Saturday, May 30, 2015

Sweden – Musings of a Novice

Sweden is a beautiful country in Scandinavia. It is currently in news. President Pranab Mukherjee is paying a state visit to Sweden on May 31, 2015, the first ever visit by an Indian President. India-Sweden relations have been good and friendly in spite of some negative fallout of the Bofors issue. Unfortunately again, President Mukherjee’s visit has attracted avoidable negative media attention on account of the President’s reported remarks on the Bofors issue in his interview to the leading Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter. Both India and Sweden being democracies and open societies, every mechanism is in place to discuss and resolve the contentious issues. Our Ambassador to Sweden, Banashri Bose Harrison is one of the senior and finest diplomats of India.  I am confident that these minor irritants will be settled with an open mind to mutual satisfaction.

I myself was posted in Stockholm from 1991-94. Ambassador
Credentials ceremony of Ambassador P.S. Sahai
Paramjit Singh Sahai, a thorough gentleman and a sober and fine diplomat, was my boss. His wife, Neena, was a perfect hostess and a kind lady. Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf paid a state visit to India in October, 1993. President Pranab Mukherjee’s current visit may be termed as a reciprocal one though undertaken after a long gap. Ambassador Sahai, before going to Delhi in advance, hosted an elaborate banquet in honour of the Swedish King at India House at the prestigious Villagatan in Stockholm. I still cherish the memories of that evening at India House. It was a mix of majestic informality and diplomatic finesse. I remember vividly that the King asked for fresh green chilies at the dinner table, finding that the food was kept moderately hot to cater to the Swedish guests. Later, being the Charge d’ Affaires of the Embassy, in the absence of Ambassador Sahai, it fell on me and my wife Vidya to see off King XVI Gustaf on his visit to India in the early morning of October 11 from a domestic airport in a military aircraft. There was no ceremony except a formal hand shake and a flower bouquet by us. Similarly, it was a simple affair on return from India on October 16. The Swedish King’s visit attracted considerable media and public attention. I recall some of the journalists, interested in the cultural aspects of the relations and the visit, asked me about the meaning of ‘Bindi’ (kumkum) with reference to the Swedish VVIP’s welcome at the Hotel in New Delhi and their visit to Taj Mahal at Agra.

President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit will further strengthen relations
With  Pallavi, Naresh and Vidya
between India and Sweden to mutual advantage. Since one of my sons, Naresh and his family live in Stockholm;  my wife and I have visited Sweden many a times even after my diplomatic duties. We cherish the memories of our stay in Stockholm in the early 1990s and subsequent visits. Last year, I visited Stockholm in July-August to beat the heat of Jalandhar and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. I blogged regularly about our day to day activities in Stockholm during our last visit.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Remembering Sant Ramanand of Dera Sachkhand Balan

At our home at Kalkaji, New Delhi

On May 25, 2009, Sant Ramanand of Dera Sachkhand Balan was martyred in the wake of a shootout at a Gurudwara in Vienna (Austria). It was an unfortunate incident involving the innocent and peace loving followers of Guru Ravidassji and some ill advised fanatics. Sant Ramanand, an ardent preacher of Gurbani, who was visiting Vienna and conducting Satsang at the Gurudwara was injured and later succumbed to his injuries in Vienna itself. He was a great soul. It was my good fortune to know him closely. I feel duty bound to remember him, like past years, on his Shaheedi Diwas today.

