Years ago, at one of the many conferences discussing India, Pakistan, nukes and South Asian security, a young kid asked one of the speakers this question: “What do you think is the solution to the Kashmir problem?” The speaker, in his inimitable soft-spoken style, his voice laced with a whisper of mischief, winked at a bunch of us and said: “Well, if I knew the answer to that, young lady, I’d have won a Nobel Prize by now!” Immediately after that, he proceeded, in all seriousness, to reply to that near-rhetorical query, making the person asking the question feel like hers was perhaps the most important one at the conference.
That was Air Commodore Jasjit Singh, in a nutshell, who passed away on Sunday. A man people looked to for near-impossible answers – a man who gave me my very first break more than a decade ago. I remember wandering into the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), one fine day – a freshly-scrubbed, jeans-sporting history buff who had been newly-initiated into the fascinating world of International Relations – wondering whether I should perhaps intern in India’s premier thinktank dealing with defence and security issues. A tall, distinguished-looking Sardarji asked me whether I was lost and I told him that I was looking for the Director’s office, as I wanted to drop off my CV. To my utter horror he said: “You mean my office?”
Unperturbed by my lack of recognition, he asked me to step into his office. What followed was a 20-minute intense grilling about what I wanted from life in general, why IDSA in particular, which ended astonishingly with a simple question: ‘How soon would you like to start?’ That’s just how it was working with him. He usually knew what you were all about, but would allow you the courtesy of coming to that very same conclusion yourself. That’s what made him a good boss and an exceptional leader – as well as the longest-serving Director of IDSA – besides being a mentor to JNU’s countless free electrons.
I remember going for a brief fellowship to the LSE while I was at IDSA – a couple of years after he had left the Institute. We travelled to various cities and visited countless places within London itself as part of the course curriculum. In about 80 percent of these places, which included a handful of thinktanks, the EU Parliament and NATO, every time I would introduce myself as being from IDSA, someone in the room would ask: “Oh how’s Jasjit? Give him my regards!” prompting my batchmates to finally ask: “Just who the hell is this guy? Batman?”
That’s just what he did for IDSA – carrying forward and leaving behind, in equal parts, a legacy that made it synonymous with the best in Indian strategic thinking. At conferences, he never forgot to introduce us ‘little people’ to the biggies who responded to his invitation. I remember being absolutely awe-struck meeting Bob McNamara – straight out of a long-forgotten American history course-book – at my very first Pugwash Conference, having been generously introduced to him first by an alert boss who realised I was wistfully debating my move over the rim of a beer glass!
I just wish I had gone a little beyond the chance meetings and the holiday messages I sent every year – always replied to promptly and with much warmth. For he always made the time when we met – even after I had moved on to chase yet another dream – to remind me to ‘stop being possessive’ about my writing and just ‘letting go’ of that article that had been sitting on my desktop for days, on the odd occasions that we spoke or met briefly. I remember him telling me to stop being shy about what others thought of my writing and let them critics worry for a change...
...for he knew how to deal with those too – and how! I remember thinking, if I can “give it off” to those smart-mouthed India bashers at random conferences (in my rookie opinion), even half as well as he did – with measured logic, clarity of thought, conviction, unmatched grace and without ever raising his voice – I could run for President one day!
I wrote this in half an hour. I took your advice, Sir, and this time it was easy to let go. For you were just one damn fine guy, Air Cmde Singh, and you will be missed by at least two generations of proud patriots, thinkers and wannabes alike. We were lucky to know you…