Have you ever heard the story of Natchiketa?
Natchiketa, a young boy, sees his father, a Vedic rishi, give dhanas (offerings) to the gods. "What about me father?" asks Natchiketa.
"I will donate you to Yama (the god of death)," the father answers, more as a joke to get rid of the son.
But Natchiketa takes it seriously and goes to Yama, who unfortunately has gone out roaming. When Yama comes back after three days, he sees this youngster at his door and asks him what he wants. "I have been offered to you by my father."
"Impossible," says Yama, "your time has not come."
But the boy is adamant. So, to placate him, Yama offers him a boon. This is what Natchiketa asks Yama: "Some say that when one dies, one is -- and others that one is not. What is the truth?"
Yama, the mighty god of death, answers: "Ask me anything: riches, happiness, a hundred years, but not this question."
But Natchiketa refuses to relent. Yama's reluctant reply encapsulates India's eternal truth, which today only she holds in the world and which has been repeated in many of India's sacred texts, including the Bhagavad Gita: "Only the body dies O Natchiketa, the soul is immortal and is reborn life after life, till one reaches perfection."
Last week, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his deputy L K Advani conferred on me the Nachiketa award of journalism, which rewards forthrightness, courage, and dedication to truth in this profession.
I would like to believe that my quest in India has been -- even in a small degree -- like Natchiketa's: what is the real India, behind the clichés? What does India stand for? What can I do to help this great country, which is India?
I was lucky: I came to India when I had just turned 19, an age where the mind has not yet settled in hard and frozen patterns. I was also extremely privileged to spend the first eight formative years of my time in India in the Sri Aurobindo ashram in Pondicherry, where I came in contact with Indians from all over the country and was able to meet the Mother, an extraordinary person, as well as read Sri Aurobindo, whose writings have had a deep influence on my life.
Today, I am also indebted to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, founder of the Art of Living, because he embodies the ancient rishi's dedication to his country: his work is not only spirituality, but also to bring god into all realms of life, including politics, because in ancient India the rishis were also advisers to the kings.
Nevertheless, when I began freelancing in the early 1980s, I started with the same prejudices, set ideas, than most of my fellow correspondents have: secularism is the best system for India, given the explosive mosaic of its ethnic races and religions; the Congress is the flag-bearer of 'secularism'; Gandhi is the 'father' of the nation; there are also Hindu 'fundamentalists'; or Christian missionaries are doing 'wonderful' work in India.
Once again, I was fortunate. Instead of plunging straight into political India, I did photographic features in the deep South: the extraordinary kalaripayat, in the villages of Kerala, which is the ancestor of all great Asian martial arts; the absolutely amazing Ayyappa festival on the border of Tamil Nadu and Kerala; ayurveda, the most ancient medical system in the world still in practice; the exquisite Ayanars of Tanjore district... There, I discovered that the genius of India is in its villages and that the tradition of gentleness, tolerance, hospitality, is rooted in rural India -- and not in the cities of India, where people have often lost touch with that inner reality.
When I entered the world of south Asian politics (in 1984, for Le Journal de Genève), I was ready to have my eyes opened. Thus slowly, as I came in contact first-hand with the political reality of India and South Asia, I realised that the Congress had divided India on caste and religious lines to survive in power; that India's minorities had taken advantage of secular governments by getting more privileges than the majority community; that Hindus are probably the most tolerant people in the world, not only accepting that God manifests Himself as Krishna, but also as Christ, Buddha, or even Mohammed; that Hindus have ironically been the target of one of the most horrible genocides ever perpetrated upon mankind in the name of religion.
I also saw that even today they are the prey of jihadis: witness the ethnic cleansing of the Kashmiri Pandits, far more horrible than the one of the Bosnians; that they are still the target of Christian missionaries, who use unethical economic means to convert the Harijans and the untouchables. I saw too that Hindus have given shelter to all the persecuted minorities in the world: Syrian Christians, Armenians, Parsis, Jews, Tibetans today.
So at some point, I thought that a marvellous majority like the Hindus, which has such a long tradition of tolerance, gentleness, spirituality and hospitality, needs a government reflecting these qualities -- and not the successive governments which have come in since Independence and instituted casteism, corruption, statism and bureaucracy.
And when Murli Manohar Joshi went to Srinagar on August 15 one year to raise the Indian flag, I found this pretty courageous and said so in my articles, though he was ridiculed by the entire Indian press, particularly by Newstrack, the only television news channel of those times. When Advani started his rathyatra, I thought it too was a good idea, because it would rally the Hindus who tend to be politically amorphous, and I said so. At that time nobody -- including me -- believed the BJP would ever come to power.
They have now. Nevertheless, it's lonely at the top.
Of course nobody from the French embassy was present at the award ceremony. If Christopher Jaffrelot, the man who is most responsible for the bad image of India in France (he is the world specialist on 'Hindu fundamentalism', something that does not even exist) and partly accountable too for the fact that France is only the 11th largest investor in India, after all the overtures that have been made towards France by the BJP government in the last five years) had got it, the entire embassy would have been present.
But I am considered an outcast by the French embassy and my advice is never sought, though I have lived 34 years here and am probably the French journalist who knows India best. Forget about French Indologists, who are all pals of the JNU crowd and Romila Thapar: they hate my guts; many of my fellow Western correspondents also think I am either a crackpot or a traitor to my culture!
This raises an important question: why is it that amongst the 300-odd Western correspondents sitting in Delhi, there is nobody (that I know of) who comes to the same logical conclusion that Hinduism is what makes this country great and that an Indian Christian or an Indian Muslim are different because of the softening influence of Hinduism?
After all, many of those correspondents arrive here well-meaning, with an aspiration to understand this complex country. Why is it that not only most of them go after five years not knowing India better, but very often ending up hating it? There is a Mark Tully, of course, who genuinely likes India, but even he, maybe because he is British and a BBC man, is very muted and discreet when it comes to defending India.
The only answer I can find is that it is only when the Indian press will become a little less negative, a little more proud of its roots, that in turn the Western correspondents will be positively influenced, because the first input they get when they open an Indian English paper or switch on a TV channel is negativity: everything is hopeless about this country, when India has actually done quite well since Independence and is a much better bet for the Western world than totalitarian China, or Islamic Pakistan.
Lastly, I would like to make an appeal to rediff.com readers for an exhibition that FACT (Foundation Against Continuing Terrorism, of which I am general secretary), along with the All-India Anti-Terrorism Front of Mr Maninderjit Singh Bitta, is planning on the genocide of Hindus throughout the ages, including the ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Pandits.
We would like this exhibition to travel not only all around India, but also to Geneva, Paris, Bonn and the UN, so that the West becomes more aware of what India has suffered -- and still suffers -- at the hands of religious terrorism. Eventually, this exhibition should give birth to a Hindu genocide museum on the lines of the Jewish Holocaust museum in Washington. I have myself donated the Natchiketa prize money to FACT for this exhibition. May the spirit of Natchiketa be upon us.