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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 33

Chandra Shekhar : Some Reminiscences

by Balraj Puri

Wednesday 8 August 2007

I first met Chandra Shekhar when I was working as the Secretary of the Praja Socialist Party’s Parliamentary Group in its office at Canning Lane, New Delhi in the late fifties. Since then I maintained regular contacts with him irrespective of his party affiliations. For, we shared a broad political approach to various national problems. And despite shifting his allegiance from the socialist movement to the Congress to the Janata Party and to the Samajwadi Janata Party, there was a basic consistency in his views.

Thus when Indira Gandhi clashed with Jayaprakash Narayan over the issue of the Emergency, he asserted his loyalty to the latter and his commitment to democracy. When we started an all-party agitation against police firing in the border town of Poonch on a protest demonstration on the issue of large scale bungling in recruitment of teachers in 1978-79, I requested Chandra Shekhar to send a delegation of MPs of the Janata Party—of which he was then the President—to report on the situation. He readily agreed.

Perhaps he was the only national leader to publicly condemn ‘Operation Bluestar’ in 1984. I appreciated his bold stand and asked him whether he would be able to maintain his popular base after this stand. He was confident that he would but what was more important to him, he said, was that it was the demand of the national interest and his conscience.

WHEN he became the Prime Minister of India, I received a message from him, through the Governor of J&K State, asking me to see him immediately in New Delhi. I had just returned after a prolonged tour of Punjab where, inter alia, I had met the Panthic Committee, which was spearheading the militant movement in the State, in a well-fortified underground fortress. After prolonged and cordial discussions, I was able to extract a commitment form the Committee to stop the killings of innocents, particularly of children, women and old people.

The report of my work was conveyed to Chandra Shekhar, by a common friend. When I met him, on his call, he said the Kashmir problem could wait as it was too complicated and chronic. But the Punjab problem needed immediate attention and asked for my advice. Apart from long-term measures, I suggested a firm response to the Panthic Committee’s decision to stop the killings of innocents. I wanted him to issue strict instructions to the security forces to take utmost care to avoid killings of any innocent Sikh in fake encounters or in custody. He agreed. He further agreed to consider my other suggestions. We resolved to meet again to follow up our agreements.

It was a meeting that lasted from 9.30 pm to 11.30 pm. After a detailed discussion on Punjab, he asked for some immediate steps that could be taken to ease the situation in Kashmir. I suggested a meeting of all important leaders of the State, who were available in Delhi. He called his Secretary to get a list of invitees from me and to arrange for a dinner meeting with them the following night cancelling all his engagement for that evening. I submitted my broad proposals to the meeting for a discussion over them.

On another occasion, the veteran Gujjar leader of UP, Ram Chander Vikal, contacted me when he learnt that I was in Delhi. He asked me to accompany him to Chandra Shekhar to plead the case of the Gujjars of J&K State. I readily agreed. When we sent a message to the PM’s house for an appointment, he came out (perhaps more for his respect for the elderly Vikal than for me). Vikal told him to listen to me as his leader and that of the Gujjars. Chandra Shekhar asked me since when I had become a Gujjar leader. I replied ever since the community acknowledged it.

I told him that Indira Gandhi had agreed to declare the Gujjars of J&K as a tribal community. But bureaucratic hurdles prevented its implementation. He said once he was convinced about any matter, no bureaucrat could stand in the way. Accordingly the order was issued as desired by us during the prime ministership of Chandra Shekhar.

Lastly, I wanted to invite him to a meeting of non-party leaders, including the former Prime Ministers, to oppose the moves, that I suspected were afoot, for division of the J&K State on religious lines. He fully endorsed my view and promised to support any follow-up action but expressed his inability to attend the meet due to a prior engagement outside Delhi. The meeting was attended, among others, by V.P. Singh and Inder Kumar Gujral. He sent a separate letter in support of the resolution passed at the meeting opposing the division of the State to the then Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee.

Chandra Shekhar was, as far as I knew him, consistent in maintaining friendships and in his basic principles, though not in loyalty to parties. Above all, he was a greet doer.

The author is the Director, Institute of Jammu and Kashmir Affairs, Jammu.

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