Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Did Sajan Jindal help set up Modi’s Lahore flight ?

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his surprise trip to lahore via Moscow and kabul, steel baron Sajjan Jindal  was part of the entourage, and this set off toungues wagging on how Big Business was helping guide the two nations foreign policy !

Modi with Sharif at Lahore

Media revelations had it that  exactly a year ago that the Haryana-based business tycoon  had secretly organised the meeting between Modi and Pakistani Premier Nawaz Sharif at a Kathmandu hotel as part of a backroom peace initiative pushed by Big Business. Sharif is a fellow steel baron from the Pakistani Punjab whose steel mill - Ittefaq – is run by his son.

Jindal whose  firm JSW has a 16 % stake in theIndian  consortium which won rights to mine the iron rich Hajigak mines in that landlocked country, is being seen as a key corporate go-between for Modi’s diplomatic overtures to India’s estranged neighbor, Pakistan.

For several years now the state-run Steel Authority of India Ltd.  consortium has been trying to make some headway in its projects to mine Hajigak which is believed to hold 1.8 billion tonnes of high grade iron ore, but have been trumped by the logistics challenge posed to shipping the ore to India.

The easiest and cheapest route is by road or rail through Pakistan. However, with Pakistan refusing to let India ship goods through its territory to Afghanistan on Indian vehicles or rail wagons, such a project has been a non-starter.

The support which Pakistan lends to terror groups which operate in Afghanistan – including the Haqqani network – also make it a security challenge to have long term mining operations in the central Bamyan province where the mines are located.

Interestingly, Jindal’s brother and Congress politician Naveen  Jindal owns another 16 % stake in the mining consortium, while other family members have stakes in it through various other corporate entities, which analysts calculate could tote up to a 44 % stake.
The corporate grapewine has it that the interest Jindals have in Afghanistan’s future potential have made them keen to involve themselves in commercial diplomacy between India and Pakistan.

Indian corporates who have invested huge sums in gas based power plants and fertilizer factories are also keen that an American backed gas pipeline project – TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) – too gets off the ground to bring cheap gas from former Soviet Bloc countries of the Central Asia to North India.

Jindal : ties cast in iron

Again analysts point out that the pipeline could remain a pipedream like the Iran Pakistan-India pipeline unless India and Pakistan could come to an agreement between the two on  peace in Afghanistan and between India and Pakistan, besides negotiating safe passage for gas through the sub-continent.

This is not the first use of corporate leaders in back-channel diplomacy between the two countries nor the first time corporate interests were suspected to be the reason for Tycoons taking an interest in the estranged neighbours’ peace process.

Earlier Dhirubhai Ambani's trusted aide R K Mishra had played an important role in Indo-Pak diplomacy during Atal Baheri Vajpayee's prime ministership.

Reliance owns the world's largest oil refinery in Gujarat and analysts had then speculated a three-way deal could allow it to import Iranian crude and gas on the cheap for its refinery.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Vinod Mehta RIP

Vinod Mehta with his wife Sumita
Vinod Mehta is no more. RIP Vinod, in whatever heavenly newsroom there might be up there, where I am sure you would have wound up with your irreverent pen and favourite tipple.

In 1992, I joined Vinod’s team at the 150-year-old The Pioneer newspaper then recently re-launched from Link House on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, New Delhi’s Fleet Street.

It was the best of times and the worst of times, to be a journalist in India. India was opening up to the world, with its own version of `Perestroika’ while combating old passions which manifested itself among others, in the demolition of the Mughal-era Babri Masjid in Ayodhya by an impassioned, partisan crowd. Preceded as these were, in Vinod’s own words “ Rajiv Gandhi’s tragic assassination, P.V.Narasimha Rao’s erratic prime-ministership (and BJP leader) L.K.Advani’s frightening rath yatra and its consequences.” 

At The Pioneer, under Vinod Mehta, we had the right to report on it all, with all its warts and quirks – without fear or favour, as long as we got our facts right and told the story well.

Vinod was arguably among the first modern newspaper editor in India who understood what made the new kind of newspapers tick. As against the old league of Editors who lived in Ivory towers, Vinod lived, breathed and dreamt of the ink that flowed from the newsroom and realised that newspapers could survive only by combining reporting with commentary and splashing news pages with feature stories and large, tell-all photographs,  pushing into the space reserved till then for magazines.

Vinod, after a stint at various jobs in the UK, had started his journalistic debut in India by editing the risqué men’s magazine Debonair, which he turned into a classy magazine with a great choice of reading and  stylishly clicked `For Men’s Eyes Only’ center-spreads.

