Atal Behari Vajpayee’s ashes were immersed in the Ganga. Nehru had his scattered over the Himalayas from a plane. Theatre diva Zohra Sehgal desired no such fuss. She left a stark message for her followers to cremate her quietly and put her ashes in the flush. The electric furnace was malfunctioning as it often does, so Sehgal was put on a pyre. Priests who tried to intervene were shooed away. Nehru got an emotional farewell from millions he loved and who loved him back. Vajpayee was on the ventilator till a day after Prime Minister Modi’s last Independence Day speech. Then he passed away.
In 1977, he assured fawning leftist students on a visit to JNU as foreign minister that he had decided to “drop the bomb”, a significant disavowal of a core Hindutva objective of making a nuclear weapon. As soon as he got a wafer-thin majority he did Pokhran II.
It is always different with leaders of the Dravida movement. Their mortal coils are buried in contravention of Hindu rites, a parting shot, as it were, to the Brahminical order they accuse of limiting a multi-fangled Indian culture. Communist leader Jyoti Basu’s body, true to form, was handed over for medical research after a sea of mourners bade him farewell.
Sometimes the mourners switch sides. Take the late Somnath Chatterjee, the renowned parliamentarian who passed away last month. He was expelled from the CPI-M with which he had spent a lifetime as a respected parliamentarian. While his own party shunned him, the communist-hating Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh turned their aloofness into an embarrassment. In a two-page article in its English weekly Organiser, the RSS paid him glowing tributes as a true Indian.
Why is there fanfare when some people pass away and not when their colleagues with equal merit go? Khushwant Singh was a journalist who supported the emergency, and he later sponsored L.K. Advani’s candidature from Delhi, which he subsequently regretted. Kuldip Nayar who died at 95 was a gifted journalist. His Pakistani friends are said to have taken a fistful of his ashes to be interred in Lahore where he grew up. Khushwant Singh’s ashes were also scattered on a sapling.
What about others in this line of great journalism, S. Nihal Singh for example? Inder Malhotra departed quietly. Nikhil Chakravarty was a truly towering journalist who went away without fanfare. Apart from being a highly informed journalist in the 1990s he is remembered also for refusing India’s coveted civilian award, saying it was not a journalist’s place to accept appreciation or critique from the state. He never lobbied to become an MP or to be sent out as ambassador.
As journalists go, I have a surprise favourite. K.R. Malkani belonged to the RSS but he was a self-confessed atheist. His canvas of interests as a journalist was many times larger than that of his colleagues. He was better read than Vajpayee or Advani and edited the English party organ. One day Sushma Swaraj was paying obeisance at the pond of Katasraj temple off the Lahore-Islamabad highway. I joined her in the water ritual, but Malkani stood aloof smiling, to say he had nothing to do with what he had seen.
Malkani’s views on Muslim and Christian converts were far from agreeable. However, instead of bearing a grudge against the community, he showed a high regard for Muslim history. In a collection of essays published as India First, he wrote: “Many Muslim countries are occupied. Even after ‘Independence’ their governments are either toppled or turned into puppets. Their oil wealth goes to enrich the West. Their oil revenues are diverted to arms purchase. Neighbouring countries are encouraged and armed — to fight each other … In Iran when Mossadeq’s popular government nationalised oil, they toppled him. So much money was distributed as bribes that Nehru told the Indian parliament that the value of the dollar fell in Tehran bazaar.”
Nehru’s ‘sins’ have been listed aplenty. “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones,” said Shakespeare. The allegations ranged from his apparent stubbornness that led to Partition to his handling of the Kashmir dispute and ties with China. Would it not be fair to assess Vajpayee’s legacy with equal rigour? His musings from Kumarakom showed him up as a statesman. His easy affable ways with the opposition are missed today because his successor betrays no such quality.
But Vajpayee left too many skeletons in his cupboard to be overlooked. Rajiv Gandhi has been accused of favouring a botched law to restrict media freedoms. It was Vajpayee though who got an Indian magazine’s woman journalist removed from covering his PMO. There’s no space here to go into Ayodhya or Nellie or Gujarat or even the ghastly murder of an Australian missionary and his two sons by Hindutva zealots, some of these when Vajpayee was prime minister.
During a 13-day stint as prime minister, Vajpayee, without facing a trust vote in parliament, agreed to a damaging financial deal with the US-based Enron power company. And why forget the arms scam, which forced his defence minister to resign, or when his party chief was caught with his hands on the till?
It was under his watch that Muslim extremists hijacked an Indian Airlines plane and got Masood Azhar and several others freed in Taliban-ruled Kandahar. Imagine the furore had an opposition leader carried out the transaction. They would perhaps be incinerated on the streets. It was under Vajpayee’s watch that a mere shepherd helped locate Pakistani positions in Kargil. And while we may accuse Modi of playing sectarian politics with the cow, it was Vajpayee who actually introduced cow protection as a state policy in the president’s address to parliament.
It is not how people go. It is about what they leave behind in the bargain that counts.