Telegraph Calcutta

Pinch for punch (July 2, 2020)

 

Those who live by the sword don’t always die by the sword; they are able to hold on, for a time, with the pretence of a sword. It is when that pretence is no longer sustainable that they perish. Often, there is not even the requirement of a sword at that stage; the accumulated consequences of the pretence are enough to sound an end.

Scarcely a year on from his “ghar mein ghus ke maarenge” pyrotechnics against Pakistan — a hyper-chested fire-breather act post Pulwama that delivered him a handsome electoral endorsement — the strongman image of the prime minister, Narendra Modi, has suffered blows that he appears too shocked and shaken to even admit to.

The military purchase of the Balakot air-strike remains clouded in a welter of claim and counter-claim but there was a swift and dramatic response to the horrific terror-strike at Pulwama for which blame was summarily nailed on Pakistan. Fighter jets were scrambled and sent across the LoC for the first time since 1971. They did exhaust their lethal payloads over Pakistani territory before returning home. A punch was delivered, an intention stated: “Hamara siddhant hai, hum ghar mein ghus ke maarenge.” Modi received vociferous applause at every stage he mounted thereafter. He made many belligerent speeches on the back of Balakot and became the Rambo pin-up of the 2019 election. He earned a wholesome victory as Papa-Protector.

Last summer seems funnelled so far and deep in the past this summer. The Chinese — not some proxy mercenary infiltrators, as in Kargil, or a shoot-and-scoot terror outfit, as often in Kashmir, but the uniformed People’s Liberation Army — have ingressed deep into what India considered its flank of the conundrum that is the unmarked Line of Actual Control. Not at one point, and not a furtive breach. At multiple points, with a brazen dare — come get us. They have come in large numbers. They have come with construction and military hardware. They are settling down, as if it were their rightful squat. They are pitching tents where Ladakhi horses would go summer grazing, they are digging kitchens where Indian patrols would often take breathers. In the course of achieving all of this, one day they killed 20 Indian soldiers, injured dozens of others and took 10 captive, whom they later released. A few days later, Beijing’s envoy to Delhi issued a chit of paper blithely proclaiming the Galwan Valley as Chinese real estate from his office a stone’s throw away from the prime minister’s residence. 

Continue reading “Pinch for punch (July 2, 2020)”

Telegraph Calcutta

What Wasn’t Written (June 7, 2020)

It makes no mention, for instance, of achchhe din, the portmanteau feel-good promise that became his pivot to power in 2014. It does not tell you in what garden the pledged golden bird — soney ki chidia — continues to elude our grasp.

It does not tell you that in the years since, India has been turned into an architecture of fractures wantonly and consciously wreaked; and that in the pursuit of fashioning these fractures, Indians have been encouraged to go after other Indians, liberally fed on lies and prejudice, exhorted by dog-whistling from the top and brazenly led to murder and mayhem by gas-lighter commanders possessed of run over the law. Indians have been killed for what they wear, what they eat, what they are called, what books they read, who they pray to. The killers have come to be treated like heroes of spectator sport; they’ve been garlanded and celebrated.

Continue reading “What Wasn’t Written (June 7, 2020)”
Column, State of Play, Telegraph Calcutta

A Splitting Headache

Kashmir is the campaign that New Delhi has lost in key places

 

Just a few hours before Sameer Bhat, better known as Sameer Tiger, a most wanted Hizbul Mujahideen commander, was killed in a gun battle in Drabgam in South Kashmir this week, he had pushed online a short video of a local youngster being interrogated by him on suspicion of being an informer. Towards the end of the clip, Sameer Tiger pronounces a warning on an army officer that he surely meant for a much larger audience: “(Major) Shukla ko kehna sher ne shikar karna kya chhora, tujhe laga jungle hamara hai? (Tell Major Shukla just because the tiger had stopped hunting, you thought the jungle was yours?)” Major Shukla would take a hit in pursuit of Sameer Tiger soon after, his assault party would hunt Sameer Tiger down, but Tiger’s dire dare rings on: it’s a vicious survivor’s skirmish, Kashmir, and it’s often tough to tell hunter from hunted, one day’s trophy chasers can become another day’s trophies. Continue reading “A Splitting Headache”

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?

 

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”