Sunday, 3 May 2009

A WITNESS TO HISTORY

A WITNESS TO HISTORY

"I will leave judgements on this matter to history — but I will be one of the historians.” That’s what Winston Spencer Churchill, the war-time British prime minister had written regarding his memoir on the World War II. Shanti Bhushan is not a historian, but in his recent memoir Courting Destiny, this legal luminary and former Union law minister has lucidly narrated the twists and turns in the history of our country, making it a wonderful read.

“I had begun writing the memoir after the death of my wife Kumud. Part of the memoir was dictated, while some part was recorded in the dictaphone,” informs Bhushan. But the work remained incomplete. However, “at the insistence” of P C Verma, former principal of the Hindu College, Bhushan resumed with his memoir. I ask the author about the criterion for selecting specific events from his eventful life. “I selected those events which had played a part in shaping my life or those which played an important part in the nation’s life to which I was a party,” he replies.

Vivid accounts
Beginning with his childhood in Bijnor (Bhushan was born on November 11, 1925) and later Allahabad, Bhushan has vividly described his formative years, experiences as an advocate and his personal life. Besides the several humourous anecdotes from his otherwise serious professional life, numerous stalwarts — from the former attorney general of India C K Daftary, Pandit Kanhaiya Lal Mishra, former chief justice of India P B Gajendragadkar to leaders like Jai Prakash Narain — who have had influences on Bhushan’s life, figure prominently in the book.

Courting Destiny also provides the readers with a poignant impression of Bhusan’s wife late Smt Kumud Bhushan and the blissful marital life the couple had. The detailed accounts make me wonder whether Bhushan maintained personal diaries over the years. “Not really,” he says. “I did not maintain any diary, but I have had a good memory,” he explains. “And all those memories came together along with the multiple identities of a son, a husband, a father, an advocate and a politician”.

The complexities of law and legal terminologies are not easy to grasp unless someone has studied the subject. Yet, the near-400-page memoir, loaded with examples of legal cases and documents that Bhushan had dealt or witnessed, does not seem to be difficult to understand. “I write simple English and it makes things easier for the readers,” the author informs. “I did not have any specific category of readers in mind though, except young lawyers and young politicians,” he adds in this context.

Challenging the powerful
Being an active member of the erstwhile Congress (O) party and then the Janata Party, Bhushan was instrumental in proving the illegality of prime minister Indira Gandhi’s election (in 1971) from Rae Bareilly to the Lok Sabha. It was on the basis of Bhushan’s Election Petition and arguments (on behalf of petitioner Raj Narain) that the Allahabad High Court gave verdict against prime minister Gandhi on June 12, 1975. The Supreme Court upheld the verdict upon hearing Bhushan during the Appeal filed by Mrs Gandhi. Almost like a film, the memoir describes those heady days in Bhushan’s political-legal career; there is a very interesting account of how prime minister Gandhi was questioned by Bhushan at the High Court.

But, how impartial has been this memoir, I ask the senior Supreme Court advocate. “This is not for me to judge, but for others who know me to do so,” Bhushan says. In this regard, he points out the mandatory requirement of a memoir: “One has to be totally honest in everything that he writes.”

Always upright
Indeed, ‘credibility’ is what defines Bhushan’s long career; his uncompromising nature in conscientious issues has been known to all. The memoir includes numerous instances of his straightforwardness. I ask him to choose the most important one among those. For him though, “none of them stand out”. Still, on insisting, he refers to his days as the Union law minister (in the Morarji Desai cabinet) when he had to “take a stand against the ruling Janata Party”.

His firmness again came to light in 1986. Bhushan, who had joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) after the general elections of 1980, was dismayed to see that the BJP acted against his advice over an election petition. Moreover, he was “disturbed at the change of political stance within the BJP” which was “heading off the path of secularism”. Therefore, despite requests from topmost leadership, Bhushan resigned from the BJP in 1986. The memoir includes similar such events across the chapters.

Bhushan’s memoir does not lack the ‘recency’ factor as he analyses the developments like the attack on the Parliament in 2001, formation of the Congress-led government in 2004, the Kashmir issue and the contempt case against writer-activist Arundhati Roy in connection with her agitation in front of a court. In this context Bhushan praises Roy for showing “enough courage” to face the Court’s writ. “Hardly any Indian journalist in my experience has ever shown sufficient courage to face contempt proceedings without apologising,” Bhushan maintains. Though he does not share many of Roy’s views, Bhushan admires her “for her qualities of head and heart.”

The memoir includes several black-and-white and colour photographs; they portray the multiple facets of his illustrious career as well as his personal life. As part of the appendices, several important letters, legal texts and his published articles have been added in the book. They all make the memoir complete.

(The article was published in Sakal Times of Pune, India,
on May 3, 2009)