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Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Thursday, September 21, 2000

A captain & a swayamsevak

By Harish Khare

THE COMMUNICATION was part of the routine mail that daily lands on an editor's desk. It was a poorly xeroxed copy of a report published in a fortnightly called The Milli Gazette, that advertises itself as Indian Muslims' First English newspaper.The lead story in its August 16-31 issue proclaimed ``Muslim Captain Dies Unsung''. The story's blurb lamented ``Hero buried in the Capital amid total media blackout''. It was the story of a Captain Jawed Ali Saifi of the Indian Army who died in action against the militants in Jammu and Kashmir on August 22 and was buried the next day in the capital. A quick check of the leading newspapers in the capital indeed proved the ``media blackout'' lament to be correct.

It is possible that minus the officially inspired hype about saga and poetry of martyrdom during the Kargil conflict, the national media has suspectedly given in to a fatigue of a familiar kind. There is a routinisation of death, violence and insurgency in and out of Jammu and Kashmir; and, Captain Saifi was an unintended victim of that fatigue. But what is most revealing about The Milli Gazette report is the details of the spontaneous and emotional scenes witnessed during Capt. Saifi's funeral procession in Zakir Nagar, an area that is predominantly Muslim. It seemed the entire community impulsively came out to attend the funeral process, as if at a subconscious level a salute to the departed hero was equivalent to standing up and being counted. The report cites the reply of one of the mourners, who had not known Capt. Saifi at all, as to why he was attending the funeral: ``Now he knows him (the martyred officer) better than himself. It is enough to know that he has given up his life in order to defend the country, and this reason alone is enough to make Jawed nearer to him than any of his relatives.''

It perhaps speaks for the mainstream thinking that not many were able to appreciate the significance of a development in which the entire Muslim locality came together to pay homage to one of them who fell to the militants' bullet in Jammu and Kashmir. Capt. Saifi and his martyrdom constitute a convincing advertisement of the reality and vibrancy of India's multi-plural society that finds itself under siege from the misguided establishment in Islamabad as well as from the hotheads right here in India. Had the Prime Minister's entourage to the United States included sensitive and professional spin-doctors, they would have incorporated a reference to Capt. Saifi's martyrdom in Mr. Vajpayee's many utterances during the recent American sojourn. A Muslim captain laying down his life fighting Pakistani-inspired bogus jehad would have made a wonderfully evocative story for the American audience.

Instead, here was a Prime Minister of India who thought nothing of sharing a platform with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in Staten Island and proclaiming himself to be a swayamsevak. It makes no difference that within hours Mr. Vajpayee's media managers mounted a damage limitation exercise and put out a statement in his name, trying to play on the sevak theme. To these media managers' embarrassment the BJP apologists and the RSS advocates were already declaring themselves to be immensely gratified that Mr. Vajpayee had after all owned up to his true affiliation as a swayamsevak. And after the media managers' half-hearted attempt at explaining away Mr. Vajpayee's swayamsevak song, the RSS establishment has let it be known that it is extremely unhappy that the Prime Minister is once again pretending to be apologetic about his ``dreams'' which remain unfulfilled because of lack of a two-thirds majority for the BJP in Parliament.

Whatever temporary satisfaction there may be in the presumed American endorsement of the Indian Government's thinking/ideas during Mr. Vajpayee'a trip, there is need for caution to ensure that foreign policy rhetoric does not become a cause for discord at home. The Vajpayee establishment does not seem averse to pandering to the American susceptibility on the Huntingtonian notion of a global civilisational conflict, with Islam as the principal adversary. The nature and level of American commitment to this civilisational conflict is as convenient and selective as Washington's love for democracy and human rights. Hence, it would be a mistake for us to rely too much on the American sympathy as we make too much of the jehad-inspired ``terrorism'', just as we made too much of ``dictatorship'' in Pakistan (and have now quietly dropped that conditionality.)

This preoccupation with Pakistan, as became evident during the Prime Minister's visit to the U.S., is bound to have a downstream effect on our domestic disputes and discords. Because just as we did during the Kargil conflict a year ago, this obsessive engagement in the mind with Pakistan can only end up with us defining ourselves as an anti-thesis of Pakistan, not as a liberal, pluralistic and multi-cultural society but as a state structure sustaining a half-baked thesis of ``cultural nationalism''. The cheers that came the-Prime-Minister-the- swayamsevak's way at the Staten Island function were meant to goad the BJP establishment into aping Pakistan as an illiberal arrangement.

This too much of anti-Pakistanism generates a mood at home that is ready to turn ugly at the slightest of provocations. The outbreak of communal violence in downtown Ahmedabad and the increasingly sticky situation that has engulfed the Aligarh Muslim University are only two of the latest reminders. But more than these sporadic (and therefore inherently containable) outbreaks of communal antagonism, what is unnerving is the seeping uncritical assumptions at the senior level of decision- making about Muslims-as-the-fifth-columnists. To be fair, the Indian bureaucracy, especially those dealing with internal security and defence matters, remains largely free from this virus of the Hindu-Muslim divide, but the seemingly unending preoccupation with Pakistan is beginning to take a toll of the decades-old ``neutrality''.

And, once the district superintendent of police or a Rashtriya Rifles Major comes to imbibe, even if unconsciously, this anti- Muslim preoccupation, there is only disproportionate use of force and a lasting alienation, with intractable consequences for maintenance of internal order. In Maharashtra, for example, during the Shiv Sena-BJP regime it was a matter of Government policy to promote and protect underworld gangs opposed to the infamous Dawood company; this unofficial patronage for a criminal gang merely reinforced the Shiv Sena's thugish culture.

It is not that the BJP-VHP-RSS establishment alone is the culprit in sustaining this ambience of suspicion. Even in the Congress(I), with all its self- proclaimed commitment to secularism, a Muslim leader, however tall, can be easily put in his place by dubbing him as a ``Pakistani agent''.

Applause at a White House banquet for an Indian Prime Minister is a matter of pride and satisfaction, but there is need to watch against defining ourselves as an anti-thesis of Pakistan. It may be worth the effort if the U.S. is able to prevail upon the Islamabad cabal to give up its intransigence in Kashmir; but, there is no reason for us to see the Kashmir conflict through the Pakistani prism. And beyond Kashmir, we have to find ways and means of involving the largest minority as an equal partner in the era of prosperity that lies ahead.

Of late, we have been romanticising the exclusiveness of regional and sectarian forces, creating new states for them; and, in the process the idea of an inclusive India is getting weaker. Above all, we need to summon the wisdom and the imagination to nurture this inclusive India, an India another Capt. Jawed Ali Saifi may feel proud to die for.

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