Remembering GP, the gentle colossus

MULTIFACETED: Gopalaswami Parthasarathi, whose birth centenary falls today. Photo: The Hindu Photo Library

MULTIFACETED: Gopalaswami Parthasarathi, whose birth centenary falls today. Photo: The Hindu Photo Library

Gopalaswami Parthasarathi, or GP as he was known to all, was born a hundred years ago today, July 7, 2012. He was the quintessential intellectual. His father, N. Gopalaswami Ayyangar, had served with distinction in the Provincial Civil Service in the Madras Presidency and later as Dewan of Kashmir, as a member of the Constituent Assembly and then as a Minister in the first Cabinet of Jawaharlal Nehru.

GP was associated with a range of activities during his long, productive and distinguished life spanning six decades. He was almost always disarmingly modest and unassuming about his achievements in the numerous important positions of national responsibility he held. And even when things didn’t go the right way, his sangfroid saw him through.

As diplomat

In 1962, he came to South Block from China for consultations, where he was the Ambassador. The possibility of armed conflict loomed over Sino-Indian relations. The Report of the Officials of India and China on the Border had just been concluded, but no solution was in sight. India’s ‘Forward Policy’ of setting up pickets in Aksai Chin in the Western Sector to prevent Chinese incursions, had not helped. Yet, GP appeared to be his normal, imperturbable self.

However, when the Sino-Indian conflict broke out later in September 1962, those close to GP could feel his palpable sadness at what he ever-afterwards termed the Chinese betrayal of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence (Panchsheel) that Nehru and Zhou en Lai had signed in 1954.

His role as a diplomat was acknowledged by a range of leaders from Nehru to Indira Gandhi, Henry Kissinger to Zhou en Lai. He was appointed Ambassador to Indonesia in 1957, until he went to Peking (Beijing) in July 1958, where he served for a full term of three years. In 1962, he was appointed High Commissioner to Pakistan. It was considered to be a very tough assignment. GP was India’s Permanent Representative to the U.N. during the eventful 1965-1969 period.

He studied in Madras, and then at Oxford University, taking an honours degree at Wadham College. Then he successfully took the Barrister of Law examinations in 1936. He joined The Times of London as an apprentice. After returning home, he joined as an editorial staff member with The Hindu . His paternal uncle, A Rangaswami Iyengar, had been Editor of The Hindu . In 1949, he was appointed the first Representative of the Press Trust of India in London. He returned to India and re-joined The Hindu in 1953, but the call to a diplomatic career came within about a year.

On the field

A noted sportsperson, he was a Ranji Trophy cricketer, and also a Test player. At Oxford, he was a double blue, in cricket and hockey.

Behind his mild manner, there lay a streak of dogged determination. This was in evidence, among other instances, in his wooing and winning the hand of Subur Mugaseth, a Parsi co-student. She had been in college with him in Madras and in Oxford. That was at a time when such cross-religious alliances were not only rare but also frowned upon. (Subur Mugaseth became a member of the Rajya Sabha after working for some two decades as a college teacher.)

One of his known adversaries once exclaimed in exasperation that GP somehow always managed to radiate wisdom, without ever saying a word. That was, indeed, a unique gift which stood him in good stead throughout his career as a diplomat and an interlocutor of Indian national interest in the various international and domestic assignments he was entrusted with. He had the distinct advantage of enjoying the trust and confidence of both Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. In the latter’s case, GP was adviser and trouble-shooter in virtually all areas of policymaking.

Political assignments

He undertook several tough political assignments. He had a role in the Kashmir accord of the 1970s that brought Sheikh Abdullah back into mainstream politics. He helped finalise the terms of the Mizo accord that Rajiv Gandhi signed, after holding protracted talks with Laldenga. He never involved himself in party politics, yet played his own role in forging alliances among certain like-minded parties.

In 1982, GP led a delegation of social scientists to Beijing. It was during his two-hour meeting with Deng Xiaoping that the Chinese supreme leader proposed a “Package Deal” to settle the border dispute. It involved India accepting the Chinese territorial claim in the Western Sector (Ladakh) and China doing likewise in the Eastern Sector (Arunachal Pradesh).

Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984 was followed by Rajiv Gandhi getting elected by an overwhelming sympathy vote. But he too was assassinated, following his decision to intervene in the civil war between ethnic Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka, by sending in the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF). This he did against better advice, including that from GP. The sensible recommendations contained in Annexure C of the Report given by GP to New Delhi after a visit to Sri Lanka in the early stage of the conflict, went unheeded.

Realm of education

GP’s contributions to the fields of higher education and social science research were also impressive, too. He was associated with many educational institutions. But above all, he will be remembered as the architect of Jawaharlal Nehru University, and as its first Vice-Chancellor. His vision was reflected in JNU’s academic programmes. The School of International Studies owes an everlasting debt to him. JNU’s structure as India’s first institution of inter-disciplinary and trans-disciplinary studies was innovative, indeed unique, and it has had far-reaching impact on the Indian higher education system.

He was Chairman of the Indian Council for Social Science Research from 1980 to 1990. During that tenure he transformed the ICSSR through his special ability to be firm while at the same time using gentle persuasion. He got its budgetary allocation tripled, and the Council set up several institutions. GP endeared himself to the nation’s entire social science community, within and outside the university system.

One aspect of his diplomatic skills emerged as the Chairman of the Indo-U.S. Sub-Commission on Education, Culture and Science. Three sub-commissions were set up. Through these, an active programme of Indo-U.S. exchanges was initiated in fields such as science, museums, art history and natural history. A generation of Indian museum specialists thus got opportunities to interact with U.S. museums, especially the Lawrence Hall of Science in California.

Serving on Unesco’s executive board for a decade, he contributed significantly to programmes in education, science, culture, media and communication. His voice was heard with attention and respect at many delicate moments of crisis between, and among, member-states.

Very few people have had such wide-ranging involvement in domestic and international affairs, as diplomat, negotiator and educationist and journalist. A man of many parts, he was internationally known, and operated at multiple levels at home and abroad. In each sphere, he displayed astuteness coupled with depth of thinking and foresight.

GP passed away on August 1, 1995. He was truly a man for all seasons. Men like him come rarely in a nation’s history.

(A.P. Venkateswaran is a former Foreign Secretary. Kapila Vatsyayan, a leading scholar of art and culture, was founder-director of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts and is a former member of the Rajya Sabha.)

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Printable version | Jun 27, 2022 4:20:11 am |