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Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Intertwined Lives PN Haksar and Indira Gandhi: Jairam Ramesh

Indira Gandhi and PN Haksar

Earlier in the year, I read the biography of PN Haksar by Jairam Ramesh (Intertwined Lives PN Haskar and Indira Gandhi). It details the history of the Indira era and the key role Haksar played from mid 1960s to mid 1970s in influencing and shaping policies that determined the political and economic future of India. Although, he was officially in the Prime Minister’s Office only for a little over five years.

The biography provides a balanced perspective of the tumultuous decades after the passing away of Jawaharlal Nehru and the ascendency of Indira Gandhi. It also gives extraordinary details of economic policies that Haksar initiated.

With the wisdom of the hindsight, and after witnessing the rapid reduction in poverty economic liberalisation has achieved in India, it would perhaps be easy to criticize these policies because by all accounts these policies put India in a backward trajectory economically.  

And so strong was the socialistic influence that even in the 1980s, when both Indira and Rajiv Gandhi governments tried to push through for some sort of liberalisation, they had to face daunting difficulties from entrenched political forces and had to satisfy themselves with half measures.

It was only in the 1990s, when the Indian economy was in absolute doldrums, that the governments of Chandrasekhar and PV Narasimha Rao had little choice but to reluctantly embark upon economic liberalisation. The rapid economic strides the abolishing of controls achieved was so stupendous that there was no looking back.

Today, irrespective of the political party in power in New Delhi, economic liberalisation is an established process. Being away from India and looking from the outside with a degree of detachment, one occasionally does get more than a bit frustrated at the sluggish pace of reforms. But the exigences of popular politics makes it impossible for any government to go forward wholeheartedly and rapidly and abandon unnecessary controls.

In the last two decades, political cronyism in the name of economic liberalisation has led to unprecedented inequalities in income and wealth in India (and indeed globally). The gap between the rich and the poor is so vast and growing so rapidly that it will soon become impossible to manage, forcing the ruling establishment to reintroduce controls that PN Haksar and Indira Gandhi had introduced and that led to economic atrophy.

Haksar was a civil servant moulded by Nehruvian idealism and believed in the principle of secularism as fervently as he believed in socialist democracy. Like many others of his generation, Haksar saw in Nehru the future that India deserved.

Nehru epitomised the combination of all the right values. “Secularism in thought and action, honesty, integrity and hard work as ethical compulsions, austerity, national pride, sustained by intellectual and spiritual self-reliance and some regard for the scientific temper: these are some of the essential elements of the new value system.”

Jairam Ramesh writes, “When it came to secularism, Haksar was uncompromisingly Nehruvian— that the State had no business promoting the interests of any one religious community and that communalism of all kinds need to be combated unapologetically.”

About Nehru, Haksar said:

That imperialism was a curse which should be lifted from the brows of men, that poverty was incompatible with civilization, that nationalism should be poised on a sense of international community, and that it was not sufficient to brood on these things when action was urgent and compelling—these were the principles which inspired and lent drive to Jawaharlal’s activities in the years of India’s struggle for freedom and made him not only an intense nationalist but one of the leading figures of humanism … No particular ideological doctrine could claim Jawaharlal for its own … Never religious in the routine sense, yet the culture of his own land meant a great deal to him. Never a rigid Marxist, yet he was deeply influenced by that theory and was particularly impressed by what he saw in the Soviet Union on his first visit there in 1927 … He himself was a socialist with an abhorrence for regimentation and a democrat who was anxious to reconcile his faith in civil liberty with the necessity of mitigating economic and social wretchedness … So the story of Jawaharlal is that of a man who evolved, who grew in storm and stress till he became the representative figure of much that was noble in his time...

In one of his innumerable missives to Indira Gandhi, Haksar said:

We cannot practice superstition and worship science; we cannot practice communalism and preach secularism; we cannot incite regional and linguistic passions and claim to be the foremost protagonists of the concept of Indian citizenship; we cannot promote egalitarian concepts of socialism and remain tied to hierarchy of caste and class.
Haskar’s interpretation of secularism was classically European – the complete separate of religion and the state. It must be emphasized that the Nehruvian interpretation was that the state treat all religion equally. Haksar said:

