Friday, July 21, 2017

Should Journalists Protect National Interest Or Publish And Be Damned?

Should Journalists Protect National Interest Or Publish And Be Damned?
                                                                                                Saeed Naqvi

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s fate hangs in the balance on unexplained finances, most specifically for apartments he acquired on London’s most expensive stretch, Park Lane, facing Hyde Park. I visited the most prized of these apartments on October 15, 1999, days after Gen. Pervez Musharraf ousted him in a coup on October 12.

To make sense of the military handouts explaining the situation, I turned up in London to interview his youngest son, Hasan then 23, who, I presumed would have been in touch with members of his family in Islamabad and Lahore.

What struck me and my camera crew were the rich, opulent interiors, heavy curtains one would expect at the Savoy and the Dorchester, sofas with upholstery so expensive as to hover between class and vulgarity. The deep corridors lead to many bedrooms, one of which Hasan occupied even when he was at London University. To elevate the grand style of the Sharifs was a butler in attendance, wearing tails of impeccable cut, as if he were off to the Ascot races.

My interview with Hasan was about the coup and its aftermath, but as the 118 Park Lane acquired saliency in the current corruption saga, I looked at the video again from the angle of “ill-gotten wealth”. There was plenty of it in the footage.

A thought crossed my mind: it might be of interest to TV channels in Pakistan.

Immediately, my hand was stayed by a left-liberal friend in the media.

“This footage will weaken civil society which is suspicious of Imran Khan’s collusion with the army.”

Two schools of journalism were suddenly in conflict. Should Nawaz Sharif’s alleged corruption be overlooked because protecting him against Imran Khan served some higher purpose? Publish and be damned is what I had been taught when confronted with such situations.

Another story, ironically this one concerning Imran Khan, comes to mind.

I had turned up in Israel, to interview Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir totally against the advice of my left-liberal friends – Prof. Mushirul Hasan, for instance. Muslim Congressmen surrounding Rajiv Gandhi were advising him against upgrading relations with Israel “because the Muslim vote would be adversely affected.” This, I wrote, was rubbish. Salman Rushdie, Shah Bano, Babari Masjid and relations with Israel were not life and death issues for Indian Muslims. Education, entrepreneurial help, jobs were the substantive issue. It was this argument I had armed myself with for my journey to Jerusalem. We would be that much more influential on the Palestinian issue I had argued.

Linda, the Press Secretary to Shamir showed me a list of “Pakistanis who claimed to have been sent by Imran Khan to explore relations with the Jewish state”. Remember Jemima was married to Imran and her multi billionaire father, Sir James Goldsmith wielded great influence in Jerusalem. I did not write that story because Imran then was much more a cricketer than politician. Moreover, Linda had shared this information in confidence on a personal basis.  

When Benazir Bhutto sought a conversation with Israeli President Ezer Weizman during Nelson Mandela’s inauguration in Pretoria in 1994, I did mention the fact. She was a Prime Minister, trying to connect with Israel clandestinely.

When the Janata government under Morarji Desai encouraged Bhutan to open up gradually in international affairs, south block was split on the pace of this openness. At this juncture the successor government of Prime Minister Charan Singh, hurriedly invited Shyam Nandan Mishra, the MP from Bihar, to attend the Non Aligned Summit in Havana in September 1979 as the new External Affairs Minister. A novice in world affairs, Mishra put his foot in his mouth on a secret treaty which guides Indo-Bhutan relations.

So cross was King Jigme Singye Wangchuk that he invited me to Mumbai where he was halting on his journey from Havana. This was most unprecedented. No king of Bhutan had ever given an interview to a journalist.

The interview, published behind the back of the establishment, created a sensation. The hawks in South Block were angry because I had provided a forum to the King to vent his anger on a very sensitive issue which may give a handle to China. In those days also “grazing grounds” between Bhutan and China were an issue. Head of Bhutan’s Geological Survey, Sonam Ragbey, was in and out of New Delhi with maps. It was all very hush, hush.

The dilemma facing me then was: should I have anticipated the Indian hawks and, posing as a protector of the national interest, killed the story? Or should I abide by the old dictum: publish and be dammed?

I took the latter route.

A quest for balance on International Affairs in the Indian media has always been a fool’s errand. The Imperial-colonial stranglehold obtains to this day. When Ronald Reagan bombed Bengazi and Tripoli in April 1986 because US intelligence had picked up chatter in a Berlin discotheque that Libyan terrorists were about to target Western locations, the story was either not noticed in India or the western version was wallowed hook line and sinker.

When I turned up in Tripoli to interview Qaddafi whose six month old daughter had been killed in the air raid on his Palace, I was regarded as a subversive, blackleg by the western press corps. I still remember a disapproving Kate Aide of the BBC in the hotel room opposite mine.

The entire anti Qaddafi propaganda was based on falsehoods. Should I go along with the powerful conventional wisdom forged globally or puncture it since I had witnessed the incontrovertible truth?

The interview made banner headlines in European newspapers like La Republica, but I also lived to see how powerful the western lobbies were on that solitary event.

