A NATURAL POLITICIAN
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.
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