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A FORGOTTEN IRREPLACEABLE

- Remembering Samar Sen, an extraordinary diplomat

He deserves remembrance for services rendered, for the standards by which he lived and worked, perhaps most of all for being such a delight. In Tynan’s striking phrase for those remarkable character-actors who made otherwise unremarkable works lively and admirable, Tinoo Sen was one of those “forgotten irreplaceables” who never sought matinee-idol stardom (even refusing the foreign secretaryship) but who, in role after role, raised their stature and effect.

That he was “Tinoo” always, and to all, indicates the kind of person he was: immediately friendly — but never trying to be, attentive and earning attention, perceptive and responsive. I wish I could bring to life someone so full of it, wide in sympathies and interests, uncondescendingly understanding of human weaknesses and differences while also shrewdly alert to the evil that men do (especially those for whom, it might currently be said, one lie is not enough). He could not abide deviousness and intrigue, knew how to cope with them but when they tried to enmesh him he would rebel, as he did when, as head of Chancery in our London office, a serpentine Krishna Menon drove him to resign; yet even there he was so innately likeable, and so capable, that not only was the resignation rejected, but the same KM also stood in for his absent father-in-law at his marriage and later chose him to be chairman of one of the three international control commissions for Indo-China.

Few of the varied groups that make up our peoples have produced so many interesting characters, of endless variety of knowledge and stimulation, unconventional if not idiosyncratic, drawing you to them for the sheer pleasure of the company, as our Bengalis — and don’t they know it. Tinoo was an outstanding example, but without knowing it, a natural as well as an original. He was, in fact, hardly conscious of being of any particular region — though, incredibly for a man of his fluency, who was to excel in two of our positions most needing communication skills, his very Bengali accent could sometimes do with translation. Generously hospitable, a great bridge player, enjoying a glass (so to speak) with friends without ever showing it, he could be a lively companion till the early hours and yet first in office the next morning. But his was never an effusive, back-slapping amiability: that would repel him, for he was almost reserved, in a self-contained way. He never had any money, never drove much less owned a car, but enjoyed his circumstances with real cheerfulness. Only a woman with similar inner strength, originality of mind, range of interests and real charm could have been his wife, and he was to find an enviably happy life with Shiela Lall, who excelled even him in these respects, and happily still remains her own spritely, original self, with a delightful family of four children and their offspring.

Tinoo was also one of the hardest working and most able civil servants we have had. While training in law at London’s Inns of Court, he preferred to join the ICS, from which he was soon picked out for the Indian Political Service, that highly selective branch specializing in dealing with non-British India and our immediate, if smaller, neighbours. Evidently his potential for the skills associated with diplomacy were recognized early, and he was one of the handful of younger officers posted abroad even before Independence, surely the only one in such a major assignment as New York, where he was to return for a dramatic stint as head of our United Nations mission. In between, he ranged from Algeria to Australia, excelling in hard jobs, high commissioner in difficult times in both Pakistan and Bangladesh, with an outstanding performance in the UN security council projecting the latter’s cause against the former’s excesses in 1971. For this, Bangladesh honoured him posthumously. Surviving a failed hand-grenade attack on his Dacca residence, he could not escape a bullet in his shoulder, but carried on working, refusing Delhi’s special plane to fly him out.

This ready acceptance of even unwonted hazards was one of the many strengths of character that sustained his exemplary professionalism. His one major posting at headquarters included a long spell as spokesman of the ministry of external affairs and head of external publicity, where, as later in the UN, sheer skill, openness tempered with careful discretion, and the integrity that inspires confidence and trust, all imbued with good humour, made senior-most and younger media stalwarts his admiring friends; yet he never sought personal publicity. The hardest thing in diplomacy, indeed in life, is to be able to conceal the truth and keep your secrets without telling a lie. He won the abiding respect for this from colleagues and journalists alike. Not least, everyone who worked for him become his devoted friend.

I am glad to be one of them, but this tribute to his memory is as objective as human judgment can be. I got to know him in New York just after finishing high school, worked under him intermittently, enjoyed his kindness and company frequently. Starting his foreign service career under my father, he found himself being great fun to my mother; it was typical of his human touch and understanding that he went out of his way to help guide my bride in adjusting to her formidable mother-in-law. I was fortunate to be able to be grateful to him in a practical way, after he retired. Some thoughts of mine about our missions abroad led to Indira Gandhi making me chair a committee to suggest how our foreign service might be strengthened. The seniority to me of other members presented the usual bureaucratic problems, so I suggested having an eminent retiree as chairman. Tinoo agreed to the task, and made it a labour of love. He almost single-handedly produced a report full of practical, if sometimes unusual, ideas. Not that anything was done, the report cannot even be found now; but Tinoo never had any illusions. He was happy just working out what was virtually a personal essay, to benefit a service to which he was devoted.

Two aspects of Tinoo’s career need to be gone into in depth; here they can only be noted as perhaps the most necessary. He was an exceptionally admirable example of how the best of those who learned public service under colonial rule became its best practitioners in free India. Time may now enable historical revisionism to develop more perceptive and nuanced assessments than the oversimplified plaudits and denunciations centred around 1947. Britain was able to control India through two local instruments: the Indian army and the administrative structure; clearly, the former was the real source of power. With our extraordinary capacity to live with contradictions, we at once accepted as heroes the soldiers who served the British, but condemned the civil servants as stooges. Many doubtless were, and it has to be said that the ICS as a whole did not, after Independence, uphold the one tradition that had earned the respect even of its victims: impartial, objective professionalism. Reverting to our darbari traditions, Delhi straightaway produced little courts: the Court of the Sardar, the Court of Babuji, of the Maulana, of course of Panditji, and too many officials became one or another’s man. Tinoo was one of the handful who kept steadfastly above the decline, and throughout his remaining career upheld the best standards of personal integrity and professional efficiency. That he was always the same person, and never changed, is of great relevance to a question yet to be treated seriously: that honest men could make the transition from colonial service to working for a free India calls for fresh look at the whole baffling question of where patriotism lies in a colonial situation. That may be of academic interest; of vital practical concern in our present, worrying times is how to maintain the standards Tinno Sen upheld and exemplified. If only we had more like him, or at least more who could learn from him.