Arundhati Ghose: A Larger Than Life Reminder of What a Diplomat Can Do

Ghose leaves a legacy for the foreign service in which she served with such distinction: of integrity, of moral courage, of uncompromising intellectual honesty.

Arundhati Ghose’s death takes away from us one more of a rare and dwindling species, the legends of the foreign service. She would have hated that line and beaten me over the head, metaphorically, for writing it, dismissing it as cant, hyperbole and flattery, three cardinal sins in her book, but it simply is the truth. Tiny figure that she was, half of that too usually lost in the thick pall of smoke from one of her countless cigarettes, she was, as few are, larger than life. She was someone whom her seniors respected and her contemporaries admired, and everyone who grew up in her shadow in the service worshipped this side idolatry.

I was a probationer in 1972 on the Bangladesh desk, and she was posted in Dhaka when I first saw her. She was on consultations in Delhi, except that no one in the division seemed to recall having asked for her and no one at the Mission quite knew why she was here and not there! But no one had the nerve to bell the cat. Already, it was said in whispers, you didn’t mess with Arundhati Ghose. She had mothered the Awami League government-in-exile with a fierce protectiveness which the Bangladeshis she took under her wing still remembered with gratitude 16 years later, when I met some of them in Dhaka. They had worked with many Indians since then, but the one person they all asked about was their Chukudi, about whom, it seemed, they all had stories to tell. Including the former member of the Mukti Bahini, who said, with an embarrassed laugh, that during the bloodletting and settling of scores with the Razakars after the fall of Dhaka, he and his fellow vigilantes would come back each day to tell Ghose what they had done, seeking her approval, which she wouldn’t give. He now realised, he said, what an enormous strain they must have placed on her.

Already then, even more than now, the safe path through a career was the one well-trodden, trudging obediently in the footsteps of those ahead of you, stirring up as little dust as possible and never, never, never, questioning the wisdom of those who sent you there. This was in every sense much too pedestrian for Ghose. She believed passionately in causes and championed them to the hilt, whether it was wise or safe to do so or not. A brave few in the service had the courage to speak truth to power; she did it with a withering scorn and a gimlet stare that drilled holes in already hollow men. She was like an artiste on the high wire, performing without a safety net, all courage, focused determination, superb skill and the finest of balances, masked in such elegance that the viewer simply applauded, forgetting the risks she took.

All of these qualities were in full play in what was perhaps her finest hour, when, as India’s permanent representative in Geneva, she waged a battle single-handed as the negotiations on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) came down to the wire. India was in any case isolated, and weak negotiating before she took over meant that she inherited an even weaker hand. The vigour with which she defended India’s case surprised those who had become accustomed to its acquiescence or at best limp demurral.

The protagonists of the CTBT, primarily those who now no longer needed to test or could not, turned on her, throwing every rule of international negotiations out of the window and ending up with a frustrated tantrum, forcing into the treaty provisions to suck in a state that had said it would not sign it. That these countries, which pride themselves on having gifted civilisation and the rule of law to “lesser races”, were forced to this crass illegality was down to the Indian diplomat who ran rings around them, whom they could not face down or out-manoeuvre. Which made it easy for Ghose to mock them with the taunt that India would never sign this flawed treaty – not now, not ever.

It is one of my greatest regrets that I never worked with her. I was her successor twice removed in one of the committees she handled at the UN in New York, the Committee for Programme and Coordination, the site of pitched battles between the developed and developing worlds. Veterans of the committee and the UN Secretariat would still talk about Chuku Ghose going to war with anyone that dared to enter the lists with her. She usually won, but those she defeated seemed to have the fondest memories of her. For a diplomat, that is the ultimate accolade.

I met Ghose for the second time in 1985, when I was director in the foreign secretary’s office and she came to Delhi on consultations, this time authorised! By the 1980s, The Statesman was no longer the paper it used to be, but I used to take it because it carried the Times crossword. She walked into my office with the day’s Statesman under her arm, folded back to the last page, which showed that she was working on the crossword. I had mine on my desk. She saw it and her eyes lit up. Like an elder of a secret society pinning a badge of belonging on a neophyte, she gave me the benison of her approval. Or so I liked to think. From 1972, she had always had my almost awestruck adulation.

It was entirely like her that she did not want her last illness to become public knowledge. Like many others who were so fond of her, I was told, told not to tell others and above all not to let her know that we knew. So we knew for some time that she was dying, leaving this life as she had lived it, on her terms. But that does not diminish the loss for her family and her friends. She leaves, as not many have, a legacy for the foreign service in which she served with such distinction: of integrity, of moral courage, of uncompromising intellectual honesty. If her successors accept the responsibility of that legacy, Arundhati Ghose will not be forgotten, not now, not ever.

Satyabrata Pal is a former Indian diplomat.