ARTICLES FROM THE SUNDAY GUARDIAN
Copyright. All rights reserved. Ram Jethmalani. 2019.
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I do realise that the audio visual media are going through severe withdrawal symptoms. They seem a little disoriented and bored after the year-long frenetic election campaign, and a denouement far more exciting than any adrenalin packed thriller that left everyone gasping. Gone too is our weekly dose of UPA scams that would leave us shocked and horrified, but hooked on to television, waiting for the next fix of "breaking news". But with the new government coming to power, the regular feed of scams is running dry, and "breaking news" of the UPA kind is getting scarcer.
This week the bored media apparently had no "breaking news". So they substituted it with an obsession verging on hysteria, with one of their own brethren. A cherubic looking gentlemen called Ved Pratap Vaidik, with a fetish for bright red waistcoats, that give him a rather "bishop" look, who seemed to be having the time of his life, even as the raving, ranting and abuse went on all over TV debates, in Parliament and among politicians.
An Opposition without numbers or issues pounced upon him in Parliament. His crime, as had been discovered through a Pakistan news report, was that he had indulged in some adventurous journalism, and done what many would have considered impossible or unthinkable. And that was actually having a meeting with Hafiz Saeed, the butcher of Mumbai, 26/11. This happened after Dr Vaidik had attended an innocuous conference in Islamabad as part of a delegation in the eminent company of Mani Shankar Aiyar, Salman Khurshid, some journalists like Dileep Padgaonkar, Siddhartha Varadarajan and Barkha Dutt; Sudheendra Kulkarni, and a former diplomat, N.N. Jha. The delegation was participating in a symposium hosted by the Regional Peace Initiative in Islamabad, on 14 June, with the very honourable objective of finding peaceful solutions for our region. Nothing wrong with that. Many retired bureaucrats, diplomats and defence personnel, and some erudite politicians remain in circulation as members of think tanks, research institutes and conference circuits. What could be a safer subject than "peace" for all concerned to dwell upon, even if the Institute comprises former ISI chiefs or generals? Vaidik was presumably invited as a journalist and writer. The seminar was well organised and all shapes of political opinion exercised their write up. Speech and expression throughout the proceedings were marked by mutual courtesy and decorum.
After the seminar was over, the Indian members returned home according to their individual convenience. Vaidik was scheduled to meet Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who had desired that he should stay on until he could get free from his numerous engagements both outside and inside Pakistan. Vaidik left Pakistan the day after his meeting with Nawaz Sharif.
Between the seminar and his meeting with Nawaz Sharif, Vaidik had several speaking engagements, including at the Institute of Strategic Studies. He was also interviewed by several journalists, receiving wide reportage, particularly in the Urdu press. One of the journalists who interviewed him broached the subject of terrorist activity in India, and naturally Vaidik referred to the tragic occurrence in Mumbai on 26.11.2008, and the conversation turned to the role of Hafiz Saeed. To a question whether Vaidik had ever seen him face to face, his reply was acerbic, that the only time he had seen him face to face was on television, with Saeed in Pakistan and Vaidik in India.
The interviewer then suggested whether Vaidik would like to meet Hafiz Saeed. Vaidik refused, but apparently the stage had been set by his interviewer (perhaps for achieving his own moment of journalistic glory), and Saeed was available on call there and then. There was a brief conversation during the course of which Vaidik spoke of his views about secularism, the pluralistic society of India and the complete freedom of religion guaranteed by India's Constitution. To a suggestion whether Hafiz could come to India, Vaidik gave the correct reply that exoneration by the Pakistan court will not prevent arrest in India if he arrives here.
Clearly, knowledge of the 2 July meeting was not concealed from the public, and was duly reported in the Pakistani papers. And therefore, it cannot possibly be a secret government sponsored meeting that got exposed, or a private secret meeting with anti-national or mala fide intentions. But a storm, nevertheless, broke out in the scam starved media. Every possible accusation has been levelled against Vaidik, ranging from being emissary, secret interlocutor, to fifth columnist and traitor. Eminent citizens want him arrested and his passport confiscated. A sedition case has been filed against him in Varanasi. Vaidik's unfazed demeanour suggests he couldn't care less.