Sant Ramanand, a young follower of Sant Sarwan Dass of Balan
Sant Hari Dass at our home at Bootan Mandi, Jalandhar
Dera, visited our home in Jalandhar along with Sant Hari Dass in February, 1977 who came with the Barat (marriage congregation) of my brother-in-law D.C. Kumar of Balan to marry my sister Kamla (Paramjit). I met him many a times subsequently but some of the meetings are itched in my memory quite vividly. My father died in April, 1986. Sant Ramanand accompanied Sant Garib Dass to the Bhog ceremony (Antim Ardas) and performed the kirtan of Gurbani at our home at Bootan Mandi, Jalandhar. I vividly remember the Shabad of Guru Ravidass – “Jal ki bheet pawan ka thamba; rakt boond ka gara“ which he rendered. It made me weep bitterly as I got filled with emotion.  Sant Garib Dass was hospitalized in Delhi for a few days in 1990. I went to meet him with D.C. Kumar. We were living in a newly acquired flat of Kamla and Kumar at Maurya Enclave (Pitampura). We invited the Sant to visit us in the flat and have lunch with us. Sant Garib Dass blessed us, along with Sant Ramanand at our flat. We were extremely happy. Sant Ramanand again honoured us in March/April, 1999 along with Sant Niranjan Dass at our small home at Kalkaji in Delhi. Frankly. Kamla and Kumar, who are one of the close followers of the Dera Balan, enjoyed an excellent rapport with Sant Ramanand and they were instrumental in bringing the revered Sants to our humble abode several times. The next and the last time I met Sant Ramanand and Sant Niranjan Dass was sometime in 2007 in Vienna itself where Santa Ramanand was ultimately assassinated. I was stationed in the nearby capital city of Prague of Czech Republic and was on a private visit to Vienna. I came to know the revered Sants were also there. I approached Sant Ramanand and requested that I would like to come and meet them. He was such a simple soul that rather than my going to meet them they desired to come to my place of stay. It was pleasure. Many things of mutual interest came up during the meeting. One thing, I recall, was security. I said that, in view of the deteriorating security situation all around, they should be a little more careful. It is more so,  in view of the fact that they were engaged in awakening the poor and down-trodden masses and status and prestige of the Dera Balan, were on the rise. There could be many vested interests and opponents of their mission who may not like their activities. Sant Ramanand dismissed my humble submission with a smile. Fate intervened subsequently and he was killed incidentally in Vienna itself by the fundamentalists.  That was my last meeting with the great Sant.

I write this in memory of Sant Ramanand as my humble tribute. It is a matter of concern and regret that his mission of awakening and empowering the poor and neglected sections of the society remains unfulfilled. In the wake of his Shaheedi, there was a great turmoil in the community. But, it appears, Dera Sachkhand Balan could not own the legacy of Shaheed Ramanand and motivate their followers to follow the right direction in their struggle. It is time to think and act to carry forward the mission of Sant Ramanand. It will be the only befitting tribute to Sant Ramanandji.

Tail Piece: - Today May 25 is the birthday of my daughter Vaishali. She was born on Buddha Purnima Day. May God bless her.  Vaishali is with us in Jalandhar on vacation with her two lovely daughters. Her husband JP sent her a bouquet of 40 red roses at past 12’O clock mid-night. It was a pleasant surprise

Friday, May 22, 2015

Mera Bharat Mahan

In the good old days, it was said by a distinguished British politician and diplomat Sir Henry Wotton, “An Ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his own country.” Being a simple diplomat myself, I did not believe in this dictum rather chose to follow the contemporary advice of my senior and one of the finest diplomats of India T.N. Kaul who said, “Ambassadors need not lie.” In this context, how should we place and assess PM Narendra Modi, particularly in the current and on-going controversy about his utterings and pronouncements about some of the internal issues of India during his visits abroad? PM Narendra Modi, it seems, is following Sir Henry Wotton but with a small difference. Perhaps, he has replaced the last word of Henry Wotton’s quote “country” with “party”. No disrespect to PM Narendra Modi is intended. He is free to conduct himself as he deems fit. The opposition parties have been criticizing PM Modi for this.  So far, successive Indian leaderships have been reticent and avoided to raise and discuss internal affairs of India while abroad. But PM Modi is pro-active and tends to speak at public meetings abroad as if he is addressing an election rally at home. It has become a matter of controversy.

This time things have gone a little too far. While speaking to Indians in China and South Korea during his recent visits, PM Modi remarked, “Indians were ashamed of being born in the country before his government came to power.” He said in Seoul, “There was a time when people used to say we don’t know what sins we have committed in our past life that we were born in Hindustan.” This, obviously, triggered outrage and invited angry reactions from political parties and cross sections of the society and rightly so. The BJP leadership appeared to defend their leader but their defense was weak. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said on one of the TV channels something like that earlier Indian PMs were respected because of India but now India was respected because of its PM. The main opposition, Congress Party condemned PM Modi’s behaviour and said, “We have never seen such a low level and degraded politics in the country. We are really pained over the remarks as no leader in independent India has ever made such a statement.” Somebody wrote on Twitter, “Congratulations to all of us for electing a Prime Minister who was ashamed of his birth in India until we made him PM.” We may draw our own conclusions. The last Mughal King Bahadur Shah Zafar wrote a meaningful piece of poetry and said:

Zafar Admi usko na jaaniye ga;
wo ho kaisa hi sahib-e-fehmo zaka.
jise aish mein yaad-e-khuda na rahi;
jise taish mein khauf-e-khuda na raha.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Yemen – Happy Arabia

