In memoriam

S.K. Singh 1932-2009

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S.K. Singh was a most unusual diplomat. He combined a deft and light touch with an ability to be at the centre of political controversy and contribute to a good but unexpected outcome. In this role he was often unique among his contemporaries. He belonged to the first generation of free India’s diplomats who carried their nationalism proudly in a hostile world.

Looking back at his career, certain turning points stand out for his role, for the evolution of his views, and for the development of India’s foreign policy. Perhaps the first was the decision on whether or not to sign the NPT when it emerged from the negotiating process in a less than satisfactory form. Conventional bureaucratic wisdom and the weight of seniority in the MEA argued for signing the treaty, flawed as it was, to avoid worse consequences. As a young Deputy Secretary, S.K. Singh used argument and reason, within and outside government, to mobilize opinion and avoid the mistake of permanently consigning India’s security to the hands of others by accepting the non-nuclear weapon status on offer in the NPT. That he was working in a government led by Indira Gandhi made this possible.

He was also often in the midst of the other abiding preoccupations that concern us to this day: Pakistan and Afghanistan. He was our Ambassador to Zia ul Haq’s rapidly Islamizing Pakistan and to Afghanistan when the West’s war against the Soviets in Afghanistan was declaring religious fanatics as freedom fighters. We all know what those two phenomena led to – for Pakistan, for Afghanistan, for global terrorism and for us in India. S.K. Singh was among the first to realize the implications of what were then new developments and, further, that they required a political and social response as much as a military one. He also saw very clearly how these had domestic implications for us in a multi-cultural, multi-religious and plural democracy, and the strains it could produce in our own polity.

This ability to think seamlessly about foreign and domestic policy marked S.K. out among his contemporaries. Very few of that first generation of Indian diplomats were able to do as he did, over and over again.

And that was where his lasting contribution to our internal polity also lies. As Governor of Arunachal Pradesh, he was able to knit together the strategic and domestic imperatives that should drive our policy in this geopolitically significant border state. Thanks to him we are now beginning to implement the promises to our people there when it was first formed into NEFA.

His life was an extraordinary personal journey as well – from Agra through Cambridge, to Tehran, Kabul, New York, Vienna, Islamabad, in innumerable capitals around the world, and back to Delhi, Itanagar and Jaipur. In Beirut and Kabul, he displayed rare physical courage. In Vienna, it was mental toughness of a very high order that he had to draw upon. In his lifetime, he inhabited many different worlds and saw the most rapid period of change that India has ever experienced in history.

That S.K. Singh was able to do so while making major contributions was because he hid a razor sharp mind behind a pleasant and polished demeanour. When young probationers of the Indian Foreign Service called on him, one of the first books he recommended to us was The Laughing Diplomat by Daniel Vare. He recommended the book not for the political views expressed, which were minimal, but for the lessons it taught of diplomatically maximizing a light hand in terms of power, and of the light word that turns away wrath. These were important lessons at a time when Indian diplomats had a lot to say but little influence on the course of global events.

The quality of his mind was also evident in the two innovations in MEA that he was a major contributor to. One was external publicity, or what would now be called soft power. His role before and during the birth of Bangladesh in ensuring that global public opinion saw our cause as just should never be underestimated. And it had direct political consequences in the subsequent failure of attempts to keep Bangladesh out of the comity of nations. It was also S.K. Singh who presided over the last major bout of administrative reform in MEA before the recent changes.

The other reason why S.K. Singh had an influence on policy disproportionate to his rank or official role was his human qualities. These gave him access and a hearing in the councils of power, and a reach in public life well beyond that enjoyed by a normal diplomat. His was a full life, well lived, a life that deserves to be celebrated.

S.K. Singh came from an era when civil servants thought of themselves as more than managers or implementers of other people’s policies. They saw themselves equally as contributors to public life with a distinct role to play. Being a civil servant did not absolve them of their duties and responsibilities as citizens. Indeed, they felt them more sharply.

As we have evolved practices, conventions and institutions in our democracy, this role of the civil servant as a contributor to public policy and debate has unfortunately shrunk. Are civil servants to be limited to the gossip on postings and promotions in ‘Whispers in the Corridor’? No thank you. Is there no longer a space in our political life for the reasoned, balanced and informed contribution that civil servants like S.K. Singh made to the national debate? Civil servants in India need to rediscover their calling, élan and chutzpah, all of which S.K. Singh had in abundant measure.

Shivshankar Menon