Every informed citizen should view the maverick journalist's adventure or misadventure in proper perspective:
1. A journalist from free India is entitled to meet anyone and answer questions and in return ask questions and emphasise the need of peaceful relations and the containment of violent terrorism.
2. A visit from Hafiz Saeed to India is the unlikeliest of possibilities. Even so, exoneration by the Pakistan courts will not be treated as immunity against arrest in India.
3. Congress MPs, with no other issue to lambaste the government with, lost all sense of balance, and quite senselessly disturbed and adjourned Parliamentary proceedings more than once, only to find their own party stalwarts embroiled in the controversial seminar.
4. Vaidik did not seek this interview, but conceded to the compulsion of the situation. After finding himself in this situation, he states that "The objective was very simple. I am a journalist and I really wanted to know him. I wanted to know what kind of a man he is and why he committed heinous crimes against India. I wanted to analyse his mind." This is an accepted norm of the journalist's licence. Though not entirely comparable, but not too incomparable either, let us not forget that the nation accepted with sympathy a similar inner quest of Priyanka Gandhi to meet with her father's killer, because it was her "way of coming to peace with the violence and loss" that she had experienced.
The Vaidik incident seems so utterly tame as compared to the much graver and heinous black money muddle. For lack of space and time, I have not been able to make an appeal to my friends in the Congress and its UPA comrades, something that has been on my mind for some time.
The whole world has been activated about the prospect of locating stolen wealth concealed in hospitable banks and their secret lockers. The pressures of the democratic world and some revolt of conscience within had begun to loosen the grip of what was misleadingly labelled as Customer Confidentiality Regime, the first evidence of which we saw in the action of a Swiss magazine, Schweizer Illustrierte. On 11 November 1991, it did an expose of 14 politicians from developing countries, who, it said, had stashed their bribes in Swiss banks. The magazine is not a rag. It sells over 200,000 copies and its readership constitutes 15% of Swiss adults. It had mentioned specific amounts held in secret Swiss accounts by different leaders with their photographs alongside. The late Rajiv Gandhi was shown as one of 14 most illustrious money launderers, and even though decades have passed, it does appear a little strange that no one from the Gandhi family thought it fit to sue the Swiss magazine.
A final blow to Customer Confidentiality was the German achievement of buying outright a CD of names of 1,400 account holders in Liechtenstein's LGT Bank, from one of the bank employees on paying a price of roughly US$475 million. Thorsten Albig, a spokesman of the German Ministry of Finance categorically stated that the data will be willingly shared on request with other nations at no cost to the requesting country. This was widely advertised all over the world including India, but the satanic trinity that ruled us did nothing to avail of this highly attractive offer, even though many other nations did so and enriched their economies in the process.
A closely related question that has rankled me and many others concerned with India's abysmal poverty and its attendant ills, is what was the contributory or constructive role played by the leaders of the opposition in both Houses for securing the return of our national wealth secreted away abroad. Their silence can only be termed as collaboration. The motive is self evident.
Transparency International through its Indian chapter headed by retired Admiral R.A Tahiliani publicly urged the Government of India in 2008, to take necessary steps to seek the data that the German government had offered free of charge. The offer was too good to refuse, but not only did the then government refuse it, but sadly, the leaders of opposition also chose to remain silent.
I do indeed reflect whether things have started changing for the better after the people have knocked out the previous corrupt regime lock, stock and barrel.
I am today indicating a brief preview to which I will return more substantively very soon.
But meanwhile, I earnestly appeal to the good and honest elements in the Congress Party as all others to give up apathy, fear and sycophancy. Join me in the search for the arch criminals and their accomplices. I do not wish to depart the world without waging this patriotic and holy war for my country.