Balraj Puri

Liberal voice

Print edition : October 03, 2014

Balraj Puri. Photo: V. Sudershan

Balraj Puri (1928-2014) upheld the values of a secular democracy and the need always to tell the truth.

IN the death of Balraj Puri, Jammu and Kashmir has lost a liberal voice, a human rights defender, a thinker and a democrat par excellence. The 86-year-old Puri was an institution in himself. When he passed away on August 30, an era came to an end in the literal sense. Puri was the flag-bearer of the State’s unity. His outlook was liberal and secular and he believed in human dignity and the right to live with freedom. Along with the veteran journalist Ved Bhasin, he became a distinct voice in Jammu that kept the ray of hope shining for a long time. Both of them stood their ground at the most difficult period the State witnessed.

I knew Puri Saheb for more than 25 years. During my stint with Kashmir Times in the mid-1990s, I had the opportunity to interact with him on various occasions. His zeal for upholding human rights and keeping the democratic spirit alive was inspiring at that crucial time. It is a well-known fact that the fault lines surfaced between Kashmir and Jammu in early 1990 itself when armed rebellion broke out in Valley. Jammu and its neighbouring districts obviously would not approve of the revolt against India, so showing solidarity with the people of Kashmir was out of the question.

However, Puri Saheb stood alone in coming out openly to empathise with the Kashmiri population, which faced the consequences of the turmoil. As a civil libertarian, he worked shoulder to shoulder with human rights defenders such as Justice Rajinder Sachar and Kuldip Nayyar and brought out brief reports about the atrocities being committed in Kashmir. He surely was not supportive of the “freedom movement” in the form and shape in which it was pursued in Kashmir, but his concern for treating people with honour and dignity and respecting human rights while dealing with militancy had its own impact in the larger circle of activists.

Puri was associated with people’s rights movements right from his student days. He started his illustrious career as the editor of an Urdu weekly, Pukar, in 1942. He was part of the Quit India Movement in 1942 and also the Quit Kashmir movement that Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah launched in 1946. He joined the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Convention and was close to Jawaharlal Nehru, Sheikh Abdullah and Indira Gandhi through difficult times.

Puri Saheb regularly interacted with Nehru from 1948 to 1964, mostly on Kashmir affairs. He pleaded for measures to promote inter-regional harmony in Jammu and Kashmir. “His formula for regional autonomy was accepted by Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah, who jointly announced it at a press conference in July 1952,” said Kashmir Times in an article after his death. He enjoyed the confidence and goodwill of both the leaders even after the dismissal and detention of Sheikh Abdullah in 1953, and he tried to reduce their differences inch by inch. He arranged their meeting in May 1964.

The civilian award the Padma Bhushan was conferred on him for his unparalleled services in the understanding of human values and democratic rights.

An ardent supporter of progressive politics, he became restless when communalism threatened the State’s social fabric. He was a rallying point for many like-minded people who would generally shy away from doing something on their own to oppose communalism. As a journalist and writer he articulated his cherished objective of protecting democratic rights. Puri was perhaps the first author in the State to put the armed rebellion in a proper perspective; he did this in his book Kashmir Towards Insurgency in 1993.

A strong advocate of regional autonomy in Jammu and Ladakh, he played a role in the setting up of the Autonomous Hill Development Council in Leh during P.V. Narasimha Rao’s prime ministership. But he always insisted on the unity of the State. Farooq Abdullah made him the Chairman of the Regional Autonomy Committee. However, he fell out with his team over the extent of autonomy.

Puri Saheb’s contributions were diverse. He led the movement for a polity based on secular and democratic values. He founded the Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan school of journalism in Jammu, the first of its kind there, in the late 1980s.

Puri was respected by people irrespective of their political leanings. In his death we have lost a friend of Kashmir, a liberal democrat, a champion of human rights, a votary for regional autonomy and, above all, a fine human being.