Meeting Nehru Then Was a Child Play — Raj Kanwar Reminisces About First and Last Meetings with Nehru

Possibly, Jawaharlal Nehru’s last photograph Photo by Jitendra Goyal.

Possibly, Jawaharlal Nehru’s last photograph
Photo by Jitendra Goyal.

By Raj Kanwar

As a rookie journalist in the Nehru era, I regularly covered visits of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. I still carry some vivid recollections of Nehru’s last sunset in Dehra Dun on that sultry and humid Tuesday evening of May 26 in 1964. When Nehru left for New Delhi that evening, no one at that small helipad imagined that it was to be his last sunset. As Nehru’s 49th death anniversary was observed on Monday (27 May), I nostalgically recall the memories of my first meeting with Nehru sometime in mid 1950s. 

It was a humid Tuesday afternoon of 26 May, 1964. I was in a group of about 30 people, gathered at the Dehra Dun Cantonment Polo Ground to see off Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. He was to take a helicopter ride to the Air Force base at Sarsawa, and thence to Delhi by an Air Force plane.

Nehru had spent the previous three days in Dehra Dun, relaxing and resting. The Circuit House was his favorite abode; he loved its heavily wooded expansive lawns. He would stroll across the length and breadth of the large grounds. Here he would sit silently for hours under the shade of his favorite camphor tree, with birds as his companions, listening to their chirping; here he felt at home and at peace. Occasionally, he would read or write, depending on the mood of the hour, or dictate sometimes.

Neither anyone in the assembled farewell party at the helipad nor among the large crowds that had earlier cheered Nehru and waved at him during his short drive from the Circuit House, could have dreamt that the sunset that evening would be his last, and that he would not see another sunrise.

We watched Nehru slowly climb up the stairwell of the helicopter. Daughter Indira was close behind him. He stood at the open doorway of the helicopter, and looked back, almost blankly at the small and assorted farewell group. There were Congress leaders, senior civil and defense officers as per the protocol, and a few journalists, this writer included.

A pale, faint smile appeared on his otherwise rosy countenance. He waved at us with his right hand, but that seemed a labored effort. There was a strange sort of expression on his face. What did he wish to convey to those of us who had assembled there to bid him adieu? Was that to be the last and final good-bye? Did he have a premonition about his death? As the blades began swirling, raising a cloud of dust, the farewell group instantly fell back. The helicopter took off and disappeared soon yonder beyond.

In Delhi that night Nehru awoke several times, and was given a sedative by his trusted attendant, Nathu Ram. He awoke one final time before dawn. Indira and his physician, Dr. Bedi were summoned. And then he fell into a coma, and died at 1.44 p.m. on Wednesday the 27 May.

The news of his death the following day shocked us all. I shed many silent tears, and cursed myself for not meeting Nehru oftener. I met him off and on whenever he visited Dehra Dun, and adored his charming and graceful manners and the innate courtesy that he always accorded to one and all. In his own way, Nehru seemed to like me and would often tell me “come again”.

But on that 26 May in 1964, Nehru possibly was too preoccupied in other thoughts that he did not ask me to “come again”; he even perhaps did not notice me in that small group. As I write this, my mind wanders back to those days in mid 1950s and later when I invariably tried to meet Nehru on his numerous visits to Dehra Dun. However, the most momentous of those meetings was the very first one I had had with Nehru. In fact, meeting Nehru then was like a child play, more so because one could count on the finger of one’s hand the number of journalists in Dehra Dun those days. I was at that time editor of a Dehra Dun weekly VANGUARD and a stringer for some of the mainstream English newspapers. A year earlier I was also the president of DAV College Students Union which had given me additional confidence and self-assurance. Thus one winter morning I cycled all the way to the Circuit House porch, and parked my bicycle against its outer wall.

Ram Prashad, the all pervasive bearer there, accosted me and smiled, “Have you come to see Panditji,” was his obvious question, and my reply was just a nod. A couple of constables with lathis lolled about while some other sauntered inconspicuously deep on the expansive lawns under the shades of giant trees.  Ram Prashad pointed towards the lawns, and I saw Panditji strolling there. So close to the great man, I felt scared. Mustering courage, I diffidently approached him and hesitantly introduced myself. Nehru saw through my confusion and nervousness and smiled. “I have no news to give, young man,” he said without slowing his steps. My nervous response was, “I haven’t come for any news; I just wanted to see you.” Nehru again smiled and that reassured me.

I was tight-lipped as a rookie journalist

I was tight-lipped; what would a rookie journalist ask a great man like Nehru. I murmured some inane words; realizing my nervousness, Nehru asked me what subjects I had in the college. “I did my masters in political science.” By then I had overcome my nervousness. I also told Nehru that I was the president of the Students Union a year before. This seemed to impress Nehru, so I assumed. I spent another 15 minutes with the great man and then thanked him for having met me. Nehru smiled, and asked me to feel free to see him whenever he visited Dehra Dun. This carte blanche lifted me to seventh heaven. That first meeting, in a way, was perhaps one of my best and most cherished.

Ranj kanvar3Raj Kanwar is a veteran Dehra Dun journalist and author. At 83, he writes regularly on local and current affairs.