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who had dispatched his external affairs minister, Bali Ram Bhagat to commiserate with Qaddafi in Tripoli, came under such heavy pressure from the Reagan White House, that he was obliged to make Bhagat the scapegoat. He was sacked.

It was clear as daylight once again that in situations like this, whatever the official line, the only principle a journalist with spine must abide by is, “publish and be damned”.

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Friday, July 14, 2017

Enemy’s Enemy Is My Friend: BJP, CPM Target Mamata

Enemy’s Enemy Is My Friend: BJP, CPM Target Mamata
                                                                             Saeed Naqvi

On the eve of the May, 2016, West Bengal Assembly elections, Arun Jaitley shared his campaign experiences with some editors. When he attacked Mamata Bannerjee and the Left-Congress Front in equal measure, the crowd’s response was tepid. When he attacked TMC for 60 percent of his speech, there was some applause. But when his speech was 75 percent invective against the TMC, the applause was thunderous.

The editor who passed on these “findings” to me was then a key figure in the Kolkata establishment. He was amplifying something he liked to believe. So opposed to Mamata was he that he claimed some credit for helping stitch together what was patently an absurd arrangement: Congress and the CPM would hold hands in Bengal, but fight each other in Kerala. They were trounced.

Jaitley’s unflattering report about Mamata’s electoral fortunes can be easily explained. His meetings, obviously organized by RSS cadres consisted of crowds who were presumably anti Mamata. His narrative also revealed that, in charting out a future in Bengal, the BJP saw Mamata as a much more formidable obstacle than the Congress-Left combine.

That outcome is precisely what the BJP is up against now that Amit Shah is preparing the turf for the 2019 elections.

In this framework, how does the communal violence following Basirhat play itself out? First, it must be registered that there have been a dozen or so clashes in the state after Mamata’s reelection. It must be said to the credit of CPM’s 36 year rule: Communal riots were almost non existent. Some of what is happening now is clearly part of the BJP’s effort to create an atmosphere conducive to communal polarization.

It is difficult to see how the BJP can profit from efforts at Hindu consolidation in a state with anywhere between 30 to 35 percent Muslim population. In the absence of a reliable census, these are the figures most parties privately cite. Promoting communalism would leave this bloc vote consolidated exactly where it is: behind Mamata.

Considering that this very same vote stood four square behind the CPM for 34 years, mostly under the charismatic Chief Ministership of Jyoti Basu, its support for Mamata need not theoretically be seen as permanent.

This probably is the desperate hope the CPM nurses. To enhance Mamata’s vulnerabilities it has thrown its lot with the BJP: an enemy’s enemy is my friend.

Just as the self defeating formula, CPM + Congress, for May, 2016 elections was credited to the CPM secretary General Sitaram Yechury, the strategy of attacking TMC just when it is in RSS-BJP line of fire, is widely believed to be the line enunciated by former party Secretary General Prakash Karat.

Quite clearly the party has not yet digested the harsh reality that it was trounced by TMC, that Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was West Bengal’s Gorbachev. In the rush to reform both had lost control.

The Marxist government’s conflict with peasants in Nandigram in March, 2007, set into motion a series of events which ultimately dethroned the CPM. Karat’s diagnosis was that the anger of Muslim peasants had been stoked by a combination of Jamiat, TMC and Naxalities.

Muslim peasants, fearful of losing their lands for a Special Economic Zone, was the basis on which CPML groups worked hard to mobilize a powerful movement. Jamiat may have played a role since the peasants were Muslim. The only party in the fray to take electoral advantage was the TMC.

It was a masterstroke of political opportunism by Mamata. Having lost the 2006 assembly election, she turned her fortunes around using Singur and Nandigram as fulcrums.

A leader’s political durability in Kolkata can sometimes be measured by political currents in neighbouring states – Tripura for instance.

Possibly inspired by Mamata’s rise, the President of the Congress in Tripura, Sudip Roy Burman switched to the TMC. But when he saw the Modi wave sweeping across UP and the TV channels, he turned up in Guwahati to promise support the BJP’s Presidential candidate Ram Nath Kovind.

Now, Agartala is rife with rumours that six TMC MLAs are likely to join the BJP in the coming weeks. In other words, the BJP, which had no member in the Assembly, will suddenly have six.

This sudden inflation of BJP legislators will have ample moral support from the rabidly anti Muslim Governor Tathagata Roy. His recommendation on how Muslim terrorists should be punished, borders on the Macabre:  “Wrap them in pigskin and bury them face down in Pig’s excreta.”

Tripura has been under CPM rule for the past 32 years. But the anti CPM vote mostly rallied around the Congress in the past. As elsewhere in the country (West Bengal too) the Congress has reduced itself to a virtual non entity in the state. At the grassroots, this space is being occupied by the energetic BJP cadres. Taking a holistic view, these must be seen as some of the chinks in the TMC armour.

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Friday, July 7, 2017

Modi’s Israel Visit: Memories Of A Journalist’s Visits To Jewish State

Modi’s Israel Visit: Memories Of A Journalist’s Visits To Jewish State
                                                                                    Saeed Naqvi
Dated: 07.07.2017

Israel has been in the news in the context of the Prime Minister’s visit and I may be forgiven for a touch of nostalgia. I was the first Indian journalist to visit Israel after an Australian fanatic had set fire to the pulpit of the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem in August 1969. The Arab World was ablaze.

