Review: Beyond The Lines by Kuldip Nayar

Beyond The Lines

I hadn’t heard of veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar before I bought this book. This only points out to the fact that I have been ruefully unaware of many an exceptional people in various fields. The back cover stories clearly suggested that he wasn’t a small name at all because how could just about anyone meet Lal Bahadur Shastri, Jayaprakash Narayan, Morarji Desai and act as a conveyor of messages?

At the outset, the author states that “this book, an account of my life, has taken far longer than I had anticipated”. Owing to this a lot of facts and experiences are repeated – especially names of people and their actions and the role which held in government or otherwise. This, however, should be attributed to oversight on behalf
of the publisher- Roli Books. In half a dozen places, there were minor grammatical errors, repeated or wrongly spelled words and likewise.

The author starts with his life in undivided India and living in Sialkot and Lahore, both in Pakistan now. He vividly describes the scenes of the bazaars around his house and various incidents of his life – his failing the journalism diploma course and of Urdu as well in Lahore; the grave of a saintly pir in his backyard; the death of his grandmother; his brawls during college days; his desires as a young boy of thirteen years when he saw an untouchable girl in her nakedness who “wearing a thin white dhoti, she showed her shapely legs and a swash of thick hair between”; and his revulsion with the concept of untouchability. Then he moves on to how the separation of Pakistan horrified him and his family and had to migrate to India. The author having personally witnessed partition adds weight to his experiences – especially when he was trying to reach the Indian side of the border in a cramped jeep and had to refuse to take children of other migrants on foot in their jeep. He comes across injured fellowmen, scenes of barbaric enormity and writes of trains filled with dead bodies having the same blood as on the other side. He settles in Delhi and life begins anew for him. Just like millions of others in India and Pakistan.  The author being a journalist and also having been a high commissioner and a member of parliament, his autobiography is in effect a political autobiography covering the turbulations of independence and then ensuing scramble for power and orderly governance to the very recent Manmohan Singh government. He interviews Lord Mountbatten decades later and enquires about the partition and gets a hint of guilt in his voice. He extols Nehru (“a social democrat”) for his secular views and brings out, though this has been done by various others in the past as well by lot of other authors, the not so secular side of Sardar Patel (“a staunch rightist representing Hindu nationalism”). He wonders why Gandhi could not again sit on a fast unto death on the issue of partition. He concludes that Gandhi felt defeated after seeing the hunger for power amongst many a freedom fighters and especially Jinnah and Nehru. Gandhi, after independence, fasted in Bengal mourning the divided country and against the Hindu-Muslim riots that took place.

The author also explores the angle of Nehru agreeing to partition and whether Lady Mountbatten had any role in it. “Air India flights would carry Nehru’s daily letter, which the high commission dutifully delivered to Lady Mountbatten and daily collected her reply and forwarded it to Nehru”. Mr. Nayar even asked Lord Romsey, grandson of Edwina Mountbatten, about the ‘alleged’ affair between Nehru and Edwina, and he replied, “theirs was ‘spiritual love’” and adds that it wasn’t about sex but more of a soul-to-soul relation. The author then tries to find out about the correspondence at Nehru Memorial Library in Delhi where he is told by the librarian that he would have to get permission by Sonia Gandhi! He persists but nothing comes out of it (the author also writes about the book Reminiscences of the Nehru Age by MO Mathai and how a chapter titled She - which wasn't included in the book - was about juicy details of Nehru's relations with various women). Then are covered the issues of integrating the princely states and accede to India and the troubles faced with Junagadh and Hyderabad; the still boiling case of Jammu & Kashmir’s accession to India and the role played by Sheikh Abdullah (and to some extent continued by his son Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah) and the death of Gandhi at the hands of Nathuram Godse, who was angered majorly by the former’s fast for insisting on payment of pending compensation owing to division of the country.

