In the Service of Free India

Book Review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: In the Service of Free India

Author: BD Pande

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books, 2021

Memoirs of civil servants offer a ringside view of the events that shape up a country. Of late, there have been several memoirs by civil servants of India. But this one is unique.

In the Service of Free India–Memoirs of a Civil servant by BD Pande has some of the best chronicles as India was in the formative years after she got freedom. In reverence to his wishes, the memoir has been published posthumously. It is a fascinating record of Pande’s own life and that of India in the half century after Independence.

Edited by his daughter Ratna M Sudarshan, the autobiography comes more than a decade after Pande’s death in 2009 at 92. The memoirs were penned between 1986 and 1999 and the family was instructed to publish these at least five years after his death.

B.D. Pande was the first person from Kumaon and Garhwal division to pass the Indian Civil Service (ICS) examination in London in 1938. In his thirty-nine years as a civil servant, Pande held many important offices in the state and central governments. He served as finance secretary, development commissioner and food commissioner in Bihar; chairman of LIC at then Bombay; and finally cabinet secretary to the Government of India from 1972 to 1977. The first person from Uttarakhand to be appointed the governor of West Bengal and later Punjab, President K.R. Narayanan conferred on him the Padma Vibhushan for his meritorious service to the nation.

Says the blurb : “In the decades following 1947, as the tallest national leaders were building a new India, they were supported by a band of idealistic civil servants fiercely committed to the country’s Constitution and its people. Among these remarkable officers was Bhairab Dutt Pande, a young man from the Himalayan district of Kumaon, who joined the Indian Civil Service in 1939. Over almost forty years as a civil servant, and later as governor, he played an important role in the country’s administration, and interacted with leaders like Indira Gandhi (as cabinet secretary during the Emergency), Morarji Desai and Jyoti Basu.”

Writes Pande in the preface: “Ever since I retired in 1977, people have been asking me to write my memoirs, even more so after I resigned as governor of Punjab in July 1984. I have also been approached by some publishers. But I always refused on the grounds that I have no talent for writing. I was a student of science and writing was never my forte. During my service, I did not write notes exceeding a page or page-and-a-half, no matter how intricate the subject. And more importantly, I kept no notes during my service or lifetime, kept no copies of important papers, letters or memos and therefore my recollections will tend to be biased. With the passage of years, one’s memory tends to play tricks and might even get facts wrong. Furthermore, I did not possess any means of rechecking what I have written from contemporary accounts or official records. For these reasons I never took up the pen to write.” Honesty at its best!

Pande chronicles several landmark events and initiatives that he either participated in or witnessed. He helped increase food-grain allotment to the state as food commissioner of Bihar in the early 1950s and drew up a new famine code as land reforms commissioner. His work in the Community Development programme some years later still has important lessons for today’s Panchayati Raj institutions. After retirement, he was governor of West Bengal during the resurgence of Naxalism in the early 1980s, and of Punjab in 1983-84—a tragic and turbulent year in the history of the state and the nation. Pande chose to resign as governor rather than carry out unconstitutional orders.

A trumped-up narrative about Punjab’s situation was built in the months leading up to Operation Bluestar in June 1984, leading to disastrous consequences. The five chapters in this memoir on Punjab offers an absorbing narrative of the behind-the-scenes events and negotiations leading up to the Anandpur Sahib Resolution and Operation Blue Star is of great value.

Pande, who had a front-row seat of the events, lauds the Sikhs as a community and is highly critical of the central leadership, especially PM Indira Gandhi, and some “Hindu hardliners and vernacular press for contributing to the false narrative”. He also blames the tussle between President Zail Singh and former Punjab CM Darbara Singh for the unfolding of the events. It is his view that many Sikhs had been the victims of attacks by terrorists, he writes, and whenever an incident occurred, the Punjab Police Intelligence was blamed even though they had supplied advance information.

Mark these dauntless words: “I have known people who, living in Delhi, were even afraid of coming to Chandigarh. Then from Chandigarh, if one went to the real Punjab — Amritsar, Jalandhar, or Ludhiana — one would find similar normalcy. Driving through the countryside, all was peaceful, with farming going on normally. The cities were bustling with activity. Factories were working normally, even schools and colleges. Hindus and Sikhs were walking together, visiting each other’s shops, riding together. The contrast between what one anticipated and what one actually experienced was vivid… I could not help but emphasize on this otherwise peaceful atmosphere.”

On the controversial ‘White Paper’ tabled by the Centre before the Army operation, Pande says he was not even consulted. He notes that Akali leaders of the time were divided. They came to meet him separately while other political parties came to one group. He has also questioned the official figures of casualties in Operation Blue Star. “The number of casualties among the terrorists and civilians was 1,200 (and not 700). Some 200 terrorists still got away. Blue Star did not achieve the desired result.”

For everyone who wants to know the truth behind the Operation Bluestar in Punjab, this is a  de-facto account. The machinations by the central government of the time are revealing. The other chapters in this 300-paged memoir make for a fascinating read and give a privileged perspective on issues and their outcome.

Stimulating and exalting in coequal measure, this memoir, with photographs from the author’s personal album, is both a riveting record of an extraordinary life and an important and an informative document. There is also a detailed timeline to refresh one’s memory.

This book is a must-read for anyone who has been, is, or aims to be a civil servant in India and equally, for anyone who is interested in the history of the times. It is a candid memoir of past times, and the events leading up to them. The informal style of the memoir makes it effortless to read and transports the reader to that time period.


Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of Unbiased, No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.



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