A Cold Autumn Morning in Srinagar

It was early morning end October 1961 at the Tourist Reception Centre in Srinagar. We were a bunch of hundred odd new entrants called probationers belonging to the Indian Foreign Service and the Indian Administrative Service undergoing training to man India's diplomatic missions abroad and civil service jobs all over India. We had arrived from Mussourie by train to Udhampur and a day long bumpy journey in military trucks for attachment with military units in Jammu and Kashmir for a feel of army life and its mission, learn about the state's administration and savor its fabulous scenic and historic sights. Reaching late the night before and fatigued we had hastily washed up, had our dinner and went promptly to sleep. We were now waiting for water to be heated up in tin canisters to shower and cleanse ourselves. 

We had completed a 16 week long common basic training course along with entrants from other services like; Police, Railways, Audit and Accounts, Customs, Excise and Income tax at Indian Academy of Administration in the sylvan surroundings of Mussourie, a hill station in Uttar Pradesh, built up by the British to escape the sizzling heat of the plains. Apart from learning the basics of history, law, economics and other subjects, this course provided an opportunity to befriend other civil servants for possibly later in life resolving problems involving inter-services cooperation and coordination. Our class of 1961 remains close, meeting once a month for lunch in Delhi or elsewhere, a practice still on after retirement, though not that regularly .

There were only five lady probationers out of around 275, unlike later batches with a larger lady numbers and no romance blossomed resulting in matrimony. In the absence of much private industry with most of the development undertaken by the state, the civil services were the most sought after profession with senior bureaucrats and well off parents turning up to bag bridegrooms for their daughters. We were young, mostly between 22 years and 25 years, fresh from universities, uncorrupted and idealistic who could be molded into upright servants of the state. As if a life long role of a policeman, a diplomat or an administrator was allotted which we tried to live up, to the best of our ability. Barring some black sheep, most remained upright and honest civil servants unlike now when the black sheep appear to be preponderant, with some states even voting for the most corrupt officer.

Fortunately in 1960s the ruling political class was yet to be criminalized or in collusion with money bags. Unlike today, there was little presence of cine film stars or sportsmen who now seamlessly move into politics turning politics into a Nautanki 'almost a charade. Barring exceptions, behind most frauds and crimes in India now; from Telgi to Satyam there is a political hand. With little statutory protection life is difficult for honest and upright civil servants. An IAS officer from northern state told me in 1976 that ministers and other politicians at least showed some sense of shame when accepting bribes but in ten years time the officers felt embarrassed while the politicians blithely took bribes or indulged in other wrong doings. Some two decades ago an upstart loud mouthed minister in Delhi described the head of his department as nothing more than a servant to obey his dictates. 

Reportedly jobs are sold and promotions and transfers are sometimes auctioned. So, many entrants into civil services today in a highly corrupted environment wanting to make a fast buck join the bandwagon of one politician or the other. Among the law makers now there are many proclaimed criminals, village goons or urban riff raff who pride in breaking the laws. A 1995 report by NN Vohra, a former Union home secretary observed, "A network of mafias is virtually running a parallel government in India, pushing the state apparatus into irrelevance." The report recognized that "a cancerous growth of criminal gangs, drug mafias, smuggling gangs and economic lobbies in the country had developed an intensive network of contacts with bureaucrats and politicians." The lawmakers can be seen fighting in central and state legislators, a habit fast spreading among other sections of the society .Elections is only a tool of democracy. Rule of law, equality of all before law is the essence of democracy. Unfortunately even the judiciary has been infected with many retired and serving judicial luminaries bemoaning this fact corroborated by Transparency International and Human Rights Watch. 

Preoccupied with grabbing power and hanging on to it by hook or crook, the barely educated ruling elite would hardly comprehend that most nations or empires beginning from the Roman, then the Byzantines or Arabs or the Ottomans had origins of decay and fall in the corrosion and dismantling of the ruling institutions. The Indian scene is reminiscent of the decaying Mughal era. Unfortunately the founding fathers of the Indian Constitution, straight jacketed a vast and diverse country like India into the British Isles two party system with no possibility of review and change. Having been ruled and educated under the British they knew no better. Many countries have chopped and changed Constitutions when necessary to accommodate new facts and problems or even jettisoned them. These include among others France, Russia, Turkey, Israel. But being worshipper of ancient traditions we would if we could be governed by old scriptures. Coalition regimes are being enshrined as another form of Dharma, as if derived from Puranas or Vedas. It has made politics a daily theatre with peoples interest a major casualty.

But let us revert to that cold autumn morning in Srinagar. There were five of us sharing a largish room awaiting hot water to be brought up to the bathroom. One of us would not wait .He marched in, had a shower and came out muttering some mantras, looking pink and fresh as daisy as if it was the most natural thing to do. Almost shivering we were awed. Tall and wiry with shaven head and a military gait he had a Brahmchari's (celibate's) gaze and halo. Some of us wondered if he had not wandered up from the Military Academy in Dehradun down below. With his abstemious and austere habits some called him Buddha .His name is Tejender Khanna, who now sports an aging matinee idol like elegant silvery full hair, into his second tenure as the Lt Governor of Delhi state. Yes, sometimes he gets into trouble for plain speaking. A successful Punjab state officer he retired as department head of the commerce and trade ministry in New Delhi. 

This nonchalant act of bravado inspired another probationer to do like wise. So murmuring a Ghalib couplet, he duly entered the bathroom while others watched for an encore. After some gurgling noise of a running tap there was a shriek and then quiet. But soon things cleared up. The bathroom door clanged open and coming out completely dry, he mumbled, "the water is freezing cold ". "But what was that shriek for", we asked. "Well, I was only testing the water with my finger." Careful as if born with a goatee this was Mohammad Hamid Ansari, who before being elected to the office of the Vice-President of India served as Chairman of the Minorities Commission and Vice-Chancellor of his Alma mater at Aligarh. He was a distinguished diplomat having headed Indian missions in New York, Riyadh, Tehran, Kabul, Canberra and Abu Dhabi. 

While all this was happening another probationer, just coming out of sleep, raised his head slightly, but still tucked under the quilt and took in the whole scene in one swift glance. His eyes fell on the adjoining bed which was already done nice and proper, everything in order with slippers under the bed. Looking at the occupant of this bed, irritated, he enquired, 'Perhaps you can also cook . You seem to be so well organized, why would you ever need to get married, you joker". This was Jimmy Lyngdoh, who after retirement became the Chief Election Commissioner of India and established a high bench mark for honesty and probity and took no nonsense from interfering politicos, specially while supervising elections in controversy riddled state of Gujarat in 2003. The one who received a mouthful was gentleman diplomat Satinder Puri. He married a Polish lady after overcoming many hurdles. He was last heard having settled around Milan, where he was once posted, reportedly running a restaurant . 

K Gajendra Singh, Indian ambassador (retired), served as ambassador to Turkey and Azerbaijan from August 1992 to April 1996. Prior to that, he served terms as ambassador to Jordan, Romania and Senegal. He is currently chairman of the Foundation for Indo-Turkic Studies. Copy right with the author.


More by :  K. Gajendra Singh

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