The man who spoke truth to power: Remembering Kuldip Nayar

Madhav Nayar

The brand of independent journalism which Kuldeep Nayar represented is the need of the hour.


We live in times when it is rare for journalists to speak truth to power. While most are happy to toe the government’s line, those in electronic media are even prepared to do its bidding, with government propaganda masked as primetime ‘debates’.  The curse of paid news has eroded the credibility of print media and its current state can be best summarized in the words of Kuldip Nayar, who in an interview once remarked, “now there is news in editorials and editorialising in news”.

The passing away of Kuldip Nayar calls for a reflection on the journalistic doyen’s life and career which is a reminder of what journalism can be or rather should be. Though I happen to share his surname, I must clarify that I was in no way related to him. However, I was fortunate enough to know him personally. I vividly recall meeting him when I had accompanied my Father to his house. Warm and affectionate to the core, Nayar talked enthusiastically about how he had been a witness to history in the making. A partition refugee, Nayar was a close witness to both the birth of the Republic and the many events which shaped it: linguistic reorganisation, split of the Congress, The Emergency. Though he was nearly 90 when I met him, he spoke with the enthusiasm and vigour of a young man.

Such was the energy of arguably one of India’s finest journalists that he wrote for more than 80 newspapers and in most Indian languages. Apart from his prolific and prodigious journalistic output, Nayar can also be considered as one of India’s best political reporters. His works such as Beyond the Lines, India After Nehru and The Judgement: Inside the emergency constitute a treasure trove of information on India’s post-independence history and some of the key events which shaped it. He has in fact been described as the “Rockstar political reporter” by Shekhar Gupta.

A multifaceted figure, he also served as a parliamentarian and ambassador. But what Kuldip Nayar would be truly remembered for is his championing of journalistic values and human rights issues. He was a staunch supporter of the freedom of press and the freedom of expression. Nayar was in fact one of the first journalist who was jailed during the emergency under the draconian Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA). In one of his columns Nayar described the Emergency in the following words: “If I were to explain this failing to the Indians of today or tomorrow, I would say that we faltered as a nation. Indira Gandhi switched off the lights of democracy to make us grope in the darkness of police raj.”

He was also at the forefront of the agitation against the defamation bill in 1986, introduced by Rajiv Gandhi’s government to muzzle press freedom. Thanks to the efforts of Kuldip Nayar and other leading lights from the press fraternity like Khuswant Singh the government was forced to withdraw the bill.  Kuldip Nayar embodied and championed democratic values not only in his vocation but also in his life. His was a lifelong engagement with human rights issues and it was a matter of personal conviction for Nayar. From being a member of the Justice V.M. Tarkunde Committee probing the killings of Naxalites in fake encounters, to being a resolute advocate of peace with Pakistan and initiating the candle light marches at Wagah, Nayar belonged to a breed of journalists who believed that journalism was above all else a commitment to society and to democratic norms and values. Even in his last column Nayar urged the Modi government to focus on, development and good governance in the Northeast rather than imposing its “Hindutva philosophies”.

Commenting on the state of journalism and media, Nayar rued how “Even though there is no Emergency, they are willing to fall in line and crawl.” In his view there was no need for the government to take any extra-constitutional measures in light of how conformist the press had become. Perhaps it would do well for today’s journalists to pay heed to Nayar’s words for they run the risk of becoming ‘lapdogs’ rather than the ‘watchdogs’ of our democracy.

Madhav Nayar has graduated in History (Hons.) from Hindu College, Delhi University. He will be pursuing his Masters in Modern South Asian History from SOAS.


Image Source: Deccan Herald

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