Goodbye - From an Indian Military Veteran to a Pakistani Human Rights Activist
THE INTERVIEW with Admiral L.Ramdas
Chief of Naval Staff, India’s highly decorated Admiral Laxminarayan Ramdas, has championed peace not despite but because he was a man of war and seen it from close quarters.. As he says in the interview below, “More significantly, my having been through three wars had also raised deeper reflections within me – and led me to question the very nature and purpose of war itself. One has realised therefore that wars don't solve anything – and that issues must be resolved politically.Perhaps these were a few from among the diverse combination of circumstances which influenced my own metamorphosis from a Man - o - war to a Man - o - Peace.!!”
Admiral Ramdas was the co-recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award along with Pakistan’s established man of peace I.A.Rehman in 2004 with a citation that drew parallels between their commitment and understanding of peace.
In THE INTERVIEW with THE CITIZEN Admiral Ramdas speaks at length about Rehman who passed after an indomitable innings where he worked ceaselessly for peace between India and Pakistan, and in South Asia. And about himself, his transformation where today the former Naval Chief is highly respected for his consistency, passion and dedication to peace, with his wife Lalita Ramdas standing firmly by his side --- not just egging him on but often leading him into pastures covered by the couple’s love for India.
Excerpts from the Interview:
Q. IA Rehman .. a champion of India Pakistan has passed. The Magsaysay Award honoured you both together.. do share some memories.
A. How I got involved with the Pak India Peace Process might be a good place to start remembering some highlights of the long journey to peace.
A disclaimer at the very start. Some people believe that I have worked on this because our daughter is married to a Pakistani – now an American citizen! Nothing could be further from the truth …….
My involvement with the idea of working on a peace initiative, between not just India and Pakistan , but also in South Asia, actually started many years ago – in fact after the 1971 operations where my ship was deployed in the Eastern theatre.
My conversations and interaction with a group of angry young Bengali boys in Chittagong who wanted us to deliver to them a Pakistani major, notorious for his brutality against their people and their women – led me to think about what terrible harm we were causing to generations – especially of young people. And this has been a recurrent theme – reinforced by several incidents, both before and after.
The Magsaysay citation has actually mentioned the terrible incident that happened in Delhi in those terrible pre-partition days. It shaped my life in fundamental ways.
1984 – was another watershed – seen through the eyes of my wife and daughters who have witnessed bloodshed, brutality and worse – the complete demonisation of an entire up close. That changed our thinking forever really.
And then came 1992-93 – Babri Masjid and all the trauma that followed.
It did not end there – After 2002 – Godhra – Gujarat and the inhuman slaughter and violence..I wrote a strong letter to the Prime Minister, asking that the CM be held accountable. I also visited and saw for myself the traumatised people.
And through it all – the tragedy of Kashmir and her people – be they the Pandits or the Muslims – be it Pakistani manipulation or our own brand of bungling and insensitivity……
I was deeply disturbed at the direction in which we were moving. And the manner in which our Constitution and the very foundation of our secular democratic Republic was being dismantled and undermined.
So it was, that soon after retirement and moving to this piece of land [totally banjar at that time] which was allotted to me by the Maharashtra Government in recognition of my ‘acts of gallantry’ in the Bangladesh war – I had occasion to speak with the late Nirmal Mukherjee – a former Cabinet secretary in the the Government of India.
Like many thinking citizens, Nirmal Da shared his own deep unease and unhappiness with so many of the things that he had been witness to. And he spoke of his passion – to set up a cross border entity which would work for peace, build understanding and facilitate people to people dialogue, interaction between the peoples of India and Pakistan.
This was how I was drawn into the Pak India Peoples Forum for Peace and Democracy [PIPFPD] – and as they say – the rest is history.
The seeds of friendship with Rehman Sahib, Mubashir Husain (Dr Saab) , BM Kutty, and a host of others across the border were begun then and sustained over the past nearly three decades.
So when the announcement of the Magsaysay peace awards was made in August 2004 – while on the one hand I was totally surprised – I was also totally delighted that the Foundation had made such a wise choice – of selecting a Pakistani and an Indian to be recognised for their joint work on trying to build peace in our region. There is a strong message there which we must always remember.
And over the years there have been other experiences which have only strengthened my inner conviction that we must strive to create a society where we promote justice, love and hope – this alone can lead to peace. And all talk of development is meaningless unless economic and social justice and harmony are first put in place.
