Inder Kumar Gujral: Mourning in Pakistan Too

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By Ishtiaq Ahmed *

Mr Gujral was an intellectual and a visionary — humanist, rationalist, compassionate and progressive

The death of former Indian prime minister Inder Kumar Gujral (December 4, 1919 - November 30, 2012) would be mourned not only in India and the Indian Punjab but also in his native Jhelum and Lahore.

Mr Gujral and Mian Nawaz Sharif will be remembered for their courageous efforts to restore normality between India and Pakistan. It started when as prime minister, Mr Gujral took the initiative to telephone Mr Sharif on May 3, 1997. The latter reciprocated with enthusiasm. Later, they met at the SAARC Summit at Male, the capital of the Maldives. Apparently, someone informed the late Benazir Bhutto that they talked to each other in Punjabi! She expressed scorn on television, thus catering to the lowest denominator of crass nationalism.

Mr Gujral was an intellectual and a visionary — humanist, rationalist, compassionate and progressive. He belonged to a prominent Hindu family of Jhelum that was deeply committed to the liberation of India. Both his parents were arrested for taking part in the civil disobedience movements initiated by the Congress Party. His father, Avtar Narain belonged to the leftwing of the Congress Party, which was opposed to caste oppression and always tried to bring Muslims into the freedom movement. Mr Gujral joined the Communist Party of India later while at college in Lahore. He studied at the DAV College (now Islamia College, Civil Lines), the Hailey College of Commerce and FC College — all famous Lahore landmarks.

Among his close friends were the veteran journalist, Mazhar Ali Khan, Mian Iftikharuddin, Sahir Ludhianvi, Krishan Chander, Rajinder Singh Bedi and other leftists. Faiz Ahmed Faiz was his English literature teacher at the Hailey College. No doubt, the master instilled an abiding love of poetry in his bright and sensitive pupil. During the 1940s, Mr Gujral and his comrades were organising the tonga drivers of Lahore and helped establish the Tonga Drivers Union, and were also active in a wide range of other activities on the left.

Elected in 1946 on the Congress ticket, Mr Gujral’s father decided to remain in Pakistan and was hoping to take his seat in the Pakistan Constituent Assembly, but had to give up that hope when Punjab convulsed in a macabre dance of death, which he saw when he and Raja Ghazanfar Ali Khan travelled by car from Lahore to Jhelum.

In 1992, I had gone to Delhi from Stockholm to attend a conference. I phoned Mr Gujral, expressing a desire to meet him. He graciously agreed to see me. It turned out that his wife Sheila, an accomplished poet, was born on Temple Road some 500 metres from our house. So, a magical Punjab and Lahore came back to life for the next two hours or so. Here, I reproduce a sketch of the historic conversation I had with them, which is published in my book, The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2012). It is augmented with passages from his book, Matters of Discretion: An Autobiography (New Delhi: Hay House India), quoted in my book:

Inder and Sheila Gujral visited Pakistan for the first time in 1982. Both spoke in choked voices how well they were received when they met old neighbours and friends. Their former next-door neighbours on Temple Road still lived there. They insisted that they should stay with them. Another story was about a loyal Muslim servant of Sheila’s sister. He had kept as a sacred trust the jewellery that her sister left behind when she fled to India. Later, when law and order were restored, he returned everything to her. Mr Gujral met his old friends and visited his colleges, even talking to students at Hailey College.

The visit to Jhelum too was moving. Inder’s childhood friend, Ahsan Ali, and his father Avtar Narain’s assistant, Muzaffar Hussain Shah, and his colleague, Mohammad Bashir, all came to meet them. They were invited to dinner at the Civil Club. The poet Jogi Jhelumi asked him if he recognised him. Gujral answered that he could still recall him reciting anti-British poems at the Jubilee Ghat public meetings. Later a mushaira was held where the deputy commissioner and other higher officials were present. Inder was invited to preside. Sheila recited her poems (Ahmed 2012: 552-3). “After the mushaira was over, almost everyone invited us to come again soon with the rest of the family. I was moved, when they said: ‘Jhelum is still yours, don’t forget it’,” notes Inder (ibid: 553). He then records:

As we were about to leave, I saw an aged Muslim lady, Khatajan (a variation of Khadija) Bibi, pushing her way towards me. I immediately recognised her, for she had served as a midwife when I and later my two brothers were born...Khatajan Bibi hugged me as a mother would. She was meeting Sheila for the first time. She gave her a small coin as her shagun (blessing)’ (ibid).

Gujral’s autobiography makes very interesting reading. He served as state minister and was appointed the Indian ambassador to the Soviet Union. However, over time relations with Indira Gandhi became strained as he found her increasingly authoritarian and overly centrist in her approach to the provinces (called states). He was strongly critical of the June 1982 military action on the Golden Temple in Amritsar, something that endeared him to the Sikhs. He later served as the finance and external minister, and then finally as prime minister (April 21, 1997-March 1998). He put forward a foreign policy initiative that came to be known as the Gujral Doctrine. It was based on the idea that India had to go the extra mile to accommodate the concerns of smaller neighbours. He was anxious to improve relations with Pakistan. After the fall of the Soviet Union, he was convinced that communism did not work. However, he retained his secular-humanist convictions throughout his life.

* The writer has a PhD from Stockholm University. He is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University. He is also Honorary Senior Fellow of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. His latest publication is The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed: Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy through Secret British Reports and First-Person Accounts (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2012; New Delhi: Rupa Books, 2011). He can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

JULY 2017

Vol. 11 - No. 12


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