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A Political Memoir

Srinath Raghavan

By Jagat S. Mehta
Viking, 2010, pp. 344, Rs. 550.00


The political memoir is a much underdeveloped literary genre in India. Our politicians and policy-makers are seldom tempted to pen detailed and analytical accounts of their role in crafting and executing policies. This has had a deleterious impact both on the historical memory of our institutions and on the writing of contemporary history. The dearth of such memoirs can partly be explained by the archaic secrecy laws that regulate access to and use of government documents. Few policy-makers are allowed to consult their own papers after leaving office, let alone being able to consult wider documentations pertaining to a subject. This problem is further compounded by the fact that the Government of India does not adhere to the thirty-year rule, whereby most documents more than three decades old are declassified and transferred to the national archives. Finally, few of our policy-makers and officials maintain a regular diary or journal that could assist in the writing of a memoir, or be published in their original form (though honourable mention must be made of J.N. Dixit’s Afghanistan diary, Krishnan Srinivasan’s on Bangladesh, and Natwar Singh’s China diary). Indeed, the best Indian examples of the genre are those that have surmounted these obstacles: either by gaining access to relevant records (V.P. Menon’s book on the integration of states, and J.N. Dixit’s on the Sri Lanka crisis), or by benefiting from exceptional powers of recall and a strong analytical bent (Y.D. Gundevia on his years in the Foreign Service, and P.N. Dhar on his time in the Prime Minister’s office). The publication of Jagat Mehta’s memoirs is a welcome addition to this body of writing. Mehta has had a long and distinguished public career. He joined the Foreign Service in August 1947 and retired over thirty years later as Foreign Secretary. Subsequently he has divided his time between academia and social service. Throughout his public life Mehta has been respected for his acuity, intellectual integrity and independence. In recent years, he has given us an important account of his participation in major international negotiations (Negotiating for India). Mehta concedes that the writing of a memoir is ‘a perilous exercise strewn with pitfalls of egotism’—one that he resisted for well over two decades. Throughout the book, he demonstrates an admirable restraint in this regard. He also refrains from providing self-serving account of events. ...

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