I was elected to Parliament in 1970. My first trip abroad was as part of a parliamentary delegation to Czechoslovakia in 1972. The Lok Sabha Speaker Shri Gurdial Singh Dhillon was the leader of the delegation.
Those days Czechoslovakia had been very much in the news. In 1965, following assumption of leadership of the Czechoslovak Communist Party by Alexander Dubcek, the Party contemplated drastic changes in domestic policy – restoration of the right to freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, and imposition of severe restrictions on the secret police. This plan of action described as the ‘Socialist Democratic Revolution’ by the Czechs deeply upset Moscow.
In 1968, an angry U.S.S.R. decided to crush these ‘Democratic’ proclivities. Czechoslovakia was invaded with 600,000 troops. An armed purge of all liberals in the Communist Party was carried out, Dubcek was thrown out, and a new government installed. The country was once again reduced to its earlier status of being Moscow’s vassal state.
When I agreed to go to Czechoslovakia with the parliamentary delegation, I thought to myself why not visit U.S.S.R. also on the way? So I planned my trip to Prague via Moscow. The Secretary General of the Lok Sabha Shri S.L. Shakdhar, who later became the country’s Chief Election Commissioner, tried hard to dissuade me. ‘You belong to the Jana Sangh. Your party’s critical opinions about Communism and about Moscow’s invasion of Czechoslovakia are well known. I fear lest you may have any problems because of that.’
I went to U.S.S.R. nevertheless. Except for a rigorous search of my baggage at the airport, I do not recall having any problems. I stayed in Moscow for two days. It was the month of May, and Moscow was unusually warm. I remember an interesting experience I had at the Hotel I was staying in. Dressed in my traditional attire, Dhoti-kurta, when I came down to the lobby, I ran into a Russian lady who I found was staring intently at my dress. Soon she walked up to me and addressing me asked: “India?”. She paused just a moment, and added “Raj Kapoor India?”
I replied nodding my head in affirmation. But that brief interaction made me acutely conscious how films and film stars also can become hallmarks of national identity, and possibly powerful agents of international proximity and friendship.
This episode came to my mind last night while I was attending an NDTV function held mainly to honour the heroes of the recent terrorist outrage in Mumbai. Also honoured on the occasion was Aamir Khan for his film Taare Zameen Par and Director Danny Boyle and the cast of Award winning Slumdog Millionaire. A.R. Rahman, the music director of this film has won numerous awards abroad, including the Golden Globe. Many in India are anxiously looking forward to Rahman as well as the film bagging several Oscars as well. Already, the film has earned as many as ten nominations.
Aamir’s Taare Zameen Par is a beautiful film whose story hinges around a nine-year old boy afflicted with dyslexia, an ailment that affects a child’s brain resulting in his inability to see the difference between the shapes of letters. The affliction causes what can colloquially be described as ‘word blindness’. The script of Aamir’s film, and his Direction were truly outstanding, so were Prasoon Joshi’s lyrics and the music by Shankar Ehsaan Loy.
In one of my earlier blog posts I had quoted from a thought provoking piece written by former BBC correspondent in India, Mark Tully, as to how India had given a very distinctive meaning to secularism. Tully’s observation were excerpted from the foreword he had written for a coffee table book titled “ India : A Timeless Celebration” by Amit Mehra.
The book had been published by the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India.I understand that in April 2006 the Ministry created a special Public Diplomacy Division because government felt that “in today’s world, successful foreign policy practitioners need to have an open and regular dialogue with civil society, NGOs, academia, think tanks and the media.” It was this newly setup Division which had conceived and brought out this excellent book.
After seeing Mehra’s book, I enquired whether this new division had brought out any other similar products. By now I have been able to lay hands on a number of Audio CDs produced by the Division – CDs comprising the best numbers from Bombay film music over the years, as also, CDs containing music on yoga, meditation, spiritual and religious therapies.
I wish to compliment the Division heartily on these innovative initiatives. I hope we are not going to see any pseudo-secularist raise a howl that even the MEA is now being saffronised. I have already seen some sections of the media trying to create a rumpus against schools in Madhya Pradesh having their students sing Vande Mataram, or perform Surya Namaskars as part of physical exercises.