If the words secular, secularism and secularization are to be understood as part and parcel of a universal process of secularization of the human mind, then we have inflicted enormous damage on the nation-building process in India, by totally unacceptable and false translation of the word secular and secularism by equating them to the doctrine of religious tolerance expressed in the words like Dharma-nirpekshta and Sarva Dharma Samabhava. These translations have produced great schizophrenia in our politics which, in time, has produced the situation with which we are now actually confronted in Punjab and Kashmir …There is one more question which needs to be answered: What is the relationship between religion, howsoever defined, and processes of secularization. Is this relationship inherently antagonistic? The answer is no. The process of secularization merely leads to finding the domain of each, both at the level of the individual and of society and state. That is why the word “Secular” …means “concerned with affairs of this world, not “spiritual or sacred”. It is to be hoped that if the Republic of India is not to degenerate into a state of anarchy, the time has come to come to grips with the real meaning of such words like “secularism” and "fundamentalism".
We have also added to confusion by saying that to be secular is to give equal respect to all religions. This is totally false. That we should respect all religions equally is the duty of all human beings who call themselves civilized for it embodies the meaning and substance of the word “tolerance’. Also, there is a misconception about the relationship between the words “secular” and “religion”. One can be deeply religious and yet be secular when it comes to matters relating to the public domains. And politics is concerned with matters of the public domain … When you mix the two domains in the name of religion, you have the phenomenon of rise of fundamentalism of one sort or another. I have also a feeling that despite my deepest respect for the life and work of Jawaharlal Nehru, it was a grave error to codify Hindu laws instead of having a uniform civil code. If we have one criminal law for all the citizens of the Republic of India and one law in respect of Income Tax, transfer of property etc., there is no reason to have separate codes for the Hindus and Muslims. All these distortions are the products of our not being able to think clearly about our past, present and future.
He goaded Mrs. Gandhi to follow the straight and narrow path of secularism when it appeared that the Congress would be losing its supremacy with the Indian electorate in the 1960s. He wrote to Mrs. Gandhi and said what probably nobody else would:

The election results will soon be out … One has to show accommodation too for those one may not quite approve of. But if the Congress wishes to produce bread for the people, gradually adopt the tractor as its symbol rather than the Cow or the Bullock and do all this while preserving our national dignity and without sacrificing our liberty there is no other choice except one. Otherwise the Cow and its dung will overwhelm us. One does not jettison one’s convictions about right and wrong merely because one comes up against difficulties. If the concept of secularism is right and valid, then those who believe in it must fight for it, whatever the consequences and difficulties. 
Haksar was also clear in his mind about the responsibilities of the capitalist class towards the society. He wrote to Mrs. Gandhi, after her re-election in 1980.

Getting and spending we lay waste our hours, is there nothing in this world which is ours” From time to time you speak feelingly about things. You spoke of the ‘healing touch’ in 1980. It just failed to get translated into action. You have spoken again about a healing touch … I was just wondering whether it is beyond the capacity of the Birlas, the Modis, the Tatas, the Mafatlals, et al who have lived off the fat of the land to gather together in response to your call for a healing touch, to bring sustenance, succor and support to those families— be they in Bhiwandi or Punjab, who have suffered …

Haksar was a key member of the Indian team led by Mrs. Gandhi that negotiated the Simla agreement in 1972 after the Indo-Pak war of 1971. Ramesh notes:

Haksar had called on President Bhutto at the latter’s residence in Islamabad on 27 July 1973, and at the end of the conversation, this exchange took place:
Haksar: Finally, if you permit me, Mr President, I would like to say something most respectfully. I am not a historian. (Pointing to the picture of a Buddha on the wall). What do you feel about the picture? Is, or is not that a part of Pakistan?
President Bhutto: I respect Buddha.
Haksar: Then, Mr. President, May I humbly ask, why do you talk of confrontation of thousand years? Are you in conflict with your own history? Is Pakistan in conflict with its own personality? To talk of confrontation has impact on the minds and hearts of people in India and Pakistan. It will be picked by the wrong type of people in India. Is that a contribution to durable peace in the sub-continent … You said Sindhi language is 5000 years old. Is there a confrontation in Sind between the last one thousand years and the previous 4000 years? I beg of you, Mr. President, to think it over the implications of the pronouncements about confrontation of a thousand years …
President Bhutto: I will say less of it in future (President looked embarrassed and confused and said “it was for internal …” but did not complete the sentence).
Haksar’s contribution to the defining, building and remaking of the Indian nation continued for the next three decades almost until his death. The biography is a remarkable account of the man not many in India would remember today.

The post below is a reproduction of the exchange of letters between PN Haksar and JRD Tata.

Image: https://www.thequint.com/lifestyle/books/how-indira-gandhi-emotionally-blackmailed-pn-haksar-to-come-back

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