From Mountbatten to Manmohan Singh, activist-newsman Kuldip Nayar’s autobiography showcases an ‘insider’s view’ of India since 1947. Incisive and revealing in parts, it unfortunately turns perfunctory towards the end, particularly when it deals with events nearer our times and, occasionally tests credibility.
Nayar himself offers an explanation to this while wrapping up his account of Prime Minister Singh’s eight years in office. He says, “I confess that I have dealt with the last decade cursorily because I have very little information of what has not appeared in print.” Nayar himself claims: “My story is really the story of modern India.” Such an ambitious endeavour is bound to have some pitfalls. The author’s desire to attempt a chronicle of the first 50 years since Independence rather than confine himself to personal experiences lands him in troubled waters. For instance, his account of the circumstances that led to partition of India is hardly enriching.
The same can be said about his account of Post-Indira Gandhi era, during which he had little personal contact with the key players. He would have been, perhaps better half-shunning the role of a historian and confined himself to a humanised narrative of the events and men who shaped these events as an insider. One of the most engrossing parts of the book is his account of the Shastri years, when he combined the role of a journalist with an informal role as Prime Minister’s information advisor. He brings out the permanent tension between the understated, diminutive Allahabad man and the haughty daughter of his predecessor. His description of the suspicious circumstances to Shastri’s death has already raked up a controversy, confirming widely the view that there are too many unanswered questions around it.
The section on the Emergency is equally impressive. Nayar is among the few courageous journal ists to take a public stand against the suspension of democratic rights. He was, like many of his peers, punished for his defiance. He not only gives a vivid account of the arrogance of Congress ministers and their associates but also relives the chicanery of media barons who meekly acquiesced in the worst forms of censorship. However, he seems to run into an uncertain terrain when he fails to locate his experiences within a wider context.
There are times Nayar conveys a sense of being unduly impressionable—believing whatever was told to him. His blind acceptance of socialist lead Madhu Limaye’s suggestion that Prime Minister Narasimha Rao was privy to the demolition of the Babri mosque is a case in point. He takes Limaye’s words about Rao shutting himself up in prayers while the karsevaks went about their job in Ayodhya. Here, he does not ask the one question that any responsible journalist would have: What was Limaye’s source of information and was it credible? Surely, Nayar had access to other sources to check Rao’s movements on December 6. But he chose to present Limaye’s incredible version as the whole truth. In the pre-television age, political journalism in the Capital was the preserve of a handful who acquired a special status by virtue of their information-gathering abilities in the Congress-dominated power structure of the 1960s and 70s.
The book gives embarrassing details about big names in public life and media world even though at places, the author sounds somewhat overbearingly self-righteous. Yet, despite its shortcomings and misplaced facts, Nayar’s book is an obligatory reading for a generation not sufficiently exposed to the cloistered world of politics of a preceding age. Like his earlier book, this one is also bound to go into multiple editions. One only hopes the publishers undertake a thorough editing exercise to filter an individual’s memory over rigorous scrutiny of facts and chronology.