Archive for August, 2001

Kanyakumari

Monday, August 20th, 2001

Aug 20, 2001

How does it feel, how does it feel, how does it feel, I ask all of them, to stand at India’s edge? But none of them feel anything much…

A gale comes howling in from one of the three seas in the middle of the night, rattling the windows, and plunging the southern tip of India in total darkness. From my drenched balcony, I cannot see the Vivekananda Rock, 500 metres out into the sea, only the rock next to it, with the massive statue of Thiruvalluvar under construction there. A red light blinks intermittently on top of the poet’s head to warn low-flying aircraft.

The Thiruvalluvar statue is pure shock.  The vulgar Ozymandias pomposity of the thing, towering over the sedate Vivekananda Rock Memorial: the poet, clutching his great work, the Thirukural, to his breast, a bearded, vaguely Assyrian-looking Statue of Liberty personally designed by Kalaizsgnar M. Karunanidhi. People gawk admiringly. “What a statue they’ve built!” marvels Vinod Walia, tourist from Jalandhar, standing in queue for the ferry to the Rock. He writes down the poet’s name laboriously on a slip of paper. “What sort of name is this?” he grumps. I let it ride; I’m not here to get into arguments.

On Christmas Eve 1892, the 29-year-old Swami Vivekananda came to Kanyakumari. He had spent four years traversing the length and breadth of India, following the wishes of his late guru Ramakrishna Paramahansa, who believed that pursuing an incorporeal God for personal nirvana was arrogant and selfish while millions of Indians, each of them embodying the same boundless creator, lived sub-human lives. Standing on the southernmost edge of India, at the end of an incredible voyage, the young monk saw the twin rocks in mid-sea. This was where the Kumari Kanya, Shiva’s bride, had waited for the god who never arrived, and finally turned to stone. Vivekananda swam there, a feat of courage and endurance that seems unearthly today. He spent the next three days on the barren crag, and came back transformed. The rest of his short life—he lived for only 10 more years—was an extraordinary journey of ceaseless teaching, social work, building.

On the east lies the Bay of Bengal, on the west the Arabian Sea, and ahead in the south the mighty Indian Ocean. And behind you, in the north, a continent. Spray flies 50 feet up in the air as fearsome waves crash on the twin rocks. On Kanyakumari beach, newly weds, the wives laden with gold jewellery, wet their feet shyly in the water. Two young Muslim girls, only their faces visible in the burqas, run back giggling from the advancing tide. Dozens wait for the waves to come and erode the sand under their feet, and then scramble shriekingly in pursuit when they realise that the receding water has also taken their shoes. A white-clothed politician and his wife wet their foreheads in the sea. A bodyguard carrying a giant mineral water bottle hovers nearby. Palmists, photographers, sea-shell sellers, coffee vendors, binocular lessors and “Please take care of your belongings” signs abound. And dozens of men who want to sell you cheap Chinese TVs, music systems, torches, cameras, watches that change colour every hour.

Hemanti Devi has led a flock of 12 women from Bihar through Puri, Tirupati, Rameshwaram, to this, their last port of call before returning to husbands and hearths. She says she has come to watch “true things”. “You people watch films,” she accuses. “All that is man-made stuff, makebelieve.” The bells peal in the Kumari Amman temple behind us; pilgrims hurry to pay obeisance to Parvati’s avatar, doomed to stay a virgin when Rishi Narada tricked Shiva into missing the sacred wedding moment.But Hemanti Devi isn’t interested: “I’m not visiting any temple here. I sit by the beach and look at the light.” The light? “The different hues of the sun’s rays, the colours the sea takes on at different times of the day. This is all real. The light is a true thing.”

I walk past Dubai Store and Singapore Fancy and Malaysia Fancy to catch the ferry for Vivekananda Rock. On the Rock, the high winds whip and keen around us. It is a strangely peaceful place, a place of amazing solitude even if there are a hundred tourists tramping around, and their children playing tag. Land’s ends are lonely places, places of crystal silences that don’t crack with noise. The endless seas simultaneously mock your insignificant smallness and fete the grandeur of the world. All around me rise the structures of the Rock Memorial, perhaps the most public of monuments on earth, for it was built with contributions from 30 lakh people. Thankfully, the architecture is subdued, with the emphasis on open spaces. I try not to look north-west where the half-built Thiruvalluvar looms. Do poets ever want 300-feet statues built of them?

This is where Vivekananda sat, and he had seen his destiny in the blinding light of truth, and known that it was inextricably tied with the fates of the most wretched of his countrymen, in each of whom he could espy his god. He had seen India from here in all its greatness and destitution, inestimable wealth and infinite squalor. In the majestic rebellion of this chunk of black rock against the infinity of the seas, he had found ineffable meaning. He had discovered and understood India.

