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Bajpai, Sir Girja Shankarlocked

(1891–1954)
  • Olaf Caroe
  • , revised by B. R. Nanda

Bajpai, Sir Girja Shankar (1891–1954), administrator and politician in India, was born in Lucknow on 3 April 1891, the second of the three sons of Sir Seetla Prasad Bajpai, chief justice of Jaipur state, and his wife, Rukmini Shukla (d. 1945). Having won a science scholarship from Muir College, Allahabad, to Merton College, Oxford, Bajpai switched to history and in 1915 entered the Indian Civil Service. He was perhaps its most brilliant Indian member in the inter-war years, becoming the youngest secretary to the government of India, member of the legislative assembly, and member of the viceroy's executive council. He was also the first Indian in the British period to be officially involved in international affairs, as agent-general for India in the United States. Immensely industrious, persistent, and persuasive, fluent in French, Persian, and Bengali and a stylist in English, a good speaker, matching in repartee and debate men of the calibre of Bhulabhai Desai and M. A. Jinnah, he was a fine craftsman in all the fields he entered.

Chosen in 1922 for Lord Balfour's team for the Washington conference on naval disarmament, Bajpai went on to participate in the League of Nations in Geneva, in the second round-table conference in London, and in negotiations with other countries of the British empire and Commonwealth, notably South Africa, on the problems of Indian expatriates. In 1941 Whitehall allowed India to have its first representation in an independent country, and Bajpai was sent as agent-general to Washington, where he was to serve until 1946. He impressed not only Roosevelt and other Americans, but several international figures, such as the eminent French columnist Pertinax, who described him as 'un sort de Voltaire au sein de l'Empire Britannique' ('a sort of Voltaire at the heart of the British empire'). Bajpai was, however, to incur bitter criticism in his own country, where his name was associated with British propaganda against Gandhi and the Indian National Congress in the United States during the war.

In his legislative years Bajpai had developed friendly contacts with some of the Indian political leaders, such as Bhulabhai Desai, Satyamurti, K. M. Munshi, M. R. Jayakar, and Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru. His views on political freedom and how to secure it from Britain were very much like theirs. There is evidence that these Indian leaders also had misgivings about the policy of the Congress in the early 1940s. Bajpai had the unenviable duty of publicly defending in the United States the policies and actions of the government of India at a time of great nationalist upheaval when popular alienation from the raj was at its peak. The publication of American records has, however, revealed that he was not only urging the British government to abandon rigidity in its attitude on the constitutional issue, but also persuading the Americans to urge on the British government a more conciliatory policy towards India. Bajpai's deputy in Washington, Humphrey (later Lord) Trevelyan, wrote in his memoirs: 'Bajpai earned the respect of the British and Americans. He conducted himself with dignity and honesty tempered with adroitness. For this he was abused by his countrymen' (Trevelyan, 238).

Nehru's letter to Bajpai asking him to continue in service after the transfer of power was not exactly couched in a cordial tone, but it must be said to Nehru's credit that he did not take long to recognize Bajpai's talents and experience. He appointed him head of the department of external affairs as secretary-general. Bajpai influenced decisions of high policy until 1952, when ill health obliged him to retire. His outstanding career was crowned with his appointment as governor of Bombay state in 1952. He died there in harness on 5 December 1954 and was cremated on the same day, full of honours, a great Indian who also cared deeply for the British heritage. He was appointed CBE in 1922, CIE in 1926, KBE in 1935, and KCSI in 1943.

A strong supporter of the Commonwealth, Bajpai played a key role in drafting the final constitutional formula for enabling India to remain in it as a republic. His mastery of the Kashmir question briefly brought him back to diplomacy in 1953, when he led the Indian delegation in talks with Pakistan and the UN representative Frank Graham. He is, however, perhaps best remembered for his advice—which Nehru accepted before Bajpai left the foreign office, but which other influences later negated—to raise the boundary issue with China.

The chairman of the UN Kashmir commission, Josef Korbel, described Bajpai, as 'a small man with a shy smile, perfect manners and ivory cut hands, with the English of Shakespeare and himself the quintessence of ancient Indian culture and Oxford schooling' (Korbel, 123). Korbel added that Bajpai 'was a great diplomat of the English school', and his long interaction with the British certainly shaped him greatly, but he was unusual in his day for the broader influence deriving from his love and experience of Europe, especially France, supplemented by a deep understanding of the United States. Above all, he was quintessentially Indian, in personal commitment, no less than in his personal life. Outwardly a little austere, Bajpai had an air of detachment designed to ensure a privacy he prized, so that he could turn to reading and to things of beauty, particularly carpets, paintings, and flowers, and cultivating fine roses. With all his elegant manners and courtesy, he had a puckish streak, poking fun, yet willing to be its object. A devoted family man, Bajpai and his wife, Maharajdulari Misra (d. 1967), had four daughters and three sons. Nothing would have pleased him more than that his two surviving sons succeeded him as secretaries to the government of India, one of them as ambassador to the United States, providing the rare example of father and son occupying the same chair in Washington.

Sources

  • H. Trevelyan, The India we left (1972)
  • J. Korbel, Danger in Kashmir, rev. edn (1966)
  • The foreign relations of the United States: diplomatic matters, 1941–1945
  • Selected works of Jawaharlal Nehru, ed. S. Gopal and others [2nd ser.], 28 vols. (1984–), vol. 1, pp. 549–50
  • priv. coll., G. S. Bajpai MSS
  • private information (2004)

Archives

  • BL OIOC, corresp. as agent-general for India in Washington, MS Eur. D 714
  • NRA priv. coll., archive
  • BL OIOC, corresp. with Sir John Walton, MS Eur. D 545