There are many unanswered questions too!
Why and how were we selected – Rehman - a Human Rights Activist and journalist from Pakistan
Ramdas a military veteran – who had fought three wars and won a gallantry award and that too against Pakistan!
Let us not forget that we military men are usually kept at arm's length by the Peace and Human Rights Constituencies!!
I wish I had actually asked Rehman Saab what his reaction was when he first met/encountered me – an unlikely fellow traveller! Alas I never did.
Instead – we have shared many a noggin and swapped stories – and wondered how we could best take forward our quest for a different world…….
It has been a thorny and obstacle ridden path .. that of peace. Mr Rehman never seemed to give up hope. What about you? Would you describe your journey as more realistic or more idealistic?
You are absolutely right. Rehman Saheb was eternally full of hope and he continued to display that amazing belief in the ultimate success of all our efforts and that we the people had the power to bring change. At the same time he was also a realist as one who had fought many battles throughout his life. We often used to smile wryly and say that we may not see peace in our lifetime – but we needed to stay the course for the sake of future generations.
So coming to my journey on what you have rightly termed “a thorny and obstacle ridden path” – it is difficult to describe it as either more realistic or idealistic. I think those of us who have chosen to walk down this road less travelled will not do so unless there is a core idealism that drives us to do what we do.
And that is all too often dismissed as being at best a romantic or at worst a Sancho Panza tilting at windmills!! And over my post retirement years, I have gotten used to being called ‘oh him – he is one of those peaceniks’ – certainly not a term used in any flattering sense of the word!
And to give you another example, a few years down the line, I was openly called an anti national traitor/desh drohi, for having openly taken a position against the 1998 Pokhran Nuclear tests
There are two or different angles to this balancing act between what you call the realistic and the idealistic. And I must thank you for giving me an opportunity to talk about it.
Ultra nationalism and militarism have played a destructive role in both countries and political parties have shamelessly made use of both to advance their narrow domestic agendas .
In India as in Pakistan – the bureaucracy and the military – have always had a difficult relationship - both with each other; and then with what is broadly termed ‘civil society’. That these are particularly fraught with tension in the areas of justice, human rights, worker and gender rights, peace issues, militarism and treatment of minorities, dalits and adivasis, is self evident.
My first set of struggles after coming into an arena where I was clearly viewed as an ‘outsider’ was in fact within this new and largely unfamiliar environment.
Conversely, the equally tough if not tougher challenge was within one’s own former ‘biradri’ so to speak.. For them - this foray by one of their ‘band of brothers’ into an area which was clearly seen as off limits, or worse as an act of betrayal of earlier shared values and objectives, was hard for them to understand or to accept.
I was therefore left with little option but to be realistic. I had to exercise both discretion and restraint in using what could so easily be viewed as a ‘military’ lens or that, which I would typically use in making an assessment or deciding on a suitable course of action.
At the same time I was also struggling and trying to learn from new found comrades who had been long time activists in areas of civil liberties, human rights and challenging political and governmental policy.
For someone like myself from the Armed Forces - this was a steep learning curve indeed!!
Have I given up hope? The answer to that is an emphatic No – but we have to trim our sails as required, without necessarily compromising my long term personal strategic objective.
You were a military man, and reached the top as the Naval Chief. How does and did Peace work its way through military muscle and veins?
This is a question which is probably the most complex for someone like me to answer!
There are many fixed notions and perceptions about what a Military persona is or should be in the public eye. I would also like to point out that there is a big difference between the Military and Militarism. Just by being in uniform does not make one ‘militaristic’. More often it is also the case that the military obeys what the political leaders decree and hence the need for very different leaders.
Being realistic, one has seen how the environment and situations - what people
The ‘EcoSystem’ has changed dramatically in the past fifty years. In the early years post partition, there was a relatively easier relationship with each other. But with geo strategic changes occurring all round, this has certainly taken a turn for the worse.
Despite the return to a form of democracy from time to time, in Pakistan we can say that the power has almost always been vested with the Army throughout their existence as an independent state.
It was this reality, with an underpinning of hope that it might help to have military veterans engage in a process of dialogue and getting to know each other, that also saw the formation of the India Pakistan Soldiers Initiative for Peace [IPSI] - led, interestingly by that formidable Gandhian peace activist, Nirmala [Didi] Deshpande.
