Losing a liberal

Human rights defender, thinker and democrat par excellence Balraj Puri dies at 86

Losing a liberal
In the death of Balraj Puri, Jammu and Kashmir has lost a liberal voice, human rights defender, thinker and a democrat par excellence. The 86-year old Puri had emerged as an institution in himself that canopied a vast area of diversities, a state like Jammu and Kashmir was in need of. When he passed away on August 30, 2014, an era came to an end, in a literal sense. Puri Saheb had been the flag bearer of the state’s unity, and a liberal and secular outlook that encompassed human dignity and right to live with freedom. Along with the veteran journalist and my guru Ved Bhasin, he was the distinguishable voice in Jammu that kept the ray of hope brimming for long time. Both of them stood the ground at the most difficult period the state witnessed.

I had known Puri Saheb for more than 25 years. During my stint with Kashmir Times in mid 90s, I had the opportunity to interact with him on various occasions and his zeal for upholding the human rights and keeping the democratic spirits alive was something one as a young man would yearn for, at that crucial time. It is a well-known fact that the lines were drawn between Kashmir and Jammu in early 1990 itself when the armed rebellion broke out in Valley. Jammu and its neighbouring districts obviously would not approve of the banner of revolt against India, so to show solidarity with the people of Kashmir was out of question. However, Puri Saheb stood alone in coming out openly to empathize with the Kashmiri population that faced the consequences and counter consequences of the turmoil. As a civil libertarian he worked shoulder to shoulder with the human rights defenders such as Justice Rajinder Sachar and Kuldip Nayyar and brought out brief reports about the atrocities being committed in Kashmir. This not only made him someone who discounted the narrative that Kashmiris should only be seen as “terrorists” but also earned him good will in the separatist camp. He surely was not supportive of the “freedom movement” in the form and shape it was pursued in Kashmir but his concern for treating people with honour and dignity and respecting human rights while dealing with the militancy had its own impact in the larger circle of activists in India.

[quote]Puri Saheb stood alone in coming out openly to empathize with the Kashmiri population that faced the consequences and counter-consequences of the turmoil[/quote]

Whatever he did as a strong votary of upholding human rights and democratic values was his conviction. He remained associated with the people’s rights movements right from his student days. He started his illustrious career as the Editor of an Urdu weekly “Pukar” in 1942. Soon after his seven decade long multifaceted journey took off and he never looked back. He was part of the Quit India Movement, Quit Kashmir Movement, and Jammu and Kashmir People’s Convention and remained very close to Jawahar Lal Nehru, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah and Indira Gandhi during the tumultuous times the state witnessed. Puri Saheb regularly interacted with Jawaharlal Nehru from 1948 till 1964, mostly on Kashmir affairs. He pleaded for measures to promote inter-regional harmony in Jammu and Kashmir. “His formula for Regional Autonomy was accepted by Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah who jointly announced it at a press conference in July 1952”. (KT). He enjoyed the confidence and goodwill of both of them even after the dismissal and detention of Sheikh Abdullah in 1953 and tried to reduce their differences inch by inch. He arranged their first meeting in May 1964.

An award winning author, he not only championed the cause of people’s rights but also had concern for environment. He was conferred one of the highest civilian awards Padme Bhushan for his unparalleled services in understanding of human values and democratic rights.

An elderly man reads a newspaper outside a closed shop during a strike in Srinagar. Veteran Kashmiri journalist and human rights defender Balraj Puri passed away on August 30
An elderly man reads a newspaper outside a closed shop during a strike in Srinagar. Veteran Kashmiri journalist and human rights defender Balraj Puri passed away on August 30

An ardent supporter of progressive politics, he would always chip in when the communalism would come as threat to the social fabric in the state. He was a rallying point for many like minded people who would generally shy away from doing something on their own on this front. As a journalist and writer he articulated his cherished objective of achieving the democratic rights and the justice. Puri was perhaps the first author in state who put the armed rebellion in a perspective by writing “Kashmir Towards Insurgency” in 1993. His understanding of Kashmir as a dispute was real and he would articulate his views without any fear.

Notwithstanding the fact that he was a strong advocate for regional autonomy to Jammu and Ladakh and even played a role in Leh getting Autonomous Hill Development Council during PV Narsimha Rao’s Prime Ministership, he never lost the sight of seeing the state united. When Farooq Abdullah made him the Chairman of Regional Autonomy Committee he had serious differences over its quantum and fell apart with his team. Later on he published his version of report. He believed that autonomy needed to be seen at the levels other than the state. Though for taking pluralities and diversities as the basis for a strong Jammu and Kashmir, he continued to long for a different regional character for Jammu.

Puri Saheb’s contribution was diverse. He not only led the movement for polity on the basis of secular and democratic values but he was for a more enlightened and knowledgeable Jammu. He founded Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan, the first school of Journalism in Jammu in late 80s and attracted young boys and girls towards the formal training in Journalism. This was the time when Journalism was yet to shape as the field of glamour and adventure. He was inspiration for many people who later emerged as the leaders in their respective fields.

Puri Saheb was respected by the people irrespective of their ideologies and leanings. In his death we have lost a friend of Kashmir, a liberal democrat, a champion of human rights, a votary for regional autonomy, an author with insight and above all a fine human being.

Tail Piece: I recall when he could not join my wedding in September 2000 he sent me a letter. While felicitating me he wrote “I hope you would be able to do as much justice to this phase as you have been doing to your profession”. It was a great compliment. RIP Puri Saheb. You were an inspiration in how important it is to uphold the truth.