One wintry evening in the ’70s, as Nalini Singh waited for Kuldip Nayar outside his office at The Statesman building, he came out and explained the delay. “What he said has stayed me with all these years. He said, ‘I was reading the letters to the editor and responding to them…you know, this is the most important thing I do. It keeps me informed’,” recalled Singh.
At 12:30 am on Thursday, the veteran journalist and editor, who turned 95 on August 14, passed away at Escorts Hospital. A former editor of The Indian Express, Nayar was a staunch supporter of the freedom of the press and fiercely opposed the Emergency.
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On Thursday afternoon, a sea of politicians — from former prime minister Manmohan Singh, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and Deputy CM Manish Sisodia to Union ministers Dr Harsh Vardhan and Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, as well as former Rajya Sabha MP and former editor of The Indian Express Arun Shourie — turned up at Lodhi Crematorium, along with journalists and photographers, to pay their respects to Nayar.
Survived by his wife Bharti and two sons, Nayar was born in Sialkot (now in Pakistan) in 1923, and graduated in law. He also studied journalism and began his career with an Urdu newspaper called Anjam. His grandson-in-law Ratish Nanda said, “He was extremely spirited, high on integrity and was actively writing at this age. We just celebrated his 95th birthday with a family dinner. Irrespective of the age gap, he was a friend. Dinnertime conversations with him were all about what needed to be set right.”
Eminent photographer Raghu Rai, who worked with him in the ’60s and ’70s said, “for his autobiography Beyond the Lines, he asked me if I could take his photograph…I told him, ‘you don’t have to ask, you just have to order’. He was the kind of editor one would get into arguments with, and then he would come to my room and fix it, say sorry…he had no ego. He just wanted good, honest work”.
Swaraj India leader Yogendra Yadav said, “The first time I heard him speak was after the Emergency when he addressed students at a late-night mess meeting at JNU…For me, the idea of India is Kuldeep Nayar. Today, when the foundation of the republic is shaken, we need to look up to him and aspire to be like him.”
Also present at the cremation were social activist Swami Agnivesh, child rights activist Kailash Satyarthi and former Vice-President Hamid Ansari. Agnivesh was part of the delegation led by Nayar that went to Pakistan when Benazir Bhutto was PM. “Bhutto said something anti-India and I got up to walk away…he calmed me down and gave a fiery speech later on. He was pragmatic. In 1994, we lit candles at Wagah border…he was all about maintaining peace with Pakistan.”