Revati Laul in conversation with Kuldip Nayar
THE FIRST thing that strikes you when you meet Kuldip Nayar is not that he’s met and interviewed everyone from Gandhi and Mountbatten to Manmohan Singh. None of that is apparent, or even matters. It’s the air about him — friendly and forthcoming. A simple study, busy with upturned books in English and Urdu. A face that has drawn on it a thousand stories. Of crossing the Pakistan border as a 24-year-old man with no money and no idea of what to do next. Of sitting in on the final meetings when the Constitution of India was being drafted. Of being jailed during the Emergency. This is one man who was a working journalist from the time that India was being partitioned. Nayar began his career with Urdu newspapers. Then wrote for The Statesman and The Indian Express. And then wrote a column called Between The Lines for a slew of papers. Now at 89, even his autobiography, Beyond The Lines, isn’t really about him at all. It’s the story of India as Nayar saw it unfold before him and he’s rolling it out exactly like that. A boy who happened to be lucky enough to get front row seats for a movie many of us have only half seen. He’s here to fill us in on the rest. That’s all.
In Beyond The Lines, you will find descriptions of alternatives to the idea of Partition that were suggested and seriously considered. How Edwina Mountbatten influenced Nehru’s decision on the Partition. You will find how Jinnah wasn’t certain he wanted out from India till the very end. How Lal Bahadur Shastri may have been poisoned. How Sanjay Gandhi wanted the Emergency to go on forever. How Narasimha Rao was mainly responsible for the Babri Masjid demolition. How AQ Khan told Nayar in 1987 that Pakistan had a nuclear bomb. And how Rajiv Gandhi had Warren Anderson flown out of India after the Bhopal gas tragedy. The stories are told simply and plainly, piecing together anecdotes, facts and nuggets from interviews. There is no need to dress them up. The stories speak for themselves.
You may find the first half more compelling, for the anecdotal first person accounts of people we now read only in history. Nayar makes them real again. And as we sat in his study for this interview, he said, “Have you read the book?” When I said I had, he followed that up with, “Did you read the bit about my meeting with Noorjahan?” The Pakistani singing and acting legend. Nayar had asked her how many songs she had recorded. She apparently replied in Urdu, “There is no count of records or sins. You would forgive the first and Allah the other.” The perfect way to start our conversation.
EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW
You see the Partition as a power struggle between Nehru and Jinnah, two men who didn’t see eye to eye. What kind of nation has that made us?
When I crossed the border on 13 September 1947, I’d seen a lot of blood, a lot of destruction. But I still hoped that the new country we were going to build would kill nobody in the name of religion. I know now, in hindsight, that I was wrong.
[pg 26: I feel one of the reasons Jinnah left the Congress was that there was not enough space for both him and Nehru. Gandhi was inclined towards Nehru and Jinnah realized that Nehru would inherit the Congress mantle.]
And you blame Nehru more than Jinnah for the Partition, don’t you?
Well, I blame Jinnah also, but I said there was a time when India could have been one nation, Partition was not inevitable. When it comes to the crunch and Mountbatten asked Jinnah, “Do you want a tie with India?”, and Jinnah said, “I don’t trust them anymore.” At one time, I believe it was possible for things to have gone the other way. I also wrote about how Jinnah felt when he saw the long lines of people and the exodus. People have not brought this out before.
[pg 10: One day when Jinnah was in Lahore, Iftikhar-ud-din, Pakistan’s rehabilitation minister… flew him in a Dakota over divided Punjab. When he saw streams of people pouring into Pakistan or fleeing it, he struck his hand on the forehead and said despairingly: ‘What have I done?’]
There is an attempt by you to portray Jinnah as more liberal than people in India generally concede, isn’t that true?
That’s correct. I do see Jinnah as liberal but forced by circumstance and events into a position where he acted as he did. And eventually pushed for the Partition.
Of Nehru, Gandhi, Azad — all the leaders and freedom fighters, you’ve portrayed Maulana Azad as the most liberal and secular minded.
Yes, for me the real hero was Maulana Azad. Gandhi, I keep apart. He was a spiritual man, and therefore his politics did have religion mixed with it. But that was separate. But yes, from amongst all the others, Azad was the most outstanding, the most far-sighted.
At the start of the book, you say the end of innocence for you came not with witnessing the Partition with all its violence, but 28 years later, with Indira Gandhi’s imposition of the Emergency. Why’s that?
I was in my 20s when the Partition happened. I was penniless. That should have hit me very hard. But I was young, so it didn’t matter that much. And I thought Indians and Pakistanis would be friends, it would just be a matter of time. I never thought that the walls between the two sides could become so high.
But what happened during the Emergency is that the whole system collapsed. I said, “Oh my God, is this democracy?” Everything had collapsed. The police, the administration, the Constitution, judges, journalists, everything had gone to pieces. So what do you build on? What Indira had done, I felt others would do the same — use people as pawns, rule by threatening people and that is what is happening now. There is a thin line defining what is right and wrong, moral and immoral. That thin line disappeared during the Emergency.
