Eventually it will be solved, God may know when.

BSH:: The Netherlands would like to play an important role also to solve this Kashmir problem.

BB: No, it's the same thing, same philosophy, we know that it is useless at the moment. Where we are trying to be active is more in the Middle-East, let's say between Palestine people and between Israel, that is the kind of thing that is closer to our borders, closer to our interests. And anyway the feeling is that that is a conflict that at the moment cannot been solved. They have been stuck for such a long period, and each time. Because I remember that I had very good connections with my Pakistani colleague and he called me because I have shown my interest and said that if they would do it this way or that way etc. Then he called me well for about for a year, so every month, every two months to report on progress and there was progress for a while we thought "finally." And then all of a sudden on the moment that the parties were together there was again such an outrage at the borders, soldiers kill each other. To provoke, whether by accident, nobody knows. But the result is then that everything that you have tried to construct, in a positive sense, breaks down. That's how life goes.

BSH:: I understand, because you have to be very careful, as a matter of fact before the British went there there was a Sikh Kingdom in North of India and that lasted for fifty years, so you can imagine whole of Punjab, Pakistan and some part of Afghanistan, Kashmir, Tibet. That was part of the Sikh Kingdom. So the British took over from us, and so when we talk about the freedom of India, our contribution, the contribution of the Sikhs is more than 80 percent, the people who have been hanged, the people who went to jail, the people whose property was confiscated. So 80 percent belongs to our Sikh community, but what is happening with us that we feel betrayed in 1947 and because of the promises of Gandhi and Nehru, then we suffered a lot.

Our half community was living in Pakistan, and half was living in India. And because of Gandhi we decided to join with India, then you have seen what happened. We lost our birthplace of Guru Nanak, founder of Sikh religion, that is also in Pakistan. And many properties and loss of innocent lives also and now our holy place has been attacked in order to teach us a lesson, that we should shut up, you should not speak about freedom or more rights. And in this way I would still like to bring to your kind notice, whenever you get a change here with the ministry, please let them know the real situation, the real problem of the Sikhs. That is my request.

BB: I will gladly help you, because my sympathy is always on your side. Absolutely.

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