P.N. Dhar 1919-2012
CONTEMPORARY Indian history is notoriously difficult to reconstruct. One reason for this is the paucity of and access to private papers of some of the principal actors. P.N. Dhar who passed away on July 19 at the age of 94, was a remarkable exception to this generalization. He handled important pieces of history-in-the-making in the 1970s and then left behind an account of his life. Whatever the verdict on his memoirs, (Indira Gandhi, the ‘Emergency’ and Indian Democracy, 2000) and the work that he did in his life, what cannot be denied is that no account of the Emergency years can ever be written without recourse to Dhar’s book on that period. For this alone posterity and especially students of history should be grateful to him.
In a literal sense Dhar saab’s death – all those who knew him will always remember him by that fond epithet – closes an era. Those of his generation and kin who were closely involved with ruling India in the late 1960s and 1970s – P.N. Haksar, D.P. Dhar, Romesh Thapar, Mohan Kumarmangalam – all predeceased him. Ashok Mitra is perhaps the only one alive with a store of anecdotes about how the PMO was run and history made under Indira Gandhi before her authoritarian turn. In one sense, these were years of hope and illusion when some enlightened people believed India could be ruled through a closely controlled network of the best and the brightest.
The saab that was invariably added to the surname Dhar was not suggestive of any westernized lineage. P.N. Dhar had none. Rather, that suffix referred to his dignity and his old world charm. He and his wife Sheila epitomized in their hospitality and their manners the vanishing culture of old Delhi.
P.N. Dhar, as he recounted in the very first line of his memoirs, was descended from a family of Unani hakims based in Srinagar. Born in 1919, he went to school in Srinagar and did his undergraduate studies at S.P. College. He then came for his post-graduation to Delhi to study economics in Hindu College where he was taught by B.N. Ganguli.
His youth was not an easy time as he lost his father immediately after he had finished his masters degree. He got a job as a lecturer in economics at Edwardes College in Peshawar. He came back to Srinagar for a brief stint and was then recruited by Hindu College in Delhi. It is interesting that Dhar saab was selected to go to Cambridge on a scholarship but could not avail of this because of an adverse police record. He was one of the earliest to join the Delhi School of Economics in 1948. In 1958, he moved to the Institute of Economic Growth of which he became the director.
The turning point of P.N. Dhar’s career was a letter he received from Indira Gandhi in September 1966. In this letter the prime minister requested him to be part of a small and informal group she was forming to discuss critical economic issues. This was his first step into the corridors of power in New Delhi. He later joined Mrs Gandhi’s secretariat as an advisor and then succeeded P.N. Haksar as her principal secretary. He was thus a key player in the making of some of the major events of the early 1970s – the liberation of Bangladesh, the Simla Accord, the takeover of Sikkim, the JP movement and, of course, the Emergency. He tried to bring about a rapprochement between Jayprakash Narayan and Mrs Gandhi. But this was not to be. With the onset of the Emergency and the rise of Sanjay Gandhi, he informed the prime minister that he would like to quit but was persuaded by her not to. A single line in his memoirs suggests that he later rued his decision not to leave.
Even though he was out of tune with what happened during the Emergency, he carried on with his duties as a loyal bureaucrat. His recollection of the Emergency was dispassionate. Indira Gandhi once told P.N. Dhar to his face that he was ‘too academic and too detached.’ Perhaps this was Dhar saab’s mode of survival when he found time to be out of joint.
His end was long in coming and he resented that. He was not an easy man to know, but to those who felt the warmth of his friendship and affection knew him to be a loyal friend. An ineffable graciousness departs from Delhi with his passing.