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Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Kuldip Nayar's Beyond the Lines -- a review

Kuldip Nayar is the grand old man of Indian journalism. His is the classical post-1947 Indian Success Story. He arrived in India, having travelled from his home in Sialkot across the blood-stained plains of Punjab, to build a new life from scratch in a new country. Like countless other sharanarthis (shelter-seekers as they were called in the early days), through dint of sheer hard work and good ol’fashioned salt-of-the-earth ‘Punjabiyat’, call it what you will, he has built a reputation whose cornerstone is honesty and commitment to secularism and peace.

Nayar’s tryst with destiny began at roughly the same time as his new country’s: at the stroke of the midnight hour when the world slept but India awakened to her destiny. His recently released autobiography, Beyond the Lines (Roli, 2012), reveals the highs and lows, the best and the worst, the price and privilege of that historic tryst. Like Nehru, whom he admires, Nayar put his faith in the idea of a secular, socialist republic and a functioning democracy. Over the years, that faith has been shaken, stirred but never shattered. The Emergency declared by Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, tested his belief in the democratic principles enshrined in the Constitution. Jailed for his ant-Indira writings, he recalls with dismay both the excesses of the government and the frailties of politicians and media alike:

 ‘It was shocking to observe the ease with which Indira Gandhi and Sanjay were able to assume control over the entire administrative machinery and the willingness with which officials and other government employees accepted this….It was disappointing…the way the media and more specifically the journalists reacted to the new situation. Nearly all of them caved in, stricken by an epidemic of fear.’

Elsewhere, too, he keeps his sternest words for the media, which is the greatest bugbear of democracy, and also its greatest strength. Stressing the need for every major newspaper to have an ombudsman, he speaks of the need to have internal checks and balances and to constitute a regulatory body such as a Press Commission. Good journalism, he writes, ‘is all about exposing injustice and highlighting heroes regardless of the consequences.’ A popular figure at public sit-ins, marches and demonstrations, Nayar has repeatedly found common cause with those who have suffered victimisation and marginalisation. ‘Injustice still hurts me,’ he notes, ‘just the same way as it did over sixty years ago, and among my very few friends are those who similarly care for the violation of basic values.’

However, the book has courted enough controversy. The Sikhs are up in arms over allegations that Sikh Students’ Union President Bhai Amrik Singh, who died during Operation Blue Star in June 1984, was an 'IB agent (Falcon was his pseudonym)'. The chapter on Punjab has raised a hornet’s nest due to Nayar’s depiction of the role of Dal Khalsa while writing about the genesis of the Punjab problem as well as the charge that Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was a creation of the then Congress and a genie that escaped from the Congress’s bottle. Similarly, the late Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s son is issuing vehement denials; Nayar has accused Rao of ‘conniving’ and locking himself up in his room and, apparently, praying when the mosque was being pulled down at Ayodhya in a classic case of Nero playing while Rome burnt.

Coming from the pen of a man whose personal odyssey in the field of Indian journalism has coincided with the nation-building project, this book is a valuable addition to national historiography.
(Reviewed for The Herald, Karachi, August 2012)

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