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Remembering R.L. Bhatia

And in the end, it is not the years in your life that count, it’s the life in your years.

— Abraham Lincoln

Eminently fortunate are those blessed with the years in life as well as the life in years. R.L. Bhatia, once the doyen among Governors, who left us on May 15, belongs to this tribe.

Impeccably polite, he stood out, unlike some of the present-day Governors who court controversies by their own words least excellent and deeds hardly honourable.

His appointment as the Governor of Kerala in 2004 did raise eyebrows — as to how a Congress general secretary, just after an errand to resolve local factionalism, could function as Head of the State.

As the Secretary to Governor then, I too was apprehensive, having served stalwarts like Justice Sukhdev Singh Kang, Sikander Bakht, C. Rangarajan, et al.

It took no time for Bhatia to acquit himself honourably, excellently. All the three Chief Ministers — A.K. Antony and Oommen Chandy of the Congress and V.S. Achuthanandan of the CPI(M) — had no occasion to doubt his impartiality. They greatly admired him. And, in four years, he endeared himself as the darling to the people of the State.

The Governor became the guardian-angel of the Constitution. He discharged his functions conscientiously, reminding himself of the letter and spirit of his oath of office. As Chancellor of the universities, his vision was futuristic. Exemplary was his austerity, and prudence with public money. He will, indeed, be ranked as one of the greatest Governors of Kerala, ever remembered with gratitude.

Bhatia began his political career as a Communist activist. Unique was his distinction of representing the Amritsar Lok Sabha constituency six times. Twice he was shot at by terrorists. Their bullets inflicted deep wounds on his body. Nothing could daunt his mind, robust with unflinching faith in the goodness of man, and the inalienable spirit of peace and communal harmony holding aloft the future of our secular democracy.

As Minister of State for External Affairs, he left an indelible imprint. An authority on India-China relations, his ingenious suggestions to resolve sensibly for good, many of the vexing issues between the two nations, are still relevant. As Governor of Bihar, too, he made a mark.

A voracious reader, he had books as his best friends. Strictly disciplined was his life; food habits frugal. A pot of black tea with lemon and tulsi was his staple for the day. Malice to none, and a helping heart for all, ever at peace with the world, was the secret of his wholesome life, a full life for a full century, never getting sick or hospitalised, save for COVID-19. Francis Bacon is right, “Reading maketh a full man…”

His noble equanimity, and amazing fortitude, even in trials of misfortune, never got disturbed. One day, he had invited Chief Minister Antony for lunch. That morning, he received a message from home at Amritsar about his wife’s hospitalisation after a stroke. Quick arrangements for his journey by the afternoon flight were made. He vetoed my moves to cancel the lunch programme. We had lunch as planned, as if nothing had happened. And, only while bidding farewell, he calmly informed an astounded CM about the illness of his wife!

Even as he adorned gubernatorial positions, he lived a simple life, reaching out to the destitute. From the Governor’s discretionary grants he gave liberal assistance to patients in the Regional Cancer Centre. What is more, he often visited the RCC, sat with the poor child patients, comforting them with his magnanimous personal gifts.

Our last visit to Amritsar was in 2015, after he lost his wife. It was a moving welcome; he made arrangements for our Jallianwala Bagh visit, explaining how momentous the event was in our freedom struggle.

Saluting such an exemplary Governor, let me bid him adieu, quoting from Julius Caesar:

His life was gentle, and the elements

So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up

And say to all the world, ‘This was a man!’

The writer was Principal Secretary to the Governor of Kerala during R.L. Bhatia’s tenure

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Printable version | Sep 23, 2021 2:41:52 AM |

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