Riveting encounters

April 7, 2019

Kuldip Nayar’s last book, completed just two weeks before his death, is a narrative of his memories and impressions of nineteen leaders and icons of South Asia

Riveting encounters

India, after independence, has produced many renowned public figures who belong to Punjab. Barring celebrities, Inder Kumar Gujral and Manmohan Singh, both ex-Prime Ministers, along with Khushwant Singh and Kuldip Nayar, both veteran journalists, are ranked among the most prominent Punjabis in India. All four were born in cities now located in Pakistan -- Khushwant in Sargodha, Kuldip in Sialkot, Manmohan in Chakwal and Gujral in Jhelum -- and went through the harrowing experience of migration during partition.

Khushwant’s father, an affluent construction contractor, was a neighbour of Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah in Delhi. At the time of partition, Khushwant, a lawyer based in Lahore, received a message from Jinnah to keep living in the city but when the situation became quite tense a few days before partition, Khushwant decided to move to India. Gujral’s father was a member of legislative assembly from Punjab at the time of partition and was among nineteen Hindu members who automatically became members of Pakistan’s first Constituent Assembly but he soon migrated to India.

Despite their personal experiences during partition, none of them nursed anti-Pakistan feeling as they were all fond of Pakistani Punjab, where they were born, bred, educated and were deeply immersed in its cultural milieu. Gujral restarted the process of diplomatic dialogue to improve strained relations with Pakistan during his brief tenure as Prime Minister; Manmohan exercised restraint in the wake of Mumbai terrorism incident; Khushwant was decried, by his detractors, as the last Pakistani on Indian soil.

Kuldip Nayar -- journalist, author, diplomat, parliamentarian and peace activist -- started the tradition of observing a candle-lit vigil which is still held by peace activists on both sides of the Wagah-Attari border at midnight on 14/15 August, the hour that marks the end of Pakistan’s independence day (and Kuldip’s birthday) and the beginning of India’s.

Although he served briefly as India’s High Commissioner in London during VP Singh’s government and later, in 1997, as a single term member of the upper house of the Indian parliament, Kuldip is primarily known as an intrepid journalist whose syndicated column titled Between the Lines appeared in a number of newspapers across South Asia. He also authored fifteen books including his lengthy autobiography Beyond the Lines, which was written over twenty-two years.

His last book On Leaders and Icons -- From Jinnah to Modi was completed just two weeks before his death last year at the age of ninety-five. A slim volume, it is a narrative of his memories and impressions, based on his interactions with nineteen top-notch leaders and icons of South Asia -- ranging from leaders such as Jinnah, Gandhi, Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Shastri, Manmohan Singh, Modi, Ghaffar Khan, Sheikh Abdullah, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Mujib-ur-Rehman, Koirala, Jayaprakash Narayan, and Vajpayee to icons such as Faiz, Khushwant, JRD Tata, Meena Kumari and Noor Jehan.

Kuldip was a life-long supporter of peaceful relations between India and Pakistan. He had been part of Track-II diplomacy as well as an active member of the civil society which promoted peace between the two neighbours. After his death in 2018, his ashes were scattered in River Ravi in Lahore, where he had studied at Forman Christian College and Law College before partition. He was of the view that Indo-Pakistan relations would have assumed a different trajectory, despite Kashmir issue, if both Gandhi and Jinnah had lived longer.

After partition, he went to Birla House in Delhi where Gandhi was staying and participated in his prayer meetings, including one in which an unsuccessful assassination attempt was made at Gandhi. In 1945, Jinnah came to address students at Law College in Lahore and Kuldip, as a student, asked him two question: first what will be the shape of future relations between India and Pakistan given the animosity between Hindus and Muslims and secondly how would Pakistan respond in case India was attacked by a third country.

Jinnah responded by citing the example of good relations between France and Germany as a model for India and Pakistan and further remarked about the second question that Pakistan will fight along with Indians if India was attacked by a third country. This response, it should be noted, was made before the violence witnessed during partition or before Kashmir issue poisoned relations between the two newly independent countries. Interestingly, even after 1947, Jinnah had advised Nehru to keep his beloved Malabar Hill House in Bombay intact as he planned to spend some time there during his retirement years.

Kuldip served in the government’s information department in the 1950s and 1960s and was briefly press officer to Nehru, whom he found promoting a dynasty as he wanted Indira to be his successor. The author was very close to Lal Bahadur Shastri, first as his press officer when he was Nehru’s home minister and continued to serve in that position when he became India’s Prime Minister. He went to Tashkent with Shastri and was the first person to enter his room after he was pronounced dead.