However, Vinod’s heart lay in launching a Sunday paper on the lines of newspapers he was fond of reading during his stay at England. He got his first big break with a new launch – The Sunday Observer – which a popular publishing house came up with. After that, several Editor-ships later, he was picked up by industrialist L.M.Thapar to run the venerable `The Pioneer’, which the Thapars had bought over for a song.

He redesigned the old newspaper which at one time had Rudyard Kipling, the `Bard of the Empire’ on its staff, into arguably the best looking, modern, newspaper in the country. He brought in a fresh whiff of air into the stodgy BSZ Street which housed most of the Who’s Who of Indian newspaper industry – from Times of India to Indian Express to Patriot, with juicy, breaking news in virtually every sphere – from cabinet meetings to business boardrooms to the world of art.     

He understood the art and science of modern newspaper design, what his readers wanted to read, the value of a photograph to tell the tale, the value of giving his `boys’ and `girls’ freedom to write as they chose and the need to bond his young team together by partying with them as hard as they could stand up to !

In the words of a colleague, Madhumita Ghosh, the grand-daughter of a famous previous Editor of The Pioneer, “Vinod combined the greatest asset of an Editor. An infallible nose for news, and a management style that encouraged complete freedom with an uncanny market sense without giving in to the marketeers.”

However, many on New Delhi’s `Fleet Street’ still castigated him for being a `non-political Editor’, an euphemism for someone who does not understand Indian politics, then the life and blood of Indian journalism. Vinod broke that mis-conception when he wrote a front page news story based on a meeting with then Prime Minister Rao, asking readers to contemplate on the fate of a nation `where the prime minister’s reaction to blood curdling, nation shaking events went no further than (stating) “the soul of India is peaceful”.’

The newspaper’s owner separately confessed to Vinod that the demolition of the centuries old, ruined Masjid by religious zealots who believed it to be the site of an older temple and ostensibly Lord Rama’s mythical palace had him (Thapar) `jumping with joy’ ! However, Vinod, being Vinod merely brushed that aside and continued with the newspaper’s reports on what he considered tragic events for the nation’s secular credentials.  

However, Vinod was not a political animal. He forte lay in being a thorough newsroom man. He would hurl chaste Hindi four letter words at deskmen who could not meet the deadline to print the newspaper and call the same people up for a cup of tea and encouragement on days he felt the page was especially well designed.

He understood the import of news, like no other man I have met. One morning he rang me and my equally young colleague Jay Shankar to his `den’. We went trembling, only to be congratulated for two stories we had broken – one on an American cola giant being allowed to make a comeback in India after being thrown out of the country in misplaced socialistic zeal a decade-and-a-half back, and the other on a state run firm pioneering perfumed condoms! He told us in clear terms, `it’s all right to report on what ministers’ think is policy, or on the GDP going up or down, but what readers really want is news like this …”

Vinod was also the right kind of Editor for young reporters, who wished to follow his equally irreverent style of thumbing their nose at the high and mighty. In the early ’90s, I was assigned along with photo-journalist Arun Jetlie, who later on went on to work for the Indian Express, to cover the opening of a Global Cola giant’s first Indian factory near Agra. We shockingly found under-age child labourers in that plant. I carried out a diversion of the assembled cola officialdom and Jetlie, despite his girth, jumped across bottling lines to take pictures of the kids in question. The race back to The Pioneer to file the story was enlivened by the bus, organised by the Cola firm breaking down and their offering us free stay at a 5-star hotel in Agra.

The Pioneer team still found a way of getting the story and pictures to our newspaper to be printed the next day. I was told much later, that Vinod faced the music for that irreverent story all alone. The proprietors whose business interests seemed to have been hurt,  took him to task for our `misdemeanour’. We never got to know of the storm which brew over The Pioneer that day. All that we knew was that we soon received letters promoting us!

That was Vinod’s way.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Netaji’s Contribution To India’s Independence

