In this frank and freewheeling narrative, Kuldip Nayar recounts his experiences of meeting many of the men and women who shaped the destiny of pre- and post-Independence India, revealing hitherto unknown aspects of their personalities and shedding light on many key events in the country. Was Nehru a secret dynast who had only his daughter Indira Gandhi in mind as his successor? What role did Nayar himself play in Lal Bahadur Shastri's election as prime minister after Nehru's death? Why did Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan—revered as the Frontier Gandhi—refer to Indians as `baniyas'? And who did Zulfikar Ali Bhutto think should be the prime minister of the entire subcontinent—India, Pakistan and Bangladesh?
Interspersed with these political reminiscences, are delightful accounts of Meena Kumari's encounter with Shastri on the sets of Pakeezah, and Faiz Ahmed Faiz's flawless recitation of his great poetry even after consuming a full bottle of Black Dog whiskey.
Nayar does not fight shy of expressing his opinions—be it a comparison of JRD and Ratan Tata, advice for Narendra Modi, or reflections on the shape of Indo-Pak relations had Mahatma Gandhi and Mohammad All Jinnah lived longer.
In this absorbing and entertaining book—which he finished only weeks before he passed away—Kuldip Nayar writes in the grand old tradition of journalists who were not afraid to tell it like it is.
KU LDIP NAYAR (1923-2018) began his career as an Urdu reporter in the 1950s. He moved to English journalism with the United News of India (UNI) which he was instrumental in setting up. He later became editor of the Delhi edition of The Statesman, and also had a long association with the Indian Express. An outspoken critic of Indira Gandhi, he was arrested during the Emergency years (1975-77). He was also a human rights activist, and a member of India's delegation to the United Nations in 1996. He was appointed high commissioner to the UK in 1990 and nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 1997. His weekly columns and op-eds appeared in over eighty newspapers, including the Deccan Herald, The Daily Star, The Sunday Guardian, and Dawn, Pakistan. Nayar authored fifteen books, including Beyond the Lines: An Autobiography.
Lal Bahadur Shastri, Nehru's successor as prime minister of India, used to call Kuldip Nayar ‘lumboo' because he was so tall. He could also be described as one of the tallest, if not the tallest, of Indian journalists who started their careers around the time when India achieved independence. Kuldip had an advantage over most of his contemporaries in that he had seen the other side of the story too by working at the most senior level of government as a very successful press officer. In these memories, Kuldip relates the history of the first seventy-two years of independent India by describing his experiences of working with or reporting on the leading figures of his time, taking us from Mahatma Gandhi to Narendra Modi.
Kuldip had a remarkable ability to get on with people. He was not one of those journalists who feel it's their business to pick fights, to interview aggressively. On the contrary, he sought to understand the people he was reporting on and learnt of stories before anyone else, getting scoops by the trust he inspired. For instance, although the former Pakistani prime minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was renowned for his hatred of India, Kuldip got him to admit that he was responsible for persuading the former Pakistani president, General Ayub Khan, to launch the 1965 war against India. Bhutto told Kuldip he believed Pakistan would win because of the superiority of its armour.
Kuldip's experiences suggest answers to several other questions often asked about India's immediate past. He provides evidence that Nehru definitely wanted his daughter, Indira Gandhi, to succeed him. When the succession race started, Kuldip learnt that Morarji Desai had thrown his hat into the ring. He believes the report he filed on this ruled Morarji out of the race, because other Congress leaders did not approve of Morarji making his bid so soon after Nehru's death. Kuldip is able to confirm that Indira resented the rise of Shastri from the time Nehru fell ill and Shastri started dealing with his files. Shastri's widow told Kuldip she was convinced that her husband had been poisoned because she saw that his body had turned blue. When Kuldip asked Sanjay why elections were called in 1977, Sanjay said he should ask his mother, adding that in his scheme of things there was to be no election for three or four decades. This implies that if Indira had won the 1977 election, Sanjay would have used his influence with his mother to retain the Emergency.
In these memories Kuldip expresses his admiration for the leaders of the Independence movement. He admires their financial rectitude, saying, 'they didn't think of money'. He remembers Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel immediately putting in his papers as home minister after a bomb exploded at one of Gandhi's prayer meetings, accepting responsibility for failing to prevent this. Nehru refused to accept his resignation. Kuldip particularly admires Badshah Khan. The man who had been known as the Frontier Gandhi told him that he was deeply disappointed about Nehru's failure to support the Pashtunistan movement.
Kuldip is less complimentary about the leaders of the next generation. For instance, he points out that in 1984 Congress leaders failed to control the anti-Sikh riots which followed Indira Gandhi's assassination in the states where they were in power, whereas opposition leaders ruling the states of West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh showed it was possible to do so by taking decisive action.
