Chandrashekhar (Shekhar) Dasgupta, a diplomat of great distinction and my closest friend, died on the morning of March 2. He was 83 years old. I had known him for 65 of those years.
We met at St. Stephen’s at the most intellectual ragging session in the history of the college. All it amounted to was a question on whether I believed in democracy. I tentatively suggested I did, but hardly had I got the word “Yes” off my lips than he thundered on about what a “bourgeois sham” it all was. I immediately began worshipping him.
He fed me endless articles from the China Economic Review about how brilliantly the Chinese were doing (actually some 50 million Chinese were dying of famine) and invoking the Communist Manifesto: “Workers of the World, unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains. You have a world to gain.”
Very soon, however, by the time he appeared for the Indian Foreign Service exam, he completely shed his Left leanings but not before he had totally persuaded me that Marx and Engels were the gods to follow. So, whenever he introduced me, he would explain, “We grew up together (pause) or, at any rate, I did”!
And when I passed the IFS exam, but our Intelligence Bureau labelled me a party cadre and insisted I be rejected as a security risk, until Jawaharlal Nehru brushed aside the unfounded allegation to order that I be inducted into the Service, it was Shekhar, whose rapier wit was legendary, who solemnly pronounced that in fact the government had found me to be a Marxist – “but of the Groucho variety”!
Many years later, when I started my column “Mani-Talk”, he suggested that the standard disavowal at the end be changed to: “The views expressed in this column are not even those of the author”!
It was witticisms like this that enlivened our friendship. He taught me to laugh at myself – the greatest lesson I have ever learned.
For his part, he not only taught himself the Russian language but actually took the Russian paper in his civil services exam. Having passed with flying colours, he was never posted to a Russian-speaking country. Instead, the mandarins sent him to Mexico to learn Spanish. He learned the language to perfection. And then was never sent to any other Spanish-speaking country! Instead, he was posted to the Northern division of MEA and became a scholar of remarkable expertise on Bhutan. So, he was never posted to Bhutan. Instead, he served as High Commissioner to Singapore and Tanzania, neither of which needed any expertise in Russian or Spanish or Bhutan! Such are the mysterious workings of MEA.
So, he became an expert on climate change while posted as our deputy permanent representative to the UN in New York. His expertise was such that after retirement he was co-opted into our delegations to climate change conferences until he had a major disagreement with minister Jairam Ramesh at what he considered the betrayal of the national interest by the minister. On principle, he withdrew from the assignment.
Insights on Bangladesh
Perhaps Dhaka (then spelt ‘Dacca’) in the immediate aftermath of Liberation was the assignment in which he came into his own. There, at long last, his profound knowledge of his mother tongue, Bengali, could be put to the greatest use. As first secretary (political) in what was without doubt the most talented diplomatic mission we have ever fielded, Shekhar dug deep into the background of Mujib’s movement and looked up the archives on the War of Liberation. It led to a book published in 2021 that is a classic.
In India and the Bangladesh Liberation War: The Definitive Story, he establishes beyond question that India was initially not in favour of an independent Bangladesh as it was perceived that with Mujib at the head of the Pakistan government we might at last be able to make a breakthrough in India-Pakistan relations. When it became clear that instead of obeying the electoral mandate, the Pak army was going to crack down on the massive people’s support for Mujib, Shekhar convincingly demonstrated that it was Indira Gandhi’s political genius at spotting that world opinion had to first be prepared and suitable ground conditions in the post-Monsoon period had to be awaited to mount a lightning offensive that would end the liberation war in a fortnight. In doing so, Shekhar demolished the myth that it was Sam Manekshaw who dissuaded the Prime Minister from acting precipitately.
From China to Kashmir
His London posting gave him the opportunity to research the intricate story of War and Diplomacy in Kashmir, 1947-48, the title of his book that earned the right to be called the “definitive” history of this crucial period in a crucial state that could at Independence have gone either way or even floated off on its own. When Kiren Rijiju and Amit Shah spouted nonsense about those events, I was proud to have had a hand in getting published a clarificatory article by Shekhar.
His career fittingly climaxed in China as ambassador of India in the first half of the 1990s. It was a post for which he was exceptionally qualified and where he acquitted himself with the utmost distinction. It was on his watch that the agreement for peace and tranquility on the border was negotiated and held for three uninterrupted decades – till Galwan 2020.
He was subsequently sent to Brussels as our ambassador to the European Union, but his heart was left behind in Beijing. He rarely talked about his last diplomatic post before retirement.
I was with him on what turned out to be the last afternoon of his life. He held my hand in his for the first time ever and asked me to talk to him as he was having difficulty conversing. For twenty minutes I regaled him with stories from contemporary politics and history. He sighed and said it was mentally stimulating to listen to me as in six weeks of hospitalization he had grown sick of hearing only talk of his health. I told him I had met his doctor who had stressed the need for him to build up his will to live. He said he would – but hoped the end would be quick and sudden. That is how it happened next day – suddenly and quickly.
We were a Gang of Four. Chukku (Arundhati Ghose) went in 2018. Deepak Lal followed in 2020. Now Shekhar is gone. I am the only survivor. I cannot believe we will never be together again.
Mani Shankar Aiyar is a former member of the Lok Sabha and a former Union minister