Speak Memory: My Years with Rajiv

Speak Memory: My Years with Rajiv

Wajahat Habibullah in conversation with Pavan K. Varma

The first thing that struck me at the recording of this session for the Jaipur Literature Festival 2021, titled, ‘Speak Memory: My Years with Rajiv’, was the refined, bell-like tones of Wajahat Habibullah, former Chairperson of the National Commission for Minorities and India’s first Chief Information Commissioner. I found him fitting my idea of the complete, distinguished old-world gent who, even when he had to launch a subtle critique - remained soft, measured and gentle! It was a sunny and mild winter morning in Delhi and I was privileged to be on-ground as crew during this recording of an unusual edition of what is arguably the world’s ‘greatest literary show’.

In conversation with the discerning, erudite and a rather frank interjector - former diplomat, politician and writer Pavan K. Varma –Habibullah touched upon various defining moments of his career – moments in time which were also transformational for India’s trajectory as a democracy having to navigate a plethora of cultural identities and the sensibilities of several religious communities. As Varma mentioned, Habibullah and his family had been privileged to have been witness to many happenings in modern Indian history and had come in close contact with architects of modern India. Habibullah said with warmth that he and former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi were similar in many ways – they both had Avadhi forebears and went to the same school. “Rajiv was a person very much like myself,” he said wistfully.

As a civil servant who has seen both the brutal and raw and the varnished side of administrative action and its repercussions, which he has recorded succinctly in his book, My Years with Rajiv: Triumph & Tragedy, Habibullah spoke with candour and dignity of his time with former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, who as Pavan Varma described later in the session, was indeed “a knight in shining armour on a white steed” when he arrived on a political scene rent by his mother’s assassination with an overwhelming majority to a nation shell-shocked by the horror of the subsequent anti-Sikh riots.

Habibullah recounted the Shah Bano case, a key judicial event during the Rajiv years. The country was swilling under the backdrop of the recently passed Supreme Court judgement which had held unequivocally that “there is no conflict between the provisions of the Muslim Personal Law on the question of the Muslim’s husband’s obligation to provide maintenance for a divorced wife who is unable to maintain herself”. According to Habibullah, MJ Akbar, then one of Rajiv’s close aides, had succeeded in convincing the PM that if the government were not to challenge this judgement, it would appear to the Muslim clergy that it didn’t care for the religious rights of minorities The rest, as we know, is a long, uncomfortable saga in India’s socio-political history.

Habibullah admitted that though he, then a desk officer in the PMO in charge of minorities, had sent a note to Rajiv saying that the Supreme Court ruling respected the Sharia and was in keeping with the Muslim Personal Law, he too had made the same ‘mistake’ as MJ, in not distinguishing between the opinion of the clergy and the common people.

This brought the conversation to another contentious issue – the 1987 Kashmir elections, widely perceived to have been rigged and the root of the years of insurgency in Jammu & Kashmir. A J&K cadre officer, Habibullah had been Commissioner in Anantnag during 1990-91 when insurgency was at its height. He said there had been rumours of rigging though that was customary for all elections in Kashmir, but this election was indeed “tweaked” and in ten constituencies, he had seen so for himself. Even though this wasn’t the only reason for the subsequent insurgency, according to him, it was certainly a contributory factor. When next discussing the exodus of the Kashmiri Hindus from the valley, he said it was a ‘tragedy’ and accepted that it was the complete failure of a government of which he had been a part.

Another definitive chapter in the Rajiv years was Sri Lanka and the IPKF saga. On asked by Varma about if Rajiv Gandhi had trusted Prabhakaran (by many accounts an ‘incorrigible terrorist and psychopath’) far too much, Habibullah said with quiet grace, ‘indeed’. He said with some melancholy that over-trusting was one of Rajiv’s key strengths as well as greatest failings. He had never wanted the Tamil community in Sri Lanka to be suppressed but not at the cost of Sri Lanka’s unity for which he had upheld, according to Habibullah, the example of India. Even on the eve of his assassination, Rajiv had maintained that he wanted Sri Lanka to remain united.

So many signposts of an eventful administration that had to be covered in one short session – the banning of the import of Salman Rushdie’s book was next, which was again perceived as bowing down to the Muslim clergy. Habibullah claimed that Rajiv had never read the Satanic Verses himself but had been influenced by Khushwant Singh, who at that time was a consultant to Penguin India, and had felt very strongly about the book’s effect on Muslim sensibilities. But it did set an unfortunate precedent of banning books, a trend, that according to Varma, continues. I pondered on the chequered, complex legacy that my country will always carry in its veins, how every event in the nation’s lifeline continues to have multiple consequences on a diverse population.

Varma asked his final question - why did the Rajiv administration, which had come with such promise and indeed laid colossal foundations in the making of modern India, dissemble so quickly? Habibullah talked about the ‘body blow’ the Congress party had suffered in UP and Bihar and how that was directly linked to the shift in the Muslim vote due to the opening of the Babri Masjid to the devotees of Lord Ram. He said with abiding conviction that this had happened without the knowledge of the then prime minister. But ‘he took full responsibility’ when later asked the same by Habibullah himself. ‘That’s the kind of person he was,’ and Varma too said, having accompanied Rajiv Gandhi on many trips, that the late former PM had been a thorough gentleman and a fine human being. 

Many questions and few answers. A life that was cut short brutally and far too quickly. What came through to me was Habibullah’s deep affection for the former prime minister. He spoke wistfully of a man who was, at heart, good and kind, but who had bungled his way through, often misled and many a time, too quick to trust.