A NAT­U­RAL POLITI­CIAN

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Ex­cerpts from for­mer en­vi­ron­ment min­is­ter Jairam Ramesh’s new book, Indira Gandhi: A Life in Na­ture

In his new book, Indira Gandhi: A Life in Na­ture, Jairam Ramesh dis­plays some deft foot­work in walk­ing the line be­tween ha­giog­ra­phy and can­dour. The Congress vet­eran has a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing in­de­pen­dent-minded to the point of be­ing a po­lit­i­cal in­con­ve­nience (some­thing he demon­strated in his term as en­vi­ron­ment min­is­ter) but his loy­al­ties have never been in ques­tion ei­ther. While this book is cer­tainly in­tended to ce­ment the iconic if not uni­ver­sally-loved for­mer PM’s de­served rep­u­ta­tion as a cham­pion of na­ture in gen­eral and wildlife pro­tec­tion in par­tic­u­lar, it does thank­fully stop short of the fawn­ing prose Mrs Gandhi no­to­ri­ously en­cour­aged in her day. And there’s plenty in this es­sen­tially anec­do­tal vol­ume to de­light both loy­al­ists and scep­tics—among them a few wink­ing asides, no­tably this clas­sic: “I was un­able to get some of her [Indira’s] letters to her younger son San­jay—his widow told me that ‘deemaks’ have eaten them away over the years.…” Ex­cerpts:

THE FIRST FAM­ILY AND OTHER AN­I­MALS

For four­teen years, Indira Gandhi lived in Teen Murti House, the prime min­is­ter’s of­fi­cial res­i­dence in a lush green 65-acre com­plex with pea­cocks and var­i­ous other birds. This sprawl­ing colo­nialera bun­ga­low was orig­i­nally built for the Bri­tish com­man­der-in-chief who started liv­ing there in 1930. When Ma­hatma Gandhi was as­sas­si­nated on Jan­uary 30, 1948, there was con­cern that Nehru might be the next tar­get. A re­luc­tant Nehru was per­suaded by his cab­i­net to move into the bun­ga­low, which he did on Au­gust 2, 1948. Indira Gandhi shut­tled back and forth be­tween Luc­know and New Delhi, be­fore mov­ing in full-time with her fa­ther in early 1950. The prime min­is­ter’s res­i­dence was a mini-zoo of sorts—as graph­i­cally de­scribed by Indira Gandhi her­self seven years into her stay there:

We al­ways had dogs, the good kind with long pedi­grees and oth­ers res­cued off the streets that were just as de­voted—also par­rots, pi­geons, squir­rels and prac­ti­cally ev­ery small crea­ture com­mon to the In­dian scene. And we thought life was pretty full, look­ing af­ter them on top of all the older [sic] chores. Then in As­sam, we were pre­sented with a baby cat-bear (or red Hi­malayan panda), al­though we did not know what it was un­til we reached Agar­tala and were able to study the book of In­dian an­i­mals in the Com­mis­sioner’s li­brary [...] Much later we got him a mate [...] and now they have the most adorable lit­tle cubs—the first, I be­lieve, to be

bred in cap­tiv­ity. My fa­ther calls on the panda fam­ily morn­ing and evening. They miss him when he is out of sta­tion ....

Two years ago, we re­ceived our first tiger cubs—there were three named Bhim, Bhairav and Hidimba. A man came from Luc­know Zoo to teach us how to look af­ter them [...Af­ter a while] we sent them off to the Luc­know Zoo where you can still meet Bhim and Hidimba; mag­nif­i­cent beasts, their mus­cles rip­pling with power and grace. [Mar­shal] Tito asked for one of them and Bhairav now re­sides in Bel­grade.

FIND­ING FAVOUR

Less than a fort­night af­ter tak­ing the hugely con­tro­ver­sial step of de­valu­ing the In­dian ru­pee and open­ing up the econ­omy, Indira Gandhi em­barked on a four-day tour of the hill districts of Ut­tar Pradesh. Af­ter land­ing by heli­copter in Ut­tarkashi on June 16, she was re­ceived by the 29-year-old district mag­is­trate Man­mo­han ‘Moni’ Mal­houtra. They drove to the rest house where Indira Gandhi’s po­lit­i­cal col­leagues were wait­ing. There, she talked to them, af­ter which Mal­houtra and Indira Gandhi had a con­ver­sa­tion on ad­min­is­tra­tive is­sues in the district, which be­gan thus—as re­called to me by Mal­houtra: Indira Gandhi: Well, my peo­ple tell me you are not be­ing very help­ful to them.

