KP Unnikrishnan | Photo: Mathrubhumi
KP Unnikrishnan’s father Sri Kunhi Kannan Nair had a long-time association with Sri Aurobindo. His idols were Mahatma Gandhi, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa and Swami Vivekananda. His unexpected meeting with Aurobindo when he visited Pondicherry made way for a new association. During that period the railways had a scheme for a person to travel anywhere in India for a certain stipulated time if one purchased a ticket called ‘Travel As You Please’.
Kunhi Kannan Nair met Subramania Bharati in Pondicherry while using such a ticket. Subramania Bharati asked him, “Haven’t you heard of a famous Congress leader and revolutionary Sri Aurobindo Ghosh of Bengal?”
He added that Aurobindo was in Pondicherry at the time and it may be a good opportunity to meet him. That is how Kunhi Kannan Nair met Aurobindo and that meeting turned out to be a very great experience in Kunhi Kannan Nair’s life.
Aurobindo, who had come with a few followers from Bengal, established the world-famous ‘Aurobindo Ashram’. Kunhi Kannan Nair used to visit the ashram regularly whenever darshan was allowed. Aurobindo used to allow darshan only four times a year.
Once Kunhi Kannan Nair wrote a letter to Aurobindo asking permission to bring along his ten-year-old son Unnikrishnan. Children were not allowed in the ashram in those days. The reply came from Mirra Alfassa (later known as ‘The Mother’) letting him bring the boy. That is how Unnikrishnan got the opportunity to meet Aurobindo for the first time. He still remembers that it was an unforgettable meeting.
There is no place for religion or religious rituals in the ashram of Aurobindo, whom Gandhiji referred to as ‘Rishi Aurobindo’. Not only that, people of all religions were welcome there. Meditation was of prime importance.
Aurobindo passed away on December 5, 1950. Later, whenever Unnikrishnan went to Pondicherry he regularly visited the ashram in memory of his childhood visits to the place along with his father.
VKN’s Multiple Facets
Indira Gandhi always made sure that Unnikrishnan was included in the AICC subcommittees. Even after he joined the ‘Mathrubhumi' as a journalist, Unnikrishnan used to take up responsibilities at the AICC office. During the time, he used to live in 53 North Avenue, where C Krishnan Nair (a Malayalee who contested the Lok Sabha polls from Delhi and won) lived.
Krishnan Nair had gone to Aligarh University for his studies and later became a Congress leader and a follower of Gandhiji. He was a permanent resident of Delhi. He was a native of Thiruvananthapuram and one of the five Malayalees who took part in the Dandi March with Gandhiji.
Unnikrishnan, who was a friend of Krishnan Nair’s nephew K Gopinathan, lived in 53 North Avenue MP quarters on account of this friendship. Soon, writer VKN became a daily visitor here. OV Vijayan, another friend, and well-known journalist CP Ramachandran also became regular visitors at this house.
Unnikrishnan used to share a lot of anecdotes with his friends. On the first anniversary marking Fidel Castro’s takeover of Cuba, there was a press conference in the Cuban embassy in Delhi.
As journalists, Unnikrishnan and Ramachandran were both invited for the conference. As they were getting into a car, VKN arrived and took a seat in the vehicle without even knowing the destination. He enjoyed all the types of liquor that were served at the function.
Then embracing an African diplomat, he asked him loudly whether Africans have heard of the Malayalam poem “Africa Africa” by NV Krishna Warrier. He then began to recite the poem loudly. The guests were puzzled as they could not follow the language. VKN was finally bundled into the car with great difficulty.
In the beginning he used to work for the Children’s Book Trust of Shankar’s Weekly. He had also worked as a private secretary to Chowdhary Brahma Prakash while serving as the President of Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee (DPCC).
Earlier, when Chowdhary Brahma Prakash had been the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, it was Unnikrishnan who introduced VKN to Prakash. After becoming an MP, Unnikrishnan moved to a C2 flat in Tilak Marg, opposite the Supreme Court, which was allotted to him. At that time Narayanankutty from Koyilandy was his helper. Many well-known Kerala leaders used to share the large three-bedroom apartment whenever they visited Delhi.
One day when VKN came home Unnikrishnan was not there. He introduced himself to Narayanankutty as Unnikrishnans’s friend and got acquainted with him. After settling down in the drawing room, he asked Narayanankutty to bring a bottle of cold water. He took out the liquor bottle that he had brought and after a few drinks began to talk loudly.
Then going through the telephone numbers jotted down on the table, he dialled the number of the PM’s office asking to be connected to the PM and introduced himself as a famous writer from Kerala. When the person at the other end told him that the PM was in a meeting and disconnected the phone, VKN called again some four/ five times and Narayanankutty began to perspire.
When this continued, the PM’s office began to cut the call, so he called the telephone exchange and asked to be connected to the PM urgently complaining that well-known writers are not valued as they should be. He told the girl from the exchange, “Your voice is so sweet. Please connect me to the PM. I am a well-known writer from Kerala.”
