Obituary: P. N. Haksar
Wednesday 02 December 1998
As principal secretary to Indira Gandhi and India's most powerful civil servant, Haksar played a major role in negotiating the 1972 Shimla Accord with Pakistan after the war that led to the breakaway East Pakistan becoming Bangladesh. His closeness to Gandhi made Haksar perhaps the only man privy to the secret negotiations concluded between her and the Pakistani prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto over the disputed northern province of Kashmir. It remains one of the world's most volatile flashpoints, where armed Muslim separatists have been waging a civil war for an Islamic homeland since 1989 that has claimed nearly 20,000 lives.
The secret deal that led to the Shimla Accord after Pakistan was defeated and with over 90,000 prisoners of war in Indian hands remains a mystery. When all negotiations between the two antagonists had broken down Gandhi and Bhutto decided to make one last attempt to break the impasse by meeting without aides. It is widely believed that only Haksar knew what transpired between the two that eventually led to the Shima Accord which also agreed to resolve the Kashmir dispute bilaterally. But he kept his counsel, revealing nothing despite severe provocation in recent years.
Haksar was best known for firmly establishing a tottering Indira Gandhi in office in the late 1960s after her Congress party won a bare majority in parliament and senior party leaders, known as the Syndicate considered her a gudia or doll. On advice from Haksar, whom she recalled from Vienna where he was ambassador, Gandhi acted swiftly, nationalising banks, abolishing royalty and introducing land reform policies, all measures geared to please the majority poor voters.
Then, after India had decisively defeated Pakistan in the 1971 war, Haksar persuaded Gandhi to call general elections a year early. Gandhi won a two-thirds parliamentary majority, decimating all her former party colleagues who had split the Congress after unsuccessfully conspiring to topple her.
Haksar's decline, however, began soon afterwards. Absolute power had clouded Gandhi's judgement and, believing she had mastered the art of political manipulation, she began to distance herself from Haksar. Gandhi's courtiers had also found a new mentor - her younger son Sanjay, a university dropout who believed in Fascism and mob rule as a means of political expression.
Jealous of Haksar's influence over his mother, Sanjay launched a successful campaign to oust the acerbic consigiliori that included plastering the walls of his house with slogans and publicly vilifying him. In 1973 Haksar was unceremoniously "dethroned" and appointed first vice- chairman of the planning commission and later chancellor of the newly founded Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.
Two years later Gandhi, facing indictment for electoral malpractice, declared an internal emergency at Sanjay's behest in which civil liberties were suspended, the press censored and people forcibly sterilised. After 19 months of authoritarian rule Gandhi was forced to call an election in which her Congress party was wiped out, forcing her into political oblivion. The belief at that time was that had Haksar been around events would not have taken such a drastic turn for Gandhi or India.
Born in Gujaranwala (now in Pakistan) into an upper-class Kashmiri Brahmin family in 1913, Haksar studied Sanskrit at home and took an MSc from Allahabad university in northern Uttar Pradesh state. He then went on to the London School of Economics before being called to the Bar from Lincoln's Inn in the early Forties. In London, Haksar was greatly influenced by socialism, a philosophy he adhered to in perpetuity.
On returning home he briefly practised law at Allahabad before joining the diplomatic service in 1947. He served as ambassador to Nigeria and Austria, then was appointed principal secretary by a politically beleaguered Indira Gandhi in 1967 and remained with her for six years. He also served as deputy high commissioner in London in the mid-1960s.
During his tenure with Gandhi Haksar enjoyed untrammelled power. It was said of him that he was "fortunate to have combined a capacity to think with the opportunity to act". Unlike his successors he used it constructively to try and resolve India's myriad problems in a practical, realistic and principled manner. He had nothing but contempt for the new breed of politicians and said as much publicly:
By the tonnes of flowers placed on Mahatma Gandhi's samadhi (mausoleum) every year on his birth anniversary, Indian politicians only bury the Mahatma's principals deeper and deeper.
Despite his sarcasm, biting wit and hugely abrasive and arrogant manner, P.N. Haksar was a kind and generous man who, even though nearly blind for many years, was amazingly well informed about local and international events and was constantly invited to speak at public functions. He also wrote several books including Premonitions (1979), One More Life (1990) and Reflections on our Times (1982).
Parmeshwar Narain Haksar, diplomat and political advisor: born Gujranwala, India 4 September 1913; Principal Secretary to Indira Gandhi 1967-73; Chief Negotiator, India-Pakistan-Bangladesh 1972-73; married Urmila Sapru (deceased; two daughters); died New Delhi 25 November 1998.
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