In memoriam

Jalal Alamgir 1971-2011

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IF there is such a thing as baraka, Jalal bhai seemed to have it. In Morocco, baraka is defined as a perceptible combination of divine blessing and protection. Storks who live in ruins are said to have baraka, so custodians urge visitors to take care not to disturb them. The majestic birds deserve wonder and respect. Their presence makes the ruins a place of peace, a place that God has blessed. Sufis speak of the baraka of their murshids or guides, the nur or God-given radiance of their faces. Those who have baraka are a blessing to the lives of others. Jalal bhai was brilliant, popular, and successful – a young, down-to-earth professor who always had words of encouragement and hilarious stories on hand. He did his PhD. in Political Science at Brown in a short span of four years, worked in consulting for another four years, and then joined the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

When I was consumed by stress ahead of my qualifying exams in 2007, he calmed me down by sharing his own battle stories and told me to simply look forward to gaining bragging rights after the exams. His incisive articles on politics around the world managed to capture complexity and nuance and he courageously advocated a more just approach by and for all. The ivory tower was clearly no match for his activism. When Jalal bhai got tenure, the news gave me hope in US academia’s capacity to embrace intellectual freedom and pluralism. It seemed only fitting that he be blessed with a fun and brilliant partner like Fazeela Morshed. During Jalal bhai’s sabbatical in Bangladesh this year, they embarked on adventures throughout Southeast Asia. It was impossible not to feel happy for such a wonderful, endearing couple and their picture perfect life.

On December 3, like many of his friends and admirers, I woke up to the news that Jalal bhai had drowned. Disbelief and sorrow have vied with each other to haunt me since then. The last time I felt this way was when my sister called to tell me that Edward Said had passed away. He didn’t get to see justice done, I had said. Both Said and Jalal bhai had chosen to bear burdens too heavy for most people.

Jalal bhai was an intellectual with an articulate conscience, a gifted writer who compellingly spoke against injustice with courage. Unlike many academics, he did not wait until he got tenure to express support for Palestine or to criticize imperialism, regardless of its source. He did not conform to the seemingly unavoidable exigencies of patronage politics. Recognizing the diversity of religious thought and experience was an integral part of his staunch secularism.

Jalal bhai took the time and made the effort to highlight the injustices too many of us just sigh at helplessly while scrolling down our newsfeed. There is much to miss: Jalal bhai’s sharp wit, his encouraging smile, his masterful storytelling. There is much to learn from the passionate way in which he lived life, the kindness and encouragement with which he spoke to others, and his refusal to subordinate ethics to politics. I don’t know if I believe in baraka, but from the depths of my heart I wish that something had protected him that day and protected us from this tremendous loss.

Sarah Shehabuddin


JALAL and I jokingly referred to ourselves as the ‘Bengalis of Wheatley fifth.’ UMass is certainly unique in that we worked at a university where not one but three Bangladeshis held office in the fifth floor of Wheatley. Myself, Jalal, and Professor Nurul Aman of the Economics Department often congregated in the halls of Wheatley fifth, and spent substantial time talking about the latest political developments in Bangladesh. We shared a mutual love of cricket, and exchanged notes on where to find the best biryani in town. Like any good Bengali, we would resort to speaking in Bangla, oblivious to whether others around us spoke the language, and poking fun at all things Bangladeshi. Jalal however always did this lovingly for he cared. He was critical yet deeply hopeful.

Anyone who has read his writings or witnessed his passion for politics and culture in Bangladesh knows this well. I admired and respected his work, his clarity, focus and integrity. I followed his writings, which appeared in so many venues – scholarly journals, popular media, literary magazines, and I came to rely on his astute analysis and perspectives on power and politics, local and global. Occasionally we appeared on panels together in Boston and beyond. Early in my career at UMass, he invited me to speak in a panel on Human Rights in Bangladesh at Harvard University to commemorate Bangladesh’s 35th year of independence. Barely into my second year as an Assistant Professor at UMass then, I was literally ‘shaking in my boots’ at the thought of having to sit on this panel with esteemed speakers such as Ayesha Jalal, Rounaq Jahan and Nazli Kibria. Jalal must have sensed my trepidation because he called me an hour before the panel, and jokingly inquired, ‘Aashteso to?’ (Are you going to show up?). He was laughing, but I knew that he was calling to make sure that I was feeling okay and to let me know that he had confidence in me.