I still remember this diminutive woman using her special mix of ammunition - gentle but firm persuasion - willingness to walk that extra mile to seek out generals, and air marshals and admirals - and get us to concede that this was certainly an idea worth exploring. So many of us crusty former military men would adoringly listen to their beloved ‘Didi’ and follow her lead.
But in real terms it has been a series of two steps forward and one step back.
Today in India we are not only facing an undeclared emergency but a dominant, macho, muscular and yes militaristic rule - that too in the guise of being the world's largest democracy.
Currently, in the overall south Asian picture, we seem to have reversed roles and conditions now. And on both sides any one who speaks of peace with our neighbours, keeping visa regimes simpler and less oppressive, opening trade - is treated with suspicion and more often than not, seen as someone whose patriotism is suspect.
And in all fairness I must add - that while this regime has carried this to a new level, earlier governments too were no less ambivalent with regard to the question of dialogue with Pakistan.
Have I answered your question of How has Peace worked its way through Military muscle and veins? Probably not. And perhaps I should attempt to answer your question at two levels.
There is a personal dimension.
And then there is an institutional frame of response.
At a personal level it is often relatively simpler - yes I had undergone a series of experiences and processes over time - some of which I have mentioned above, which cumulatively influenced my thinking and actions.
I should also mention that in my case - a good deal of discussion and often animated and heated debates had been taking place in our home ever since the seventies when my wife found herself deeply involved in grassroots work on education with deprived communities, with minorities, and on issues of gender and human rights.
In due course the three girls too began to work in areas of development and began seriously questioning the present models of development, the priorities of the ruling parties where we continued to spend huge amounts on arms and defence, among the poorest nations in the world - when poverty, hunger and all other indices of human development are among the lowest.
So their father was often in a minority of one when he would hold out for spending budgets on defence equipment and that education and all the rest would need to take their turn in the order of priorities!
At the institutional level, as I grew in seniority and had many opportunities to travel both within the country and outside, one also began to see that there were several areas which deserved serious review and reflection in terms of our national priorities and allocation of resources.
More significantly, my having been through three wars had also raised deeper reflections within me – and led me to question the very nature and purpose of war itself. One has realised therefore that wars don't solve anything – and that issues must be resolved politically.
Perhaps these were a few from among the diverse combination of circumstances which influenced my own metamorphosis from a Man - o - war to a Man - o - Peace.!!
Pakistan has looked down on its people of peace as well as governments here. And not just the current one. Do you think Mr Rehmans journey on this path was more troublesome and difficult than yours? As his was not a democracy in the way ours was? And more so when the end of the journey does not seem to have moved the ship at all, and it’s stuck between the rocks of war and hate?
For a start I have a different view from the one where you wonder what Mr Rehman’s contribution has been - especially when “the journey does not seem to have moved the ship at all, and it’s stuck between the rocks of war and hate?”
Yes it is true that for the most part Pakistan has struggled under Military rule and even under so called democracy, the Army has always been the power behind the throne.
India on the other hand, despite our so called democratic set up, has been increasingly belligerent and less and less inclined to hold out a reciprocal hand to overtures of goodwill and peace, especially from Pakistan. As I have mentioned earlier in this interview, the hardliners have slowly put the squeeze on the few windows and opportunities for people to people contact - and this was beginning to start even before the Modi Govt came to power.
Both countries and the leaders therein, have been playing divisive politics with internal domestic concerns - and thus playing what I call the communal card internally so that no real progress is forthcoming.
So it would be more accurate to say that the peacemakers, advocates of dialogue, and peace activists on both sides of the border - ie India and Pakistan, have had a rough deal when it comes to support and encouragement for any peace initiatives. The only Track II initiatives that seem to attract headlines these days are the ones that governments and a few think tanks organise from their ivory towers. And which attracts adequate media attention.
If Rehman Sahib had to battle his government on innumerable occasions both in an individual capacity, and institutionally, it was in organisations like the PIPFPD and others that he was able to find a platform and support from both sides of the border.
In addition he continued to raise his voice on innumerable matters of policy - especially on questions of those being harassed for blasphemy, on human rights violations and innumerable other concerns which were close to his heart.
His regular column in the DAWN newspaper was something most Pakistani civil society and movement people would wait for and read with avid interest. And above all , Rehman Sahib was always available to speak at a variety of forums - including one memorable evening at our home in SainikPuri, Secunderabad.
