The man who knows too much
In his autobiography, 87 year-old veteran journalist and editor Kuldip Nayar reveals what happened behind the scenes of India's gripping political history and in the mind of Nehru, Shastri and Manmohan Singh
Your book tells the reader about Nehru’s state of mind during the Partition, Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s inner turmoil, and the worst bits about the Emergency. For an entire generation, these events find place only in history textbooks and elders’ tales. How does your book attempt to address them?
I fully agree. Many of my readers, though aware of the impact of these events in India’s history, weren’t around to experience the tension, outrage and jubilation. And that’s exactly why I have written this book — to offer a ‘current history’ of the country by taking them back behind the scenes during these events — the way only a journalist can. And for precisely this reason, the book starts off with a background of the times before the Partition, not from August 14, 1947. I want young readers to know what led to such a defining moment in our history and how it still impacts their future. We are emotional people and I think it was important to put out the emotions involved behind the political decision of the Partition. That’s the job of a journalist.
Journalism wasn’t your first choice, was it? You became a journalist by accident.
No. I came to Delhi from Lahore with a Law degree and was frantically looking for a job. I never thought I’d be penniless here. But there I was — looking for the cheapest non-vegetarian food options around Jama Masjid — there were plenty, thank God.
One day, in 1948, I saw a red flag belonging to the Communist Party just opposite the mosque. I was part of the students’ union at my college in Lahore and thought I could strike a conversation with them. The man in charge of the factory — one Mr Farooqi — told me I could be a clerk there. I told him I had graduated with Urdu and Persian as subjects in Lahore. The moment he heard that, he told me that an Urdu newspaper, Anjam, was looking for people. It was doing quite well those days and sold 75,000 copies. I earned Rs 100 a month. Maine sahafat ka aagaz Anjam se kiya (I began my career in journalism with a paper which, when translated, means ‘The end’). My editor gave me visiting cards wherein my designation was Giant Editor! He said he gave me such a fancy post because babu log neeche logon ki nahin sunte (politicians do not speak to the ones who aren’t high up).
By 1950, I realised that Urdu journalism didn’t have a great future and went to study Journalism at the Northwestern University in the US. Their systems and methods were advanced, but the course was not relevant to me. I was turned down by newspapers there because I didn’t have the requisite experience of having covered their local issues. But it worked when I came back to India — yahaan angrez chamdi ho, ya usse kuchh juda hua ho, toh sab chal jaata hai (here, being white-skinned, or being associated with them in some way always works). I got a job as a feature writer with the Press Information Bureau, a central government organisation. Then, in 1955, I became the Information Officer to then Home Minister, Govind Ballabh Pant. Later in my career, I headed the news agency, UNI and was editor of the newspaper, Statesman. I’ve never stopped thinking like a journalist since then.
But, in one instance, you did do something that could be deemed unethical by fellow journalists.
Yes, it was an important challenge and I did what I thought was best. In 1955, as set out by the Constitution, a language commission was appointed to assess whether Hindi had developed sufficiently and spread to the degree necessary to replace English as the union language. To scrutinise the commission’s recommendations, a parliamentary committee, headed by Pant, met in 1957. It was a disaster. The Hindi chauvinists and those from the non-Hindi speaking areas argued bitterly. I was expected to brief the press, because I was the home minister’s information officer. But who cared about what I had to say — people wrote their own versions and Pant was horrified at the reports.
So, I told the reporters that the committee’s discussions were privileged and demanded to know why no one had checked that in the first place. Strictly speaking, the committee was formed by members of the Parliament — it was not a house committee entitled to the privilege of secrecy, but the reporters did not bother to check the actual position and stopped reporting on the committee’s meetings. Later, when I gave out copies of the final report to the reporters, I apologised and explained the situation to them. They were furious. Maybe it was unethical, but I think it was important to save people from the livid debates which may just have unnecessarily reopened the issue of the switchover, which had been settled by then.
You worked closely with Lal Bahadur Shastri and were very fond of him. He became Prime Minister right after Jawaharlal Nehru, but lacked his charisma. How did you, as his press information officer, work around that?
Yes, that was a big challenge and I’ll always remember those days when I would think to myself, “How do you build this man in the media? Koi Shastri Shastri toh karta nahin us waqt (No one was exactly enamoured by Shastri). People openly laughed at his small stature and simple personality, and he knew he was being compared to Nehru at every step. But I can tell you that he was a very austere and decisive person — quite contrary to his physical appearance, and I highlighted that the best I could.
You haven’t written much on Nehru’s controversial relationship with Edwina Mountbatten.