Moni Mal­houtra: Madam, you mean help­ful or pli­ant? Sucheta Kri­palani (chief min­is­ter of UP): Indi­raji, he is one of our finest of­fi­cers.

...A month later, on July 20, she vis­ited Ut­tarkashi again—but this time with no en­tourage and with­out any fan­fare what­so­ever. She had come with her sons for a four-day pri­vate hol­i­day at Har­sil, a re­mote vil­lage that had no tele­phone and tele­graph fa­cil­i­ties. As pro­to­col de­manded, Mal­houtra was in at­ten­dance. In this des­o­late place, the prime min­is­ter and he con­versed about life in the moun­tains, trekking and books.

Indira Gandhi flew back to New Delhi on July 23. Three months later Mal­houtra was told that he had to move to the prime min­is­ter’s sec­re­tar­iat as an un­der-sec­re­tary—the low­est po­si­tion in the In­dian Ad­min­is­tra­tive Ser­vice (IAS) hi­er­ar­chy in the Govern­ment of In­dia. There was no for­mal of­fice or­der re­gard­ing what ex­actly he was sup­posed to do but, as it turned out, Mal­houtra was to as­sist the prime min­is­ter di­rectly on en­vi­ron­men­tal sub­jects for seven years. This shows the non-hi­er­ar­chi­cal man­ner in which Indira Gandhi ran her sec­re­tar­iat for the first five-six years.

COLD WAR CLI­MATE CHANGE

The mon­soon had failed mis­er­ably in 1965 and 1966 and In­dia was forced to be a sup­pli­cant for wheat, es­pe­cially from the USA. This had con­trib­uted to Indira Gandhi’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to make In­dia self-suf­fi­cient in the pro­duc­tion of food­grains at the ear­li­est. Much has been writ­ten about this in her bi­ogra­phies and in the his­to­ries of the bi­lat­eral re­la­tion­ship be­tween In­dia and the USA.

But two suc­ces­sive mon­soon fail­ures also led to top-se­cret en­vi­ron­men­tal diplo­macy which has not been writ­ten about by any­one, ex­cept Amer­i­can his­to­rian Kris­tine Harper. With Indira Gandhi’s ap­proval in late 1966, the USA was to launch Project Gromet—a cloud seed­ing ven­ture by the US mil­i­tary in Bi­har and eastern Ut­tar Pradesh— in the early months of 1967. Pres­i­dent Lyn­don John­son and De­fence Sec­re­tary Robert McNa­mara were its great­est cham­pi­ons.

Gromet was not as in­no­cent and straight­for­ward as it ap­peared. It was very much part of the Cold War and linked with the use of the ‘weather weapon’ by the US mil­i­tary in Laos and Vietnam. It is in­con­ceiv­able that Indira Gandhi would have been un­aware of this, but what­ever ob­jec­tions she may have had would have found counter-ar­gu­ments by key ad­vi­sors like Vikram Sarab­hai who had been ap­pointed as the chair­man of the Atomic En­ergy Com­mis­sion in May; L.K. Jha, her sec­re­tary; and B.K. Nehru, In­dia’s am­bas­sador in the USA. It is a mea­sure of how weak she was po­lit­i­cally and how des­per­ate the sit­u­a­tion was agri­cul­tur­ally that she al­lowed her­self to be per­suaded to go along with Gromet, even though ul­ti­mately it amounted to noth­ing.

As it turned out, the mon­soon in 1967 and 1968 re­vived with­out this project. Be­sides, by then, new high-yield­ing crop va­ri­eties had started gen­er­at­ing en­thu­si­asm among farm­ers in Pun­jab and Haryana. The mo­ment of ex­treme dan­ger had passed. TILL THE COWS COME HOME

Novem­ber 7, 1966, had seen a most un­usual at­tack on Par­lia­ment. Thou­sands of sad­hus—many clad in saf­fron robes, oth­ers naked—staged an as­sault de­mand­ing a na­tional law to ban cow slaughter im­me­di­ately. Po­lice had to re­sort to fir­ing and a few of the pro­test­ers were killed. Indira Gandhi quickly se­cured the res­ig­na­tion of home min­is­ter Gulzari­lal Nanda, who was widely seen to be sym­pa­thetic to the ag­i­ta­tion­ists.

