Reviewed by Asha’ar Rehman
For someone nicknamed ‘Bhola’ by his parents, Kuldip Nayar’s can hardly be described as a simple life. He has spent it well and lived it in all its diversity, not as just a spectator but, as his account Beyond the Lines says, as an active participant in some of the big developments that took place around him. What’s more, he is frank about his role in making some things happen and preventing others.
Beyond the Lines is not the story of a journalist satisfied with informing people and stirring controversy, breaking a few stories along the way. Not averse to flirting with the establishment and accused of turning politicians into prime ministers, by the 1970s Nayar had come far enough from his first journalistic assignment at an Urdu paper in Delhi to actually sound out Indira Gandhi about the possibility of entering the political scene.
Actually, such was the nature of his relationship with the government in Delhi that sometimes it was impossible to separate Nayar the newsman from Nayar the government consultant. You can be a bit taken aback when Nayar first admits to simultaneously playing the journalist and an adviser or a PR person to prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. But over the following pages, as one politician after another seeks Nayar’s counsel, you get more used to it.
Nayar also served as the Indian high commissioner to London during V.P. Singh’s government in the early 1990s. He sat in the Rajya Sabha as its member, his stint starting during his friend Inder Kumar Gujral’s time. But he was always available to the politicians as a consultant — a consultant with the gift of prediction.
At the same time, though, Nayar pursued human rights causes, sympathetically looking into the cases of those fighting state oppression in places such as Kashmir. Somewhere during his hectic life, he also found time to support the demand for due status for Urdu, a language he had carried in his belongings from his birthplace when he migrated at the time of partition.
The places life takes Nayar to and the causes he chooses make for some absorbing reading — even when he wishes he could have “written it better”. In a recent interview, Nayar said that the book, comprising 400-odd pages, could have been twice as voluminous. What he missed out this time round he intends to include in another book.
Full of interesting information, Beyond the Lines is essentially an old-school chronicle, one which breaks more icons than it creates or perpetuates. True to the expectations raised by Nayar’s origins and his emphasis on Pakistan-India ties, the story begins when he was a child, his father a doctor in Sialkot. Their house had a mazaar on its premises, and a minor compromise had to be made to allow occasional visits by the devotees. This was co-existence.
At the time of Partition, Nayar was 24 years old and through college in Sialkot and Lahore. Partition was a harrowing experience and Nayar crossed the new border an angry young man, looking for both livelihood and fresh moorings. Gandhi’s secular ideals offered hope while the diversion from Mahatma’s path by India and its people caused him huge disappointment.
Some 65 years later, Nayar notes that the partition of India was central to shaping his views: “When I crossed the border on 13 September, 1947, I had seen so much blood and destruction in the name of religion that I vowed to myself that the new India which we were going to build would know no deaths due to differences in religion or caste,” he writes. “I therefore wept when I witnessed the mass murder of Sikhs in 1984 and saw a repetition of such inhumanity in Gujarat in 2002, viewing it as a microcosm of the communal violence I had witnessed in 1947.”
For a man who had been through so much, this is a rare reference to an emotional breakdown and it seeps into the book right towards the end. His epilogue also includes a reference to his close relationship with his mother and a sister, both of whom are no more. But other than these and few other references, the family stays by and large out of the autobiography which concentrates mainly on public affairs. Family matters come to fore seldom, briefly and only when they are tied to some big public event — such as when Nayar provides a fleeting glimpse of what his wife and sons went through when he was arrested during Indira Gandhi’s emergency. This restraint is remarkable for a first-person account, especially given the current preference for mixing the personal and the public to connect with readers.
Nayar’s compassion is evident when he discusses the Sikh uprising or the Gujarat killings. But he makes an effort to suppress his anger at the blundering rulers. And there are two men he does not criticise: Lal Bahadur Shastri, in whose ascent to the prime minister’s office after Jawaharlal Nehru the author accepts he had played an “inadvertent” hand, and Jayaprakash Narayan, the socialist leader Nayar credits with rallying India against Indira Gandhi before the 1977 general election in which Congress was defeated.
Just after Nehru’s death, Nayar did a story about Morarji Desai’s possible candidature that had a disastrous effect on his chances for prime minister’s office. The show of intent, just when India was mourning Nehru, was seen to be improper. That impression cleared the way for Shastri’s rise as Nehru’s successor in power.
