IK Gujral: Son of Punjab who improved India’s relations with neighbours


Today is the 104th birth anniversary of my father, the gentleman politician and India’s 12th Prime Minister, Inder Kumar Gujral. He was born on December 4, 1919, to Avtar Narain and Pushpa Gujral in Jhelum district, then part of undivided Punjab. He came of age at a time when Punjab was an energetic centre of anti-colonial activity, but also where the horrors of British colonial rule were most pronounced.

Inder Kumar Gujral (File)
Inder Kumar Gujral (File)

The massacre of Jallianwala Bagh was only few months before his birth and its barbarity had moved Punjabis to participate in the freedom movement across the political spectrum. His parents became avid supporters of Lala Lajpat Rai in the 1920s, continuing Lalaji’s legacy of Hindu reform and political action long after his death by lathi-charge in 1928. Simultaneously, his mother Pushpa was a friend and support to the mother of Bhagat Singh when he was executed in 1931. The family was also committed Gandhians from the 1929 Lahore session of the Indian National Congress, recognising the party’s nationalist vision.

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Participated in freedom struggle from childhood

Gujral began to participate in anti-colonial action across political affiliations from his childhood. He was arrested and beaten up by the police at as early as 11 years of age for organising a children’s satyagraha in support of Independence. Later, during his student days in Lahore, he became a Communist Party member and was active in student politics as the general secretary of the Students’ Federation of Punjab at the age 18. During this time, he experienced frequent periods of incarceration, particularly during the Quit India Movement when most of his family members were arrested for their commitment to ‘Poorna Swaraj’.

Elected to Upper House in 1964

After Independence and Partition, the family relocated to Delhi where Gujral, inspired by Nehru’s vision for independent India, joined the Indian National Congress. He was soon elected as vice-president of the New delhi municipal committee, and in 1964, was elected to the Rajya Sabha from Delhi with the support of Indira Gandhi, who had become a friend and political ally. It was with the formation of Mrs Gandhi’s cabinet in 1966 that he began political life in the highest echelons of the government, taking on portfolios of parliamentary affairs, housing, and eventually information and broadcasting. I&B was his ministry during the Emergency in 1975, when he fell out of political favour due to his disagreement with Sanjay Gandhi over the ethics of suppressing the media. He was resultantly sent away as Indian ambassador to the Soviet Union, a position that, although prestigious at a time of global Cold War tensions, was popularly referred to in Indian political circles as “the Siberian exile”. Nonetheless, he continued to serve as ambassador in Moscow under three prime ministers — Indira Gandhi, Morarji Desai and Charan Singh — for several years, before returning to India in 1981.

Joined Janata Dal in mid-1980s

In the mid-1980s, disillusioned by the Congress party politics, Gujral joined the Janata Dal which reflected his own broadly socialist principles and opposition to the anti-democratic excesses of the Emergency. With the Janata Dal, he was elected from Jalandhar to Lok Sabha in the 1989 general elections, first serving as minister of external affairs in the VP Singh cabinet, and once more in 1996 in the HD Deve Gowda cabinet.

The ‘Gujral Doctrine’

In 1997, Gujral was chosen by coalition parties at the Centre to become the country’s Prime Minister, a post that he held for about a year. Both as a cabinet member and Prime Minister, he was best known for his ‘Gujral Doctrine’, a principle of foreign policy that emphasised cooperation and goodwill with India’s immediate neighbours in the South Asian region. When he died in 2012, he was grieved and commemorated across party lines.

In many ways, my father’s life story is remarkably intertwined with the India’s 20th century history. His political formation was inextricably linked with the country’s most influential anti-colonial and nationalist leaders, such as Bhagat Singh, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. His adult life spoke to the highs and lows of independent India, from the horrors of Partition and the instabilities of refugee life to his leadership of the country as its first refugee Prime Minister exactly 50 years later. His ascent to the country’s highest elected office is testament to a broader cultural moment in the 1990s when the wounds that marked India’s “freedom at midnight” were finally beginning to heal. A son of Punjab, he is remembered with gratitude for writing off the state’s insurgency debts of 8,500 crore, bringing Sikhs back into the national fabric after years of separatist violence. The ‘Gujral Doctrine’, his model for foreign policy, updated mid-century Indian ideals of non-violence and pan-Asian cooperation wrote a new chapter of the country’s relationship with its neighbours. Finally, with political allegiances that shifted across his life, from Communism to the Congress to the many coalitions of the Janata Dal, his legacy is one of a principled, courteous and impeccably honest statesman, who was unafraid to revise his political views when the national interest changed.

(The author is former Rajya Sabha member from Punjab. Views expressed are personal)


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