Politics

Tony Jaitly, Administrator Who Helped Steer J&K In Its Most Troubled Years

Ashok Jaitly, former chief secretary of Jammu and Kashmir, speaking at a seminar at TERI in 2007. Photo: AMDA

Ashok Jaitly, former chief secretary of Jammu and Kashmir, speaking at a seminar at TERI in 2007. Photo: AMDA

Ashok (Tony) Jaitly of the 1964 batch of the Indian Administrative Service was among the earliest of the direct recruits to that service to be seconded to the IAS cadre of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. This was at a time when J&K, the only state in India with a constitution of its own, was moving to greater administrative integration with the Indian Union. Those of us that had the good fortune to be assigned to the state looked upon this assignment as a nation-building mission. In that mission our two icons were RK Takkar of the 1962 batch and Tony Jaitly, who was, like many of us, an alumnus of St Stephens’. He had gone from there to acquire a Master’s in Economics and a diploma in Development Studies from Cambridge.

Tony had served as Deputy Commissioner in the frontier district of Poonch during the 1965 war, then in the frontier district of Ladakh, a single district at the time headquartered in Leh, and in the winter capital, Jammu. Young and lithe of physique he brought an unmatched energy and commitment to the service that was admired by his juniors, and we discussed with awe his ability to command respect with a stern glance, something that we in our 20s, catapulted into positions hitherto considered in semi-feudal J&K to have been the preserve of the elderly, aspired to emulate. And it was in no small measure because of the road map charted by Tony that in those halcyon days young IAS officers were associated in the Kashmiri public mind with integrity and a commitment to development. Tony and Jaya (June), his wife at the time, were role models, their home, a cottage beside the MLAs’ hostel, a refuge of calm and astute guidance.

During the Janata Party rule of 1977-80, Tony, on deputation to the Centre, served as PS to then Industries Minister George Fernandes, during which time he succeeded in getting Cadbury’s to establish a juice plant in Sopore, the first multinational to invest in Kashmir. This factory is now a profit-earning asset of the State’s Horticulture Processing and Marketing Corporation, an institution that he had helped set up with World Bank finance. But in Delhi, Tony’s usual dedicated commitment to his work was misconstrued as political loyalty and his career suffered. Nevertheless, in those years of his being sidelined, his courage never flagged. On leave in Delhi in 1984, and witness to the tragedy that beset the Sikh community, he gave refuge to whom he could, was part of the Nagrik Ekta Manch, and later testified before the Nanavati Commission.

The real challenge was to come with the rise of militancy in J&K. When insurgency broke out in the state at the end of the 1980s, Tony’s support for officers unjustly victimised in the initial years of Governor’s rule earned him the Governor’s ire. He was transferred out of the state, where he had been serving under the Farooq Abdullah government, only to return briefly as Advisor to the Governor under Governor Krishna Rao. I was Commissioner, Kashmir, and staying in the neighbouring house in Gupkar Road at the time. We would exchange information from our adjoining terraces. Tony was concerned with the collapse of the school system. Finally, he was Chief Secretary under the National Conference government elected to power in 1996.

With the restoration of popular government, he was to remain Chief Secretary till his retirement in 2002. And his was the leading role, first in keeping the government running in the face of violence and then in ushering the by now troubled state and its shattered administration back to a semblance of peace and normalcy. This was not an easy task, and in engaging with it he lost the support of many friends. But today, when one looks upon J&K and the problems that it confronts, little different to the problems that confront other states, one needs to recall the contribution of this civil servant who always placed what he perceived to be the national interest before his own.

After retirement, he spent time as director of the water resources division at The Energy and Resources Institute. His passing relatively young will be a loss not only to his family including his wife Sabina, daughter danseuse Aditi and lawyer son Akshay, and his former wife Jaya, who continued to be a friend, and to his vast circle of friends and admirers, but to the nation and the passing of an unsung pillar to a generation whose passion for its integrity it might not see again.