Mundane matters

Mundane matters

Kashmir and Beyond 1966-84 is a selection of the correspondence between a prime minister and a former prince — Indira Gandhi and Karan Singh.While the two exchanged letters over 35 years, beginning in 1949 and ending with Indira Gandhi’s death in 1984, the book’s focus is on letters they wrote to each other when Indira Gandhi was prime minister, a period during which Karan Singh was governor of Jammu & Kashmir, minister in her cabinet and out of government. A few letters from the 1949-65 period are included in the appendix.

Indira Gandhi and Karan Singh had more in common than their Kashmiri origins or their love for Kashmir’s scenic beauty. They shared a political mentor in Jawaharlal Nehru. A genuine warmth and affection is evident in their correspondence till the 1970s. Indira Gandhi addressed Karan Singh by his nickname, ‘Tiger’, in several of her letters.

Many readers will tend to dismiss the book as a collection of letters on issues of little significance. Indeed the bulk of the correspondence includes observations on trivia, thank you notes that Indira Gandhi sent to Karan Singh for the almonds and peaches he sent her, and views they exchanged on mundane administrative matters.

A recurring theme in their correspondence in the 1960s is the “need to tone up the administration at all levels.” In one letter, Karan Singh complains about the banquet arrangements at Rashtrapati Bhavan and the unimaginative menu served during the visit of US President Richard Nixon.

Those expecting to enhance their understanding of the Kashmir problem will be sorely disappointed. None of the letters on the situation in J&K provide new insights into how the two leaders perceived the evolving situation. Sadly, none of the correspondence that they might have exchanged on the historic Simla Accord of 1972 finds a place in the book.

Of the 336 letters presented in the book, readers will find the one Karan Singh wrote to Indira Gandhi on June 13, 1975 to be of some interest. In this letter, which was written in the wake of the Allahabad High Court judgment that set aside Indira Gandhi’s election from Rae Bareli and debarred her from holding elective office for six years, he advises her to present to the president a letter “offering to step down from office until the Supreme Court verdict.” “In my view the decision should be quite clear” that “he (the president) informs you the same evening that he does not accept the resignation.”

Clearly, Indira Gandhi was not happy with his suggestion. She did not reply to his letter. Not only did she ignore his advice and not offer to resign, but also went on to declare Emergency less than two weeks later.

What did Indira Gandhi and Karan Singh think of the Emergency? Did they write to each other about it? The book includes just six letters from the Emergency period, all within the first four months of its proclamation, of which one is a note that Karan Singh sent to the prime minister listing suggestions — all administrative measures — “so that India emerges stronger from this crisis.”

None of the correspondence that they might have exchanged during the peak of the Emergency is included in the book. All we know about his views on the Emergency is in Karan Singh’s foreword to the book, where he describes the Emergency as Indira Gandhi’s “nadir”.

It is a pity that none of the letters he might have written to the prime minister on the implementation of the family planning programme, for instance, are included in the book. Did Karan Singh as Union health minister during the Emergency draw the prime minister’s attention to her son Sanjay Gandhi’s controversial forced sterilisation campaign? What was Indira Gandhi’s response? The book is silent on these key questions.

There are no letters too from the period when Indira Gandhi was in political wilderness following her defeat in general elections. When the Congress split, Karan Singh was among those colleagues who deserted her. Sadly, the book is silent on this critical period.

This silence on what was the most difficult period in their relationship is the book’s great drawback. But it is India’s strange archival policy, not the editor, Jawaid Alam, who must bear responsibility for this shortcoming.

Explaining this “chronological gap” in the book, Alam writes in the ‘Editor’s Note’ that letters from this period are “not traceable” and recounts his efforts to locate them. His attempts to gain access to the Indira Gandhi papers at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library “bore no fruit,” he says.

A distinct coolness is evident in their correspondence between 1980 and 1984. Although not a part of the government, Karan Singh wrote frequently to Indira Gandhi. Her responses to his letters were brief, perfunctory and even curt.

Karan Singh’s letters during this period reflect a growing preoccupation with issues related to Hinduism and the welfare of Hindus. In several letters he raises the issue of a ban on cow slaughter. He expresses concern over the “anti-Hindu extremism” in Punjab, the “large-scale killing of Hindus” in Assam and the mass conversion of Dalits in Meenakshipuram to Islam.

Karan Singh’s tilt to the right evoked a sharp response from Indira Gandhi. In one letter, she admonishes him for drawing attention to the suffering of Hindus alone in Assam. “Your statement refers to ‘Hindu villages’ being attacked. All have suffered and all are entitled to the same sympathy,” she reminds him.

What was behind the post-1980 chill in their relationship? Was Indira Gandhi unable to forgive or forget that Karan Singh was not by her side during her most difficult years in Opposition? Or, was it their growing differences on India’s secularism that tore them apart?

Examination of their correspondence between 1976 and 1979 would provide answers to these questions.

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