What I admired about Jaswant Singh, writes Karan Thapar
Jaswant Singh was an enigma. There were times when he could be warm and generous, and other occasions when he was cranky, pernickety and awkward. I never knew how he would respond and always approached him with trepidation.
I was in my late teens when I first met him. Back home on holiday from Cambridge, my cousin, Romila, felt I had become cut-off and needed grounding. She asked Jaswant Singh to meet me and he invited me for a drink. The memory of that meeting will always colour the way I remember him.
It was a cold winter’s evening only warmed by the roaring fire in his drawing room. The two of us sat on either side of it. He offered whisky which I accepted with alacrity. The alcohol extinguished whatever shyness I felt. The loquacity that replaced it was self-indulgent.
Jaswant Singh treated me like an adult. He listened carefully, asked probing questions and, occasionally, shared his own experiences. For a 19-year-old, still wet behind the ears, this was a wonderful feeling. Others would have patronised me. Jaswant Singh took me seriously.
I can’t recall the evening in detail, but I left knowing I had met a gentleman. Perhaps one of the last of that breed. It’s an old-fashioned term that’s not popular today. Many might not even understand it. But I can think of no better term to describe him.
We did not become friends and there were occasions in the years that followed when, I think, he distrusted me. This was particularly true during his ministerial years. But, obviously, something of that first meeting remained, because in 2009, when his book on Partition and Jinnah was ready for publication, he asked if I would interview him. It was the only pre-publication interview he intended.
He sent me the spiral-bound proofs and a letter telling me which chapters to read. I quickly realised the book takes a markedly different view of Jinnah to the accepted Indian demonisation.
Jaswant Singh saw him as a nationalist, a great Indian and admired him. He believed Jawaharlal Nehru and Mountbatten were as much to blame for Partition as Jinnah. In fact, the Congress’ repeated inability to accept that Muslims feared domination by Hindus and wanted “space” in “a reassuring system” pushed Jinnah to seek a separate country. Since all of this would be first revealed in my interview, even before the book was on sale, I realised he was giving me a scoop.
I did a two-part interview, part one broadcast at 8:30 pm and the second at 11 pm the same night. This is how the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) first learned of his views. The next morning he was expelled.
In the second of the two interviews, I asked if he realised his portrait of Jinnah would anger his party. “Why should they be angry?” he responded, a quizzical look on his face and his eyebrows furrowed. “They may disagree but what’s there to be angry about?” I pointed out the BJP’s chintan baithak was scheduled for three days later, and his book would be excoriated. He smiled and reminded me it was nearly 700 pages long. “They won’t even have read it.”
The point he made needs to be underlined in today’s India. He didn’t care what his party thought of his scholarship. It was the “truth” as he saw it. Such courage and conviction is rare. In Indian politics, it’s probably unique.
Let me end by quoting from a third interview done days after his expulsion. “I didn’t think they would be so small-minded, so narrow-minded, so nervous about Jinnah,” he said.
When I pointed out that the BJP felt he had provoked it, he smiled. “Why should truth be provocative?” After a pause he added: “On the other hand, the party should be worried if untruths become the core of the party.”
I didn’t pursue this point. In 2009, there seemed no need to. Today, perhaps, there is.