In Vajpayee's final journey, foster daughter, and not a male, lights pyre

Mortal remains of former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee being taken to BJP headquarters (Photo: ANI twitter)
Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a devout Hindu. But as in life, so in death, he continued to challenge orthodox Hinduism. On Friday evening, at his final resting place near the banks of the Yamuna, his foster daughter Namita Kaul Bhattacharya, and not a male relative as orthodox Hinduism mandates, performed the last rites of the lifelong bachelor.

Bhattacharya lit the funeral pyre amid a light drizzle and the sounds of military bugles, a gun salute by soldiers, and the cries of ‘Atal Bihari amar rahein’ (long live Atal Bihari). It was preceded by an equally evocative sight of the tricolour draping the coffin being handed over to his foster granddaughter Niharika by army men. The day is also likely to be remembered for another set of powerful images. Prime Minister Narendra Modi did away with security considerations to walk alongside the gun carriage carrying Vajpayee’s body the entire length of 5 km — from his party’s national headquarters, where the poet-politician’s body had been kept since morning, to the cremation site at Rashtriya Smriti Sthal.

The capital hadn’t seen such outpouring of emotions for a former PM, at least since the cremation of Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991.

Thousands of men and women turned up at the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) headquarters to pay their tributes to the departed leader in the morning.  

Later, they lined up on either side of the streets to give an emotional send-off to him. People showered petals on Vajpayee’s cortege as the funeral procession traversed through the streets of central and old Delhi.

From the All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS), where Vajpayee had breathed his last at 5.15 pm on Thursday, his body was taken to his residence at 6A, Krishna Menon Marg, where a stream of political leaders and common people visited through the night. From there, Vajpayee’s body was taken to the BJP national headquarters and kept there from 11 am onwards, before being taken in a sizeable funeral procession to the cremation site near Rajghat. 

Senior BJP leader and Vajpayee’s lifelong friend L K Advani, former prime minister Manmohan Singh, Congress President Rahul Gandhi, Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav and other Opposition leaders attended the cremation. The stretch also has memorials to Mahatma Gandhi, and former prime ministers Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.

Among foreign dignitaries, Bhutanese King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, Pakistan’s Minister of Law Syed Ali Zafar, Bangladesh Foreign Minister Abul Hassan Mahmud Ali, Nepalese Foreign Minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali, acting Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka Lakshman Kiriella, and former Afghan president Hamid Karzai attended the cremation of a man fondly remembered for his efforts to foster greater South Asian unity. Vajpayee was also the last Indian prime minister to travel to Pakistan to attend a SAARC Summit in Islamabad in January 2004.

The only unsavoury moment was when some people, seemingly BJP workers, manhandled social activist Swami Agnivesh when he reached the BJP headquarters to pay his tributes. Agnivesh had recently been attacked by BJP workers and those of other right-wing groups in Jharkhand. Women also complained that no separate arrangements had been made to enable them to pay their respects to the departed leader.

The Uttar Pradesh government said the ashes of the former prime minister would be immersed in rivers in all the districts of the state. The UP government put out a list of 75 districts and the small and big rivers picked for the immersion of Vajpayee’s ashes, an exercise that is likely to galvanise BJP workers across the state. Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath said Uttar Pradesh was Vajpayee’s ‘karmabhoomi’. Vajpayee represented UP several times in the Lok Sabha. 

He was elected from Balrampur in 1957 and from the Lucknow consecutively from 1991 to 2004. 

The BJP’s Lucknow unit will organise a condolence meeting on August 21.