Subcontinental kinetics: Vignettes of a South Asian watcher's journalistic chronicle

The new influencing geopolitical factor, Ved observes, is the emergence of China as the regional, even global player, in the “Heart of Asia” in what can become the new avatar of the 19th century “Great Game”. The contexts have changed, but not the strategic interests of the players, old and new.

Tarun Basu May 12, 2024
@75 As I Saw It

A journalistic journey is filled with milestones of experiences and memories; one is often a ringside observer, often unwittingly, of events that define and shape the march of a nation, or a subcontinent. At that moment one might often realise the importance of an evolving situation or statement. But, with hindsight, they raise questions and provide many answers that become the reference points of history. No doubt, journalism is called the first rough draft of history. 

For instance, what prompted the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in India to host the Agra Summit with Pakistan in 2001 so soon after the derailment of the Lahore Declaration, a bloody conflict in Kargil in 1999. and its civilian aircraft being hijacked to Kandahar, in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan? Why did India fail to prevent the assassination of Bangladesh’s founding leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman whom it had helped to come to power in a newly birthed nation? What does India expect to gain from the Taliban rulers of Kabul?

These are among the many questions journalist-writer Mahendra Ved raises, and seeks to answer, in his memoirs, “@75 As I Saw It”.  A journalist who has practised the craft for over 50 years writing and reporting on a multitude of current issues, he remained a South Asia watcher. For one, he admits to his career being shaped by the 1971 India-Pakistan conflict he covered during his early professional years and, by Bangladesh, the eastern neighbour where he was later posted during its tumultuous period 1974-76.

Tumultuous times

That period saw him report Sheikh Mujib’s assassination in 1975. Ved admits that what he learnt professionally and personally in two years was more than anything he would have learnt anywhere else in ten years. He wistfully calls it his “best of the time, and worst of the time.”

However, the South Asia focus is only partial. Typical of a memoir by a journalist in a hurry, he crams in other issues that defined his journalistic years.  He reported the royal palace massacre in Kathmandu in 2001 but Nepal is inexplicably missing from his narration. So also Sri Lanka, although he reported “Operation Pawan”, visiting Jaffna and Trincomalee.  

The memoirs include other issues that are both the book's strength and weakness – the former since this is meant to be a book of record for posterity of a journalist’s experiences and impressions. But the latter can also be seen in changed contexts and times which he says are beyond his control. He felt the need to record them, nevertheless.

One of them is using the Cold War context while recording Mujib’s assassination, trying to tie various threads of a ‘conspiracy’. It came about after India, helped by the erstwhile Soviet Union, defied the Western world that tilted towards Pakistan and turned a blind eye to the genocide of the Bengalis in then East Pakistan that resulted in tens of thousands of refugees seeking shelter in India. Ved writes that in the new century, neither the ‘perpetrators’ -- the West and for that matter, also China and the Muslim world – nor the ‘victim’, Bangladesh, want to dwell on past wrongs, or indulge in mindless revanchism that one is witnessing in India. 

However, global involvement is still relevant in Afghanistan, insists Ved who has co-authored three books during the Taliban 1.0 (1996-2001). He is watching the Taliban 2.0 to which the world does not accord diplomatic recognition, but is increasingly -- and cynically -- doing business. Unsurprisingly, India, too, has joined in, given the region's geostrategic importance, having invested USD 3 billion in Afghanistan’s development in this century to retain the goodwill of the Afghan people, even though it has virtually stopped giving visas to Afghan students to come and study in India. 

China in South Asia

The new influencing geopolitical factor, Ved observes, is the emergence of China as the regional, even global player, in the “Heart of Asia” in what is the new avatar of the 19th century “Great Game”. The contexts have changed, but not the interests of the players, old and new.

The memoirs extensively cover the Punjab turmoil of the 1980s that was exploited later by antagonists across the Pakistan border with the ISI finding in Khalistani separatists a fertile ground to further their India subversion operations. The separatist issue that festers outside India today was then a self-inflicted wound caused by domestic politics. The government of the day failed to deal with it politically, tilting cynically towards the extremists to settle political scores with the moderates. Ved writes of “too many cooks” at work in guiding the politico-military which led to the siege of the shrine and, eventually, to the assassination of the person primarily responsible, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in October 1984.  

The author argues that the military action in Amritsar 40 years ago was necessitated by intelligence inputs that the shrine was about to be declared the capital of an independent ‘Khalistan’. He talks of Pakistan “fighting on two fronts” – orchestrating turmoil in India’s Punjab in the east and a West/Saudi Arabia-sponsored ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan against the Moscow-backed regime in Kabul. Pakistan succeeded on both fronts, indeed linking up the anti-India militants with the Afghan jihad. 

These events, as described by the author, have gained importance beyond those times. Nearly four decades after “Operation Bluestar” and the siege of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India today continues to battle well-funded and even politically patronised Sikh separatist groups in Canada, the USA, the UK and Australia.  Diplomatic friction arising out of security concerns has coloured India’s otherwise friendly ties with these Western powers.
The United States abandoned Afghanistan to its devices, citing 'war fatigue'. after spending a trillion dollars and losing nearly three thousand people, leaving the space to China to expand its sphere of influence further in South Asia and beyond.   

Using the Afghan haven - which Kabul denies - the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan or TTP, which emerged out of the siege of the Lal Masjid in the heart of Islamabad in 2007,  confronting Pakistan with its biggest security threat that it least expected from its western frontier which it had considered strategically secure with the re-emergence of the Taliban. And a region that hosts a significant part of humanity – West, Central, South and Southeast Asia --- lives in trepidation over the resurgence of Sunni extremism through the various affiliates of ISIS and Al Qaeda and its worrying regional security- implications. 

(The writer is former Chief Editor of IANS and a Consulting Editor, South Asia Monitor. Views are personal)

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