A Little Outside The Ring
Author: Rukun Advani
A Little Outside The Ring
By Rukun Advani
The recent reappearance in paperback of the memoirs of P.N. Dhar, who was Indira Gandhi's right-hand man in her heyday, alongside the recent death of R.N. Kao, former chief of the Research and Analysis Wing and one of the most powerful members of Indira Gandhi's "Kashmiri mafia", reminds me of the fact that an entire generation of incorruptible, suave, intellectually oriented and generally upper-class bureaucrats, formed by a Nehruvian version of Whitehall, are now either dead or on their last leg.
Of the Kashmiri Pandit subset within these, D.P. Dhar predeceased Indira Gandhi, P.N. Haksar died several years ago, T.N. Kaul died some months ago, B.K. Nehru died very recently, and we are lucky to still have with us the most intellectually eminent of what was once the Indian bureaucracy's "Gang of Four", the economist and author of several learned books, Professor P.N. Dhar.
In the most recent of his books — the one by which he will be remembered for as long as Indian political history of the last century is written — titled
Indira Gandhi, the 'Emergency', and Indian Democracy
(2000; paperback reprint 2001), Professor Dhar remarks that it was during the Bangladesh crisis of 1971 that Indira Gandhi first showed signs of becoming the autocrat she grew into by 1975: "She decided to take direct responsibility for meeting the crisis. This was adversely commented upon at that time by sections of the bureaucracy and politicians. The criticism was that she was trying to manage the crisis too tightly, with only a small group of officers to help. This group was dubbed the Kashmiri Mafia. In actual fact this group was nothing more than the kind of
committee which is often formed in the Indian administrative set-up…P.N.Haksar, secretary to the prime minister (later replaced by me), R.N. Kao, special secretary in charge of external intelligence, and T.N. Kaul, foreign secretary, were responsible for the epithet…"
The fact that this committee also included two non-Kashmiris, namely T. Swaminathan, the cabinet secretary, and K.B. Lall, the defence secretary, was overshadowed by the preponderance of advisors from the prime minister's own community. Despite Professor Dhar's gentle disclaimer, it was never much of a secret, and between the lines is apparent, even within his book, that Indira Gandhi liked tall, fair and handsome Kashmiri Pandits within her orbit. In Professor Dhar's case, this was a home truth of which he was often laughingly reminded by his late wife, the singer, writer and
Sheila Dhar, who said that he and his friends were all in love less with power and more with the PM.
Are there less informal sources of information on the professional doings of this group? Professor Dhar laments that in India, "people involved in policy-making seldom leave behind records of how they formulated policies and made decisions." Contrasting the lack of interest in archives and institutional memory in India with the developed tradition of such record-taking in the West, he points out that with the exception of V.P. Menon's writings (incidentally,
The Story of the Integration of the Indian States
remains in print
Orient Longman) there is really very little high-calibre work in this genre by the country's bureaucrats.
The Crossman diaries, the Kiss- inger memoirs, and the wittily enlightening recollections of John Kenneth Galbraith and Barbara Castle have no real Indian counterpart. Local accounts of tenures in power tend to become a mixture of narcissistic gossip and vainglorious self-aggrandisement.
This is true even of some of the memoirs written by Professor Dhar's Kashmiri friends. Apparently not very much can be said, or has been said, in favour of the several books written by T.N. Kaul. D.P. Dhar died of a sudden heart attack and did not write up his life. P.N. Haksar's slim autobiography, titled
One More Life,
is pleasant to read but does not manage to go as far in the direction of a memorable historical "life" as its author seemed capable of taking it, in part because Haksar did not stay in good health after its appearance; he was eventually prevented from writing a companion volume by blindness.
Nice Guys Finish Second
is much more highly rated, but then B.K.Nehru was not really part of Mrs G's innermost decision-making coterie. R.N. Kao who — like the other well-known Indian spy, Keki Daruwalla — came from a literature background, and who could therefore have been expected to write about himself, could only be persuaded to contribute to the Oral History Archive of Delhi's Teen Murti Library, and we have no autobiography of this urbane head sleuth who more or less created the country's premier intelligence-gathering body.
All this is further reason for us to count ourselves lucky in having Professor Dhar's incisive, informative and elegant autobiography, which covers, in the main, his professional life. Though not all reviewers of his book have agreed with what amounts to special pleading in his account of the Emergency, the value of having had a reporter of his skill provide us with an insider's account seems in retrospect to provide some mitigation to his decision to stick it out with Mrs G even during that dark period of her monarchy. Reviewers have also pointed out the great value of Professor Dhar's insights into the woman's mind in her relations with opponents such as Jayaprakash Narayan and confidantes such as Sanjay Gandhi; of his persuasive views on the shortcomings within India's top-heavy political edifice; of his succinctly informative historical account of the Sikkim takeover and the Bangladesh War; of his controversial account of the personalized nature of the Simla Agreement.
In writing this book, Professor Dhar locates himself with thinking decision-makers and scholar bureaucrats. No one who reads his memoir can fail to agree that, like V. P. Menon, he is far removed from the world of India's self-promoting
In fact, the problem for me, as his editor, was that the model Professor Dhar had in mind when writing seemed that of the 18th-century social observer, Joseph Addison, who, in his
essays, emphasized the writer's duty to observe and record as neutrally as possible.
Reticence and modesty are the recommended virtues in such writing — a complete contradiction of the standard Indian bureaucrat's deepest instincts and going against the grain of the sort of prose they write when they write at all. "Even while actively participating", says Professor Dhar, "I often had the feeling that I was standing a little outside the ring and watching events. I can only hope that this infirmity has helped my account to be dispassionate…"
Professor Dhar's virtuous infirmity is fortunately less manifest in the all-too-short first six chapters of the book, which record his life before he became the head of the prime minsiter's office. For my money, and speaking as one to whom emotive prose appeals more than information on a second-rate prime minister, these are the best chapters in Professor Dhar's book. Here, this foremost member of the Kashmiri Mafia writes of his humble Kashmiri origins as a schoolteacher's son, of middle-class life within the valley nearly a hundred years ago, of the peculiar nature of Kashmir's nationalist awakening in the time of Sheikh Abdullah, of everyday life in Srinagar and Peshawar.
This part of the book contains a little on Professor Dhar's directorship of New Delhi's Institute of Economic Growth, but not much on the early years of the Delhi School of Economics, of which he was a founder. Perhaps this too is a consequence of the author's "infirmity", a decision not to list himself with India's intellectual aristocracy. All the same, it seems worth remembering that, alongside luminaries such as Amartya Sen, Tapan Raychaudhuri, M.N. Srinivas, T.N. Srinivasan, Sukhomoy Chakravarty, Veena Das, André Béteille, and T.N. Madan (India's foremost economists and social theorists), we also have this examplar of Indian academic and bureaucratic integrity: P.N. Dhar.