Former politician and diplomat K. Natwar Singh, who turned 90 this week, speaks to Bhumika Popli about his long and distinguished career in Indian politics and his unabated passion for writing.
Q. Having just turned 90 a few days ago, how do you look back on your life?
A. It is not possible to take an objective view of one’s life. It is possible to analyse one’s life. I have led an unusually exciting life, as a diplomat, politician, author, globetrotter. My nature is rooted in solitude. Broadly speaking, I am on good terms with myself. I don’t claw at life. I am an agnostic. I believe that religions, as practiced, do more harm than good. Even in our great epics, morality and ethical conduct are in places ignored. At the battle of Kurukshetra, Lord Krishna asks a reluctant Arjun to kill an unarmed Karna, who is trying to repair the wheel of his chariot. This sent a chill down my spine. As does Lord Rama’s treatment of Sita. TheRigveda and the Gita make references to the Shudras. I approve of B.R. Ambedkar burning the Manusmrity. I read it with rage.
I do not accept the view that progress is inherent in history. The invention of nuclear weapons, the activities of Boko Haram, the Taliban and Islamic state cannot be called contributions to human progress.
I am aware of my shortcomings. I am conceited, at times overbearing, overzealous and occasionally obstreperous and with a tendency to leap before looking.
My being aware of my failings does me no discredit.
Q. On many occasions you have said that the British author E.M. Forster impacted your life. In which year did you meet him and how were you introduced to him?
A. I met him in 1952. My college was Corpus Christi College [University of Cambridge] and Forster used to stay at King’s College, just a five-minute walk from my college. His book The Hill of Devicame out in 1952, so I wrote to him that I enjoyed the book and it is likely that it may be misunderstood in India, so it is an apology from the princely order. Then he sent me a postcard and invited me to come and have tea with him. It was a great honour for me.
Q. You have published several books. What drew you to writing and literature?
A. It was because of E.M. Forster and my reading of history in college time. Eventually, I published three books in America, which were edited by me. These were, The Legacy of Nehru, E.M .Forster: A Tribute and Stories from India. In 1981, I wrote a book on Maharaja Suraj Mal, the founder of Bharatpur dynasty. It got translated into Hindi and 30 years later it is still selling. Then I wrote a few other books. My autobiography, entitledOne Life is Not Enough, came out in 2014 and it sold 60,000 copies and it is still selling.
Apart from this, I am a voracious reader. I have a personal library of 6,000 books and from the age of 13-14, I have never been without a book. And if you are a lover of books you can never be bored in life. I have never been bored in life. I may have bored other people but not myself [laughs]. As I was in constant contact with the Nehrus, who were great readers and also great letter writers, there I read a lot as well. I was very impressed by autobiographies by Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi. Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s book, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian is outstanding as well.
Q. Are you writing anything these days?
A. At the moment I am working with Pavan K. Varma on a book on Mahatma Gandhi. It will be out this year to coincide with Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary. It is a book of essays. We are editing it. And there will be 10 essays included in it. We have asked Rajmohan Gandhi, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, Ramachandra Guha and Gurcharan Das among others to contribute to it.
Q. Could you talk about your memories of Jawaharlal Nehru?
A. One of the reasons I opted for IFS rather than IAS was because Jawaharlal Nehru was the foreign minister. But I am aware of his shortcomings. I think he made a seditious mistake by taking the Kashmir issue to the UN Security Council. I think he misjudged China. But he is the maker of modern India. It is as simple as that.
Q. As you were also very close to Indira Gandhi. Could you tell us what she was really like?
A. I travelled all over the world with her. Next to her in the car, I listened to her. I knew when to keep my mouth shut. Unlike her father, who had a very easy time, Indira Gandhi had to fight every inch of the way. From 1966-69 she had a very tough time. She was able to demolish her opponents, who thought that since she was a girl they could control her. She had a peak of her career in 1971, the Bangladesh War. Here, she did the whole thing very skilfully. She brought Western media and liberal America on her side. In a relaxed mood, she was fun and had a great sense of humour. A week before her death, we were going down the steps of South Block. I said, “Madam, tomorrow I will be going to Bharatpur and my first priority would be to get Congress’ livery, the khaddar kurta pyjama, and so on.” She replied, “Now as you are joining politics, a thicker skin could be more useful.”
Q. You were appointed as the Indian Ambassador to Pakistan from 1980-82. Do you think there will ever be a peaceful resolution to the India-Pakistan issue?
A. Every Prime Minister, every foreign minister of India thinks that we can solve the Kashmir problem. We are all mistaken, including me. It is one of those problems that have no solution. The solution is the status quo. Now we can’t say it publicly but people have said it.
The other thing is that the major decisions in Pakistan have been taken by the army, except in the time of Mr Jinnah, who survived only 13 months after Pakistan became a country. After the second Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan, who was shot dead in 1951, the army has been a major player in Pakistan. For Indo-Pak relations, the army has major decisive power. If the relations became genuinely friendly then the people of Pakistan will ask why we need such a large army. Now, this is not acceptable because the Pakistani army is very powerful. And Pakistani colonels and brigadiers live like pashas. The Pakistani army also has a business establishment. I don’t think that we are going into another war. I hope not. But I don’t see the kind of cordiality and good neighbourly relations. If one goes to Pakistan, one will see that the people of Pakistan are friendly. Pakistan has a democratically elected prime minister but he has his limitations.
Q. You have observed Indian politics at close quarters since the Gandhi-Nehru era. What are your views on our current political scenario?
A. Politics is a very noble profession. And we are fortunate that the political tradition in India has been Gandhian. And then you had great people like Sardar Patel, Motilal Nehru and Rajaji among others. But now the level of the national political dialogue has gone so low that somebody of my generation feels like crying. You have debates by all means but don’t call each other names! Especially when you are the Prime Minister of India or the leader of Indian National Congress! In the past, the top leaders of Congress and BJP didn’t use such language. Be it Rajiv Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, Atal Behari Vajpayee, L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi or others.
So when you see that the head of the Indian government sometimes uses such words, it is distressing. I know he has a hard job. In many ways, he has done well. There hasn’t been a single Hindu-Muslim riot in the last five years. Nobody can accuse him of being personally corrupt. On the other hand, he hasn’t done a single press conference which a Prime Minister should.
Similarly, I feel very distressed, having been a congressman for 25 years, after listening to “Chowkidaar Chor Hai”. It is not a happy phrase and certainly not to be used in public. Especially not from Jawaharlal Nehru’s great-grandson and Indira Gandhi’s grandson. On the other hand, I very much admire Rahul for ticking off Sam Pitroda. Some of the leaders of BJP use worse language and they should be taken to task and should be told that this language is not acceptable. So I naturally feel very grieved.