Thursday, November 08, 2012

Crossing the Line: Interview with Kuldip Nayar

This interview was produced in 3 parts in Sify.com:

Crossing the Line
'Rahul should read his great-grandfather's books'
'We should not have given Kashmir a choice'


As I wait in Kuldip Nayar’s office, I take in his library. Several stacks of Persian and Urdu books, including what I finally figure is Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyyat are on his desk, along with a mix of handwritten and typed notes, and three dauntingly large reference books. As I notice a line of bound books, embossed with the title of Mr Nayar’s syndicated column, Between the Lines, and neatly arranged by year, their 89-year-old author steps into the room. He looks at least 15 years younger than he is, never asks me to repeat a question, and treats his mobile phone like it is just another technological innovation he has seen in almost a century of witnessing history.
It isn’t a good thing for an interviewer to feel awed, but it strikes me that it has less to do with the fact that I’ve seen his name in the papers for as long back as I can remember, than his remarkable honesty and aura of unassuming dignity. When I tell him I’m here to speak to him about his memoir Beyond the Lines, extracts from which went viral on social media ahead of its release, he smiles, “It’s rather late in the day.” I laugh and tell him I don’t want it to be just about the book. “Ah, you want perspective,” he grins, “Thank you.”
Then, he asks with genuine interest, “Tell me, what did you really think of the book?” I find myself telling him I expect autobiographies to be self-indulgent, but this wasn’t his memoir so much as the memoir of the nation. He nods, and says with a peculiar brand of careless modesty that he thought he would write his autobiography, but he had been so involved in “things” that this was what happened.
His journey from Sialkot in Undivided India to Delhi ended up taking him around the globe as a journalist, envoy and politician. He explains that he had initially written 800 pages for the book, and had to slash it in half, forcing him to leave out a lot he wanted to say about the Northeast and Nepal. Over a cup of tea, he chats about his views on Partition, politics, journalism, linguistic chauvinism, censorship, and pretty much everything from Kashmir to Koodankulam.





You’ve decided to pen your memoirs at a fairly advanced age, and yet your recollections of your childhood and youth are so very detailed. Did you maintain journals all through, or...

Memory. It’s all memory. Well, I had these articles (gestures at the volumes). Every week, I write an article for my [syndicated column]Between the Lines, and they’re bound year-wise. But, no, I didn’t consult them, because otherwise, I would have got lost in all this information. Somewhere, maybe dates and names, I’ve had to refer to those for. But it’s mostly my memory.

You’ve been very candid in the autobiography. You’ve said in one place that you used to “imagine [yourself] as genie and then return to the self-centred life of good meals and an air conditioned room” while writing the autobiography. That’s a harsh light to cast on oneself.

Why not? Because, if I was really so moved, I should have done something. I didn’t do anything. Maybe, yes, I’ve written about things that troubled me. But I didn’t really go in and get my hands dirty, and really do something.

I found it quite amusing when you said that you used to be bullied in school. It’s very hard to imagine someone bullying you, and I think politicians you’ve written about would agree.

(Laughs) Well, that’s true, but I was a coward in my childhood. Someone would just have to say, “Hai!”, and I would...(makes a cowering gesture), and you know, I was very timid. So, yes, I could be bullied, and probably I still am bullied? (Laughs)

You mentioned that you were once caned by a policeman, during the Freedom Struggle. But while I get a sense of the spirit of the time among students, you haven’t said much about your own participation in the Struggle.

I do somewhere mention that I organised a strike in the local college there, in Lahore. This was part of the Movement. It was in 1942, as part of the Quit India movement. All of us were very involved in the Struggle.

When the British eventually left, did you see it as a victory India had achieved, or did you feel circumstances had forced them to leave anyway?

No, it’s true that circumstances also forced the British to quit. But imagine us...we’re having a Movement, all the time, relentlessly wanting them to go...and they suddenly decide to go. So, it’s not that their circumstances only made them leave, it was our push also. Circumstances, yes – they couldn’t sustain themselves. But ultimately, the credit is ours that we made them go. Otherwise, if the going was easy, they would have stayed on. But it had become impossible because of us.

When you were growing up, in a colonised country, with British flags everywhere, and knowing we were their slaves, did you ever think that one day, you would have Hindustan, a free country?

