‘If I have rubbed people the wrong way, I have also been rubbed the wrong way’

Kuldip Nayar
Journalist, former editor and writer Kuldip Nayar speaks about his autobiography Beyond the Lines, Emergency, and journalism then and now. The session was moderated by Contributing Editor Coomi Kapoor

Kuldip Nayar: About my book: I wrote about 800 pages and it has been reduced to 400 pages—that was quite an ordeal. Maybe I have rubbed people the wrong way (by certain statements in the book), perhaps because I have suffered. Maybe I have not been as patient or as tolerant as I should have been.

Coomi Kapoor: You were closely associated with Lal Bahadur Shastri. You also observed Nehru from close quarters. Who has been the best Prime Minister for India?

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was the best Prime Minister India could have had at the time. The choice was between Sardar Patel and Pandit Nehru. I had read Nehru, he was my hero. For a few days, I was also his press officer. Surprisingly, Maulana Azad said after he had been in Nehru's Cabinet for two or three years, "Humaare se ye galti hui, Sardar Patel ko prime minister banana chahiye tha aur Pandit Nehru ko president."

Ritu Sarin: You were a victim of Emergency and jailed for three months. Yet, in your book, you say you wish Emergency had continued.

I was not thinking of it from a personal point of view. From the country's viewpoint, probably, we would have become a nation dedicated to certain values, dedicated to the ethos of independence. That's why I said the longer we go through this period, the better it is for the nation. It would suffer, it would go through all these pangs and, it would come out of it.

Ritu Sarin: You say this is something that Sanjay Gandhi told you off the record.

Let me explain. I was writing a book, The Judgement, about the Emergency. During the Emergency, the Express Board had been reconstituted and Kamal Nath was included. While I was writing the book, Kamal Nath asked me why I hadn't met Sanjay Gandhi. I said I would have loved to meet him but nobody had allowed me to meet him despite my best efforts. He said he would take me to him. And so he did. This was 48 hours after Mrs Gandhi was defeated in the general elections. Sanjay was sitting under a tree and Mrs Gandhi was on the verandah. She came forward but I told her, "Aaj aapse nahi milna, aaj Sanjay se milna hai." Sanjay asked me not to publish anything he said during his lifetime. That is the reason why it was not included in The Judgement. I asked him, "Sanjay, how did you think that you would get away with it (continuing the Emergency)?" He said, "What is the problem? Nothing was happening. With Bansi Lal and persons like him, we would have ruled for another 25 years." I then asked, "Why did you hold elections?" He replied, "Ask Mrs Gandhi".

Ritu Sarin: So the Emergency would have lasted for years if Sanjay Gandhi had had his way?

Yes. I think that if they had come back to power and Emergency had continued, Sanjay would have retired Mrs Gandhi. There was a rumour to that effect at the time. Whatever I might say or you might think, Mrs Gandhi was authoritarian, not a dictator. There is a difference. As a dictator, she had to start killing people. The Emergency had diminishing returns and people were being taken to jail. What do you do to maintain discipline? She had to think of stricter means, more cruel steps. But I think she didn't have it in her. She was always looking to the West for recognition.

Sunil Jain: What good could have come out of the Emergency continuing?

I was in favour of Emergency continuing because from what I had seen, we were not emerging as a nation—we were indisciplined, not thinking of our direction. I thought maybe these measures, these cruelties would make something of us.

Sunil Jain: You've flitted between working for the government and journalism. Is that a model young journalists should emulate? Can you be objective if you're part of the government one day and a journalist the next?

I agree with you that they should stay away from the government but technically, I was not part of the administration as Information Officer.

Sunil Jain: You were nominated to the Rajya Sabha. Did that affect your ability to be neutral about the government?

When I was a Rajya Sabha member, I was not in the profession. In fact, I was a member only when I K Gujral was PM.

Sunil Jain: In your book, you've been dismissive of many former editors and proprietors. But you also say there were harder hitting stories in your time than today. Isn't that contradictory? Journalists today have exposed many scams and have the government on the defensive. Can you cite similar stories by your peers?

You have broken lots of stories but I think that during our time, we broke many more stories, hard stories. In fact, you have the advantage of Google. My complaint about today's journalism is that there are not enough hard stories. Once in a while, we see something but that too has often been picked up by the electronic media before print.

Seema Chishti: You said you have not been very charitable in your book to your fellow journalists because you have gone through much suffering. Can you describe what you were referring to?

I was in the field for 35 years. People read what I wrote. But there was a lot of jealousy, a lot of heartburn—it is probably there even today. Take Nihal Singh. He is a very good friend. So if a good friend came and said to you, 'Kuldip, you will have to vacate this chair, and you will have to share your peon', it hurts you as a friend. Also, I thought— maybe I imagined it—that at The Statesman, I would be made Editor. But Irani did not think so. When I mention suffering, I also mean suffering during the Emergency—how nobody met my family, we didn't have any money, etc. If I have rubbed people the wrong way, maybe I have also been rubbed the wrong way.

Maneesh Chhibber: Is this book your revenge for the bitterness?

No, no. I have written very briefly about these things. It is more a political biography of the times.

Dilip Bobb: A lot of this book is history. What in the book is a revelation?