Around me mill people from every province, every corner of this country. From Ahmedabad, Shardabehn Shah; after the earthquake, this seventyish widow decided she must see Kanyakumari before she died. From Jaipur, S.K. Harlalka and his dozen-strong clan; he had come here 30 years ago as a student and had always wanted to share the experience with his entire family. From Maharashtra, a gaggle of tough rural women led by a suspicious patriarch who won’t even reveal the name of their village. Three Muslim clergymen, who say that they have never experienced such serenity before, and claim they are from Bengal but, mysteriously, cannot recognise Bengali when it is spoken at them. Nalini Roy and his wife from Durgapur, who have been sitting on the Rock wordlessly, staring out at the seas for two hours when I meet them, and who are still there when I catch the ferry back an hour later. An entire village of Tamils, from a toothless tonsured man who could be hundred, to a newborn infant. A sardar from Jammu mopes around, feeling cheated that he cannot see Sri Lanka from here. How does it feel, how does it feel, how does it feel, I ask all of them, to stand at India’s edge? But none of them feel anything much. Or maybe what they feel is so private, so personal a thing to treasure, that they won’t like to talk about it to strangers, preferring instead to nod and smile and say alright, okay, great place.

How do I feel, someone asks. Alright, okay, great place.

The ferry waits. And at the jetty in Kanyakumari, dark polyglots peddle Chinese watches that change colour every hour.

Turtuk

Monday, August 20th, 2001

Aug 20, 2001

It is a bold experiment, and the effects have been dramatic. Every little problem is getting a compassionate response from men trained to kill.

Take a four-wheel-drive car from Leh, and head out into the most stunning landscape on earth. Climb up to Khardung-La, the world’s highest motorable road at 18,380 feet, and descend into the Nubra Valley. Drive on through the planet’s highest desert over which loom the ferocious crags of the Ladakh range, like the paws of a monstrous feline beast.Follow the Shyoke river through desolate rocky flatlands where nothing has ever lived, down into Diskit’s sand dunes,rolling 12,000 feet above sea level. Past the headquarters at Partappur, with the Siachen glacier somewhere high up there on the right, over the Chalunka bridge, where the Shyoke is in spate, and on a barren piece of land that has turned into an island, a horse walks around, starving to death. The river moves on into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to meet the Indus, but we halt a few km from the Line of Control. A mountain trail leads up from the asphalt road to Tyakshi village in the Turtuk sub-sector.

Over Tyakshi tower mountain peaks on which nest Pakistani gunposts, hiding under the skyline, watching us, and Indian gunposts watching the Pakistani gunposts. Haji Abdul Qadir is the local councillor on the Hill Council. The apricots from his trees are the sweetest we have ever had. The two old men who sit with him in the neat sitting room—and I can’t for the life of me figure out which one is Haji Abdullah and which Haji Abdul Karim—tell me: “We are more totally Indian than you are, because we have lived in Pakistan, so we know how much better India is.”

Yes, the five villages of Turtuk, Tyakshi, Thang, Pachathang and Chalunka were in PoK till the 1971 war. “Unfortunately, the army reached us on December 16,” says Haji Abdul Qadir. “We wanted them to keep on going, but the ceasefire was signed that very day.” Then came nearly three decades of mistrust. They were treated with suspicion; the onus was on them to prove that they were not Pakistani agents.

After all, did not they have relatives in villages merely miles away in PoK? Weren’t they all Muslims? No roads were built, not even a bridge over the Shyoke which swept away a dozen people every year. Then in June 1999, as Kargil escalated, 24 men from the area were caught with Pakistani arms. This seemed final proof of the traitorous nature of Turtuk denizens. Says Ghulam Hussain, sarpanch of Turtuk village: “The truth is that our men were working with the army throughout the Kargil war. Twelve of us carried a mortar down the mountain road from Tyakshi to Turtuk. Our women cooked food for the jawans fighting in the mountains. We will die but not go to Pakistan.”

Is this all an act for the visitor from Delhi? No. I see young women thumbing lifts in army jeeps. I see children rushing up to soldiers and playing with them. Something dramatic has happened here, something has changed.