Moreover, Ayub Khan goes off lightly, I.K. Gujral without too strong a censure, as does V.P. Singh. But three Indian prime ministers, Chandra Shekhar, Morarji Desai and Narasmiha Rao, all get a rap on the knuckles. Both Shekhar and Desai are projected as nursing personal grudges against Nayar over his role in denying them the prime ministerial seat earlier in their careers. And Narasimha Rao’s “involvement” in the Babri Masjid episode in December 1992 is established on the authority of an official working closely with him. As the zealots gathered in Ayodhya, Nayar says, Rao was holding a puja, ending it only when someone whispered the news of the toppling of the mosque into his ear.
This is one of the many assertions in the book that have proved controversial. Some associates of Rao from back then have contradicted the impression, but their reaction has been subdued in comparison to the anger expressed by some Sikh activists over Nayar’s take on Operation Bluestar carried out against Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his cadres in June 1984.
Nayar insists that Bhai Amrik Singh, the leader of the Sikh students’ federation, was an intelligence agent. He says that Bhindranwale was initially planted by Sanjay Gandhi who wanted to use him to offset the influence of some senior Sikh politicians. This statement has drawn a lot of criticism, with some Sikh activists calling for a ban on the book.
Indira is not a favourite of Nayar, either. However, it is her contemporary in Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who comes across as a more incorrigible opportunist. ZAB fails to work his famous charms on this particular observer. He is painted as power-hungry and a troublemaker in a series of serious events, be it the Tashkent meeting between Ayub Khan and Shastri, East Pakistan’s fall or the 1965 war. The 1965 war doctrine is linked to a paper written by ZAB before the Pakistani incursion in Kashmir that year. When Ayub terms it Bhutto’s war, Nayar does not find it necessary to question the field marshal over the flaws in his own command that allowed one of his ministers to indulge in games so dangerous. Or if this question was ever asked, the book does not record Ayub’s response.
Perhaps in Bhutto the writer found a Pakistani equivalent of Sanjay Gandhi who was in retrospect blamed for many of Indira’s failings. In one of her vivid profiles, Indira Gandhi, like Ayub, is painted as a helpless soul, in this case as opposed to the “adopted status of the Ayub-Bhutto relationship, in the hands of her real son, her political nemesis.” This is in contrast to her image in earlier chapters in which she ambitiously goes around breaking one rule after the other to lay her claim as the heir to her father’s power and his party — to Nayar’s displeasure who finds the old Congress syndicate surrendering to Indira’s ‘I’.
In spite of possessing a treasure-trove of information to share, Nayar sometimes leaves out details about events, probably trusting the reader’s knowledge. Instead, he concentrates on what he thinks about a certain event or a development or how he had written about it when it took place. His details are often intriguing and presented with authority borne out of his proximity to events and key players — which doesn’t mean he is averse to reviews of the past.
For instance, at one point, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman is depicted as a down-to-earth politician, particularly in comparison to the flamboyant, blowing hot, blowing cold Bhutto. But only a couple of pages later, Nayar says that he passed his strong head on to his daughter, Sheikh Hasina. Nayar is known for his opposition to Indira’s emergency, yet, he now says that India could have benefited from an extension in the emergency rule. He highlights Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s role in partition and stays away from the discussion how the Congress leadership may have forced the division onto Jinnah. Then, in time, he finds reason to criticise Jawaharlal Nehru for some of his policies in independent India.
From Gandhi to Patel to Nehru and the next many generations of politicians, the encounters Beyond the Lines lists, the expanse it covers and the influence its author wielded would leave the most successful journalists envious. One encounter of particular interest to the book’s Pakistani readership would be Nayar’s interview of Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan.
This was the scoop of the times. Everyone knows that the approval was given by Gen Zia and that Mushahid Husain, an editor, was given the task of facilitator. But Nayar believes that he was able to extract more out of the father of the Pakistani atom bomb than he was originally permitted to. According to Nayar, he provoked Dr Khan into admitting that Pakistan already had the bomb.
In Nayar’s estimation, Pakistan wanted to use the Qadeer Khan interview as a ploy to deter India which had just been conducting a war exercise close to the border. Even if that is true, could Islamabad have tried a lesser deterrence than the disclosing that it possessed the bomb? Dr Khan may have been vulnerable to incitement but that it was a provoked revelation still seems a bit strange. Mushahid Husain was sitting by and he was as capable back then as he is now of taking command of a conversation. The other possibility is that the A.Q. Khan-Mushahid duo managed, on that occasion, to bring out the Bhola side of the otherwise very aware and knowledgeable Kuldip Nayar. n
The reviewer is resident editor Dawn, Lahore