2014, Journalism, New Delhi, News, Telegraph Calcutta

Vaidik, Hafiz Sayeed and the Sting on Journalism

New Delhi, July 14: An interview that nobody has read, and probably hasn’t yet been written, flamed into the headlines today, stoking partisan skirmishes in Parliament and ethical paroxysm, even some envy, across newrooms.

Should Ved Pratap Vaidik have taken himself into a Lahore safehouse for an hour-long conversation with Mohammed Hafiz Sayeed, amir of Jamaat-ud-Dawa and the man India accuses of plotting the Mumbai terror assault and calls a clear and present danger to Indian security?

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But before that, Ved Pratap Vaidik, who? He seems a man convinced he escapes simplistic description and is entitled to a higher, multifaceted calling. He describes himself as a “journalist, ideologue, political thinker, orator”. His specialty is South Asia — “Aryavarta” to his preference —from Afghanistan all across the India’s northeastern periphery. He was once opinion editor of the Hindi daily Navbharat Times, then editor of Bhasha, the Hindi cousin of the Press Trust of India. Came a time, he forsook the quotidian yoke of employment, and turned freelance fount of varied wisdoms, an aspiring rishi to political rajas. He occasionally found them and offered them what he could. His current hat is Chairman, Council for Indian Policy, an institution of unclear provenance. He is also yoga teacher Ramdev’s best-known non-yogic impresario, and, should you happen to ask, high counsellor to a string of political leaders across party lines.

Congressmen, he revealed today, wanted him at one time during the P.V. Narasimha Rao days, to be elevated to deputy Prime Minister. Earlier this year, he delivered a “civilizational discourse” to a Delhi gathering attended, among others, by Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, Arun Jaitley and Ramdev. And earlier this month, on July 2, he was able to effect that first-of-its-kind cross-border tryst with Hafiz Sayeed.

Journalism took him there, Vaidik insists, no ulterior motive or undercover task. The bafflement remains he took the better part of a fortnight to announce his journalistic coup, and when he did, he appended no journalism to it. What he did put out was a photograph seated across Sayeed, between them a table with a jug of water, an offering he declined, this being the month of Ramzan. What he also gave out of his interview was interviews of his own — I told Hafiz Sayeed about Narendra Modi and him being a “brahmachari”, he told me he had three wives; I told him Indians accuse him of promoting terror, he told me he has never done any such thing, he’s only been defamed by America under Indian pressure; I told him more about Modi and he said Modi will be welcomed in Pakistan, he himself wants to come to Delhi and Mumbai and address gatherings, and that his mother escaped to Pakistan from Ropur (in Punjab), when she was carrying him. The tone would suggest this is not a senior Indian journalist interviewing a man India considers Public Enemy Number One; it approximates a Track II, no notes, conversation more.

Questions arise, several of them. For a start, what exactly was Vaidik doing with Hafiz Sayeed?

The Congress, scanning the board for pins to dig into the Modi government, was quick to raise the “traitor!” charge and demanded an explanation on why the government was dispatching emissaries to cosy up to an internationally proclaimed terrorist and professed India tormentor: we need to know immediately if this government is negotiating with terrorists instead of demanding they be brought to justice, as we have been.

The BJP rushed to rubbish the charge and dust off any hint of intimacy with Vaidik or his mission. “We have nothing do to with it,” protested parliamentary affairs minister Venkaiah Naidu, “I have checked with the ministry of external affairs, there was nothing. We were neither consulted, nor did we consent to any such thing. For the record, Hafiz Sayeed remains an enemy of India.” Vaidik himself appeared diligently engaged all day today, trying to deflect Congress volleys, protect the Modi establishment from taking hits. “I went on behalf of nobody, I went on my own,” was his relentless song, “It was something I did as a journalist.”

Which begs another question. How did he secure access to Hafiz Sayeed?

Vaidik’s doesn’t constitute the first Indian media effort to question Hafiz Sayeed, though the jury remains out on whether he intended to question the JuD boss in the first place. Dozens of Indian journalists have tried and failed. The truth is Sayeed remains a prized entity for formidable Pakistani state actors — the GHQ/ISI complex which dictates policy — and retains the benefit of their proctection. You don’t get to see Hafiz Sayeed by knocking at his Johar Town residence in Lahore; a likelier prospect is you’d get knocked before you get anywhere near if you make a solo attempt without travel documents. Phonelines need to be burnt, subterranean connections made, purpose and credentials verified and channels cleared, before such a meeting can come to be. Vaidik seems to have had the benefit of all of those; he has gone where no Indian journalist has ever been before.

