Independent voices

Print edition : May 22, 2009

B. Shiva Rao was a correspondent of The Hindu and The Manchester Guardian. Later, he was a member of the Constituent Assembly, the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha and was a delegate to the U.N. General Assembly.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

THERE are two gaping voids in Indias politics. Pamphleteering has all but vanished and so have independents, a testimony to the pathetic decline in the quality of public life. There is polarisation but little middle space, and there is hardly any effort at informed, reasoned discourse. That requires hard work, and hard work is put in only by persons of commitment.

This is altogether distinct from the issue of independent candidates in the elections to the Lok Sabha. It is a notorious fact that independents mushroom in suspicious circumstances, whether at the behest of some political parties or others, only to ensure the defeat of a targeted winning candidate. Spoilers was an apt term that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh used. But all independents must not be tarred with the same brush. Meera Sanyal, for example, deserves respect as does her response that she is an important candidate. Even so, she has reversed the process. She does not contest an election after a record in public life but assures her participation in it after her election.

Which brings us back to the question, where are the independent voices in our public life? Persons who have no axes to grind, who are not affiliated with political parties and who speak up regardless of whom the truth hurts. This is not in denigration of membership of political parties. Politics revolves around political parties and they need members to run them. It is just that political life is far the poorer without independents. Politics gets debased if there is no debate on issues in which facts are marshalled, with evidence and documentation to back them. That is what pamphleteering is about.

Forty years ago, in 1969, the Congress split, and Indira Gandhi, and more so some of her minions, launched a campaign for a committed civil service, committed judges and committed journalists. Institutions were undermined and have not quite recovered from the assault. Those who came after Indira Gandhi flattered her by imitation. Constitutional wrongs are discussed in a partisan manner. Article 80 (1) (a) and (3) of the Constitution empowers the President to nominate to the Rajya Sabha 12 persons having special knowledge or practical experience in respect of such matters as the following. This is a unique provision and must be construed in an honest manner. The expression such matters suggests that the categories mentioned are not exhaustive. Would the President have been in violation of the provision were he or she to nominate Dr. D.D. Kosambi, for instance, or for that matter Romila Thapar? The categories are clearly mentioned: Literature, science, art and social service. It is as gross an abuse of this provision to nominate a journalist for his special knowledge or practical experience in literature as it would be to nominate a painter of hoardings for his contribution to art. One wishes the Supreme Court or the Delhi High Court would quash such nominations by a writ of quo warranto. The nominations accurately reflect the state of things today, however.

Pamphleteering is not without its hazards. Objectivity and integrity lie not in shunning preferences but in the attitude to evidence. Yet there do arise moments when writers, be they journalists or others, sail close to the wind. They advise the policy-maker and push for acceptance of their views other than through their writings by personal approaches. Walter Lippmann was a notorious offender.

Historically, the middle space was not diminished in 1969. It had begun to be diminished by the Congress leviathan much earlier. The Muslim League followed suit. Muslim intellectuals who opposed the demand for Pakistan were subjected to abuse. Dictators ran both parties Mahatma Gandhi and Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Gandhis inner voice determined the Congress policy. Jinnahs diktat laid down the Leagues policy.

The Congress found its first taste of power, though limited to the provinces (1937-39), intoxicating. It went into a vigorous fandango. Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru, derided as a Liberal, watched the scene from Allahabad. An erudite constitutional lawyer and friend of Nehru, he kept his own counsel. In New Delhi, B. Shiva Rao, a highly respected correspondent of The Hindu and The Manchester Guardian, was close to the Congress circles but was aware of his duties as a trusted reporter of the national scene. His access to the leaders in government and the political parties was enviable. Shiva Rao had a scholarly bent of mind. He studied hard and was ever determined to find concrete solutions to political and constitutional tangles.

Shiva Raos independence of spirit cost him dear. Jawaharlal Nehru did not respect independents if they disagreed with him on matters of consequence. Shiva Rao was a member of the Congress Parliamentary Partys subcommittee on the jeep scandal, in which V.K. Krishna Menon, the High Commissioner in London, was involved. Its other members were Pandit Thakurdas Bhargava, B.P. Jhunjunwala and R.K. Sidhwa and its chairman was Ananthasayanam Ayyangar. It submitted its report on April 9, 1951. The Public Accounts Committee recommended, in its Ninth Report, that the deals be assessed by a high-level committee, consisting of one or two High Court Judges. The governments response was shocking. It first asked the committee to reconsider their earlier recommendations. That was on December 18, 1954. The committee refused to do so. On September 30, 1955, the government announced that the case was closed.

This, the first episode of its kind in independent India, revealed two grave flaws in Nehrus character, which not only the tabalchis and drummer boys in journalism but also some historians carefully ignore. He was indifferent to corruption and had scant respect for Parliament as an institution that exacted accountability. His regular attendance and verbal assurances should not obscure that.

The report bore all the hallmarks of Shiva Raos gifts. Nehru was not pleased when Shiva Rao compounded it with the revelation in Parliament that in Egypt senior officers who had placed orders with the very firms with which Krishna Menon had dealt were given the sack. Shiva Rao fell from grace, and Nehru treated him gracelessly. Given the early example that Nehru set, are you surprised that corruption increased during his lifetime and has assumed the proportions it has today?

Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru (right), an erudite constitutional lawyer, after a Non-party Leaders Conference meeting in New Delhi, with Sir Jagdish Prasad, a former member of the Governor-Generals Executive Council. A 1942 picture.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Shiva Rao soldiered on. He fought for justice for Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah after Nehru ordered his sacking from the office of Prime Minister of Kashmir in 1953 and imprisoned him for 11 years. He was a member of the group led by Jayaprakash Narayan with S. Mulgaokar, editor of Hindustan Times, and J.J. Singh as its members. With Rajajis help from Madras, they pleaded for the Sheikhs release and for conciliation with Pakistan by a settlement of the Kashmir dispute.

Even when he was close to the men in power, Shiva Rao was never an establishment man. He kept up a steady correspondence with Sapru in the 1940s, writing at times more than once a week. The Shiva Rao papers in the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi the writer is grateful for access to the papers hold lessons in times as cynical as ours. An independent politician and an informed journalist, both men of scholarly interests and deep commitment, exchanged views on the nations affairs. The correspondence should be published in a book.

Shiva Rao crossed the divide at times. He actively tried to get Sir Sikandar Hayat Khan, Premier of Punjab, to defect from the Muslim League, and kept Sapru informed of his efforts. Neither realised that by 1941, Jinnah had acquired a mass following in that province. It was a charged atmosphere in which they tried to keep their heads. Their exchanges bear recalling even now, nearly seven decades later, because they offer rich insights into history and the ways of politicians. Shiva Raos letter of February 28, 1941, informed Sapru of his fruitless meeting with Jinnah.

I saw also Mr. Khaliquz-Zaman Choudhri of Lucknow who had come here for the League meeting. He was very bitter about the treatment he had received from Jawaharlal and maintained that he was a staunch Congressman for twenty years but had been driven into the Muslim League by the arrogance of the Congress leaders in the U.P. [United Provinces]. At the same time I could see that he is not at all happy with Jinnahs barren and uncompromising policy. In fact he asked me to see Jinnah and suggest (but not to reveal that it came from Khaliq) that Hindus and Muslims should work together for fifteen years; and if at the end of the period the experiment proved a failure, then the Muslims should be free to demand Pakistan.

In the Congress, S. Satyamurthy and Rajaji were independent of Gandhi. Liaquat Ali Khan, though loyal to Jinnah, had views of his own. I know from Liaquat that if the [Viceroys] Executive Council consisted of four Hindus, four Muslims and three other minorities, Jinnah would very likely accept such a composition, provided neither side raises any major issue during the war. Personally, I am willing to believe that Jinnah would like to find a way out for himself, Shiva Rao wrote on November 29, 1941.

Nehru was sceptical of the Cripps Mission in 1942. The British Empire may not be in existence at the end of the war to carry out any pledges or declarations that may now be made. Stafford Cripps told Sapru that the League had privately decided to accept the scheme [Cripps Proposals] and that Jinnah had informed him of it though he was manoeuvring for position and waiting to see what the Congress decided. The Congress rejected the proposals. So, did the League.

On the Congress and Gandhi, Sapru had strong views. In a letter of February 18, 1941, Shiva Rao remarked: We are condemned to the leadership of Mahatma. Sapru, in reply, called it the most important part of your letter. He had been in correspondence with Gandhi, but the difficulty is that no two letters of his agree, Sapru wrote on February 20, 1941. He added: Those in high authority in India and in England think now that Congress have dealt a mortal blow to the very spirit of democracy in India, a view with which I am not wholly in disagreement. Indeed, I may say that my criticism against the Congress during the years during which it was in power was that it was building up its strength as a party dictatorship. It was not interested in other matters or in developing a true democratic spirit. It was intolerant of criticism and difference of opinion. It alienated large sections of people. The applause and the shouting of the so-called masses went to the head of the Congressmen. If the rest of the country has got to suffer, it must pay the penalty for its lack of courage. That in short is the situation. I have no doubt Congressmen have professed faith in their methods and they can go on ad infinitum with Satyagraha and things of that kind, but as you say, we are condemned to the leadership of a Mahatma.

The middle ground had slipped away. Sapru wrote again on June 5, 1941: I am not prepared to play the game of the Congress or the Hindu Sabha and I should on no account give rise to the impression that we are playing their game. I have as much horror of Jinnahs Pakistan as of [V.D.] Savarkars cry that our politics should be Hinduised and militarised. My reply to it is that if that is the genuine feeling of the Hindus, they have discovered it 900 years too late in history. I should on no account identify myself with this silly Hindu cry any more than I should identify myself with the viewpoint of the Congress. I am anxious that in our enthusiasm about our views we should not identify ourselves with the Hindu Sabha or the Congress. I know you have got a weakness for the Congress. I have none as it is constituted today.