Oh, yes. I was confident that it was a question of time, that we would free. But in 1947, I didn’t think it would happen. I thought it would take a little more time. Yet, that’s how it happened.

One traumatic event your generation has seen, which almost overshadowed Independence, was Partition.

Partition, yes. At least, I have seen it. And I have gone through it. My entire generation may not have, but I have actually gone through it. You see...imagine, in that traumatic period, one million people were killed. Ten lakh people just being butchered, just because they’re Hindus or Muslims or Sikhs!

So, it was good to be safe, but I couldn’t participate in anything, you know? I mean, I was very unhappy that I was forced to leave my home. I was very unhappy that I had to travel alone all the way, without knowing [what would happen to my family]. I was unhappy to be planted in another country, where I don’t know what I have to do. But it wasn’t anything which I could help. It was like a flood. With the flood, you’re being washed away. You don’t want to be, but you are.

It’s almost like the country was cut in two, and it bled from both sides.

Yes. Blood pouring out from both sides. That’s how it was.

Over the years, you’ve analysed what it was that led to Partition. But as a youngster back then, without the perspective, without your insight and knowledge of what happened behind the scenes, did you conceive that the country might actually be divided?

No.  (Shakes head firmly). Even when it was decided it would be partitioned and the papers were signed, I thought, ke, ‘No. This is just a statement. This country couldn’t become a stranger or hostile to me. I know.’ I never thought Pakistan would... (shakes head again). I thought yes, maybe – since we were first planning to live on there – I thought, all right, some people would be in power, some wouldn’t. But we never thought that we will become two countries, and with time, probably, we would be clashing with each other, and even be at war with each other...No, I never thought that.

When I left, my friends were Muslims, so many of them. When I crossed  the border, I thought, ‘What, these are the same people I grew up with [that I’m escaping from]...in fact, I’m going among strangers, leaving behind my own people.’ So, I never thought things would be that way.

But, specifically, we thought that after this whole thing settled down, we would get back to our home. I never imagined when I went with my mother to the house for the last time, that it was actually the last time. Though my mother said, to me, “It seems to me that I won’t see this house again.” But she also felt, in some way, that she would return, because the most precious Pashmina shawls, she kept locked, and took out the Kullu shawl, which is the cheaper one. That means, in the back of her mind was the thought, ‘Look here, this is to be preserved. I shall come back.’

After you moved to India, you were one of the few people who travelled consistently between the two countries, for decades. When you first went back, what did you feel? Was there a sense of nostalgia, or did you feel you were in an alien country?

When I went back for the first time, it was soon after. You see, Partition was in ’47, I went in ’48. There was a hockey match etcetera, I roamed about among people I knew etcetera, and then I said, I have to go back to the other side. But it was still not sinking in for me,ke, look here, this is an independent country, and you have to get out because you don’t belong to this country. You see, when I left, I told myself, ‘They are all people. Someday, I’m going to do something, whereby we’ll all come nearer. This border will only become a line that we cross.’ That’s the reason I started this night vigil at Wagah [on the night of 14-15 August], and I’ve been doing it for the past 20 years.

Have you ever been to the house where you lived, back in Sialkot?

Well, I went to the house, I took my children, but I never went inside. I told them this was the house, and they saw it, and took pictures etcetera. But after all, now it’s somebody else’s house. How can we just go inside? I said, ke, the house to me means neighbours, familiar faces, roads...well, they were the same roads, but when I went, I felt very strange. Everything seemed different. Maybe the way I looked at them had changed. I waited for 25 years to go to my hometown. But that’s the reason I didn’t stay there for more than 25 minutes...I said kuch nahin haichalo.

I remember reading a poem by the writer of Pakistan’s first National Anthem, Jagan Nath Azad, which was translated to something like “I have come to my own home, but see in what state – I have come as a guest to my own home”, that he recited the first time he came back.

Yes, I know.

Mein apne ghar mein aaya hoon magar andaz toh dekho
Ke apne aap ko manind mehman le ke aaya hoon

Correct. That’s exactly how we felt.

But you have always felt, and said repeatedly, that the religion should be separated from the person. Despite witnessing Partition, and killings by Muslims in what became Pakistan, you felt no enmity against the religion when you came here, is that right?

