This Book is a Fascinating and wholly absorbing contribution to the History of the twentieth century.This fast-moving, lively and independent account of politics and international affairs is enriched by intimate, perceptive and critical sketches of great leaders, such as Gandhi, Jinnah, Nehru, Desai and Patel. Perhaps no other book reminds the reader so firmly that politics, even at its most exalted and dramatic, is about people. Certainly, no one who is interested in India, in the history of British imperialism, or in the realities of present-day Asia, can neglect this gold mine of a book.
Perhaps no period of Indian history has been so packed with significant and exciting events and outstanding personalities as the sixty- eight years of the twentieth century. This period has seen the end of an empire as well as of an epoch—colonialism—after a political struggle whose repercussions were felt far beyond India’s shores and which acted as a beacon for the aspirations of other nations in Asia and Africa and Latin America under foreign rule.
It is this historical panorama, spreading from the fledgling years of the freedom movement beginning with Curzon and embracing the succeeding pro-consuls of Britain on the one hand and the torch- bearers of the freedom movement—from Tilak to Gandhi and Nehru on the other—and the years that followed x5th August, 1947, the great watershed of Indian history, that is chronicled in this volume of personal memoirs.
It is fitting that this chronicle should come from the pen of my friend Durga Das, whom I first met in 1921. We are contemporaries and I have been intensely interested in the period the memoirs cover, although I was most of the time outside the current of politics. To mention only two reasons: he was born in the first year of the century and he therefore grew up along with the movement which culminated in freedom; from 1918, when his journalistic career began, onward he was at the centre of things, as it were. During his fty years of journalism, he has held key positions—first as Editor of the Associated Press of India (the forerunner of the Press Trust of India) in New Delhi and Simla, subsequently as the first Indian Special Representative of the Statesman with the Government of India, then as Chief Editor of the Hindustan Times and, finally, as the founder and Editor-in-Chief of India News and Feature Alliance. Scarcely anything of political importance took place in Delhi or Simla, the twin seats of the British Raj, and later in Nehru’s Delhi without his being a close and discerning observer, reporter and interpreter of them.
In those days of struggle for freedom, journalism was a sacred mission, not a mundane profession. Educated young Indians took it not for monetary inducements, which were very meager or practically non-existent, but with the fervour of patriots. What others achieved on the political platform and with the spoken word, they did with the written word in newspapers which took the message of freedom to every village.
Journalism played a very big role in those stirring times, being no less than a complement to, and an inspirer of, political action. One of the most ardent crusaders in the cause of freedom among the scribes of Delhi was Durga Das. This book bears testimony to the service he rendered the nation, first as one of its spokesmen against its alien masters and later as the stern and impartial critic of the flaws he saw in the new India that was taking shape after independence. His weekly political column has marked him out as a penetrating and shrewd analyst who foresaw events and had the courage to state his convictions.
I have watched Durga Das’s activities closely from the time I became Vice-President. I count the frequent dialogues I have had with him among the most rewarding and relaxing experiences. His art of establishing rapport with others and making stimulating talk have lent weight and colour to the story he has unfolded.
Here is Indian history seen from the inside, combined with personal judgments and at the same time presented clearly and objectively. With his wide travels and intimate knowledge of the men and women who made the history of these times in India and around the world, Durga Das has been able to interpret events in the light of what happened behind the scenes and the interplay of powerful and often strongly conflicting personalities. The result is a fascinating narrative that is as valuable to the serious student of Indian politics of the modern era as to the lay reader.
The memoirs, I cautioned him, when he sought my advice, should make an organic whole. He has certainly succeeded in that task. He has recounted what he gathered and how he reacted to significant men and events. One can differ with his conclusions, but this narrative of the most convulsive period in India’s history makes absorbing reading. He has discharged honourably the debt he owes the nation of telling the story of a working journalist’s life, lived intensely and dedicated to the service of his country and the promotion of international understanding.
Curiously, the decision that I write my memoirs was taken in the west Indies late in 1965 by my eldest son, Inder Jit, and some old friends. Jit, Director-Editor of INFA, had gone there to attend the quinquennial Commonwealth Press Conference as one of the two delegates from India.
When he returned home he had a surprise for me. He said: “Your friends at the Conference missed you a lot. They said you should write your memoirs. Gandhi had. brought his autobiography up to 020 and Nehru’s account of his life and the ‘Discovery of India’ ad taken the narrative up to the thirties. But very little had been written about the most dynamic period of their lives. They said you had observed the scene at close quarters and had had an equation with the top men who played a significant part in the history of modern India.”
