Friday, September 4, 2009

The house of Mr Jinnah

By R.D. Pradhan Aug 30 : The murder of veteran Pakistani diplomat Niaz Naik a few days ago brought back memories of an incident connecting me with the name Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who is also currently in news. People of my generation witnessed Mahatma Gandhi, Jinnah, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel as real people on the national political scene. As a student at the Fergusson College in that politically surcharged city, Poona (now Pune), in the 40s, we kept track of daily developments as reported in the press. For us, Jinnah was a charming figure. Tall, thin, elegantly dressed, with pump shoes and a cigarette holder in his mouth, he was a modern man. Several film actors emulated him. In September 1944, newspapers carried photographs of Jinnah greeting scantily-clad Gandhiji on the doorstep of his residence. That was the first time I saw photographs of the Jinnah House, situated on Mount Pleasant Road, Malabar Hill. I did not know that one day, in 1983, as Maharashtra’s chief secretary, I would be called upon to play a role relating to that property. Niaz Naik, a distinguished diplomat of Pakistan, retired as Pakistan’s foreign secretary and then worked sincerely to smoothen relations between Pakistan and India through what is known as "back-track diplomacy". He had many friends and well-wishers in New Delhi, and all were shocked by news of his murder. His death was brutal. He was tortured and killed and one suspects that forces within Pakistan who do not wish peace between the two neighbours wanted to get rid of him. Niaz was a gentleman, and a diplomat’s diplomat — suave and persuasive. I met him first in Geneva in August 1965 at a meeting of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (Unctad), a body set up by the UN General Assembly to discuss and negotiate trade related issues with developing countries. India and Pakistan were both actively involved as members of the Asian group. Our respective ambassadors in Brussels were leaders of our two delegations — K.B. Lall of the Indian civil service (ICS) and Mohammed Ayub of Pakistan, also of the ICS, were seasoned diplomats. Niaz Naik was then a counsellor in Brussels and I was just a rookie. Both of us were first-generation civil servants after 1947, and our closeness came about in a strange way. On September 1, reports came in that the Pakistani Army had launched a determined attack in India’s Akhnoor sector to capture the bridge over the Chenab to cut off India’s road communication with the Valley. Many delegates feared that with two important members of the Asian group at war, the session would be aborted. But the two ambassadors thought otherwise. All members of the two delegations met in the Coffee Lounge of UN Palais, Geneva, and it was agreed that the war in the subcontinent should not deflect work of the conference and that reports of operations on the battlefield would not affect the united front that two delegations had planned to put up on all trade related issues. However, as a matter of propriety in the corridors of the Palais and meeting halls, members will be polite to each other without being friendly, as they normally were. They will greet each other, but not shake hands. This understanding worked beautifully and most countries were amazed to find Niaz and me amicably working on drafts and articulating joint positions. I found him an ideal diplomat and learnt a great deal about constructive diplomacy from him. While I continued to work in Geneva as India’s resident representative, he went to New York as Pakistan’s representative to the United Nations. I occasionally met him there. Our most memorable meeting was in Bombay (now Mumbai) when I was Maharashtra’s chief secretary. In 1983, he came over to find permanent accommodation for the Pakistan consulate. Our foreign secretary informed me that the Pakistanis were interested in the Jinnah House situated on Malabar Hill and that while the state government should extend due courtesies, no commitment should be made about the future use of Jinnah House. I passed that house whenever I visited the chief minister, whose residence was across Jinnah House. By 1980s many had forgotten that the idea of Pakistan was nurtured there. I decided to take a look at the property. Fortunately, the house was vacant as the deputy British high commissioner, its last occupant, had vacated it a few months earlier. It was soon after the monsoon and the exterior was moss covered and its large garden in a poor state. But its European style architecture, Italian marble flooring and exquisite walnut woodwork were impressive. It was more a family home and showed Jinnah’s good taste who had it built in 1936 at a princely sum of Rs 2 lakhs when he returned from England to take charge of the Muslim League. Jinnah was attached to the house and, therefore, in August 1947, when he left for Karachi to assume office of the Governor General of Pakistan, he requested Nehru to allot his house to a European consulate as a European alone would appreciate it. Accordingly, the premises was leased to the British deputy high commission which their deputy high commissioners occupied from 1948 to 1983. Nehru ensured that the building was not declared an "evacuee property", as was done to most properties of those who migrated to Pakistan. Thus Jinnah House remains a private property in custody of the Central government. As custodians they wished the sleeping dog to remain sleeping. Foreign office did not want any controversy. On arrival, Niaz Naik called on me at the Mantralaya. For us it was a pleasant occasion, with so many memories of our UN colleagues and events. After that he visited the Jinnah House. That evening he came over to my apartment to meet me and my wife. After almost an hour he shyly expressed the desire to attend racing — a sport banned in Pakistan. The next day being Sunday I took him to the Mahalaxmi Race Course where we were seated in the "governor’s box". He had one request: he should not be photographed. He would lose his job if his picture appeared in any newspaper. I passed on his request to friends in the press and the police ensured that no cameraman came near. The RWIT Club Committee invited him for tea. I found it strange that all that time he had not uttered a word about the Jinnah House. Just before we parted at the race course, he said, "Pradhan, I am aware that your government cannot hand over the Jinnah House to us. However, we must ensure that the issue is not politically exploited. I realise that it would be difficult for you to agree to house the Pakistan consulate in a building almost opposite the residence of your chief minister". Although there were several reasons to our not agreeing to the proposal, his unsolicited advice was what I conveyed to the Central government. Niaz Naik, a diplomat, who saw both sides of the coin at the same time, was an ideal man for back-track diplomacy. No doubt that evil forces within his country found him an obstacle to their designs. My memory of Niaz Naik will always remain connected with the Jinnah House. R.D. Pradhan is a former Union home secretary and former governor of Nagaland. Prior to that he was chief secretary, government of Maharashtra. Source : The Asian Age

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