While this went on, Unnikrishnan arrived by a taxi in the afternoon. He usually returned to the house only in the evening. But that day he wanted to collect some papers from home. Unnikrishnan greeted VKN and went to his room. So, Narayanankutty followed him and described what had been going on. Unnikrishnan asked VKN whether it was right to disturb the PM and added that the incident would reflect badly on him.
Soon after Unnikrishnan collected the papers and left, VKN became very emotional. He complained to Narayanankutty that Unnikrishnan scolded him in spite of their long association. He then left the house and did not visit the flat for a long time.
‘Bofors’ - The bomb
Political circles were already heating up when Unnikrishnan dramatically raised the issue of Bofors gun deal with further evidence in the parliament. His description of the incident in his own words: “I happened to visit Sweden while the Bofors deal was a burning issue. I met The Hindu’s Geneva correspondent Chitra Subramaniam who had brought out the Bofors issue in the first place. I already knew her from Delhi.
No one had taken it seriously at first when the issue was brought out. I also met a Swedish diplomat who had been in Delhi earlier. He was the one who gave me new information about the deal when he visited me in Geneva. We had a long conversation. He happened to mention Rajiv Gandhi and asked me what I thought of the young leader. I replied that though he lacked experience, he was doing a good job.
He said that this was what he too had thought but the Bofors deal made him doubt his views. He mentioned having some shocking information on the deal and said we should meet again. When we met the next day he gave me some significant information. He also said that there was no harm in making this information public.
Earlier, famous lawyer Ram Jethmalani had gone to Sweden to gather more details on the deal but was not successful. After my return from Sweden I decided to present the information in the parliament in the interest of our country. My friend KC Pant was the Defence Minister at that time.
My revelation in parliament shocked Rajiv Gandhi. Many Congress leaders secretly asked me later, outside the parliament, the source of my information. What I brought out was information pointing to Quattrochi’s involvement in the deal. He was an Italian industrialist and was close to Sonia Gandhi.
Even after this revelation, Rajiv used to be outwardly friendly to me but it was clear that he took it as a personal attack on him. He felt that I was the person strongly and effectively opposing him in parliament but whenever he met me in the Central Hall, he ensured that he behaved in a friendly manner”.
In front of Saddam
Some people who are exceptionally able and efficient can turn challenges and controversies into opportunities to prove their mettle. The Gulf War was such an opportunity for Unnikrishnan.
When Saddam’s Iraq attacked Kuwait, lots of repercussions were felt in Kerala, especially in the Malabar region because of the poor families of NRIs, who were working there. About one-and-half lakh Keralites were trapped in Kuwait.
At the time, Unnikrishnan was a member of the Cabinet Committee for Political Affairs in the VP Singh cabinet. He pointed out that some emergency measures were needed to save the Indians stranded in Kuwait. In the beginning, IK Gujral was appointed to attend the matter.
Although he went to Iraq and Jordan, the mission was unsuccessful. Not only that, Gujral allowing some Punjabis to join him on the return flight stoked a big controversy. It became a major issue in the press as he had allowed some personal friends to come back to India while thousands of Indians were trapped in Jordan.
Unnikrishnan who was the MP from Vadakara was flooded with requests to save the Malayalis. It was a constituency with a high percentage of NRIs. So he met the PM and urged that the matter needed some serious interventions. Unnikrishnan, who was able to lead the largest exodus of refugees the world had ever witnessed till then, described it as:
“Raising the issue of security and the huge financial outlay for the project, involving crores of rupees, cabinet secretary Pandey opposed my request. His justification was that no harm would come to the Indians. He said that though they are facing some difficulties now, eventually all Indians would be back home safely and the financial burden for the project would be very heavy on the central government.
I reiterated that it was the moral obligation of the country to bring these people, who regularly sent foreign exchange worth thousands of crores, back home. I clarified that if it cannot be done, then I have no right to be in the cabinet. Finally the cabinet agreed to it. I was made responsible for the task of bringing the refugees home safely.
I went to Baghdad as per the Prime Minister’s special instructions. The US Army had terrorised both land and sky with warplanes and fighter jets in their effort to save Kuwait and capture Saddam Hussein. I set out on the journey knowing fully well how challenging the mission was. But then, there was no other way to save my people.
I reached Saddam’s hiding place after three different helicopter rides. The war planes made so much noise and I saw them flying. Before reaching the hideout I was blindfolded with a thick cloth and had to travel with no idea of the destination. Finally, I met Saddam and we held talks for one hour. He was calm in his demeanour. The Indian Ambassador was also with me. Saddam offered all the help to take the refugees safely to Jordan.
However, he put forward one strict condition. We were to use only Indian planes and should not use any help from the US. I agreed to Saddam’s condition. I could not detect any sign of tension or stress in his behaviour although he was at war with the world’s great super-power. He bid farewell to me with a smile”.
These are excerpts from the book titled ‘A Political Traveller from Indraprastha: His Life Story’ written by MP Suryadas and published by Mathrubhumi Books.
Translated by Uma Sathesan.