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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 13, March 22, 2014

Jagat Singh Mehta

Sunday 23 March 2014, by Muchkund Dubey


Jagat Singh Mehta, a renowned diplomat, a skilful negotiator, a prolific writer and social worker, passed away quietly at his ancestral home in Udaipur on March 6, 2014. By his vision, sense of purpose and sheer hard work, he carved out a special niche and left an indelible mark in the annals of Indian diplomacy. He will be remembered as one of the handful of outstan-ding Foreign Secretaries of the Government of India. He fully utilised the potentialities of this post and in the process enhanced its prestige and status in the scheme of governance. He was conferred the Padma Bhushan award for his distinguished public service.

Very few officers who came to the Indian Foreign Service were intellectually as well equipped as Jagat Mehta was. His school education included five years of study in the Vidya Bhavan which was known all over the country for its value education. He completed his O-Level and A-Level schooling in a Quaker School in Reading, UK where, apart from academic excellence, he was taught the values of being upright, self-disciplined and steadfast in purpose. He passed his BA and MA exams in English Literature from the Allahabad University and picked up another MA degree from the Cambridge University. Before joining the Indian Foreign Service, he had acquired valuable experience as a teacher in the Allahabad University and as an officer in the Indian Navy.

Jagat Mehta re-entered the portals of the academic world soon after his retirement from the Foreign Service in 1980, first as a scholar in the Harvard University and the Woodrow Wilson Centre, Washington, and immediately thereafter as the Tom Slik Distinguished Professor at the LBJ School at the University of Texas, USA. He remained in his professorial position at the Texas University until 1996. He is the author of three books and numerous articles published in refereed journals on diverse aspects of India’s foreign policy and international relations.

Jagat Mehta would have perhaps derived the greatest satisfaction in his life from his work as the Honorary President of the of the Seva Mandir, Udaipur (1985-94), which was active in participatory rural development in 450 villages; and that of the Vidya Bhavan Society (1993-2000) which incorporated eleven educational institutions. These institutions were built and nurtured by his father, Shri Mohan Singh Mehta, one of the towering personalities of post-inde-pendent India, who was known for his pionee-ring effort in the field of education and rural development. The inheritance of this historic legacy is the highest honour conferred on Jagat Mehta.

In the Indian Foreign Service, Jagat Mehta served in Berne, London, Bonn, Peking and Dar-es-Salaam. Among these, his assignment in Peking as the Charge d’Affaires en pied was the most eventful. His tenure in Peking overlapped with the early phase of the Cultural Revolution when our relations with China entered a turbulent phase and when the head of the mission himself was constantly harassed by being summoned to the Chinese Foreign Office at unearthly hours under various excuses of protests. This tested his patience, resilience and resolve to the extreme but he came out of this with flying colours. When he returned to India after the completion of his assignment, he needed a long spell of rest to compensate for his lost sleep in Peking.

A great achievement of Jagat Mehta was the report on India’s boundary question with China which was prepared under his leadership, with the other members of the team, Dr S. Gopal, who was at that time the Director of the Historical Division of the Ministry, and Shri V.V. Paranjpe, a renowned Chinese expert. This report made out an unassailable case for India’s claim in the various sectors of its boundary with China and has ever since remained a seminal reference document.

Another historical development with which Jagat Mehta was associated in the Foreign Service was his membership of the entourage of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in his ride through Tibet into Bhutan. This was the beginning of Bhutan’s opening up to and special relations with India.

Jagat Mehta was responsible for injecting rare dynamism and sense of purpose into the functioning of the Policy Planning Division in the Ministry. I have not seen the Policy Planning Division playing as active a role as it did during his short assignment. This was mainly because he himself set the example by writing and circulating for comments most of the policy papers. When he was in charge of the Policy Planning Division and myself an Under Secretary in the Ministry of Commerce, I had forwarded to him a copy of a paper I had written on the origin and significance of the Group of 77 and the stand that India should adopt towards it. I promptly received from him a highly encoura-ging response which made me feel very impor-tant in my small position in the government. He did this to so many other junior officers.

Jagat Mehta’s term as the Foreign Secretary (1976 to 1979) coincided with that of mine as a Joint Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs. It was a measure of his confidence in me that even after being away from the Ministry for more than five years, he put me in the very sensitive position of the Joint Secretary (Bangladesh). I worked directly under him in that position and subsequently as the Joint Secretary (UN). I accompanied him in several trips abroad and spent hours with him discussing our negotiating strategy. I saw him as a doer, a thinker, a writer and a negotiator. But his most remarkable gift was his desire to change the established modes of thinking and traditional wisdom in pursuit of his long-term vision. He always sought to create wider space, flexibility and constituency for diplomacy to operate. I saw these qualities of Jagat Mehta in full display in his negotiations with Pakistan for normalising relations, with Bangladesh on the river water issue and with Nepal on separate treaties on trade and transit.

