I am aware that you are very ill and will probably not be able to read this letter. Even if it is read out to you, chances are that it will not penetrate into your mind. But through these last few dreadful days, you have been so much on my mind that this is a desperate attempt to reach out to you.
When I was an adolescent, and you were the most promising young politician of your generation, there was a Hindi film song about Mahatma Gandhi that probably appealed to you as much as it did to me: “De di hamein azaadi bina khadak bina dhaal/ Sabarmati ke sant tune kar diya kamaal”.
We were so proud of our non-violence. We so abhorred the politics of the gun. We believed in the right to dissent. Hence, our commitment to democracy. We believed also in inclusiveness. Hence the induction into the first cabinet of men of fierce independence who were not members of the Congress: B.R. Ambedkar, as law minister; Shanmugam Chetty, followed by John Mathai, as finance minister; even Syama Prasad Mukherjee of the Hindu Mahasabha, as industries minister. Charges of “traitor” were not hurled at each other. No one was damned as “anti-national”. It was recognised and respected that there would be differences on policy, that even cabinet colleagues would differ. Comrades in the Freedom Movement broke away, formed their own parties but were valued as fellow contributors to the building of modern India. We built a polity in which such differences would be composed through discourse. Diversity — of opinion, as much as other dimensions of diversity — was not seen as a factor of disruption but as the building blocks of a composite nationhood whose fundamental premise was unity in diversity.
Although your views were radically different to those of the Congress and shaped in substantial measure by your early association with the RSS, you shared with almost all other Indians the ethical values of the Freedom Movement. That is why you eschewed all extremism — particularly religious extremism — when many decades ago you came to office as foreign minister immediately after the Emergency. I personally was most concerned that Prime Minister Morarji Desai had picked a Jana Sangh/ RSS man to run his external affairs ministry (a vital portfolio for me personally as I was then in the Indian Foreign Service) for I expected you, in view of your antecedents, to be vituperative about Pakistan. Instead, and perhaps recognising that “Pakistani” was a code word for “Muslim” in the hearts and minds of most of your parivar, you became the first foreign minister in many years to visit Islamabad, made a huge impression with your banquet speech in flawless Urdu, and took the initiative to get the Indian consu-late general opened in Karachi. I was the principal beneficiary, being appointed India’s first consul general to that throbbing metropolis — the most memorable posting of my diplomatic career.
Later, as prime minister, you persisted despite major setbacks — your bus trip to Lahore; the Agra summit; the Saarc meeting in January 2004 that marked the commencement of the most fruitful period in India-Pakistan relations. You understood that the full emotional integration of minorities required resolution of the almost-impossible hurdles in the way of an India-Pakistan reconciliation. That is why you are held in almost as high esteem in Pakistan as you are in the BJP/ RSS.
Consider, in contrast, where we have now arrived, with a Delhi BJP MLA saying he would not hesitate to fire his gun if any-one raised a slogan in favour of Pakistan.
That is one reason why we need you when another BJP-led government has risen to office, with a larger majority than you ever enjoyed. Instead of seeking to bind the nation together, your successors are complicit in tearing to shreds the very soul of India.
This last week has been the worst since Independence: Indian is being pitted against Indian; dissent is being crushed; university autonomy is being vitiated; students are being targeted (one even imprisoned) for their fundamental duty to think independently and espouse causes, however unpopular; lawyers of the parivar persuasion are blatant in resorting to violence even within the sacred precincts of a courthouse; the media is being threatened and assaulted; the police looks away as the law is callously broken; fisticuffs have replaced argument; the bully prevails; “Bharat Mata ki jai” — the national slogan that Jawaharlal Nehru refers to as he embarks on his Discovery of India — is being appropriated as a partisan cry to prove that Indians of one persuasion are more “patriotic” than others, indeed, to stress that if you are not a saffron super-nationalist, you are an “anti-national”.
This did not happen in your time. You reminded the present prime minister of his “raj dharma” when indifference and collusion was his reaction to murder, arson and mayhem. Please remind him again, if at all you can.
I well recall your fiery exchanges with the Dravidian leader, C.N. Annadurai, when he was elected to the Rajya Sabha in 1962, the same year as you, on a platform of Dravidian separatism. In his maiden speech, he made it unequivocally clear that his party wanted a separate Dravidastan to be carved out of the body of the Indian republic.
I do not recall your pulling out a pistol to shoot him. You held your ground, particularly on the vexed question of Hindi as the national language, but neither interrupted him and shut him up, nor demanded that he be arrested under Section 124A (“sedition”) of the Indian Penal Code. You pitted argument against argument. Eventually, “Anna” (elder brother), as he was and is fondly called in Tamil Nadu, changed his position and proclaimed Tamil Nadu as an integral part of Mother India. It was a conversion that has lasted because it was based on a genuine change of heart.
When you later became prime minister, you announced to separatists in Srinagar that your search for a solution would lie not within the formal legalisms of the law but “insaniyat ke daire mein” (within the bounds of humanity). Few words have brought dissenting Kashmiris closer to India. That is why I miss you, as so many other democratic nationalists do.
(This article originally appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Dear Atalji, we miss you’)