In a career spanning over six decades, India’s veteran journalist, Kuldip Nayar has covered a host of events; he has met, interviewed and written about major figures in India’s, as well as the world's, political life: Indira Gandhi, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Jai Prakash Narayan, Mujibur Rahman, Ziaul Haq, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan.
The list is endless. His first major assignment as a cub reporter working for Delhi-based Urdu newspaper Anjaam was to write on Gandhi’s assassination in 1948. The poignancy of that moment left a deep impact on his psyche. Only three months into working as a journalist, 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, he had said.
In a previous book, Tales of Two Cities (co-authored with senior Pakistani journalist Asif Noorani), Nayar has written with empathy and clarity about Partition, which changed countless lives, including his own, forever.Was it inevitable, I ask? Could its thirst for blood have been slaked by some means other than India’s division? Holding Jinnah and Nehru equally “responsible”, Nayar explains the Partition was not inevitable to begin with. The Cabinet Mission Plan held promise of resolution but as events panned out and Nehru and Jinnah remained implacable, it became inevitable.
"One day, all of South Asia will be a union – one visa, one currency … everyone will be free to work, travel, think."
Having witnessed 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 fed on precisely the trauma that the first generation of migrants had experienced to swell their ranks and obtain sympathisers, if not members? Nayar explains that it is precisely because he witnessed 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 until Hasrat Mohani, the maverick poet-politician, told him he was wasting his time “writing verses that made no sense”. Yet Urdu has remained Nayar’s “first love” and he is one of its most vocal champions. But what does he make of the neglect of Urdu in India? Why is it that any Urdu-related soiree sees only a grey-haired 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 Partition, Nayar blames political parties, including Congress which held sway in post-Partition India, as responsible. in his characteristically blunt manner he says, "Such deliberate neglect is understandable on the part of the BJP [right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party], but why the Congress?"
In 1992, Nayar started the practice of a candlelight vigil at the India-Pakistan border on the night between August 14 and 15. Scores of peaceniks join him as he marches up to the border at Attari, candle in hand; an equal number of activists, writers, poets and performers surges from the other side. This annual event is viewed with some bemusement by hard-nosed political commentators and dismissed as dewey-eyed idealism by hawks on both sides, especially in times when bilateral relations suffer from frostbite. 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 the Herald. "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 a verse by Faiz Ahmad Faiz.
Jis dhaj se koi maqtal mein gaya, woh shaan salamat rahti hai Yeh jaan tou aani jaani hai, iss jaan ki koi baat nahi
[Immortal is the way people go to the gallows; life is not important since it has to end anyways]
And this unshakable belief is the heart of the matter. Herein lies Nayar's real eminence.
This was originally published in the Herald's August 2012 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
*The writer is a translator and literary historian from India.