A core figure in India’s largest Buddhist organization has departed. Mr. Shakti Sinha (b. 1957) passed away on Monday at the age of 64. He was director general of the International Buddhist Confederation (IBC), second in seniority only to Ven. Dr. Dhammapiya, the secretary general.
Beyond his immediate contact with the Buddhist community, Shakti Sinha was both bureaucrat and scholar, having served as the private secretary to former Indian PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee from 1996 to 1999. He passed away on Monday, the cause of death not immediately known, although The Indian Express asserts that sources close to Sinha’s family said he died of cardiac arrest while asleep. (The Indian Express)
The Hindu reported: “Political leaders and other dignitaries expressed shock and grief over Mr. Sinha’s sudden demise and recalled his contribution as a strategic thinker and leader in public policy.” (The Hindu) Tributes have also poured in from international Buddhist bodies.
In a strictly Buddhist context, “shakti” means divine energy, and “sinha” means lion. If names are divine and embody a person, his name is a good reminder as to what his loyalties were to, and what he strove to be. He was shaped by his diverse and pluralistic childhood spent in Darjeeling and went to Hindu College in Delhi University in the 1970s. He was an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer of the Arunachal Pradesh-Goa-Mizoram and Union Territory (AGMUT) cadre, 1979 batch. He voluntarily retired in 2013 while he was serving as finance secretary in Delhi under stateswoman Sheila Dixit. (1938-2019)
He came to be known for his liberalism and cosmopolitanism, though his politics moved rightward with an increasing faith in the “identity-based mobilisation of the majority as a natural byproduct of distortions in the politics of secularism.” (Hindustan Times) He grew suspicious of expanding the state’s discretionary powers, and as such became more ideologically aligned with the BJP. He was recognized as “a strategic thinker and leader in public policy,” having heavily influenced India’s geostrategic approach to Pakistan and China, as well as being an expert on Afghanistan. He was part of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan from 2006 to 2008.
His political life was colorful and eventful, and he held many positions of bureaucratic influence throughout his career, from the World Bank to the Nehru Memorial and Museum Library. Both domestically and internationally, his working life was peppered with various posts that made him one of India’s most interesting and well-rounded figures bridging the country’s vibrant and raucous political world with the theoretically apolitical civil service. Just last year, he had published his book, Vajpayee: The Years That Changed India.
Hindustan Times‘ tribute mentioned a particularly admirable quality of Mr. Sinha: “He lived in proximity to power, but his instinct was to spend time with those on the margins of power — because he wanted to understand all points of view before arriving at his own. He understood viewpoints were a result of socialisation, beliefs, and life — and he respected it.” (Hindustan Times)
Whether in India or in other countries, we see less and less of career civil servants that have such breadth of political and administrative experience. Not only did he manage to have an outsize influence on Indian politics and some of its most important figures from the 1970s to 90s, he also acted as a bridge between worlds like that of Indian domestic politics and that of Indian foreign policy, as well as the political landscape and the concerns of bureaucrats. And this is not to say of his service to Indian Buddhism through the IBC, which he was respected and admired for. He will be sorely missed by not only his family and immediate circle, but also an immense pool of professional ex-colleagues and collaborators at IBC.
Ex-bureaucrat and Vajpayee aide, Shakti Sinha dies at 64 (The Indian Express)
Former bureaucrat Shakti Sinha passes away (The Hindu)
Shakti Sinha: The liberal who found home in Vajpayee’s BJP (Hindustan Times)