Yemen remains in news these days as it witnesses bad times of conflict and violence. There were times when it was called ‘Fortunate Arabia’ and ‘Happy Arabia. When I was posted to Sana’a in the early 80s (1983-85), the establishment officer, Deputy Secretary (ADP) in Ministry of External Affairs Ram Lal, a shrewd  man, persuading me to accept the posting to Sana’a, said that it was the only hill station in and around the gulf countries. Since it was an out of turn posting, I did not care much. Otherwise also, throughout my diplomatic career, I did not do anything special except normal routine of giving preferences at the time of postings abroad. Like a duty-bound functionary, I accepted whatever came my way. Nevertheless, I have no regrets in this regard. At that time, Yemen was still divided – North Yemen (Shia - Arabs) with Sana’a as Capital city and South Yemen (Sunni -Communists) with Aden as its Capital city. Yemen is a tribal society. The country was unified in 1990 under the leadership of Ali Abdullah Saleh, a North Yemini leader. But it was not a meeting of minds. There was no peace. Internal strife set in. Vested interests like the Al-Qaida and Islamic State entered the troubled waters. Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) brokered peace, ousted Ali Abdullah Saleh and brought in Abdu Rabbo Mansoor Hadi as the President of the country. But the change did not result in peace. The politics of religion, Shia-Sunni question, came to the surface. The Islamic fundamentalists like Al-Qaida and Islamic State, have their own agenda. A sort of civil war between the tribes supportive of Ali Abdullah Saleh and those of President Abdu Rabbo Mansoor Hadi over took the ground situation. Geo-politics and diplomacy, on one side (Abdu Rabbo Mansoor Hadi) supported and abetted by Saudi Arabia and its allies and on the other supported and encouraged by Iran, Russia, China and their allies, made the situation more confrontational and difficult. It continues and the poor Yemenis are suffering. No respite is in sight.

I reached Sana’a on December 10, 1982. Within a couple of days of
With President Ali Abdullah Saleh
 my arrival, there was a big earthquake in the hills outside of Sana’a which resulted in huge loss of life and property, particularly in Dammar region.  I started my diplomatic career from Beijing (then Peking) where I was engaged in administration and establishment work. Sana’a proved a launching pad for me with commercial and labour desk of the Embassy being under my charge. I was not only a junior diplomat but also a novice. My only strength was sincerity and hard work. My boss, Ambassador Ranjit Gupta, was not only a competent and dynamic diplomat but was also a hard task master. He gave me a long rope to do some work. The number two in the Embassy was yet another young and dedicated diplomat, R.O. Wallang. I found him always supportive, patronizing and friendly. Generaly, Attache level officers are not provided Personal Assistants (PA) but it was an exception in Sana’a. My PAs, during my tenure, Davinder Saddi and Purshottam Sharma were good and efficient. I still keep in touch with them. There is much to write about my work and experience in Sana’a but I will do that later separately. Today, I will limit myself to some general impressions about Yemen.

Deputy Secretary Ram Lal was true; Sana’a is surrounded by dry
Kath session with Sheikh Mohd. Tilha
and rocky hills. The weather was moderate.  People were friendly with “Hindis” (Indians). It is said that appearances are deceptive. It is true in Yemen. The society is tribal. One can feel “Islamic brotherhood” in their thinking and living. The rich mingled and socialized with the poor. The rich may be living in a mud-thatched house with no fan-fare. One may find him in the traditional dress of a Sarong-like wrapping and a shirt, sometimes with a turban or an Arab scarf. Almost all adults used to chew on “Kath” (tender leaves of a plant) in the afternoons which is said to be a sort of intoxicant and aphrodisiac. Though Yemen is an Islamic country yet people were not fanatics in those days. I think the fundamentalists and terrorists have taken an undue advantage of their simplicity and poverty. Yemenis were hospitable and God fearing people. Yemen is one of the least developed countries of the world. In the early 80’s, there were no municipal facilities like internal roads, sewerage, water-supply etc. The centre of the town was ‘Tehrir Square’. There were only three major roads at that time – Central Vista (Tehrir square), Sana’a-Taiz and Sana’a Hudeidah. Hal-Sayyad was the largest business house; it was called the Tata of Yemen. Most of their companies and industries were run by experts hired from India. The hospitals were staffed with Para-medical staff from India. There were only two five star hotels – Taj Sheba (managed by the Taj Group of Hotels) and Sana’a Sheraton. Indian company TCIL was engaged in major tele-communications projects. Indian company IRCC bagged a big road project sometime in 1983. Later, in the wake of the earthquake, Indian companies like NBCC and Duggal and Sons got engaged in low-cost housing projects for rehabilitation in rural areas. I had much to do, in view of our deep economic and commercial engagement in Yemen. I learnt the nuances of business diplomacy from Ambassador Ranjit Gupta who was very kind and supportive. Ambassador Gupta is keeping good health and is kicking. I last met him and his gracious wife in Tokyo some time in 2003. President Giani Zail Singh was on a state visit to Yemen on October 30, 1984 when PM Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her own security officers. I was staying with President Zail Singh, as local Liaison Officer, in the Presidential Palace. The news of the untoward incident at the residence of PM Indira Gandhi reached me in the early morning of the fateful day. Nobody in Sana’a knew of this. On my own, I immediately contacted the then Chief of Protocol Mohammad Hamid Ansari (now Vice President of India), who was staying at Hotel Taj Sheba with other senior members of the delegation, and informed of the happenings in New Delhi. He rushed to the Presidential Palace and informed President Zail Singh, after reconfirming from Rashrapati Bhawan on the provided Hotline, of the unfortunate events. The rest is history.

