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Rakhshanda Jalil
Wednesday, August 29, 2012 at 12 : 16

Kuldip Nayar: Beyond the Lines


Kuldip Nayar is the grand old man of Indian journalism. His is the classical post-1947 Indian Success Story. He arrived in India, having travelled from his home in Sialkot across the blood-stained plains of Punjab, to build a new life from scratch in a new country. Like countless other sharanarthis (shelter-seekers as they were called in the early days), through dint of sheer hard work and good ol'fashioned salt-of-the-earth 'Punjabiyat', call it what you will, he has built a reputation whose cornerstone is honesty and commitment to secularism and peace.

In a career spanning over six decades, this veteran journalist has covered a host of events; he has met, interviewed and written about major figures in India's political life as well as also those from the world arena: Indira Gandhi, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Jai Prakash Narayan, Mujibur Rahman, Zia-ul-Haq, ZA Bhutto, AQ Khan. The list is endless. His first major assignment as a cub reporter working for the Urdu newspaper Anjaam(The Conclusion) from Delhi was to write on Gandhi's assassination. The poignancy of that moment left a deep impact on his psyche. Only three months old in the field of journalism, he could 'see' history explode before his eyes; he admits he wept unashamedly. He is still haunted by Gandhi's words, delivered at a public prayer service a few days before his death where Nayar was present: Hindus and Muslims are like my two eyes, the Mahatma had said.

In a previous book, Tales of Two Cities (co-authored with senior Pakistani journalist Asif Noorani), Nayar has written with empathy and clarity about the momentous event that changed countless lives, including his own, forever. Was partition inevitable, I ask? Could its thirst for blood been slaked by some means other than the division of the country? Holding Jinnah and Nehru equally 'responsible', he says, to begin with, Partition was not inevitable. The Cabinet Mission Plan held out promise of resolution but as events panned out and Nehru and Jinnah remained implacable, it became inevitable.

Having witnessed at first hand the blood and gore, the massacres and the communal carnage, how, then, did he not go the 'other' way? After all many did. In fact, right-wing organisations on both sides of the border - the RSS and its affiliated wings in India just as the Jamaat or the MQM and the pro-Muhajir parties in Pakistan - fed on precisely the trauma that the first-generation of migrants had experienced to swell their ranks and obtain sympathisers if not members? Nayar tells me that it is precisely because he saw the trauma and the madness that his belief in pluralism was strengthened. He learnt to judge a person by his beliefs and commitments, not his religion.

Nayar's great love for the Urdu language is well known. In fact, in his youth, he even wrote poetry till the maverick but hugely talented poet-politician, Hasrat Mohani told him he was wasting his time 'writing verses that made no sense'! Yet Urdu has remained his 'first love' and he is one of its most vocal champions. But what of the neglect of Urdu? Why is it that any Urdu-related soiree sees only a grey audience? What does he make of the Indian Muslim's oft-repeated lament that Urdu has languished due to official apathy? Holding Urdu to be the worst casualty of the migration, Nayar blames political parties, including the Congress that held sway in post-partition India, to be responsible. In his characteristically blunt manner he asks, '(Such deliberate neglect) is understandable on the part of the BJP, but why the Congress?'

In 1992, Nayar started the practice of a candle-light vigil at the Indo-Pak border on the night of 14-15 August. Scores of peaceniks join him as he marches up to the crossing at Attari, candle in hand; an equal number of activists, writers, poets, performers, surges from the other side. This annual event is viewed with some bemusement by hard-nosed political commentators and dismissed as dewy-eyed idealism or jingoism of the worst sort by hawks on both sides, especially in times when bilateral relations suffer from frost bite. But what compels a man of 88 years to undertake this long journey - by rail from Delhi, by car from Amritsar and eventually on foot, that too at the perilous hour of midnight - year after year to raise the cry of 'Hindustan-Pakistan Dosti Zindabad' in the face of continuing cynicism? 'I am an optimist,' he tells me. 'One day, all of South Asia will be a Union - one visa, one currency... everyone will be free to work, travel, think.' As we wind up our conversation, he recites this sher by Faiz Ahmad Faiz:

Jis dhaj se koi maqtal main gaya, woh shan salamat rahti hai

Yeh jaan to aani jaani hai, iss jaanki koi baat nahi

Nayar's tryst with destiny began at roughly the same time as his new country's: at the stroke of the midnight hour when the world slept but India awakened to her destiny. His recently released autobiography, Beyond the Lines(Roli, 2012), reveals the highs and lows, the best and the worst, the price and privilege of that historic tryst. Like Nehru, whom he admires, Nayar put his faith in the idea of a secular, socialist republic and a functioning democracy. Over the years, that faith has been shaken, stirred but never shattered.The Emergency declared by Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi, tested his belief in the democratic principles enshrined in the Constitution. Jailed for his ant-Indira writings, he recalls with dismay both the excesses of the government and the frailties of politicians and media alike:

'It was shocking to observe the ease with which Indira Gandhi and Sanjay were able to assume control over the entire administrative machinery and the willingness with which officials and other government employees accepted this....It was disappointing...the way the media and more specifically the journalists reacted to the new situation. Nearly all of them caved in, stricken by an epidemic of fear.'

Elsewhere, too, he keeps his sternest words for the media, which is the greatest bugbear of democracy, and also its greatest strength. Stressing the need for every major newspaper to have an ombudsman, he speaks of the need to have internal checks and balances and to constitute a regulatory body such as a Press Commission. Good journalism, he writes, 'is all about exposing injustice and highlighting heroes regardless of the consequences.' A popular figure at public sit-ins, marches and demonstrations, Nayar has repeatedly found common cause with those who have suffered victimisation and marginalisation. 'Injustice still hurts me,' he notes, 'just the same way as it did over sixty years ago, and among my very few friends are those who similarly care for the violation of basic values.'

However, the book has courted enough controversy. The Sikhs are up in arms over allegations that Sikh Students' Union President Bhai Amrik Singh, who died during Operation Blue Star in June 1984, was an 'IB agent(Falcon was his pseudonym)'. The chapter on Punjab has raised a hornet's nest due to Nayar's depiction of the role of Dal Khalsa while writing about the genesis of the Punjab problem as well as the charge that Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was a creation of the then Congress and a genie that escaped from the Congress's bottle. Similarly, the late Prime Minister Narasimha Rao's son is issuing vehement denials; Nayar has accused Rao of 'conniving' and locking himself up in his room and, apparently, praying when the mosque was being pulled down at Ayodhya in a classic case of Nero playing while Rome burnt.

Coming from the pen of a man whose personal odyssey in the field of Indian journalism has coincided with the nation-building project, this book is a valuable addition to national historiography.


More about Rakhshanda Jalil

Rakhshanda Jalil writes on culture, literature and society. She has published over 15 books, including the much-acclaimed book on Delhi's lesser-known monuments called 'Invisible Delhi' and a well-received collection of short stories, called 'Release & Other Stories' (Harper Collins, 2011). She blogs at www.hindustaniawaaz-rakhshanda.blogspot.com. Her Ph D is on the Progressive Writers' Movement.