Indian passports in those days were not valid for South Africa, Israel and Southern Rhodesia. Under a special dispensation you could obtain a separate passport for travel to countries with which India did not have diplomatic ties. Israelis were more practical: they pinned a piece of paper for entry and exit which could be pulled out when travelling to other countries.

The reception I received at Ben Gurion airport was the stuff of fairytales for a reporter in his 20s. Never will Jerusalem Municipality have a public relations officer more beautiful than Bathsheba Herman.

Something that had not touched the Israelis then was arrogance. They came across as clever, wise, modest people, working diligently on their Kibbutz, the typically Jewish cooperatives, where inequalities were not discernable. It was possible to contemplate Fa Giladi, the exquisite Kibbutz in the shadow of Mt. Hermon, as the dream location for research on the Palestinian issue.

The simplicity of the people helped tone down shades of Zionism instilled in us and which was the bane of the Palestinian people. Ambassadors like John Kenneth Galbraith held Pandit Nehru in their thrall with their intellect. But during the Indira Gandhi years, changes were creeping across the diplomatic corps. There were various ways to gauge how well informed an Ambassador was. A simple test could be this: was the ambassador a regular fixture at the New Year eve party hosted by Indira Gandhi’s leftist adviser, editor of Seminar, Romesh Thapar. By this and several other criteria the trophy belonged to Clovis Maksoud, Arab League’s first ambassador, articulate, even bombastic, with an unerring eye for New Delhi’s well groomed ladies. His role in sensitizing the New Delhi elite to the intricacies of the Palestinian case must never be underestimated.

Nehru as leader of the Non-Aligned and Afro-Asian bloc obviously had a large constituency among left liberals and Muslims. His charm offensive even on the Arabs worked such magic that Raees Amrohvi, an Urdu poet from Pakistan, was moved to write a quatrain:
“Jup raha hai aaj mala ek Hindu ki Arab
Barhman zaa de mein shaane dilbari aisi to ho!
Hikmat e Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru ki qasam
Mar mitey Islam jispar, kafiri aisi to ho!”
(What a spell this Brahmin has cast on the Arabs
Who now chant his name on their beads.
Look at the magic of this kafir (non-believer);
Believers of the Arab world lie at his feet)

Until 1990s, it was anti intellectual to cast positive light on the Israeli case. When Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister in 1984, he was advised by Muslim Congressmen in his vicinity (but totally out touch with the community) not to upgrade relations with Israel because that would adversely affect the party’s Muslim support.

When I argued against this line in the Indian Express, Rajiv had it expanded into an official note. Muslim leaders, such as they were, and the Mullah had shackled the community with issues like Shah Bano, Salman Rushdie, Babri Masjid, Muslim character of Aligarh Muslim University and now relations with Israel. What any backward community needed was employment, education, entrepreneurial help, I wrote.

After Rajiv was assassinated half way through the 1991 General Elections. P.V. Narasimha Rao upgraded relations with Israel in 1992. There was not a whimper from the community.

Initially, relations were more or less mechanically upgraded. Absence of any real content in the relationship invited Shimon Peres to quip in an interview with me:
“Indo-Israeli relations are like French perfume – to be smelt not drunk.”

The Israel Bathsheba Harman introduced me to soon after the 1967 war, had hardened by the 1993 Oslo accords. But even so one could salve one’s conscience with the thought that Oslo would atleast lead to a two-state solution.

An episode firmed up my appraisal of the Israeli-Palestinian two-state process.

It was a Shabath lunch, at a friend’s house in Herzilia. Among this very small group happened to a person at one end of the lawn, wreathed in cigarette smoke, a glass of red wine in one hand, rapidly replenished, obviously reveling in the company of three well groomed ladies who had formed an admiring circle around him. It was Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, lighting one Kent after another, like Belmondo in a Godard film.

He came accross at first a shy man but once he opened up, he was transparent and obviously trustworthy. His approach to Oslo was not at a variance from another loveable Israeli, Yossi Beilin, very much the author of the Oslo accords.

Obsession with survival and security had injected some iron in the Israeli soul, but the Jewish state became hard as nails after the 9/11 wars, Islamophobia, and Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister who visited India on the first anniversary of 9/11, just when the war-on-terror rhetoric was being amplified here too.

Sensitive defence deals with Israel begun under Atal Behari Vajpayee were boosted by Manmohan Singh. The Palestinian issue, which was highest priority upto Indira Gandhi, dipped in saliency.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit, however, is fired by an atavistic Hindutva adoration for a small country on top of its mischievous Muslim neighbours. Ramallah has been bypassed, ofcourse. But it should not be lost on the insiders that during the September non aligned summit in Venezuela the Indian delegation received instructions from South Block, to drop the routine reference to the Palestinian issue altogether. It was a tradition from the earliest days of NAM.

No, Ramallah was not just bypassed; Palestine has been downgraded to the level of irrelevance.

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