The year that was...
It was the coldest winter I can recall: late winter monsoon added dampness to the chill to usher in morning mists. I was down with joint pains and stayed in bed much of the days and nights. Quite a few celebrities felt they had had enough. Among those that departed were J.N. Dixit (former foreign secretary), Bollywood villain Amrish Puri, S.S. Grewal (former cabinet secretary) and film star Parveen Babi, who was found dead in her flat after three days. Spilled over from the year past were continuing confrontations in Jammu and Kashmir between jehadi militants and our security forces, amid continuing official assertions that infiltration of hostile elements was on the decline. Also a continuance from the past year were the turns and twists of the trial for murder of the seer of Kanchipuram. A stampede in a temple in Gujarat left 350 dead.
What was new was Justice Banerjee’s finding that the fire in the train at Godhra railway station was not caused by a Muslim mob from the outside but by mischievous elements from within the compartment. It gave the lie to Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s assertion that the pogrom of innocent Muslims that followed was a revenge for the attack on the train. What brought cheer to Sikhs was the appointment of General J.J. Singh as Chief of Army Staff, the numero uno. The general, not known for modesty, was the loudest in self-praise.
By February, winter loosened its grip and the season of flowers was in full swing. I suffered a grievous loss in the death of my closest friend for over 70 years, Prem Kirpal — professor, secretary of the Education Ministry, head of the cultural department of Unesco and much else.
Turmoil in neighbouring Nepal gave the king an excuse to dismiss the elected government and assume dictatorial powers along with gagging the press. Goa opted for a change of chief minister. Three states, Haryana, Jharkhand and Bihar, went to the polls. The Congress won a clear majority in Haryana. Bihar and Jharkhand failed to give any party a clear majority and ushered in a period of horse-trading.
The season of flowers continued in March. Among those who departed were actor Gemini Ganesan, cartoonist O.V. Vijayan, my young friend Surinder Singh, MP (s/o Bansi Lal) and industrialist O.P. Jindal in a helicopter crash. The last to go was Bhapa Pritam Singh, founder of the leading Punjabi publishing house Navyug. Almost all the top Punjabi novelists and poets were published by him.
Cheering news was India trouncing China in the Davis Cup and the US snubbing Narendra Modi by denying him a visa. Not so cheerful was the acquittal of men charged with conspiracy to blow up Air-India Kanishka which killed well over 300 innocent men and women. This was evidently a miscarriage of justice and a re-hearing of the case began.
A short spring gave way to summer. The month started off with the death of Pope John Paul (84), pontiff for 26 years. A German cardinal was elected the 265th Pope of the Catholic world under the papal title Benedict. At home Indo-Pak cricket matches held centrestage. India won the first two matches (Tendulkar took five wickets in Cochin), and at Visakhapatnam, Dhoni scored 148. Pakistan won the series.
Despite unabated terrorist violence in Kashmir, Indo-Pak moves towards peace continued. The road between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad was opened. The Sabarmati Express met with an accident, killing over 20 and injuring over 150. When Railway Minister Lalu Yadav went to condole with the victims and relations of the dead, Modi’s hoodlums stoned him.
There was a change in the leadership of the CPI(M). Harkishen Singh Surjeet was succeeded by Prakash Karat; his wife Brinda was elected member of the politburo. The Chinese and the Japanese premiers were in Delhi: one to discuss the boundary dispute, the other to enhance trade relations.
May saw the departure of Gen. J.S. Arora, liberator of Bangladesh, actor-minister Sunil Dutt and film-maker Ismail Merchant.
I had grossly misjudged the weather. I fled Delhi in the last week of April to the balmy cool atmosphere of Kasauli. It was chilly and rained almost every day forcing me to stay indoors by the heater. Early June, I came to Delhi hoping to welcome the monsoon. There was not a sign of it. Meanwhile, two friends I admired, respected, cherished took their leave. One was R.S. Narula, retired Chief Justice of Punjab and Haryana High Court and as true a gursikh as I have known. The other was H.D. Shourie of Common Cause, who went in his sleep at the age of 93. He was an upright and bold man who single-handedly brought relief to millions who had been denied justice.
Two others who went were the cricketer Mushtaq of Indore and Sunder Singh of the BJP. India’s decline in hockey continued. We lost to Pakistan, Korea and Malaysia. As if to make up for the debacle four Indian girls hoisted the tri-colour atop the Everest. Hizb militants continued to kill innocent Kashmiris — 14 one day, 9 jawans a few days later. Maoists slew 29 in north Bihar, Nawab of Pataudi was arrested for killing deer and has yet to be punished for the crime.
The month ended on a cheerful note. The Ambani brothers settled their dispute, the stock market showed an upward trend and Sensex figures began to climb higher and higher.
(To be concluded)