Kuldip Nayar, the journalist who thought of himself as a citizen of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and lived a politically charged life
Much before his once robust body was racked by disease, Kuldip Nayar, who passed away on August 23 last at the ripe age of 95, had the satisfaction of being recognised as a resolute preacher of peace between India and Pakistan and across South Asia.
Describing India, Pakistan and Bangladesh as his countries he was confident that “some day all the countries in South Asia will form a common union like the European Union (EU), without abandoning their individual identities, and this will help (them) fight against the problems of poverty and to span the ever-yawning gulf between the rich and the desperately poor of all our countries. I am confident that South Asians will one day live in peace and harmony and cooperate with one another on matters of mutual concern such as development, trade and social progress.”
Kuldip Nayar’s most widely known performance as a peace activist was an annual pilgrimage to the Wagah border between India and Pakistan on the night between August 14 and 15 to light candles of hope and peace, greet the people of both India and Pakistan on their independence days and sing songs of peace and amity. Started in 1992 with a few friends on either side, the event grew in size and substance with each passing year and made headlines for more than three decades. Besides, peace and harmony across the region was one of the most common themes in his syndicated column, Between the Lines, that was carried for nearly five decades by forty or so newspapers in all countries of South Asia.
But ideas of peace along with interest in human rights and environment came to Kuldip Nayar in the second half of his earthly existence as, by his own admission, he woke up to the harsh realities of life around him only during Indira Gandhi’s emergency when he had crossed the 50 year mark. Till then he was busy progressing in his career in journalism, his first love.
Although he had obtained a degree in law from a college in Lahore before migrating from hometown Sialkot to India in September 1947, it was as a journalist that he chose to make a living. At the beginning, he did not have a smooth sailing. He worked for some time at an Urdu daily, Anjam, but a life-changing advice by Hasrat Mohani persuaded him to abandon Urdu journalism as well as his desire to write poetry in Urdu.
He entered the field of journalism in English language through the United States Information Service (USIS). That connection helped him to study journalism in the United States and get an MSc degree in the subject. But it was as an information officer, especially during his attachment with Home Minister G.B.Pant, that he learnt the arts of reporting and public relation both. He was able to form associations among politicians and bureaucrats that facilitated his rise in journalism. He won credit for infusing life in a struggling news agency: UNI, and got a chance to establish himself in mainstream media with his selection as resident editor of Statesman at Delhi. From there he was picked up by Goenka to join Indian Express.
Most people believe Gen Zia ul Haq chose Kuldip as a credible agent to inform the world that Pakistan had acquired nuclear weapons making capability.
The possibilities of watching the working of the state apparatus from within enabled Kuldip Nayar to gather the material that made his autobiography,Beyond the Lines, a political history of India from his point of view.
As a journalist Kuldip Nayar was perhaps at his best while working as a political reporter. He took quick and bold initiatives and was not afraid of making predictions partly on the basis of evidence and partly on his hunches. Almost all prime ministers of India after Nehru consulted him on a variety of issues, as they sought advice from other political analysts.
Soon after Z. A. Bhutto became President of Pakistan following the 1971 war and the state’s disintegration, Kuldip Nayar applied for a Pakistan visa and sought an interview with Bhutto. He landed at the the Lahore airport before the Pakistan authorities learnt of the clearance granted to him. To give them time to sort out matters, Kuldip was packed off to Kabul where he conducted a rare interview with Bacha Khan. A few days later, he came to Islamabad and met Bhutto. This was the time Aziz Ahmed and D. P. Dhar were discussing at Murree modalities of starting bilateral talks and, on the side, Faiz Ahmed Faiz was writing the immortal lines Aaiye haath uthaen hum bhi, Hum jinhein rasm-dua yaad nahin.
On his return to New Delhi, Indira Gandhi asked Kuldip which of Bhutto’s two demands — return of the Pakistan territory gained during the war and repatriation of the 93,000 prisoners of war — she should concede. “Both”, was Kuldip’s prompt reply.
By way of an explanation, he recalled that after the Sino- Indian conflict of 1962, the Chinese had repatriated the Indian POWs and also withdrawn from the Indian territory including the area they had claimed as theirs. That was Kuldip Nayar’s way of giving candid advice. That Indira Gandhi had reason to think otherwise didn’t bother him.
For quite some time after the Shimla Accord, a number of Indian journalists visited Pakistan in a bid to read Bhutto’s mind regarding relations with India. They included Dilip Mukerjee, Nihal Singh, B.G. Verghese and Shyam Lal. Each one of them wrote a column or two on India Pakistan issues and moved on to other matters. Not Kuldip Nayar. He kept coming to Pakistan after regular intervals to talk of normal relations between India and Pakistan.
His report from Pakistan that attracted worldwide attention was of course his interview with Dr A.Q. Khan. Most people believe Gen Zia ul Haq chose Kuldip as a credible agent to inform the world that Pakistan had acquired nuclear weapons making capability. Another version is that the affair was masterminded by Gen Aslam Beg, the deputy army chief. Kuldip himself claimed to have acted on his own and got Dr A.Q. Khan to spill the beans by provoking him. In any case there were no two opinions about the importance of the scoop or the cost of the disclosure to Pakistan.
Among the rewarding associations formed by Kuldip Nayar was his membership of the Punjab Group that used to meet at Inder Kumar Gujral’s house and included two other prominent journalists, Pran Chopra and Rajindar Sareen. Inder Kumar Gujral was foreign minister in V.P. Singh’s government when Kuldip Nayar was named India’s High Commissioner in London though he might have been happier in Islamabad. The same network perhaps put him in the Rajya Sabha.
In his politics and activism for peace, Kuldip Nayar had his eyes on the desirable end, and usually avoided grappling with issues that made progress towards the goal difficult. He believed that, perhaps, some day everything will miraculously right itself. Some magic wand will help wipe off tears from every cheek and awake people to something deeper and nobler. He knew very well that freedom and progress could not be achieved by dreaming alone. He scored many triumphs in life but betrayed a tendency towards oversimplification while dealing with India’s external relations. He thought Pakistan lost its case on Kashmir by allowing the tribal lashkar to raid the valley. He sympathised with the religious minorities but not to the extent his best friend and brother-in-law Rajinder Sachar could. He often wrote with feeling about the plight of the poor but without attacking the factors responsible for their exploitation.
He wrote a great deal about Kashmir but one wonders whether he could look at the sufferings of its people from their point of view. He didn’t approve of the stand the leftist groups could take on the Kashmir issue while they had reservations about Kuldip’s attempts to solve problems by forgetting them.
It is a sad reflection on the society in which Kuldip Nayar lived that a person of his caliber had to make many compromises to remain relevant, as a perceptive Pakistani journalist put it.