Then the author went to USA for a master’s degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism and later became the Information Minister of Govind Ballabh Pant, Home Minister and a freedom fighter. The issue of division of Assam and the demand for separation of the North Eastern states of India is covered in detail. The issue of Hindi language versus other languages also raised its head during this time. Mr. Nayar categorically states that the awarding of Padma Sri, Padma Bhushan, Padma Vibhushan and the Bharat Ratna is not as sacrosanct as it appears – how various adjectives were used to make sure each nominee’s recommendations sounded different and how personal favors played and still play an important role. And to illustrate this he cites an example of two ‘Miss Lazarus’ from the south receiving awards owing to mistaken identity for a teacher and a returning favor for a nurse by Rajendra Prasad. After Pant’s death, the author continued in the same post for LB Shastri. He writes of Shastri’s unassuming persona and how he did not even recognize Meena Kumari, the famous and leading Indian actress of that time, when she met him. The Chinese incursions and the resulting Indo-China war brings out how the polity was unaware of the ground realities and despite the army’s reservations forced them to confront the Chinese troopers (who despite of outwardly showing that they were friendly with India had started building roads in Indian territory and had increased their troop presence).

Jawaharlal Nehru died after he slipped in his bathroom. The contest between Morarji Desai and LB Shastri for the post of prime minister was tipped in Shastri’s favor after Mr. Nayar’s story appeared on the UNI ticker stating that Morarji was the first one to throw in the hat. The author was very well surprised on how a little piece of news could tilt the balance in favor of Shastri. The distrust of Indira Gandhi of Shastri is apparent from the writings. Then he covers the Indo-Pak war of 1965 with the beginning of incursions in the Rann of Kutch by Pakistani rangers. The author recreates the scenes of Shastri’s death in Tashkent. The theory that he was poisoned is examined but is still not convincing enough to be believed. Indira Gandhi’s tenure at the helm of affairs is criticized vehemently at places primarily due to her imposition of Emergency. Mr. Nayar himself is jailed and he writes painfully about the dirty toilets. Then he covers: the Bangladesh war, the Emergency, Janta Party government (with Morarji Desai as the Prime Minister and later Charan Singh), again Indira’s becoming a prime minister followed by Rajiv Gandhi, VP Singh (and the Mandal Commission fiasco), Chandra Shekhar, Narsimha Rao (and the Babri Masjid case), AB Vajpayee, Deve Gowda, IK Gujral, again AB Vajpayee (and the Gujarat riots) and then Manmohan Singh (and his feeble leadership cowed by Sonia Gandhi). In the midst of all this, the chapter of operation Bluestar (and later Indira’s death) is an important one covering how Khalistan separatists had created an atmosphere of violence and terror in Punjab. But the disapproval of the author extends to even the government.

In between all of this, Mr. Nayar also had a stint as a High Commissioner in London and a Rajya Sabha MP. He writes of his attempts to flirt with the attractive Shabana Azmi. His experiences there suggest that he is disappointed by the level to which politicians have fallen over time. He cites the example of how he was approached regarding the MPLAD (MP Local Area Development) fund he had – and how it was suggested to him that he could withdraw the Rs. 50 lakhs just by writing a letter in the name of a bridge or a road, which could have later just washed away in rain.

I would highly recommend this book for those who are interested in history and politics and journalism of India and covers the last seven decades. Mr. Nayar is honest and to the point in assessing politicians, countries and political parties. Though I don’t agree with few points he mentioned (like when during the 2001 parliament attack opposition members congratulated the Speaker and bonhomie was apparent after no one was harmed – except the killed security personnel. Just because two parties are in opposition doesn’t mean that they are baying for each other’s blood!). His analysis is forthcoming and lays the facts bare. I found his views more direct and open than those of Shashi Tharoor in Pax Indica and even Sarvepalli Gopal in the three volume biography of Nehru. I felt Shashi Tharoor was justifying every action which the Congress has taken (one example is the stalling of the water sharing agreement by Mamata Banerjee. Shashi Tharoor just mentioned how regional politics affected foreign policy negatively, but Mr. Nayar gave a background on how the communist threat forced Mamata to take that decision). He also criticizes others like RN Goenka, Arun Shourie, Shekhar Gupta and N Ram – all of them big names in the field of journalism. The press and judiciary are not spared as well – especially with regards to their role during Emergency. He exposes Kamal Nath, Pranab Mukherjee, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Sanjay Gandhi as well. Three sections which make this book worthwhile all the more were: his interview with AQ Khan, Pakistan’s nuclear scientist; the Emergency; and the partition and subsequent pangs of the birth of freedom.

Towards the end there are three annexures named Indian Media, Human Rights and the Environment and Indo-Pak Relations which reflect his views. 


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