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Saturday, November 28, 2020

In Letter and Spirit

What nine decades of media missives from the Rashtrapati Bhavan reveal

New Delhi | Updated: November 16, 2020 11:11:50 am
Talking heads: Lady Mountbatten with C Rajagopalachari (left) and Sardar Patel (far right) in the Mughal Gardens on February 15, 1949. (Photo: Rashtrapati Bhavan)

Written by Ajay  Singh and Ankit Jain

The decision to shift the seat of the imperial power to Delhi had evoked extreme reactions from the British settled in Calcutta. English-language newspapers of the time, led by the redoubtable.The Statesman, launched a campaign against the move. The noise from the media was a persistent “nagging nuisance” for the establishment.
That was when a gentleman named EM Hughman stepped forward. “I can control practically the whole of Calcutta press, and make them dance to any tune I like to play,” he wrote to JH Duboulay, private secretary to the viceroy, Lord Hardinge, on December 25, 1911. The Viceroy rejected his offer.

This is one of the many episodes that define the calibrations of communication and the evolution of language over nine decades in what was once the Viceroy House and is now Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Once the Viceroy House was functional, it began issuing “communiques”, or unofficial notes, related to diverse matters. For instance, the marriage of Felicity Wavell, the second daughter of Lord Wavell, with Captain Peter Longmore, on February 20, 1947, merited a communique. The note gives a vivid description of the bridegroom’s family and speculates about the possibility of the newlywed couple returning to Europe. Whenever the Viceroy met Indian leaders like Gandhiji, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel, BR Ambedkar and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, communiques would be sent out to the press — often brief and crisp, conveying bare facts.
On March 31, 1947, less than two months after their arrival in India, Lord and Lady Mountbatten met Gandhi. The communique that day noted, “This was the first occasion on which the Viceroy has had the pleasure of meeting Mr Gandhi.” Bereft of irreverence and condescension, the simple sentence conveyed that Gandhi, despite his inimical relations with the establishment, was to towering a personality to be disrespected, at least publicly.

When Mountbatten met Jinnah on April 5, 1947, the note gave a brief account of the meeting and also added, “Mr Jinnah and Miss Jinnah have been invited to dine with their Excellencies tomorrow (Sunday) evening.”
As Partition loomed large over the subcontinent, the communiques expressed the Viceroy’s earnest desire to go the extra mile to create a congenial atmosphere for negotiations among the different stakeholders. Most of these press notes, however, were either embargoed or came with instructions not to reveal the source of information, though they usually contained bare facts and revealed almost nothing sensitive. A flurry of press notes was issued in the wake of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. Most pertained to the declaration of mourning and postponement of engagements and tours to be undertaken by the Mountbattens.

President Rajendra Prasad receiving Diwali greetings from the staff of Rashtrapati Bhavan in October 1954. (Photo: Rashtrapati Bhavan)

On June 21, 1948, when C Rajagopalachari became the governor-general of India, Mountbatten delivered a moving speech, captured in the day’s unusual press note. The event was poignant and inspiring in equal measure. Mountbatten’s outstanding eloquence made it more memorable as he spoke from the heart about India’s Iron Man: “I was warned before I came to India that I should meet my match in (the) very tough guy, Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel, but when we met, I came to the conclusion that he could not be quite as tough as the act he put on. He is so very apparently hard and firm and unyielding, and I think he is like that because he doesn’t want the world to know what a very warm heartbeat behind that rugged exterior and I regard him as one of the greatest friends I have made here and am sad that he can’t be with us tonight”. The release remains one of the most heartfelt communique ever from the Press Information Bureau (PIB).
Within a month of taking over, Rajagopalachari issued a clarification, and this was conveyed through a press note on July 16, 1948: “The Government House will thus be, in future, more in nature of the Government House than exclusively the residential building of the Governor-General.” Perhaps, Rajaji’s spartan lifestyle redefined the purpose of the magnificent complex.

The communique issued during Rajaji’s tenure was noteworthy on two counts: Words reflected his unique wisdom and his candour was uncharacteristic for the highest functionary of the nation. His condolence message a day after the demise of his Pakistani counterpart, Jinnah, on September 12, 1948, began by addressing the late leader’s sister as “Dear sister” and went on to add a philosophical touch: “May the minds of men and women in India and Pakistan turn reverently upward on this solemn occasion and may all of us be enabled by the highest to go worthily through all our trials and tribulations.”

Rajaji had held the charge as governor-general briefly when Mountbatten had gone to attend the wedding of Queen Elizabeth in November 1947. It was time for Diwali, but the nation found itself in no mood to celebrate, as the scars of Partition were still fresh. In his greetings to the nation on November 11, 1947, Rajaji expressed the sentiment: “We may not have the mind to indulge in festive rejoicing when we are surrounded by difficulties.”

When the next Diwali came, the nation was yet to come out of the shock of Gandhiji’s assassination. Rajaji by now had made peace with sorrow and advised fellow citizens to appreciate the beauty of life. “There are griefs and trials enough in the world, but there is no reason for us to be always harping on troubles. There is no merit in mourning. Let us respect our national festivals which were intended for joy. In joy rests God,” he noted in a message of October 21, 1948.

A perusal of the press releases issued since Dr Rajendra Prasad became the president in 1950 is indicative of the ceremonial role played by the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Most of the releases were routine in nature — except the one dated June 25, 1975. It reproduces a notification that says, “In exercise of the powers conferred by clause (1) of the Article 352 of the Constitution, I, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, President of India, by this Proclamation declare that a grave emergency exists whereby the security of India is threatened by internal disturbance.”
Perhaps, the ghost of Hughman had reawakened and run riot for 21 months as an aberration in the otherwise illustrious life of the republic.

Ajay Singh is press secretary, President of India. Ankit Jain is the officer on special duty (Communications) at the President’s Secretariat

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