Yes, I felt no bitterness. (Pauses) I don’t know, even now, I don’t feel it. You see, a human being is a human being to me. He is not Muslim, Hindu or Christian. As a person, if he’s a nasty person, he’s a nasty person – it doesn’t make him less so if he’s Hindu. So, I felt that a person is recognised by his qualities, by his behaviour, by his attitude, by his demeanour. But I never felt religion has anything to do with a person.

So I wouldn’t say, woh sab Pakistani hain, sab Hindu hain, sab Mussalman hain. No.  Even now, in my writings, I feel very strongly and am very vocal about this. That way, maybe I’m a fundamentalist, because I do believe, very strongly, that secularism is very important for our country. And I believe in it, as a philosophy, as an ideology. When I believe in democracy, when I believe in pluralism, I also believe in secularism.

Would you blame communalism in India today on Partition?

No. I think we still would have communalism, even if Partition hadn’t happened. If we all had education, maybe we would have less of it. But even today, 30 percent of the people are illiterate. And what literacy we have is really not even literacy. I am of the opinion that Hindus and Muslims were bound to clash – may not be in that way, but in small bits here and there – because basically their approach is religious, not human. Even though they have the best of books – the Quran Shareef and the Gita – they are still following the wrong approach.

You’ve said in Beyond the Lines that there would have been a psychological split, something akin to Partition, even if not a physical split.

It was already there. You can see, I do describe ke how we were going towards Partition, not only of the nation, but also of our minds. The first time I heard the term ‘Pakistan’, when I attended that meeting, I thought, ‘Humph. How can it be? This is a pipedream!’ When it came true, I realised, My Godit has happened.

Do you blame Partition on Jinnah, Nehru, or the people who campaigned for it?

I wouldn’t blame the people here.  I would blame Jinnah first, and the others later. Because he is the one who told them, “You are separate. You belong to a separate religion. You eat differently, you live differently, you wear differently, you marry differently.” So,different, different, different, different, all the time!

It’s a very good thing, I think, what Mahatma Gandhi said – when Jinnah said “different nation” again and again, Gandhi asked him, “Suppose I become Muslim, would I become a different nation?” After all, that is the two-nation theory. He said, “So, now, I’m one nation, Hindu. And the other nation is Muslim. So, tomorrow, if I embrace Islam, do I become another nation?” And Jinnah just evaded the question.

While doing your research, did you feel Jinnah had become consciously less secular? You quote him saying after Gandhi’s assassination, “Gandhi was one of the greatest men produced in the Hindu community.”

Yes, he said that, because in his mind, the Hindu-Muslim issue was still very much there. Even though as soon as Pakistan was achieved, he claimed he was secular, and gave that speech saying, now you can go to your mosque, and your mandir, or whatever, you’re a Pakistani. But if I’m a Pakistani, why do you still call me a Muslim or a Hindu? Jinnah was not a religious person when he started out, but he became so. So much so that he saw Gandhi as a Hindu. So, I think Gandhi was a greater person.

What really surprised me was that people whom we see as having sacrificed so much for the sake of the nation, who had been so involved in the Freedom Struggle, were not above ego clashes and personal ambition – people like Nehru and Patel and Jinnah. Do you think they felt they should be rewarded for their role in the Movement?

Well, rewarded, is one way of looking at it. And also, if you’re very charitable, you may think of it as they wanted to serve the country, and see it through its early years. I personally think, at that moment, it was a mix of the two.

Do you agree with Nehru that politicians need not be educated?

You see, at that time, the choice was if they had to be educated, you would leave out almost 90 percent of the people, because that was how little education had spread. Just after Independence, the literacy was not that much. Now that it is up to 75 percent, there should be some criteria, we should apply this. Politics has become too opportunistic. I’m not saying it should become exclusive, but we should have some minimum educational qualifications.

You’ve been both a journalist and what they now call a “spin doctor” – as a Press Information Officer for the government. How do you reconcile the two? In one, you’re anti-establishment, on the other, you’re pro-establishment, no?

I was not pro-establishment, I was pro-person. For example, I was pro-Shastri. I was pro-Govind Ballabh Pant. I didn’t have anything to do with their policies. I was very close to Shastri, as a person. You can see in the book that I wanted him to become Prime Minister.

