Saturday, August 8, 2009


On August 05, 2009, Indians were surprised to see President Bill Clinton live on Indian TV channels when he landed in the US along with two freed Asian-American journalists who had had been sentenced to 12 years of hard labour in a North Korean prison on unspecified charges. He had earlier flown to Pyongyang to meet North Korea's all-powerful leader Kim Jong II on a humanitarian mission to get the two journalists back.

When the two young ladies, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, alighted from the special plane to an emotional reunion with their families, followed by Bill Clinton who was received and hugged by former Vice President Al Gore, there was an air of disbelief among Indians. So much of personal effort by America's most powerful leaders to get back just two Americans, that too of Asian origin?

Watching those moving scenes and the brief statement by President Barack Obama in which he thanked Clinton and Al Gore for the effort that they had put in to secure the release of the two Americans, one could not but appreciate the contribution of some fine human values without which America would not have become the greatest nation in the world, values that India too needs if it wants to become a truly great nation.

Like in any open society, there was some criticism too of the move to engage with the North Koreans at the highest level, even if it was on purely humanitarian grounds. John Bolton, former US ambassador to the United Nations, said that the Obama administration was rewarding North Korea for its bad behaviour and that Clinton's mission "comes close to negotiating with terrorists". Some other Right Wingers were also critical of this engagement with a terrorist regime. But, on the whole, Americans were deeply appreciative of the effort put in by their top leaders to get the two Americans home, thanks in no small measure to the manner in which it was covered by the media. Above all, there was no gutter-type of partisan condemnation that we have got so used to seeing and hearing here in India from third-rate politicians.

While watching those emotional moments at California, images of Maulana Azhar Masood being driven to Delhi airport, to be taken to Kandahar in exchange for the release of 154 passengers of IC-814 that had been hijacked by terrorists, kept appearing before my eyes.

Just a few months back, when election fever was as at its peak, this visual was played repeatedly by almost all Indian TV channels to attack the BJP for surrendering to terrorists. There was hardly any TV anchor, analyst and media star who did not join the ugly political chorus to blame the BJP, which was in power then, for freeing three terrorists in exchange for 154 Indians. Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh was particularly lambasted for "escorting" them, only because they flew in the one plane that he took to Kandahar to get the hostages back.

The media had full visuals of the massive protests that were launched by relatives of the passengers of IC-814 at Delhi airport and in front of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's residence. Visuals of various political leaders talking to the agitated relatives and calling upon the government to ensure the safe return of the passengers were also available, as were those of the relieved and thankful passengers on their return home after their harrowing experience. But none of these were aired. In fact, those who were gunning for the then government did not even make a mention of them. On the contrary, there were plenty of cheap statements like "your Foreign Minister escorted terrorists to Kandahar", backed by that one visual of Masood, that Indians were bombarded with 24/7, just to make a sick and completely dishonest political point. The tu-tu main-main that went on for days was, in fact, so petty and shallow that if the tapes are played out again with the then un-aired visuals, along with what we saw in California a couple of days back, our politicians, starting from the top, and our media, will find themselves hanging their heads in shame.

What Bill Clinton has done now is not very different from what Jaswant Singh did in 1999, but he has emerged as a hero. If anything, the latter showed real personal courage to fly into what was then one of the most dangerous places in the world. The two Americans would not have been released had President Clinton not gone to rogue state North Korea. Similarly, the release of 154 Indians held in Kandahar would most certainly have got jeopardised due to more demands that would have been made by the Taliban and others, after the three released terrorists had touched down safely, had Jaswant Singh not been physically present there. That is what leadership is all about. But not only has Jaswant Singh not been lauded, he has been pilloried by petty political opponents and even a few of his party men who have amply demonstrated more than once that they do not have it in them.

A nation does not become great by accident. It becomes great because, among other things, it encourages and honours certain superior values that makes all its citizens feel wanted and proud. The inculcation of such values, often by example, is what is expected from its leaders who have to learn to rise above petty and often repulsive political partisanship. The media too has to take the lead in celebrating such values and in condemning acts and elements that attempt to erode them, in a completely honest and bipartisan manner. Sadly, as the recent coverage of the Kandahar drama has disturbingly shown, we have a long way to go and it will take some real doing to start constructing a value system that befits a nation like ours. Till that happens, India is not going to become the great nation that all of us want it to be.
Picture source: Gothamist
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