The material was there. I had written some twenty million words constituting straight reporting, features, analyses and comments for almost half a century. I had kept half a million words in the form of notes in shorthand or scribbled in longhand. I had written and received thousands of letters which, too, had been preserved. A part of this material had been eaten by termites, but most of it remained a good shape.
My wife, Ratan Devi, a stickler for tidiness, often remonstrated that a whole room was being wasted and would say: “Do you wish to build a new pyramid?” I would reply: “Keep it. Jit may find in the material a glimpse of what India was like and what his father did—or he will burn it.” Clippings of all I had written were there, and also of articles by men of significance. Suddenly, in 1957, soon after my wife and I returned from a world tour, I found her solicitous about carefully stacking the material I had brought back.
Why this sudden change in her attitude? An astrologer from
Ludhiana the industrial hub of Punjab, she said, had drawn up a chart about the future. “He says you will write a book, which will bring fame’. I now realise what you had in mind in preserving all that stuff.” She, like most Indian women, had great faith in the patriwala(astrologer). As was wont with men of my generation who considered themselves modern, I laughed away what she said.
Perhaps the seed of the idea of writing memoirs was unconsciously sown then. So what Jit said on his return from the West Indies registered. But the professional code stood in the way of revealing what I had gathered in off-the-record talks while the principal actors of the contemporary drama were alive. With the death of Nehru, the last of the national heroes of the Gandhian era, the remaining hurdle was removed.
Not long afterwards, N. J. Nanporia, then Editor of the Times of India, joined Jit and me for lunch during one of his periodic visits to New Delhi from Bombay. We were reminiscing about the pre independence era when suddenly Nanporia said: “You ought to write your memoirs some day. All this unrivalled information must be shared. You must.”
One doubt remained. Could I do full justice to either the theme or the period without bringing my knowledge of India and its role in the larger world context up to date? This meant another global tour since the last was undertaken in 1959. John Grigg (formerly Lord Altrincham), with whom I struck up a lasting friendship at the Ottawa session of the Imperial Press Conference in 1950, happily arrived on a visit to India in January 1967 accompanied by his charming wife Patsy. John had not only welcomed the project but had sold the idea to Collins. I now sounded him about undertaking another world tour, mentioning that it might delay the book. “Oh, that will provide a grand finale to the memoirs,” he said.
I sought the advice of our philosopher-President, Dr. Radhakrishnan. He welcomed my decision and said the book should centre on me if it was to be real memoirs. Dr. Zakir Husain, then Vice- President and subsequently President of the Republic, said that memoirs, to be of value, should unfold a story in such a way as to make it an organic whole.
Since the twenties, I had covered the doings of our Central l Legislature, the annual sessions of the Indian National Congress, of the All-India Muslim League and of other political organisations and of commercial and industrial bodies functioning in the subcontinent. I had toured the country with the Lee Commission on Civil Services in India and the Simon Commission on Constitutional Reforms. Further, I had visited Europe and London in the summer of 1931 and thereafter toured abroad fourteen times. These travels included four trips covering the two hemispheres, a tour of the Middle East and Europe as a war correspondent early in 1945 and again at the end of the war, and a visit to London when the Attlee Cabinet was deeply involved in devising a formula for the transfer of power in India.
It was my business to make contacts with, and seek the confidence of all who made politics and held the levers of power—the Viceroys from Lord Chelmsford to Lord Mountbatten; politicians from Tilak and Gandhi to Jinnah, Nehru, Shastri and Indira; top civil servants of the “steel frame” who symbolised the bureaucracy that ruled India, and leaders of the business community, both European and Indian Besides, I had the opportunity of holding dialogues with top world personalities, among them five British Prime Ministers, three U.S. Presidents, three Prime Ministers of Japan, two Chancellors of West Germany, two Chairmen of the Soviet Union and Presidents Tito and Nasser.
I rarely put set questions. It was a give-and-take dialogue. Whatever I put down after off-the-record talks was in a sense a test of memory, a paraphrase adhering as much as possible to the actual words used, at least the meaningful ones. Often the persons I interviewed emphasized their own part in an event and played down that of the others. Therefore, I made it a point to get a cross-section of opinion on whatever subject I was pursuing and to check and double check on the facts and conclusions gathered from various sources.
The memoirs are divided into five books which, politically, mark distinct periods of India’s evolution from a colonial dependency to a democratic republic. They tell the story of the British Raj at its height, of its gradual decline and dissolution, of the growth and triumph of nationalism, the rise and fall of free India’s credit in world counsels and of the challenges that face our young democracy and the question marks that hang over its future. Curzon’s regime at the turn of the century represented the high-water mark of British authority, symbolised by peace and contentment in the land. The Nehru era reached its peak in the mid-fifties, when he bestrode the stage like a colossus. The half-century dividing, these two men of destiny saw the emergence of Gandhi as the leader of a non-violent revolution, the exit of the British with the creation of the two independent and separate dominions of India and Pakistan and the evolution of a new polity in the sub-continent.
