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Liberty's Civil Caretaker

Krishan Kant was a Gandhian to the last: he died a satisfied man, sans all malice.

Liberty's Civil Caretaker
Liberty's Civil Caretaker
One of my most cherished memories is of Krishan Kant's mother presenting a handspun khadi saree to my wife as a wedding gift. It was a gesture I've never been able to forget. On my last birthday, Chachiji gave me another priceless gift—a kurta-pyjama made out of the yarn she had spun herself. At 97, she's one of the bravest and the most progressive persons I've ever met. She's always been a source of inspiration for all of us and the courage with which she has faced her son's death is remarkable.

In Krishan Kant's death, I have lost a younger brother. He was Satish's classmate in Jhelum and it was a childhood full of pleasant memories. We were next-door neighbours and I don't remember making any distinction between the two houses. Till his last day, he never called me by my name—instead, I was always addressed as Pappaji. Even when he was the vice-president. My association with Krishan Kant goes back to the generation of our parents. His father, Lala Achint Ram, and my father were involved in the freedom struggle and went together to the Multan and Gujarat jails. Even our mothers were incarcerated together several times. Both of us shared a common heritage which helped us build an intimate relationship, one beyond public life.

And the memories...during the Partition riots, when I was with my parents in Karachi, Satish was stuck in Lahore and couldn't think of going anywhere else but to Lala Achint Ram's house. When Krishan Kant was externed away from Lahore (at the age of 15) during the freedom struggle, nobody could visit him because all of us were in jail at that time. It was Satish who one day sneaked into the village where he was being held to inquire about his well-being.

The influence of Lala Achint Ram—a freedom fighter, member of the Constituent Assembly and MP—on the young Krishan Kant was quite evident. Lalaji was one of the three life members of the Servants of the People's Society founded by Lala Lajpat Rai in 1921 and inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi. After an MSc in technology from BHU, Krishan Kant joined the CSIR, but soon gave up the job to enter politics.

For those of us who had the privilege to be part of the freedom struggle, the contours of our ideological thinking were broadly shaped by Jayaprakash Narain. During this period, and later, Krishan and I shaped a fruitful relationship. I suggested his name to Mrs Gandhi for a Rajya Sabha ticket from Chandigarh in 1966. When the V.P. Singh government was formed, I had proposed Krishan Kant's name as the Andhra Pradesh governor, and later, it was only chance that I was the prime minister when he was sworn in vice-president in 1997.

Krishan Kant was one of the most able chairmen of Rajya Sabha. Despite differences, he could bring all the members together. His main contribution to Indian politics is the Gandhian attitude of upholding what you believe in. One of the strongest votaries of electoral changes and civil liberties in our society, Krishan Kant always stood for reforms. He believed in the electorate's right to recall their MPs and MLAs. Criminalisation of politics was another area of concern for him.

He took part in Chandra Shekhar's padayatra and was pained to see the pitiable condition of the people, specially the drinking water crisis in the tribal belt. Right since his childhood, thanks to his father's influence, Krishan Kant's mind was directed towards the fundamental difficulties of the people. For the past some years, like his father, he too had been the president of the Servants of the People's Society. He abhorred violence and was one of the few leaders who advocated a national approach to solving Punjab's militancy problem. He organised the Guru Gobind Singh Samagam to focus on the state's rich culture and met militants to understand their point of view.He was also instrumental in the release of Naxalites after the formation of the Janata government in 1977. As the founding general secretary of the PUCL, of which JP was the president, he espoused the cause of human rights. And though I found great support from Krishan Kant on the issue of CTBT, he, since Indira Gandhi's days, strongly believed that India should acquire a nuclear weapon.

He paid a price for standing up for his principles. When he was expelled from the Congress during the Emergency, there couldn't have been a more testing time. To be thrown out of the party was unthinkable in a family where everybody was a Congress worker. Interestingly, on the night the Emergency was imposed, Krishan Kant accompanied Chandra Shekhar to the police station to inquire about JP's arrest. I, a minister at that time, assumed that both of them would also be apprehended. But next morning I was surprised to see Krishan Kant walk into my house. "I did go to the police station, but they did not arrest me," he told me.

But the harshness of the Emergency and its impact on Krishan Kant's psyche became clear only gradually. All his speeches in the Rajya Sabha were marked by defiance. When everybody else stopped speaking, he would stand up and start his speech. I walked into his study the day I got the news of his death. His wife told me that he was awake till 2 in the morning and I found out what he was working on—editing his Rajya Sabha rulings, to be published soon. Indeed, he was very hardworking, despite his bronchial problems and diabetes which he had been suffering from for some time.

Contrary to what some people say, I don't think Krishan Kant died a sad man. I met him just a day before his death and shared some light-hearted moments on the presidential issue. He didn't mind being overlooked for the job. He told me that he had already started packing to shift to his new house and said that he wanted to devote more time to serve the people. I am sad his promise to himself remained unfulfilled. He led a satisfied life, though, and the courage with which his family has faced the tragedy should give his soul peace. As for me, I will always miss my younger brother.

(As told to Bobby John Varkey)
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