NARI K Rustomji studied classical Latin and Greek, was secretary of the Musical Society and played the piano and violin at Cambridge University. Such a background would be considered unusual for a bureaucrat today. Perhaps it was these sensibilities that made Rustomji one of the most endearing political administrators of his era and his affection for the tribals of Northeast India is legendary.
This week is the 94th birth anniversary of the first chief secretary of Meghalaya, who died a decade ago.
The Northeast has all but forgotten this remarkable bureaucrat, whose grasp of geopolitical matters and understanding of tribal cultures made him one of the most sympathetic and understanding administrators of the Northeast in the transition to and in the early post-Independence era. He and Verrier Elwin were often described as romantics. They were close friends and Rustomji in fact, edited a volume of Elwin’s selected writings. Their advice was relied upon greatly by Nehru and resulted in a policy for the Northeast that has been described as Nehruvian humanistic paternalism. Sadly, that benevolent policy has lapsed and has been replaced with a chaotic and befuddled mindset in Delhi, which results in cultural aggression and headlong underdevelopment, characterized by insensitivity and greed.
Rustomji was influenced greatly by Plato and Socrates, and intended to become a school teacher, but was persuaded by his teachers to apply for the ICS. It was during World War II, and at the interview he was asked about his contribution to the war effort. At the time he was a member of the Royal Observer Corps, keeping a tally of enemy planes that flew overhead. When he mentioned that he was a plane spotter, the examiners inquired how many planes he had spotted the previous week. His reply was a solemn “I’m sorry sir, that’s top secret”. There was an amused murmur of approval among the greybeards and he felt that he had clinched the appointment.
At the end of his ICS probationary training in Dehra Dun, Nari K Rustomji was assigned to Assam, which he accepted whole-heartedly. One of the main reasons for this enthusiasm was Assam’s proximity to Sikkim and Bhutan. He had been introduced to these countries, India’s neighbours in the Northeast, by his friendship with the crown prince of Sikkim, Thondup Namgyal and his cousin, the prince of Bhutan, Jigme Dorji who were probationers along with him in 1942. These lifelong friendships were cemented during Rustomji’s posting as Dewan of Sikkim from 1954-59 and when he was appointed as Adviser to the Government of Bhutan in 1963.
Rustomji spent most of his career in the Northeast, spanning from his first appointment as district publicity organiser in Sylhet during the Second World War, a kind of propaganda post to develop and deliver positive messages to the public in favour of the Allies, to being the first chief secretary of Meghalaya in 1972. In between he served in various administrative posts in Maulvibazar, Lakhimpur and Dibrugarh. Perhaps the most noteworthy position that he had was adviser to the Governor of Assam on tribal affairs, during which time he exerted considerable influence on the formulation of policies for the hill areas.
He was associated with the implementation of the early seven-year plans in Sikkim and Bhutan. Significant in these development efforts were a visionary intent to protect the environment and biodiversity of the region and to protect the region from unwanted kinds of development. He was also careful to ensure that cultural traditions and sensitivities were protected in implementing the Plans.
Rustomji was deeply drawn to the tribals of the region. In his book Enchanted Frontiers, Rustomji says, “The people of the hills have had for me a special pull. I feel utterly and completely at home with my (tribal) hosts. I am at heart, very much a tribal myself. I share much of the bewilderment and loss of identity of the tribal of today”. He learned the local language at every posting and even wore indigenous costumes to work. Much of his scholarly writing are on the anthropology and sociology of the tribes and these articles have appeared in journals such as Himalayan Environment and Culture brought out by the Indian Institute of Advanced Study.
As Dewan of the Chogyal of Sikkim and adviser to the Government of Bhutan, he immersed himself in the cultural milieu of those countries, learning the Sikkimese and Bhutanese languages and wearing the local costumes. He would wear the Sikkimese gown, the ko, even during his trips to Delhi. This led the foreign secretary to comment wryly that while the Dewan might wear Sikkimese dress in Gangtok, he failed to see the point of his wearing the gown in Delhi.
During the governorship of Sri Prakasa, he played a pivotal role in obtaining the accession to India of the maharajas of Manipur, Cooch Behar andManipur. Though varying amounts of duress were exerted in these efforts, Rustomji came out each time with the respect of the maharaja. On each occasion his services were requested as the first Chief Commissioner of the accessed kingdom.
He had a part in the negotiations with the Naga and Mizotribals. He tried to convince the Government that “right principles, rather than force of arms” was the right policy. He spoke out against the tendency of officers to pontificate patronizingly about “uplifting our tribal brethren”. Himself a Zoroastrian, he tried to convince the tribals that they were free to practice the religion of their choice, by arranging special broadcasts of Christian services on Sundays in English and in the various Naga languages. He describes his poignant interaction with a Naga prisoner, discussing letters that the prisoner had written about a cat who was his sole companion in jail. He discussed with General Shrinagesh about a sympathetic approach to the hearts and minds of the tribal people. Sadly, they were not many in the political and military establishment that shared his statesmanlike approach.
In 1951, when he was stationed in Shillong as advisor to the Governor of Assam, Rustomji got married to Hilla Master, daughter of Jal Ardeshir Master, chief conservator of forests, Madras Presidency. They had met in Bombay the previous year; he was 31 and she was 23. Their daughter Tusna was born at Welsh Mission Hospital in 1952. Sadly, Hilla died of complications soon after. He married again in 1963 to Avi Dalal, someone the family had long known.
An unfortunate outcome of Partition was the closure of trade between the Khasi Hills and the contiguous areas of East Pakistan. Perishable oranges and betel nut from the border plantations now had no outlet market and Rustomji approved the request of the local traders for an airstrip in Shella, so that the produce could be flown to Calcutta. Regrettably, this never happened.
As chief secretary in the new state of Meghalaya, he determined to set up an efficient administration, leading by example. Each morning he walked from his residence, Lumpyngad, followed by a clerk, who dutifully took down notes on the way to the Secretariat. He once visited a district headquarters unannounced and found the deputy commissioner absent from his office. Rustomji sent for the absentee officer, who on hearing that the chief secretary was around immediately declared himself sick. Rustomji then sat in the DC’s chair and spent the day disposing of pending files.
If you Google his name and browse the internet, only snippets about Rustomji appear, brief lines in a scholarly article or a blog. Most of what is available are accounts in the five books he has written. In these idealistic, analytical and balanced accounts, he carefully blends the history, culture and politics of this complex region as a background for governance and administration.
Surely the man deserves weightier evidence of his contribution to the Northeast. Indeed such an analysis would provide clues to achieving better solutions to the continuing myriad problems of the Northeast, many of which can be traced to the post-Independence era in which misguided and heavy-handed policies were framed. The politicians and mandarins of today seem to continue in the same vein. They should study Rustomji’s books.