Kuldip Nayar Obituary
New Delhi: Kuldip Nayar, fearless journalist, author, human rights activist and advocate of peace and media freedom, passed away in Delhi early on Thursday. Kuldip Nayar, was one of the last of a generation of remarkable Indian journalists who started their careers just after the partition of the sub-continent. Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s press advisor, India’s ambassador to the UK, Member of the Upper House in late 90s, and initiator of several historical petitions against State excesses, from the Emergency to the demolition of the Babari Masjid, Kuldip Nayar passed on at the age of 95.
Kuldip Nayar became the voice for many a just causes and raised it to great effect as few would, against injustice. When Emergency was declared, by the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, Nayar had been one of the first journalists to be put behind bars for his detailed documentation of human rights violations by the State. Kuldip Nayar wrote relentlessly on issues he thought were relevant for the people and the nation, and belonged to a generation that represented a selfless breed of human beings. He petitioned against the Emergency, was jailed under MISA, but years later he petitioned again against the Babari demolition with Justice Setalvad. The trauma of partition strengthened his belief in pluralism and in the idea of judging a person by his commitments not his religion.
Nayar was also known for his efforts to improve frosty relationship between India and Pakistan including leading peace activists to light candles on the Independence days of Pakistan and India at the Attari-Wagah border near Amritsar and people joined him in marches up to the border at Attari. Though some saw Nayar’s move as unrealistic sentimentalism, he was an optimist for peace and firmly felt that war is not an option between the two countries.
In 1977 Kuldip broke the news that Indira Gandhi intended to call an early election, following her 1975 declaration of a draconian state of emergency, suspending fundamental rights and censoring the press. It was widely believed that Gandhi intended to retain the emergency much longer. The head of the government’s information service knew nothing of the election and threatened to arrest Kuldip if he did not withdraw the story. He would not, and Gandhi did call the election. By then Kuldip had already been editor of the Delhi edition of the Statesman and had moved on to edit the Indian Express. Most editors and journalists accepted censorship without protest but Kuldip persuaded about 100 journalists to sign a protest and send it to Gandhi. He spent three months in jail as a result and was released only because the government learned that the judge hearing his appeal was likely to find in his favour.
In 1980, Indira Gandhi returned to power. The owner of the Indian Express who had supported his editor during the emergency asked this time Kuldip to mend fences with her. He refused and resigned. In addition to his journalism he wrote 15 books, including a lengthy autobiography, Beyond the Lines (2012), which took him 22 years to write.
He also spoke out against the current Hindutva policies of Narendra Modi’s government. The day after he died, an article he had just written was published, saying: “It is paramount that the centre [central government] should concentrate more on good governance rather than imposing its Hindutva policies.”
He also expressed dismay over the way the “Soft Hindutva is overtaking the print and electronic media.” “Seeing how conformist the press is today, I don’t think it would be necessary for the government to take any extra-constitutional measures. Newspapers and television channels have themselves become so pro-establishment that the government doesn’t have to do anything to make them fall in line,” he wrote.
Kuldip was much admired for his courage and commitment and much liked for his openness and friendliness. He was a popular editor. He became the father of the journalist community. They turned to him to lead the campaign against a stringent defamation law seen as limiting media freedom in the 80’s. Recently, when tax officials were threatening Prannoy Roy, the founder of the television channel, NDTV, journalists again asked Kuldip for his support, which he gave. He was concerned about conformist, indifferent or pro-establishment press and felt that the present conditions in the country require the judiciary, the press and students to speak out. In today’s brave new world, Nayar’s will perhaps be a lasting legacy. And in the age of made up truths and fake news, it is a legacy that he would be proud of.
Kuldip is survived by his wife Bharti, whom he married in 1949, two sons, Sudhir and Rajiv, three grandchildren, Kanika, Mandira and Kartik, and three great-grandchildren.
Kuldip was a courageous spokesperson for press freedom as well as an important promoter of India’s secular tradition. He was known throughout the human rights community not just for his inspirational work, but for his human warmth. He was a good friend to NCHRO. He is a huge loss to the country, to the human rights community and of course, most of all, to his family. Our thoughts, prayers and condolences are with his family and friends.