But I didn’t sell the government, what it wanted me to say. Only once, when Pant told me, “If there’s a discussion on the language issue all over the country, and we reopen this Hindi-English debate, the country will be torn apart. So, do something whereby this discussion or debate on the language is not started again”, I decided to do this. That’s why, I told them [the media], after the Parliamentary Committee met, that this was privileged. It was not privileged. But they could have checked and called my bluff.  They didn’t. So, I would say I was pro-person, pro that leader...not the establishment.

You mention other examples too in the book, where you sent out a certain idea. For instance, the news items that people were excited over a merger between Bihar and West Bengal was propaganda too, as were the photographs of Nehru taken from a certain angle when he was ill, to show people that he was doing all right. So, do you believe there is such as thing as ‘good lies’, versus ‘bad lies’?

(Laughs) See, now, take for example, Nehru – I thought, ‘My God, as a country, we’re so dependent on Nehru.’ So, I must give people something whereby we sustain the impression that Nehru is all right. Because I couldn’t imagine India without Nehru. When it happened, it happened anyway. But I couldn’t think of what may happen if people knew [how unwell he was]. So, when the job was given to me, I thought of how to give the impression that he’s okay. Now, this may be government propaganda. But I was more concerned about the question: After Nehru, who? And I didn’t want to face it.

You’re also the first person to reveal later that Nehru actually died after a fall in his bathroom, and may have been lying there for an hour. The popular belief is that he died at his desk.

Yes, and I even revealed the name of the doctor. Because I’d interviewed him.

Were there times when you had a crisis of conscience, as an information officer? Times when your instinct for the pursuit of truth clashed with what the government wanted you to put out?

There were certain times when I felt differently. For example, when after this offer of unilateral ceasefire came through from China [during the 1962 war], I was of the opinion that we shouldn’t accept it. I thought, Jang, man, we will take it ourselves! But I had to sell whatever the government was saying. Though Shastri agreed with me, and told me so.

No, at times, even on economic matters...you see, I used to be Socialist in my thinking. So I said, ‘What are they doing? This is not Socialism. They’re just trying to bamboozle the people. They are just lying. There is nothing Socialist about this.’ So this kind of thing did come to my mind. But then, you know, a job is a job.  (Laughs) So, what to do, sometimes, you have to do these things.

Though you were so close to Shastri, you’ve referred to his death as a “UNI scoop”. Is that a comment on journalism, because in our hurry to get to a story first, we become callous enough to call it a “scoop” even when it is the loss of someone close?

No, no. This was a scoop in the sense that I was the first one to convey it, and we were the first ones to carry it. It’s another matter that I had the advantage of being part of Shastri’s entourage. Because nobody had that access. If everyone was there, and had equal opportunity, you can say it was that kind of scoop, that hurry to get a story out first. But this was in the sense that nobody else had it, and I was able to communicate it.

And I had the advantage that I didn’t drink...I don’t drink. My counterpart, in the PTI, was not only drinking, but he lost control. So when the story broke, he was drunk. When they woke him up and told him, “This has happened! File!”, he said, “Huh? What is ‘file’? What file?” I had filed it by that time. So, Reuters picked it up from UNI, and then sent it to PTI. PTI then woke up and said, “Where’s our man?” So, that was what I was referring to when I said “scoop”.

In some ways, the books is confessional. You speak of how you used General Harbaksh Singh’s report in your analysis of the 1965 war, you speak of times when you “hoodwinked” the press, you even mention hiding behind a tree during a protest in Vienna so Vajpayee wouldn’t see you. Why do you feel the need to come clean now?

Because, I think, this shows, ke, I am essentially a middle-class Bourgeois! (Laughs) Because that was my instinct. And then I overcame it, and said, no, I have to demonstrate etcetera. But that was what I felt then, and I think I should be open about it. Why hide it?

You’ve spoken of times when the media cooperated with the government for a larger cause – for instance, the press hid the actual location of Mujib Nagar during the Bangladesh liberation war. Do you think this could happen in the current media scenario? Could the press have, say, cooperated with the government to mislead the terrorists during 26/11?

