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Shakti Sinha: A liberal man in Saffron Clothes leaves the Public Domain | Gautam Sen

Friday 15 October 2021


by Gautam Sen *

Obituary of a Public Figure who could be Friend to Many

Shakti Sinha went away unobtrusively on 4th October 2021 `plus`. After living a life of 64 years `plus`, full of zest and involvement in affairs of the state, of his friends and acquaintances, and in myriad facets of public life, Shaktiji left for the eternal world. I still remember 11th May 1998, a young virtually college lecturer-like person - actually then Joint Secretary in Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s secretariat, walking with a slow gait behind him, caught on camera unwittingly, while the then prime minister announced India crossing the nuclear weapons threshold. Then, after a gap of nearly two decades, the same person became an institutional figure as Director of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, a hallowed national institution.

Shakti Sinha’s journey in life was a fascinating saga of multifarious activities, public and personal, within his country and abroad, imbibing many ideas and attributes from many whom he came into contact with, from public figures and ordinary folk, ultimately trying to contribute to change and a vibrant environment. Wherever he was, Shakti Sinha was a very popular person, made everyone feel as though he had time for her or him.

Shakti Sinha’s wonderful book ’Vaypayee: The Years that Changed India’, was a tribute to the former prime minister he served with as an intimate associate and adviser and virtually a member of his household. While narrating the twists and turns of national politics of those years, he is observed to be part of the decision-making process and taking care of public policy emanating from Vajpayiji`s decisions with finesse and a perspective which takes care of diverse interests and concerns of people at large as well as the fundamentals of national interests.

Shakti Sinha moved over different assignments with ease. Be it abroad with the United Nations Development Programme in Afghanistan, with the World Bank as senior adviser to one of its executive directors, or as senior deputy to the United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary General in the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, as head of governance and its development section. He was very popular with the Afghans during that period (April 2006 to December 2008). No wonder, that after the cataclysmic events post 15th August this year when the Ashraf Ghani presidency finally collapsed in Afghanistan, Afghans from various parts of that country were constantly approaching him to alleviate their woes and a way out of their troubled homeland. He helped them to the best of his ability and as the circumstances permitted.

Wherever he was, Shakti Sinha could relate to the milieu he was in and people in it. Though he liked an intellectually stimulating environment, he could communicate with the ordinary and make them feel he had time for them and was with them and address their concerns. He could cut across social, political and personal barriers and relate to persons placed in different strata in the country and abroad. A bureaucrat of the 1979 Batch of the IAS, with a plethora of experiences in the public domain, was also observed to be an empathetic human being. These traits stood him in good stead during his days as Chief Secretary of the Union Territory of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and many other appointments in the Union Territory of Delhi, particularly in the Sheila Dixit administration, before he put in his papers for voluntary retirement in 2013.

Shakti Sinha, during his final years (2016 to 2019) in public life as Director Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, gradually transformed that national institution to a more vibrant level without ruffling many quarters as far as possible. Many scholars and public figures of the pre-2014 NDA regime gradually came to be at ease with him. Be it in recruitment of scholars, ministerial personnel or in selection of resource persons for specific research programmes, Shakti Sinha acted with an open mind and acted off the beaten track. He had a persistent inclination of encouraging young scholars. One of his achievements was the introduction in 2018-19 of a new fellowship programme – the Atal Fellowship for Research in Prime Minister`s office.

Shakti Sinha, though a bureaucrat substantively, was not confined to bureaucracy. His circle of friends was vast, encompassed his Hindu College mates, seniors and contemporaries. He was not a quintessential bureaucrat but a public figure par excellence. He was also a deeply humane person. Because of my closeness with him during past seven to eight years, I used to jocularly call him ’a liberal man in saffron clothes’ because of the kurtas he would wear on many occasions with a mild saffron tinge. Pat would come his reply, ’Saffron is liberal’. May we emulate him in our lives as a tribute to his memory.

* (This is a personal tribute of Shri Gautam Sen, a retired senior Civil Service officer, and a member of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.)

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