India-Yemen relations are historical. Aden was administered by the British from Bombay Presidency till 1935. Mahatma Gandhi, Subhash Bose and many other top leaders visited Aden before independence in 1947. Trade relations were excellent even in old days. Dhirubhai Ambani of Relience Group started his business career from Aden and his son Mukesh Ambani was born in Aden. Many Yemenis migrated to Hyderabad and settled there. I observed that Yemenis were friendly and hospitable towards Indians. Let us hope that the current situation in Yemen is a passing phase and things will settle down soon. I wish the Yemeni friends all the very best in the years to come.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Greetings on Buddha Purnima

Today, May 4, is Buddha Purnima, the day when Gautma Buddha was born, became enlightened and died. I convey hearty greetings to my fellow-beings and humble tributes to the greatest Master of the world at large on this auspicious day.

I had written in these columns before that though I am not a practicing Buddhist yet I am a Buddhist by mind since long. My small venture, Jalandhar School of Careers and Opportunities is situated near the Budh Vihar in Bootan Mandi at Jalandhar. I will be participating today in the Shobha Yatra in connection with Buddha Purnima and in the congregation at the Budh Vihar for my spiritual satisfaction. I must also admit that my motivation to follow Buddhism emanates from my respect and dedication to one of the greatest Bodhisattvas Dr. B.R. Ambedkar who revived Buddhism in India in the contemporary times by becoming a Buddhist with his several lakhs of followers on October 14, 1956. In fact, like me, all Indians are Buddhist in one sense that they live in India under the constitutional arrangements made and stipulated by our founding fathers under the guidance and initiatives of Bodhisattva Dr. Ambedkar in the constitution of India.  The principles of liberty, equality and fraternity enshrined in the constitution are the cardinal concepts of Buddhism. Dr. Ambedkar rightly said in one of his speeches, “My philosophy has roots in religion and not in political science.” And added, “My social philosophy may be said to be enshrined in three words: liberty, equality and fraternity and I have derived these from the teachings of my Master, the Buddha.”

Why Buddhism? What appeals to me? It is very difficult to understand religious philosophies. I have gone through the great book of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar “The Buddha and His Dhamma”. It is a simple treatise on Buddhism in bullet form for a lay man like me. It says, according to the Buddhist philosophy, ‘the mind is the centre of everything. The first thing to attend is the culture of mind.’ It makes a lot of sense to me. In His first sermon to his disciples, Buddha said, according to Dr. Ambedkar, that his path (Middle path as against extremes and rigidity) was ‘his Dhamma (religion) which had nothing to do with God and Soul. His Dhamma had nothing to do with life after death. Nor has his Dhamma any concern with rituals and ceremonies.’  Buddha further said, ‘The centre of his Dhamma is man and the relation of man to man in his life on earth.’ According to the Buddhist teachings, Dukha (sufferings) could be ended by three things: i) the path of purity; ii) the path of righteousness and the path of virtue. I don’t know much except the concept of Dhamma as propounded by Mahatma Buddha. It is enough to live a good and contented life. The three Refuges (Buddham, Dhammam and Sangham) and five Precepts (Panch Sheel) and the twenty-two vows, specially prepared by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, are the essence of Buddhism.

I close this by saying that the future belongs to Buddhism. I have recently read an essay by a scholar and a senior IAS officer Raja Shekhar Vundru in which he said, paying tributes to the memory of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, “The years to come will see the complete integration of dalits into the fold of Buddhism, as Ambedkar had wished.”

My daughter Vaishali was born on Budha Purnima day in 1975. It is an auspicious occasion for me on that account too. May Lord Buddha bless her with all happiness.