In conversation with Rahul Singh and Malavika Sangghvi, two notable journalists, at the Khushwant Singh Lit Fest in Kasauli, author and politician Mani Shankar Aiyar recalls his association with the late prime minister, as he has portrayed him in his recent book released earlier in the capital.
Rahul Singh: Mani writes about his school days in his book, by the way, a most readable book. Even the bits, which I was not all that familiar with, I found most readable. But the part which I personally liked most of all was how you got close to Rajiv Gandhi, and you made it very clear that you did not really know him at all before that. People think that this part of the Doon School coterie that was ruling India at one time, but there was nobody really from Doon School.
Malavika: No, there was Arun Singh.
Mani: But he only lasted a year.
Malavika: Anyway, what we’re going to talk about is, of course everybody knows that Mani has written about Rajiv Gandhi. He has spoken about him. But I wanted to take the conversation to something deeper. I wanted to engage Mani and Rahul in something about what he thinks is a man of great character. What is a man of great principle? Let him define those things for us. And then let’s start a debate on what between the audience and us and Mani, what are those values that really make a man memorable and somebody we can say he’s got great character. Was Rajiv Gandhi a man like that?
Mani: In my view, yes. I didn’t know him at all. What little I knew of him, I didn’t really appreciate. I didn’t think we should have a dynasty. I was astonished that an airline pilot was being made Prime Minister of India. He didn’t have a good academic record. In fact, he had the distinction of having failed at both Cambridge as well as the Imperial College. And so, when I learned that he’d become the Prime Minister of India, I was shocked less at him then at the country, and then came the Sikh riots, or rather I’d call it the Sikh pogrom. And I found myself very, very disturbed by what was happening. I was also very deeply concerned for myself because my wife being a Sikh and me not being a Sikh, I just wondered which side was going to get us. But I later learned that he had gone out when he discovered that his Home Minister, Mr. Narasimha Rao and his Lieutenant Governor of Delhi, had both completely fallen on their faces as far as stopping the pogrom was concerned. He went in his own car to the worst affected areas at 2:30 am in the morning and on return and ensured that the Indian army came in from Meerut. It could not have come in from Delhi because the Delhi cantonment strength, as told to me by Maj Gen Grewal is always kept low.
Malavika: But Mani, Rajiv Gandhi also made that statement, which seemed like an apology for the pogrom. He said, when a tall tree falls, the earth is bound to shake. And that was used many times against him and his government.
Mani: Yes, it was. But that was, I think a highly motivated attack on him for it is generally believed even by people like Jairam Ramesh, who belong to my circle that Rajeev said that on the first day, and that as soon as the riots broke out, he said, when a big tree falls, the earth will shake a little. And Vajpayee in his typical style said, no, no, it’s wrong. It’s when the earth shakes a little that the tree falls. But this, it has to be remembered that it was only after his personal actions as a completely new and raw Prime Minister had brought matters to a complete dead stop by the 3rd of November. That 16 days later when for 16 days there had not been a single killing, at least in Delhi, then it was that it turned out to be his mother’s birthday. And at that birthday celebration on the 19th of November is when in a speech where just before this sentence comes, he’s appealing for peace and a refusal to take revenge that he says that the only way that one can view what happened, he doesn’t condone it, he doesn’t justify it, is to recognize that it is a fact of nature that when the tree falls, the earth shakes. This has been misused again and again for the last 40 years. So, I thought I had better explain the entire background. I’ve given extracts in my book from all the speeches that he made between the 1st and the 5th of November, whereby which time things had come to a standstill.
But I also criticize him. I also fault him for four major errors. I think the book says six, but I’m not going to go into the other two because it’ll be too long. The first error he made was that he did not apologize personally. It took a Sikh Prime Minister more than, or nearly 20 years later as Prime Minister to apologize for the events of 1984. Second, he did not dismiss his cousin, who was the Commissioner of Police. He removed him later, but that by then it was too long, too late. Third, he didn’t announce a commission of inquiry.
And the Ranganath Misra Commission of Inquiry was established six months after these events in April 1986, by which time it had no political impact. I think the last thing I would say is that he never said, he did not at that time say anything that could have brought comfort.
Malavika: And why do you think he didn’t?
Mani: Well, what did he do then? He then showed that in his view, it was not words that mattered, but action that mattered. So as soon as he’d won the election in December of 1985, in January of 1986, he immediately released Sant Harchand Singh Longowal. While I was then taken into the PMO and put in charge of organizing his trips and travels, and Harinder Baweja had used the manager tours and travels to describe my designation. And so I was with Rajiv when he went to Hussainiwala in Punjab, and there was not a word of retribution towards the Sikhs who had killed his mother. Instead, there was a long hand of friendship extended, and I didn’t know then. But we all learned later that the reason he’d appointed Arjun Singh as the Governor of Punjab was to get a conversation going between Longowal and all his companions and the Government of India through the governor in order to create the ground through which eventually, and by eventually, I only mean July of that year, he talked to Longowal directly and the Rajiv-Longowal Accord was signed and elections were declared in Punjab. So his actions spoke very loudly, more loudly, I think, than his words. I wish he had combined his words with his action, but at least in evaluating his words or lack of them, I think his actions should be considered.