Subhash Bose & Gandhi in happier times
Conventional official history suggests that India rode to independence on a successful Quit India movement and which among others, is celebrated by the popular 1950s Abhi Bhattacharya film `Jagriti’ in a song “De di Azadi haemin bina kharag, bina dhal …’ (Gave us freedom without picking up a sword or  shield) . Popular perception and pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that is contemporary history, however gives less credence to the efficacy of the non-violent struggle of 1942 and more to the chain of mutinies which Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and his INA initiated in giving the British the last push homewards.   
 In 1956 while on a trip to Calcutta, British Prime Minister Lord Attlee, who piloted the India Independence Bill into an Act in the British Parliament was asked by his host, the Acting Governor of West Bengal, Justice P.B.Chakravarti as to why the British decided to grant India independence within four year of having successfully crushed the Quit India civil disobedience movement of 1942 launched by Mahatma Gandhi.
The pipe-smoking, Labour leader Clement Attlee, known to be a plain-speaking politician who could be embarrassingly blunt, said that the most important reason was “the loyalty of the men of the (British) Indian Army to their British commanders had been undermined by Subhash Bose’s action.”
In his `The Journal’, French Nobel prize winning writer, Romain Rolland, says that Bose had revealed to him by the mid-1930s, that he believed the way to freedom was by harnessing the  “organised violence” of an armed force. This army, he believed should take the field when Britain herself was at war.
The Second World War gave Bose that grand chance. He took it with both hands. Most of us know the saga of his daring escape from house arrest in Calcutta and his travels in disguise through the North West Frontier and Afghanistan and on to Germany ; of his parleys with Hitler, his disappointment with Germany’s lack of material help or open declaration of support for India and decision to wage war against Soviet Russia. As well as the story of  his eventual arrival at Singapore after a daring submarine journey across two Oceans, to launch the rebel Indian National Army, a force of 55,000 soldiers drawn from Indian Prisoners of War and military age civilian volunteers from the Indian community in Malaya, Singapore and elsewhere in East Asia. A force free from religious or caste or linguistic divides, where officers and men and women (for the INA, far ahead of its times, had an all women regiment) alike were fired by one single goal – freedom of their motherland.
Netaji Subhash Bose with top INA officers, flanking him on the right is Col Lakhsmi Swaminathan
The INA along with the Imperial Japanese Army which was supporting it, lost the war in 1945. However, in defeat, their and their Netaji’s glorious saga of sacrifice managed to do something which no Indian leader had managed to do till then: stir the semi-literate villagers who made up the British Indian Army  and used by the British Monarch to rule over the sub-continent with a heavy hand, to  rise above all divisions in favour of India’s independence.  
As Colonel Hugh Toye, a British intelligence officer  charged with screening INA men after the war, wrote “In the eleven months which had lapsed since the first contact of the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force with the men of the INA in Rangoon, there had been wide-spread fraternisation. Its result was a political consciousness which the Indian serviceman had never before possessed.”
The result of this `consciousness’ or in the words of other classified British intelligence reports `contagion’,  was `alarming’. Colonel Prem Sehgal of the INA in his memoirs describes how after his capture at Alammyo, he was being driven to Magwe in a truck with an escort of two British NCOs, a Punjabi Muslim Naik and four sepoys of the Frontier Force Regiment. “On the way”, Sehgal said “the Naik got talking to me …. He told me that he was prepared to shoot the two British NCOs, after which he and his men would join me in escaping to the INA.”
Sehgal, who had been adjutant general of the INA, knew the war was over and wisely advised the Naik against this course of action. However, enthusiasm for the INA and its ideals of fighting for India’s freedom could not be stilled. At his jail in Magwe, the Colonel was again accosted by 20 soldiers of the Madras Regiment, “accompanied by the regimental clerk who spoke English. These men told me that they had come to meet me on behalf of their regiment and that their services were entirely at my command.”
Gurkha soldiers guarding INA’s Gen Shah Nawaz Khan sought an interview with their commanding officer and sought discharge to “join the INA” ! The most important work in turning the Indian soldiers around, was not done by captured INA men but really by Indian youth from Malaya and Singapore. They as pre-arranged, fraternized with British Indian Army soldiers and invited them home in batches to tell them the story of Netaji and INA. At times full length propaganda films shot earlier by the Azad Hind Government were shown to them.
In the chaotic Malaya of that time,  Netaji’s Indian Independence League and Bal Sena (Boy’s Force, akin to Boy Scouts or NCC) remained intact. They marched through the streets of towns and villages shouting :  `Jai Hind’, making quite an impact.  Several Anglo-Indian officers had joined the INA, including Col Cyril John Stracey who had built a Azad Hind war memorial consisting on Singapore’s beach front.  The British had it dynamited the moment they took back Singapore. However, the tens of thousands of Indians living on the island continued to throng the site everyday with flowers and to stand around recounting tales of bravery of the force. 
Azad Hind Government Currency
