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Tribute: Bhisma Narain Singh – Somnath Chatterjee – Vidia Naipaul – Kofi Annan

Bhishma Narain Singh: the soft-spoken Guv

In early March 1993, I met Governor B N Singh at the Raj Bhavan to invite him for the silver jubilee celebration of IE. He readily agreed. He enquired about our publication and incorporated the information into his speech. Only a day earlier former President R Venkataraman and former Agriculture Minister C Subramaniam had confirmed their participation.
Governor Singh referred to the favorable climate in the state for industrial development despite the constraint of natural resources and stressed the need for reducing the gap (in the pace of industrial growth) with Gujarat and Maharashtra.

Singh assumed charge as Governor of Tamil Nadu in 1991 when the state came under the President’s rule. The law and order situation was grim with the LTTE problem at its peak culminating in the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. This was followed by elections to the Centre and the state. Singh administered those tumultuous days with care and ensured a smooth transition of power to the democratically elected AIADMK.

Singh, a graduate of Benares Hindu University, was actively involved in politics and administration spread over four decades. As a staunch Congressman, he served first as a minister of the Bihar state and later as a cabinet minister in the Indira Gandhi government of 1980-84. As minister of works and housing, he was actively involved in the construction of the sports infrastructure for the Asiad 1982.

Soft-spoken, Singh expired on 01 August. – SV

Somnath Chatterjee: no comrade to communists

Somnath Chatterjee will be remembered for his principled stand that the Speaker should be above party politics. He refused to cast his vote against the Manmohan government at the crucial vote of confidence in 2008. It cost him dear: he was expelled from the party CPI(M).

Somnath Da was one of the longest-serving parliamentarians. He imbibed the sterling quality of his father Nirmal Chandra Chatterjee, one of the founders of Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha, as a tall leader who was acceptable to all sections of politicians. Nirmal Chandra formed the All India Civil Liberties Union and his close contacts with Jyoti Basu helped his son Somnath to be closely attached to Basu and treat him as his mentor. SC was first elected to the Lok Sabha in 1971 on the death of his father contesting from the same constituency as an independent candidate supported by CPI (M). Soon he became a member of CPI (M) and was elected to the Lok Sabha nine times except once in 1984 when he lost to Mamata Banerjee.

When the CPI (M) extended support from outside to the UPA I government, Chatterjee was unanimously elected Speaker of the Lok Sabha. Even the BJP lent whole-hearted support. With his in-depth knowledge of law and parliamentary practices, he conducted the Lok Sabha proceedings with impartiality, dignity and grace. Sadly, the deep dissensions between the Congress and the BJP led to frequent and lengthy disruptions, saddening the Speaker no end. The unsavoury practice of crowding the well of the House disrupting proceedings, for which the leading political parties should all take the blame, could not be set right by him.
After expulsion from the party, Chatterjee withdrew from active politics and focused on literary and social pursuits. Sadly, this man who is a friend to all was no comrade to the communists. – SV

Vidia Naipaul: the brilliant dirty Harry

Vidia Naipaul, Nobel Prize winner of Indian origin whose forefathers left for the West Indies in 1880, trashed India in his writings.

Born and bred in Trinidad, Naipaul studied at Oxford and worked out of London. He travelled across the world to write; published over 30 books, fiction and non-fiction. Incidentally, his father was also a writer and one who revered the profession. It was all apparently there in the genes.

In 1952, Vidia met Patricia Hale, his future wife. Two years later, in 1954, he began appearing on the BBC radio programme Caribbean Voices. A year after that, Naipaul wrote The Mystic Masseur. For his story A House for Mr. Biswas he used his childhood memories of his father. The story is about the protagonist’s dreams and how they are undermined by his dependence on his influential in-laws.

Soon Naipaul’s books received rich acclaim, but they didn’t make him laugh his way to the bank. Things changed when he wrote The Mimic Men. The work broke new ground. It had threads of both fiction and non-fiction, was told in a non-linear manner and was terrible in parts, but right on the whole. For the first time, Naipaul discussed sex. Meanwhile, in 1964, he wrote a script for an American movie that was never made.

In 1987, The Enigma of Arrival was published. Naipaul continued to write non-fiction works, his last being The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief (2010). Some time earlier, he wrote a column ‘Letter from London’ for The Illustrated Weekly of India.

Angry, irritable, often unpleasant, he was accused of physically abusing Margaret Murray. He married a divorced journalist more than 20 years his junior after his wife died. In 2001, the controversial writer won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The jury praised his work “that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories.”

Naipaul breathed his last in London on 11 August 2018, a week shy of his 86th birthday. – VPR

Kofi Annan: he retired only on his death

Kofi Annan, the charismatic UN diplomat, breathed his last on 18 August. Born into a well-known family in Ghana, he began working in the World Health Organization at the age of 24 and rose up to become the United Nation’s Secretary-General.

Under his leadership as Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping, the UN saw two significant failures: the Rwanda genocide (1994) and the Bosnia massacre (1995). In 1997, he was elected secretary-general, making him the first Sub-Saharan African to hold the position. Annan served two terms of five years each, from January 1997 to December 2006: a decade of turmoil that challenged the global peace body.

In 2001, he was awarded the Noble Peace Prize which was shared with the United Nations. Annan listed “promotion of human rights, the fight to close the gap between extreme poverty and immense wealth and the U.N. campaign to fight infectious diseases like AIDS,” as principal achievements.

Post-retirement he set up a Foundation that worked for global peace. In 2007 he helped broker peace in Kenya where election violence had killed 1000 people. As special envoy to Syria in 2012, Annan won international backing for a six-point plan for harmony.

In 2017, his Foundation’s most significant projects included promotion of peaceful elections; work with Myanmar’s government to improve life and battling violent extremism by enlisting young people to help.

Annan retired only on his death. – AK

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