Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2013 > On the 100th Birth Anniversary of Parmeshwar Narain Haksar

Mainstream, VOL LI, No 38, September 7, 2013

On the 100th Birth Anniversary of Parmeshwar Narain Haksar

Sunday 8 September 2013, by Nandita Haksar

I have always thought of Parmeshwar Narain Haksar as Papa; a father I loved deeply and whose views influenced me in many ways even though we spent so much time arguing and disagreeing on many basic tenets of his Nehruvian beliefs.

We had arguments about the feasibility of big dams, the need to recognise ethnic nationalities as minorities and the question of religion and caste.

On my father’s 100th birth anniversary I would like to share some of the most precious memories of times spent with my father and also aspects of his life which are not so well known.

Comrade Haksar

Mulk Raj Anand called him a student Molotov, after the Bolshevik diplomat, who was known for his love of reading.

Haksar became a Communist during his student years spent in London from 1935 to 1942.

Haksar travelled extensively taking classes on Marxism and socialism for trade unions all over England and Wales. His comrades included a large number of men and women who later became members of the Communist Party of India; he also had friends among the Jewish Communists.

When he returned to India in 1942 he was carrying secret messages for the Communist Party of India (probably from Rajni Palme Dutt to P.C. Joshi) sewn into the lining of his rather smart court tailored by a Seville Row tailor, Mark Risner, a comrade.

Immediately on his arrival in India he went to Nagpur to begin the work of organising the district unit of the Communist Party of India and under him was Com A.B. Burdhan. In 1944 Haksar’s father died and he took up practice at Allahabad. There he waited for the Party to contact him but it never did. He felt both hurt and angry at this neglect but it did not lessen his commitment.

I met one of the men he recruited into the party, Dhanraj Acharya. The man was in jail along with Com Bardhan. His mother was very proud of her son and would bring his little brothers and sisters to meet their jailed brother, a hero in their eyes. She eked out a living by making paapars.

When Dhanraj Acharya came out of jail he had no educational qualifications and no way of getting a job. He bought scrap and extracted out the metal and sold it. Later he made television sets from the scrap and called it Sanjay TV; the first TV set we had in our home in Shantiniketan.

Practising Socialism at Home

Papa instilled some basic values in his children right from the time we were very young. One of them was the essential unity of all humanity. We just did not know how to distinguish people on the basis of religion. In Nigeria, when I was introduced to a Nigerian with a name “Hussain”, I asked Papa: “How does he have an Indian name?”

My sister was more than eight years old when she came running to my mother and asked: “Am I a Hindu or a Muslim?”

We were also instilled with respect for the poor and an awareness of the fact that people were poor because they were exploited by the rich. It was not by lectures but by example that we learnt. And then there were the songs Papa sang and we joined in.

Papa would sing communist songs; there was the stirring “Bandiera Rosa la trionfera” —The Red Flag will be Triumphant. We would drive through the Viennese woods when Papa was posted as Ambassador singing the words or switch to the jingle written by Paddy Ryan:

I am the man, the very fat man that waters the workers’ beer
Yes, I am the man, the very fat man that waters the workers’ beer
What do I care if it makes them ill or makes them terribly queer?
I’ve a car, a yatch, and an areoplane, and I water the workmen’s beer.

Then there were the songs by Paul Robeson. One of Papa’s enduring memories was the time he had watched Paul Robeson in the role of Othello and when he first appeared on the stage. Jennifer, the daughter of one of his comrades, said loud and clear: “He is darker than Haksar.”

When I joined the Naxalites in 1970, my father did not discourage me because he thought it was important to encourage my idealism. But at the same time he arranged for Nikhil Chakravartty to take my classes on Marxism. I still have wonderful memories of our discussions on Thursday afternoons straight from college.

And when I got my first job my mother ensured that I donated the sum to Mainstream; so I would learn to always give my earnings to the political cause; it was a part of socialist discipline.

Papa, the Bureaucrat

R.C. Dutt wrote about Papa: “Haksar’s association with the civil service was thus of a man of principles seeking to serve his country, and the world beyond, through the national bureaucracy.”

There were many times Papa intervened to help individuals.

Take, for instance, when there was a national uproar when the famous Italian film-maker, Roberto Rossilini, fell in love with the stunning Bengali beauty, Sonali Dasgupta, or the time the censors felt Satyajit Ray’s films should not be shown abroad because they showed India in a poor light.

Daniel Thorner and Alice were in India when they heard that the USA had decided to take away their passport. This was during the McCarthy era and Papa at once prevailed upon Nehru to give the Thorners an Indian passport.

Many years later when I told him about Com Shankar Guha Niyogi, a trade union leader
 who had been arrested and put in jail for organising the workers in Madhya Pradesh, Papa picked up the phone and spoke to Chief Minister Arjun Singh and Com Neogi was released.

When Papa became the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission he chose B.N. Yugandhar to be his Special Assistant. Yugandhar had already acquired a reputation for being pro-poor when he served in a district experiencing Naxalite insurgency.

It was Yugandhar who brought in a team of people who formed the core of the National Labour Institute and developed a special programme for the rehabilitation of bonded labourers and other sections of unorganised labour.

Foreign Policy

Haksar joined the Indian Foreign Service as an Officer on Special Duty in 1947. One of his first assignments was to Korea as Adviser and later alternative Chairman of the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission in Korea. He along with the other delegates lived in the freezing winter in tents pitched in the Demilitarised Zone in 1953-54.

