Kashmir : A comforting Viewpoint

Vikas Variahwa and the Muslim Hindu relations in Kashmir
I met Mr Vikas Variahwa (VV – name tweaked slightly) at the recent French National day celebrations in the open but tented lawn in their Embassy . He is 81 years of age and former CEO of a leading compressor manufacturer and a corporate Director now in some leading companies.
When I mentioned I was from JK, he mentioned someone’s name and said ‘you can ask him – I had dealt with him several years ago’. He recalled how Mr Mittal (of Arcelor) recognised him nearly after 20-25 years of his meeting with him, when he had sold him some compressors as a Sales Executive, although it was in competition with 6-7 others.
During the course of conversation, I asked him about his place of residence.
I have two bases – Delhi and Srinagar. Spend equal amount of time in both places.
‘Is Srinagar safe’, I ask (his name was obviously Hindu).
Him: ‘Why are you asking? Whenever I am there, I play my Golf every morning at 6 am. I have been born and brought up there and I have lived there for 80 years now’
Me: Isn’t the place violent and militancy dangerous?
Him: ‘I avoid going to downtown areas. And you don’t go into areas which are into trouble. Apart from that i see no difficulty’.
I would at worst say, things are abnormal but not scary or dangerous.
Me: ‘But that’s not the way we hear from the media and TVs?’, i said. ‘Are the TVs and media mis-representing then’.
Him: ‘They may not be. Whatever they are showing must be true. may be overexposing. But i would still say things are abnormal not scary as you seem to fear’ and his gaze locked with mine and he let the statement hang in the air. I was trying to figure out the meaning. A big sigh.
[My Words: The public expects the Government to run as per its perceptions (nothing wrong), public opinion is formed on the basis of information made available by TVs, Newspapers, and now increasingly Social media (nothing wrong again).The media as it is designed is to report exceptions and aberrations to normal (Nothing wrong again. You don’t keep reporting ‘things are normal’ stuff). But the media by repeating the aberrations and exception again and again may make a 2 to 5% abnormality as 50-60% abnormality and thus create misperceptions of degree – lets call it ‘exception trap’. Both the media – even the responsible ones without any ulterior motives or agenda or sides to take – and the general public can get sucked into it. The reality on the ground may be far less intense, harmful or scary like in the eyes of VV, who doesn’t think he is betting his life by living there.
This exception trap is an unexplored dimension of Right to Freedom of speech]
I felt more confident to raise ‘What about Hindu Muslim relations’.
Relations in my younger days … there was a lot of comradery and cordiality. I would say between the elders even now there is no rancour but friendly exchanges. But we have to recognise it is a Muslim majority state. A minor section of youth – i would not call it anywhere close to majority – is misguided and misdirected. But things will be normal. Things do take time to sort out.
(For the first time I was hearing some comforting and confidence inducing words from anyone on the subject of Kashmir and naturally it induced a huge sigh of relief).
Me: What about Tourism?
VV: Yes it is down. Things can be better.
Me: But who will go there if in danger of life
But they don’t kill anyone at random with whom they have no agenda. Look they may also be sensible in a way… but with an agenda.
Me: So there may not be an issue if i travel there?
Him: ‘Look. If a bullet is meant to get you, it will. (I said you are going philosophical now). Let me relate a story … about Arun Kirpal Singh, brother of Army (some high meaning rank he mentioned). He was travelling to Chennai and he came to the airport … had a peg in the lounge and when it was boarding time he reached the gate only to be told that the flight was getting delayed by an hour and half. So he went back and had 2-3 rounds more and passed out’
VV caught hold of someone jostling his way through by his elbow and said ‘Hi.’ They exchanged some pleasantries of long last friends and he introduced him as the Mr Mishra an ex Cabinet Secretary. (Later i gathered he was Naresh Chandra’s batchmate). ‘I was telling him about Kirpal singh’s story. And resumed.
‘When he got up, he went to the counter which was shut after the Aircraft had left. He argued with the station staff that it was their fault blah blah … and the counter staff kept saying that they had paged for him several times but had to let the aircraft go.
‘Disappointed he started back but before he was out of the airport the Public address system announced that his missed flight had crashed. (I tried re-jigging my memory of AI air crashes for flights meant for Chennai 25-30 years back, but not able to recollect).
‘And a personal one. A few days back there was an accident involving Gondola rides in Gulmarg. (i did recollect reading from papers about 3-4 weeks back some such accident which killed 2-3 people). My Sister, her sister in law and niece had gone there and were seated in a cart with some others. The attendant came to them and said that there were 3 more who were part of same family of three who were already seated with them. He conveyed to them that the others want to be seated together and if my sister would be kind enough to move to the next cart. My sister obliged and moved to the next cart. As it happened there was some strong winds due to which a big tree fell on the Cable sending it wobbling and getting stuck. The cart by which the six travelled hit the pole, the glass door opened and some were thrown out resulting in death. My sister and co were dangling for nearly 4 hours in the next cart before they were rescued. But they escaped death’.
I was trying to connect with a French Banker and had messaged and whataspped him 2-3 times about my whereabouts without connecting with him. I told him finally that i would go behind the Beer Bar and stand with an empty Wine glass so he could identify me. We did connect in 2-3 minutes and I wanted to join back with VV and take a picture and quiz Mr Mishra on a few items about Bureaucracy then and now. But they had melted into the crowd.
There was a gleam in VV’s eyes which conveyed success with the past and hope and confidence about the future. I was 2/3rds his age and the curious quizzer – so he could have easily gotten patronizing or pontificating or at least superior sounding (a disease 99% of Indians suffer from). There wasn’t any of these. He kept his enthusiasm also in check – enough to interest me but not going overboard or argumentative or overly critical (another national epidemic). … I hope someday i would acquire those qualities in myself … in this birth or the next.
For the first time I heard someone talk differently about Kashmir and it was energising and confidence boosting… and that too from a man on Ground Zero. I could not thank him for his inputs though.

