When Kuldip Nayar outwitted Zia

Kuldip Nayar Sahib’s ageless passion made him seem immortal. He was an inspiration to everyone. However, his contemporary Khushwant Sindh was much more colourful. Kuldip Nayar on the other hand, was more political and more scholarly. Both of them died leaving behind a massive, multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multicultural following, that continues to mourn them today.

If one talks about individuals who have fought for the freedom of press, one finds Kuldip Nayar standing the tallest among all the towering personalities who struggled for freedom of speech during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. He was not just a revered journalist and prolific media magnate, but a committed soldier of peace and free expression. He continued to desire peace between India and Pakistan until he died, as he wanted to travel back to Sialkot — his place of birth — and rebuild the house where he was born.

Kuldip Nayar Sahib’s love for Pakistan frequently brought him here. He had an army of Pakistani friends. As a matter of fact, he started his journalism career at the Urdu Daily Anjam, belonging to the late Usman Azad in Delhi. Anjam continued its publication in Karachi for many years after partition. However, it could not keep pace with its main competitors in Pakistan for very long.

After having started his career in Urdu journalism, Kuldip Sahib switched over to English to serve as editor of several newspapers, including Indian Express and The Statesman. During Mrs Gandhi’s Emergency he was incarcerated. When democracy returned, he was sent as India’s High Commissioner to the Court of St James. However, his tenure only lasted a 100 days. Later he also served as a member of the Rajya Sabha (Upper House).

Nayar sahib was in the entourage of Indian Prime Minister (PM) Lal Bahadur Shastri in Tashkent, where he was meeting President Ayub Khan following the 1965 war to negotiate the historic Tashkent Declaration under the aegis of the erstwhile Soviet Union.

Zia was under the impression that Nayar Sahib would publish ‘the nuclear bombshell story’ immediately and Islamabad could then blackmail the Americans to get more aid from Washington. However, he outwitted Zia by publishing the story when it would best serve Indian interests

Nayar sahib was known for his media scoops. It was soon after midnight on January 11, 1966 when most newspapers in India and Pakistan had gone to bed with front page headlines on the Tashkent Declaration when Nayar sahib broke the news of Indian PM Lal Bahadur Shastri’s death following his severe heart attack. He phoned in the breaking story to the United News of India. At first nobody believed him.

Nayar sahib narrates in his 2012 autobiography Beyond the Lines how India reacted to his story with utter disbelief.”Surinder Dhingra on late night duty received the call. I told him to send the flash ‘Shastri dead’. Dhingra began laughing and told me that I must be joking because he had just cleared Shastri’s speech at the evening function”, the book reads. He goes on to say “I told him not to waste time and send the flash immediately. He still did not believe me and I was obliged to resort to some harsh words in Punjabi to get him to act.”

Nayar also narrates how he learnt about Shastri’s demise.”I got up abruptly to a knock on my door. A lady in the corridor told me, ‘Your prime minister is dying’. I hurriedly dressed and drove with an Indian official to Shastri’s dacha which was some distance away”. In the book, Nayar says that the then Pakistani President General Ayub Khan was “genuinely grieved” by Shastri’s death. “He came to Shastri’s dacha and said, looking toward me: ‘Here is a man of peace who gave his life for amity between India and Pakistan'”.

Nayar Sahib’s other important scoop came ten years later in which he outwitted his friend, General Zia-ul-Haq over an interview with Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, where it was revealed that Pakistan had a nuclear device. Zia deliberately allowed him access to AQK, knowing well that Dr Sahib would not miss an opportunity to scare the Indians. Daily Muslim’s young editor, Mushahid Hussain Syed, who enjoyed the confidence of Aabpara, was facilitated to take Nayar Sahib to AQK. Zia was under the impression that Nayar Sahib would publish ‘the nuclear bombshell story’ immediately and Islamabad could then blackmail the Americans to get more aid from Washington. However, he outwitted Zia by publishing the story when it would best serve Indian interests.

The matter did not end there. Government media machinery, PTV and the right-wing press orchestrated a hullabaloo, demanding the public hanging of Mushahid for committing an act of treason. The Ministry of Information also attempted to recruit me for this cause. However, I could not buy their story. Mushahid would not take Nayar Sahib to AQK without permission from the highest authority. I wrote a piece asking the government to probe this, suspecting there was more to the case than met the eye. Later that week, at a function where General Zia was the Chief Guest, an editor of a right-wing newspaper demanded that Mushahid be hanged. I was shocked when General Zia endorsed his demand. Mushahid had to forcibly resign, and for some time became an outcast. A month later, this same ‘traitor’ Mushahid Hussain was writing for the same top newspapers that had been so hostile to him. I was told by my boss that General Zia-ul-Haq had personally called the offices of these newspapers, advising them to “use the journalistic talents of Mushahid”.

The writer is the former High Commissioner of Pakistan to UK and a veteran journalist

Published in Daily Times, August 29th 2018.

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