It was fitting that he spent the final four days of his life in a place that was close to his heart
Dehradun was a weakness for Jawaharlal Nehru. In the days before Independence, the entire Nehru clan, headed by patriarch Motilal, would spend the summer holidays in Mussoorie where the Savoy hotel was their favourite abode.
Nehru first visited Mussoorie in the summer of 1906 as a 16-year-old. Thereafter, he made frequent visits to the hill station for rest and relaxation during summer, generally accompanied by his father, mother, wife, daughter, sisters and nieces. Even though Dehradun then was a small blip on India’s political map, it used to attract leaders of national eminence. Nehru, too, made many political visits. Other than such visits made willingly and happily, there were some involuntary and not so happy trips when he was taken there as the ‘guest’ of the British government in India.
During the long freedom movement, Nehru was sent three times to Dehradun jail. It was during his incarceration there in June, 1934 that Nehru started writing his autobiography. He was lodged in solitary confinement with only birds as companions. Even though he could not see the mountains from his cell, his “mind was full of them”. “I was ever conscious of their nearness, and a secret intimacy seemed to grow between us,” Nehru wrote.
Not so surprising then that Nehru preferred to be imprisoned in Dehradun rather than anywhere else. He found Dehradun’s spring far longer in duration than in the plains. He found its autumn very pleasant. He also enjoyed its winter but without the rain. No wonder Nehru’s love for Dehradun continued throughout his lifetime. And fittingly, it was in Dehradun that he spent the last four days of his life.
As Prime Minister, Nehru visited Dehradun and Mussoorie on many occasions. So much did he like the place, and the sylvan environs of its Circuit House in particular, that he would return again and again on any pretext, or even no pretext.
It was easy those days to invite Nehru to Dehradun and the local leaders took every advantage of his weakness. Mahavir Tyagi and later B.B. Saran played hosts to him on a couple of occasions. K.D. Malaviya twice invited him to visit the ONGC office. I was present on one of those visits when Nehru addressed the first batch of young ONGC trainees in 1956. On another occasion, he addressed a Gujjar conference; yet another time, Nehru visited Tuini in the Jaunsar Bawar area of Chakrata at the behest of the then MLA, Gulab Singh. As a young reporter, I had the privilege of covering that function. Once he took the salute at the passing-out parade at the Indian Military Academy. He also attended, if my memory serves me right, the fourth World Forestry Congress in 1954 at FRI.
Nehru made his last visit to Dehradun on May 23, 1964 to recuperate from the stroke that he suffered that January at the Bhubaneshwar session of the All India Congress Committee. He spent his time strolling across the Circuit House’s wooded grounds, or sitting silently for hours under his favourite camphor tree with birds for companions, listening to their chirping. Occasionally, he read or wrote, depending on the mood of the hour; sometimes he dictated.
On May 25, Nehru visited his old friend Sri Prakasa, former Minister and Governor, at Kotalgaon, eight miles uphill on the Mussoorie Road. He took lunch with his old colleague, and returned to the Circuit House late in the afternoon. He and Indira later visited the Sahastradhara spring, returning to the Circuit House feeling rejuvenated and relaxed after the excursion.
He was enjoying it so much in Dehradun that he did not want to return to Delhi, and talked of postponing his departure for Delhi by a day. Nehru had an appointment in the capital on May 27 afternoon and could easily leave for Delhi on 27th morning. District Magistrate Dikshit noticed his desire and gathered courage to suggest extension of his stay in Dehradun through May and June, quietly adding that all important files could be sent to Dehradun, ‘aur saab, kaam yehan se ho jayega’. ‘Haan, kaam to saab ho jayega’, Nehru replied philosophically. Was this a sort of foreboding? But eventually, the scheduled departure on May 26 afternoon was adhered to, since it was felt that it would give Nehru an overnight rest in Delhi, and enable him to attend to his appointments the following day refreshed.
In the late afternoon of May 26, a motley group of about 30 people, including this writer, gathered at the Cantonment Polo Ground to see off Prime Minister Nehru. He was to take a helicopter to the Air Force base at Sarsawa, and thence to Delhi by an Air Force plane.
Seeing off Nehru at the end of his visits to Dehradun was a routine exercise for this group. Standing at the door of the helicopter, Nehru waved at us, and we all waved back. The door was shut, the swirling blades raised a cloud of dust, and the farewell group instantly fell back. The helicopter took off, and disappeared soon into the yonder.
The news of his death in Delhi the next day shocked us all. Nehru could not keep that appointment of May 27 afternoon. None of us in that crowd the previous evening had imagined that it was to be Nehru’s last sunset.
I shed many quiet tears, and cursed myself for not meeting Nehru oftener. I met him on and off whenever he visited Dehradun, and adored his charming and graceful manners and the innate courtesy that he always accorded to one and all. In his own way, Nehru seemed to like me and would often tell me to “come again”.
(The writer is a veteran journalist and author. He has written extensively on Nehru and Indira Gandhi.)