What has changed is the strategy of the army, the most visible and seemingly the only active agency of the Indian government on this frontier. A year ago, Lt Gen Arjun Ray took over as commander of the Leh-based 14 Corps. And he had an idea. That if you won the hearts of the people on the border, Pakistan-backed militancy would never manage to get even a toehold. Of this idea was born the army’s Sadbhavna Project, focused on bringing development and dignity to the 109,500 people in the 190 villages close to the 265-km Ladakh-PoK border. In nine months, the army has set up 16 schools, five vocational training centres (vtcs), treated more than 49,000 patients through free medical-care schemes, including flying 48 people down to Chandigarh and Pune for treating complex disorders. It provides seed capital for projects like poultry farms, while insisting that at least 50 per cent of the project partners be women. The schools have a computer with customised software for every 15 children.The vtcs have eight computers per 25 girls. All this at an expense lower than what India spends on Siachen per day.

“When you face up to the enemy, you aim for both physical and moral domination,” says Colonel Dilip Prasad, posted in Tyakshi. “We have physical domination over the Pakis, and we achieve moral domination every day that they sit up there and see the happiness of the people here.” Says Haji Abdullah/ Abdul Karim proudly: “After Mr Advani visited us, he said in Parliament that Turtuk is one border area in Kashmir where he can walk without any security”.

“National security comes from human security,” Gen Ray runs through his theory. “Human security comes from human development. Which wins hearts. And human beings are creatures of the heart.” All hearts in Turtuk currently belong to Ray. He is cheered by the people at every step. They come up to him with problems, petitions, pleas, and all get a patient hearing and a promise of redressal. But what happens after Ray retires next year? Will the Sadbhavna project carry on its good work? And even more importantly, can this be replicated in the Kashmir Valley? Isn’t the situation there far more complex than in Ladakh, which has never had any significant militant activity? “It can be replicated, and it must,” insists Ray. “You take an area, sanitise it, develop it, move on to the next area. Militancy is a matter of ideology. The best way to fight that ideology is through the heart.” But isn’t the question of Kashmir azadi also a matter more of the heart than of the mind? “That’s conventional wisdom,” retorts Ray. “It can be done. If our soldiers can fight for peace in Somalia and Sierra Leone, surely charity begins at home?”

The mother of one of the 24 men detained in Leh jail since June 1999 comes up, weeping. “They did not know what they were doing, they are innocent. Haven’t they been punished enough?” I tell her that Gen Ray had told me that he was working on releasing them on bail. Before August 15. “And I shall rehabilitate each of them,” he had promised.

Since Sadbhavna started, 80 men from the Turtuk area have joined the army and 32 the police. Among the new soldiers is the son of Ali Hassan, a retired Pakistani armyman. Hassan, 72, retired from the Karakoram Scouts in 1970 and came back home to Tyakshi, which was then in PoK. A year later, his village was in India! Ali Hassan’s 30-year-old complaint—and his only conversation topic—is why Pakistan isn’t paying him his pension: “Didn’t I fight in 1965 against India? Okay, if Pakistan does not pay me, India should, someone should?” He has already harangued L.K. Advani about this when Advani visited the area a month ago, and the home minister has promised to take his case up with Pakistan. Meanwhile, the Indian army provides his family free rations, and his son Habibullah prepares to defend India.

In the kindergarten class in the Goodwill School at Tyakshi, tiny pink six-year-olds tell us about water, that it is wet, tasteless and odourless, that stones sink in it. Their teacher is Lalitha, one of the nine volunteers who have come from far-away Bangalore to work on the Sadbhavna Project. “Many of the children are so bright it’s amazing,” she says. Outside, in the school courtyard, another volunteer, Andy, strums his guitar while the children trill “I am tree.”. Colonel Prasad catches hold of little Habibullah. He sings astonishingly well, first a Kumaoni song and then Kaho Na Pyar Hai.

Can all this goodwill last? Is Sadbhavna sustainable? For if the project loses steam, the people would see it as a betrayal, and the backlash could be dangerous.”The idea is to make these people self-sufficient so they stand on their own feet,” says Colonel J.S. Pama. “For example, we’re building a bus stop near Turtuk. We provide the material, but we have made it clear that they have to provide the labour and maintain it.” Charity alone cannot be the engine of growth. Charity has to necessarily begin the process, since these people have been neglected for so long, but it must be withdrawn gradually for full empowerment. The process is a tightrope walk, and there are already some irritating side-effects. Says a junior officer: “Even if we catch someone for theft now, they say we’ll complain to General Ray.”

But it is a bold experiment, and the effects have been dramatic. On the way back, near Chalunka, we find a Sadbhavna helicopter loading bales of hay. “There’s a horse starving on a barren piece of land that the Shyoke in spate has turned into an island. We will air-drop this hay for it,” explains the pilot. Every little problem is getting a compassionate response from men trained to kill.