The Indian Intolerance debate and Lessons from Paris Attack.

 

This is based on my conversations with several drivers, some corporate executives in The Hague and Paris and the pantry car/bar sales guy in the Thalys high speed train between Rotterdam and Paris, during the last week. All these conversation were for 15-20 minutes over drives except 3 which were fairly lengthy. If there is a surprising lack of rainbow of opinions that is the way it was. You are perfectly welcome to be sceptical about what I have written below. I am recovering from the surprise myself … so no offer of explanations or rationalisations. (Also pardon my grammar. Of late I have started seeing it more as a nuisance).

I was curious about the impact of the Paris bombing on life in Western Europe.

  1. In The Hague our first driver was a Mohd Rafi listening, Hindi speaking Surinamese. I was surprised that several generations after migration there is still such a strong cultural affinity in him. He dismissed having to face discrimination on Colour or nationality or religion in The Hague where he has been for the last 19 years. He is a Hindu.
  2. Our next driver, a Pakistani. I enquired if there was any animosity towards him in general and if after the Paris attack he is facing any animosity due to his religion (one could make out his religion easily). No not all. During the conversation, he mentioned that things in Holland, Belgium and France are not like the UK where discrimination is visible, perceptible and rampant according to him. I asked him how he knew. His dad migrated to the UK several years ago and he himself came to Holland in 2000 from UK and keeps going there every once in six months or so.
  3. In between I had spoken to 2 Algerian Muslims, an Afghan, 2 more Surinamese drivers (both Hindus), 1 Moroccan and a 3-4 Africans (i had language issues with them esp. in France) the views were pretty much the same. Only the Pakistani chuckled and said ‘unless the locals huddle secretly and talk behind my back’ … obviously to satisfy me more than out of conviction. An Iranian driver who appeared suave and erudite claimed that he has been in Holland for last 30-odd years and he has not felt any discrimination. He was aware that a blast took place but then he does not keep pace with daily news regularly and dismissed the whole conversation with a ‘shrug of shoulder’ – inconsequential it seemed to suggest.  (so many drivers since we were shuttling from place to place in taxis)
  4. Subsequently in Paris we were driven around by an Algerian Muslim who has been in France since he was Seven. He must have been with us for 7-8 hours through the day. I also spent about ½ hour with a Muslim (did not ask his nationality) owner of a street corner shop (Kirana store) right (actually on the left) next to Moulin Rouge while waiting for the show to open. Pretty much the same stuff.
  5. We had a dinner at Safron (Indian restaurant) near Notre Dame. It is co-owned (part) by a Hydrabadi Muslim, a civil engineer by education. He first spent 11 years in Baghdad in the late 70s and 80s (he quit in 1987 to come to Paris and has been in Paris since then). He had happy memories of Baghdad. Unlike some other countries in its neighbourhood, Baghdad did not prohibit drinking or smoking. There were also dance bars, music clubs, and some night life. On my question of discrimination he said, ‘We all work together and know each other and in our daily life interact so much. There is so much bon-homie and give and take. Before or after there is nothing of the kind you are enquiring after’ was his refrain. He did confirm that the Business had gone down sharply. At this time (9.30 pm) this place would have been milling with crowd; it is not the locals… they are out as usual: it is the foreigners who have stopped coming. It would take 2-3 months for things would revive. He works in Transportation business during day time (don’t know what it means) and evenings in the restaurant. He last went to India for his mother’s death (Hyd) in 2007 and could not go for his Fathers in 2011. His two brothers continue to live in Hyd.
