It is that time of the year again, the time when lobbying for the Padma awards is at its peak. I can testify from personal experience how sickening this can get. Perfectly normal, nice, talented and capable people from different walks of life would petition me to put in a word for a Padma Shri or a Padma Bhushan. Some with an exaggerated notion of my influence would even ask me to put in a word for a Padma Vibhushan. I would listen to all these eager aspirants and tell them about the system that is in place for deciding on these awards. But no, system or no system, I should, it was insisted, use my contacts to recommend their case.
Making history, quietly
It is in this context that the example of P.N. Haksar is worth recalling. Here was a man who was instrumental for the nationalisation of banks in July 1969 and for the abolition of privy purses and princely privileges in 1971. He had played a pivotal role in the events of 1971 leading up to the liberation of Bangladesh in mid-December that year. Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister who demonstrated magnificent leadership. General Sam Manekshaw was the Army chief who also demonstrated magnificent leadership. But the sutradhar of the events as they unfolded was Haksar in his capacity as Secretary to the Prime Minister.
It was he who had drafted the three letters of Mrs. Gandhi to U.S. President Richard Nixon of May 13, 1971, August 9, 1971 and most famously December 15, 1971 that have become the stuff of diplomatic history. It was he who got D.P. Dhar and T.N. Kaul to finalise the Indo-Soviet Treaty of August 1971 that gave our country added strength at a time when American and Chinese moves on the Bangladesh issue were not in our national interest. He retired on September 4, 1971 and went on two months’ leave. Mrs. Gandhi forced him out of retirement in late October and made him join her in her meetings with President Nixon in November and a month later got him back as her Principal Secretary. In 1972, he was to make the historic Shimla Agreement between Indira Gandhi and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto possible.
Duty as its own reward
Haksar retired as Principal Secretary on January 15, 1973. Undoubtedly, his extreme discomfort with and open opposition to the very controversial Maruti venture of the Prime Minister’s younger son precipitated and hastened his exit from her innermost circle. Two days later he wrote this letter to Govind Narain, the then Union Home Secretary:
“You spoke to me over the RAX yesterday morning and asked me with a rare sense of delicacy, if I would accept the Award of Padma Vibhushan for the Republic Day of 1973. You said that was PM’s desire that I should do so. You were good enough to give me some time to think it over. And this I have done. May I, first of all, say that the very thought that I should be given an award is by itself a great reward for whatever services I may have rendered as a public servant. I am grateful for this to the PM. However, I have a difficulty in accepting the award. All these years, I have often said to myself that one should work so that one can live with oneself without regret. This gave me a measure of inner tranquility and even courage. Accepting an award for work done somehow causes an inexplicable discomfort to me. I hope I will not be misunderstood. I repeat I am grateful for the thought that my services should be recognised. For me this is enough. I would beg you not to press me to accept the award itself. I shall be grateful if you will kindly convey to PM my deep and abiding gratitude for the privilege I had to serve under her.
“P N Haksar”
Thirty-six years later, Narain, himself a distinguished civil servant who had been Home Secretary during the 1971 war, was awarded and accepted the Padma Vibhushan. He was 93 years old then and may not have recalled the letter he had received from his illustrious colleague.
Actually a few weeks before he was offered the Padma Vibhushan himself, Haksar had done something even more blasphemous, as revealed in the diary of his colleague B.N. Tandon. When he saw a letter written by President V.V. Giri to the Prime Minister after the Bangladesh victory telling her that she was being awarded the Bharat Ratna, Haksar advised Mrs. Gandhi to politely tell the President that what he had done was not right and that she was not accepting the accolade.
Clearly, this man was unique. He thought different and acted different. He continues to be one of a kind — standing alone and standing tall.
Jairam Ramesh, a Member of Parliament, is writing an intellectual biography of P.N. Haksar.