June 2, 2001


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On the banks of Sindhu, Mogambo
is happy

Savera R Someshwar in Leh

Mountains towered towards the azure blue summer sky as they circled a patch of flat, sandy land. There were bits of green around, fed by the swiftly flowing River Sindhu. Now, though, the river was in ebb, still waiting to be fed by the melting Himalayan glaciers.

At Sheh Manla, near Leh, the Sindhu paused to witness some unusual activity. Its banks there were bordered in concrete, hemming it in. Children and parents waded into its knee-deep icy waters, squealing with delight. Some even completed the short walk to the opposite bank, where four Indo-Tibetan Border Police personnel stood outside a tent.

On the other shore, the ITBP band, crisply uniformed and armed with burnished instruments, stood at attention under the blazing sun. Facing them, at a distance, was a regiment of the Jammu and Kashmir Police. Scattered around the ground were still more ITBP and J&K police personnel. On the peaks behind the ground, ITBP sharpshooters -- looking like tiny dolls silhouetted against the sky -- had taken up positions.

Yet, Sheh Manla wore a festive look. The approach path was festooned with colourful buntings, bright flags waved in the breeze even as, on a little concrete dais, the Indian tricolour remained wrapped to its flag pole, yet to be unfurled.

Three small chattris [memorials] -- built with Rajasthan's famed red sandstone -- stood on the bank. In the first, Buddhist monks in their deep maroon robes, ceremonial hats and sunglasses waited patiently. In the second, slightly ruffled members of the Calcutta-based Anamika cultural troupe were putting on their make-up, surrounded by curious onlookers. In the third were 10 ITBP personnel, formally dressed in ceremonial gear.

Sheh Manla was set to celebrate, for the fifth consecutive year, the three-day Sindhu Darshan Abhiyan. Last year, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had laid the foundation stone for the Sindhu Ghat. This year, Home Minister L K Advani was scheduled to inaugurate the Ghat, which was to be the festival's centrepiece.

Advani was half an hour late. Not that it bothered the revellers, for the atmosphere was filled with bonhomie. To fill in the time, dancers from Jammu and Kashmir, presenting a dance, Sindhu Darshan, began -- only to be rudely interrupted with the arrival of Advani, Union Tourism and Culture Minister Ananth Kumar and, a few minutes later, Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Dr Farooq Abdullah.

As other dignitaries walked in -- prominent among them were state Governor Girish Chandra Saxena, Minister of State for Civil Aviation and MP from Jammu Chamanlal Gupta, Minister of State for Petroleum Santosh Kumar Gangwar, Minister of State for Railways O Rajagopal and Planning Commission member Sompal and, surprisingly, actor Amrish Puri -- the dancers were forced to abandon their performance.

Their arrival generated even more excitement since Advani, Kumar, Saxena and many others had chosen to dress in traditional Ladakhi goncha, belted with pink skaraks. But Dr Abdullah -- in light blue jeans, a summery tee-shirt, cap and sunglasses -- looked like he was all set for a holiday in Goa.

In the excitement of their arrival, the dancers who were standing frozen in the blazing sun, were brushed aside and people ran across the makeshift stage towards the dais.

Soon, though, a semblance of order was restored. Advani, after hoisting the national flag, made his way to the Sindhu. He stood in the icy waters and, to the accompaniment of Buddhist prayers, offered a lump of dough, marigold flowers and a diya. Then, in a gesture that was supposed to symbolise national integration, he poured into the Sindhu water specially brought from the Bharmaputra by Arunachal Pradesh MP Jarbom Gamlin.

Speeches and cultural performances followed: a dedication to the Sindhu by the Anamika group, the traditional Ladakhi Tses dance which expresses happiness, and another Kashmiri dance. But it was an impulsive Dr Abdullah who lifted the morning's spirit.

Throwing his security officers into a tizzy, he raced the distance between the dais and the stage to join the Kashmiri dancers. Inspired by his rather elegant movements, Amrish Puri joined in too. One must admit that no dance director could have been more patient with the veteran actor than Dr Abdullah was.

The chief minister, who was thoroughly enjoying himself, then moved to the sidelines, clearing the way for the dancers as he urged them towards the stage. Tarun Vijay, editor of the RSS weekly, Panchajanya who, for the day, had exchanged his pen for a mike, then urged both Advani and Kumar to shake a leg.

The home minister, who looked a bit surprised with this unexpected turn of events, nevertheless was sporting enough to step down. Though he held hands with the dancers, his bonhomie did not extend to joining them step-for-step.

Dr Abdullah referred to the Sindhu Darshan festival as a symbol of unity. Looking at the gathered tourists and locals, he said, "We may not understand each other's language, yet we are one."

He tried to coax the Centre into loosening its pursue strings. Among other things, he wanted to provide water for all Ladakhis and wider roads for the thousands of devotees who make their way to Amarnath each year.

Waxing eloquent -- and, in a way, underscoring the expectations pinned on Pakistan Chief Executive Pervez Musharraf's visit to India -- he hoped that he would, some day, accompany Advani to Pakistan and drink the water of the Indus there.

Pointing out that the attitude of the people toward Kashmir had changed -- "Log kehte hain wahan Yamraj baitha hai" [ People say Yama, the king of death, sits there] -- he said Kashmir was, and would always be, the crown of India. "It is up to the people to keep this crown well-polished."

Lauding the people of Ladakh for their warmth, he said every visitor to the place would return with the gift of love that is showered on them here.

Advani, in turn, recalled his visit to Leh in 1996. "Though I was booked into the Circuit House, the governor who was visiting the area, was staying there. They asked me if I would stay at the Choglamsar guest house instead. Which I did. And that was when I first saw the Sindhu river in India. When I returned the next year, I was the home minister. And Farooq Abdullah told me that had happened because I had drunk the waters of this river.

"Let me tell you," he added with a smile, "like anyone else who lives by a river, I am biased towards the Sindhu for I have lived by its banks for many years."

He talked of how he had returned to Leh every year, and of the happiness he felt in seeing the progress in the region. Then, turning to Dr Abdullah, he grinned at him: "What if Musharraf comes here first?"

He revealed how he would constantly check with Ananth Kumar about the progress of the Sindhu Ghat and admired the three chattris. He admired the patience the home ministry and local engineers had exhibited in building a concrete ghat on the banks of the ever-changing river.

None of the politicians, though, generated the same enthusiasm among the visitors as Amrish Puri. The actor said just this much, "This is not the occasion for Mogambo [a character he plays in the superhit, Mr India], but you will not let me go unless I say this line; looking at your unity and love, there is just one thing I can say: Mogambo khush hua."

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