No, I think today, it probably can’t happen, no. One, the attitude has also changed. You see, in our minds, there was always the fear that this country could be enslaved again. Nobody told us to keep the location of Mujib Nagar secret, or to mislead people about it. But we thought it was in our national interest. Who taught us what was national interest? After all, we could have told everyone that Mujib Nagar was part of Calcutta. But we felt no, Pakistan would take advantage. So we refrained. Probably today, this couldn’t happen. Embedded journalism is another product of today – not where this side is concerned, yet, maybe, but look at the way the West covered the Iraq war.

But can we say India hasn’t been affected yet? I mean, in wartime. Do people really tell the truth?

See, this happens whenever there’s a war, because of another reason – firstly, we are very ignorant ourselves. Journalists wouldn’t mostly know is what the difference between a company and a brigade, even. Then, he wouldn’t know anything about tactics. Military experts have come just now. And most journalists are not knowledgeable enough. So, if it’s another country versus India, India has to be boosted. The same thing happened in China then – we went on giving wrong stories, as if we were equal to China, when in fact, we were retreating every day. Because whatever the government was giving, we were dishing out!

In the case of our relations with China, do you think Nehru’s mistake has damned us forever?

I think Nehru was really the person who cost us in China. Even now, today, every Chief says we can’t take on China. Someday, we will have to think of it because in this region, China is the real enemy, not Pakistan.

Do you think journalists today should engage more with politics? At your time, the function of the media was to do a critique of the government, not simply criticise or sell, I think.

Yes. I believe not only should journalists engage with politics, but they should also understand the politics as such. They should not become pro-BJP or pro-Congress. Our job is to see things analytically, objectively. We don’t do that anymore, that is the problem. Because we have sympathies. Or people can cultivate our sympathies.

You’ve said in the book that Bhindranwale was a Congress creation. But after its publication, you’ve retracted that remark.

No, I didn’t retract it.  I’ve said he was created by them, but he now showed his true colours. Because he was essentially a terrorist, and he became a sort of Frankenstein’s monster, but originally, he was picked up by the Congress. I stand by that.

There are times when you’ve matter-of-factly said things about the Nehru-Gandhi family that the Congress continues to deny – such as Warren Anderson being helped by Rajiv Gandhi.

Yes, they deny it, but the fact is there. You can see how Arjun Singh used the state plane to get Anderson to Delhi, because Rajiv Gandhi asked him! Similarly, it is a fact that Indira Gandhi went to Sanjay Gandhi’s crash site, picked up something and came back. It must be something important. So, I’m guessing it was his Swiss bank locker details.

You’ve also spoken about the Bofors case and Rajiv Gandhi’s involvement in great detail.

Bofors case, this is a fact. One very close friend of Rajiv Gandhi’s told me that he himself didn’t know, but Rajiv had another account, direct, which benefited the family.

What has the Congress’ reaction been to such revelations?

Oh, they pooh-pooh it, and they avoid me. See, all of them, these Congress people, I’ve seen them even when I was in Rajya Sabha, they kept a distance from me. Why? Because they think I was responsible for getting Mrs Gandhi defeated after Emergency. Now, how is that possible? (Laughs) I’ve been far more critical of the other parties, maybe softer on the Congress.

To move away a little from serious topics, I found your encounter with Noor Jehan quite hilarious.

Oh, that was quite interesting! She used to be ‘Baby Noor Jehan’ in the movies. So, when I went to Lahore to interview Bhutto, these public relations people asked, “What can we do for you?”, because the interview was the next day. I said I’d never seen Noor Jehan after that time [when she was “Baby Noor Jehan”], so they took me to the place where she was.

Two fat ladies were sitting there, and they nudged me towards the one who was Noor Jehan. And you know, you usually talk about the climate or something to start the conversation. So, I started by asking, ke, “Noor Jehan ji, aap ke kitne record honge?” She says, “Naarecord-on ka shamaar hai, naa gunahon ka.” She said she has no count of her records, or of her sins. Then, she said this, you’ll forgive, and that, Allah will forgive. It was such a witty retort, and since I remembered, I wanted to put it in.

While we’re on the subject of ‘Noor’, let me bring up the Koh-i-Noor. You raised a demand for the diamond to be returned, first as envoy to England, and later, when you were an MP in the Rajya Sabha. But despite signatures being collected, nothing has happened. Why are we so cowardly? Why can’t we ask for it straight?

