Atal Bihari Vajpayee: An apostle of peace - humanity personified
A 28-year-old dhoti-kurta clad young man was jostling to push his blanket-wrapped baggage into the unreserved compartment of a passenger train at Delhi Railway station on May 8, 1953. The scene was a send off to Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee, founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (predecessor of the present day Bharatiya Janata Party), on a mission to enter Jammu & Kashmir defying the entry-permit order of the then government and demanding full integration of the state into the Indian Union.
On the call of duty was a journalist turned hitherto unfamiliar political secretary to Dr. Mookerjee and his name was Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Dr Mookerjee was arrested on May 10, 1953 at the J&K border while entering the state and refusing to obtain an entry-permit; subsequently, he was taken to Srinagar jail. He sent his aide Vajpayee back to Delhi with a message for the party rank and file to continue the agitation. His clarion call was:
“Ek desh mein do vidhan, do pradhan, aur do nishan nahin chalenge.” (In one country there can’t be two constitutions, two prime ministers and two flags). Dr. Mookerjee died under mysterious circumstances while in custody in Srinagar on June 23, 1953. And a young Vajpayee, with his oratorical eloquence, relentlessly went on to spread his political mentor’s message across the country and made an indelible mark as a debutant on the political scene of independent India.
Atalji entered the Lok Sabha from Balrampur in UP in the second general elections in 1957 and his maiden speech earned him laurels from many contemporary veteran parliamentarians, including the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who, while introducing Vajpayee to a visiting foreign dignitary once said “this young man one day will become the country’s prime minister.”
Atalji was unsparing in his criticism of Nehru in the Rajya Sabha, when National Conference leader Sheikh Abdullah was released from house-arrest in Delhi on April 8, 1964 and was allowed to visit Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. But the same Vajpayee paid glowing tributes to the departed prime minister in the Upper House when Nehru died on May 27, 1964. Respect for political adversaries has always been a unique feature of Vajpayee’s multi-faceted personality. Vajpayee remained a Member of Parliament for 47 years, eleven times elected to the Lok Sabha, and twice to the Rajya Sabha. He was elected to the Lok Sabha from Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh for six consecutive terms. But the issue of Jammu and Kashmir always remained foremost in his mind. He was a staunch critic of Nehru’s Jammu and Kashmir policy.
A poet at heart, Atalji articulated beautiful thoughts in couplets or rhyme as one of the means of expressing himself in any given situation. He would often recite one of his poems during the course of his speeches to convey his message for the occasion and enthral his audience. Atalji inherited this talent from his father Krishna Bihari Vajpayee and practiced poetry writing and recitation since childhood by accompanying him at Kavi Sammelans in the erstwhile princely state of Gwalior where he was born in a middle class family of a school teacher.
Compilation of his poetry titled Meri Ekyaavan Kavitayein has been very popular. Famous film producer Yash Chopra directed an album Antarnaad based on some of Atalji’s classic poems which were composed by ghazal-maestro Jagjit Singh with super star Shah Rukh Khan articulating the theme.
One of his poems on Jammu and Kashmir “Mastak Nahi Jhukega” sums up India’s position on the issue of Jammu and Kashmir. As external affairs minister in the 1977 Janata Party government, Vajpayee pursued the policy of friendly relations with India’s neighbours, including Pakistan, on the principle of peaceful co-existence and mutual respect.
His famous quote “you can change friends but not your neighbours” went on to become a dictum in the Indian foreign office establishment. Resolving all the outstanding issues with Pakistan, including the issue of Jammu and Kashmir issue in a peaceful manner through bilateral dialogue without any third party intervention was Vajpayee’s mantra when he became the prime minister, first for 13 days in 1996, then for 13 months in 1998 and again for a full five-year term in 1999.
The successful nuclear test “Operation Shakti” in Pokhran on May 13, 1998, was Atalji’s strategic master stroke, which he defended as a “deterrent” rather than as a weapon of mass destruction. He put India in the league of the world’s elite nuclear club, yet announced moratorium on future testing. He carried his message of peace to Pakistan during a bus journey to Lahore on February 19, 1999.
Vajpayee made it a point to visit to Minar-e-Pakistan where he re-affirmed India’s commitment to the existence of Pakistan. He reached out to the people of Pakistan in a passionate speech at the governor’s house in Lahore telecast live both in Pakistan and India. Atalji extended a hand of friendship on the basis of reciprocity and mutual trust and called for collective fight against poverty in the Indian subcontinent devoid of terrorism and drug-trafficking.
