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Obituary : H.E. Shri Nirupam Sen

by Dan O’Connor, 7 August 2017

print version of this article print version - 7 August 2017

‘At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom’ - Nehru’s words at Indian independence. Hence, ‘Midnight’s Children’, a novel about those born at that time, None, though, of the fictional variety was as deeply imbued with Jawaharlal Nehru’s noble vision as Nirupam Sen, born that year, 1947, in Allahabad on 15th February, and dying in New Delhi, on 1st July, 70 years on. Throughout his career, he served his country and, as Nehru would have had it, the human community, with exceptional courage and distinction.

His parents, a cultured partnership, moved to New Delhi, where his father became Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation Nirupam had his secondary schooling at a Catholic school known for its severe regime. From there he moved to the prestigious St Stephen’s College, an Anglican foundation, where he took a first in English. His love of English (and Scottish) literature and extraordinary retentive powers enriched his writing and public speaking thereafter. A first-class B.A. in English was a rarity at that time; it was even more exceptional to proceed from that to a first in M.A. history, both indications of Sen’s prodigious intellect. It was a time in the late 1960s when political turbulence swept through India’s universities, a number of his contemporaries at St Stephen’s going underground in the Maoist movement. There were other options in Delhi University, and Nirupam became a convinced leftist, though, with an eye to Russian history, equating his revolutionary contemporaries with the Narodniks. Interestingly, he never, as some have done, disavowed his education in missionary institutions, and, indeed, throughout his life, with a special enthusiasm for the work of G.K.Chesterton, gave quiet testimony to their Christian heritage.

Disappointing some by his decision not to go for an academic career, and in fact half-contemplating one in politics, he entered the Foreign Service in July 1969, his first appointment to Moscow. With occasional home-postings to New Delhi and at the National Defence College, he served thereafter as Charge d’Affaires in Hungary and then as Political Counsellor in London, at which time he made a number of friendships in the U.K. Labour Party, later initiating a joint project with Gordon Brown on education in Africa. As Deputy High Commissioner, and, at a later stage, High Commissioner in Colombo, his reputation was honed for principled questioning of his seniors in the Foreign Service. During a senior posting in Warsaw, and with the blessing of Cardinal Glemp, he married Grazyna Wallonis in 1980. He was serving in Moscow again at the time of the coup against Gorbachev and the collapse of the Soviet Union, proceeding thence to ambassadorial appointments to Bulgaria, Norway and Sri Lanka, and, in 2004, to New York as India’s Permanent Representative at the United Nations. In this last, he made many substantial contributions on poverty, terrorism, on the organisational problems of the UN (challenging the Secretary General’s misunderstanding of his role), and on a reformed and enlarged Security Council.
His many public presentations were courageously unambiguous, enriched by his vast knowledge of history and literature and by his grasp of economics, remarkable in one without a formal economics background. He was disappointed at the dire literary limitations of his UK counterpart.

Sen’s five years as Ambassador, upholding the Nehruvian non-alignment with conviction, earned him immense respect and affection especially among African and Latin American colleagues, but even also among some of his western colleagues. It was wholly appropriate that, on retirement, he was invited to be Special Senior Advisor to the President of the General Assembly. Ironically perhaps, he and Grazyna were housed in one of Trump’s towers opposite the UN building, though living, as friends noted, in marked simplicity. In this advisory role, as the world financial crash took off, the President, Father Miguel Brockman, recruited Sen’s guidance in confronting the looming crisis. Anything that might have been achieved, however, was already being undermined by the UK, the USA, and even some of his right-wing Indian colleagues. The President’s plan included a high-level conference in June 2009, summoned to ensure, as Brockman put it, that neither the G7 nor the G20 but a ‘G192’ of the United Nations’ member-states should take in hand the construction of a new world economic order. Nobel economist, Joseph Stiglitz was to be involved in the conference, and another of Nirupam’s friends, his old St Stephen’s College senior, Prabhat Patnaik. Gordon Brown, on Nirupam’s recommendation, was to give a keynote address on the opening day. By this time, however, Brown was confronted with more immediate domestic problems, but, in any case, the conference, and the entire vision behind it were being effectively scuppered by liberalising elements in India and their smooth-tongued diplomatic friends, by the United States and the United Kingdom. It was a sobering finale to Sen’s brilliant and noble career.

On retirement, the Sens settled in New Delhi, not least to make a secure home for their disabled elder son. During his sadly short retirement, Nirupam participated in gatherings of left-wing thinkers in Delhi. Among a number of interventions was a brilliant contribution, published in the journal Mainstream, entitled “Nehru’s Vision, its Development and Dismantling”. The ‘vision’, with a tribute to Robert Burns, was of a socialism focussed unwaveringly on India’s vast poor majority and always consistent with democratic principles - the ‘life and freedom’ that was the heritage of ‘Midnight’s Children.’. Its ‘dismantling’ proceeded from the liberalisation introduced in India in 1991, unlocking the floodgates of greed and corruption and leading on to today’s communal-fascism, a totally un-Indian development in Nirupam Sen’s judgement.

Many friends worldwide, admiring his dedicated, principled and courageous life, will share something of Grazyna’s and their two sons, Devrupam and Devavrat’s deep sense of loss.

Dan O’Connor