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Monday, September 21, 2020

Pranab Mukherjee (1935-2020): A farewell amid tears, PPEs

Mukherjee, who was 84, and a recipient of Bharat Ratna, the country’s highest civilian honour, died at the Army Research and Referral Hospital in Delhi on Monday. He had undergone surgery at the hospital early last month.

Written by Somya Lakhani | New Delhi | September 2, 2020 1:51:15 am
PM Narendra Modi pays tribute to former President Pranab Mukherjee at his 10, Rajaji Marg residence in Delhi Tuesday. (ANI)

Muffled cries rose from behind masks and face shields as family members of former President Pranab Mukherjee attended his last rites at the crematorium on Lodhi Road in Delhi on Tuesday.

At 1.20 pm, the hearse van carrying Mukherjee’s body arrived at the crematorium, along with family members, who wore PPE in keeping with Covid-19 protocol.

The former President’s old friends, colleagues, Congress party workers and media personnel stayed behind the “Do not cross” tape put across the area by Delhi Police.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, President Ram Nath Kovind, Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, CDS General Bipin Rawat and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, among others, paid their last respects to Mukherjee at his residence earlier in the day.

Wearing a face mask, a priest guided Mukherjee’s son Abhijit, a former Lok Sabha MP, through the rituals before the former President was laid to rest with full military honours.

His grandson Ashish said, “We had to follow the law – the Covid-19 protocol…. This is what my grandfather would have wanted too — he was a lawmaker and a law-abiding citizen.”

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi pays respects to the former President, who passed away on Monday. (PTI)

Mukherjee, who was 84, and a recipient of Bharat Ratna, the country’s highest civilian honour, died at the Army Research and Referral Hospital in Delhi on Monday. He had undergone surgery at the hospital early last month.

He had also tested positive for Covid-19.

Among those present at the crematorium was Heera Lal, 75, who had been Mukherjee’s trusted personal assistant since 1980. “I was assigned to work with him in 1980. Subsequently, as his portfolio changed, he ensured I went along with him to other ministries,” Lal said. “From 1996 to 2004, when he was not a minister, I did my government job all day and went to his house at 5 pm for work.

“Now that he’s no more, I will retire…. I worked with him till his last day because of our emotional attachment.”

Lal recalled the time in 1982, when Mukherjee sent him to Mumbai (then Bombay) to get his back treated, and also the time his younger son got married — a function the former President couldn’t attend since he was away in France. “I knew when he was returning to Delhi, and I kept a reception for my son’s wedding that night, days after the actual ceremony, just so he could attend,” Lal recalled. “The last time I spoke to him was in August, when a crate full of jackfruit had come from his village – Miriti in West Bengal’s Birbhum district. He was pleased.”

Retired CRPF officer S S Sandhu recalled he had visited Miriti with Mukherjee twice —both times around Durga Puja. “I had known him for 43 years,” Sandhu said. “He was an adviser to many, and had a collection of thousands of books. You could speak to him about any subject — literature, politics, economy, world affairs. I had to come here today… Covid-19 is no excuse to not pay my last respects to a great man like him.”

As the last rites were performed, a few Congress workers behind the tape raised slogans such as “Pranab-da amar rahe,” and “Jab tak suraj chand rahega, Pranab-da tumhaara naam rahega.”

Among them was Netrapal Arya, 53, a businessman from Old Delhi. Fighting back tears, Arya recalled he had first met Mukherjee in 1985, when he was with the NSUI, the Congress’s students’ wing. “The last time I met him was when he was conferred the Bharat Ratna (in 2019). No matter who you were, if you requested a meeting, he would oblige, and would inquire about your family before getting into the subject of the meeting. He was a guiding light,” Arya said.

Tanmoy Chakrabarty, currently the group government affairs officer at Tata Sons, recalled working with Mukherjee from 2007-09, when he was the Minister of External Affairs, on the digital delivery system of passport. “He cleaned up the whole system and launched and endorsed the complete digital transformation of the system,” Chakrabarty said. “I had been in touch with him since then – he left such an indelible mark on my mind that I had to come and pay my last respects, despite Covid-19.”

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