  6. After the initial opinions counter to what I thought would be the case, I also spoke to my host professionals (3 Dutch and 2 from Paris who were very much there during the days of blast). And a 10-15 minutes talk with a slim, near 7 footer, humorous and garrulous Portuguese waiter at the restaurant (while we were waiting for the taxi and were perhaps the last ones to get out after a formal Dinner). They all had similar opinions and denied witnessing any discrimination. Perhaps one should not attribute the same level of significance to their opinions as the other set.
  7. I asked the Paris guys how life had changed for them since the attack. ‘Not much actually. The Government has done a fantastic job and will sure trace the remaining bits also and get the theatre up and running soon… We don’t believe it is the locals. Most likely they are from outside, perhaps Syria… There are 6 million Muslims in France and we have to live with them. We know most of them are more worried about their daily life, jobs and employment and income, like the rest of us and not much bothered about waging wars’. He gave me (on my asking) the names of places that were hit and told me that all of them were back to running and only the Opera or theatre hall at Le Bataclan is still under repair. There was no agitation in his (or his accompanying colleague) voice or gesticulations or expressions except for a trace of sadness. Similar conversations in India tend to fill up buckets of bile within minutes.
  8. I must mention however, that one of the people attending our meeting was a bearded Indian (Hindu actually) and he was frisked for 20 minutes at Schipol Airport.

In between these I met the guy (pantry/bar salesman in the train). I had gone there to take a tea, some snacks and water. He gave me those and a chocolate stick the size of index finger as bonus with a half-bestowing, half-‘I enjoy my work’ kind of smile, giving me the opening for a long conversation, interrupted many times by others approaching him for sales. He lives in Paris. Spoke English fluently.

1    I began by asking him, ‘how is life after the attack’. He was relaxed and did not burst forth with any pre decided answers like I used to jump at well rehearsed questions in my childhood years. “Yeah it was bad. But the government has done well to restore order quickly’.

‘How is it for you as an individual’

‘So long as you don’t believe the media and are sceptical about what the politicians say it will all be OK’. (A blast of a statement from him, I thought. They both (more so the former and less the latter) need some punching. I thought Indian media is the worst aggressor but things look same elsewhere too. (Later we discussed the media’s immaturity in some other context)

‘So no effect on you’

‘I do sympathize with the Victims and more their near and dear ones. But then I have to worry about my job, my family, children’s education, income and neighbourhood. Things are normal with these’.

‘So what do you think caused it’

‘I guess it may be the reaction to France’s bombing of Syria. But then the right wing was also getting increasingly edgy and aggressive here. But I don’t think it is the locals. There are many Muslims and we adjust to each other and we have to co-exist (some similarity of opinions there with my host Parisians)’.