As India’s high commissioner in London in 1990, I got to know that Air India would carry Nehru’s letters daily, which the high commission delivered to Edwina Mountbatten. She, too, replied daily and her letters were forwarded to Nehru. I, however, never got access to their letters. I hope to include things like these in my second book.
As someone who has observed changes in the press over more than six decades, could you comment on journalism in India today?
Now, when journalists are in doubt, they don’t have to pore over hundreds of news clippings and archives. They only have to Google, which is quite convenient. I feel we were less bothered about which biggie would say what about the stories we wrote back then. ‘Let the businessmen go to hell’ was our mantra. It all started with the Emergency — people realised that the Press, too, can be
controlled and a business could be made out of it. How many journalists have a reputation for standing up against issues?
‘My information was that Rao had connived at the demolition’
Jinnah: ‘What have I done?’
Jinnah would not believe the reports that thousands of people were migrating from both sides of the border. Both the Congress and the Muslim League had rejected the proposal for an exchange of population and had insisted on Muslims and non-Muslims staying back in their homes. Jinnah remained sullen for a few days and then accused India of seeking to undermine Pakistan. Even so, he was deeply concerned not only about the migration of people but also recurrent news that several lakhs of people had been butchered on either side of the border.
One day when Jinnah was in Lahore, Iftikhar-ud-din, Pakistan’s rehabilitation minister and Mazhar Ali Khan, editor of Pakistan Times, 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?’ Both Iftikhar and Mazhar vowed not to repeat the remark. Mazhar took his wife Tahira into confidence and told her what Jinnah had said, and she communicated Jinnah’s comment to me long after her husband’s death.
Nothing has had a greater impact on me than Partition because it severed me from my roots and forced me to live in a new environment, embark on a new life. It is an irony of history that Muhammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, himself had not wanted it this way. He had fought for the creation of Pakistan but did not favour an exchange of population. Over the years what I have learnt is that Partition could have been averted. In any event, Jinnah was not happy with the way India was divided. From what I have heard, he regretted the events because in the final analysis he was uncertain about the way Pakistan would shape in the future.
K.H. Khurshid, Jinnah’s private secretary, a Kashmiri who spoke fluent Punjabi, narrated to me years later an incident that occurred a few days after Partition. Jinnah was at the helm of affairs as Pakistan’s first governor general. Sitting for lunch in the palatial residence in Karachi were Jinnah, his sister Fatima, Khurshid, and a young naval officer attached to the governor general. The officer was very perturbed because he had heard that his parents had been killed in India as they were trying to get to Pakistan. He asked Jinnah bluntly: ‘Sir, was creating Pakistan the right thing to do?’ There was an eerie silence in the room. Jinnah paused a while before replying: ‘I do not know young man. Only posterity will judge.’
Jinnah, it seems, had in mind some arrangement for free travel between the two countries. His reply to the Indian high commissioner in Karachi, Dr Sitaram, indicated as much. Jinnah had a sprawling house at Malabar Hill in Bombay (now Mumbai). Before declaring it to be evacuee property, Nehru wrote to Sitaram to find out from Jinnah what he wanted to do with the house. Jinnah’s reply at that point was that he would like to retain it because he proposed spending a few weeks a year in Bombay. The late Louis Heren, South Asia correspondent of the Times, London, who was stationed at Delhi in 1947–48 told me that Jinnah was not willing to accept the onus of Partition.
I met Heren at his office in London in 1971 when I was collecting material for my book, Distant Neighbours (1972), a story of India–Pakistan relations. I asked him if he had ever met Jinnah after Partition. He said, ‘Yes’. Soon Heren was reminiscing about the past. He described an evening he had spent with Governor General Jinnah at Kohat, a cantonment in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). Heren complained to him how unhappy he was over the division of the armed forces. To this Jinnah responded: ‘Do not blame me; blame Nehru.’ In a letter to me dated 3 October 1971, Heren wrote: ‘We [Jinnah and I] had a drink together one evening when, while acknowledging the creation of Pakistan and the political necessity for it, I regretted the partition of the Indian subcontinent. I can recall referring to the tragedy – for anybody who knew it in the past – of the division of the old Indian Army and the ICS. Strangely, he acknowledged all this and then went on to blame Nehru for Partition, as I said when we met in London.’
