Tomorrow (May 3, 2021) is my father Mr Om Prakash Saraf’s birthday. Had he still been alive we would have been celebrating his entry into the 100th year of an exemplary life as a journalist and a public figure.
He had passed away at his home in Jammu on November 25, 2017. He was mentally alert and physically agile till the end and had personally completed well in time all formalities of handing over his body to Jammu’s Government Medical College along with a donation for medical science to explore.
He had lived his life with undiminished fire in his belly for freedom of the press, individual liberty, democracy, secularism and probity in public life. He identified himself with the common man and judged the state of democracy with the amount of freedom the common man enjoyed. Personal hygiene remained his topmost priority during his daily routine. He wore simple and clean Khadi clothes and a Gandhi cap. His story needs to be told because it taught us many lessons which I think are worth sharing. Covid-19 was unheard of at that time but his image of standing close to a wash basin in the veranda of our Jammu house is firmly itched on our mind. He would wash his hands with soap more than once during the day gently scrubbing them for at least one minute (not just 20 seconds) and occasionally for a longer period while cleansing his handkerchief as well. He took care that water tap was opened only when needed and there was no wastage. He cleaned his teeth twice a day and most of them were intact till the end.
Behind a gentle exterior was a strong man who fought many battles without nursing any rancour against his opponents. More time I spent with him more was I surprised by his remarkable patience. He had an unflinching faith that even “the most unscrupulous change for the better.” I never heard him badmouthing any one not even the late “Prime Minister” Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad whose Government spared no effort to win over him using all kinds of tactics. He would look for positives in his rivals. Yet, it is only well known that he was intolerant of administrative and political corruption and detentions without trial and took on the “BBC” (Bakshi Brothers Corporation, as the Bakshi regime came to be known) with extraordinary courage. His battles as an aide of our grandfather during the princely order and Sheikh Abdullah’s two regimes are part of J&K’s history.
One of the foremost lessons we learnt from him was about the purpose of education. He often quoted Mahatma Gandhi to underline his belief that one should seek emancipation of mind instead of going for materialistic pursuits. He did not preach morals but set examples by personal behaviour and actions. I left home as a teenager in search of employment and knowledge about the rest of the country before settling down in New Delhi. Yet, I was fortunate to have spent two long spells with him. First, in my younger days when I also took my first lessons in journalism from him in Srinagar where I obtained my graduation degree. And, then, following the death of my mother in 2000 after which I made it a point to travel to Jammu after about every quarter to keep him company together with my brother and his family who were already with him. In between, there would be several interactions with him every year albeit for shorter durations.
Age did not dilute his unflinching commitment to his fundamental principles. He was an early riser and followed a regular daily routine which began with preparing his own cup of tea at 3 am followed by study for nearly four hours. I benefitted from his deep knowledge of men and matters during interactions over morning tea in particular. I had strong reservations about the behaviour of some people close to him including those who tinkered with history to claim his achievements as their own or exploited his name and would share my feelings with him. He always counselled me tolerance maintaining that the “people change” and the “truth prevails”. A schoolmate who has done extremely well in Jammu and Kashmir politics on an ideological spectrum different from that pursued by father would often tell me during my Jammu visits: “He has led a straight life never deviating from his chosen path of truth.” Once during a visit to the J&K High Court premises to meet Senior Advocate P.S Dutta a few friends gathered and recalled their association with father. One of them, Mahender Bhardwaj, a former president of the High Court Bar Association, succinctly remarked “he was the same for everyone.” We scrupulously sat on back rows during his several felicitation ceremonies and took care never to throw our weight around. Family elders too observed discipline to the extent that our grandmother stubbornly refused to jump the queue at Jammu’s Super Bazaar over which his eldest son exercised authority as the head of a state organisation at that time.
Who’s who of politics made a beeline to our rented flat in the crowded Sabzi Mandi area of Jammu on his nomination to the Legislative Council after Sheikh Abdullah’s return to mainstream. He contested those popular elections which lesser mortals would dread for facing the wrath of the state including the first Assembly poll in Srinagar’s prestigious Amirakadal constituency where he cycled from home to home through the political hotbed of Maisuma Bazar telling people how to exercise their franchise in 1962. He remained fond of long walks and would politely turn down offers of lifts by people including chief ministers who would stop their cavalcade on seeing him. Good times or bad times he kept his composure.
He evoked instant respect. Two incidents that happened before he breathed his last come to mind in this regard. One day in Jammu I brought home for some work a labourer from outside Pacca Danga’s Lakshmi Narayan Temple where daily wagers would gather every morning in search of work. The moment the labourer, who turned out to be from the Valley, entered our home he saw father from a distance and shouted in excitement: “Oh, the great leader is here…a friend of Sheikh Abdullah.” On another occasion, a family came home for the first time to call on my brother. The head of the family saw father reading newspaper. He immediately turned to his children and told them: “Here is a Gandhian… a man who has shaken many a Government.”
Similar sentiments were echoed in the corridors of power. His electoral adversaries like Dr Karan Singh openly acknowledged at their public gatherings that they had nothing to say against him. In September 2020 West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar who is a former Union Minister while welcoming Dr Karan Singh at a high-level virtual interaction recalled his 1977 Udhampur Parliamentary election as being one of the cleanest electoral contests in which he and my father, his Janata Party rival, ensured that the debate did not go beyond their ideological positions. Only recently I came across a comment in the social media by Masud Choudhary, cop-turned-academician described as “a living hero” in these columns on April 18, that even if one went around with a candle one would not find the likes of Om Saraf, as father was popularly known, in the prevailing milieu.