When the sun set on the Nehru era

‘Panditji’ was an ardent admirer of the Buddha. As it happened,May 27,1964 was Buddha Jayanti

Written by Inder Malhotra | Published: May 14, 2012 3:35 am

‘Panditji’ was an ardent admirer of the Buddha. As it happened,May 27,1964 was Buddha Jayanti

On his return from Bhainsalotan after a tiring journey (‘Busy till the end’,IE,April 30),two things weighed on Jawaharlal Nehru’s mind. The first was a three-page,closely typed note that King Mahendra of Nepal had handed him while seeing him off. This,the king had said,was a summary of the points he had raised at his meeting with the prime minister.

“Not a word of this was ever mentioned during our talks,” Nehru told the foreign secretary,trying to hide his irritation. “Leave it to me,sir,we will deal with it,” replied Y.D. Gundevia. But Nehru would have nothing of this. As he had done all too often over long years,he wrote out a courteous rejoinder to the points raised by the king and told Gundevia to sign and send it to his own counterpart in Kathmandu.

With the Indo-Nepal Gandak project out of the way,Nehru’s second major worry was to speedily finalise the terms of a peace accord with the Nagas for which negotiations,with some help from the Gandhian leader Jayaprakash Narayan,better known as JP,were at a very advanced stage. He sent instructions to Vishnu Sahay,then governor of Assam and all other territories of the Northeast,to clinch the agreement immediately. This,the outstanding civil servant duly did.

A highly pleased prime minister fixed a meeting of the Emergency Committee of the Cabinet on May 9 to approve the draft agreement and see it through. Apparently,he started feeling unwell and the meeting was postponed. An hour later,however,the ECC members were asked to assemble at the PM’s residence,not office. The draft agreement approved,he asked his advisers to get it to Shillong at once so that Vishnu Sahay and the Naga delegation could sign it in good time for the news to be announced on All India Radio’s main news broadcast at 9 o’clock at night.

On May 13,Nehru flew to Bombay for the AICC session. Here it became obvious to the country how frail he had become. For the first time in his life he addressed a meeting sitting in a chair. As always,his speech was wildly applauded. But when the proceedings ended he could not get up,and had to be helped by his security guards.

This did not prevent him from persisting with a punishing schedule. As soon as he returned from Bombay,Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah,released from jail only a month earlier,arrived to be his houseguest. More importantly,the two talked for hours,especially about the Sheikh’s mission to Pakistan. Nor did the PM let up on his demand that all papers needing his attention must be brought to him.

This was not all. The Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference was to be held in London in July,and Nehru started planning for it. His advisers were very apprehensive but did not dare suggest that he shouldn’t go. What they urged instead was that he should break his journey in Cairo to meet his friend Gamal Abdel Nasser,and fly to London only the next day. His terse response was typical: “That would be a waste of time.”

In this milieu,May 22 turned out to be a particularly remarkable day,indeed a landmark of sorts. Early that morning came the news from London that A.V. Baliga,a friend much liked by Nehru,had died there. Another equally tragic message from Kathmandu followed: Indian ambassador Harishwar Dayal had passed away while trekking in the mountains. Those controlling the flow of information to Nehru panicked. They left it to Indira Gandhi to decide how much to tell him and at what stage.

Gundevia and G. Parthasarathy,high commissioner in Pakistan called to Delhi for consultations,were talking to Sheikh Abdullah,who was to leave for Rawalpindi the next evening,in his suite when word came that “Panditji” wanted them all to join him for breakfast. He seemed fresh and relaxed and,as was his wont,cut the fruit for his guests. At some stage Gundevia whispered to the PM that Ben Fonseca,acting high commissioner of Sri Lanka,had been waiting in the drawing room to meet him.

Normally,Fonseka would have had no claim to seek an audience with Nehru,but he had a letter from his PM,Sirimavo Bandarnaike,which he was under instructions to deliver to the PM personally because it concerned the Colombo proposals for a settlement of the India-China boundary issue. Nehru read the letter,thanked the diplomat and asked him to tell his PM that she would get a reply in two or three days. But before Fonseka could take his leave,he found that the PM had dozed off. Both he and Gundevia waited and waited,until the latter woke up Nehru to remind him that he was to address his usual press conference,the like of which has never been seen since,at 11. Suddenly Nehru brightened up,and briskly said,“Let’s go.”

As always,I attended the press conference. He answered,as usual,all questions cogently and clearly,with an occasional flash of wit. But what troubled me was that there was a time-gap between the end of a question and the start of his reply. Never before had this happened.

Someone asked why he didn’t settle the succession issue in his lifetime. His reply was: “My lifetime is not ending that very soon.” His entire audience cheered him to the skies.

From the press conference I went to the airport to be in Pakistan a day ahead of the Sheikh. Five days later,the Kashmir leader and his press party were still there when the incomparable Nehru era drew to a close.

As is well known,all his life Nehru was an ardent admirer of the Buddha. As PM,he had adroitly used Buddhism as an instrument of foreign policy. One of his ambassadors,Apa B. Pant,used to say to him: “Sir,you are a Bodhisattva.” As it happened,May 27,1964 was Buddha Jayanti,the anniversary of the Master’s birth,Enlightenment and Parinirvana.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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