He was pleased that he was perceived as a people’s high commissioner unlike the stiff neck, snobbish, pompous excellencies.

 

Kuldip Nayar became the first High Commissioner of India in Britain to be greeted with the chants of “Jo Bole so Nihal” by a crowd of Sikhs and other Punjabis on his arrival in March 1990 at the official residence at 9 KPG in London’s posh diplomatic enclave. He was pleased that he was perceived as a people’s high commissioner unlike the stiff neck, snobbish, pompous excellencies.

On his very first day, he ordered the removal of the bulletproof glass from the front of the cabin of the receptionist at the India House in Aldwych, London that separated her from the visitors in spite of her nervousness and serious reservations of the security officer. The reading room and the library, immensely popular with the senior citizens of Indian origin and students—but closed to the public during the tenure of his predecessor, Dr P.C. Alexander, on account of security threats—were thrown open to the public. Just a month before that, at the deputy high commissioner’s (DHC’s) instructions, I, as the Minister (Press & Information) had written to a few NRIs who had expressed interest in coming to the reading room on working days. When I wrote back to them saying now they were welcome, one of them phoned me and asked me playfully: “So, sir, what has changed?” I replied sheepishly: “My boss.” On his instruction, two water dispensers with disposable glasses were placed in the reading room; these simple and inexpensive measures generated a lot of goodwill.

With the approval of High Commissioner Rasgotra, I began organising exclusive performances by the iconic Indian maestros likes Ravi Shankar, Bhimsen Joshi, Jasraj, Amjad Ali Khan at the High Commission for a select audience of 100 guests. His successor, Nayar went a step further, he asked me to organise such performances not at the India House but at High Commissioner’s residence; he insisted that the guests should be seated on the floor in typical baithak style. Though a great idea, it entailed some practical difficulties in its execution, as we learnt it the hard way.

On Rabindra Jayanti, in May 1999, Kuldip Nayar asked me to organise an evening of Rabindra Sangeet at the residence by inviting some well-known local Bengali singers to sing Tagore’s songs. As desired, we removed all the sofas from the drawing room and put carpets on the floor to seat around 150 guests. As we had not organised such a function earlier, we were not sure of the public response. But when word spread about Rabindra Sangeet at the High Commissioner’s residence, everybody who was somebody in the Bengali community in London decided to turn up, with the result, we had over 250 guests on our hands. The cool and motherly Bharti-ji, Mrs Kuldip Nayar, took out all the carpets from all the bedrooms to seat the guests on the floor but then we ran out of carpets. A visibly tense Bhartiji asked me, agitatedly, “Surinder, kitne log bula liye tumne? Ab to koi carpet bhi nahi bachi ghar mein (How many people did you invite? We do not have any more carpets).” Though the programme was a huge hit, we realised that it was not such a great idea after all. Thanks to Nayar’s personal friendship, the function was also attended by the Pakistani and Bangladesh High Commissioners and the Ambassador of Nepal to UK.

When Kuldip Nayar noticed that the op-eds in Independent were persistently critical of India he asked me what might be the reason. I told him that there could be some personal grudge against India. “So, let us get it from the horse’s mouth,” he quipped. We invited the journalist who used to write op-eds about India in the Independent to a dinner at the famous Indian restaurant Veeraswamy on Regent Street. During this leisurely dinner and freewheeling conversation, it was revealed that he was married to a Pakistani lady. Having never been to India himself, his perception of India was largely based on the opinion of his wife, who was bitterly critical of India. We sent this journalist to India for a week to see for himself what India was all about. On his return, he didn’t start singing songs about India, but his writing became considerably nuanced and balanced.

Having crossed over to India from Sialkot just before the partition and written copiously on Punjab related issues with empathy for decades, Kuldip Nayar was very popular in the Punjabi community in UK. He tried to wean away the Sikh youth in UK from the path of radicalisation through his parleys with some prominent Sikh leaders. He also got the names of many Sikhs who were not directly involved in any violent attacks, struck off from the Black List of India’s Ministry of Home Affairs. But his over-confidence about his popularity among the Sikhs badly backfired once. Contrary to the advice of Minister Security, on a Sunday, he arrived unannounced at a gurdwara near South Hall which was under the control of an anti-India Sikh group. He was accompanied only by his wife and the Scotland Yard security officer assigned to him by the British Foreign Office. When some young Sikhs recognised him, they pinned him down to the ground. He would have been fatally injured but for the security officer, who covered him and took all the blows on his back and somehow dragged him out of the place and drove him to safety. Later, he confided that he had never taken so many blows without responding with his gun.

Kuldip Nayar felt deeply hurt and wronged when some senior MPs including Chandre Shekhar demanded his recall for alleged negligence resulting in the death of Justice Mukherjee who was a heart patient and also a diabetic. The fact is that Nayar was himself convalescing in a hospital after his hernia operation. Even the commission headed by Justice Reddy didn’t find any negligence on the part of any official of the High Commission.

Once a journalist, always a journalist! Once he invited all the surviving ICS officers who had served in India during the Raj to a dinner at his residence. They were pleasantly surprised as no other HC had done so earlier. While toasting, he said, “I am not sure whether you did some good to India or not but you are a part of our history. So, I want to connect with that piece of history.” Next morning several British papers carried reports about his dinner.

Working with him was like dealing with an elderly member of the family; it was an atmosphere of informality and bonhomie. I never saw him lose his temper or throw tantrums as do most of the ambassadors and high commissioners.

Surendra Kumar is a retired diplomat.