Somewhere, I quote the then-External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh saying, “Don’t press for this. This will spoil the relations between India and Britain.” To hell with it, what do you care if relations are spoilt? We should get the Koh-i-noor back. But nobody now is doing anything about it. You know, when we went to the Tower of London, they were very much on the defensive. They said, “This is yours, really, sir.” But I was High Commissioner then, maybe that was the reason. And there was a very pertinent remark by my servant on that trip. He said, “Babuji, jab jaayen toh is ko le jaayen.” [When we go back, let’s go back taking this with us.]

You’ve quoted an instance from when you were envoy, when the journalist Farzad Bazoft was executed in Iraq, and you wanted to register your protest as a fellow-journalist. But you weren’t allowed to, because you were seen as the voice of the country. What was the hardest aspect of being an envoy? Was it such restrictions?

No, no. The hardest part for any envoy is that he has to defend the decisions his country makes. Take for example, Iraq [in 1991]. We were not very particular about the Iraq war. For whatever reason, we thought Saddam will win. Now, it was so obvious that he was going to die, or in some way, suffer reverses. So, how to keep your posture whereby you can say, ke, look here, we are not pro-Iraq, but still in our heart-of-hearts, we were, and people knew it. That was the hardest part.

What is your stance on capital punishment?

I’m very much against it. I say a person should be sentenced for life. Life imprisonment should not be for fourteen years, but for as long as someone is living. I’m of that opinion.

But why has that legislation never come in, in India?

Because, see, both the parties have felt that people would be horrified if they say “No death penalty”. Because here crimes are very sordid, very bad. But I think it should be done. Probably it will be done. But that means life imprisonment has to be extended for life, like in America, not just fourteen years.

You’ve also spoken of how, in the Rajya Sabha, you used to forgo your daily allowance if no business was conducted in Parliament and pressed for the same for all MPs. How was that overruled?

I did write to the Chairman, and he said the Members don’t agree. After all, when there is no business conducted in the House, we are not entitled to fees. And the Legal Department agreed with me. So, then, I went to the Chairman, and said see, if it’s legally acceptable, then it should be applicable to all. He said okay, I’ll discuss it with the business committee, and they said no. It united all parties, of course. (Laughs)

One quote that must have come as a shock to most people is Abdul Ghani Lone saying that 20,000 people should be killed in order for the Kashmir problem to settle. What has the reaction from Kashmir been to that?

I haven’t read any reactions so far, though two-three people have said they’ve liked the book. , when I said 20,000, I was quoting him, that’s all. He said, ke, look here, now if you want to re-establish your authority, you have to kill so many people. But we have killed twice that number, and we still haven’t re-established our authority. What was in my mind was this – what kind of killing we have had to do, and for what?

What do you think India’s biggest mistakes in Kashmir have been, so far?

(Pauses) See, we should not have given this bait of plebiscite. That was a mistake. Because then, in the people’s minds, there remained a choice – they felt “We have a choice.” If you keep on giving choices to the states here, even now, they will also do the same thing. If you don’t [give them that choice], they will settle down.  I think that’s the biggest mistake India made. In fact, Mountbatten made the mistake, and got Nehru to agree.

But I think the biggest mistake was Pakistan’s, because it could not wait. We could not have retained Kashmir, because after all, it was a Muslim-majority area. All that we could have done was taken away Jammu, that’s all. Because they hurried themselves, it became a bone of contention. If they had been patient, they would have got it.

There have been several demands for autonomy within states. Punjab has split, Uttar Pradesh has split, Bihar has split, now the Telangana demand is huge. Do you think the linguistic division of states was a mistake too?

Yes, it was. But we couldn’t help it, because the demand was so sharp, so unanimous. Because the Congress party had prepared them to think, okay, as soon as Independence is won, there will be a linguistic division of states. Now, they are not in linguistic states, they are in linguistic islands. Because everybody is so chauvinistic about their state.

And I think that’s led to a very insular kind of literature in the vernacular. In your generation, it was the norm that people knew five to six languages, usually well enough to be conversant in the literature. In mine, it’s two or three, in rare cases, four. Maybe it’s because language is associated with region and religion. How can this be combated?

I think this can be combated only by the government’s firm hand. They need to say, “Look here, Hindi is going to be the main language, as we decided. English should be the additional language.” And do it that way. Now, what is happening is that there is a mixture. Since the Centre can’t decide, the states have their own languages everywhere. And that’s the reason the one language you can speak throughout the country is English, not your own language. I think the government has made a mess there.