The revelations are all up to Shastri's death because I was part of the system—how the reorganisation of states came about, how the language formula came about, what was happening inside the government when the Chinese attacked us, what happened in the 1965 war. For instance, during the 1962 war, Nehru received a letter from the Shah of Iran. He had written to General Ayub of Pakistan telling him to send his forces to fight alongside the Indian forces and drive out (China). Shastriji got a copy of that and he told me after the war, "Nayar Sahab, agar vo aa jaate yahan pe aur unka khoon humaare khoon ke saath behta, toh Kashmir ye maangte to naa karna mushkil hota." These are things that happened and are offered in the book as insights.

Ajmer Singh: On being informed in the middle of the night of Shastri's death, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto is said to have remarked: "Which of the two bastards?" (Ayub Khan and Shastri were in Tashkent) When you interviewed Bhutto, did you clarify whom he meant?

I checked it out and found that he had said it. He (used it) for Ayub Khan. His enmity was with him, not Shastri.

Maneesh Chhibber: Do you think Pakistan has demonstrated enough goodwill in its actions towards India? Or do they need to do much more?

On 26/11, we believe the Pakistani state was involved—it has been proved. Some five or seven people have been arrested and their cases should be followed up. They must show that they are serious about it. They say we have not given them proof but they should show that they are serious about bringing the culprits to book.

Seema Chishti: You said your book was reduced from 800 pages to about 400. What was finally left out of the book?

There are lots of things missing, but because I'm thinking of writing another book, I won't reveal them. There is quite a lot about Mrs Indira Gandhi and the later period.

Vandita Mishra: You've also said that while Babri Masjid was being brought down, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao was doing puja. Officers who were working with him then have said they attended meetings with him at the time. How do you respond to that?

The officer who has claimed this was not the officer attached to him. That person was Naresh Chandra. He alone was present. Arjun Singh's biography has also been published and he says that he was trying to contact Rao the whole day and he couldn't. Three or four days later, there were communal riots, especially in Mumbai, and Rao called some journalists. I was one of them. He wanted to discuss Babri Masjid. He said he was helpless, Kalyan Singh (UP Chief Minister then) had betrayed him, the BJP government had betrayed him. So I told him, "But the Centre took control of Ayodhya the same afternoon. Between that afternoon and the next morning, another temple had come up. How so?" He said, "Kuldip, I promise you that temple will not be there for long." My point is that he knew about it. He may not have known the exact timing of it, but he knew.

Ajmer Singh: On the letters exchanged between Nehru and Lady Mountbatten, you have said that you tried to obtain those letters, that you had spoken to Mrs Sonia Gandhi about them but you were given only 'C' Grade papers. Could you tell us more about that?

I want to write a book on the subject but it's not possible. I've approached Sonia Gandhi and everyone else concerned, and nobody is willing to hand over the letters. I'm thinking of approaching the Supreme Court with a PIL. These are public papers, they belong to the nation, they should be available. Nehru belonged to the nation. Nehru didn't belong to the family alone. He was Prime Minister and we have a right to know what he did as PM. Maulana Azad, whom I've quoted, said he suspected that Partition was done on the advice of Mrs Mountbatten. If he could go that far, what might the letters reveal?

Maneesh Chhibber: What do you think of the standard of journalism today?

Well, I'm disappointed. In those days at the Express, there was no check on us. We could publish any story. Whether it hurt A, B or whether it rubbed the corporate sector the wrong way, it didn't matter. Ramnath Goenka knew certain stories going into the paper were wrong. At night, he would call me and say, after seeing the front page, "Kuldip, woh jo galat story Cabinet ki hai na, us aadmi ko pata nahi hai. Par kuch nahi, jaane do." He never tried to contradict us. I have a feeling that now you have to pull your punches because the corporate sector has a strong say. I do not find any pressure from the government, but I do see pressure from other forces which is reflected by newspapers.

Unni Rajen Shanker: I just want to clarify this: at the Express today, any story that is worth printing will go to print just as it used to. It is still the same.

Thank you.

Sunil Jain: If you look at the 2G scam, the story was broken by the media. There are many such examples. It is difficult to understand how you can say today's journalists seem to be a lot more compromised.

Maybe you are picking up a few stories. But the whole system is full of these kinds of scandals. Just see how may hard stories we used to break.

Coomi Kapoor: Can you give us examples of hard stories from those days which exposed government corruption?

Those days, scandals were few. I can't recall now but there were many stories that were broken by the media. But more than that, it is a question of perception. If you leave aside four to five English newspapers—I'm talking about the whole gamut of journalists—99 per cent of the papers are owned by the same family and edited by the same family. This didn't happen then. Now the classical type of editors are few. Even at the best of papers, I know that stories go upstairs because there is a maalik sitting there and then it comes downstairs. This wouldn't happen those days. The Emergency was the watershed. When owners saw that the whole Press caved in, they must have thought to themselves, if they can cave into Sanjay Gandhi, why not us, we own the paper.

Ankit Jain: Do you think the Press Council Act should be amended and that the electronic media should come under the ambit of the Press Council?

I am against giving powers to the Press Council. It will become just another court.

Transcribed by Dipankar Ghose & Naveed Iqbal

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