In a career spanning over six decades, India’s 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, Ziaul Haq, Z. A. Bhutto, A. Q. 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.
(This interview first appeared in The Herald, Karachi, August 2012)
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 mei gaya, woh shan salamat rahti hai
Yeh jaan to aani jaani hai, iss jaan ki koi baat nahi
And this unshakeable belief, gentle readers, is the heart of the matter. Herein lies Kuldip Nayar’s real eminence.