Sapru reverted to the theme on August 29, 1941: Mind you, unlike yourself I have got no soft corner for the Congress in my heart. I think most of our troubles are due to them. They have set the pace for non-cooperation and yet, to be fair, I should not like to make any difference between Congress Ministers, who resigned their seats in their Cabinets under the behest of the High Command, and Sikandar Hayat and others who are resigning their seats in the Council of National Defence under the behest of Jinnah. Frankly, we are moving openly towards totalitarianism. As for Jinnah, how can he do anything less than the Mahatma, though I think he has stopped short of sending his Ministers to jail.

In prison, Nehru felt the same way about Gandhi. He wrote in his prison diary on November 21, 1943: To criticise any step taken by Bapu is lese majeste. That is the hiatus between the so-called Gandhiite members of the W.C. [Working Committee ] and the others (Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru; Volume 13; page 297).

These papers must be read with those in Rima Hoojas excellent compilation (Crusader for Self-Rule: Tej Bahadur Sapru and the Indian National Movement; Rawat Publications, Jaipur and New Delhi, 1999). I do not think that we have yet got the mentality for democratic form of Government, Sapru confided to a friend in 1930 (page 167).

In two letters to Shiva Rao, of November 16, 1940, and January 10, 1941, Sapru expounded his views with great candour (pages 280-284). His remarks reveal the gulf between him and the Congress. If you will allow me to speak candidly I shall say that some of the newspapers sometimes overshoot the mark in their indiscriminate support of the Congress, though I know that they are well intentioned and mean India to achieve self-government you know that in politics strong prejudices and dislikes play a great part, particularly in times of great excitement, I am fully aware that I am not persona grata with the Congress. I make no grievance on that account. As a person holding the views that I do and lacking in that faith in the Mahatma, which is at the present moment a necessary condition for a public man in India to claim audience. I have no right to complain on that account. Out of my regard for you personally I shall, however, tell you what I feel.

As regards your third difficulty, namely, Jinnahs objection about the domination of Hindu majority in the legislature, I should be very generous to the minorities in regard to their representation in the Cabinet and further there could be [some] sort of understanding that in matters affecting the minorities the majority would not, during this period, use its powers as a majority. Indeed my view all along has been that for a long time to come the British or Western type of majority rule in India will not do and we shall have to come to some arrangement by which we may take along with us the minorities in matters of general interest. All this is possible if there is the goodwill behind it.

You at Delhi, where there has been no responsible government, probably cannot have any idea of the experience we have had of party dictatorship or of Congress Ministries wherever they have existed and particularly in the U.P. and Bihar. I shall not dilate upon this subject as that will be going into controversial matters, but one thing I shall say that so long as these people were in power they treated everybody else with undisguised contempt and asserted the weight of their majority in a most unfortunate manner. You say in your letter that the Congress is agreeable to waiving its demand for a party majority in the executive. I wish they would say so in so many words. My experience has been that they say one thing today and then try to explain it or explain it away the next day.

Sapru despaired of the press. More than anything our press should cease to indulge in the language of ridicule and bitterness, which it always does when anyone has the temerity to differ from the prophet [Gandhi] and his apostles. I have had talks with [a] good many Muslims and my belief is further confirmed that they can still be managed and brought to take a rational view if only concrete facts will be discussed and not abstract theories or words or phrases.

This was written on January 10, 1941. Only a few days later, Sapru returned to the charge. I shall beg you to keep my confidence and not to let all this appear either in The Hindu or in any of the local papers at Delhi. If only the press could exercise some more discretion at a juncture like this and not write in a spirit to exasperate those whom it detests, and realised the delicacy of the situation, I think it would confer a great boon on the country, but I am in despair. This was long before the days of investigative reporting and television.

Among the last letters Shiva Rao wrote to Sapru was one on Kashmir, dated May 8, 1948. Regarding Kashmir I am not at all confident that a plebiscite would result in a verdict for joining the Indian Union. It is a huge gamble and the end of it may well be a verdict in favour of Pakistan. A compromise is worth seeking on this issue. What do you think of the forthcoming two alternatives which have been suggested by my brother [Sir B.N. Rau]? (1) Make Kashmir like Switzerland in Europe, independent of all other countries with of course responsible government under the aegis of the Maharaja or (2) hold a zonal plebiscite instead of a single plebiscite for the whole of the State? The zonal plebiscite would be in four regions. (a) Jammu Province, (b) Kashmir Valley and Ladakh, (c) Muzzafarabad and Gilgit Agency, (d) Poonch, Mirpur and the surrounding areas. On evidence which has reached my brother from certified observers, fresh from Kashmir and his own knowledge of the State, his estimate is that (a) and (b) would vote for accession to India and (c) and (d) to Pakistan. Should that be the verdict then (c) and (d) would be ceded to Pakistan more or less under the same arrangements as have obtained in respect of Berar.

Around the same time, Indira Gandhi was also present in Kashmir. In a letter to her father, dated May 14, 1948, she informed him that they say that only Sheikh Saheb is confident of winning the plebiscite. Five years later, Nehru put the Sheikh behind bars on grounds he knew were wholly false. Few spoke in the Sheikhs defence. To this day, the middle ground on Kashmir or the boundary dispute with China barely exists. Apologetics abound. The drummer boys have a field day.

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