In his journalistic career, he served with India’s news agency UNI and newspapers such as The Statesman and Indian Express. Kuldip’s finest hour was when he fearlessly defied Indira Gandhi’s Emergency from 1975-77. L.K.Advani had famously remarked that Indira had asked the press to bend but it began to crawl. When most caved into the Emergency, it was Kuldip who persuaded around hundred journalists to sign a protest letter and send it to Indira, who jailed him for three months. He was released only when the government realised that the judge hearing the case would most likely decide in his favour.

He was a political reporter par excellence and made his name as India’s greatest ‘scoop-man’. His news report thwarted Morarji Desai’s bid for leadership following Nehru’s death in 1964 and inadvertently tilted the balance in favour of Shastri. In 1977, he broke the news that Indira intended to call early elections after lifting the emergency soon. Most believed that Indira would extend the emergency instead of holding early elections. Head of the government’s information service even called Kuldip and threatened him with arrest if he did not withdraw his story. He refused to budge and Indira did call early elections.

Indira lost 1977 elections as she had been misguided by Intelligence Bureau about her electoral strength as her son Sanjay Gandhi later told Kuldip and remarked that he wanted to extend emergency for even decades. The author admired opposition leader Jayaprakash Narayan for his heroic defiance of Indira before and during the Emergency years. He also admired Ghaffar Khan whom he met in Kabul but found him bitter towards Nehru for failing to support Pashtunistan cause. He was put off when Ghaffar Khan used the term Baniyas for Hindus.

Bhutto came across as brilliant but ambitious and arrogant who did not accept the second position in a united Pakistan under Mujib. He also admitted his role in the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war as he believed that Pakistan’s military superiority then could have settled Kashmir issue in Islamabad’s favour but was quick to point out that he had learnt his lesson.

On Kashmir, Bhutto, according to Kuldip, had a Trieste-like solution in mind, referring to an agreement signed between Italy and Yugoslavia in 1954 in which the disputed land of Trieste, after the World War II, was divided between the two countries along the existing demarcation lines with minor changes. Apparently, Bhutto discussed this idea with Indira during Simla talks but candidly told her that he could not sell this idea to his countrymen soon after the loss of East Pakistan.

Although a connoisseur of Urdu poetry and a fan of Faiz, Kuldip failed to recognise him when they met for the first time in Moscow in a restaurant near Kremlin. Noted Indian journalist Inder Malhotra was the first to place him, stood up and excitedly announced to his Indian colleagues: Gentlemen, let us honour the greatest living poet in the sub-continent. Kuldip was also a fan of Pakistan’s melody queen Noor Jehan, whom he met during one of the trips to Lahore and she graciously arranged an exclusive viewing of a movie, featuring Heer, for him in a cinema.

He accompanied Vajpayee during the bus trip to Lahore for his meeting with Nawaz Sharif in 1999. At one of the banquets, he had an insightful conversation with Sahabzada Yaqub Khan, Pakistan’s famous ex-foreign minister, who was sharing the table with the author along with other guests. Sahabzada turned towards his Pakistani colleagues, from NWFP, Sind and Baluchistan, seated on the table and asked them about the Kashmir issue. All of them more or less replied that Kashmir was quite distant from their province. Sahabzada then turned towards Kuldip and remarked: "This (Kashmir) is your problem (meaning of the Punjabis, on both sides), you should settle it. Why get others from both countries involved?".

Modi is the only figure, included in the book, whom the author did not meet in person. A staunch believer in secularism and pluralism, he was opposed to Modi and his intolerant policies. The rising tide of bigotry and communalism, after the Babri Mosque incident, and the increasing saffronization of India under BJP points towards a gloomy future for India under Modi.  Worried about the creeping Hindu extremism, Kuldip wrote that a diluted form of Hindutva has spread throughout the country.

The book is an interesting read but it is riddled with mistakes, as written at a very advanced age of ninety-five, and deserved better editing. Jinnah called Maulana Azad, not Ghaffar Khan, Muslim show-boy of Congress; Delhi’s Khan Market is not named after Ghaffar Khan but his elder brother Dr Khan Sahib for his role as Chief Minister NWFP in protecting Hindus during violence in 1947; Khushwant sought refuge at the residence of a Swedish diplomat, his friend, not in Swiss embassy during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi. Surprisingly, Kuldip Nayar repeatedly mentions the first name of Nayyara Noor, which is so similar to his own name, wrongly in the chapter on Faiz, who told him that he enjoyed Nayyara’s rendering of his own poetry the most.

On Leaders and Icons-From Jinnah to Modi
Author: Kuldip Nayar
Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2019
Pages: 183 (Hardback)
Price: Rs995

Riveting encounters