2     Me: ‘You had mentioned about right wing. What is Mr Hollande?’

Him: ’He is Leftist. But you know all politicians are same. Till they are elected they are left, they are right, but then once in power they all do the same thing… Work for their own welfare, protecting their power base, etc. In that sense he is as right or left as any. And if not now will sure become a right very soon’.

‘What would you have done differently on this incident’

‘The Government pretty much did the right thing. They restored order quickly. Rounded up many involved and brought them to justice and will perhaps erect some monument or something for the affected. They saw it as a law and order problem’.

‘So nothing that you think could have been done better’

A slight shrug of the shoulder.

3     Me: ‘How do you think this problem can be solved?’

Him: ‘We should be conscious that a similar attack can take place and hence security at times has to be tighter. New entrants should be thoroughly checked and the border posts vigil has to be tightened’. (Must admit after his initial responses, this disappointed me somewhat).

‘What can France do about it as a nation?’

‘I think one of the reasons also may be we side with the US and since the disgruntled can’t hit them they hit us. That is a possibility. But then we can do very little about this. We need the US and we live similarly’.

We meandered on several other topics and came back to this topic.

4    ‘What can be the long term solution,’ I asked.

‘Both sides have to realise that this is circular. But we (he meant France and the Western World perhaps) have to realise we have far more to lose. I have my income, job safety, and my children go to schools, there is future for them. We have a good administration, a system which functions well. Most are well off and we have everything to lose. But what do they (terrorists) have to lose. Nothing. In that sense it is unequal warfare which we are destined to lose anyway. So if we are bombing them for Oil or religion, it’s time to stop it. We have a lot more to gain if this violence stops and we should be conscious of it’.

‘You think France can do it?’

‘Humh! France? There may be no one of that stature in France. But then what can we do alone? Our society and economy are so intertwined with the rest of Europe. And I don’t think they will allow us to do anything of that sort.

Me: ‘So it’s a problem which will linger’

Him: ‘Unless someone like Dr Mandela or Gandhi can rise to the occasion and stop it, it is not likely.

‘But then there is no one in the horizon. It is unlikely someone from Politics will do this’. (I did not know what to make of his last sentence. But then the interruptions were becoming more and i felt apologetic about disturbing him and wound up with a selfie. (I have however not posted the same since I have not taken his permission and it would be unethical to expose him without his consent)

 

I was deeply impressed with the maturity of his views, calm response to a disturbing national tragedy and the way ahead. As well as the calmness of my 2 Parisian hosts. I forgot to take his name or email id but he does the Amsterdam- Paris duty in the Thalys. (Unless the roster keeps changing).

I know it sounds surreal and unrealistic to see so much patience, tolerance from both sides, I did not expect it to be so one sided. I thought I would get a cross section of opinions. No luck. I have to blow my kisses to the people of France and salute their leaders and administration. For their extra-ordinarily mature and peaceful response. The politicians have not tried muddling the issue further. They have primarily treated it as a law and order problem and dealt with it. They have not tried ‘religionising’ it. Even if there was some right wing simmering, it was well controlled or they themselves perhaps saw it as not the fit occasion. My salutations to the Dutch as well on the issue of racialism or discrimination.

I would like to believe that i am a 100% Hindu, 50% Muslim (i have seen several of their places, read some of their literature and understand that the purpose of all the religion appear so starkly similar), 25% Christian and a large influence, of late, on my social behaviour from Parsis. But must admit in comparison to what i saw in my trip, that I(ndians) am racial and discriminatory and intolerant. I would reckon most of my friends are even more so. I don’t think it is the work of any politician in the last 12 months or 18. I don’t think anyone can bring about tolerance or intolerance within such a short time. It’s the way we are. We use every differentiating factor to mentally feel discriminated or administer it – caste, region, religion, colour, place, rich vs poor, etc. So if you are from the same community the benefit (and bias) will go in your favour, likewise same cadre, same service, same class (poor/rich). We are brushing too many things under the carpet named Gandhi…so instantly we become champions of secularism, non discrimination, non-violence and all other things nice to hear.

Know I am sounding pompous and preachy, but I think there is a lesson there from Paris and the way their people have responded, which we Indians are missing.