I first met Ved Marwah sometime in 1982 when I was Deputy Commissioner, Gurgaon, and he was Joint Secretary, Women’s Development, in the Ministry of Social Welfare. He visited the district alongside Sheila Kaul, his minister.
Early in 1983, I was abruptly transferred out of Gurgaon for upsetting an influential liquor baron of the district who was close to a powerful bureaucrat. My crime was that I had ordered the removal of the encroachment of a road by the powerful guy for his social function. My transfer order came within 24 hours on January 3, not the normal time for a transfer.
Who says governments are lazy!
I was keen to join the Government of India and was eligible to be a deputy secretary. A cadre officer who was posted in the ministry sent me a message that I should meet Marwah immediately. When I met him, he reprimanded me for taking a month to see him as he had sent a message through another cadre officer working with him. I was hard put to explain that nobody gave me the message earlier.
Meanwhile, a panel of officers had come from the Department of Personnel and I was rejected. He asked me to rush to meet the Desk Officer, Pillai, and request him to include my name in the new panel which was expected in a day or two. Incidentally, it was the same Pillai about whom the joke in the civil service was that for a posting in the Government of India, you have to run from Pillai to post!
My meeting with Pillai was another story. He was shocked to hear my request and looked me up and down for two minutes, as if to scrutinise my sanity. I asked him if I had committed a faux pas. His answer was revealing. He said, “Sir, you are the first man ever to request posting in the Ministry of Social Welfare. The officers, instead, come here to get their names removed.” He was happy to include my name in the panel.
Marwah personally took the file to the secretary, recommending my name, and then to the minister. To my horror, and his surprise, the minister did not clear the file till the minister by chance mentioned to her daughter-in-law her dilemma — that Marwah had recommended an officer who was “close to Devi Lal (then CM, Haryana) and very anti-Indira Gandhi.” When the young lady asked her for the name of the officer recommended, she said, “Some SY Quraishi.” “Mummy, he is a good friend and a good guy. Who gave you the negative feedback?” She named the same officer who had not conveyed Marwah’s message to me!
Fortunately, a chance family conversation clinched the issue for me. The minister cleared the proposal and I joined the ministry post haste. This proved to be a milestone in my career. An abysmally low-profile ministry turned out to have the most exciting possibilities.
Having worked as Director, Public Relations, Haryana, I realised that the ministry which needed communication support more than any other had no wherewithal for it. All it had was a newsletter called Lok Kalyan, a monthly that came out every six months! I mentioned it to Marwah and it took him five minutes to see my point of view. He asked me to immediately prepare a proposal or blueprint, as he called it.
Ready within a week, we took it to our new Secretary, RP Khosla, another dynamic officer. Surprisingly, it was a cakewalk, because of Marwah’s persuasive influence. He and the Secretary fought the ever-obstructionist Planning Commission to accept it even with a token budget. A new media division was created under my charge and we got cracking.
One of the earliest proposals was to start the production of good documentaries on social themes. Marwah came up with a bold idea that instead of advertising for proposals and get flooded with tenders, let’s scout for creative producers and invite them. He suggested that both of us visit Film and TV Institute, Pune, to scout for good young producers. This kind of an approach today would land us in the CBI net!
The strategy had instant rewards. The very first year, we got the National Award for the best documentary made by Sanjay Kak, followed by a similar award the next year by Vijay Kumar.
Marwah’s popularity was to be seen to be believed. And it was not only because of his stunning blue eyes and good looks. No wonder, his room was always full of women of great charm and intellect. There was perfect justification for it. After all, he was Joint Secretary in charge of the women’s bureau.
Overhearing the conversations in his room, I had my first lesson in gender sensitisation, which has enriched me for life. We brought out a lot of literature on gender literacy and films on the subject. I was so motivated that I went on to do my PhD in gender studies. I proudly recall how the doyenne of gender activism, Vina Mazumdar, used to introduce me as an ‘ally’.
I took this sensitisation to every department where I was subsequently posted, including the Ministry of Steel, if you please! Concerned about female foeticide, I got a song written by celebrated Bollywood poet Nida Fazli, entitled Beti (daughter), got the famous ghazal singer Penaz Masani to record and perform live at all the steel plants.
Later, at the Election Commission, I persuaded my colleagues to introduce gender mapping of the electoral rolls which helped us to identify millions of missing women voters. Our new voter education division worked overtime to bridge the gap in voter turnout from 10 percentage points to near zero. I attribute my gender lens to my lessons in Marwah’s room.
The most striking memory I have dates back to November 1, 1984, when in the wake of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination, there were bloody anti-Sikh riots. While some parochial non-Sikh Indians were openly or secretly rejoicing, I cannot forget Marwah’s anguish. “How the hell can we allow this to happen?” was his pained refrain.
At the end of his tenure, he reverted to his cadre, the Union Territory of Delhi, and was soon posted as the Commissioner of Police.
Meanwhile, the ministry found that my ACR file was missing. I called up Marwah, who denied having any knowledge. One day, I received his call asking me to see him immediately. The urgency in his voice alarmed me.
What he told me was another shocking revelation that would have affected my career. He said that the minister was insistent that he and the Secretary who had rated me outstanding should make it adverse as I was anti-Indira Gandhi! Obviously, my ‘friend’, who had poisoned the minister’s ears at the time of appointment, had not ceased to be operative even after two years. Marwah took the file from the minister, promising to downgrade the report, but kept it with him, secretly.
He said he was sitting over the file all the while since he was expecting the minister to be dropped. As soon as it happened, the ACR became final.
This is one outstanding report I will always cherish.
Massive buildup at Singhu, Tikri | Govt wary