Do you think it should also be made compulsory for people who live in a particular state to learn the language of the state, irrespective of their own origin?

Yes, that language should be made compulsory, as well as the Union language – Hindi. See, all these jobs in the state government, earlier it used to be that you should qualify for the job and then learn the language. Now, they’ve made it so that you must learn the language first, and then qualify for the job, which is unfair.

In 2011, the enumeration of caste data began. Do you think there’s any logic in it, except for creating vote banks?

I can’t understand the reason, otherwise. Yes, I agree with you.

What is your opinion on reservation? Ambedkar called it a “crutch” at the time, but you speak of how his successors haven’t been on the same page.

I think it’s now time to start lessening it. Let’s say we start with one or two percent a year. At least fifty years hence, it’ll be over. The way it is now, it will go on and on and on. I don’t think there is an end to it, with the OBC quota coming in. And it’s very unfair to the public. They go on saying you’re paying for the sins of your forefathers. But for how long? You know, today, an ordinary person who is not OBC or SC/ST or FC, has to score 90 percent marks just to get into a college! How can it be possible? What do they do?

In some states like mine, Tamil Nadu, it’s 69 percent.

Yes, and that’s unconstitutional. Where does this end? It’s time we started lessening it.

You’ve ruffled many feathers with this book, and strangely, many of the people you criticised were part of your launch. You’ve referred to Arun Jaitley brainwashing Vajpayee against making a statement on the Gujarat riots in Goa. You’ve gone so far as to call Khushwant Singh a “Gandhi family sycophant”. Jaitley shared the dais with you and a video of your gifting the book to Khushwant Singh was screened. Was this intentional, to separate your personal friendships from your opinions of their actions?

(Laughs) No, no. I’ll tell you how it happened. But before that, Vinod Mehta also, I’ve criticised in my book. Because I held a meeting for him, when he was dismissed [from India Post]. He refused to take sides. I said look here, you’ve been dismissed, say something. And he said, no, I want a job, so I won’t say anything against proprietors. I’ve written that. But he remains a good friend, and so he was part of the discussion at the launch.

We wanted a person from Pakistan, whom we weren’t able to bring in last minute. So, along with Mahfuz Anam [the editor of The Daily Star] from Bangladesh, we had Arun Jaitley and Vinod. But I’m quite clear in that, even if it’s a friend, I will be open in my criticism. I still do that.

At the book launch, you also apologised to Shekhar Gupta, and said you’ve been unfair on him in the book.

Well, you know, I thought about that, and the reason for it was that see, somebody has made money – why should I pick on a journalist for making money? But for what I said about his arrogance, I don’t offer any apology. The money, I needn’t have brought up in that way. But, my God, how many abuses I got on this point, you have no idea! (Laughs)

You’ve spoken at length about The Times of India brand of journalism, where content is sold, and sometimes, it becomes money versus truth. Is this killing journalism in our country?

Absolutely. The classical kind of journalism has been killed by The Times of India group. The New Yorker just published a nine-page article on The Times of India, wherein they justify this, and say, “What is editorial? We only believe in advertisements.” Then, they justify paid news. I want to write about that article.

How do you follow the news now? What is your routine?

Well, I read the newspapers, and I listen to the radio, and watch television. I do once in a while head out – like, a few days ago, I was coming back from Nagpur, and Gadkari was there. So I talked to him, and in about one hour, I got the whole lowdown on BJP, and I can make up my mind ke what might happen in the next few days or weeks. Now, I’ll talk to some Congress leader, and get an idea of what’s happening there. I won’t know this intimately, but you see, I don’t go wrong overall.

You’ve also said your column was pulled from several newspapers, and it all seems to have been from personal vendetta. Has anyone given you an acceptable reason for stopping the column?

No. None.

You mention that a stigma that has haunted you through your life is your belief that you don’t write well enough. That’s a strange stigma for someone who has written a weekly column for decades, and who has published so many books, to suffer from.