This was a remarkable gathering that only someone like Jalal – a consummate bridge-builder – could have organized. He assembled some of the most renowned voices in South Asian academic circles, as well as activists, cultural groups, and a large contingency of interested community members. After the culminating event which was a dramatic performance of the 1971 war of liberation by the theatrical group, Amra Kojon of which Jalal was a member, participants and attendees in the packed auditorium cried together – so moved were they with the intensity of their emotions.

Of course, it would be a mistake to limit Jalal’s academic contributions to only Bangladesh, because his work spanned the globe both in terms of the topics he wrote about and their reach. Nevertheless, it bears asserting the real difference he was making in Bangladesh through his research and activism and the importance and urgency of the topics he analyzed. He was a beacon, an inspiration to the younger generation, and his untimely death has been called a loss to the nation by many prominent voices in Bangladesh.

Although we knew and admired Jalal as a distinguished academic and public intellectual, a charismatic teacher, and a brilliant administrator, he possessed at the same time a sensitive quality – as a colleague you could express your worries and vulnerabilities knowing that he would listen, support and not judge. Some years back, over lunch in the UMass cafeteria, perhaps on a stressful teaching day when I was feeling particularly doubtful about my abilities as an academic, I told him that I did not know how I ended up getting this job! With his kind and reassuring smile he said, ‘Well, I am not surprised that you did.’ Equally attractive was his playful side that made him a delight to be around. He was a masterful storyteller, and always had a joke up his sleeve. I particularly remember him at his tenure party so full of promise and humour! He and his partner, Fazeela Morshed – ever resplendent and happy together – were planning their sabbatical year in Dhaka, and we talked about meeting up there later in the year.

Kind, funny, smart, handsome, visionary – to use a cricket analogy – Jalal was what we would call an ‘all-rounder’. I am grateful that our paths crossed, albeit much too briefly. I miss him, and I don’t know when I will have the courage to walk down Wheatley Hall towards his office.

Elora Halim Chowdhury


A.K. Damodaran 1921-2012

Ambady Krishnan Damodaran was perhaps the last of a distinguished generation of Indian diplomats. At one level, they were pioneers, for they had joined the Indian Foreign Service in the early years after independence. At another level, they were already part of history, for they were the last lot who had first-hand experience of participating in the freedom movement. To this peculiar location they owed much of their ambition and energy, their political and moral orientation in the pursuit of India’s interests on the world stage.

A.K. Damodaran, ‘Damu’ to his numerous friends and admirers, had the added distinction of being the most intellectual member of this stellar group. Others might have risen higher in the service or crept closer to the seats of power, but few could match the perceptiveness of his grasp of international trends, the acuity of his analyses, and the clarity of his exposition. Damodaran had an exceptionally well-stocked mind – one that was matured by experience and leavened by humour. He also had an uncanny knack of ending up in places that offered him a ringside view of contemporary international history.

The roots of his achievement stretch back to his upbringing. Damodaran’s family was, for its time and social location, unusually intellectual. His father was a schoolmaster. The library at home introduced young Damodaran to the classics of English literature and history. His mother was a gifted scholar of Sanskrit and was responsible for nurturing his interest in Indian literature. One of his aunts had translated Tolstoy’s short stories into Malayalam. Another uncle gifted him a copy of Nehru’s recently published Autobiography. This book, he would later observe, gave ‘a more activist view of Indian politics’ to an entire generation of teenagers and political novices. It also introduced him to the major international questions of the times: imperialism, fascism and communism.

By the time Damodaran came to Madras Christian College in 1938, his literary and political sensibilities were well developed. It is not surprising, therefore, that he found himself in the thick of student nationalist politics, though he would maintain self-deprecatingly that it was his disastrous decision to pursue a BSc in Mathematics that was responsible for his entry into politics. In any event, his skill at public speaking soon propelled him to a prominent position in the Madras Students’ Organization, which was part of the All India Students’ Federation. Following his activism in the wake of Nehru’s arrest and trial at Gorakhpur in 1940, he was forced by the authorities to leave the college.

