The story of an Indian who spirited the Dalai Lama to safety
"An Officer and His Holiness" penned by Rani Singh is the heroic story of Har Mander Singh who escorted Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama to India braving many security threats.
Some people are born great and some willy-nilly have greatness thrust on them. Such is the case of Har Mander Singh, an officer of the Indian Frontier Administrative Service who was posted as the Political Officer in the Kameng division of the North-East Frontier Agency (now Arunachal Pradesh), when the 14th Dalai Lama took a considered decision to leave his Potala Palace in Lhasa in the face of the growing belligerence of China, which had incorporated Tibet within its ambit.
Much has been written about the Dalai Lama's arduous journey from Lhasa to the Indian frontier, but little is known about the efforts made by Har Mander Singh, for which he was awarded the Padma Shri, India's fourth highest civilian award, for escorting the Tibetan spiritual leader with bare-bone resources and minimal security at his command to Tezpur in Assam, from where the Ministry of External Affairs transported him via train to Mussoorie for a meeting with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru before choosing to settle in McLeodganj, a little above the hill station of Dharamsala.
It was an effort well worth it.
"I don't know, but I have a feeling," Har Mander Singh, now in his 90s, told the author, his niece and a broadcast journalist who has done extensive work for the BBC, "that he thinks well of me. The other day here (in New Delhi), Harsh, my son, invited him to talk to the street children who are in Harsh's care. He noticed me in the crowd and he said, 'Har Mander Singh, come to me', then he got hold of both my hands and I was feeling I should run away from here. He made me sit next to his chair and he kept holding both my hands for the entire period of time. There must be some feeling for me somewhere."
Noted author and civil rights activist Harsh Mander, incidentally, is Har Mander Singh's son. He dropped the 'Singh' surname when he joined the IAS since he didn't want to be "bracketed". He quit in 2002 in the wake of the Gujarat riots that followed the Godhra train burning and has also served on the National Advisory Council (NAC) headed by Sonia Gandhi during the UPA regime.
The book is loosely divided into three sections. The first details the escape from Lhasa, parts of it in the Dalai Lama's own words and based on extensive interviews with the author. The second deals with the role of Har Mander Singh, again interview-based, on the journey from the border crossing at Chutangnu, through Gorhsam, Shakti, Lumla, Thongleng village, Tawang, Jang village, Senge Dzong village, Dirang village and Rahung village and Bomdila to enable devotees pay obeisance - and finally to Tezpur. The third, based on secondary sources, deals with the aftermath the 1962 Sino-Indian war and the continuing tensions between New Delhi and Beijing.
In sum, the book is a valuable contribution to filling in gaps in the history of the era and a reminder to today's generation of what statesmanship is all about.