Admirers flocked to Kuldip Nayar like moths to a candle flame. They did not meet the same fate, though. Rather, they came back illumined by stories of peace and progress, of why India and Pakistan needed to talk to each other rather than talk at each other, of how they (Pakistanis) were people like us, Karachi was like Bombay and Lahore very much like Delhi. You crossed the border and a bit of Hindi was sandpapered away, a layer of Urdu added. Punjabis, on either side, retained their language, their culture. Religion divided, but food and dress united. India, too, needed to take a leaf out of Punjab’s book. As the years turned into decades, Nayar became a resolute voice for peace with Pakistan.
Nayar left his ancestral home in Sialkot for Delhi at the time of Partition. Athough circumstances had driven Nayar out of Sialkot, they could not drive Sialkot, or the newly born nation of Pakistan, out of him. Along with the likes of Inder Kumar Gujral and Inder Malhotra, later joined by luminaries such as Gulzar and Mahesh Bhatt, Nayar was a durable votary of peace, proving through his people-to-people dialogue that there were takers for offerings of peace on the other side too. “Aman Ki Asha” was a hope that transcended political boundaries. Just as Nayar would have liked.
For the past two decades, every year on Independence Day, he would go to the India-Pakistan border at Attari-Wagah and light a candle for peace. He was confident that peace would ultimately defeat violence. Meanwhile, he worked tirelessly for the release of prisoners who had completed their sentence on both sides of the border but for some inexplicable reason stayed behind bars. His training in law—he had done his LLB from Lahore—and his long years in journalism came in handy. However, it is difficult to gauge his success rate. Nayar’s success lay in transcending the limitations of a given vocation to reach out to those beyond. For instance, after moving to Delhi he opted to pursue a career in journalism instead of law. (He had done a journalism course from the Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University, United States.) He continued to be predictably unpredictable. Instead of the more rewarding English journalism, he opted for Urdu journalism and worked with an Urdu daily. So popular was he in his brief stint that old-timers still remember him as an Urdu columnist. Those were the days immediately after Partition, and Urdu did not have a religion. Even the advertisements of Hindu mythological films carried the names of the films in Urdu. Nayar was never in danger of being labelled an anti-nationalist or a Pakistani for writing in Urdu. He could write as he pleased, in the language he was most comfortable in.
His fearless criticism of the government of the day and his ability to use simple words endeared him to many who had migrated from Pakistan, as also Muslims who had opted to stay in India. His range of admirers included those who suffered at the time of Partition and came to India with tragic tales of deprivation and displacement and those who scoffed at the idea of a theocratic state and opted for the pluralist fabric of India. In those early years, Nayar brought them together on a common page. It was no mean feat.
Urdu was where his heart was. Yet, Nayar was destined to earn his living and much of his fame from English journalism. By the 1970s, he had gone on to lead The Statesman , and when the Emergency was clamped, he was among the first journalists to be arrested—his fearlessness made him an easy target for an authoritarian state. But incarceration failed to imprison his mind. Soon after release, he continued to use his pen as a weapon against state terrorism, against the suppression of the innocent and against the discrimination against minorities. His writing appealed to the discerning as well as the common man.
If, in 1971 he had criticised the Pakistan government for the atrocities in Bangladesh, in 1975 he did not hold back his criticism of the Congress government and the violation of human rights that the Emergency brought in its wake.
Not surprisingly, in subsequent years, his column “Between the Lines” came to be both anticipated and dreaded, depending on which side of the political divide one was. Soon, the column reached more houses than those who subscribed to The Statesman or the media houses that had subscribed to United News of India. It was syndicated from Assam to Gujarat and from Kashmir to Tamil Nadu. In those pre-Internet days, smaller magazines and periodicals were happy to carry a column even a month after it was initially published by newspapers in New Delhi and Bombay. Some even got it translated. Yet again, Nayar had transcended the limitations of the medium. Here was a man who had started his career as an Urdu journalist, then risen to be the editor of an English daily, and now found his English columns being translated into Urdu and other languages.
By the mid 1980s and the early 1990s, Nayar had become the favourite of some Left-wing publications and Islamic periodicals at the same time. Those opposed to peace as a state practice accused him of hobnobbing with Pakistan. Later, his criticism of the death of Hemant Karkare, chief of the Mumbai Anti-Terrorist Squad, where he alleged the hand of right-wing forces, drew outrage from a section that believed free speech and thought had its indecipherable lines too.
Amid his roles as editor and activist, he wrote Beyond the Lines (1968), followed by much-talked about ventures such as India After Nehru , The Judgment: Inside Story of the Emergency in India , India House , Wall at Wagah , and Tales of Two Cities . As a journalist, he commanded attention with the immediacy of his work and the insight of each piece. As an author, he appealed for attention with work that was always likely to outlive the author. Today, when criticism of the government is tantamount to treason in some quarters, Nayar’s words continue to be a beacon.
In 1990, he was made India’s High Commissioner to Britain. Some seven years later, he became a member of the Rajya Sabha. Thus, a refugee from Pakistan had the rare distinction of having tasted success as a journalist, editor, author, diplomat, politician and human rights activist. But Nayar was not done yet. He continued to wield his pen as an instrument of change. His autobiography in 2012 landed him in fresh trouble, as did his repeated pleas for peace with Pakistan even after the National Democratic Alliance formed the government.
A few hours after the former cricketer and Congress leader Navjot Sidhu was criticised for attending Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s swearing-in ceremony, where he sat next to Pakistan’s Army chief, Nayar breathed his last. The level of political discourse had declined and the prospects of peace between two nations constantly squabbling with each other seemed as distant as ever.
He may not have always succeeded, but Nayar had done his bit as a peacenik. He had lit a lamp to dispel the darkness of war and misgivings between the two nations. The subcontinent could not have asked for more.