Cover photo of 'Memoirs of a Maverick: The First Fifty Years' by Mani Shankar Aiyar. (Photo by arrangement)
I returned to India on the morning of 15 July 1963. That very evening, I found myself with the President of India in his large bedroom at Rashtrapati Bhavan. He lay in his four-poster bed, propped up against a wall of fluffy pillows to receive his personal guests. His son, the well-known historian, Dr S. Gopal, was in attendance.
My mother, with characteristic chutzpah, had leveraged her connection with Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan dating back to the early 1930s, when she was his paying guest at the Andhra University vice-chancellor’s palatial residence in Visakhapatnam. She had got on famously with Gopal, who was then a little boy, and the call had been arranged through him.
Dr Radhakrishnan brushed away my stuttering explanations to focus on the nub of the issue. ‘Did you,’ he said, ‘join the Communist Party in Britain?’ I replied I could not have because I was not a British citizen. And, of course, as the Indian Intelligence Bureau (IB) well knew, I had not joined the Communist Party in India. In that case, remarked the President, how could I be kept out after passing the exam so convincingly? […]
He turned to Gopal and instructed him, ‘Please ask Lal Bahadur to see me.’ Lal Bahadur Shastri was then the home minister. […]
A few days later, Gopal rang me to say that the home minister had been ‘given a wigging by Father’ and I could expect to hear the good news within the next few days. Instead, under what was known as the ‘Kamaraj Plan’, Lal Bahadur Shastri was among the ministers dropped from the cabinet to take up ‘party work’. At that moment, I felt the battle was lost.
My mother was convinced that I was being called a ‘Markist’ — she never could pronounce the ‘x’ in Marx — because I lounged around in jeans. Her silver bullet was to go to Laffan’s in Connaught Circus so I could get myself outfitted in a raw silk jacket and well-tailored trousers. This was hot and uncomfortable in an age when air conditioning was rare. So, I carried the jacket by its hook on my shoulder, the pocket stuffed with the only tie that I owned (a bourgeois pretension that, in principle, I rejected!) and she provided the clean white ironed shirt to go with it. […]
In a mood of weary despair, I went to see my school classmate, Arvind Pande, who was returning to Christ’s College, Cambridge, after the long summer vacation. He said his father’s friend, Special Secretary (Home) L.P. Singh, had dined with them the previous evening and, on learning that Arvind and I had been at school and Cambridge together, wondered why I had not been to see him. […]
He [Mr Singh] began, ‘You are not a prisoner in the dock. I just want to ask you a few questions.’ I nodded. The questions started. I fielded them as best I could but found myself suddenly in the middle of a heated argument with the special secretary (home) over the true meaning of democracy.
Just that morning, the papers had said that Harold Macmillan in England had been succeeded as Prime Minister by a belted fourteenth earl, Lord Home (pronounced ‘Hume’) who was still to divest himself of his ermine and get elected to the House of Commons. Did he call that ‘democracy’? Warming to the subject, I referred to President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. Everyone called him a dictator, I said, but if he held an open election in his country an overwhelming majority would vote for him as he was an Arab icon. L.P. Singh listened to me with unwonted patience but riposted that the only time he had ever been abroad was to the United States, and, on his way back, he had halted overnight in Cairo. That night Nasser had rounded up the leaders of the Coptic community and had them all either exiled, thrown into prison or shot dead. Did I call that democracy?
At that point, I went berserk. I reminded the special secretary that he had begun by telling me that I was not to regard myself as a prisoner in the dock, but I was being denied three privileges to which a prisoner was entitled. What, asked the domineering L.P. Singh, were those three privileges? First, I said, the prisoner in the dock is assumed innocent until proved guilty. I was being asked to prove my innocence. Second, I said, picking up steam, a prisoner in the dock is told what the charges against him are; I had no idea what was the evidence the intelligence authorities had gathered against me. Third, I went on more angrily, a prisoner in the dock is provided an attorney if he cannot afford one himself; I was not even being allowed to call my witnesses. Exhausted at my own temerity, I slumped back in my seat. The special secretary pulled the cigar out of his mouth and barked, ‘Aiyar, you’re in. Now out.’ And I walked out wearing the haze of smoke from his cigar like a halo!
It took another two weeks for Home Minister Gulzarilal Nanda to overrule his officers. He noted that he had seen me and talked to me at some length. It seemed to him that although I had pursued an intellectual association with Marxism, he had no reason to disbelieve that I had never been a member of the Communist Party, let alone an active worker. He therefore recommended to the Prime Minister (who was also the external affairs minister) that there remained no justification to debar me from government service. Nehru entirely endorsed this, adding that he too had heard good reports of me. Thus, under Prime Minister Nehru’s personal signature, I crossed my personal Rubicon on 24 October 1963. […]
Many decades later, when I was at the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), I became friendly with IB chief, M.K. Narayanan. He volunteered the information that it was he who was my case officer in IB and added, with an air of regret, that every time he thought he had me by the short hairs, yet another VIP missive would land on his table and he would have to start writing his negative recommendation all over again. […] Many decades later, when staying with him in Raj Bhavan, Kolkata, in 2009, where he was serving as governor of West Bengal after a decade as the national security adviser, I asked him whether he had got his information from the BIS. He nodded. At which, I told him BIS stood for British Information Service; UK’s intelligence agencies were Scotland Yard and MI5/MI6. So, had I been charged on the basis of newspaper reports? He did not answer.
The last word, however, remained with my dear friend, Shekhar Dasgupta, as so often in my life: ‘They found you were a Marxist — but of the Groucho variety!’
Excerpted from Mani Shankar Aiyar’s Memoirs of a Maverick with permission from Juggernaut
Memoirs of a Maverick: The First Fifty Years
By Mani Shankar Aiyar
pp. 379; Rs 899