Rahul: But Mani don’t you think the Congress was behind those riots?
Mani: I think because I think there may have been individual Congressmen involved, one of them.
Rahul: Arun Nehru?
Malavika: No, no.
Mani: No, Arun Nehru’s role has been mentioned. I have mentioned that in my book. But I’ve said that I have no evidence of this at all.
Rahul: Now there Mani, I disagree with you. I think the Congress was behind those. And that is why whenever people talk about the Gujarat riots, they counter saying, well, what about the Sikh riots?
Mani: Well, now that you’ve said that, I would like you personally to give me the evidence that you have regarding the involvement of the Congress as a party. As individuals there have been cases going against Jagdish Tytler for the last 40 years and have not come to a conclusion. There was the Ranganath Misra Commission, there was then another committee, I forgotten what his name was.
Rahul: Ved Marwah also had something, had a committee.
Mani: The point is that it is not enough to make a statement. As a policeman Ved Marwah knew very well that he would have to establish this, and forums were established by Rajiv Gandhi and by subsequent Congress government where whatever evidence there was could have been led. And if they weren’t, well, it’s not the fault of the Congress. It is the fault of those who had information but didn’t come forth.
Malavika: Okay. But one thing, the session is not about Rajiv. It is about Mani’s value, why he admired the man and whether he has seen those qualities in other people during his rich career of diplomacy, politics and writing journalism. What were the qualities you admired? Now you’ve stated that he was a man of action. Perhaps he couldn’t communicate as well as he should have. He was a man of empathy, would you say?
Mani: I would say that he was a man of enormous compassion. He lacked ambition because he didn’t need to have ambition to get to the position that he did. As a quality he assumed, he assumed wrongly I think that others in the company of politicians would also lack that killer instinct to just promote their own interests.
Malavika: So, was he naïve?
Mani: No, because when it came to the problems that he had inherited, and there were three major problems that he had inherited. The Punjab problem, the Assam problem, and the Mizoram problem, these were the three big insurgencies. And his solution to each one of them was extraordinarily patriotic in the sense that he sacrificed his party’s interest to get those who were against India and against the government of India to come onto their side.
The first example of that was the deal he did with Longowal. The essence of which was that an election would be held in Punjab, which every Congressman knew the Congress would lose. And as predicted, the Akali Dal won and Barnala became the Chief Minister. That there were complications subsequently about other aspects of the deal. I don’t think I should take up too much time explaining them, but I have explained them in great length in a book that is about to come out, which is about Rajiv Gandhi. This book is about me.
The second major problem he had was Assam and Assam in the sensitive Northeast was a problem that had not been handled by his predecessor, his own mother. He instructed his Home Secretary to tell the boys that they should put down whatever they want on a piece of paper, and that he would then accept what they said subject to ratification by the electorate. And as a result of that electorate, the existing Congress government of Hiteswar Saikia lost.
And Mizoram which is something that very few people in the rest of India seem to care about, had had a 20-year insurgency caused by bamboo flowering. It started in 1966, and Rajiv came into this in 1986. For 20 years, successive governments of India had failed to come to an accommodation with Laldenga, despite the fact that 15 years before Rajiv became the prime Minister, no, sorry, 13 years before he became Prime Minister, East Pakistan had become Bangladesh.
So, the kind of assistance that Laldenga was getting from East Pakistan seized with the creation of Bangladesh, yet the insurgency continued. So, what did he do? He told Laldenga who was leading the insurgency that you become the Chief Minister without an election. And my Chief Minister, whom you’ve been trying to assassinate for 30 years will become your Deputy. And after that government is formed, you fight an election and then if you win, you’ll become an elected Chief Minister. And sure enough, in the election, Laldenga won. There was later on another election and the Congress came back to power. Since then, for the last 30 years, there has been complete peace in Mizoram which is an integral part of our country. It’s setting an example to Delhi by taking in the refugees that are being driven out by the Junta from Myanmar, they have shown the country a lead. And this has been done by changing from a Congress to an MNF that is the Mizo National Front government every 10 years. It’s an absolutely remarkable example of putting yourself in your enemy’s feet and then trying to find a solution that would be accepted by all.
Malavika: So much wealth of admiration, absolute loyalty, really adulation for this gentleman.
Mani: No, there’s no absolute loyalty. And there’s no absolute adulation.
Malavika: No, but he’s not there anymore. Was the loss deeper personally or for the country?
