April 5: A young official who had shown exceptional maturity in protecting Aligarh Muslim University from attacks in the communally charged post-Partition days passed away at his home in New Delhi on Tuesday.
Govind Narain, one of the last surviving Indian Civil Service (ICS) officers, died at 95 after a lifetime of fostering and maintaining ties in the service of Independent India. He helped set up Bangladesh’s Mukti Bahini as Union home secretary (1971-73), aided a defence productions tie-up with Russia as secretary (defence productions) in the late ’60s, and boosted neighbourly relations as adviser to the Nepal king (1951-54).
All this after having joined an institution reviled by Indian nationalists and lauded by the British as the “steel frame” that held together their rule in India.
Jawaharlal Nehru had described the ICS, which the Oxford-educated Narain joined in 1939, as “neither Indian, nor civil, nor a service”. Subhas Chandra Bose had quit the ICS after clearing its exams just to please his father.
But like a host of former ICS officers, Narain soon proved his mettle after Independence. He was only 31 when, as collector and district magistrate of Aligarh, he faced his first big test in the tumultuous weeks between August and December 1947.
Communal rage was simmering and the impression that the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) had played a role in the creation of Pakistan posed a threat to its students and employees.
Making matters worse, vice-chancellor Zahid Hussain resigned abruptly to take charge as Pakistan’s first high commissioner to India. The atmosphere had been so poisoned that a newspaper quoted a local leader asking people to “liberate” the university from the Muslims and rename it “Harigarh University”.
According to Naved Masood, now Union secretary for corporate affairs and himself an AMU alumnus, Narain quickly took control of the situation. One, he persuaded the new vice-chancellor, Nawab Ismail Khan, not to delay the reopening of the institution after the summer vacation.
Next, he issued a warning to the dozens of local zamindars, who wielded tremendous influence and often took the lead in fomenting trouble.
According to old-timers, Narain made it clear to potential troublemakers — in an emphatic, no-nonsense message rare in those troubled times — that mischief would not be tolerated.
With no additional forces available to the district administration, Narain’s real success lay in using the “aura” of the collector’s office to convince the local notables that they would be falling foul of the government if they strayed out of line.
The Mathur Kayasth from Mainpuri district, Uttar Pradesh, later rose to become Union home secretary and defence secretary (1973-75) and, after retirement, was Karnataka governor from 1977 to 1983.
Around that time a fellow ex-ICS officer, Nirmal Mukarji, was Union cabinet secretary — the lone Bengali to hold the post. It was a Bengali, Satyendranath Tagore, who was the first Indian to join the ICS. He was an author, composer and linguist and made significant contributions towards the emancipation of women in Indian society.
Narain himself had a Bengal connection: he served in Calcutta as the Centre’s liaison officer with the state government in 1964.
After retirement, Narain, who was awarded a Padma Vibhushan, the country’s second-highest civilian honour, was associated with the Pubic Interest Legal Support and Research Trust, Shankara Vidya Kendra, Federation of Indo-German Society in India and an NGO, Common Cause.
His essays appeared in books such as Old Mandarins of India and The Governor: Sage or Saboteur.
Narain is survived by two daughters. His grandson Vikram Chandra, a well-known TV journalist, said: “I know that my grandfather touched so many lives in his many roles. But for me he was, quite simply, the best human being I have ever known, or am ever likely to know.”