I heard of stories of how he cooked a full fledged Kashmiri meal in the cold for all the delegates, including Lt Gen K.S. Thimmaya and B.K. Kaul (whose rank at the time, I do not know).

I have seen so many photographs my father took of the prisoners and also of the scenes around their camp. It was the height of the Cold War and the Americans claimed that the prisoners from North Korea did not want to be repatriated. I started reading accounts of the exchange of prisoners but I have not found any accounts from the point of view of North Korea or the Chinese. Although the photographs lie in Teen Murti no one knows the significance of India’s contribution to the mission. We have, perhaps, lost that bit of history.

Papa was India’s first High Commissioner to Nigeria. I still remember my mother calling me and telling me the news and saying that we all had the duty to contribute to the Indian mission and I could begin by learning the name of the Nigerian Prime Minister: Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. I promise I have not checked on the internet. I remember it to this day.

When Nehru visited Lagos in 1962 he briefed the Indian Prime Minister that he should not say he was happy to be in Africa but to mention Nigeria by name. These were my first valuable lessons on the politics of naming.

Of course he is best known for his contri-bution towards the making of Bangladesh, the Indo-Soviet Treaty and the Simla Agreement. The details of these events are recorded in various papers in the archives.

I do not believe the time has come when we can truly assess the tumultuous events till some more time has passed. In any case that is the task of the professional historians and research students, not his daughter. That is why I donated all his papers to the Teen Murti Library soon after he passed away in 1998. The USA has also declassified many of the papers and I know of students who are engaged in research into India-Pakistan-Bangladesh relations.

When I went to Bangladesh to receive an award on behalf of my father in Dhaka, one young man asked me whether we had been happy about the break-up of Pakistan. And I was shocked. I can quite honestly say that there was not a moment within our family that we celebrated the break-up of Pakistan. For us the creation of Bangladesh was like watching the triumph of a national liberation movement.

Papa and the Burmese Movement
 for Democracy

I was in Manipur in 1989 when the military junta in Burma cracked down on the Burmese people’s uprising against decades of military rule. Many students crossed the border to take refuge in India.

I was able to take these students out of jail and bring them to Delhi in the hope of getting them protection under the mandate of the UNHCR. At the time the Deputy Chief of Mission was Rajiv Kapur who vehemently opposed the idea of these students getting refugee status.

However, I went up to the Additional Secretary at the Ministry of External Affairs and sat in his office till he finally relented and said I could go to the UNHCR. I am sure I would not have been able to persuade him to change Indian policy if I was not the daughter of PNH.

Later, two Burmese students hijacked a Thai Airways plane and diverted the plane to Kolkata. It is a long story of how I fought their case for 12 years till I got them acquitted. But throughout that period one of the hijackers used to regularly come to our house and discuss politics with my father.

Finally, I went to Jyoti Basu, who had studied with Papa in London, and he intervened to ensure the young man did not serve a life term. When I met Com Basu he was amused and asked whether he could meet the young hijacker; and he shook hands with him.

Now the hijacker is back in Myanmar running one of the first independent dailies. And India can certainly count him as one of our friends.

Many officers were truly horrified that my father should entertain a hijacker in his drawing room. One of them even accused me of getting my father mixed up in such things. But actually it was my father who had got me involved in “these things” in the first place!

Personal is not Political

When Indira Gandhi declared the National Emer-gency in 1975, my father was Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission. On the day the Emergency was declared, the police went to arrest my father’s 80-year-old uncle, the proprietor of the Pandit Brothers shop in Connaught Place. They also came to arrest my father’s sister and brother-in-law.

This was a part of the vengeance by Sanjay Gandhi on Haksar who had opposed his actions. The vengeance did not stop at arrests but took a much more sinister turn vividly described by my mother and published in a book called The Case of Pandit Brothers by Mainstream.

Throughout the period my father did not resign from his job because he felt it would be reacting to personal acts of vengeance. Even when lawyers refused to represent him, people who had flocked to our home asking for favours stopped coming and there was a very real possibility that he would be left without his home, Papa continued to work.

Then I did not quite understand Papa’s stand but now I can say this is one of the most important lessons I learnt from him when I have faced vicious personal attacks.

Secularism, Scientific Temper versus Democracy

Papa and I had the most intense debates on the question of “being Indian”. If there was one thing that my father prided himself in was being Indian, bringing up his children as good Indians. For him, being Indian meant to be committed to the values of secularism and scientific temper. But like the Communists of his generation they paid much less attention to the question of caste.

I felt that secularism and scientific temper, as defined by him in his 1980 statement, did not always coincide with democratic ideals since millions of people in our country were firmly committed to religious values and belief systems. Personally I did not need a religion, and have never done. But the fact that millions of people do has to be taken into account and any attempt to impose secularism on them would be undemocratic and of course counter- productive.

This debate has taken an even more serious dimension in the Arab world and the debates raging there have affected us here in India.

Even on his death-bed Papa wanted to continue these discussions. When I tried to avoid them, he said: “I have cancer in my liver, not in my brain.”

Of course the debates and discussions will go on but those who knew him will remember the warmth of his affection and loyalty to friends. One friend, many years his junior, has captured the atmosphere in our home so well:

“My fondest recollection is that of warmth of his affection. This affection has an inclusive-ness which refused to recognise barriers of grammar and convention. A cosy family gathering, PN playfully arguing a point with a combative Nandita and an equally obdurate Miku, with Urmila Haksar looking on; a stray visitor would drop in, and would be imme-diately drawn in into the proceedings; the home and the world would lose their separate identities.”

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