In June 1941, Damodaran returned home and joined St. Thomas’s College at Trichur. Two weeks later came the German invasion of the Soviet Union. In the ensuing months, Damodaran once again found himself plunged deep in student politics. This was intellectually and politically a turbulent period. Cracks were appearing in the progressive student movement over the question of supporting the war effort. The communists, of course, pushed this line. But Damodaran and other friends – left-leaning but non-communist – were closer to the Congress’ position on this issue and boycotted the Students’ Federation conference in January 1942. When the Quit India movement erupted later that year, Damodaran made fiery speeches in and around Ernakulum. He also joined the individual satyagraha in Cochin and was in jail from October 1942 to May 1943.

These months were dominated by political and literary discussions with a remarkable group of prison-mates, many of whom went on to important public careers in independent India. When his term ended, Damodaran was prodded by his family to forsake politics and concentrate on academics. He had, after all, managed to get through his final examinations in Mathematics. At their urging, he decided to go to Lucknow University in the summer of 1944 to simultaneously pursue a master’s degree in literature and law. Although he had some fine teachers in law – including a young lecturer on jurisprudence who would later become President of India, Shankar Dayal Sharma – Damodaran gravitated towards literature. On graduation in 1946, he took up a lectureship in English at Hindu College and subsequently at Commerce College and at Ramjas College, Delhi University.

The seven-year stint in the colleges was intellectually stimulating. The life of the mind and the company of the young were congenial to Damodaran. But he desisted from applying for scholarships to undertake doctoral work abroad – the natural course for a young man interested in the academe. Rather, he was keen all along to join the bureaucracy. These were the heady, early years after independence, when the prospect of building a new India drew the best and brightest to the government. In 1949, the government announced that those who had taken part in the 1942 movement and gone to jail could write the civil services examination even if they were over-age, up to 35. Here was the break that Damodaran was looking for. But to his dismay, he was not allowed to sit for the examination. His fellow-travelling politics was apparently unpalatable to the bureaucracy.

When he eventually took the examination in May 1952, he sailed through. By this time, he was clear that he wanted to join the Foreign Service. The final interview was presided over by none less than the prime minister – a rite that Damodaran would recall with relish. Nehru began in Hindi, asking him which year he had been in jail. The nervous Malayalee mixed up his Hindi numerals and blurted out ‘1945’. The puzzled prime minister asked him what had happened in 1945 that landed him in prison. Fortunately, the Joint Secretary on the interview board intervened and explained that the candidate meant ‘1942’. The rest of the interview went well and Damodaran was accepted in the Foreign Service. Soon, he was sent to the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University for a master’s in international relations. On completing the course, his diplomatic career formally began.

The interview with the prime minister, Damodaran would later recall, was ‘quite a wonderful experience.’ Nehru had charted an international course for India that stood apart from the polarities of the Cold War. Nonalignment was an approach designed to advance India’s interests with legitimacy. Damodaran grasped and internalized the key aims of nonalignment: to increase the space and capacity for autonomous action on the international stage, and to work towards a just and peaceful international order. Decades later, he would write that it was easy to forget ‘how dynamic, exciting and also, more important, positive, the concept of Nonalignment was, and is. The vagaries of language make Nonalignment appear negative. It is, in fact, a dynamic, aggressive and assertive policy.’

This policy, however, had to be practised in testing conditions. Not only were the superpowers edging towards confrontation in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but the Soviet Union and China were ideologically at loggerheads and the newly independent states of Asia and Africa were struggling to cope with the legacies of colonialism and to find common ground. This was historical backdrop against which Damodaran’s diplomatic career unfolded. Damodaran served in Prague, Bonn, Colombo, Berlin, Peking, Moscow, and was India’s ambassador in Rome. Each of these stints was eventful and memorable, but three of them stand out. Damodaran’s tenure in Germany coincided with a period of heightened tension in the relations between the superpowers over Berlin. He was in Bonn when the Berlin Wall was constructed in May 1961. Soon after, he went to Berlin as consul-general and came to know the Mayor, Willy Brandt, rather well.