Vajpayee’s emotional speech from the bottom of his heart made Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to comment “Vajpayee Saheb, ab to aap Pakistan mein bhi election jeet sakte haein!” (Mr Vajpayee, now you can win elections even in Pakistan!) Vajpayee also signed a Lahore Declaration with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on February 21, 1999, wherein Pakistan agreed to resolve all bilateral issues between the two countries, including the thorny one of Jammu and Kashmir in a peaceful manner and through dialogue and to promote people to people contact.
The Delhi–Lahore Bus Service Sada-e-Sarhad (Call of the Frontier) was launched as a symbol of the efforts of the Vajpayee government to promote peaceful and friendly relations with Pakistan on the basis of reciprocity.
Atalji did now allow the bus service to be terminated even when Pakistan army chief Parvez Musharraf launched an attack in Kargil between May and July, 1999, which the Indian armed forces successfully repulsed forcing the Pakistani army to vacate the occupied hills in the region.
However, the service had to be suspended during the heightened tension between the two neighbours in the aftermath of the Pakistan-ISI sponsored terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament on December 13, 2001.
It was restored on July 16, 2003 when Pakistan assured the Indian government as well as the international community that Islamabad would not allow its territory to be used for terrorists’ activities. There have been many ups and downs in the Indo-Pak relations in the last decade and half but the Delhi-Lahore bus remains a symbol of the desire of the people of two countries to maintain people-to-people contacts.
Atalji’s doctrine of peace, progress and prosperity in Jammu and Kashmir in the spirit of Insaniyat (Humanity), Jamhuriyat (Democracy) and Kashmiriyat (Identity of the people of Kashmir) was universally acclaimed by all segments across political spectrum in the state, including the extremist elements in the Valley and perhaps also the Kashmiris across the Line of Control (LOC) in the
All the setbacks to his dialogue initiatives, including Kargil conflict, high- jacking of an Indian Airlines plane to Kandhar and terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament, notwithstanding, Vajpayee did not allow the peace process to derail despite serious provocations by the Pakistan army and the ISI.
His NDA government continued to encourage confidence building measures and people-to-people contact in the larger interest of peace and tranquility in the sub-continent, an essential ingredient of progress and development of the region where one-third of the population lives below the poverty line.
And now the NDA-II under the stewardship of India’s most popular and dynamic leader Prime Minister Narendra Modi has embarked upon the mission of accomplishing the unfinished agenda of Vajpayee for a terrorism-free prosperous South Asia.
Prime Minister Modi, picking up the thread, where Vajpayee had left in matters of India’s pro-active policy of improving relations with all immediate neighbours was on display at the very outset of the NDA-2 when heads of all the SAARC member countries were invited to witness Narendra Bhai’s swearing-in ceremony at the forecourt of majestic Rashtrapati Bhavan in Lutyens’ Delhi.
Later, he chose Bhutan and Nepal for his maiden foreign visits as prime minister in the SARC spirit.
Narendra Modi, who has always held Vajpayee in highest esteem and considered him his role model, never misses a chance to eulogize the larger-than-life towering personality of this living legend.
Speaking in the central hall of parliament on the historic occasion of his unanimous election as leader of the newly elected BJP parliamentary party on May 20, 2014, Narandra Modi didn’t forget to remember Vajpayee when he said “Yadi Atalji ka swasthay anumati deta aur woh aaj hamare beech hotein to sone par suhaga hota” ( if Atal ji’s health permitted and he would have been present here, it would have been like the icing on the cake).
Prime Minister Modi too has demonstrated his deep affection for the people of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh and has paid several visits to all the three region in a short span of six months.
During his election rallies in the state, Narendra Modi promised to the people that his government would fulfil the dream of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and bring peace and prosperity in the state based on “Insaniyat, Jamhuriyat aur Kashmiriyat”( Humanity, democracy & Identity of the people of Kashmir).
Modi, during his visits to the state, always mentioned that Atalji through his three-point Kashmir-doctrine had made a special place in the hearts of Kashmiris and ignited hope in every Kashmiri youth for a better future.
“Our Mantra is only development, development and development,” he said, adding, “I will return your trust in me with interest by ensuring full fledged development in J&K.”
Prime Minister Modi has assured the state, “It is my wish and I will come here again & again to fulfil Atalji’s dream” The Narendra Modi government’s decision to observe Atalji’s 90th birth day on December 25 as “Good Governance Day” is perhaps the most befitting tribute the younger generation of his party could pay to its friend, philosopher & guide over the last so many decades.
Awarding Atal Bihari Vajpayee Bharat Ratna on his birthday have been welcomed by political leaders across the party lines. Perhaps it has been long overdue.
The author is a senior journalist