Harish Chandola was 94 years old when he passed away on March 26. A veteran journalist, Chandola began his career with Hindustan Times in 1950 and went on to work with some of India’s leading dailies, including The Times of India, The Indian Express and The Statesman.
I remember Uncle Harish as a short, sturdy mountain man from the hills of Garhwal in Uttarakhand. He came to our home from time to time, bursting with energy and bringing with him news from distant lands.
Perhaps his most daring exploit was when he walked across the mountains and landed in Tibet in 1954. He was intercepted by the Chinese army and imprisoned for three months. Upon his return, he wrote about how China was constructing a 1,700-km highway from Lhasa to the Chinese mainland.
In his six-decade-long career in journalism, he reported from the frontlines of conflicts in Kenya and Cambodia, the Algerian War of Independence and the middle of a military coup in Indonesia. I remember the time when he had been in West Asia, including Iran and Iraq, and the special candied almonds and stuffed dates he brought for us.
He has written about some of his experiences in his memoir At Large in the World published in 2016. But his stories and experiences were far richer than what he recalls in his memoir.
As someone has written, At Large in the World tells the stories behind the headlines and makes startling disclosures as it paints a compelling and honest portrait of India in eventful times over the last half-century.
Perhaps the more challenging role Chandola played was when he was appointed as an advisor in the sensitive negotiations with rebel Naga leaders on Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s request. He was also a trusted advisor on key political issues to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
When I became involved in a marginal way in the Indo-Naga talks in 1997, I was excited to discover Chandola’s connection to the Nagas. To begin with, I only knew that he had married the daughter of A Kevichusa from Khonoma Village, the same village where Phizo, a Naga legendary leader was born. Later, I found that Chandola had been appointed as the first interlocuter by Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shashtri.
At that time, it was on the initiative of the Baptist church that the peace talks had been initiated with three prominent people: politician Jayprakash Narayan, priest and activist Michael Scott and Congress leader Bimla Prasad Chaliha.
Chandola wrote of his experience as an interlocutor and why the peace process ultimately failed. He was especially angry and bitter over the role played by BK Nehru, who was the governor of Nagaland then. Chandola wrote a detailed critique in a long article published in Hindi and sent me a copy.
I felt it was important that his account should be accessible to the Nagas and approached him to write his story in English and my publisher agreed to publish the book. It is called The Naga Story: First Armed Struggle in India. The significance of Chandola’s book is that he challenged the version of events, the role of the peace mission and his own role as written about by Governor Nehru. Nehru had written about the first peace process in his memoir Nice Guys Finish Second.
It was under Nehru’s watch that the Indo-Naga accord was signed during the Emergency in 1975. Since it was signed in Shillong, where Nehru was stationed, it is called the Shillong Accord. It was an accord that was rejected by one faction of the Naga organisations. That faction would later come to be known as the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, or NSCN.
After Chandola’s book was published, members of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland were in touch with him. But Chandola did not have a significant role in the second round of peace talks. Since then, the situation had become far more complex and nothing has been achieved since 1997 to now.
I, too, lost touch with the Naga leaders and understood a little of the anguish and sense of betrayal that Chandola had felt. He was accused of being anti-Indian when he had, in fact, devoted himself to making India more inclusive and democratic. He did not betray the Nagas and was a proud being a son-in-law of Khonoma.
Harish Chandola was a man full of positive energy and with unique personality in more ways than one. I am glad I was able to meet him and learn a little about his extraordinary life.
When I learnt of his passing, I felt that another link with the past had died – that past when we all believed in an India where everyone could feel they belonged.
Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer and award-winning author.