Sunday, December 10, 2023

The man who taught Indians to read ‘Between the Lines’

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 A fatherly figure in the Indian media, Kuldip Nayar, breathed his last on Thursday early morning.  A doyen of Indian journalism, he etched his name in the minds of readers by his columns and memoirs. His demise comes at a time when the corporate media houses in India are more obsequious to their political masters. Readers who believes in the integrity and honesty to the truth are cardinal principles of journalism would surely miss him.

Mr Nayar taught his readers to read ‘Between the Lines’ and think ‘Beyond the Lines’, as the title of his column and book suggests.  At the age of 24, he was thrown into the madness of the time, the Partition of the Indian subcontinent. When his family was stranded on the other side of the bloodied border, he wandered in Delhi’s refugee camps.

He later reminisced the moment of separation in in his autobiography, Beyond the Lines:

“I wish I had words to describe the poignancy of those moments. How can I express the thought of leaving everything behind? It was akin to being crushed in the embers of memory. I feared everything had been reduced to ashes”. He witnessed great brutality at the hands of the Muslim fanatics at his hometown of Sialkot, and when he fled to India, he did see how badly the Muslims were treated in the infant nation.

“I was pulled out of the compartment at Ludhiana, coincidentally the city where most people from Sialkot had migrated. Burly Sikhs with spears and swords joined a hostile crowd around me at the platform, asking me to prove that I was a Hindu. I could see blood in their eyes. Before I could pull my pants down, a halwai from Sialkot, from our own locality, came to my rescue. He shouted that I was Doctor Sahib’s son. Another joined him to confirm this and the unbelieving crowd dispersed”

Those were the days in which hate and violence threatened basic human values in the Indian subcontinent. The horrors he was subjected to during the Partition forced him to dedicate his life to knitting a rope of peace between India and Pakistan.

For Nayar, the beginning of the life as a journalist was largely a matter of coincidence. As a struggler, he found a vacancy in the Urdu newspaper Anjam which was formerly sympathetic to Jinnah’s Muslims League. He was asked only if he knew Urdu. Nayar was a graduate in Persian. And for the Anjam, its past loyalty dangled over its head as a sword. The Anjam had to adopt a contortionist tactic to soothe the state and public fury against it. Nayar writes, “An affluent muslim, Mohammed Yasin, who stayed back in India, was the owner of an Urdu daily, Anjam. He had requested Farooqi to look for a Hindu who knew both English and Urdu. His was a pro-Muslim League and pro-Pakistan daily, which had poured venom against the Hindus but the paper felt rudderless after partition”.

He was later dismissed from the newspaper over differences with the proprietor. He moved to another Urdu Newspaper, Wahadat. Hasrat Mohani, the poet and the freedom fighter advised him to leave the Urdu Journalism and switch to English. He got a chance to study journalism from Chicago, USA.

Despite the financial struggle he earned the degree. After a job interview he was nearly placed in the Times of India. But due to the work of a ‘tale- carrier’ the daily denied the appointment letter saying ‘he doesn’t know how to write,’ Mr Naryar later recalled. The TOI experience hounded him throughout his career. The man who was denied an entry level journalist job for ‘he doesn’t know writing’ later became a syndicated columnist for almost 80 newspapers in 14 languages in India and Pakistan.

Nayar’s entry into the Press Information Bureau, the government news agency expanded his horizon. In this innings with the state, he worked closely with the bureaucrats and politicians. He witnessed, carried many news stories which created controversies. For instance, during the Hindi controversy, he witnessed how Nehru single-handedly change the phrase ‘English is subsidiary for Hindi’ to ‘Hindi is additional language for English’ in a document.

He challenged the mighty state during the national Emergency (1975-77) during which basic rights of the citizens were suspended. He was soon put behind the bars. His colleagues at the Indian Express recollects how he advised them to keep the ’emergency notes’ for generations to come. When many ‘tall-journalists’ sang mellifluous praise for the dispensation during the Emergency, Nayar stood solid like an opposition leader.

As journalist, diplomat, and legislator he shone through. He spoke against the human rights excess of the security forces. His scoops stunned the country. During the last days of emergency, when India believed ‘India was Indira and Indira was India’ he wrote Indira Gandhi will soon go for a general election. And she did. He was the man who revealed to the world that the Pakistan already acquired nuclear capacity and the state is a ‘screwdriver away’ of making nuclear bomb. When the by-line stories were rare to find, he was one of the rare reporter who wrote many by-line stories.

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