The non-accidental rise of Harsh Shringla

The remarkable journey from Darjeeling to Delhi of a former Indian Foreign Secretary of Nepali descent

PROUD MOMENT: Harsh Vardhan Shringla with his aunt Chokila Iyer, also a former foreign secretary, and the author of the biography Dipmala Roka at the book launch in Darjeeling last week.

Harsh Vardhan Shringla appeared immaculate in a freshly pressed suit and a peaked dhaka topi to address a rapt audience at the St Joseph's auditorium in Darjeeling last week for the launch of his biography.  

Born to Sikkimese father Tshering Tenduf La, and Nepali mother Hari Devi Basnet in 1962, Shringla grew up in various parts of India following his father’s government job. But wherever he went, he always felt connected to his Nepali roots.

“My father has always been there for me. He inculcated values and principles that have stood me with over time,” Shringla told Nepali Times in an interview. “My mother was practical, efficient and also very disciplined. She guided me closely throughout my career.”

At 9, Shringla was sent to Mayo College in Ajmer, where he was an avid reader of books on philosophy, history and foreign affairs. In college, he was part of the hockey team and by 19 he graduated from the elite St Stephen’s College with History Honors.

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All these details about Shringla's childhood right up to being appointed Foreign Secretary and his last job as Chief Coordinator for India’s G20 Presidency are detailed in Dipmala Roka's biography of the man, Not an Accidental Rise: Harsh Vardhan Shringla.

“My father said the IFS (Indian Foreign Service) was the best career anyone could have. My aunt Chokila Iyer was in the IFS and was a role model,” added Shringla, who aced the All India Civil Services exam, placed 15th out of 137,000 applicants and at age 22  became one of the youngest IFS officers.

Biographer Dipmala Roka is a deputy professor at Sikkim University who first met Shringla in April 2021 and was fascinated by how a man from Darjeeling (which is underrepresented in the Indian bureaucracy) went on to become one of India’s most distinguished diplomats.

‘He is self-made, and rose by dint of sheer grit and hard work. His perseverance and determination are remarkable, as are his skills as a diplomat and administrator. He innovates constantly,’ Roka writes in her book.

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Shringla’s career began in India's mission to UNESCO in Paris, followed by a posting in Vietnam. He was then promoted to the northern division that oversees India’s relations with Nepal and Bhutan at a time of the controversial 1997 Mahakali Treaty. He was subsequently sent to India's permanent mission to the United Nations in New York.

Not an Accidental Rise also goes into Shringla’s work as co-chair of the India-Bangladesh Joint Boundary Working Group that finally led to the signing of the landmark 2011 agreement that mended strained bilateral relations.

“The best diplomacy is preventive diplomacy,” says Shringla. “If an issue arises then it should be worked behind the scenes, without fanfare and public attention.”

In her book, Roka gives many other examples of Shringla as a natural team player who looked for solutions, especially in South Asian diplomacy. Shringla was Joint Secretary looking after SAARC, the regional body that has now gone into protracted hibernation.

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Shringla also served as India’s envoy to Bangladesh and Thailand, and ambassador to the United States. But within a year of being posted to Washington DC, he was appointed Foreign Secretary in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government in 2020. The Shringlas are just one of two Indian families to produce more than one foreign secretary. His aunt Chokila Iyer was the first female foreign secretary of India in 2001-2. 

Shringla visited Nepal as foreign secretary in 2020 where his Nepali heritage helped smoothen relations just after the Lipu Lek border dispute. “Our people enjoy easy, free border movement and no visa regime," he says in Nepali with a perceptible Darjeeling lilt, "special and unique relations must be maintained, especially between Nepal and the Nepali-speaking parts of India in Sikkim, West Bengal, Uttarakhand and Nepal."

After being appointed chief coordinator for India’s G20 presidency last year, he chose Darjeeling for the group's tourism working meetings, promoting the region's many natural and cultural attractions. Shringla says he now wants to give back to his home region, and is involved in the Darjeeling Welfare Society. Nepal's own public figures could learn a thing or two from Shringla's work in skills development activities for Darjeeling's youth to prevent outmigration.  

“Nobody knows where our career trajectories will take us," says Shringla. "A younger me would have had a hard time believing that I would become foreign secretary someday. One needs to focus, work hard and produce results. Lucky for me, I belonged to a system that acknowledges meritocracy above all.”

The non-accidental rise of Harsh Shringla NT 2

Not an Accidental Rise: Harsh Vardhan Shringla.

by Dipmala Roka

KW Publishers 2023

182 pages

INR 784 (hardover)

The book is also available in Nepali, Hindi, and Bengali.

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