By Damodaran’s own account, his most exciting stint was in Peking. He landed there in August 1963, just months after the Sino-Indian war, and stayed on till November 1965, when the Cultural Revolution was beginning. This was, by all accounts, a tough stint. The relations between India and China were bitter and acrimonious. By contrast, Sino-Pakistan relations were growing closer – a development that loomed large when war broke out between India and Pakistan in August 1965. On 16 September, the Chinese Foreign Ministry summoned the Indian charge d’affaires, Jagat Mehta, for a meeting at 3 am. Damodaran accompanied him to this meeting. The Chinese served an ultimatum demanding the demolition of Indian bunkers allegedly built across the border in Sikkim and the return of sheep and yak stolen by the Indians. Another ultimatum was dished out three days later. Mehta and Damodaran held their nerves and went against the grain of opinion in New Delhi by insisting that the Chinese would not intervene in the India-Pakistan conflict. They were proved right.

These were also the years when the Sino-Soviet split became public and irrevocable. Damodaran closely followed the polemics between the erstwhile socialist allies. Drawing on the fragmentary documents released by both countries to buttress their claims to leadership of the socialist bloc, he wrote a penetrating analysis of the importance of the Sino-Soviet split to the breakdown of relations between China and India in the run up to 1962. The conclusions of this paper, circulated to select colleagues in the foreign and prime minister’s office, hold up remarkably well in the light of all the new archival material now available in China and Russia.

Part of the reason for these sharp assessments was that Damodaran refused to let the rancour over the Sino-Indian war colour his view of Chinese behaviour. He believed that both countries had missed opportunities to settle their boundary dispute and that their relationship was subject to vagaries of the wider international context. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he refused to accept the narrative of Chinese ‘betrayal’ of India and held that the relationship could (and should) be normalized. Later in life, he would observe that, ‘We are two large nations, made not to worry about one momentary episode in our long histories.’

Equally challenging was his stint in Moscow starting in the late 1960s. In the aftermath of the Tashkent conference, the Soviet Union sought to advance its new-found influence in South Asia by adopting an evenhanded approach to India and Pakistan. Indeed, the Russians began to urge Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to settle disputes with Pakistan. Around the same time, Moscow dropped yet another bombshell by announcing military sales to Pakistan. In this context, Damodaran and his colleagues in Moscow had to ensure that Indo-Soviet relations did not slide all the way downhill. The clashes between Soviet and Chinese forces on the Ussuri River in early 1969 led Moscow to view India in more favourable light – as a counterweight to China in Asia. In this context, the two sides began working towards a treaty of friendship and cooperation. Much of the drafting on the Indian side was done by Damodaran under conditions of total secrecy. But Indira Gandhi decided against inking it in 1969-70.

The idea of a treaty was revived by India in the spring of 1971, following the outbreak of the Bangladesh crisis. Moscow was amenable to signing the treaty but did not share New Delhi’s assessment of the crisis. The Russians were averse to the fracturing of Pakistan. They believed that a breakaway East Bengal would be vulnerable to the influence of China. If the crisis turned into an India-Pakistan conflict, the resulting instability would redound to China’s advantage. In consequence, Moscow urged New Delhi to exercise restraint. Bringing the Soviet Union around to India’s position on the crisis, especially after the war began, was no easy task. Damodaran played an important role in this crucial effort.

Towards the end of his career, Damodaran worked with G. Parthasarathy to galvanize the Policy Planning Division of the Ministry of External Affairs. During this period, he wrote important papers on long-range strategic issues confronting India. He would recall, somewhat ruefully, that few people outside the division seemed to take much interest in its work. On retirement, Damodaran came into his own as scholar and intellectual. He wrote a book Jawaharlal Nehru: A Communicator and Democratic Leader and helped to edit the Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru. He also wrote and spoke extensively on international relations and foreign policy. His collected essays, Beyond Autonomy: Roots of India’s Foreign Policy, were published in 2000. The book has all the hallmarks of Damodaran’s approach to international relations: a keen sense for the necessity and limitations of power; a strong grasp of history; an Olympian detachment in analyzing recent events; a deep appreciation of the human element in international affairs. It should be required reading for all young scholars and practitioners of diplomacy and strategy.

Few diplomats have served India with as much distinction as A.K. Damodaran; fewer still with such wit, elegance and equanimity.

Srinath Raghavan