Kuldip had always hoped that the relations between India and Pakistan would normalize. He founded the tradition of Indians and Pakistanis assembling on either side of the Wagah border at midnight on August 14/15, the Independence Days of Pakistan and India respectively, holding candles and calling for friendship between the two countries. But finally he comes to the sad conclusion that there is much truth in Nehru's words about Pakistan: `Kashmir is only a symptom of a disease and that disease is hatred of India.’
Kuldip's passionate belief in secularism as the principle which should guide Indian democracy shines through these memories. He believes it was Mahatma Gandhi's assassination which ensured that India remained a pluralist nation for more than four decades. However, in the last chapter of his memories he says, under Narenda Modi, the one prime minister he didn't meet face to face, 'a diluted form of Hindutva has spread throughout the country,' and he suggests Modi should 'ask himself whether this scenario is good for the people.' He wonders why human rights activists and civil rights workers like him have failed to prevent this and suggests it might be because they have not joined politics. Obviously a long life battling for the good of India ended with sadness. A great journalist, and a good man, felt his life's missions to protect secularism and befriend Pakistan had failed. But these memories and Kuldip's many other writings will inspire others to battle for the causes dear to his heart.
Left to me, the title of this book would have been 'Heroes, Neros and Zeroes'.
It is easy to sort out heroes because those who led the national struggle, gave their lives for it, aptly fit into the description. Neros are more difficult to define. The original Nero was the emperor of Rome and legend has it that he clapped his hands and played the fiddle while his capital city lay burning before his feet. All those who were fence sitters when the country was in the midst of the fire of the national movement, can be categorized as Neros. Although their patriotism may be given the benefit of doubt, they were afraid to jump lest they got burned by the flames. Posterity will remember them as calculating patriots.
Thousands of the uneducated and backward led by Mahatma Gandhi, who was at the core of the struggle, are by no criteria classifiable as zeroes. They blindly responded to the call for sacrifice and even died in the process. Their names are recorded nowhere and when they were in the thick of the struggle, they knew that their names would not figure anywhere. Yet they were consumed by such passion that all they wanted was to liberate the country from foreign bondage.
Dr Rajendra Prasad, chairman of the Constitutent Assembly elected to draft the Constitution of India, and a respected leader known for his personal sacrifices, proposed that a voter should have minimal educational qualifications. Jawaharlal Nehru, then the prime minister who was piloting the Constitution Bill, angrily got up from his seat and said that the backward and uneducated were the ones who gave all that they had for the Independence struggle. The educated were the toadies and sided with the British. Today, when the qualifications for the voters are being decided, should we tell them that they do not have the right to decide about the future of the country?
There was such a resounding response to Nehru's plea that Rajendra Prasad withdrew the proposal, thereby including all those, whether educated or uneducated, in the list of voters. The zeroes too qualified, those who had made no contribution but came to enjoy the rights of franchise because they were Indians.
I am privy to several examples of sacrifice. I have heard the recollections of those who were in the corridors of DAV College, Lahore, when Bhagat Singh and his two colleagues, Sukhdev and Rajguru, ran past them to their bicycles and disappeared into the crowd. The new generation may be ignorant of who they were and what they did, but they are the ones who willingly went to the gallows. Mahatma Gandhi, who was leading a non-violent movement against the mighty British Empire, did not approve of their belief in violence. Yet he paid them glowing tributes when Sukhdev wrote him a letter in which he described himself and his comrades as 'those who did not matter'. Gandhi said in a statement that he respected their sacrifice and was conscious of their contribution to the country's Independence struggle. He went on to say that though his own way was different, he did not think that their contribution was any less significant.
The British went ahead and hanged Bhagat Singh and his comrades. This was a few days before the Congress session in Karachi. People wore black bands on their arms and openly criticized Gandhi, so much so that they refused to listen to him when he began his speech. Nehru, popular with the younger generation, intervened and tried to pacify the crowd with the argument that Gandhi's way was different and non-violence was a matter of faith with him. He understood India far better than all of them put together. Probably, he had come to the correct conclusion that if it came to guns, the Indian patriots could not match the resources of their British masters. Gandhi also believed that even the most cruel had somewhere a soft side which would come to prevail after seeing the sacrifice the volunteers made without demur. It was this same spirit that animated people like Martin Luther King in the US and Nelson Mandela in South Africa against their white oppressors.
I recall my meeting with Mandela when Prime Minister Inder Gujral visited Cape Town in 1997. I asked the South African hero how he survived twenty-one years in jail, including many years in solitary confinement. His response was that the lights in Cape Town city would always impel him to think that one day we would be rolling back the darkness and sit in the brightness of independence. He added that he also always had before him the example of the Mahatma and how he had wrested independence from the unwilling hands of the British. Mandela said he was inspired by how Gandhi never deviated from the path of non-violence.
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