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July 14, 1999
Exploiting the War
I have just returned from the grim theatre of war and the aircraft which brought me from Srinagar to Delhi carried in its womb 21 corpses. The corpses of 21 brave young Indians whose lives were abruptly cut short by a wicked, meaningless war forced on us by an enemy we have always gone out of our way to try and make friends with.
These 21 young men are among the 380 who have died in Drass and Batalik and during the battle for Tiger Hill, clawing back territory that is rightfully ours. And, as we make the last assault on the Mushkoh Valley, to clear out the rest of the mujaheedin (or, to be more precise, Pakistani armymen masquerading as the mujaheedin) who knows how many more will die? May be that is why I feel so angry, so revolted when I see this huge tamasha being made out of the war.
War may seem noble to you and me. But to those who fight it, who are often tortured and killed by complete strangers in the dead of night (for that is when the toughest battles take place in the mountains) in the name of religion, nation, patriotism, it is a brutal and harrowing experience. What is even more frightening is the idea of going to war and not knowing whether you will ever come back home in one piece. To your parents, friends, wife and children. Or whether you will be left to die in some icy slope, grievously wounded or bayoneted by someone whose face you may have never seen. Simply because he chooses to believes that his religion or his politics gives him the divine right to murder you.
For all you know, he may be dead himself within minutes of killing you. For war has no favourites, it kills without the slightest remorse. Its heroes are only those who survive it. The rest end up as martyrs, kissing the headlines for a day and then vanishing into the anonymity of the army's pension ledgers. No one remembers them when the war is over. Their widows scrape around for a livelihood.
But this column is not about war. It is about those who exploit it. Who see in it yet another opportunity to cash in and make some quick money, earn some instant fame, or hold back a slipping vote bank. I find such people revolting and wish there were ways to punish them and expose them for what they are.
Crooks and shameless carpetbaggers who, amidst the darkness of war, have no compunction in indulging their own greed. Who see in it yet another opportunity, like the World Cup or Wimbledon, to hardsell their products or, in some cases, themselves. It is cheap, ugly stuntbaazi of the worst kind. When a nation is fighting for its self esteem, as India has been over the past few weeks, we must stop these rascals from trying to exploit our pain, our grief, our terrible sense of loss through vulgar gimmickry or commercial exploitation of the tragedy.
One of the most telling pictures I have seen on the war was in one of the Delhi newspapers last week. On the front page. It showed this father who had come to the railway station to bid his son goodbye. You can see the man, fiftyish, grim and grey-haired, desperately clinging to the handle of the compartment door even as the train has started to chug away, refusing to accept the fact that his son is going off to war and may never come home again. The angst on his face, the grief, the pain, the fear, the desperate love comes through so strongly that I am sure most people who saw the picture must have shed a tear. If not for the son, at least for the father. I did. For no one ever knows who suffers more. Those who die in combat or those whom they leave behind to grieve for them. Ageing parents. Young wives. Little children who never know till years later why their father never came back from that one train journey.
In the same newspaper, if I remember right, on the bottom half of the same front page, was a picture of Daler Mehndi smiling and trying to make conversation with the jawans going off at the Delhi railway station. Dressed in his usual garish kitsch, with a saffron turban to crudely highlight his nationalism, the bhangra pop singer and Coca- Cola's new icon for Indian youth was trying very hard to explain to the poor jawans why in their moment of such anguished parting from their families, he was there to wish them goodbye.
Many of them, it appeared from the report, had no idea who the podgy sardar was and what he was doing there. But do you think Daler Mehndi would allow this to step in between him and his photo op of the year? Never! So he, apparently, did a jig or two to quickly remind them that he was the superstar of bhangra pop or, as he declaims at every opportunity, the highest paid singer in Indian music history.
Frankly, I do not give a damn who Daler Mehndi is. India's richest bhangra pop singer or just a fat-faced sardar on a silly ego trip. But I do wish he would stay away from our troops when they are going to fight a war. Parting is not an easy job particularly when those whom you are leaving behind do not know whether you will ever come back alive. To have a pop singer, dressed in glittering garbage, hanging around at that time and haranguing you in your moment of grief and misery must be the most profoundly annoying experience in the world and, if you ask me, Daler Mehndi is lucky no one slapped him and told him to get out of his way. And we are lucky that he was not distributing Coke to the troops and screaming: Take a sip and refresh ho ja!
Maybe I am over reacting. Maybe Daler Mehndi is just a well meaning idiot who has earned far too much money far too easily to know where to draw the line between seeking fame and making an ass of himself in public. He has done this in the past by trying to promote himself as a great environmentalist on the strength of planting half a dozen free saplings in differently parts of Delhi and then, reportedly, seeking an income tax rebate for his contribution towards the greening of India!
No, my irritation is not with Daler Mehndi. It is with all those who have jumped on to the patriotism bandwagon and are trying to muscle in on a grim and tragic war. Aiwa is trying to sell more audio systems by promising to donate Rs 100 from each sale to the war effort. Pepsi is handing out soft drinks at railway stations and plastering the newspapers with pictures of jawans glugging Pepsi. Some of India's biggest business houses have donated paltry sums and flooded the newspapers with press releases announcing these donations. Give if you want to. Give small if you want but give it quietly and with dignity. Give it with love. Stop posing with the prime minister and trying to promote yourself in the bargain. Stop making a song and dance about it. It makes for an ugly scene.
All wars are tragic. But what is even more tragic is watching people trying to cash in on wars. Arms dealers do it all the time and that is why they are such a despised and hated community. Everyone spits on them. As indeed everyone spits on those netas who try to win votes over bagged bodies coming in. But, suddenly, this time we are beseiged by a new breed of interlopers. MNCs, businessmen, movie stars, bhangra pop artistes, television serial makers, ad filmwallahs, a long phalanx of busybodies and headline hunters craving for a piece of the action. Like Daler Mehndi, they will not let a single photo op pass.
If this is not stopped, war will become another tamasha and all the sacrifice being made by those who are actually fighting the war out there will be in vain.
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