The law of diplomatic immunity in ancient India

Justice Markandey Katju-

Justice Markandey Katju

(Justice Markandey Katju is a former Judge, Supreme Court of India, and former Chairman, Press Council of India. The views expressed are his own)

When the British came to India, they sought to demoralize Indians by creating an impression that Indians were only a race of savages, and that there was no law in India before the British came.

This impression was totally false. The law was highly developed in India before the British came (see my article ‘Ancient Indian Jurisprudence and Modern Jurisprudence’

https://www.outlookindia.com/website/story/from-the-ancient-to-the-modern/264730

I am not going into the various aspects of ancient Indian law, but shall here only deal with the principle of diplomatic immunity, which is well established throughout the world.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diplomatic_immunity

In the Ramayana an interview takes place between Hanuman, the emissary of Sugriva, the king of the Vanaras, and Ravana, the king of Lanka.

Hanuman says:

“O King of the Rakshas race! I have brought a message from King Sugriva for you. The ruler of the Vanara people is your brother king. He sends you his greetings,” (Sundar Kaand, chapter 51, shloka 2)

(Note the language used by Hanuman, which was obviously the language of sophisticated protocol those days)

अहम् सुग्रीव सन्देशादिह प्राप्तः तवन्तिके

राक्षसेंद्र हरीशह त्वां भ्राता कुशलं अब्रवीत

On hearing him, Ravana flerw into a rage, and ordered Hanuman to  be executed.

At this, Ravana’s brother Vibhishana intervened, and reminded Ravana that under the law an ambassador cannot be executed.

वधं न कुर्वन्ति परावरज्ञः

But Ravana said, “It is not illegal to kill an ambassador who has violated the law. This man has killed so many of my soldiers and has grossly abused his status. I shall put him to death as he has himself violated the law.”

न पापानां वधे पापं विद्यते दुरासद

तस्मात् इदं वधिश्यामि दूतदण्डो विधीयताम

“O King of the Rakshas race “, said Vibhishana, ” be pleased to know the law. The sages have declared  that an ambassador’s person is inviolate at all times and in all circumstances, and an ambassador can never be put to death.”

दूता न वध्याः समयेषु राजन

सर्वेषु सर्वत्र वदन्ति सन्तः

Vibhishana then explained, “Whether he is a good person or bad is irrelevant. He is an agent sent by another and speaks for another. So, he is never liable to death penalty.”

Ultimately Ravana was convinced by Vibhishana’s argument.

The same principle of diplomatic immunity is found in the Mahabharata.

When war between the Kauravas and the Pandavas seemed imminent, Lord Krishna sought to make a last-ditch effort to preserve the peace. He went to Hastinapur, the capital of the Kauravas, as the ambassador of the Pandavas.

There, Duryodhana proposed in the Kaurava Sabha that Krishna should be arrested.

This proposal shocked everyone in the sabha, and the first to denounce it was his own father, Dhritrashtra, who said:

“Duryodhana, you should not even utter such words. It is against the ancient law.”

ततो दुर्योधनम् इदं  धृतराष्ट्र अब्रवीत् वचः

मा एवं वोचह प्रजापाल  नैष धर्मः सनातनः

The oldest member of the sabha, Bheeshma Pitamah was so shocked at Duryodhana’s proposal that he walked away from the sabha saying:

“This man has discarded the law and all sense of good and evil. He is bent upon committing a crime and a sin.”

पापस्य अस्य नृशंसस्य  त्यक्त धर्मस्य  दुर्मते

नोत्सहे अनर्थ संयुक्ता श्रोतुं वाचः  कथं चन

In the Shantiparva, the principle of diplomatic immunity is affirmed even more strongly, and it is said that a king who kills an envoy goes to hell.

न तु हन्यान्नृपो जातु दूतं  कसयांचीदापदि

दूतस्य हन्ता नरकमाविशेत  सचिवैः सह

In the Arthashastra, Kautilya says:

“Kings can only speak through their ambassadors (doota mukha vai rajanah).An ambassador must, even in the face of weapons raised against him, express his mission exactly in accordance with his instructions. Therefore, an ambassador cannot be put to death. His speech is really the speech of another. This is the law relating to the status of ambassadors.”

दूतमुखा वै राजानः त्वं च अन्ये च

तस्मात् उद्यतेषु अपि शास्त्रेषु  यथोक्तं  वक्तारः तेषां अंतवसायिनो अपि अवध्या

परस्य एतत वाक्यमेष दूतधर्मः इति

 

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