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When Mr Ved(a) met 26/11 Hafiz

Hafiz Saeed (left) with Ved Pratap Vaidik in a Lahore safe house. Photo courtesy: Ved Pratap Vaidik

New Delhi, July 14: An interview that nobody has read, and probably hasn’t yet been written, flamed into the headlines today, stoking partisan skirmishes in Parliament and ethical paroxysm, even some envy, across newsrooms.

Should Ved Pratap Vaidik have taken himself into a Lahore safe house for an hour-long conversation with Mohammed Hafiz Saeed, amir of Jamaat-ud-Dawa and the man India accuses of plotting the Mumbai terror assault and calls a clear and present danger to Indian security?

But before that, Ved Pratap Vaidik, who? He seems a man convinced he escapes simplistic description and is entitled to a higher, multifaceted calling. He describes himself as a “journalist, ideologue, political thinker, orator”.

His specialty is South Asia — “Aryavarta” to his preference — from Afghanistan all across India’s northeastern periphery. He was once opinion editor of the Hindi daily Navbharat Times, then editor of Bhasha, the Hindi cousin of the Press Trust of India.

Came a time, he forsook the quotidian yoke of employment, and turned freelance fount of varied wisdoms, an aspiring rishi to political rajas. He occasionally found them and offered them what he could. His current hat is chairman, Council for Indian Policy, an institution of unclear provenance.

He is also yoga teacher Ramdev’s best-known non-yogic impresario, and, should you happen to ask, high counsellor to a string of political leaders across party lines.

Congressmen, he revealed today, wanted him during P.V. Narasimha Rao’s time, to be elevated to deputy Prime Minister. Earlier this year, he delivered a “civilisational discourse” to a Delhi gathering attended, among others, by Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, Arun Jaitley and Ramdev.

Earlier this month, on July 2, he was able to effect that first-of-its-kind cross-border tryst with Hafiz.

Journalism took him there, Vaidik insists, no ulterior motive or undercover task. The bafflement remains he took the better part of a fortnight to announce his journalistic coup and, when he did, he appended no journalism to it.

What he did put out was a photograph seated across Saeed, between them a table with a jug of water, an offering he declined. What he also gave out of his interview were interviews of his own — I told Hafiz about Narendra Modi and him being a “brahmachari”, he told me he had three wives.

I told him Indians accuse him of promoting terror, he told me he has never done any such thing, he’s only been defamed by America under Indian pressure; I told him more about Modi and he said Modi will be welcomed in Pakistan, he himself wants to come to Delhi and Mumbai and address gatherings, and that his mother escaped to Pakistan from Ropur (in Punjab), when she was carrying him.

The tone would suggest this is not a senior Indian journalist interviewing a man India considers Public Enemy Number One; it approximates a Track II, no notes, conversation more.

Questions arise, several of them. For a start, what exactly was Vaidik doing with Hafiz?

The Congress, scanning the board for pins to dig into the Modi government, was quick to raise the “traitor!” charge.

The party demanded an explanation on why the government was despatching emissaries to cosy up to an internationally proclaimed terrorist and professed India tormentor: we need to know immediately if this government is negotiating with terrorists instead of demanding they be brought to justice, as we have been.

The BJP rushed to rubbish the charge and dust off any hint of intimacy with Vaidik or his mission.

“We have nothing to do with it,” protested parliamentary affairs minister Venkaiah Naidu. “I have checked with the ministry of external affairs, there was nothing. We were neither consulted, nor did we consent to any such thing. For the record, Hafiz Saeed remains an enemy of India.”

Vaidik himself appeared diligently engaged all day today, trying to deflect Congress volleys and protect the Modi establishment from taking hits. “I went on behalf of nobody, I went on my own,” was his relentless song. “It was something I did as a journalist.”

Which begged another question. How did he secure access to Hafiz?

Vaidik’s doesn’t constitute the first Indian media effort to question Hafiz, though the jury remains out on whether he intended to question the JuD boss in the first place. Dozens of Indian journalists have tried and failed.

The truth is Hafiz remains a prized entity for formidable Pakistani state actors — the GHQ/ISI complex which dictates policy — and retains the benefit of their protection.

You don’t get to see Hafiz by knocking at his Johar Town residence in Lahore; a likelier prospect is you’d get knocked before you get anywhere near if you make a solo attempt without travel documents.

Phone lines need to be burnt, subterranean connections made, purpose and credentials verified and channels cleared, before such a meeting can come to be.

Vaidik seems to have had the benefit of all of those; he has gone where no Indian journalist has ever been before.

Arriving as part of then foreign minister S.M. Krishna’s media crew at a Lahore five-star in the September of 2012, some of us caught a shivered whisper in the hotel lobby: Anyone here who wants to meet Hafiz? What? Really? Or was it just a mischievous truth-or-dare trick? But how? When? Where?

It can be arranged, the whisper offered, probably here, probably somewhere nearby, within 10 minutes.

He lives in a double-storey in Johar Town, after all, and he enjoys the way of his will. There were not a few excited and willing among us: Hafiz, a scribe’s big story, let’s take it. But then, the whisper vanished, almost as suddenly as it had arrived. Only the electric ripple of it remained.

The hive of spooks and securitymen, Indian and Pakistani, in the hotel atrium couldn’t possibly not have caught a sense of it. They swiftly banished the prospect of Hafiz, even the floating spectre of the promise.

I would have taken the chance with both hands and two hooves, but even then, as now, there were those among us who declared, astonishingly, that even offered an opportunity they’d decline on some cuckoo illusion that interviewing Hafiz would compromise their patriotism.

It’s a stance Vaidik dextrously used all day today to secure holes in the frayed masonry of his story: “As a journalist, I’d meet anyone, I’ve met the LTTE’s Prabhakaran, I’ve met armed Naxalites, I’ve met many enemies of the state, but that is my duty as a journalist.”

But all along, he himself issued reason for his “purely journalistic mission” tale to be doubted. Journalists don’t go on roving foreign missions — or should perhaps not —promoting home governments. Vaidik did. His own writing from Pakistan contains the best evidence of it.

Among the things he told the Pakistani leadership, according to the solitary piece he wrote for a home publication: “Modi hasn’t uttered a word against Muslims and is good for all Indians”; “Nobody has a bad word to say of Modi in Pakistan”; “All of Pakistan is looking forward to an early Modi visit”.

Upon his return home, Vaidik penned a paean to Jaitley’s maiden budget and titled it “Modi kaa Manmohak Budget (Modi’s Spellbinding Budget)”.

The reason why a “dubious” cry attends Vaidik’s journalistic-mission protestation isn’t far to seek.

And we are still wondering where the core of all this clamour is: his “interview” with Hafiz Saeed. What desk did he send it to?