Madanjeet Singh’s life, like that of many of his generation, was defined by the trauma of Partition. Some reacted by living a life of ire against all those who were responsible for that dreadful tragedy. Others, and Madanjeet were among the most articulate of them, desired only the restitution of the essential spiritual and cultural unity of the South Asian subcontinent, resting, as it does, not on transitory political boundaries but on the glorious diversity of our faiths and arts and ways of life. He evolved his own particular acronym for describing that South Asia: SASIA, he called it, and always regarded himself a Sasian.
He saw Partition as a horrific aberration in a millennial tradition of living together. Determined that his beloved Sasia never again be visited by the horrific communalism and mindless massacres of 1947, he lived for secularism and for the retrieval of those hoary values of peace, tolerance and harmony resumed in that one word — secularism — that have made our sub-continent such a unique celebration of unity in diversity. In that sense, he was a true child of the Nehru era — and remained true to the Nehruvian vision of what made India special and, therefore, great, long after it ceased to be fashionable, or even politically correct, to call oneself a Nehruvian.
Indeed, it was a chance encounter with Jawaharlal Nehru in his early twenties, in the aftermath of the triumph and tragedy of Independence and Partition, which marked the start of Madanjeet’s career. In that long ago era when SPG meant only three curiously juxtaposed letters, Madanjeet positioned himself morning after morning, the better to hone his budding skills as a photographer, at the edge of the Teen Murti lawns where Nehru would meet anyone who came to meet him. Noticing the young man who was a regular visitor but never came up to him, Nehru called out to him and learned his background as a Sikh whose family hailed from Jammu but who had grown up in recent years in Travancore-Cochin where the Maharaja had employed his father in running a ceramics factory. Discovering Madanjeet’s passionate interest in all forms of art and culture, and his deep knowledge of these disciplines, Nehru offered him a post in the Indian Foreign Service.
Madanjeet was never your regular IFS officer. Indeed, he had little interest in writing lugubrious monthly reports on the local political situation that no one at headquarters ever reads, which is the fate to which most young officers resign themselves, and instead began cultivating artistic personalities of a variety of hues in Rome, to where he was first posted. It is doubtful that any Indian diplomat ever played as seminal a role as he did in introducing Indian art and culture to European audiences or in going as far as he did in advancing the cause of cultural diplomacy. A brief moment of fame came his way when he found himself the diplomatic points-man in the Great Scandal of the 1950s — an Indian home-maker, Sonali Dasgupta, eloping with the swashbuckling Italian cineaste Roberto Rosselini. Shock and horror: the honour of Mother India at stake!
Niche diplomacy of this kind, of course, did not lead Madanjeet very far up the greasy pole of the civil service. Instead, it led to him being posted as the Indian Ambassador to Kampala, a least-favoured posting during the dreadful era of that crazed dictator, Idi Amin. We are all very lucky that Madanjeet has left a riveting account of those years in the last of his many books, Culture of the Sepulchre, published by Penguin/Viking just last year, at the start of what we now know was to be the last year of his life. It bespeaks the immense courage of an Ambassador devoted to his duty courageously scouring a country given over to murderous anarchy to look after the besieged community of people of Indian origin who were spread throughout Uganda, from the capital to the bush.
If the Ministry of External Affairs never showered on him the honours that were his due, UNESCO did. He was appointed an UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and he leveraged that position to bring solace to victims of communal fanaticism like the Bangladeshi writer, Taslima Nasreen, to whom he generously loaned his Vasant Vihar apartment gratis. His last such act of generosity was to open his heart and capacious purse to Malala, the teenaged Pakistani student, who was shot by fundamentalists in Swat objecting to her campaign for girl children to have the right to education.
That purse was so capacious because he suddenly came into a fortune when he invested in his son’s venture capital enterprise, principally to help his son, and then encashed his capital gains before the bubble burst, leaving him a very wealthy man indeed. But not for him any resting on his laurels although he was already in his eighties. He started the South Asia Foundation and invested more than $10 million in setting up institutes of excellence in each one of the eight South Asian countries, and millions more in granting scholarships to South Asian students and researchers to cross the often impregnable boundaries that divide South Asian countries one from the other, to learn to know their fellow-Sasians and thus become true Sasians in their own right. Several problems beset his favoured project of establishing an Institute of Kashmir Studies in Srinagar and it is a measure of satisfaction for me, as chairman of the India branch of SAF, that we sorted out these tangled issues before Madanjeet left us.
In losing Madanjeet, South Asia has lost one of its greatest friends and benefactors, but the 10 institutes of excellence he leaves behind in every country of South Asia will carry his mission onward to the day when the hearts and minds of Sasia will be truly united.