For all its traditions of revering its sages and savants, this country is sadly deficient in the gift of honouring those who do it distinguished service. This has, let it be said right away, nothing to do with rewards. The truly great servants of a nation do not give a damn about rewards for services rendered. But surely there is such a thing as recognition. And, it, alas, is in short supply in India today.
Though governments do set the tone in such matters the fault is not that of the governmental system alone; the approach of the entire society seems flawed. After all, why are festschrifts so unknown in this land of 800 million people? The institution of abhinandan granths was degraded to the point of destruction long ago by turning it into a vehicle of sycophancy chiefly of those ensconced in power and of most of whom little trace survived their loss of office.
Under these circumstances, it is all the more remarkable that one of the few festschrifts worth the name to appear and receive critical acclaim is in honour of P.N. Haksar on the occasion of his 75th birthday. The tributes paid to him in this 228-page volume, competently edited by Bidyut Sarkar, are eminently well deserved. It is to the credit of the contributors that these stay well this side of the extravagant though there is no mistaking their warmth and sincerity. ‘This is perhaps for the first time,’ says K. Natwar Singh in the foreword, ‘that, a former civil servant has aroused such affectionate passion. But then PNH is no run-of-the-mill civil servant.’ However, the pertinent point is that Haksar has always been a lot more than a mere civil servant even though he did spend a quarter century of his life in the bureaucratic labyrinth, starting as a professional diplomat and ending his illustrious career as unquestionably the ablest and most upright chief counsellor Indira Gandhi ever had.
Some of the qualities which have made Haksar what he is have been listed by Natwar Singh: ‘A first-rate intellect, a deeply analytical mind…a flinty sense of humour, strong nerves, a love of truth, fearlessness, compassion, detachment, a horror of humbug and enormous moral stamina.’
To this Nikhil Chakravartty, one of the 26 contributors to the festschrift, who has known Haksar intimately for over half a century, has perceptively added that Haksar, though a man of strong convictions and firm opinions, never has a closed mind. ‘He would argue with conviction but try to understand other points of view,’ writes Chakravartty of the days, before the Second World War, when both of them were students in England.
Moreover it needs to be noted that, unlike the civil servants who dominated in the highest reaches of the bureaucracy until the mid-seventies and even beyond, Haksar is a child of the freedom movement in which he took part in its nerve-centre, Allahabad. He was 35 and was being talked of as a rising star at the Allahabad Bar when Jawaharlal Nehru drafted him into diplomacy. By then his worldview had been formed; those coming into contact with him used to be struck by the breadth of his vision, the depth of his convictions and the passion of his attachment to the values, ideals and causes he had made his own. It is this that had set him apart from the general run of mandarins and on this foundation was built his future spectacular role as Indira Gandhi’s top aide and adviser during what was undoubtedly her finest hour.
Even more remarkably, though not at all surprisingly, Haksar today is among the very few elder statesmen the country has. Natwar Singh is right in saying that he ‘holds a place in national life which many holders of high political office must envy’. Haksar is listened to with attention and respect even by those who might disagree with him completely. This is so because on all issues, national and international, he speaks without fear or favour, gives voice to the country’s conscience and accords primacy to the national interest, as he sees it. As a man steeped in science and rationality, he has spoken out against the sway the tantriks seem to enjoy over national politics and against the penchant of most politicians, whether in power or hoping to rule the country in future, to ‘wallow’ in the ‘primordial slime’ of superstition and sorcery.
To say all this is not to overlook that Haksar has also been controversial, especially at the peak of his power and influence, largely on two counts. First, his ‘pronouncedly leftist leanings’ which this product of the ‘Pink Thirties’ has never denied; and secondly, his alleged role in ‘concentrating too much power’ in the Prime Minister’s office which he has contested vehemently.
P.N. Dhar, who succeeded Haksar as Secretary to the Prime Minister, has devoted his entire contribution to the book to arguing that the power and reach of the Prime Minister’s office has been ‘greatly exaggerated’. But the issue cannot be said to have been disposed of and requires to be looked into more closely.
Like Dhar, several contributors have written about areas of national affairs and policy with which Haksar has been associated from time to time. From personal knowledge, these authors have provided useful insights into what Haksar tried to do in numerous areas, ranging from planning and science on the one hand to foreign policy and defence on the other. Fifteen others have concentrated more on Haksar the person and given fascinating glimpses of his personality.
Subimal Dutt’s essay in the second category and that of Dwarka Chatterjee in the first could easily be read together; Dutt has been refreshingly candid and Chatterjee, on some points referred to most elliptically, needlessly secretive.
Almost all the chapters merit careful reading. But even at the risk of being invidious, two might be chosen for a special mention. Alice Thorner, who first met Haksar in 1939 and was introduced to him by Krishna Menon, has done a splendid job of drawing Haksar’s portrait as an ‘earnest young man’. Arthur Gavshon, a journalist based in London during the years Haksar served there as a diplomat and evidently kept in touch later, is the only one to explore, though very briefly, Haksar’s fall from grace in Indira’s court and the reason for this distressing development.
The complexity and vicissitudes of Haksar’s relationship with the Prime Minister he served with diligence and devotion is not the only area of the life of this remarkable man which cries out for deeper study. Anyone reading the festschrift is bound to feel that a full-length biography of Haksar is called for. Whether anyone is attempting this worthwhile task is not known. But it is good news that Haksar, despite a serious eye ailment, is writing an autobiography.
Meanwhile, this review is best ended with an illuminating vignette mentioned by H.Y. Sharada Prasad in a superbly written short piece. It relates to the dramatic signing of the Simla Agreement between India and Pakistan in July 1972 when hopes of an accord being reached had been all but given up.
‘A couple of hours later, while driving back from Simla to a cottage called Dane’s Folly,’ records Sharada Prasad, ‘I remarked to Haksar and P.N. Dhar that it was, all in all, a day India could be satisfied with.
‘I recall what Haksar said in reply. ‘Ah, not until there is an agreement also with China.’
‘This consciousness of the challenges ahead, this habit of taking a longer look at things, at future history, is characteristic of Haksar.’
Inder Malhotra is a well known journalist; a former resident editor of The Times of India, currently a Nehru Fellow.