Arriving as part of then foreign minister S.M. Krishna’s media crew at a Lahore five-star in the September of 2012, some of us caught a shivered whisper in the hotel lobby: Anyone here who wants to meet Hafiz Sayeed? What? Really? Or was it just a mischievous truth-or-dare trick? But how? When? Where? It can be arranged, the whisper offered, probably here, probably somewhere nearby, within ten minutes. He lives in a double-storey in Johar Town, after all, and he enjoys the way of his will. There were not a few excited and willing among us: Hafiz Sayeed, a scribe’s big story, let’s take it. But then, the whisper vanished, almost as suddenly as it had arrived. Only the electric ripple of it remained. The hive of spooks and securitymen, Indian and Pakistani, in the hotel atrium couldn’t possibly not have caught a sense of it. They swiftly banished the prospect of Hafiz Sayeed, even the floating spectre of the promise.

I would have taken the chance with both hands and two hooves, but even then, as now, there were those among us who declared, astonishingly,

that even offered an opportunity they’d decline on some cuckoo illusion that interviewing Sayeed would compromise their patriotism. It’s  a stance Vaidik dexterously used all day today to secure holes in the frayed masonry of his story: “As a journalist, I’d meet anyone, I’ve met the LTTE’s Prabhakaran, I’ve met armed Naxalites, I’ve met many enemies of the state, but that is my duty as a journalist.”

But all along, he himself issued reason for his “purely journalistic mission” tale to be doubted. Journalists don’t go on roving foreign missions — and should not — promoting home governments. Vaidik did. His own writing from Pakistan contains the best evidence of it. Among the things he told the Pakistani leadership, according the solitary piece he wrote for a home publication: “Modi hasn’t uttered a word against Muslims and is good for all Indians”; “Nobody has a bad word to say of Modi in Pakistan”; “All of Pakistan is looking forward to an early Modi visit”. Upon his return home, Vaidik penned a paean to Arun Jaitley’s maiden budget and titled it, “Modi kaa Manmohak Budget” (Modi’s Spellbinding Budget).

The reason why a “dubious” cry attends Vaidik’s journalistic-mission protestation isn’t far to seek. And we are still wondering where the core of all this clamour is? His “interview” with Hafiz Sayeed. What desk did he send it to?

 

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2014, Patna, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Zero-Cost Eggs, And The Loneliness of Giriraj Singh

Patna: A country egg hatching in a remote poultry pen has become Giriraj Singh’s thing of armour against invited assault. But we shall come to the eggs presently; first, the reason why this tale’s protagonist is on eggshells.

Such a torrent of censure and rejection he never did expect to descend on him for uttering the “undiluted truth of my heart”. Such a clap of overhead thunder it was, resonating from foe and friend, it left the bellicose Giriraj moping in a corner of his west Patna bungalow.

“I have been told I must hang, I have been told I must be arrested, I have been told I should be charged with treason, I have been told I am anti-national, and nobody is defending me. Everybody, even people in my party, is tearing into me. For what? For telling the truth? I am devastated, this moment has brought me to think if I should leave public life altogether, what’s the point if I cannot say the truth?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The counter-torrent issuing from Giriraj is in spate. He won’t stop. “I am telling you, and maybe I should not be telling you, but I feel like leaving politics, doing something else. I have probably won the Nawada Lok Sabha seat (polling in Nawada was held on April 10) , but even so, I feel so wronged, I want to give it all up.” Continue reading “Zero-Cost Eggs, And The Loneliness of Giriraj Singh”

2013, New Delhi, News, Telegraph Calcutta

Manmohan Singh: From Home Truths to Foreign Fancies

New Delhi, Sept 3: Prime Minsiter Manmohan Singh has signalled a sabbatical from a long season of domestic picket-fencing and is set to swivel focus on foreign policy ventures whose centrepiece remains the elusive search for a trust breakthrough with Pakistan.

Cleaving off from the extended, and often turbulent, monsoon session of Parliament, Singh is set to take a recess from public engagement on domestic disquiet over a range of issues from corruption to the economic slide, leaving the battling for his party and ministerial colleagues to do.

 

 

 

 

 

When Singh departs for St. Petersburg tomorrow to summit with G20 leaders, the Prime Minister will be embarking on a hectic, though he’d hope less exacting, eight-week international schedule that will take him from the United States in the west to Brunei in the south-east with Moscow midway. Continue reading “Manmohan Singh: From Home Truths to Foreign Fancies”

2013, New Delhi, News, Telegraph Calcutta

Bilawal-Bhutto-Zardari: Now Faryal Talpur in Pakistan’s Alchemy of Power

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s quiet exit to Dubai sometime last week could mean any of several things: business rendezvous, recreation break, sabbatical from security scares, brat tantrum. It could also mean a mid-campaign shove to the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) by its recently anointed patron-in-chief.