Well, I feel that I don’t write as well as I should, as well as I would like to. I do write, and my books sell a lot. But I still feel I can’t write like I want to. Just see, some British journalists, how well they write! And so many from America. I would like to write like [Alistair] Cooke, the Guardian chap. I used to enjoy reading his Letter from America. Then, there was a journalist who came to cover Sheikh Abdullah’s trial from Britain – I can’t recall his name right now, but what a writer! What a writer!

You were very involved in the Janata Party and Jayprakash Narayan’s movement during the Emergency period. Do you think if JP had moved to Delhi, as a mentor, the government could have lasted longer?

Yes, I personally think so. If his health had been good, I think so.

Since the Congress came back, there’s been a system of hereditary politics, with the argument that people are being groomed for roles. What is your stance on this?

Dynastic politics is a bad practice, because it kills merit. Now, it’s not only that family, it’s all over the country – you have Mulayam Singh’s family, you have the Karunanidhi family, Badal’s family.

You’ve analysed Sonia Gandhi’s decision not to become Prime Minister in 2004, though she had wanted to the previous time. Was it to pave way for Rahul Gandhi that she stepped down, do you think?

Yes, and I do say so in the book. She thought it would be embarrassing if she was the Prime Minister, and then Rahul. If she was governing from the outside, she thought Rahul would have a better chance. Though I don’t think Rahul will make it. I wanted to mention this in the book: I once wrote that Rahul should read some books. So, a telephone call came from the house, asking, “Which books should he read?” So I said, “At least his great-grandfather’s – Nehru’s – books!” (Laughs)

Why do you think Priyanka was left out of the dynastic politics? You seem to feel she is more capable than her brother.

Yes, you see, even in Italy, I believe the son is superior to the daughter. And the same thing holds here – the son is a son. They’re very careful about the Gandhi name, na?

You genuinely believe Sonia Gandhi wasn’t interested in joining politics. How has she become such a force, when she had no interest in it?

See, at that time, she was not interested because she had seen the assassinations. But when she came to it, the power itself really allured her, and now she is the most powerful person. There is nobody in the Congress, no leader. She has not allowed any leader to come up, except Rahul. That’s the problem in this country, with all parties. They don’t allow leaders to come up. Their children, and that’s all.

You speak of Sonia’s authoritarian rule. Manmohan Singh entered the history books as the Finance Minister who saved the country’s economy. And now he’s embarrassed himself as Prime Minister.

Disaster. He’s a disaster. See, he was all right. But then, he became so obedient to Sonia Gandhi that he left his mind somewhere else, and followed her, whatever she said. He is an honest man. But since Sonia is a person who doesn’t care about honesty and dishonesty, because she herself collects money, and he follows her bidding, how can he be [a good Prime Minister]?

You’ve also been open in your analysis of our current President, Pranab Mukherjee’s sudden accumulation of wealth upon entering politics.

Yes, and you know, none of them has contradicted a single word of what I have said. The book has been in the market for the last three months. They haven’t contradicted me, because they know. And I have established some credibility in the minds of the people, and I have no reason to tell lies. Why should I?

You’ve been deeply involved in the protest against the Koodankulam nuclear power plant. You’ve seen the evolution of the nuclear age, and also the worst aspects of it – what it did to Japan in the Second World War.

Yes, in fact that is constantly at the back of my mind – what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But if this Supreme Court’s committee that has been set up to look into the security part says it’s okay, then I will be satisfied and say all right, let us start.

You’ve made a mention of the mega dam projects and their impact on people and the environment in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. There are many, many such projects under way in the Northeast as well. With nuclear energy coming with such high risk, and hydroelectric power with so much damage, what do you think the solution is?

Solar, I think, is the answer. But solar, somehow the government is not at all bothered. They’ve put Farooq Abdullah in charge, and he’s not interested at all.

The government’s recent clampdown on social media and the arrest of cartoonists – both in the case of Aseem Trivedi, and Mamata Banerjee’s orders – have been termed ‘Emergency 2012’. What do you think of this?

That censorship is very, very reprehensible. But social networks have also been misused. I think that way, we journalists have to be honest about it. The others, I can understand, but journalists should be honest. We can’t go beyond a particular line. You can’t peep into everybody’s bedroom. That’s unethical. Social media is very powerful, and it should be used correctly.

Are you optimistic about India today?

In a general way, yes. Ultimately, I think we will go the right way, but we shall have to face some very hard times.


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