Diplomats who fought for the country's freedom and after retirement turned into formidable scholars are rare. A.K. Damodaran, who died in Delhi on Tuesday was one of them, and in all his endeavours his lifelong attachment to Nehruvian principles left an indelible stamp.
Imprisoned during the Quit India movement after having been on the colonial police's radar for his fiery speeches, Mr. Damodaran spent a decade in the immediate post-Nehru era finessing India's policy towards its two great neighbours — China and Russia — with his being among the decisive hands on the rudder when the Treaty of 1971 was crafted. “He was perhaps the last person alive who was involved with the Treaty,” recalled former diplomat G. Parthasarathy.
Post-retirement, he encouraged Rajiv Gandhi's rapprochement with China, despite spending the distrustful years immediately after the 1962 war as a diplomat in Beijing. Though he was one of the architects of the Indo-Soviet Treaty, Mr. Damodaran understood the need for a change in equations with the United States. “He was principled but never rigid,” recalls veteran diplomat Ronen Sen.
After retirement, ‘Damu Sir,' as he was known in the Indian Foreign Service, turned his formidable intellect towards scholarship, penning and editing books on India's foreign policy. “An excellent writer and exceptional individual. He was brilliant, erudite, wise and understanding,” recalled his Foreign Office colleague and former Minister, Natwar Singh.
His early years were anything but placid and gave no inkling of the path he would carve out as part of independent India's policy formulation think tank in the years ahead. He thought of his years in the Madras Christian College as that of “a happy wastrel who thoroughly enjoyed myself.”
This was characteristic A.K. Damodaran modesty. For this was the period he trode the precarious path of being a pro-Independence student-activist during which he achieved “dazzling success as the Speaker but total failure as student.” With Ravindra Varma, later head of the Gandhi Peace Foundation in Delhi, he went to jail during the 1942 Quit India movement.
By then he had absorbed Nehru's Autobiography and felt it provided “a whole generation of boys and girls in their teens and the new apprentices in political activity in both the Congress and the Leftist groups, a new and contemporary near-ideology... As an introduction to a more activist view of Indian politics, it could not have been bettered in the Indian situation… It gave the reader an insight into one man's picture of India's future and a living relationship with similarly situated movements across the world, ideas which had become associated with Jawaharlal. The emphasis on socialism was pronounced, impatience with compromise equally clear.”
Strategic analyst Nandan Unnikrishnan said Mr. Damodaran was representative of the Nehruvian vision of foreign policy, which recognised that pragmatism had to be combined with values that were nationalist.
But above all, as Mr. Ronen Sen put it, “He was one of the finest diplomats I ever came across in terms of professional excellence. More important was his integrity. He would be scrupulous in setting out policy options regardless of his personal inclinations or what was acceptable to a particular dispensation. In a sense, he was a formidable scholar but also a lifelong student till the end.”