 In the meanwhile, Indian journalists including Amrit Lal Seth, Editor of Janambhoomi, were sent to South East Asia by the British Government as an extension of war propaganda to witness how the surrender  by Japanese was taking effect. However, they returned with a different tale altogether – that of a Shivaji like figure – Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and his valiant band of INA soldiers.  This fired the imagination of India’s youth.
By November 1945, public demonstrations in support of  Netaji and the INA men who were being brought home as prisoners started. Lahore, Lucknow and Calcutta saw wide-spread demonstrations and rioting early in the month. In Calcutta, public unrest engulfed the largest city of the Indian sub-continent for 4 whole days, forcing the police to fire repeatedly. Pro-INA demonstrations spread to Delhi, Patna and Bombay.
In Calcutta, the situation was so dire that the European Association printed instructions for members on how to defend themselves and sought to build arsenals in towns and plantations.
A nervous Sir Henry Joseph Twynam, British Governor of Central Provinces, wrote to the Viceroy, Lord Wavell, on November 10, 1945 : “ When the air-born Division leaves Bilaspore, I shall be left without British troops … references to mutiny (by Indian troops) continue to be frequent.” In another letter to the Viceroy, Sir Henry reported : “At Jubbulpore, when a speaker … asked who would join the INA, all raised their hands.” (Jubbulpur did witness a short-lived Army rebellion in the following year)
By November 24, 1945, Field Marshall Sir Claude Auchinleck was warning the British Government of a full-scale rebellion in the offing. In an `Appreciation’, the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army wrote : “There are now large quantities of unlicensed arms throughout India and there will be many ex-INA men to use them … also  a considerable number of demobilized (British Indian Army) soldiers … principal danger areas are likely to be United Provinces, Bihar and Bengal, but trouble must also be expected in the Punjab, the Central provinces and Bombay.”
By February 1946, Royal Indian Navy ratings mutinied in Bombay. Many other ships followed. This was followed by mutinies by Air Force ground staff in several stations including Karachi. At some military stations, there were instances of NCOs and sepoys disobeying British officers or taking on an insolent attitude towards them, besides strikes by munitions workers.
A note entitled `Present State of Morale and Degree of Reliability of Indian Fighting Services’, prepared by the Director of Military Intelligence (DMI), said Signal Corps was unreliable as also other ancillary services. The entire navy and air force was of doubtful reliability! Of the main arms – infantry, armour, artillery and sappers, the note said they may be depended upon, with the caveat that this would depend on Indian Commissioned Officers remaining loyal, finally adding that it was difficult to assess these officers’ reliability!
Lt Gen S.K Sinha, then a captain at Army headquarters in Delhi later to become  Adjutant General of the Indian Army, many decades later wrote that he had managed to see the note marked `Top Secret - Not For Indian Eyes’ prepared by the DMI Maj Gen O’ Brien where the Emergency Commissioned Officers, who were the largest body of commissioned officers in the Indian army then, numbering nearly 12,000, were rated as `highly suspect’. Regular Indian Commissioned Officers numbering about 400, some of whom had joined the INA while others were believed bitter because of pay and social discrimination, were also rated as not to be fully trusted.
On the basis of this and other inputs, the Commander-in-Chief concluded in reports to the British cabinet that “most Indian officers are nationalists” and that should “the situation deteriorate … we cannot rely upon Indian armed forces, I may ask HMG to send as many British formations as can be made available.”
Field Marshall Auchinleck
Auchinleck believed that at least 5 more British divisions were required (than what was then available) to defend India in case of troubles. The issue was taken up by the British cabinet. However, what probably stopped His Majesty’s Government from again reforming disbanded regiments to police the Indian Empire was the war fatigue which had set in amongst ordinary British citizens after the six year long Second World War, which saw millions dead and tens of millions more made homeless or crippled for life.
The costs of continuing with the business of running the Empire would also be immensely huge even if the force was formed and sent. In the rebellion, which the British were sure was coming, hundreds of thousands of Britishers would surely die to keep Indians enslaved after having declared that they had fought the Axis powers to bring freedom and democracy to the world.
Gen Sinha wrote that the British were so nervous that they had even formulated an evacuation plan called `Gondola’ to ensure timely evacuation of some 43,000 Europeans in case of a full scale rebellion, with maps showing evacuation routes to port cities.
It was then that the British came up with their ingenuous plan of a three tier constitution, which eventually evolved into a plan to carve up India, before the British left.
This by itself is not a historical analysis which can openly conclude that the last push to send the British out of India was given by Netaji and his INA. However, in conclusion, I would like to relate the second half of the interview between Lord Attlee and West Bengal’s Acting Governor and leave the reader to make his own judgement. In a letter to noted historian Ramesh Chandra Majumder, Justice Chakravarti, describing the interview with Lord Attlee, said “towards the end of the discussion, I wanted to know to what extent Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent movement had influenced the British decision to leave India. There was a flicker of a smile on Attlee’s lips as he uttered with slow deliberation the word “mi-ni-mal”.