Hamid Ansari: an intellectual liberated

Hamid Ansari. File photo.

Hamid Ansari. File photo.

A Malayalam poet, celebrated for his inspiring poems on freedom, Vallathol Narayana Menon wrote: “In this world, imprisonment is imprisonment, even if the cage is made of solid gold.” Hamid Ansari has just walked out of his ten-year imprisonment to “larger freedom”. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi observed, “There will be the joy of freedom for you. You can act, think and talk according to your fundamental ideology.” But it goes to Mr. Ansari’s credit that he was not entirely silent during his term as Vice-President. Like a bird in a cage, he burst into soulful songs occasionally to keep himself sane. As a disciplined soldier, he did not articulate ideology, but he did articulate his agony over what he considered essential to curb the dangerous tendencies in India and abroad.

Role of religion

Mr. Ansari did not hide his Muslim identity in either attire or demeanour. He must havealso been aware that many of the positions he occupied would not have come his way if he was not a Muslim, from his first post as Ambassador to the United Arab Emiratesto that of Vice-President. But it is also true that he did not seek or lobby for those positions in the name of his minority status. The government actually used his credentials for its own benefit by appointing him to Afghanistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. His posting as the Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations was also an affirmation of India’s secularism at a time when Pakistan went all out to bring Kashmir to the centre of international attention after the end of the Cold War. Unlike some other Muslim delegates sent to the United Nations, who sought a trip outside New York when Kashmir came up for debate, Mr. Ansari took Pakistan’s argument by the horns and subdued it whenever necessary.


In his personal life, his religion imposed no constraints on him. He was not demonstrative of his faith and he used to say that when his time came, he would hang on to the saree of his wife, who was bound to go to heaven on account of her devoutness. He was quite at home in the apartment of the Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations on Park Avenue, where the official objets d’art consisted of images of the gods in the Hindu pantheon. A rigorous Muslim, even if not a fundamentalist, would have hidden the images or clothed some of them like it happens in Bali, where female figures in temples are clad in white.

Unquestioning of authority

Mr. Ansari’s faith is professionalism, whether in the foreign service or outside. He neverquestioned authority even if he felt that some injustice was being done to himself or to someone else. At least on two occasions, I went to him when he was my direct boss in New York to point out the irrationality and injustice of some decisions by the Ministry of External Affairs. He would not even entertain any thought of representing againstgovernment decisions as he was of the opinion that the government would have had considerations other than what was known to the affected parties. This ruled out the possibility of reconsideration of decisions handed out to him. I suspect that he may not have represented against any of his postings, including his transfer to Saudi Arabia, before his tenure in New York was over.


Mr. Ansari’s sense of rectitude and propriety is legendary. I used to take the liberty ashis former Deputy of making personal requests to him, knowing well that he would do nothing beyond what was appropriate. As far as I can make out, mine was the first book he launched as Vice-President at his official residence. When I made a second request to launch another book, he declined. An exceptional gesture was when he agreed to confer the Sree Chithira Thirunal national award to me during one of his visits to Kerala, but he said that it would be wrong for him to attend an event involving a private television channel to which I invited him. Every person had to accept his verdict, regardless of the nature of the relationship between him and that person.

Having chaired UN committees and conferences, where all participants played the game by the rules, the consternation on his face in the early days of his Chairmanship of the Rajya Sabha was palpable when all hell broke loose. But ten years in the chair mellowed his look and he began to look for the art of the possible. There was praise for him across the board in the Rajya Sabha for not allowing any decision to be taken under the cover of chaos. Moreover, there never was an instance of the Vice-President being accused of being partisan in any of his decisions.


Mr. Ansari’s voice was audible throughout his ten years as Vice-President in support of democracy, pluralism, secularism and human rights. He was the ideal candidate for the Congress-Communist Party of India (Marxist) combine, because he had family links with the Congress, and the CPM liked him for his progressive views. His sympathies were evident, but they did not reflect in his actions or words In the last three years, what changed were not his words, but the context in which they were heard. His words were measured and calibrated enough to suit a statesman diplomat. He also made a substantial contribution to a large number of global issues and concerns. Today, he is considered a thought leader; not another ideologue.

With his vast international experience, further enhanced by ten years of not only parliamentary experience but also high-level diplomatic missions, Mr. Ansari should join the galaxy of Nobel Prize winners and others who are engaged in finding solutions to global problems. He should be treated as an asset to the nation and not as a partisan player in the domestic politics of India. He is too cultured and sophisticated to be a scheming politician. The nation can benefit from his sagacity and patriotism.

T.P. Sreenivasan was the Deputy Permanent Representative of India to the UN when Hamid Ansari was Permanent Representative

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Printable version | May 15, 2022 8:43:14 pm |