Few in Pakistan are prepared to be convinced yet the prodigal Bhutto son has pressed self-eject following a dust-up with his presidential father and de facto PPP boss Asif Ali Zardari. Many are ingesting it with dollop doses of salt because Bilawal’s departure — and its circumstances — was revealed by an Indian wire service, the Press Trust of India (PTI).

This makes for an enigmatic pattern to blockbuster newsbreaks on Bilawal, whatever their worth or truth: they seem to originate not in Pakistan but pop up elsewhere in the subcontinent. Last September, the Blitz of Dhaka had front-paged a flaming, though fanciful, tale of illicit love between Bilawal and Pakistan’s glamorous foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar. It is still not clear what part, if any, Bilawal or Hina Khar had in it; the ISI most likely did. The appearance of the ISI’s by-line on it dealt the tale of the “fiery affair” a swift kiss of death.

But stranger things have happened in Pakistan than celebrity scandal; that’s commonplace for Pakistan’s influential and politically incestuous elite swim a small and crowded pond. Continue reading “Bilawal-Bhutto-Zardari: Now Faryal Talpur in Pakistan’s Alchemy of Power”

2002, Essay

Zia to Musharraf: Impressions of Pakistan 2002

This essay on Pakistan first appeared in “On The Abyss”, a HarperCollins anthology shortly after Gen. Pervez Musharraf ousted Nawaz Sharif in a bloodless coup.

A Peshawar street; photo by cricrich in Flickr

Chacha said he was like a father to me. He would not let me go. “In any case, I don’t think the flight will leave, it never does at times like these,” he announced. “I’ll wait for you outside, you’ll come back.” An ashen, monster of a storm was flaring above Peshawar. Rain and wind were about to stir a reckless cocktail of the elements. “The plane won’t go, you’ll come back,” Chacha repeated as I bid goodbye, adamant I had to leave. Chacha’s prophecy of my return would come true, but not that day. I had appointments to keep in Islamabad. Besides, the telex lines from Peshawar had proved as unreliable as promises that one of the mujahideen groups would smuggle me across into ‘liberated’ Afghanistan via Khyber Pass. I had a pile of rotting stories to file. I had to leave. Continue reading “Zia to Musharraf: Impressions of Pakistan 2002”

2013, New Delhi, News, Telegraph Calcutta

Omar’s Revamp Gamble over Valley of Anxious Drifts

Omar Abdullah
Omar Abdullah

New Delhi, Jan. 14: Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah is gambling with a makeover reshuffle in the middle of a winter of atypical disquiet over the Valley.

Scheduled for tomorrow, Omar’s cards-close-to-chest cabinet rejig could open two possibilities. It could infuse new blood in a government that has survived violent troughs but struggled to establish a credible mass connect. Or, it could trigger new disaffection if the old guard of the National Conference (NC) is sidelined, as many power observers have speculated.

Continue reading “Omar’s Revamp Gamble over Valley of Anxious Drifts”

2000, Essay, Guns and Yellow Roses, Kargil

Kargil: The Good Soldier on a Bad Night

A fragment from a long essay on the Kargil War: Part 1. The essay, Guns and Yellow Roses, was published in an eponymous collection on the Kargil War by HarperCollins India in 1999.

Under bombardment in the battle for Mount Tololing in Drass with AP photographer Saurabh Das, on belly and Gaurav Sawant, then of The Indian Express (right).
Under bombardment in the battle for Mount Tololing in Drass with AP photographer Saurabh Das, on belly, and Gaurav Sawant, then of The Indian Express (right).

Drass: “Two hundred artillery guns firing across the mountain all night. Will that make a good story for you?”

This officer shall remain unnamed in the story for reasons that have to do with the strange workings of the defence establishment — the games they can play with good officers and the petty wars they can unleash. But if this man wasn’t a good soldier, true to his calling and country, the Indian Army probably doesn’t have any. He, more than anyone else, introduced some of us to the face of the war and  to the life of the man who wages it: the footsoldier. He showed us how spectacular and how sorry war could be, how exciting and spectacular and frightening, how necessary and how utterly futile.

He commanded an artillery unit that shuttled about Drass during the two months of conflict. He wore a colonel’s rank on his shoulders but he had the heart of a jawan. And he had a mind of his own, which is not always a good thing to have. The Indian army was still struggling for a foothold in the mountains when we first met him. We had stopped by his gun area on a rocky hillside near Drass one afternoon and by the time we left half an hour later, he had extended us an invitation to visit again. “If you want to see the war, come and  see it with the soldiers.” Continue reading “Kargil: The Good Soldier on a Bad Night”