Kuldip Nayar, optimist, defender of civil liberties, dies
Nayar was a crusader for press freedom, a bitter opponent of the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1975 and a passionate advocate of friendly India-Pakistan relations.india Updated: Aug 23, 2018 23:11 IST
Kuldip Nayar, the last of a generation of journalists to have continuously covered the nation’s politics since Independence, died on Thursday at New Delhi. He was 95.
Through the decades, Nayar was a crusader for press freedom, a bitter opponent of the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1975 and a passionate advocate of friendly India-Pakistan relations. He also served as an official adviser, diplomat and parliamentarian.
Nayar wrote unflinching, first-hand accounts of the country’s affairs, often with an insider’s edge. In the variegated world of Indian press, Nayar’s columns came to be a source of trust for his readers. He edited the Statesman and the Indian Express newspapers. With political values that were left-leaning and liberal, Nayar knew the corridors of power rather well and eventually took on public roles in an era when India itself was stitching the loose ends of its national fabric. He served as the information officer to Govind Ballabh Pant, the Union home minister from 1955 to 1961, under whose watch the country reorganised the boundaries of some major states along linguistic lines.
Getting publicity for Pant was his main task. In his autobiography, Beyond the Lines, he recalls badgering the Press Trust of India, the news agency, to “disseminate as complete a version” of Pant’s speeches as possible.
Nayar’s role gave him access to details of decision-making during one of the most turbulent periods of India’s early decades, when many statehood demands based on language cropped up. Telugu-speaking areas were part of Madras. Assam was a museum of many races, ethnicities and languages. Assamese was not the language spoken by the majority of undivided Assam. Nayar described the challenge of redrawing the country’s internal map thus: “India had not faced a crisis on this scale since Partition.”
After his stint with Pant, Nayar was back as the editor of United News of India. Upon Nehru’s death, the big question was, who among the Congress’s leaders would take office next?He put out a story in the UNI that said Morarji Desai, former finance minister, was the “first one to throw his hat in the ring”. The story spoiled, rather than helped, Desai’s chances and Lal Bahadur Shastri became prime minister.
Nayar writes in his autobiography that Desai blamed the story for ruining his chances, which was written as a “favour” to Shastri. Shastri offered Nayar the post of information officer. He however did not take it but “unofficially” looked after his publicity. Nayar’s fierce resistance of the Emergency, for which he was jailed in 1975, and his almost deluded vision that India and Pakistan could end all disputes to become chums will define his legacy.
“Tyrants sprouted at all levels,” he wrote of the Emergency, a 21-month period from 1975 to 1977 when Indira Gandhi suspended the Constitution and, with it, normal democratic rights. Much of the nation’s boisterous press clamped up. Nayar gathered journalists on June 28, 1975 to pass a resolution denouncing the Emergency. He wrote a protest letter to Indira Gandhi, stating “a free society is founded on free information”. Nayar also broke the story about Indira Gandhi’s decision to go in for elections in 1977.
Nayar also became India’s High Commissioner to United Kingdom in 1990 and was nominated to Rajya Sabha in 1997.
Nayar’s death led to condolence messages from across the spectrum. “His strong stand against the Emergency, public service and commitment to a better India will always be remembered,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted. “Nayar always vigorously supported democratic rights and civil liberties,” said CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury. BJP president Amit Shah recalled he had met Nayar on June 9 as part of his party's 'Sampark for Samarthan' (outreach for support) campaign.
Nayar’s life, like millions others, was shaped by the events of Partition of India and the creation of Pakistan, where he was born in Sialkot in 1923. He believed in the indispensability of dialogue with the neighbouring country. Every year on August 14, which was Nayar’s birthday and Pakistan’s Independence Day, he would travel to the Wagah border with Pakistan to light candles, hoping for friendlier relations.
“He is not the only one. Many of his generation believed that borders may dissolve. Nayar dreamt of a softer border through which people could travel freely. He was very much against the Radcliffe line,” said Meera Dewan, the filmmaker who created the documentary, In His Inner Voice: Kuldip Nayar.
Nayar wasn’t a blinkered optimist when it came to Pakistan. His recent column, which he wrote for The Daily Star of Bangladesh, was on Imran Khan’s win in Pakistan’s recent general election. In it, Nayar slams both Khan and the army: “The army in Pakistan seems to have devised a way where a particular person is elected even without a valid cause. Imran Khan is a product of such phenomena.”
First Published: Aug 23, 2018 23:11 IST