On June 29, she set up a high-pow­ered com­mit­tee to ex­am­ine the en­tire is­sue of a na­tional law to

GROMET, AN AMER­I­CAN CLOUD SEED­ING SCHEME, WAS PART OF THE COLD WAR. IT WAS A MEA­SURE OF HER PO­LIT­I­CAL WEAK­NESS THAT MRS GANDHI AL­LOWED HER­SELF TO GO ALONG WITH IT

ban cow slaughter. It was headed by A.K. Sarkar, a for­mer chief jus­tice of In­dia, and had, as its mem­bers, chief min­is­ters, po­lit­i­cal lead­ers, re­li­gious fig­ures, cow pro­tec­tion ac­tivists, an­i­mal hus­bandry ex­perts like Dr V. Kurien, and the then chair­man of the Agri­cul­tural Prices Com­mis­sion, Ashok Mi­tra. The high-pow­ered com­mit­tee was given six months to sub­mit its re­port.

Mean­while, con­ser­va­tion­ists got in­volved in the de­bate and, at the be­hest of Za­far Fute­hally, Dil­lon Ri­p­ley [the leg­endary or­nithol­o­gist] wrote to Indira Gandhi on Oc­to­ber 3 sug­gest­ing a study be con­ducted by the BNHS [Bom­bay Nat­u­ral His­tory So­ci­ety] and the Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion on In­dia’s cat­tle is­sue from the point of view of en­vi­ron­men­tal man­age­ment. He wrote:

I per­son­ally be­lieve that one of the most im­por­tant stud­ies that might be un­der­taken to­day is an eco­log­i­cal ap­proach to the age-old prob­lem of the impact of cat­tle on lands in In­dia.

I write at this time with some sense of ur­gency be­cause of the re­cent de­vel­op­ments which have led, I am in­formed, to the ap­point­ment of a com­mit­tee which will re­port to your Govern­ment on the is­sue of im­pos­ing a ban on the slaughter of cows through­out In­dia.

To en­sure that his let­ter got the prime min­is­ter’s per­sonal at­ten­tion, Ri­p­ley added a post­script:

I hope to come to Delhi soon and have a chance to speak once more to the Delhi Bird Watch­ing So­ci­ety. Salim Ali took me along with him to Bhutan this spring. Peter Jack­son joined us. We had a marvelous time and had won­der­ful bird­ing.

The let­ter was ac­knowl­edged a week later by an of­fi­cial in the prime min­is­ter’s sec­re­tar­iat. But the next month, on Novem­ber 7, In­dia’s US Am­bas­sador Ch­ester Bowles rep­ri­manded Dil­lon Ri­p­ley:

At my re­quest, my deputy Mr Greene, found an op­por­tu­nity the other day to sound out Mrs Gandhi’s right-hand man, P.N. Hak­sar, about your let­ter. Hak­sar read­ily con­firmed that it had been re­ceived […] and as much said he thought it bet­ter to leave the com­plex­i­ties of the cow prob­lem to the Govern­ment of In­dia. Mr Greene asked whether the Prime Min­is­ter had replied to your let­ter and was told that she had not; we in­fer that she prob­a­bly will not.

[…] It would help to get ac­cep­tance of projects in which you are in­ter­ested if you would for­ward them to us for com­ment and/or dis­cus­sion with the Govern­ment of In­dia, rather than di­rectly.

From then on, Ri­p­ley was to make sure that Salim Ali ap­proved all his letters to Indira Gandhi. As for the study, it never did take off and the cow pro­tec­tion com­mit­tee it­self was to keep meet­ing for 12 years till it was dis­banded in 1979 by Indira Gandhi’s suc­ces­sor. It never sub­mit­ted its re­port.

REP­RI­MANDED FOR TRY­ING TO AD­VISE THE PM ON COW SLAUGHTER, DIL­LON RI­P­LEY GOT SALIM ALI TO VET ALL HIS LETTERS TO INDIRA

Cover by NILANJAN DAS Dig­i­tal imag­ing by AMARJEET SINGH NAGI

Indira Gandhi: A Life in Na­ture Jairam Ramesh

‘WE RE­CEIVED OUR FIRST CUBS—BHIM, BHAIRAV AND HIDIMBA. WE SENT OFF BHIM & HIDIMBA TO THE LUC­KNOW ZOO, MAR­SHAL TITO TOOK BHAIRAV’

ON A YAK DUR­ING A TRIP TO BHUTAN IN 1958

AT THE BNHS (SALIM ALI IN THE BACK­GROUND) IN 1974

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