Meeting the Prime Minister back then, was like child's play
Veteran journalist Raj Kanwar was one of the last journalists to speak to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru on the evening before the nation's first Prime Minister passed away. On the eve of Nehru's 49th death anniversary, Kanwar, now 83, recalls his first and last meetings with the great man
As a rookie journalist in the Nehru era, I regularly covered visits of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Even at 83, I still have some vivid recollections of Nehru’s last sunset in Dehradun on that sultry and humid evening of May 26 in 1964. When Nehru left for New Delhi that evening, no one at that small helipad imagined that it was to be his last sunset. As Nehru’s 49th death anniversary is observed on Monday, May 27, I can’t help but recall my meetings with the great man.
It was a humid afternoon. I was part of a group of about 30 people, gathered at the Dehradun Cantonment Polo Ground to see off the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. He was to take a helicopter ride to the Air Force base at Sarsawa, and thence to Delhi by an Air Force plane.
Nehru had spent the previous three days in Dehradun. The Circuit House was his favourite abode; he loved its heavily- wooded, expansive lawns. He would stroll across the length and breadth of the large grounds. Here, he would sit silently for hours under the shade of his favourite camphor tree, with birds as his companions, listening to their chirping; here he felt at home and at peace. Occasionally, he would read or write, depending on the mood of the hour, or sometimes, dictate.
Before his flight, we watched Nehru slowly climb up the stairwell of the helicopter. Indira was close behind him. He stood at the open doorway of the helicopter, and looked back, almost blankly at the small and assorted farewell group. There were Congress leaders, senior civil and defence officers as per the protocol, and a few journalists, this writer included.
A pale, faint smile appeared on his otherwise rosy countenance. He waved at us with his right hand, but that seemed a laboured effort. There was a strange sort of expression on his face. What did he wish to convey to those of us who had assembled there to bid him adieu? Was that to be the last and final good-bye? Did he have a premonition about his death? The blades began swirling that raised a cloud of dust and the farewell group instantly fell back. The helicopter took off, and disappeared soon yonder beyond.
In Delhi that night, Nehru awoke several times, and was given a sedative by his trusted attendant, Nathu Ram. He awoke one final time before dawn. Indira and his physician, Dr Bedi were summoned. And then he fell into a coma, and died at 1.44 pm on Wednesday 27 May.
‘Young man, come again’
The news of his death the following day shocked us all. I shed many silent tears, and cursed myself for not meeting Nehru moreoften. I met him off and on whenever he visited Dehradun, and adored his charming and graceful manners and the innate courtesy that he always accorded to one and all. In his own way, Nehru seemed to like me and would often tell me, “ young man, come again.”
But on May 26 in 1964, Nehru possibly was too preoccupied in other thoughts that he did not ask me to “come again”; he did not even notice me in that small group. As I write this, my mind wanders back to those days in the mid 1950s and later when I invariably tried to meet Nehru on his numerous visits to Dehradun. However, the most momentous of those meetings was the very first one.
In fact, meeting Nehru then was child’s play, more so because one could count on the finger of one’s hand the number of journalists in Dehradun those days. I was at that time editor of a Dehra- dun weekly Vanguard and a stringer for some of the mainstream English newspapers. A year earlier, I was also the president of DAV College Students Union, which had given me additional confidence and self-assurance. Thus one winter morning, I cycled all the way to the Circuit House porch, and parked my bicycle against its outer wall.
Ram Prasad, the bearer, accosted me and smiled. “Have you come to see Panditji?” he asked. I nodded. A couple of constables with lathis, lolled about while some others sauntered on the expansive lawns under the shades of giant trees. Ram Prasad pointed towards the lawns, and I saw Panditji strolling there.
So close to the great man, I felt scared. Mustering courage, I approached him and hesitantly introduced myself. Nehru saw through my nervousness and smiled. “I have no news to give, young man,” he said without slowing down. “I haven’t come for any news; I just wanted to
see you,” I stuttered. Nehru smiled again. Somehow that reassured me.
I was too tongue-tied; what would a rookie journalist ask a great man like Nehru? Realising my nervousness, Nehru asked me what subjects I had in the college. Soon I overcame my nervousness and told Nehru that I was the president of the Students Union a year before.
This seemed to impress him, or so I assumed. I spent another 15 minutes with the great man and then thanked him for having met me. Nehru smiled, and asked me to feel free to see him whenever he visited Dehradun. This carte blanche lifted me to seventh heaven. That first meeting, in a way, was perhaps one of my best and most cherished.
Raj Kanwar is a veteran Dehradun-based journalist and author. He writes regularly on local and current affairs.