Journalist turned diplomat who never let the world forget the trauma of Partition
When Kuldip Nayar fled his home in the newly created Pakistan during the bloodshed of Partition in 1947, he had packed a suitcase with only a spare shirt, trousers and a paperback book. ‘‘We thought we were going back,’’ he said later. ‘‘I left behind my copy of War and Peace, and my mother her best shawl, thinking we could easily return.’’
As he approached the main road, he saw a wall of people, a stream of Hindu and Sikh refugees like himself. ‘‘It was a harrowing sight,’’ he recalled. ‘‘They looked haggard: gaping wounds, torn clothes, and meagre belongings all told the story of their suffering.’’
An old Sikh man with a flowing beard then begged him to take his grandson.
‘‘Leaving these helpless people behind was heart-wrenching, but there was nothing I could do,’’ he later wrote. ‘‘I saw corpses lying on both sides of the road and empty suitcases and bags which bore testimony to the looting that had taken place.’’
Near Lahore, at the new border between Pakistan and India, he heard firing and smelt the stench of flesh rotting in a field. ‘‘We drove past the hurriedly erected, whitewashed, overturned drums and the Indian national flag aloft a bamboo pole marking the border,’’ he said. ‘‘There was rejoicing and people hugged one another.’’
However, as Nayar looked around, he saw people huddled in trucks and many on foot moving in the opposite direction. ‘‘They were Muslims,’’ he said. For as millions of Hindus and Sikhs fled to Hindu-majority India to escape communal violence, Muslims were fleeing for their lives to Muslim-dominated Pakistan. ‘‘No-one spoke, neither they nor I, but we understood each other.’’
Nayar finally arrived in Delhi, the Indian capital, with a few rupees in his pocket and found a job on a local newspaper. It was the start of a writing career that made him one of the most influential political commentators in India.
Comfortable in his crisp white kurta or a formal Western suit, Nayar was a trusted voice abroad too; he served as Delhi correspondent for The Times for many years. He also never minced his words. Meeting an actor at a function, he told him: ‘‘You’ve put on weight. It’s not a good thing.’’ He hated hierarchy and would cross a foyer to greet someone years his junior or sit beside a dirty street to conduct an interview.
Over the years, he met and interviewed many of the figures who had been involved in Partition. He was one of the few to interview the reclusive Cyril Radcliffe, the British judge who had been tasked with drawing up the border in 1947 by the departing viceroy Lord Mountbatten. Meeting the judge at his flat in London in 1971, Nayar said he felt sympathy for Radcliffe, who was given five weeks to carve up the subcontinent in the baking summer heat.
Nayar also met Edwina Mountbatten’s grandson, Lord Romsey, and with typical directness broached the subject of her personal correspondence and relationship with Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India after independence. ‘‘I bluntly asked him one day whether his grandmother and Nehru had been in love,’’ Nayar wrote. The answer he was given was that it had been ‘‘a soul-to-soul kind of relation’’.
Born in 1923 in Sialkot, in what is now Pakistan, Kuldip Nayar had four brothers and a sister. His father, Gurbaksh Singh, had a medical practice, while his mother, Puran Devi, nurtured their spiritual customs. Nayar went on to study law in Lahore. ‘‘I was settling to be a lawyer, but Partition upset my whole plans,’’ he said.
After the creation of the Muslim nation of Pakistan, his family were among the few Hindu families who did not want to migrate to India. They had a comfortable lifestyle and substantial house and garden. Yet the area around their home soon became a bloodbath as religious tensions rose. ‘‘We helplessly watched the fires in the distance,’’ Nayar wrote later. When they eventually left, he recalled: ‘‘Neither of us realised it would be our last visit to our home.’’
In Delhi, working on an Urdu-language newspaper, he covered the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, but soon afterwards went to study journalism in the US on a scholarship. When he returned to India he married Bharti, the daughter of an Indian politician. They settled in Delhi and had two sons, Sudhir and Rajiv, who is now a senior advocate at the Supreme Court.
While Nayar was working as Delhi correspondent of The Times in the 1970s, Indira Gandhi, the prime minister, had him jailed during the state of emergency. The Times editor, William Rees-mogg, who found Gandhi ‘‘insufferably arrogant’’, succeeded in having him liberated.
In 1990 Nayar was appointed high commissioner to the UK and he came to know Margaret Thatcher, then prime minister. Once, while showing him around No 10, she pointed out an oblong table at which the transfer of Indian power had been discussed before Partition. She asked him what he thought had bound the subcontinent together since then. ‘‘It’s a grey area,’’ he replied diplomatically.
A fine raconteur, Nayar enjoyed classical music, both Indian and Western, dark chocolate and mangos. When police arrived to arrest him during the emergency, he asked them to wait a few minutes and went to the kitchen, where he ate two of the fruit. ‘‘I love mangos,’’ he said, ‘‘and knew I won’t get them for a while.’’ – The Times