Kuldip Nayar was always the Grand Old Man of Indian, indeed South Asian journalism. In a region where the state and its institutions have often displayed scant regard for the media and by extension the important work that journalists do, Nayar was able to bestow the considerable body of work he leaves behind with a rare and elusive quality: lasting significance.
Having entered the profession in 1948, with the Urdu publication Anjaam, and written the last entry of his syndicated column in the week before his death, it can be said his life in letters spanned the entirety of independent South Asia. And clearly as someone who regarded the artificial border lines imposed on the people of the Subcontinent with sheer contempt, that South Asian identity was the one that sat most comfortably with the broad, essentially humanist outlook he cultivated. To my mind, the greatest chance for India, Pakistan and Bangladesh to live in peace with each other lay in adopting what I would call ‘the Kuldip Doctrine’.
He was widely read in all three countries, and it was undoubtedly a source of great pride for us that Kuldip Nayar was indeed the first foreign columnist to appear in these pages. DC was still in its infancy and hence it took us a bit by surprise once he agreed so readily to push his pen for us. But later as one got to know him better, it became clear that the man took mentorship as an almost sacred duty.
Dhaka Courier quickly became a reliable outlet for those looking to read Kuldip Nayar, and also Khushwant Singh - arguably the two most prolific and sought after columnists not only out of India, but the entire Subcontinent writing in English at the time. For me personally, it marked the start of a 35-year friendship that could’ve also qualified as an extended course in journalism school. You couldn’t help but learn in the presence of Kuldip Nayar. Over the years I ended up spending a lot of my time whenever I was in Delhi at his Vasant Kunj residence. He and his wife Bharti were the most gracious hosts, and besides journalism and the media, there was much that one could pick up from the way they lived, by way of humility and integrity.
Many an impish anchor or interviewer on Indian television wished to catch him out, or put him on the spot, by evoking his “love affair with Pakistan” - a phrase bound to raise eyebrows in today’s India. Nayar never once flinched. Everytime he would smile serenely, and a short ‘Yes’ would escape his lips. It never made him defensive or apologetic or even awkward (much to interviewers’ chagrin). Such was his self-assurance.
That means in a region where journalists have always shared an uneasy rapport with public figures, often forced to stoop and crouch and cower, Kuldip Nayar always stood tall and upright, as if it wasn’t enough to merely uncover the truths he was working hard on night and day. He had to embody them as well. The tall frame and broad shoulders were particularly suited to that task.
As journalist, author, peacenik, humanist and keeper of conscience, Nayar cast a long shadow that fell right across a swathe of the Indian subcontinent to take in all three of the nation-states that sprang from its soil.
“Till the last, he was working. At the age of 94, he kept his interest alive in the news world. He was a great chaser of news and broke many stories in his life. He knew much more of what was happening behind the news than many other journalists and got lots of inside information. Essentially, he remained a thorough journalist,” another veteran Indian journalist, Vinod Dua, told IANS.
Known to be a reporter’s editor, Kuldip Nayar held many leadership positions in news organisations including The Statesman and The Indian Express, where he provided both edge and depth to its formidable team of reporters and editors. His many legendary news scoops will continue to inspire generations of young journalists for their sharpness, credibility, speed and standards of due diligence. An exemplar, Kuldip Nayar fought through his writings the oppressive Emergency regime that had imposed curbs on media freedom and as a result of which he was also arrested.
A prolific writer and an author of many books, Kuldip Nayar was also a human rights activist and had been appointed India’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and later nominated as a member of the Rajya Sabha.
That description may just about suffice for the professional in him. The one who had seen it all, had it all, rose to the top, and imbued his work with such dedication, that if he had to climb all the way down and do it all over again, he would gladly do so without any complaint. n
Enayetullah Khan, Editor in Chief, Dhaka Courier / UNB