Japan has borne the brunt of the frontal assault over the last 48 hours, Libya’s Qaddafi has stoked the fire over the last fortnight, while Pakistan has been on intimate terms with the enemy for a while. All that’s in the newspapers, though, to be read and consigned to the corner room, in the hope of extracting a few hundred rupees from the ‘raddiwallah.’ Why not, you may ask. There must be some quid pro quo for the bad news that begins from the top.
So what does one say when one of your closest friends decides its time to call it a day? ‘Dasvidanya’ in Russian, because that’s where he cut his teeth as a diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service in the 1970s, ‘Shalom’ or ‘L’Hitraot’ in Hebrew where he served as one of India’s most successful ambassadors to Israel, or simply, ‘Elvida’, that most evocative word, originally Turkic.
Unto his last breath, Raminder Singh Jassal ably served his country’s interests in Turkey, where he was ambassador, where he was so loved that Ankara sent a military aircraft to bring his body back home on Saturday morning, a never-before heard-of gesture for an Indian diplomat.
But it was with Pakistan that Raminder Singh Jassal shared an extraordinary relationship. It began with Atal Behari Vajpayee’s bus trip to Lahore in February 1999 and ended with the hijacking of the Indian Airlines plane from Kathmandu to Kandahar, in December of that year. As India watched with horror, the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists who held several hundred passengers hostage from Christmas Day to New Year’s eve, drove into Pakistani territory, south from Kandahar, as soon as they were released as part of the bargain.
But it was during the May-July months of 1999 — when Pakistan’s Northern Light Infantry, dressed up in tribal clothes, invaded India at Kargil, aiming to sever Kashmir from the rest of India — that the Kargil conflict became a daily story of epic proportions here at home in India. And Jassal became its chief storyteller.
He turned the job of being India’s spokesperson on its head because he injected it with gallows humour as well as patriotic intent. The enemy had to be evicted, as publicly as possible, and Jassal made sure the entire country knew what was going on.
Jassal spoke several Indian languages, but so do most Indians. In his matching turban-and-tie, Jassal, in full flow, helped to create a national mood that was neither drum-roll nor sentimental, just watchful. Kargil was subsequently dubbed India’s first media war and Raminder Singh Jassal played no small role in the description.
Alvida? Or, kabhi alvida na kehna?
Published in The Express Tribune, March 14th, 2011.
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