When others were complaining about the dim prospect of our relations with Bangladesh after the August 15, 1975 coup and assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Jagat Mehta looked for opportunities to improve and expand relations. He found that President Ziaur Rahman, who after a series of coups and counter-coups ultimately ascended to power, was an enligh-tened leader who did not suffer from inferiority complex and was not dependent on outside forces. The Directorate of Forces Intelligence (DFI), through which the ISI exercised its influence in Bangladesh, was firmly under his control. Jagat Mehta established excellent personal relations with his counterpart in Dhaka, Tabarak Hussain, who refused to be straigh-tjacketed into being pro-liberation or anti-liberation, but believed in being just a good and competent civil servant working in the interest of his country. Jagat Mehta was able to transact seemingly very difficult and odious business with him. But his negotiating skill was displayed in full force in the negotiations on the issue of the sharing of the Ganga waters at Farakka, in the First Committee of the UN General Assembly Session in 1976. The Bangladesh Government took the issue to the United Nations and succeeded in getting it inscribed on the agenda of the First Committee (the political committee), which in itself was unprecedented. Jagat Mehta handled this issue in the First Committee firmly without conceding our basic position, but at the same time without using harsh words or leaving any trail of rancour. The resolution adopted by the First Committee, endorsed by the Assembly, urged India and Bangladesh to negotiate on this issue seriously with a view to finding a speedy solution. Jagat Mehta was quick to see that if the issue was not settled bilaterally within the next few months, it would be raised at the next General Assembly session which could put our bilateral relations with Bangladesh under heavy strain. He, therefore, did not sleep over the matter under the usual smug belief that the issue had been contained and we come to it only after it flared up again. After returning to Delhi, he plunged headlong into negotiations with the genuine intention to achieve results before the next General Assembly session. For this purpose, he found time, out of his crowded schedule, to take several trips to Dhaka and also conduct many rounds of negotiations in Delhi.

The issue in the negotiations was not so much finding a formula for the distribution of water but to give the guarantee of a minimum flow of water to Bangladesh during the dry season. This issue arose because of India’s initial position of being allowed to draw 44,000 cusecs of water which was the capacity of the feeder canal at Farakka, for flushing the Hooghly river for protecting the Calcutta port. Bangladesh could not concede this demand because it would then be left with only 15,000 cusecs of water out of the minimum average flow of 55,000 cusecs during the dry season. Ultimately we were able to evolve a formula of giving a minimum guarantee of 34,500 cusecs which would, of course, arise only if the dry season flow touched or went below the minimum average. This concession was regarded as a great achievement for Bangladesh. For India, it meant getting out of the way a recurring problem in dealing with one of our most important neighbours.

When in 1978 Jagat Mehta negotiated two separate treaties with Nepal, one on trade and the other on transit, instead of a combined one for both trade and transit, he was accused of giving up a very important leverage in dealing with Nepal. For, before that initiative, the section of the combined treaty on transit was used as a leverage to extract concessions in the field of trade and that on trade was used to put pressure on Nepal in the area of transit. This was a source of constant irritation in relations between the two countries and not in accordance with the principle of dealing with a neighbour on the basis of equality. Today we cannot think of a tension-free relationship with Nepal without its being underpinned by two separate treaties, one on trade and the other on transit. Jagat Mehta was decades ahead of time in taking the initiative to correct this anomaly, against severe opposition from the functional Ministries.

Jagat Mehta delegated a lot of power to the officers working for him. He seldom interfered with the course of the negotiations in the regular border and trade talks that we used to have with Bangladesh. He left it entirely to me to project the Ministry of External Affairs’ point of view in these negotiations. He sent me to Tripura to arrive at an understanding with the State Government and the local BSF Commander for sending back the Chakma refugees who had stayed too long in camps along the border. Knowing my expertise, he left me alone to handle the UN work when I switched over to the post of Joint Secretary (UN).

Jagat Mehta was widely known for his prodigious capacity to work. Once I accompanied him in his return journey to Delhi via Kolkata after an exhausting round of negotiations with Bangladesh on the river water issue. When I came to meet him immediately after the flight had taken off I saw him working furiously on the draft banquet speech of the Indian Prime Minister to be delivered during the latter’s visit to Moscow, which was to commence the day after Jagat Mehta’s arrival at Delhi.

Jagat Mehta was endowed with tremendous persuasive capacity. He had to deal with political leaders like Shri Moraji Desai and Shri Jagjivan Ram who played a key role in clinching the Farakka agreement. They were all towering personalities who knew their minds and could be both bold and obdurate. He had established excellent proportion with both of them.

Jagat Mehta lived an extremely rich, diversified and purposeful life. He was an icon for most of us who worked with him. He has left a legacy which will be followed by the present and new generations of Indian diplomats.

Prof Muchkund Dubey is a former Foreign Secretary with a deep knowledge of Bangladesh where he functioned as the Indian High Commissioner for several years. He is currently the President, Council for Social Development, New Delhi.