May 29, 2009 11:11:52 pm
On the day Jawaharlal Nehru passed into history 45 years and two days ago,I was in Pakistan along with some others of the Indian hack pack. It was no happenstance but practically willed by Nehru himself. For,one of his last official acts was to release his old,if estranged,friend,the towering Kashmiri leader,Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah,from prolonged and unjust imprisonment; withdraw the meandering Kashmir Conspiracy case against him; invite the Sheikh to be his house guest at Teen Murti; and encourage him to go to Pakistan to explore with then Pakistani president,Ayub Khan,the possibility of a settlement on Kashmir.
In his conversations with the prime minister,Abdullah broached the idea of a Confederation of India,Pakistan and Kashmir. Nehru did not like it and called in Syed Mir Qasim,later chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir. Ji,kaan kaat dijiye,advised Qasim. What nonsense is this? Whose ears do I cut off? asked Nehru testily. Qasim explained: Sir,I am saying that make it federation rather than confederation. (Source: Mir Qasims autobiography in Urdu.)
On the morning of May 22,Nehru addressed what was to be the last of his famous press conferences. Someone asked him whether he should not nominate his successor during his lifetime. My lifetime is not ending that soon was Nehrus reply. His audience greeted it with loud and prolonged cheers that I joined heartily. I then left for Lahore and was in Rawalpindi then Pakistans capital because Islamabad was under construction before sunset. Sheikh Abdullah arrived the next evening to receive a heros welcome.
During his talks with Ayub,the Sheikh vaguely mentioned both the ideas of a confederation and a federation. The field-marshal rejected them out of hand,as he has recorded in his memoirs Friends,Not Masters. However,on one point Ayub and Abdullah were agreed: that the Kashmir issue must be resolved,and that Nehru and Ayub were the two leaders who could do this and sell the compromise solution to their respective countries. On the evening of May 26,the Sheikh announced that a meeting between Nehru and Ayub would take place in New Delhi in June,and that he (Abdullah) would not be far from the conference table.
The expectations this aroused were tempered with skepticism. On the morning of May 27,however,excitement was high. For,Sher-e-Kashmir was going to Azad Kashmir,and the Pakistan government had reluctantly allowed Indian journalists to accompany him. Our instructions were stern. Be at Sheikh Sahibs place at 7.30. The journey will begin at 8 am sharp. We ought to have known better. In the best subcontinental tradition,nothing happened for a few hours. We were saved from boredom by cordial conversations with Pakistani hosts and an endless supply of tea,coffee and delectable kebabs.
Asrar Ahmed,a Pakistani colleague,asked me whether something worthwhile would come out of the Nehru-Ayub talks. With my unfailing knack for stressing the obvious,I replied that it all depended on how much time Nehru had. Whereupon Asrar and others exclaimed in unison,May Allah prolong his life. As if on cue,Hafeez Jullundari the nearest thing Pakistan had to the poet laureate as well as a sort of minister-in-waiting during the Sheikhs stay stalked up to our table and sat down. Wagging his finger,he told me: Inder Malhotra,you people have had a long ride feeling superior to us because you were lucky to have Nehru. Our misfortune was that after the early deaths of Jinnah and Liaquat,all our leaders were useless. Now Nehru is about to go. You will be down to our level,and then we will see. All the Pakistanis around the table were horrified. They started remonstrating with the renowned poet but their attempt was drowned in the sudden flurry and noise. Sheikh Sahib had come down and everyone was being directed to his or her vehicle.
I do not know whether Murrees Lintot restaurant still exists. On that day,however,it served us excellent breakfast in its balcony. It was there that the news of Nehrus illness caught up with us. He died at the precise moment when the Sheikh set foot in Muzaffarabad. The thought uppermost in my mind was that the capital of Pakistan-held Kashmir was not the best place to to be in at the time of Nehrus passing. But what followed stunned me.
The huge crowd that had assembled to welcome Sheikh Abdullah instantly turned into a mourning mass. Every man,woman and child,hands raised skywards,was praying for Nehru. Some of them were crying. No one touched the elaborate wazwan laid out. Suddenly,there was commotion at a short distance. A tall man was shouting my name,beating his head with both his hands and cursing his black tongue. It was Hafeez Jullundari. As he apologised to me profusely,Sheikh Sahib arrived to calm him. Instead,the two embraced each other and sobbed.
Agha Shaukat,a Pakistani official,drove Prem Bhatia (my guru and then Delhi editor of Indian Express) and me back to Rawalpindi. On the way he stopped at a roadside dhaba and insisted that we must have tea. A trickle of people from a nearby village turned into a torrent. They all offered us condolences,adding: He was a great man.
Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto,then Ayubs foreign minister,placed a PIA plane at the disposal of those of us who had assembled at his house. Its crew,overworked because it had flown in from Gilgit,could not have been more courteous or considerate.
After the dinner trays were cleared,most of us got busy writing our dispatches. The airhostess came,sat down in the empty seat next to me,and asked if she could read what I was typing. When,while reading my homage to the iconic leader for The Statesman,my paper then,she reached my brief reference to the Pakistani reaction to his death,she broke down. Rushing to the washroom,she came back composed,and said: Sir,I am sure we cannot be enemies for ever. I told her that these were exactly the words Nehru had used seven years earlier.
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator