Ambassador Arundhati Ghose (1940 – 2016) who passed away on Monday, July 25, will be long remembered as CTBT Durga for her feisty contribution in the mid-1990s, when she led the Indian delegation to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. At the time, India was under considerable international pressure to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and she became the face of Indian nuclear diplomacy.
On August 8, 1996, Ghose declared in Geneva: “India will not sign this unequal treaty. Not now, not ever.” And the acronym CTBT soon entered the Indian lexicon to convey righteous indignation and defiance.
My association with Ghose — Chukku ma’am — was after she retired and became a member of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and was active on the Track II circuit. Post the nuclear tests of May 1998, there was considerable debate and deliberation over India’s nuclear profile and doctrine. Suffice it to add that the former National Security Advisor (NSA) Brajesh Mishra and the doyen of Indian strategic studies, K. Subrahmanyam, attached considerable value to Ghose’s inputs and assessment of various weapons of mass destruction (WMD) related issues.
Textual analysis in a given geopolitical context was her forte and to those who knew her, she was tenacious to a fault and always spoke truth to power in an objective manner in her distinctive, clipped accent. Appointed to the UPSC as a member in the Vajpayee government, she took her job very seriously and was correct to the extreme in not being seen or heard in the public domain. All one’s interactions were deemed restricted.
Post UPSC, one saw her becoming more visible on the Track II circuit and many young scholars working in the field of nuclear diplomacy benefited from her guidance. Generous with her time, she was also a rigorous taskmaster and expected a high index of professional competence from those who interacted with her. Her lectures and monographs are part of the diplomatic archive and her address at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) in Bengaluru is a valuable documentation of an important phase of India’s nuclear negotiations.
One of the more rewarding areas of working with Chukku was in getting a grip on global governance issues at a time when the subject was relatively less understood in India. For a brief period, a small group of us — all national security boffins — met under the banner of what was called the Subbu Forum and tried to identify global trends that would impact India in the 21st century
Chukku helped to steer this group and thanks largely to Arunabha Ghose (not a relative as she often reminded us!) and the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), a slim document was brought out that highlighted global governance challenges and the resultant security-strategic predicament for India.
Fiercely independent and self-sufficient, she never expected any special status because of gender and was held in some awe by those who engaged with her for her acerbic wit and conformity to procedural and semantic protocol. A personal memory is illustrative.
During her UPSC stint, she was very ill at one point and I was asked by the NSA Brajesh Mishra to visit her at home and ascertain if she needed any help with specialist consultations et al. And his caution to me was: “Don’t let her know that I am behind this, Chukku will chew my head off when she regains her strength.”
One will miss the long telephone chats —what she called “pick-brain” — to discuss various issues. Her last text messages from end June remains on my phone. In response to my: “Can u speak ?”. Her reply was: “Not just yet. Not well.”
The end came soon after.
Rest in peace Chukku ma’am.