Heren recalled Jinnah’s words: ‘Had he [Nehru] agreed to the Muslim League joining the UP Congress government in 1937, there would have been no Pakistan.’ He went on to add: ‘Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, a venerable old leader of the Congress, regretted that Nehru’s rejection gave the Muslim League a new lease of life.’ Jinnah’s allegation, according to Heren, suggested ‘that Nehru’s judgement was impaired by Purushottam Das Tandon, a Hindu nationalist who was a senior Congress leader in UP’. Azad said more or less the same thing in his book, India Wins Freedom (1988). He regretted that even Mahatma Gandhi did not intervene ‘as he should have done’.
Narasimha Rao’s government
Narasimha Rao’s aide to him: ‘The masjid has been demolished.’
Rao’s government will always be held responsible for the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The curious thing was that he was conscious of such an eventuality but did virtually nothing to avert it. Once he invited senior journalists to acquaint them with the efforts his government was making to reach a settlement. I asked him which stage they had reached. ‘Somewhere,’ he said in reply, but there was no serious edge to his voice Soon after I witnessed the gathering of the storm, with thousands of kar sevaks descending upon Ayodhya and the RSS and the BJP leaders converging on the city. Kalyan Singh was the state chief minister heading a BJP government. The statements he made indicated that he had no intention of protecting Babri Masjid, although the Supreme Court had ordered him to maintain the status quo and his government had given it an undertaking that it would do so.
I wish I had asked G.B. Pant, when I was his information officer, about Babri Masjid. It is now well known that he was sympathetic to the people who placed the idols in the mosque on 23 December 1949. Nehru had warned Pant that ‘the whole atmosphere of UP has been changing for the worse from the communal point of view. Indeed, UP is becoming almost a foreign land for me. I do not fit in with them.’ Nehru’s was a voice of pathos, of a person who had been born and brought up in hate-free UP. He vainly referred to such Congress members who were behind the Hindu fanatics and responsible for the installation of the idols at Babri Masjid.
Pant never replied to Nehru’s indignant letter to him in which the latter had argued that there was no historical proof to support the temple theory. Pant, however, wrote a letter to Sardar Patel to argue that the masjid was originally built after demolishing a temple and the entire matter was sub judice.
It was known even then that a local administrator, K.K. Nayar, had placed the idols in the masjid on the night of 22–23 December 1949. The RSS’s official organ, the Organiser, reported the event as follows: ‘On the historic morning of 23 December 1949, the idols of Sri Ramachandra and Sita Devi miraculously appeared at the Janmasthan.’ Nayar was rewarded by the RSS in the form of a Lok Sabha ticket given to his wife Shakuntala in 1951, on which she was elected.
The climax came when Babri Masjid was demolished to the last stone on 6 December 1992 by thousands of kar sevaks egged on by the BJP and RSS leadership. It was daylight murder of secularism. My information was that Rao had connived at the demolition. He sat at puja when the kar sevaks began pulling down the mosque and rose only when the last stone had been removed. Madhu Limaye later told me that during the puja Rao’s aide whispered in his ears that the masjid had been demolished. Within seconds, the puja was over. When there were riots in the wake of the masjid’s demolition, Rao invited some senior journalists to his house. He was at pains to explain to us how his government had made every arrangement to stop the demolition. Rao said that he was betrayed by UP Chief Minister Kalyan Singh. I asked him how a small temple could have been erected overnight at the site when the Centre was at the helm of affairs having dismissed the Kalyan Singh government. Rao said he had attempted to send a contingent of CRPF by plane to Lucknow but they were unable to land because of bad weather. He did not explain the inaction of Central forces at Ayodhya, but assured me that the temple would not be there ‘for long’.
The Congress cauldron was boiling, not because of the Babri Masjid’s demolition but because of internal conflicts. Sonia Gandhi never liked Narasimha Rao, particularly when he assumed both leadership of the Congress party and its government. She did not want to join issue with him, preferring to remain aloof from party matters. Even so, the infighting within the Congress and its shrinking space in the country bothered her. Many Congress leaders from the Centre and the states met her individually to appeal her to lead the party. To them she seemed the only person who represented the consensus in the party.
Her inclination was to stay away from politics, as she had advised her husband to do. Even so, she was convinced that the future of the country was interlinked with the future of the Congress. Her gravest concern was that communal forces, representing the BJP were claiming the political space. The only occasion I spoke to her she came across as a committed secularist who firmly believed that pluralism was the bedrock of Indian society. She devoted 50 minutes out of one hour to underline how democracy and whatever economic plan the nation had in mind would go awry if communalism was not suppressed. I could gauge that she was coming around to the view that she would have to join politics if she wanted to fight against communalism and that the only instrument she had for this was the Congress.
Extracted with permission from:
Beyond The Lines:
Published by Roli Books