This was his way of reaching out to a wide circle of people - and it was effective too, because of his gentle laid back style which he could also use with finesse and power to drive home a point.
I think that people like I A Rehman actually achieved something remarkable - they demonstrated that as journalists and public intellectuals they could raise the bar so high that others would have no option but to achieve ‘much more with much less’.
Men like him, Dr Mubashir Hasan, Asma Jehangir, and our very special BM Kutty Sahib belonged to that committed pioneering era - and years later the Ramon Magsaysay award did recognise these contributions by selecting two prominent individuals - one from each country- to be joint recipients of one of their prestigious awards for Peace making and International Understanding.
As for my difficulties - yes they were very much there. And although civil society groups and NGOs and the international peace constituency voices did indeed support and encourage our efforts - to be honest I was more disappointed with the general reactions I received from within our own fraternity– our own class – the elites – and especially those in the military.
I was addressing a group of officers at the USI – Delhi, after one of my visits to Pakistan. Audience predominantly Army – a few Navy and Airforce. Was extremely disappointed especially during the Q&A, with the kind of questions asked – mainly negative and anti Pakistan – with very little interest or curiosity about finding out about any other as: .
The other thing that struck me was a chance conversation with a friend in New York – when she asked me about the mood, feelings and mindset of the services– My reply colour of blood of the average service – men – seems no longer red but saffron !
Strangely enough, I actually received the biggest support and active encouragement from Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpeyee .After every visit to Pakistan I would make a point of visiting Delhi and call on either the PM or the NSA - in those days Shri Brajesh Misra. There appeared to be a genuine interest to continue the dialogue internally. And often Vajpayee would ask me seriously - so Admiral, What do you think can be done?
And therefore to return to your evocative image of our work for peace being like a ship that runs aground and finds itself stuck between the rocks of war and hate, but more often than not, favourable tides and winds help the process of refloating that ship - thus enabling the ship to set a new course and continue to chart and navigate the uncharted oceans and all the shoals and rocks that abound.
I tried during my time in the service to float the idea of an Indian Ocean Panchayat – and we brought together all the countries of the Indian Ocean region – including Pakistan, and pledged to work together to find mutual solutions. Alas subsequent panchayat meetings excluded our closest maritime neighbour to the west.
That is our biggest challenge going forward - and like the Mariners of yore - we are clear that our task is to look at the stars, find ways to overcome the obstacles, and keep sailing.
How irreparable is this loss? Or can we say generations will pick up the flag again? Do you see hope on the horizon?
Every loss is to be mourned – and in some way every loss is irreparable.
But I also believe that each life is to be celebrated – and certainly Rehman Sahib’s life will continue to be celebrated by each one of us with whom he came in touch.
And more than that, the seeds that Rehman Sahib planted by way of the values and hopes and dreams that he embodied and lived and worked for have reached far beyond Lahore, Delhi , Pakistan , India. They have taken root, taken new forms and shapes and taken flight and found homes in millions of hearts and minds – and from there they will metamorphose and grow into a million more dreams and aspirations for freedom, equality, love and justice. Above all for Peace – within and between our nations, and in our region .
Believe me, no dictator, no fascist or military regime, no theocratic despotic state can keep these hopes and aspirations throttled endlessly. Look around and one sees signs of hope and resistance everywhere.
In these grim Covid times to see the kind of voices that are standing up – protesting, willing to go to jail for their convictions, unwilling to be silenced – is itself a miracle that we must celebrate every day. Women, Students, Farmers, Workers, they are out on the streets, they are performing, they are writing, speaking up, fearless and confident.
So yes – the flags are already flying high – they were never allowed to fall. And these are the flags - not of nation states or ideologies of hate. These are the flags of Aazaadi, of Liberty, of Equality and of Aman ki Ashaein.
What I feel today can best be expressed in the words of Rabindra Nath Tagore when he speaks of that ideal world, where
“The mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where Knowledge is free
Where the World has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out of the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake…….
That is what Rehman Sahib lived and died for ….and there are a million young minds blooming today who will make that dream a reality.
As someone who has spent the best part of his life on ships, my closest friends at sea were my shipmates, and always the horizon in the distance and the stars and planets above.
The oceans have no boundaries and all who sail the waters are equal – this is my fervent belief and the philosophy which has kept me afloat and able to transcend the best efforts of decades of military training to control and discipline the mind!
So, yes – there is hope….