Mani: It was all for the country because in each of the three cases I mentioned, the consequence was that the Congress party, which had fought a bitter political battle in Punjab against the Akali Dal, found itself being sidelined by its own Congress President Rajiv Gandhi in Assam, there was actually a congress government that had been elected under in Gandhi’s dispensation. It was led by a man called Hiteswar Saikia, who was asked to, was forced to fight an election that was not due, and inevitably he lost the election and then he was sent as governor of Mizoram. And there he had a major role to play in affecting the accord between Rajiv Gandhi and Laldenga that led to peace of a kind that the rest of India has not experienced in the last 40 years.
Malavika: Why don’t you tell the audience about what you’ve written about in the book about how he said to you between the Shah Bano decision and the Babri Masjid decision, he has lost all his support base, which shows how larger than the situation he was, he was willing to risk his own personal equity for the better good, for the greater good.
Mani: No, I think the Shah Bano story needs to start with a remark that Rajiv made to me when he was more or less changing things after the 1985 decision. He said to me, even Sonia does not agree with me. And now Neerja Chowdhury has said that D P Tripathi had reported to her that he’d witnessed an argument between husband and wife. And since Rajiv had the highest respect for his wife’s opinion, his opposition began at home. Outside there was the general view taken even by his Director of Minority Affairs that now that the Supreme Court has spoken, why do you want to involve yourself? But he had listened to the debate that took place in Parliament for all of seven months, from May 1985 to December 1985, where every Muslim speaker had said that this judgement violates Muslim personal law, and he had to find a balance between the two. They were objecting. They thought the Supreme Court in 1985 had upheld a woman’s rights against the patriarchy of her religion. And the Muslim personnel concerned were of the view that you have promised us our personal law in the Constitution. And other minorities joined in that and said that you cannot completely throw away personal law and say that all this is dependent on the Supreme Court.
After he passed the Muslim Women Protection on Divorce Rights Act, Daniel Latifi, who is a very famous lawyer of my generation or of the generation which I admired, he filed a case in the Supreme Court, a special writ petition in which he challenged the legal, constitutional and moral validity of what Rajiv Gandhi had done. The Supreme Court took its time coming to a conclusion, but in 2001, 19th September, the Supreme Court announced that in fact he had codified Muslim personal law into our civil law because the role of the waqf board in looking after destitute women was referred to the Magistrate and it became part of our country’s civil law with the result that all marriages, which break down in the Muslim community in the last 20 years have all been decided under the act that Rajiv Gandhi passed. And we’ve had nine non-Congress governments in this period, none of which has repealed the act, and yet this is not talked about at all. The fact of the matter is that if you respect the 1985 Supreme Court judgement, you have to equally respect the 2001 Supreme Court judgement.
Malavika: Okay. So this brings me to the question, as I said, he’s gone and it’s been a terrible loss for many people, including yourself and the nation as you have argued in the book. Now, why for instance, do you think the present Congress is following any of his principles, any of his examples in leadership? And if not, what is the gap between that?
Mani: I think Parakala Prabhakar answered that question this morning, and I completely agree with him that there is no political party in India, including of course, the Congress which would be ready to take on the BJP and the forces of Hindutva on fundamental questions of principle. They’re not ready to do that.
And Rajiv himself, as I’ve said in this book, he fell from his great principles when he agreed to the suggestion made by R K Dhawan and others that he should conduct the shalanyas in the middle of the election and the people punished him for it. He was brought down from over 400 seats to under 200 seats. His election in 1984 was the single biggest election victory ever recorded by a putative prime minister. The defeat that he suffered in 1989 as a result of playing both sides of the case, gave him the biggest defeat that any incumbent government has ever received in the history of parliamentary India.
So, I am not saying that he was a God whom I am adulating or admiring he was a human being who was trying to cope with the situation. When he was on his own then the moral Rajiv Gandhi prevailed; when he was not on his own, when he was being pressurized then sometimes then sometimes he toppled over. But then in the year after he got defeated, he spent time with Siddhartha Shankar Ray. Siddhartha Shankar Ray gave him an answer that a case could be filed in the Supreme Court under Article 143, and he proposed that to Chandra Shekhar. And because Chandra Shekhar didn’t accept that, it became one of the reasons why he brought down the Chandra Shekhar government. But much of the rest of the time, imagine being an airlines pilot who inherits problems that dates back to Morarji Desai, to Indira Gandhi, and in some cases even to Lal Bahadur Shastri, and then he solves three of them within a period of a little over a year.
And those solutions have held Punjab today. And this conference itself shows that because all of us have come through, Punjab is a peaceful state. Yes, it has differences among themselves and with Delhi and even with the Congress party. But considering the situation that he inherited, the long-term solution, he found equally, you can go to Assam anytime, and although it’s under the BJP government, you can easily wander around the whole of the state.
Malavika: And the irony is that people say that had he lived, he would have been a much, much better Prime Minister than even the first term.
Mani: I don’t accept this as a compliment. Because I think where he prevailed, he was being himself where he failed, he was being a politician. And if your suggestion is that he’d become more of a politician, then no. He could have reverted to himself, but then he would’ve been the same Prime Minister who caused so much problems for himself. So therefore, I think we need to evaluate him as a person.