Jour­nal­ist turned diplo­mat who never let the world for­get the trauma of Par­ti­tion

Marlborough Express - - FRONT PAGE -

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

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