Book One (i 900—192 i) covers the period which constituted Unadulterated British Raj and marked the rise of the Indian National Congress as the main challenger to the imperial power. How did this happen when Curzon had reported to London soon after assuming the viceroyalty that he would see the demise of the Congress? These two decades also saw the recognition of the Muslim community as a separate political entity, the outbreak of World War I and the formulation by Whitehall under the compulsion of circumstances of its policy of granting responsible government to Indians by stages.Tilak’s slogan of “Home Rule is my birthright” had infected the mind of the newly educated elite when Gandhi, sensing the national mood, introduced the weapon of protest he had tried in South Africa. By the end of 1920 he had succeeded in making the Congress reject the constitutional reforms enacted by the British Parliament and swing to the extreme course of non-violent non cooperation.
Book Two (1921—1939) deals with the period of British-cum Indian rule flowing from the first instalment of constitutional reforms, the ups and downs of the Gandhian movement and the sharpening of religious animosities. The Prince of Wales’ tour failed in its missions. So also the Parliamentary Commission, headed by John Simon and including Clement Attlee. They only helped to add fuel to the nationalist fire. Peace seemed to dawn with the Gandhi— Irwin Pact. But the proceedings of the Round Table Conference and debates on the Government of India Bill of 1935 caused a fresh political stir and blew up the bridge the pact attempted to build. The struggle for power, which was bipolar until then, now became pent angular.
Book Three (1939—1947) deals with the most momentous period in Indo—British history. World War II caused a breach between the British and the Congress because of differences over war aims, and the Raj, consequently, assumed absolute authority to mobilise India’s resources. But the fortunes of the war combined with American pressure made London respond favourably to the Congress demand for the transfer of power. The Muslim League, under Jinnah’s leadership, proved a major roadblock because of an assurance given by the Viceroy in August 1940 to neutralise Congress intransigence. The intriguing drama ended with Britain deciding to cut its losses. Who was the winner and who the loser in this “Divide and Quit” operation?
Book Four (1947—1964) covers the Nehru era—its challenges, successes and failures. It describes the blood bath that accompanied partition, Gandhi’s assassination, the framing of the Constitution, Pakistan’s attack on Kashmir, the integration of the Princely States with the Union and the clash behind the scenes, first between Nehru and Sardar Patel and later between Nehru and Rajendra Prasad. After the Sardar passed away in December i 950 and until his death in 1964, Nehru was India and one witnessed both his rise to unrivalled heights and his fall after the Chinese aggression of 1962. In between, Nehru groomed his daughter Indira Gandhi for public life—and brought forward the ingenious Kamaraj Plan.
Book Five (1964—1969) deals with the post-Nehru period, the drama of the succession of Shastri to the prime ministership, the Indo—Pakistani war of 1965 and the Tashkent meet where Shastri died after signing the historic agreement. The most significant aspect of this deal is the role that Kosygin played to establish Soviet interest in the affairs of the sub-continent. The narrative unfolds the behind- the-scene story of Mrs. Gandhi’s appointment as Prime Minister, the break-up in 1967 of the Congress Party’s monolithic twenty-year rule since independence and the emergence of new challenges— Communist and revivalist. It spotlights the growing malaise in Indian politics, and ventures an assessment of how Indian polity is evolving and where India and humanity might stand by the end of the century.
The tour of fourteen world capitals in i 967 enabled a fresh assessment of India’s image abroad and role in Asia and in the balance of power between the Big Powers. Australia’s elder statesman, Robert Menzies, summed up the situation aptly on the occasion of the visit of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to Melbourne University in May ig68. Menzies, who took over as head of the university after a record term as Prime Minister, said: “The measure of India’s success is the measure of the success of the future world.” But a question that will haunt thinkers and observers of the Indian scene for a long time is: Will India break through or will it break up?
This is not a documented history of the time; only an assortment of incidents symbolising our age in an ever-changing world. It is an attempt to portray men and events in an effort to help the evaluation Indian political affairs of yesterday, today and tomorrow. The centre from which I operated was New Delhi—and India. The wide world was the sounding board from which I judged the evolution : international politics and its reaction on India. What follows are personal impressions about distinguished men and women, some self-effacing, others seekers after glory, some with a profound philosophical outlook, others playing the game on the chessboard of power with ruthless determination. The purpose is not to praise or censure, but to help throw some light on a few dark corners of history.
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