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Updated: Feb 8, 2023

“In the night of death, hope sees a star and the listening love can hear the rustle of a wind”.

Robert Green Ingersoll

It is very difficult to reconcile with the reality of R. Swaminathan’s passing away on December 8. When DS Rajan telephoned me on Wednesday morning and conveyed the shocking news, I could not believe my ears. To be candid, I wished the news was wrong. The poignant lines of Robert Ingersoll, quoted above, came to my mind like a flash of lightning.

Recently we spent three days together, November 22-24, in the School of International Studies, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam. We were resource persons in a colloquium on “Engaging beyond Borders: China and India in Asia” organized by the KPS Menon Chair on Diplomacy. Swaminathan made a presentation on “China and South Asia”. His approach was balanced; he cautioned the student community against joining the band wagon of “China can never be right”. He emphasized that merely complaining about China is trying to “strangle or contain” India would be of no help. We should do some heart searching to find out why China had been more successful than India in identifying its national interests in each South Asian country and has been able to pursue these interests with considerable investments and loans. Swaminathan highlighted that the two Asian giants should try to co-operate wherever possible, compete wherever necessary, but do their best to avoid conflict, engaging bilaterally with awareness of and respect for each other’s national interests.

Swaminathan was listened to with rapt attention. After his presentation there were probing questions and critical comments and Swaminathan tackled them with great aplomb. It did not come to me as a surprise because the choice of words and the measured delivery were the hall mark of a seasoned seminarist. For those in the academic profession, Swaminathan is (should I say was) a perfect role model. The famous lines of TS Eliot in Four Quartets aptly sum up Swaminathan’s communication skills:

Every phrase and sentence that is right,

where every word is at home

taking its place to support the others

the word neither diffident nor ostentatious

an easy commerce of the old and the new

the common word exact without vulgarity

the formal word precise but not pedantic

the complete consort dancing together

every phrase and every sentence is an end

and a beginning.

I came to know Swaminathan very late in life. After a distinguished career in the Government of India, he settled down in Chennai and was residing in Abhiramapuram. He got involved with some of the leading think tanks like the Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Centre for China Studies and the Center for Asia Studies. He also used to attend the meetings of the Madras Book Club occasionally. These organizations, with which I was also associated, brought us together. We vibed with one another perfectly, our fondness for occasional “sundowners” provided regular opportunities for in-depth discussions and planning of joint projects. We brought out jointly two occasional papers under the aegis of the Center for Asia Studies, the first on “Contested Territory or Common Heritage: Thinking out of the Box”, pleading that the Palk Bay should be considered as a common heritage of both India and Sri Lanka and the two countries should jointly work together to enrich the marine resources. In South Asia, where ethnic, linguistic and religious bonds cut across geographical boundaries, we did not want to harp on absolute sovereignty, but move to the next stage of shared sovereignty and joint management of resources. The suggestion for the constitution of a Joint Palk Bay Authority, we believed, will be a right step in this direction.  The second joint paper was on “Tamil Nadu Coastal Security and the Sri Lanka Factor” where we advocated that unless the fishermen become the eyes and ears of the government and become involved in coastal security, the Indian security interests could not be safeguarded. We were planning a third occasional paper on “Federal Units and the Making of Indian Foreign Policy”. We wanted to argue that the federal units should make benign inputs into the making of Indian foreign policy. During his recent holiday in the United States, Swaminathan had collected valuable materials about the experiences of other countries – United States, Canada and the erstwhile Yugoslavia. We wanted to bring out the occasional paper within a month, but the cruel hands of fate snatched him away from our midst. The famous lines of John Donne comes to my mind, “Death be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and powerful, thou are not so, – – – death shall be no more, death, thou shall die”.

Without an iota of exaggeration, I can say that Swaminathan was my friend, philosopher and guide. An upright officer, he used to occasionally disagree with the policies and programmes of the government, used to point out what are the pitfalls, but once the decision was taken he used to implement them faithfully. He did not have a high opinion of Romesh Bhandari and the changes that he brought about in India’s Sri Lanka policy. Amb JN Dikshit has written that Romesh Bhandari did not even know whether the Tamil leader Selvanayagam was alive or dead. Romesh Bhandari wanted to pressurise the unwilling Tamil militant groups to Thimpu for direct talks with the Sri Lankan Government. Swaminathan pointed out that if the Tamil Groups were unwilling partners in the negotiations, the talks will not make any headway. Swaminathan was over ruled, he took the decision of the Government in right spirit and tried to get it implemented. It is well known that Swaminathan had to use harsh words to Balasingham, Swaminathan bluntly told Balasingham that if the Tigers did not go to Thimpu for talks, India will be compelled to withdraw all facilities enjoyed by the Tamil militants in the Indian soil.

The role played by Swaminathan in bringing the Mizo National Front to the negotiating table and accept a settlement within the Indian Union is not much known. He was able to win the trust and confidence of Laldenga and once the trust was established slowly the edifice was built up. On one occasion, Swaminathan told me that on a visit to Aizawl, Laldenga took Swaminathan to the Cabinet meeting and requested him to explain the salient features to an agreement between New Delhi and the Mizo National Front to his cabinet colleagues. Laldenga was keen that Swaminathan should become the Governor of Mizoram, but Swaminathan, in his characteristic way, declined the suggestion. The State of Mizoram today is relatively an oasis of peace in the turbulent North East India, the Mizos, while retaining their separate ethnic identity, are also proud citizens of India. And the Mizos, as is well known, are well represented in the Central government services. In bringing the Mizos back into the national mainstream, Swaminathan has played a commendable role. I used to frequently request him to put this story of success into writing. Initially he was reluctant, but later he agreed that he will address University gatherings in South India on Conflict Resolution with Mizoram as a successful case study. The first such lecture was scheduled to be delivered in Alphonsa College, Palai, Kerala in early August. But death intervened

We in the Chennai Centre for China Studies and Center for Asia Studies, with which Swaminathan was intimately involved, are planning to bring together all his writings into one volume. Combined with this collection of articles, we are also keen to publish the reminiscences of those who knew Swaminathan intimately. On this solemn occasion, I pray for the continuance of his guidance, love, service and inspiration.

* Dr. V. Suryanarayan was Senior Professor and founding Director, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras. He is currently Senior Research Fellow in the Center for Asia Studies, Chennai. He is the President of the Chennai Centre for China Studies. Prof. Suryanarayan is also a former member of the National Security Advisory Board, Government of India.

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