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Saturday, May 08, 2021

Jagmohan (1927-2021): The officer and the politician, combative and uncompromising

When Indira Gandhi came back to power in 1980, he was appointed the Lt Governor of Delhi. Even Rajiv Gandhi appreciated his dynamism and appointed him to help plan and organise the Delhi Asian Games.

Written by Coomi Kapoor
New Delhi | Updated: May 5, 2021 7:20:38 am
Jagmohan (1927-2021)

JAGMOHAN, who passed away Tuesday at 93, was a rare exception in Indian politics who changed political masters, but never his core beliefs.

Always referred to simply by his first name Jagmohan — few were aware of his surname Malhotra — the able, innovative, but high-handed and combative civil servant turned politician, succeeded in making a radical switch from the Congress to the BJP, without in any way compromising on his thinking or tough style.

Two of his main backers, Sanjay Gandhi and the RSS, both appreciated these qualities and he was decorated with a string of Padma awards by different governments, including the Padma Vibhushan in 2016.

Jagmohan came to the notice of Sanjay Gandhi in the early 1970s when he was appointed Vice Chairperson of Delhi Development Authority and changed the face of the capital, innovating schemes for land appropriation and beautification projects. He was a close lieutenant of Sanjay’s during the Emergency, and earned notoriety for overseeing the ruthless slum demolition drives, particularly the devastating evacuation and demolition of Turkman Gate in 1976. He remained unapologetic about the mass, overnight displacements, insisting that his squatter victims were major beneficiaries in the long run.

When Indira Gandhi came back to power in 1980, he was appointed the Lt Governor of Delhi. Even Rajiv Gandhi appreciated his dynamism and appointed him to help plan and organise the Delhi Asian Games.

From 1984 to 1989, he was Governor of Jammu and Kashmir. This was a period when militancy in the Valley was exploding. Jagmohan tried to crack down on law and order and was accused of using extra-legal methods to engineer defections and displace Farooq Abdullah as Chief Minister so that G M Sayed could be installed in his place. All along, he was of the firm belief that Article 370 was an obstacle in enforcing New Delhi’s writ in the troubled border state.

He believed that regional parties were complicit in the deteriorating law and order situation in Kashmir. It was during his brief second tenure as Governor in 1990, that the Kashmiri Pandits began their exodus from the Valley. His critics charged that he was unable to protect the Pandits from Islamic militants and orchestrated their departure. On the other hand, the Hindus were grateful to him for saving their lives.

Always combative and convinced about the righteousness of his causes, he wrote half a dozen books spelling out his position on different topics, including My Frozen Turbulence, giving his version of his role in Kashmir. Other books include Rebuilding Shahjanabad and Soul and Structure of Governance in India.

During the Emergency, Jagmohan was perceived as being anti-minority because he famously remarked during the Turkman Gate evacuation that he had no intention of permitting the displaced persons to be re-located together, stating bluntly: “I did not destroy one Pakistan to create another.’’

It was this, compounded with his strong view that Kashmir should be fully integrated with India, which brought him to the notice of the RSS. Although the RSS initially opposed his efforts to take over the Vaishno Devi temple board administration and undertake a massive clean-up, they came to applaud his efforts in bringing order and accountability in the running of the renowned shrine and organising a system for ensuring a smooth, comfortable passage for tens of thousands of pilgrims annually.

With the backing of the RSS, Jagmohan joined the BJP, and was made a minister in Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Cabinets. He served ably as Minister for Urban Development, Tourism and Communication. Until ill health confined him to his bed in his last years, Jagmohan lived a very disciplined and active life. He was a familiar figure at Delhi’s India International Centre. During the day he could be seen, through the IIC library’s glass panel, sitting at a desk, meticulously researching and taking notes for whichever book he was working on.

In the evening, he would retire to the tea lounge for a quick cup of tea and a minuscule part of a biscuit which would be necessarily shared with his regular table-mates. An exceedingly polite man, who exuded a serious bent of mind for our myriad civic problems, he would always insist on my joining him over a cup of tea, at what was known as Jagmohan’s table, whenever I happened to be in the IIC.

During the Morarji Desai Government, even though the Congress was down in the dumps, Jagmohan sued The Indian Express questioning a purported first-hand report that suggested the conspiracy to demolish Turkman Gate was hatched at a five-star hotel with him and other Congress leaders present.

Later, when the Congress returned to power, and he was Lt Governor of Delhi, he sought to demolish a wing of the Express Building on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg pulling out an obscure alleged violation of the building code. The courts intervened in the Express’s favour. Over the years, however, the bad blood dissolved, and he was a friend to many in newsroom.

He is survived by his son Manmohan, a senior judge in the Delhi High Court who, like his father, does not use his surname.

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