[pg 258: The first question I asked Sanjay (Gandhi) was how he thought they would get away with it: the Emergency, the authoritarian rule, and the rest? He said there was no challenge to them and that they could have carried on with the Emergency for at least 20 to 25 years or more until they felt confident that they had changed people’s way of thinking.]
You’ve seen and interacted with every PM in this country. Who, in your opinion, has done the most damage to India and why?
Indira Gandhi, by far. Because of the imposition of Emergency.
Who comes next?
I would say Narasimha Rao, for his role in the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The 1992 demolition was a watershed for Hindu-Muslim relations in India. Muslims thereafter lost confidence in Hindus and in the country. Rao blamed the demolition on everyone else — UP Chief Minister Kalyan Singh. I told him, “You had the forces at your disposal.”
[pg 345: My information was that Rao had connived at the demolition. He sat at the puja when the kar sevaks began pulling down the mosque and rose only when the last stone had been removed.]
Apart from Rao, I’d say equally damaging for this country was Rajiv Gandhi — for the 1984 riots. I’d bracket Narasimha Rao and Rajiv Gandhi as the same in terms of the damage done. Vajpayee could not do permanent damage. He should have let go of Narendra Modi, but didn’t. He spoke to me and said he couldn’t do that.
You’ve also discussed Kashmir at length. And you blame Nehru largely for the way things played out.
Yes. I always tell Pakistanis that you guys thrust Kashmir upon us. They should have stayed patient and after Partition, not sent tribal forces in. The population was Muslim majority. And Patel made an offer to Pakistan — that they should let India keep Hyderabad and take Kashmir in exchange.
[pg 60: Even when New Delhi received the maharaja’s (of Kashmir, Hari Singh) request to accede to India, Patel said: “We should not get mixed up with Kashmir. We already have too much on our plate.”]
I’ve written that Pakistan played its cards poorly at the beginning by sending troops in. And then Nehru made the mistake of taking the Kashmir issue to the UN that asked both sides to withdraw troops and called for a plebiscite.
What should we do now to change things in Kashmir and relations with Pakistan?
The government must talk to other political parties. And I do think Kashmir is the central issue that the government needs to tackle with Pakistan. Vajpayee was the only prime minister who showed some real resolve to try and settle the Kashmir issue. My own solution is this: Pakistan and India should relinquish all rights over the respective parts of Kashmir in their control, except defence and foreign affairs and make the border soft.
In the current atmosphere, with jehadis from Pakistan and Afghanistan threatening to infiltrate, how will this be possible?
Well, of course, but an atmosphere needs to be created for this to happen. My idea, of course, is that some day South Asia will be one unit. Like the European Union. Otherwise the subcontinent will be lost in religious and caste animosities.
You’ve also written about Lal Bahadur Shastri’s death as possible poisoning. Do you have a theory on who could have done this and why?
I am not that categorical. But I’ve said that questions remain unanswered. I wrote that as part of the delegation that had gone to Tashkent with Shastri. I was there and I saw the overturned flask on his bedside.
[pg 165: On a dressing table, there was an overturned thermos flask. It appeared that Shastri had struggled to open it. There was no buzzer in his room, a point on which the government lied when attacked in Parliament on its failure to save Shastri’s life.]
I wrote that I came back from Tashkent and met his wife, Lalita, who said, “Did you see that his body turned blue? And that there were cuts on it.” I hadn’t seen that. But no postmortem was done. And many years later, during the Emergency, Dr Chugh, Shastri’s physician at the time in Tashkent, was killed along with his family. Whether this was a coincidence or not, I can’t say. But it has raised doubts in my mind about Shastri’s death. I’ve never gone into who or why.
India’s secular image and democracy have been severely challenged in recent years. What do you think can be done to salvage things?
I’d go to schools first and look at the text books. And also tackle the middle-class. I find that our middle-class is getting identified as Hindus. We have to stop this. I hold the BJP and the RSS responsible for it. But I also feel that things will begin to move after the 2014 elections. Regional parties will play a big role in any movement forward.
In your long career as a journalist, which were your moments of gravest self-doubt?
During the Emergency years, when it looked like it’d be endless. When we felt that India was doomed for ever. I’ve written about this — that even at that time, though Sanjay Gandhi wanted the Emergency to go on for 20-25 years, Indira Gandhi didn’t agree. She called for elections. It’s at that time that I questioned what I was doing. After Indira Gandhi came back to power in 1980, I was asked by the owner of the Indian Express to leave my job; I did not get an offer for a job from anywhere. That was a very despairing time. But I said to myself — I have an equation with the people, because of my syndicated column that I had been writing — Between The Lines. So I shall succeed. And I did.
Revati Laul is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.