Kuldip Nayar is, without doubt, one of the guiding lights of Indian journalism. Even if you did not agree with some of his views, it is simply impossible to ignore his contribution to the field of scribedom. He was a witness to almost all of the major phases in India’s history, from freedom to wars, to deaths of sitting PMs and the transition from a Communist-style economy to current free-market economy.
The book, On Leaders and Icons – From Jinnah to Modi, published posthumously, is a collection of short essays interspersed with anecdotes on various personalities who have shaped the Indian subcontinent’s destiny. The blurb on the book jacket reflects how times have dramatically changed. When Nayar asked Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah about what course of action Pakistan would take were India to be attacked by a third country, Jinnah replied, “Pakistani soldiers would fight shoulder to shoulder with their Indian counterparts. After all, blood is thicker than water.” From this in 1947 to current ‘thousand cuts’ strategy and multiple run-ins with the religious terror industry across Jinnah’s dream state, a lot of water has flown under the bridge.
The book opens with an anecdote from Mahatma Gandhi’s life, just after the Partition. One of the things about Nayar is that although he had to migrate to India from his ancestral home in Sialkot, now in Pakistan’s Punjab, he remained one of the most active peace workers till his death.
Coming back to the point, against the backdrop of the madness tearing India apart, Nayar met Gandhi, and according to him, a Punjabi migrant had thrown a knife at Gandhi’s feet, telling him that his son was killed in the riots. Gandhi advised him to bring up a Muslim orphan in the best way possible. Such instances, according to Nayar, show why Gandhi’s creed of non-violence gained international acclaim and followers.
However, some of Gandhi’s followers were not so lucky, as Nayar puts forth the account of his meeting with Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan known as ‘Frontier Gandhi’. He was not consulted during Partition talks and described the event as being ‘thrown to the wolves.’ Nayar notes that Khan never forgave Nehru for Partition. The end of this sketch is astounding, given today’s times. When Khan died, both Mujahideen and government forces in Afghanistan declared a joint ceasefire to allow for his burial. All this leaves us wondering ‘what if’?
Another remarkable fact that Nayar puts forth is that Indira Gandhi was warned that after ‘Operation Blue Star’, some of her bodyguards needed to be replaced. But she expressed full faith in them.
The sketch about Muhammad Ali Jinnah is equally fascinating, as can be seen from his quote mentioned earlier. The book contains other such great insights about personalities such as Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Z A Bhutto. Nayar’s last bow is certainly among his best.